It’s all about balance.

But not balance between the spirit world and the material world. Not balance of the four elements. Not balance of spirit, mind, and body. Yes, those all play a part in The Legend Of Korra’s narrative, but the real thing that makes this show so exemplary is the balance of man and woman. Has there ever been a more feminist series on children’s television? This is a cartoon concerned with actively showing that women are equal to men in all things, whether it’s ruling a nation, playing an action hero, or serving as a romantic interest, and this week’s series finale focuses on that element more than ever.

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In a cultural climate that is starving for strong female representation—and in this case, “strong” isn’t in regards to physical ability, but quality and depth of characterization—The Legend Of Korra has consistently delivered captivating female figures. But it ascended to new heights over the last two seasons as it spent more time on the troubled history of the Beifong sisters, the growth of Kuvira’s empire, the adolescent development of Jinora, the budding relationship of Korra and Asami, and most importantly, Korra’s tormented mental state. Books Three and Four have shown a huge range of female experiences and personalities, and given each woman well-defined motivation that has propelled her behavior, whether it be for good or ill.

Avatar: The Last Airbender does similarly great work with its female characters, but they aren’t the primary focus of the narrative the way they are in The Legend Of Korra. The women are in charge in Korra, especially in Book Four, and at the end of it all, sisterhood is what saves the day. Korra doesn’t stop Kuvira by defeating her in combat, although it’s very likely that she would have if she decided to take that route. During her time as the Avatar, Korra has learned that violence isn’t a solution that gets to the core of a problem. Violence is used to force a person or group into submission, and while it’s sometimes a necessary measure to stop an overly aggressive threat, it’s not a way of making lasting changes that lead to a happier way of life for everyone involved. Those changes come from compassion, from understanding the needs of others and addressing them, and taking this approach is what allows Korra to finally put an end to Kuvira’s Earth Empire.

When Baatar Jr. apologizes to his mother for betraying his family for a woman that just tried to kill him, he asks Suyin how Kuvira could do what she’s done and Suyin’s answer is one of the most important lessons of the entire Avatar/Korra saga: “I don’t know, sweetie. She’s a complicated person.” People are complicated. Good people turn bad and bad people turn good, and their unique life experiences directly influence their actions and emotions. Kuvira isn’t an evil person. She’s power-hungry and blinded by a mix of ambition and righteous anger, but this all stems from noble intentions that are colored by her past as an orphan. Her parents abandoned her as a child, and when she saw Suyin turn her back on the Earth Kingdom in its moment of need, she saw an orphaned country in desperate need of a parent.

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But Kuvira isn’t a parent. She’s a captain, and she shows none of the consideration that makes a good parent. To heal the broken Earth Kingdom, she goes into each territory, takes care of the rabble-rousers, and offers continued protection in exchange for total submission to her cause. She’s a dictator, and because there hasn’t been anyone to stand in her way thanks to Korra’s absence, she’s been able to continue her campaign without any sort of restriction. Imagine the good Kuvira and Korra could have done if they worked together to heal the Earth Kingdom. But Korra wasn’t there. She was dealing with her own pain, and she couldn’t help a country until she helped herself. So Kuvira was allowed to take control without anyone standing in her way, showing the world an illusion of unity when she was governing by force and fear.

Kuvira has convinced herself that she’s the most powerful person in the world, and she needs to be humbled if she’s ever going to see the error of her ways. That’s where violence comes into play as Korra and Kuvira face off in an exhilarating battle in the cockpit of the colossus, but the two women are matched in terms of bending prowess and Korra isn’t going to be able to take Kuvira down by bending alone. It’s not until Kuvira sets off her spirit cannon in the Spirit Wilds that she learns how her power pales to the Avatar. After igniting a chain reaction that concentrates all the spirit energy in the environment into a giant explosion of spirit energy (creating a new Republic City spirit portal in the process), Kuvira is about to be disintegrated by the bright pink blast before Korra leaps in to save her by diverting the spirit energy away. This display of power from Korra shows Kuvira that she can never truly compete with the strength of the Avatar, and while it’s a devastating realization, it’s what she needs to learn in order to make amends for what she’s done.

Pulled into the spirit world after the blast, Kuvira finds herself in a strange environment with her superior opponent, and she knows better than to try and fight. It’s time to talk it out, and Korra forces Kuvira to see how they’re far more alike than she wants to admit, and that she understands pain and loss just like Kuvira, even if it’s a different kind of pain and loss. They’re both fierce women with a passion to succeed, but they don’t always think things through. They don’t always consider the consequences of their actions, and that can just lead to more problems. Kuvira can be read as a stand-in for Korra at the beginning of this series, an immensely powerful and headstrong person with misguided motivations, but if Korra could change so dramatically with time, Kuvira can too.

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When Korra speaks to Tenzin toward the end of the episode, she tells him that she needed to experience true suffering in order to be truly compassionate to others, and the lessons she’s learned over the course of Book Four are what allow her to convince Kuvira to surrender. The Earth Empire was born from Kuvira’s pain and fear after being abandoned as a child, but Korra shows her that she’s not alone in those feelings by telling her about the vulnerability she felt after being poisoned. She’s suffered trauma, too, but it’s not a reason to put herself over others. Pain and fear don’t give Kuvira any kind of authority to shape the world in her image; they just make her more like everyone else, who are hurt and afraid in their own distinct ways. Rather than continuing to fight, Korra stops to listen to what Kuvira has to say, and with Kuvira in an already vulnerable place, the Avatar is able to get her to truly explore the reasons why she’s fighting so much. It’s not to return the Earth Kingdom to its former glory before the United Republic and the Fire Empire, but to fulfill her personal need to feel invulnerable, and that’s not a healthy mindset for a political leader.

An easy way to make Kuvira feel less vulnerable is by showing her that she’s not alone in her suffering, that there are people like her that understand what she’s going through and are willing to help her work through her issues. This is a very different approach to defeating the villain compared to the last three season finales, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this show’s first female Big Bad is the one that caves because of sympathy. So much of this show is about the strength of women, and it takes real strength to confront your past mistakes and take responsibility for them rather than fighting until you fall. Kuvira’s violent approach is met with violence from Korra, but when Korra takes the path of sisterhood and finds common ground with her opponent, she breaks that cycle of violence and guides Kuvira to a peaceful surrender.

The show’s final scene is memorable for a number of reasons, and one is that it ends with a serious statement on the power of sisterhood and women finding strength in each other as they embark on the big bumpy ride of life. After the craziness of the past few months, Asami just wants to go on vacation, and Korra says they should do it, just the two of them. Rather than making the safe choice and reuniting Korra and Mako like many fans wanted (even though the show has done very little to hint at the former couple getting back together), writers/creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino end the series by focusing on the two women as they travel to the spirit world, firmly rejecting conventional romantic notions for something more subtle yet no less effective.

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The nature of Korra and Asami’s relationship isn’t made overly explicit, but the writers heavily hint at a romantic connection by having the two characters holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes as they teleport to the spirit world for a much-needed vacation. It’s not uncommon for platonic friends to hold hands, especially when they’re getting ready to do something scary together, but it’s that final look that elevates their relationship to something more. The handholding is more than enough to make Korrasami shippers go nuts, but the reaction probably wouldn’t be as strong if the episode ended with Korra and Asami facing forward rather than toward each other.

That added eye contact makes the moment more intimate, and going off into the spirit world is such a wonderful metaphor for sexual awakening that it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Further contributing to the romantic aura is the staging and the music, working together to create a dreamlike atmosphere around these two women that heightens the emotional impact of every action. The grabbing of the hands, the turning to each other, the teleporting into another dimension, it all becomes more powerful when depicted with such evocative sound and visuals. But it’s still far more ambiguous than the ending of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which cemented Aang and Katara’s future romance with a kiss.

There’s no kiss at the end of Korra, and leaving the details vague is smart because it keeps the writers from alienating a portion of the viewing audience that desperately wants to see Korra and her ex-boyfriend back together while allowing the viewer to bring their own interpretation to what happens next. Do they become lovers? Maybe they just hang out talking to adorable little spirits for the entire vacation and nothing romantic happens at all. The writers give the viewer the opportunity to choose, but the audio and visual elements push those choices in a romantic direction.

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Endings reveal a lot about the overarching ideas of a piece, and by finishing with Korra and Asami, the writers establish that The Legend Of Korra is a story about women first and foremost. It’s a series about how women relate to each other as friends, family, and rivals in romance and politics, an idea has became especially prominent in Book Three. Before that, there was much more emphasis on Korra’s connections with the men in her life: her father-daughter dynamic with Tenzin, her romantic entanglements with Bolin and Mako, her conflicts with Aman and Unalaq. Those relationships made Korra’s experience especially relatable to the adolescent females in the audience dealing with their own father drama and boy drama and the oppressive reality of living in a male-dominated society. But then the show stopped being about that.

The amount of time spent on Jinora, Asami, and the Beifong women in Book Three shifted the focus to the female cast, and Book Four pushed the men even further into the background by spotlighting a female villain and devoting more time than ever before on the inner workings of the title character. There are multiple times in this season when all the major players on screen are women, which is a remarkable thing in any action television series, animated or not. With so much emphasis on the female characters, it makes sense that The Legend Of Korra would end the series by looking at Korra’s relationship with another woman, and just the hint of a same-sex relationship is an extremely progressive step for an animated series geared to a younger audience.

The lack of action last week was disappointing, but the series more than makes up for it with a constant stream of fight sequences during the first three-quarters of the finale. The two episodes each spotlight a different kind of action that this show excels at: “Day Of The Colossus” is large-scale warfare as Team Avatar tries to take down Kuvira’s giant platinum mecha suit, and “The Last Stand” delivers the personal element-bending combat that breeds some of this show’s purest thrills. Director Ian Graham handles the first episode, and he focuses on the huge scale of the destruction that the colossus is capable of, both in terms of its giant frame and the spirit cannon on its arm. The spirit cannon in particular becomes more frightening than ever in “Day Of The Colossus” as Kuvira fires sustained blasts that light up the Republic City skyline with raging flames, and Graham zooms out during these moments to show just how monumental the property damage is.

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The action is much more contained in “The Last Stand,” giving Zwyer the opportunity to show off his skills with close-quarters fight sequences. There are some exceptional visual flourishes during these scenes, like the freeze frame of Bolin tackling an Earth Empire soldier and the slow-motion moment when Korra and Kuvira form a yin yang shape as they hit each other in mid-air. But the highlight of the action in the second part of the finale is that Mako finally gets something to do (!), destroying the colossus by pumping its spirit engine with electricity that causes it to explode. It’s a big moment of glory for the character—his sleeve exploding from the electricbending is so cool—and it’s intensified by the very real possibility that this will be Mako’s big sacrifice. The music definitely changes the mood to make it appear as if Mako won’t be making it out of this alive, but it’s all misdirection to get the viewer more invested in the action. The sacrifices begin and end with Asami’s father, but in that moment, it definitely feels like Mako’s time is up.

Mako and Korra do eventually have one final touching moment at Varrick and Zhu Li’s wedding, and while there may be romantic intention behind Mako’s statement that he has her back and always will, it’s an interaction that stays firmly in the friend zone. Despite the show’s shift to the female cast, Korra’s relationships with the men in her life are still very important, and her chat with Mako is followed by a conversation with Tenzin that looks at how much Korra has grown, what she’s accomplished, and her desire to learn and experience more.

Tenzin tells Korra that she’s transformed the world more in a few years than most Avatars did in their lifetimes, and in that moment, it’s hard not to think about how The Legend Of Korra has impacted American animation with its devotion to a huge range of female characters in a story that embraces a variety of cultural influences. This series has been groundbreaking in its depiction of women in an action-heavy cartoon, exploring the full depth of their characters while casting them in roles that allow them to kicks heaps of ass, and this finale highlights that progressive attitude in outstanding ways. It’s sad to say goodbye, but it doesn’t hurt so much when the farewell is so satisfying.

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Stray observations:

  • Things I want to see next from Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino: Either a series about a present-day Avatar (or an Avatar in the future), or jumping over to Marvel Studios to help it create a Runaways cartoon series.
  • Anne Heche has been phenomenal on this series. She’s brought so much warmth to Suyin, and has amazing chemistry with Mindy Sterling, creating a sense of history between the two sisters that has only gotten deeper and richer with time. Suyin’s conversation with Baatar Jr. is short, but it’s a perfect button to their story, showing how Suyin’s love for her child could never be diminished because of his mistakes.
  • There are moments when this show is very explicit about its feminist stance, and that’s the case with all the Zhu Li/Varrick material in these episodes. Zhu Li has been fighting to be treated like an equal rather than an assistant, and once Varrick agrees to finally treat her with respect, their romantic relationship is able to take off. I love how traditional gender roles are swapped at Zhu Li and Varrick’s wedding, with the bride dipping the groom for their first kiss as a married couple while the groom becomes a weepy mess during pictures.
  • Hiroshi Sato returns this week to sacrifice himself to save Republic City, explaining why the show had that Asami subplot a few weeks back. The slow motion shot of Asami being ejected from her hummingbird and realizing what exactly is about to happen to her father is heartbreaking.
  • Prince Wu protects the people of Republic City with song-guided badger moles during Kuvira’s attack, then decides that he’s going to dismantle the monarchy of the Earth Kingdom and allow the states to govern themselves with elected leaders. He’s grown so much! (Pema also helps with the evacuation by leading sing-alongs of old airbender songs.)
  • Bolin has started to use Ghazan’s trick of using rocks to create disks of lava, which I find very cool.
  • I eagerly anticipate all the cosplay of Korra characters in their wedding formalwear. My personal favorites are Lin, who maintains a military-inspired look with her jacket while embracing a more feminine silhouette, and Asami, who is simply gorgeous in deep shades of red with gold jewelry accents. And Asami’s hair! She’s just so pretty.
  • Wu: “Can you step off the bench please? It’s a little crowded up here.” Conductor: “Sure. I’m only the conductor. No one needs me on the bench.”
  • Varrick: “Zhu li, I’ve been thinking.” Zhu Li: “You’re always thinking, sir.”
  • “I remember when I was a boy. I had an ostrich horse. Named her Mrs. Beaks!”
  • Varrick: “Zhu Li! Do the thing!” Zhu Li: “I’m afraid there are no more things to do.”
  • “Zhu Li Moon, will you do the thing for the rest of our lives?”
  • Varrick: “Now let’s go attach these barely functioning rust buckets to a giant killer smashing machine.” Zhu Li: “It’s exactly how I always pictured our engagement.”
  • “This isn’t the time to prove how awesome you are. I already know how awesome you are. You’re awesome.”
  • “Her power is beyond anything I could hope to achieve.”
  • “You may now…do the thing.”
  • “Sometimes a good evacuation is its own reward.”
  • Asami: “Excuse me Tenzin. Varrick is looking for you. Something about wanting to borrow a glider suit to fly off the tower.” Tenzin: “That doesn’t sound like a good idea!”

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