The long-awaited Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel series is set to debut next month. It follows the new avatar as she takes on the Equalists, an anti-bending faction. And I just have one small problem with this set-up... I kind of agree with the bad guys.
Don't get me wrong - I'm still very excited about the show, and everything I've seen so far suggests Korra will be a worthy successor to Aang, both as avatar and as protagonist. But ever since I first heard the show's premise, I've been concerned about how it will handle an aspect of this show's mythology that I've always found a bit problematic — the role of non-benders in a world where only a select minority wields the tremendous powers of the various elements.
There's a scene in the pilot that tackles this issue head-on, and the end of the episode makes it perfectly clear that this will be one of, if not the defining conflict of the show's first season.
While riding her polar bear dog through the park of Republic City, the newly arrived avatar Korra comes across an orator speaking for the Equalists, who says, "The bending elite have forced the non-bending elite to live as lower class citizens" and that "Together we will tear down the bending establishment." Korra's rejoinder is a simple one: "What are you talking about? Bending is the coolest thing in the world!" The orator then rather easily gets Korra to admit that she would like to vent her frustration with him by knocking him off the stage with a little waterbending, which pretty much proves his point.
It's a tricky moment, because the episode has already done such a good job of establishing Korra as a likable hero, and it's made crystal clear that the speaker is a fearmongering, manipulative worm. Emotionally, I know who I should side with here, and yet on an intellectual level, I'm convinced that this guy has a point and Korra's incredibly privileged position as the avatar blinds her to the legitimate concerns buried beneath the propaganda. On what is fairly clearly one of the show's biggest overarching conflicts, my sympathies lie far more with the ostensible villains than with the clear hero.
Don't get me wrong - I don't necessarily think this is a flaw of the scene, or of the episode. Show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko proved time and time again in Avatar: The Last Airbender their ability to show both sides of an issue and paint seemingly irredeemable villains in shades of gray. I suspect they intend this scene to have a certain amount of ambiguity. I'll admit, the Equalist bad guys here — the speaker and the masked leader Amon, who shows up for the classic end-of-episode-one-reveal where he talks ominously about his plans for the Avatar — don't suggest to me the sorts of complexities and contradictions that were almost immediately evident in Prince Zuko. They seem more like straightforward villains like Admiral Zhao or Dai Li head Long Feng. Of course, it's early days yet, and I'm guessing there are some character-complicating secrets hiding underneath Amon's mask.
What makes this whole issue particularly difficult for me is that The Legend of Korra jumps seventy years past the end of The Last Airbender, and it's primarily set in Republic City, a metropolis founded as a common place for benders and non-benders of all nations. Based on the recently released premiere episode, the city's technology level seems somewhere between steampunk and the real-life 1930s, and a lot of the tech — probably the cars, almost certainly the cameras and microphones — seems to be based on real-life science, as opposed to bending.
And I think that's part of where my hang-up comes from. Just as benders are associated with the natural and spiritual realms, it seems like those calling for equality would look to science and technology as great levelers. (Also, chi-blocking is supposedly going to be a big part of the Equalist weaponry against benders, but that can probably be left aside for the purposes of this discussion.)
I'd have a hard time pinning down the world of The Last Airbender to one particular analogous time period, but it's an essentially medieval world, one that clearly has its own rules that are far different from ours. It's hard to ignore the outsized influence benders wield in this world — outside the Water Nation, most real power seems to be fundamentally rooted in bending prowess, whether it's held by villains like the Fire Lord or Dai Li or good guys like King Bumi or Aang himself. But much as I might feel a bit too defensive when Toph made fun of Sokka for not being a bender, it seemed pointless to worry too much about the lack of equality between benders and non-benders. It's a bit like complaining there's no pro-democracy movement in Game of Thrones — yeah, I'd personally like to see one, but that obviously goes against the rules of the world I've agreed to spend time in. Besides, there were rather more important things to worry about in The Last Airbender than the position of non-benders.
I actually wonder whether the technological innovation seen in The Legend of Korra and the emergence of the Equalist movement might be related, if indirectly. I probably need to turn in my History of Science degree for making this big an oversimplification, but the philosophical inquiry required for scientific innovation can also lead people to ask broader questions about why things are the way they are and how society as a whole might be improved — off the top of my head, the close relationship in 17th century Britain between revolutionary scientists like Isaac Newton and Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke is a good example of this. One form of progress tends to motivate another. (I'd also argue that, as technology makes people's lives more comfortable, they tend to have more time to question their station in life — but then, that is quite literally a bourgeois argument.) Except in this particular case, that social progress has led to the unsavory Equalist movement, which tends to throw all the other innovation we've seen since The Last Airbender into question.
Indeed, the original series suggested on more than one occasion the dangers of technological and scientific innovation. The Fire Nation war machines, particularly the Drill, were steampunk monstrosities that underlined just how far they had veered from natural harmony. Even the show's good scientist, the Mechanist, was initially a Fire Nation collaborator who had compromised the sanctity of the Northern Air Temple, and his most positive inventions tended to be those that incorporated bending. And, while there was nothing particularly bad about the Ba Sing Se monorail, I have to point out that it was pretty much the ultimate symbol of non-bender dependence on benders. The thing didn't even have wheels, for goodness sake. Try moving that thing without earthbenders around.
The Legend of Korra, unlike its predecessor, is creeping right up to modernity in terms of technology, which means I feel connected to this world in a way I didn't with The Last Airbender. If the show is going to incorporate technology and architecture that is this close to our world, then I have a harder time suspending my normal value judgments about what's right and wrong. It becomes harder to, say, see a metalbending police force as awesome and exotic instead of something constantly teetering on the brink of superpowered fascism.
And, as a champion of science and the good that it can do for humanity — I wouldn't spend so much of my time here writing about science if I didn't feel that way — I'm perhaps overly on guard against any perceived slights. If the conflict between benders and Equalists evolves into a larger war between the natural world of the Avatar and scientific progress, I might just end up siding against the show's protagonist. That's a weird position to be in, because everything I've seen so far of The Legend of Korra suggests it will be every bit as good as its predecessor. Honestly, I'm looking forward to the show proving me right on that — while hopefully proving me wrong on, well, just about everything else.