Let’s talk about one of the best scenes in The Legend of Korra
I wrote a couple weeks ago that one of the reasons that The Legend of Korra is not as great as Avatar: The Last Airbender is that it does not have as many indelible achievements. For instance, ATLA has a character arc like Zuko’s, a villain like Azula, episodes like Zuko Alone, and moments like the “crazy spirit attack on the Fire Nation,” Iroh’s funeral for his son, and the final Agni Kai. There are so many characters, episodes, scenes, musical cues, and images that are breathtaking. Korra simply doesn’t have as many, but that’s not to say there are none. Let’s talk about one of them today, a particular scene that is emotionally devastating and a meta-textual masterpiece.
In Book 2, Episode 4, Civil Wars: Part 2, Tenzin is visiting the Southern Air Temple with his family, including his older sister, Kya, and his older brother, Bumi. During their stay, Tenzin’s daughter, Ikki, has some sibling conflict with Jinora and and Meelo, and the search for Ikki after she goes off to be alone brings up tensions between Tenzin and his own siblings. One of the main points of contention is the ways in which Kya and Bumi felt that Aang favored Tenzin because he was the only airbender of his children.
The scene occurs when Bumi goes on his own into a hall in the temple with statues of all the past Avatars, and he stands in front of the statue of his father. The rambunctious music of the previous scene cuts out, and Bumi stands in the shadowy hall, a shaft of light illuminating Aang’s statue.
“Uh, hey there, Dad. You’re looking well. Look, uh, I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be an airbender like you hoped. But I’ve tried my best to keep the world safe. Hope I made you proud.”
One of the most important missions of Aang’s time as Avatar was to re-establish the Air Nomad civilization, of which he was the sole surviving member. In addition to training acolytes and repopulating the temples, he would need to produce, with his eventual wife, Katara, a child who could airbend. With that in mind, it’s not too much to say that the first-born child of Aang and Katara would be the most important child in the history of the Avatar universe. Everyone would want to know if there was a future for airbending, no one more than the titular Last Airbender.
Bumi, named after one of Aang’s best friends, was born. And he was not an airbender. To add insult to injury, he wasn’t a bender of any kind. From a young age, Bumi had to know that even if he wasn’t a disappointment, the fact that he wasn’t an airbender was. A few years later, after Kya, a waterbender like her mother, was born, Aang finally got his airbending son, Tenzin. So not only was Bumi not an airbender and the hope for a future of Air Nomad civilization, it was his little brother, the youngest child.
“I’m sorry I didn’t turn out to be an airbender like you hoped.”
Aang looms large over the first season of Korra with references to him and his legacy coming early and often and embodied quite literally in the Statue of Liberty-esque monument outside of Republic City. In the first season, that shadow falls most heavily on Korra, and later we will see its weight on Tenzin, but in this moment the focus is squarely on Bumi. Even the world’s best father would have had a hard time making Bumi feel like he wasn’t a disappointment, and, as we learn, Aang was far from a perfect father.
“But I’ve tried my best to keep the world safe. Hope I made you proud.”
It’s no wonder Bumi joined the United Forces and rose to the rank of Commander. Unable to fulfill his father’s hopes as an airbender, he stuck to the mission of keeping the world safe which so occupied Aang’s time and effort. And, while he embellishes tales of his heroics with an extra typhoon or two, it’s obvious that he must have showed real bravery and determination. For all his jokes and goofs, his motivations were serious, and after a career in the military, he hopes that his service made his father proud.
“Of course he’d be proud of you, Bumi,” says Kya. It’s a tender moment between the brother and sister, and a moment which allows them to make up with Tenzin when they are reunited after finding Ikki.
It’s a brief, but emotionally-riveting scene. It got me again on rewatch, even after I’ve seen it a number of times and thought a lot about it, which is one of the measures of great art.
The scene is also a fascinating metatextual moment. Korra can only ever exist in the shadow of ATLA, and so it was an is scrutinized in the way that follow-ups to beloved shows and movies are. It’s as if in this moment, standing in front of the image of The Last Airbender himself, Bumi is speaking for the showrunners as they hope to make their fans proud. Korra is, in many ways, its own thing and its own thing on purpose, but it can never get too far away from its predecessor. That had to be stressful for the creators, and they had to desperately hope that fans would approve of the work they did. At no point in Korra is the fourth wall broken in quite the same way, and here it is done subtly, as opposed to the overt (yet genius) break in ATLA‘s Ember Island Players.
The high points in Korra are fewer and not as impressive as in ATLA, but there is still much to praise. This scene is a marvel, and one of the many reasons I’m glad Korra exists and is now more accessible than ever. Aang would be proud.
Hold onto moments like this when you learn that DiMartino and Konietzko have departed the production of the live action Netflix adaptation.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
~click the number to return to the text~
1 When my brother and I rewatched the Final Agni Kai most recently, he just said, “Whoever made that the way it is deserves a prize.” Yep. Also my examples here skew heavy towards Fire Nation characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love so much in this show, but you could make a case that Zuko, Azula, and Iroh are the three best characters in the show.
2 Okay, but real talk how could a responsible Avatar really be an attentive father? Pretty demanding job there.
3 A couple notes on Korra real quick. First, the costume design is is so fantastic. It was good in ATLA, but they’re on another level with the variety and creativity. And that score. Man, again, Jeremy Zuckerman does phenomenal work in ATLA, and he’s just as good in Korra. I mean he’s in his fucking bag on some of these tracks. And, as with the costume design, he’s given more variety to work with. I don’t love the jazz numbers as much, but they’re pretty darn good too.