How The Legend Of Korra Should Have Gone
Tying the first two books more tightly to the later two, and exploring an implication of the second season finale.
Book 1 goes as canonically, until the very last moments, where Korra does not regain her bending in a deus ex machina thanks to Aang as in canon. But she does speak to Aang, who gives her hope and reassures her that she is still the Avatar, and she can still regain her power; most Avatars, he reminds her, don't even learn they are the Avatar until their teens, so starting over now does not leave her that far behind her predecessors, and prior to this setback she was a veritable prodigy even for an Avatar. Korra protests that Aang was more powerful than she had been when he was five years younger than her, but Aang counters that that was due to extraordinary and dire circumstances, and no Avatar should be forced to mature as quickly as he was. The book ends with her dedicated to diving headlong, forcefully, into regaining her bending.
By the start of Book 2, a year has elapsed. Under Tenzin's tutelage, both Korra and Lin are practicing Guru Pathik style chakra unlocking to connect with their inner cosmic selves and unblock the chi pathways that Amon blocked to inhibit their bending. Lin is making frustratingly slow progress, no small part due to her stubborn nature and her past with Tenzin, but she perseveres so that she can resume her duties protecting Republic City. Korra meanwhile is having no luck at all. Her very purpose in doing it, just to regain her bending powers and be important and powerful again, is impeding her progress in it, creating a spiritual block.
When offered the chance, she turns instead to her uncle Unalaq to try to regain access to her Avatar powers. As in canon he teaches her how to "spiritbend", but unlike canon this can be done with any element, not only water; he uses water as he's a waterbender, but she's only got air to work with for now. He also teaches her how to astrally project, a technique related to entering the spirit world via meditation. And all the while, he tries to re-teach her waterbending, by encouraging her to foster a relationship with the ocean spirit, the essence of water, and also with the moon spirit, the original waterbender, who he points out is actually a relative of them both: Yue, his grand-aunt and Korra's great-grand-aunt, who gave her life to become the moon spirit after Admiral Zhou killed the old moon spirit during the Hundred Years' War.
In her training with Unalaq, Korra observes that her uncle espouses a bending-elitist philosophy, as he believes bending ability is evidence of natural spiritual superiority. Non-benders are simply lesser beings, small spirits, barely more than animals, in his view. Unalaq tells Korra at this stage about how, as the Avatar, she is fused with the very sprit of light and order itself, Raava, one of the two greatest spirits of the world, more powerful than even the moon and ocean spirits. Thus Korra, being the Avatar, is the most superior person on the planet, by the reckoning of spirituality. Playing in to her need to be important helps seduce Korra into trusting Unalaq.
But she continues trying the chakra-unlocking meditation that Tenzin had taught her anyway, even after leaving him. After learning a bit from Unalaq, she begins to have flashbacks to the first Avatar, Wan, during her meditation, which continues throughout the book. As she remembers Wan's acquisition of each element, she clears the chakra connected with that element, and has associated visions of the aspect of her life associated with that chakra. Like Wan begins with fire, Korra's fire chakra is unlocked already, associated with passion and drive; that was the first step that Aang's vision helped her to take at the end of Book 1. Korra finishes her Avatar Wan flashbacks by the time of the canon episode "Beginnings", where she would canonically have had all those visions at once. In her final vision, wherein Wan traps the spirit of darkness and chaos Vaatu, the purpose and nature of the Tree of Time where he is trapped is explained to Wan by Raava: it was chosen as his prison because, its interior being in a sense outside of time, being imprisoned in it would in a way "freeze" Vaatu, which is preferable to destroying him since any time either great spirit is "destroyed", it begins to regrow within the other.
The civil war plot, where Unalaq tries to conquer the Southern Water Tribe under his Northern leadership, still happens as in canon, but is given less screen time. Instead, more screen time is dedicated to the election of the Republic's first president. In the year between books 1 and 2, an interim council lead by Tenzin has created a democratic presidential system to replace the council, and the first election is rapidly approaching. Though Amon was defeated and his terrorist methods stopped, the Equalists remain a popular political party, and being the only pre-organized party, they are a powerful one, expected to sweep the elections. Unalaq however is vocally opposed to the election of a non-bender President, the Equalist party, and the general enfranchisement of non-benders. This plot culminates, with President Raiko's election and inauguration, just in time for the new President's attempted kidnapping as in canon.
After Unalaq's treachery in the civil war plot is unveiled, Mako and Lin begin investigating his background, trying to find some dirt to use against him, and discover details that they recognize from the past year's investigation into Amon's background. They found evidence in Amon's compound of a secret organization called the Red Lotus, to whom Amon seemed to want to prove himself after some prior rejection. Unlike in canon, it is not known that the four assassins who attempted to kill young Korra were part of the Red Lotus; all that is known is that the Red Lotus is a splinter group from the White Lotus who opposed them coming out of secrecy to openly serve the Avatar, and Amon's association with them made sense enough in that light. But now Unalaq seems to have had some connection to them as well. Korra and Mako wonder aloud what kind of an organization could associate both radically anti-bender Amon and radically bender-elitist Unalaq together. They speculate on whether Unalaq's elitism is just a masquerade to hide his possible anti-bending affiliations, or whether Amon's anti-bending was a masquerade; which seems more plausible, since he was secretly a bender himself, but if so, why would he expect that masquerade to prove him to a supposedly bending-elitist group.
When Korra finally confronts Unalaq, and learns of his plans to free Vaatu and become a Dark Avatar, she mentions the discovery of his connection to Amon and the Red Lotus, and asks how those goals are compatible at all and what Unalaq really wants out of all of this. Unalaq flatly denies any connection to Amon, calling him a hypocrite trying to co-opt noble causes as cover for his own petty designs, and of course distancing himself from the anti-bending of the Equalists and disparaging that entire movement again. As for the Red Lotus, he tells Korra they would have killed her had he not intervened, he severed his ties to them over that, and that she should be grateful to him for that. He insists that everything he is doing, he is doing as an alternative to their plan of killing her. Even planning to become the Dark Avatar, he doesn't intend to destroy Korra, but only to be the balance to her, the other side of her coin. It's not until Korra insists on fighting him that he strips Raava out of Korra. Unalaq intends in this way to have Raava regrow inside him and singlehandedly become the new, rebalanced Avatar himself. But Vatuu is the overwhelming presence at the moment, and so Korra still sees him as nothing but a Dark Avatar.
Unlike in canon, Unalaq does not become a giant kaiju monster, but rather just a flying multi-element-bending Dark Avatar, shrouded by the shadow form of Vaatu and wielding terrible power thanks to the Harmonic Convergence. Korra's astral projection to fight him is likewise not a giant kaiju, nor is it something she suddenly finds herself able to do after just believing in herself. It is only possible because of out-of-time extended meditation inside the Tree of Time, wherein she finally clears the last of her chakras by realizing that it is not being the Avatar that makes her important and powerful, it is her herself, just like Avatar Wan went and did all he did before ever being the Avatar. She connects to her inner cosmic self, combining Tenzin and Unalaq's teachings together to astrally project the full force of that inner cosmic self, amplified a thousand fold by the power of Harmonic Convergence, channelled through the Tree of Time.
As in canon, cosmic astral Korra battles Unalaq to little avail until Jinora, astrally projecting herself, highlights the spirit of Raava regrowing inside Vaatu, which Korra is then able to rip out and bond with herself. Regaining her bending powers at last, she enters the Avatar State for the first time. Dropping her astral projection, she bursts forth from the Tree of Time in a rage, returning to the material world to confront Unalaq in person. Wielding all the elements, she begins to fight and bash Unalaq with massive collateral damage, until Jinora (still astrally projecting) brings her down out of it, urging her to instead use his own spiritbending against him. Using all four elements together, she spiritbends the dark halo of Vaatu surrounding Unalaq until it diminishes; the spirit of Vaatu withers away, apparently taking the spirit of Unalaq himself with it, to everyone's surprise. Unalaq's body falls lifelessly into the water, from which Korra retrieves it and returns it to shore.
A funeral is held for Unalaq, and his family – his children Eska and Desna, his brother Tonraq, and Korra his niece – all mourn the tragedy of what became of him. Korra muses on how Unalaq, to the last word, seemed so sure that everything he was doing was for good, not evil; and wonders how much of the monster she fought at the end was even Unalaq any more, and how much of it was just Vaatu just using him as a puppet. She expresses fear about how much like a monster she herself became once she finally entered the Avatar State – as well as fear of whether someone could destroy her, or even just destroy the Avatar spirit within her, with the kind of spiritbending she used to defeat Vaatu/Unalaq. Tenzin, ever her spiritual guide, is unable to answer these questions for her; and with her connections to her past lives severed, she has no recourse there either.
It is these uncertainties on whether Unalaq was really well-intentioned after all, and a desire to remain connected to the Spirit World and learn more about it, for her own safety and sanity if nothing else, that prompts Korra to decide to leave the Spirit Portals open and renounce her authority as the bridge between the human and spirit worlds.
Months have passed by the start of Book 3, during which Korra has spent much of her time meditating in the Tree of Time, studying her past lives – which she can watch through the Tree, though she is no longer connected to them – and conversing with spirits, searching for answers to the questions she was left with at the end of the last book, but so far to little avail.
Most of this book goes essentially as in canon, but throughout it, Korra begins to slip into the Avatar State when under intense threat. She resists entering that Avatar State however, both because it feels frightening, like she has lost control of herself, and also because she fears it will make her vulnerable to a spiritual attack as Unalaq was when she defeated him.
Lin's relations with Suyin are even more strained than in canon, because Lin is still barely recovering from the loss of her bending ability. It is partially restored now but still extremely weak, making her loss to Suyin in their fight even more humiliating. But the acupuncture work she has done as in canon helps speed her recovery along, and after the canonical emotional clearing she gets as a result of that, she finds that her bending abilities are at last restored.
When Korra finally confronts Zahir in person, and learns that they are the Red Lotus, she recognizes that name as connected to Amon and Unalaq, and realizes that they, who she already knew had attempted to kill her as a baby, were the ones Unalaq claimed to have protected her from. Zahir states that Amon was indeed an initiate of their order, but was rejected for being too personally motivated and directed at Republic City, rather than total world anarchy as the Red Lotus aimed for. Amon being rejected from the Red Lotus serves to underscore how Zahir et al really do believe in their cause – Amon was rejected because he just wanted to use it as cover to legitimize his revenge. Unalaq, on the other hand, severed his own ties to the Red Lotus after the plot to kill Korra was revealed to him, and actually tipped off the White Lotus to foil that plot – he wanted the Avatar alive for his own plans at restoring balance and chaos via Vaatu. Korra is surprised to learn that Unalaq was really telling the truth about protecting her.
Korra finally goes into the Avatar State in the finale, but it's different than other Avatar States. As she resists entering the State, suppressing the white glow of her eyes, she sees visions of Unalaq and Vaatu (but not, as in canon, of Amon), and then a black glow instead takes the place of the white glow in her eyes, and she is not able to resist that. She completely loses her shit, and becomes a terrifying god of death, breaking free from her confines and wreaking havoc on the underground lair where she had been held captive. Zahir realizes what has happened, that Unalaq succeeded in his plan after all, in a roundabout way, and attempts to surrender to Korra. But she won't accept his surrender, and instead pursues him violently, until the poison works its way through her and she is unable to continue. As Korra collapses, Zahir is captured by Jinora and her airbenders as in canon. He tries to gloat over his victory and Korra's imminent death, claiming that whether or not the Avatar cycle is broken now, whether or not she reincarnates, balance has already been restored, and chaos has returned to the world. In the aftermath, as Korra recovers from the poison, she is traumatized and broken from the experience, not only physically and spiritually crippled, unable to walk or bend and with no connection to past Avatars to support her now, but also asking herself "What am I?" at the memory of whatever had come over her.
As in canon, Korra spends three years before Book 4 recovering her physical strength through more mundane means, relearning bending again the hard way. She is extremely frustrated and discouraged at being set back like this again – after having already gone through it once, and not having any hope of a magical means to make it all go away like she did before. The long struggle the hard way leaves her physically and spiritually broken and weak, far more so than her quick and impatient recovery in Book 2. She is consoled by Lin as she recovers, as Lin also had to take years to fully regain her bending ability, but Korra finds little comfort in her sympathy, being hard on herself for not just being better than that. She is reminded that there are still many people whose bending was taken by Amon years ago who have never fully recovered, but that is still no comfort to her: those people aren't the Avatar, bending does not define their entire existence. Others try to make Korra feel less pressure by assuring her that the world is managing without her, but that just makes her feel worthless and purposeless, as being the Avatar is what has always defined her.
Most of this book again goes as in canon, with the notable addition of a reason for Toph living in the Foggy Swamp: she is attempting to master bending of the last untamed element, wood, figuring that she may as well cap off her invention of metalbending with one more trick before she goes. The Foggy Swamp, besides being a spiritually connected place, is also home to a tribe of plantbenders, who are technically waterbenders but what they do is close enough to woodbending that Toph thinks she can maybe learn something from them and adapt it to earthbending to invent woodbending. But she's made no progress so far, claiming that wood is more stubborn than earth, more stubborn than even she is, and that it "has a mind of its own".
As in canon, Toph helps Korra to remove the remainder of the poison from her body and finally finish her healing. But, also as in canon, Korra is still haunted by visions of her battle against Zahir when she goes into the Avatar State. But not, as in canon, visions of Zahir attacking her; rather, visions of what she became while fighting him, which she still thinks is something he did to her. As in canon, she eventually confronts Zahir about this in his prison, only to then finally learn the truth of what has happened to her, from him. Neither Vaatu nor Raava can ever be destroyed, and just as Raava regrew within the Dark Avatar Unalaq after being "destroyed", so too Vaatu has regrown within Avatar Korra herself. Korra is horrified by this, but Zahir explains that it is nothing to fear. She is not evil for containing Vaatu, because Vaatu is not the spirit of evil. He is the spirit of darkness and chaos, yes, but chaos is not always evil, and order is not always good. To emphasize that last point, he points out how strictly orderly Kuvira's regime is, to the point that it suppresses all freedom. Freedom is chaotic, he asserts, and tyranny is orderly, but that doesn't make the former evil and the latter good. And in her fight against Kuvira's tyranny, in the name of freedom, Korra is inherently fighting on the side of chaos, and that brings out the Vaatu in her. She cannot fight for freedom while being so afraid of its chaotic essence. Zahir accepts that Korra may not embrace chaos and freedom to the extent that he does, but insists that surely she can accept in turn that at least a little of it is good, and embrace that side of herself enough to channel the power of chaos within her to defeat Kuvira.
The plot of Book 4 diverges from canon significantly only at the very end. When Kuvira's forces arrive with their superweapon ahead of schedule, the United Forces armada is not yet in place to combat them. Korra rises to the occasion to defend Republic City from the attack. On the radio, she warns Kuvira to turn back now, or else. When Kuvira laughs at Korra's threat, and recalls their fight on the field before Zaofu, Korra warns that she has been holding back, afraid of her own power, but that she's not afraid anymore, the gloves are off, and if Kuvira proceeds, she will be responsible for what will follow. Kuvira calls her bluff, and Korra goes on the offensive while Kuvira's forces are still on the plains across the bay from the city.
Letting go of her fears and reservations, Korra enters a mixed Avatar State; light and darkness both flowing behind her eyes, an aura and a shadow surrounding her, and with airbending she flies high into the sky from a balcony in Republic City. On the plains across the bay, beneath Kuvira's forces, the earth begins to quake, as high above clouds begin to swirl in the sky. The sea washes up over the plain, and Kuvira's forces struggle to stand against the waters washing over them, beginning to swirl in formation with the clouds swirling overhead, as the earth beneath them continues to shake. As Kuvira aims the superweapon of her colossus at the center of the vortex above, that center suddenly drops to the ground, as a powerful tornado twists and throws the colossus aside. That tornado quickly expands into a hurricane, lifting not only the water inundating the field but also the rocks of the earth itself, filling the air with flying boulders; and then, the winds catch fire. A terrifying maelstrom of all the elements swirls across the battlefield, scattering Kuvira's army, and at center of it all, eyes aglow and enshadowed, wreathed in both light and darkness, hovers Avatar Korra, orchestrating it all.
But against even the might of that maelstrom, Kuvira's colossus stands again, and levels its superweapon at Korra. Dodging the blast, Korra lets the maelstrom cease; as the waters recede back to the sea and boulders come to rest, Kuvira's army stands again, but break ranks and flee in terror even over Kuvira's orders. Korra focuses her efforts immediately at the colossus itself, hurling boulders the size of its own head at it. When those prove ineffective and it counters with another shot of its superweapon, she channels a great blast of air and water at it, then raises the earth behind its feet to trip it. It stumbles back again, and Korra hovers at its feet and breaths a great column of flame up the length of its entire body, while earthbending restraints around its limbs. But the metal colossus is fireproof, and strong enough to break the earthen bonds; despite Korra's best efforts it stands again, and fires at her once more.
That blast is a little too close for comfort, and Korra is blown aside, dropping momentarily out of the Avatar State. Rather than take advantage of that moment of weakness, however, Kuvira merely begins marching her colossus into Republic City. Korra resumes the Avatar State and continues her attacks against the colossus, but other than slowing it down a bit, none of them are effective; and when the colossus is close enough, it opens fire on the city. Enraged by the devastation, thunder and lightning crack across the sky, as Korra summons a tornado of flame, which again throws the colossus aside; she then lifts an entire hillside from the edge of the field, and drops that onto the colossus, which immediately begins digging itself out of the rubble. Realizing that she cannot permanently stop it, Korra disengages and returns to Republic City to regroup and formulate a new plan.
That plan returns to the canonical attack using Future Industries plasma torches to infiltrate the colossus itself. From that point the story continues as in canon, except that Korra's fight against Kuvira is much more one-sided, and by the time the colossus explodes thanks to Mako and Bolin's sabotage, Korra has already subdued Kuvira and barely manages to restrain herself from killing her, pulling back from the Avatar State at the last moment, just before the explosion.
The very end diverges again from canon, as rather than Korra jumping between the out-of-control spirit weapon and Kuvira, the spirit weapon ends up dangling straight down firing at nobody, but drawing more and more power from the vines of the spirit wilds it's entangled in. Kuvira recognizes this chain reaction and that a huge explosion is about to ensue. To contain the explosion, Korra enters the Avatar State again and spiritbends pure light and dark energy around the superweapon, allowing the spiritbending to follow along the vines and envelop the whole of the spirit wilds that trace throughout the city. As the chain reaction overloads, and the spirit wilds explode with spiritual energy, Korra strains to contain the energy and...
...afterward, finds that she and Kuvira are still amidst spirit vines in downtown Republic City, but that the weapon is gone, and in the skies and in the distance, they appear to be in the Spirit World. Unsure of what has happened, they wander the alleys together, until they emerge into a street of ordinary Republic City, back in the material world. There, as in canon, Korra's allies meet them, though without a confrontation from Kuvira's army unlike canon, and Kuvira surrenders to them. Tenzin asks what exactly has happened; Korra isn't sure. Unlike canon, this is not just "another spirit portal", but something altogether weirder.
In the epilogue, Tenzin's dialogue with Korra reveals that what happened is something like a fracture in the walls between the worlds; throughout downtown Republic City, the material world and spirit world just give way into each other in strange ways; in a sense, the city now exists in both worlds at once. Varrick has ideas that with more research, this phenomenon could be turned into a device to transport someone to or from the spirit world from any location, or to create arbitrary doors between the two. Both Korra and Tenzin are unsure how good of an idea that is, but agree that this is an interesting development for both Republic City and the world.
Wu's plans for the Earth Kingdom differ slightly from canon as well. He does intend to devolve sovereignty to the individual states still, each a democratic republic like the United Republic, but he aims to build a confederation of those states who are willing to join it, to preserve Earth national unity. He asks Korra for her help in accomplishing this. Tenzin also has political plans he would like Korra's help with, to create a UN-like diplomatic body to prevent war like this from ever breaking out between the nations again; Wu is interested in that idea and would like to help Tenzin get the Fire Nation, Water Tribes, and United Republic on board as well. Korra approves of all of these plans and is proud to be a part of them; it makes her feel good to be needed by the world again.
And as in canon, Korra and Asami head off into the spirit world to take a much-deserved vacation at the end.
Continued in my sequel series, Wood and Metal.