In the fourth and final season of Legend of Korra, we reunite with one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, Toph Beifong. As she helps a battered and broken Korra heal from her many battles over the previous seasons and glean potential lessons from her opponents, she shares an important insight: “Amon wanted equality for all, Unaloq brought back the spirits, and Zaheer believed in freedom. The problem was those guys were out of balance, and they took their ideologies too far.” This definitely rings true for Unaloq. While his motives are mostly benign, his plan would result in the destruction of everything. Even the common people, who don’t have the power of leaders like Tonraq to abandon rituals for honoring the spirits or the Avatar who is the bridge between the two worlds, would be wiped out. As Rava is light, so Vaatu is dark, and the two must co-exist for the world to be balanced. While the spirit world is admittedly too underdeveloped to extract too much analysis of its politics, Korra leaving the portals open and imploring humans to learn to live in harmony with spirits seems a reasonably moderate alternative to Unaloq’s extreme solution. And though she’s not listed among the others, it also rings true for Kuvira, who initially sets out to help her people but ends up going full fascist in the process.
But Toph’s words fall apart when measured against Amon and Zaheer, whose respective causes center the lives and well-being of the average citizen by challenging the power structures that harm them in the first place. In that one line, Toph reveals the ethos driving the entire show: a “balanced” world is not one free of inequity but merely one that has an established central leadership. Each of the antagonists aim to correct a different problem concerning the common people of this world, but because the narrative is more concerned with how the world is governed than it is the common people, and the antagonists pose a threat to that governance, the Avatar must step in to neutralize these threats and offer mild reforms in their place, and this is framed as “keeping balance”.
When we first meet the Earth Queen, not only is she insufferable to her servants, she sends Korra on an errand to fetch tax money she collects from her citizens, many of whom live in poverty. Although at no point between either this show or its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is the poverty of the Lower Ring in Ba Sing Se ever addressed as a structural problem, Korra does explicitly acknowledge that this errand feels wrong. Later, we discover that the queen is “conscripting” air benders for an army (more like enslaving, as she and the Dai Li agents both refer to the airbenders as “property” of the Earth Kingdom). Yet, when Zaheer brings up these injustices, Korra brushes them off as merely “not agreeing with some of the things she’s done”, and the queen’s death is framed as a negative through the rest of the series, as the absence of leadership causes the kingdom to collapse into chaos. By taking the queen’s life in his quest to rid the world of leaders, Zaheer has apparently thrown the world out of balance, and thus, he is actually the antagonist, not the queen. When the looting of the castle begins, one of the looters says to a guard that they’re “taking back” what’s theirs, and the guard joins them. Paired with the tax collection plot point, this suggests that the looting is actually warranted and rooted in rectifying wrongs committed by the queen, but that’s as far as the narrative goes before quickly falling back on the idea that all of this is simply bad, that it’s all Zaheer’s fault, and it must be corrected. More than his misguided attempt to eradicate the air benders, who’ve only just begun to rebuild their nation, and even more than the damage he does to Korra both physically and psychologically, it is the Earth Queen’s execution that Zaheer is held most accountable for by the narrative. It’s not the massive wealth gap plaguing the Earth Kingdom that’s throwing the world out of balance, but merely the Earth Queen’s death.
This “vacuum of power” left in her wake sets the foundation for the final conflict of the series, in which Kuvira rises to fill that void with a fascistic approach that’s probably the most villainous of all of Korra’s opponents. Her military withholds supplies from areas in need until their local leadership surrenders to her control, and although supplies are later provided, dissent to her rule is punished by incarceration in “re-education camps” and the people are forced into slave labor. However, while she’s undeniably villainous, the narrative still manages to fumble the way it frames her rise to power. In short, President Raiko and Suyin are never taken to task for their roles in Kuvira’s radicalization. When Kuvira implores her to help, the only options Su sees are to either “march in with an army” and assume leadership, or do nothing; simply providing supplies and resources, which are abundant in Zaofu, while the people of the Earth Kingdom decide on a form of leadership for themselves never seems to occur to her or anyone else. Instead, Kuvira is sent by President Raiko to “stabilize” the regions in disarray (with little to no oversight) while he prepares Prince Wu for coronation as Earth King, who would take the throne equipped with a delegation of advisers sent by Raiko himself. Given Wu’s lack of interest in anything beyond the prestige of being a king, this delegation would end up extending Raiko’s own power into the Earth Kingdom. It’s framed, however, merely as a way to aid Wu’s transition into his new role. The Earth Queen’s death finds the prominent world leader maneuvering to extend his own power rather than helping people in need, and in doing so, leaves the door wide open for Kuvira to do what she ends up doing. When she’s defeated, Prince Wu, at the crux of an extreme but unsubstantiated shift in his characterization, decides to end the monarchy and break the Earth Kingdom into independent states as a mirror of Republic City (and the United States, in case it wasn’t clear enough). Yet again, though, this does very little to address the inequalities existing within the states (will Zaofu continue hoarding wealth and resources while towns like Yi remain riddled with crime due to scarcity?), but it solves the issue of governance, which is the narrative’s primary concern. The common people of the Earth Kingdom are the ones most impacted by the Earth Queen’s tyranny, the bandits that emerge after her death, continued poverty and scarcity, and Kuvira’s tyranny, but the narrative never gets to the core of this problem because it’s really only concerned with what type of governance model it wants to present as “balanced” and, more importantly, legitimate.
More than any of the others, though, Toph’s insight really falls apart when measured against Amon, who is probably the most heroic character of the entire series. At the very beginning of the show, Korra arrives in Republic City and is immediately confronted by a sort of town crier who’s denouncing benders as oppressors. She responds as defensively as one would expect of a teenager who’s been isolated since childhood in an environment where she’s venerated as a messiah. But instead of challenging her to step out of her own ego and into her role as great protector of balance, the driving point of tension in this arc revolves around her terror at losing her bending to Amon, with little to no concern for the non-bending commoners calling attention to the imbalance of power present in the city. Team Avatar’s primary focus is to neutralize the Equalist movement, as it’s causing unrest and threatening the very thing that gives the city’s leaders their power; Amon, on the other hand, takes a radical approach to “equalizing” the very distribution of power. In other words, he seeks to re-establish balance. His “victims” include the leader of an organized crime syndicate, who Korra herself fought off from terrorizing and extorting local shop owners, and Tarrlok, who responded to protests calling for equality by treating all non-benders as Equalists and subjecting them to a curfew at risk of incarceration. In this way, Amon and Korra share common enemies, so that the distinction between them is not their morals but their approach. Korra might fight off mobsters she catches in the act, but the ongoing presence of organized crime syndicates in Republic City never seem to be substantially addressed by the city’s leadership, even after Amon’s defeat; meanwhile, Amon’s movement would strip those mobsters of the power that gives them an advantage over the citizens they regularly terrorize. The reveal of Amon’s own bending is supposed to discredit him and thus the movement he’s built, but his backstory only validates him further; not only does the abuse he endures at the hands of his own father, who tried to turn him into a weapon and live out his power fantasies of dominating Republic City through Amon, give him first-hand experience with bending being used to subjugate and oppress, his studies take him beyond his own lived experience to the conclusion that all the wars this world has endured were started by benders. His plan is framed as an ideology taken too far, but after generations of Avatars see the world no less ravaged by war and inequality, his approach, radical as it may seem and imperfect as it may be, does not lack merit. And yet, he and those involved with his movement are punished with some of the only deaths that occur in this show.
Counted among these deaths is Hiroshi Sato, who joined the Equalist movement as an opportunity for justice after losing his wife to those same mobsters the city’s police seem completely disinterested in dealing with. Assisting the movement feels like a betrayal to Asami, and, like Amon, he is villainized the entire series for it, spending most of the show in prison. During the final season, where several characters are rehabilitated (even Zaheer to a degree!), Asami decides to begin mending the relationship with her father. But unlike Varrick, his entrepreneurial counterpart who not only instigates a civil war between his own people so that he can sell more weapons but also finesses his major competitor out of her own company so that he can monopolize all the profits for himself, Hiroshi is not rewarded with marriage to an employee who has operated more like a slave than an assistant. Instead, he instead must sacrifice himself in order to earn his redemption. The Earth Queen’s tyrannical leadership is framed as merely “disagreeable”, Varrick’s war profiteering is forgiven on the basis that “people make mistakes and can change” (despite there being no substantial change, or even consequence), but Amon, even after being revealed as a survivor of childhood abuse, is not given a road to healing, only death in a murder-suicide with his brother and fellow survivor. And for his support of Amon’s movement, Hiroshi is also denied rehabilitation and instead granted redemption only through death. The Equalists’ efforts revolved around the lives and livelihoods of the common people and challenged the structure of world leadership, perhaps even more so than Zaheer, and that was apparently an unforgivable offense to a narrative that values world leaders over the everyday people that they rule.
Each season of The Legend of Korra presents a different challenge, a different conflict, but tying it all together is the concept of balance. The narrative centers that conversation around world governance, and balance is presented not as a world free of inequality and oppression, but merely as a world that lacks overt conflict between the ruling class and the common people. A negative peace, rather than a positive one. If the Avatar serves as this world’s main tool for maintaining such an idea of balance, and the needs of the common people are ignored or cast aside in the process, one really has to wonder: Korra is the protagonist of the show, but is Team Avatar actually the villains of the story?