Coming back stronger than ever is complicated.
Yah know I’m not sure we can write enough words about heroes. It’s an inexhaustible subject of conversation. If I was speed dating and I was like “hey who are your favorite heroes” and they were like “you mean like my mom?” and I was like “aw that’s actually really cool but no like a fictional hero” and they were like “oh then Batman” and I would be like “well not just superheroes like other fictional heroes” and they were like “….” then I would take off my sticker nametag (which I usually forget to take off) and leave. But that wouldn’t happen, because heroes are interesting and there is so much to say about so many of them. It’s a conversation that is as easy to start as it is to get immersed in complexities and nuance, and it’s one that is not only fun but also potentially instructive and revelatory. What we say about heroes matters, and heroic matters say something about us.
One way to approach discussing heroes is to look for a hero who, in some way, diverges from many of the common archetypes and tropes, and then to juxtapose that hero to another hero who does much the same thing. Our discussions often work off of seminal frameworks, such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which lays out the prototypical hero’s journey. It’s a useful framework, even if it allows some people to oversimplify the conversation. For instance, once during a break in a graduate lit class, someone said that Avatar: The Last Airbender was “just a hero’s journey” and I Halperted a nonexistent camera with the force of a thousand suns. Heroes are often created and critiqued in conversation with previous heroes. Whereas antiheroes were once new and subversive, they’ve now saturated creative spaces. Luke Skywalker was molded in the form of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and Rey (Skywalker?) was constructed in response to
unimaginative Disney executives Luke. Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven is a commentary on the stoic gunslinger archetype he made famous decades earlier. We can also just notice that two heroes have some things in common and talk about how interesting it is that two characters from two very different works have some important things in common. All of these comparisons are fun and useful.
Something common to quite a few heroes is a near-death experience from which they recover or an actual death experience from which they’re resurrected. The low-hanging comparative fruit is Jesus of Nazareth, and these heroes are often dubbed Christ figures to varying degrees of usefulness (I wrote an entire Master’s Thesis about this, if you’re curious). Oftentimes, these heroes triumphantly return from the dead and kick ass, like T’Challa and Neo. And why not? It tracks that someone returning from the dead would be flying high and ready to take down the ones who tried to finish them off. The hero has embarked on a journey or quest, overcome great obstacles, leveled up, and is ready to dole out the rewards earned by their accomplishments.
(I’m writing some of this on the day of Chadwick Boseman’s death. So as I’m mentioning T’Challa, I just want to say that I’m feeling this one. He played heroes so well, and became a hero in his own right. We lost a great one).
But some heroes emerge from their experience broken. They may go on to further heroic acts, but something in them has changed. They do not return better than ever, or with a greater zeal than ever with their new lease on life, but rather with a devastating wound. Their experience was a traumatic one, and they exhibit something akin to PTSD. They go on trying to help others and do what is right, but while carrying the weight of their experience.
Two of the most notable recent examples of this type of hero are Korra and Jon Snow. So, yeah, I’m writing about The Legend of Korra and Game of Thrones again, which is on brand.
Korra and Jon approach their roles in the world with a similar enthusiasm, despite being of different temperaments. Korra is friendly, bold, and full of confidence, ready to take on the next challenge of going to Republic City and learning airbending. Even in her awkward teen moments, she has immense charisma. Jon is not unfriendly, but he is quiet, sullen, and reserved. He is unsure of his place in the world, but he is certain that if he joins the Night’s Watch it will be an opportunity for him to prove himself and bring honor to him and to House Starke. He is confident he has the abilities to be a great warrior. Korra and Jon both exhibit an amount of arrogance in their early days, as Korra swaggers into a gang shakedown and theatrically apprehends the gangsters, while Jon embarrasses all challengers in sword training. But both find that they were naive, as the situation in Republic City escalates and the Night’s Watch proves to be a shadow of its former self and the scrap heap of Westeros. In response to their frustrations, both prove to be hotheaded and impatient.
Without getting too far afield into audience response, both characters in their early seasons elicited a certain amount of skepticism because of their surly dispositions. Jon was the emo guy in the snow for the fist two seasons, and Korra comes out of the gates in season two mad at everyone all the time. However, both would work themselves into fan favorites as they grew into their roles as heroes.
As Korra becomes a fully-realized Avatar and Jon ascends to the rank of Lord Commander, they go about their heroic duties without the gratitude of the people. Early in season three, Korra mentions that she has an eight percent approval rating (this is just weeks after, you know, saving the entire world), and she is treated like a nuisance by President Raiko and the Earth Queen. As Jon wins the love and support of many in the Watch, some of his superiors scheme his demise, and, of course, no one in Westeros gives a fuck what anyone in the Watch is doing, even if they are the shield that guards the realms of men. But they go on anyway, as Korra helps Tenzin rebuild the Air Nomad civilization, and Jon wins heroic victories at Kraster’s Keep and at the Battle of Castle Black.
The famous words of Jesus come to bear on these stories as Korra and Jon show themselves willing to lay down their life for their friends. Zaheer gives an ultimatum: Korra must turn herself over to him, or he will annihilate all the Airbenders. Even before her allies devise a plan to possibly rescue her during the exchange, she is willing to go on her own and turn herself over, not knowing exactly what Zaheer plans, but sure that it will be some form of destruction. Jon, knowing that Castle Black cannot withstand more attacks from the Free Folk, goes beyond the wall unarmed, determined to assassinate Mance Rayder, certain that the attempt will cost him his life.
However, both evade death for the time being. The Avatar State allows Korra to fight off Zaheer’s poison and engage him in high-flying one-on-one combat. The arrival of Stannis Baratheon saves Jon at the critical moment, allowing him to return to Castle Black and be elected Lord Commander. But after Zaheer is defeated, the poison takes Korra to the brink, saved only when Su is able to bend the metallic poison out of her. Jon takes command of the Watch and leads the heroic effort at Hardome (this is where we’re very much in show-Jon vs. book-Jon territory so keep that in mind if you’re a book person too), but for doing so he is murdered by some of his own men. But some are not so ready to let Jon go, and Melisandre is able to resurrect him.
So what happens now? Korra has defeated yet another frightening enemy and has survived the poison – she should be all the stronger and more confident and ready to stabilize the Earth Kingdom. Jon is back from the dead – time for him to punish the conspirators and become a legendary commander, right? But that’s not what happens.
Korra is broken from her traumatic experience. She is confined to a wheelchair, and the light is gone from her eyes. The final scene of season three is jaw-dropping, as Tenzin anoints his daughter Jenora as an Airbending master and pays tribute to Korra, who he credits as having saved their culture by being willing to lay down her life. And in this moment of great celebration, the final shot is of Korra as a tear flows down her face.
This is not the Korra we’re used to. And we don’t get the spunky, smiling Korra back anytime soon. The first few episodes of season four see her struggling to heal, and even after she regains the ability to walk, she is haunted by her trauma and is unable to beat even petty thieves in a fight. She is caught between fear of returning to her role as Avatar and fear of letting the world down by being out of the game for years. She survived the encounter with Zahir in one of the greatest displays of her Avatar powers, but the experience left her as a broken Avatar.
Jon returns from the dead in a fashion somewhat short of glorious and triumphant. In one of the series’ best scenes, Jon is overwhelmed by his return.
He seems almost appalled by the unnaturalness of it. And then he remembers what happened. “I shouldn’t be here,” he says. “I did what I thought was right. And I got murdered for it.” In short, he isn’t happy to be back. He isn’t ready to go out and fail again, as Davos encourages him to do. When he does resume command of the Watch, he does so only long enough to bring justice the conspirators. Then he abruptly quits the Watch. Only the arrival of Sansa brings him into the political entanglements of House Starke.
So Jon’s back in the game, ready to lead an army to take Winterfell back from the treacherous Boltons, but he isn’t happy about it, and he isn’t growing any more comfortable with his new extended lease on life. Before the Battle of the Bastards, he tells Melisandre not to bring him back if he dies. At the battle itself, he charges the entire Bolton army, completely dispensing with any regard for his own safety. But Jon survives and he is named King in the North, so surely that must encourage him, right? He’s now a living legend, he should smile a little, shouldn’t he?
No; Jon has been forever changed by his experience. He has lost part of himself. He has not come back with a new gleam in his eye.
It’s a sad, sad moment when Daenerys says “We all enjoy what we’re good at,” and Jon replies, “I don’t.”
And, of course, Jon continues to try his best to put himself in danger (some have suggested that Jon is actually trying to die). Post-resurrection, Jon should become the knight-in-shining armor par excellence, the Chosen One who has overcome death itself and is ready to save the world. Instead, he’s a reluctant leader who just wants people to stop fighting long enough to defeat the true enemy. Even when he finds out that Melisandre considers him the Prince Who Was Promised, and even after he finds out that he is the legitimate son of Lyanna Starke and Rhaegar Targaryen and therefore heir to the Iron Throne, he says “I don’t want it” with meme-generating emphasis.
This isn’t what we expect from heroes. Seasons of television, let alone “children’s” television, don’t end with the hero broken and hopeless even after beating another Big Bad. Handsome, heroic warriors don’t come back from the dead more depressed than ever with no interest in growing their legend or hooking up with the beautiful Dragon Queen (well, okay, he gets interested in one of those eventually). But this is what we get: a broken Avatar and an emo King.
But therein lies the other part to this comparison which makes these broken heroes so admirable and memorable. Yes, they are the Avatar and the King, two Chosen Ones if ever there was one (two?), but that is not what enables them to continue to heroically face challenges even after their traumatic experiences. In season two of Korra, when Korra is at her lowest point having lost her connection to her Avatar Spirit, Tenzin tells her that Korra is not defined by Raava’s spirit. “Before [Avatar Wan] fused with Raava, he was just a regular person.” “But he was brave, and smart, and always wanted to defend the helpless,” replies Korra. “That’s right,” says Tenzin. “He became a legend because of who he was, not what he was.” Korra is able to find the light in the dark and defeat UnaVaatu because she connects with her own inner strength. She saves the Air Nomads because of her selflessness. She recovers from the poison because of her desire to defend others. She faces off with Kuvira not once but twice because of her indomitable will. And she gains the love and admiration of all around her because she is Korra, not because she is the Avatar. Jon may be the Prince Who Was Promised, but that isn’t why he takes the lead in bringing attention to the threat of the Night King. He finds out he is not Jon Snow but Aegon Targaryen, but that doesn’t change his priorities. He’s selfless, brave, and resilient, and never stops trying to do what is right.
Korra and Jon go on from their traumatic experiences because of who they are, not what they are. If they were defined by being the Avatar and the King, then maybe there’s a version of these stories where they return from the brink with newfound fire, stronger than ever and ready to ascend to their places of glory. But instead, each story grapples with the humanity of these individuals, and depicts the emotional toll those experiences would take. Their statuses don’t shield them from pain and suffering, and they don’t pull them from the depths of despair, either. Instead, the very humanity that is so fragile and becomes so broken is the thing which leads them out of the darkness and enables them to once again carry the hero’s burden. They don’t do it with the same enthusiasm they had when they left for Republic City or the Night’s Watch, but they do so with the knowledge of how great a burden it is that they bear. In two of the most notable heroes of the last decade, this is an aspect that should not be overlooked.
There are other heroes who fit somewhat into this mold – Harry Potter comes to mind – and I believe we will see more of them. As we reckon with the realities of mental health, and as our notions of heroes continue to evolve and become more complex and nuanced, heroes who can be broken and stay broken but go on being heroes anyway just make sense.
And I look forward to talking about them.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria