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The Legend of Korra Changed the Avatar State – For the Better

For fans who hold the source material near and dear to their hearts, The Legend of Korra regularly attracts criticism for seeming inconsistencies with Avatar: The Last Airbender. The sequel series made much of its freedom to push the boundaries of the franchise into bold new horizons; however, such criticisms sometimes gloss over the faults of its predecessor. Case in point: the Avatar State. The powerful ability to amplify bending and commune with past lives had very little consistency in the original series, and in this respect, Korra greatly improved on the lore.

The Avatar State appears early on in the original series, and even in its first few incarnations, it seems to operate under an inconsistent ruleset. In “The Avatar Returns,” it triggers a defense mechanism that allows Aang to sweep away the Fire Nation forces threatening him. In “The Southern Air Temple,” it’s triggered by Aang’s emotional distress in grieving the loss of the Air Nomads, while in “The Storm,” it’s depicted as the force that first froze him in the iceberg after he and Appa were caught in a torrential storm. It also saves Appa and the Gaang from another storm in the present time during that same episode, pulling them safely from the sea.

For fans who hold the source material near and dear to their hearts, The Legend of Korra regularly attracts criticism for seeming inconsistencies with Avatar: The Last Airbender. The sequel series made much of its freedom to push the boundaries of the franchise into bold new horizons; however, such criticisms sometimes gloss over the faults of its predecessor. Case in point: the Avatar State. The powerful ability to amplify bending and commune with past lives had very little consistency in the original series, and in this respect, Korra greatly improved on the lore.

The Avatar State appears early on in the original series, and even in its first few incarnations, it seems to operate under an inconsistent ruleset. In “The Avatar Returns,” it triggers a defense mechanism that allows Aang to sweep away the Fire Nation forces threatening him. In “The Southern Air Temple,” it’s triggered by Aang’s emotional distress in grieving the loss of the Air Nomads, while in “The Storm,” it’s depicted as the force that first froze him in the iceberg after he and Appa were caught in a torrential storm. It also saves Appa and the Gaang from another storm in the present time during that same episode, pulling them safely from the sea.

The constant recurrence of the Avatar State during times of crisis raises the following question: where was this powerful ability during all the other times? Such crises occur invariably throughout the series without a peep from the Avatar State — for instance, when Aang is helplessly imprisoned in “The Blue Spirit” or distraught over burning Katara in “The Deserter.” Even the function of the Avatar State seems to change according to what the plot demands, with “The Storm” providing a stark contrast between freezing him for 100 years and helpfully saving him and Appa from drowning at sea. There’s even less consistency when it comes to communing with Aang’s past lives.

An early plot point demands that Aang needs to reach a specific Fire Nation temple by the time of the solstice in order to communicate with his past life, Roku. Eight episodes later, Roku possesses Aang in the middle of a conversation with Jeong Jeong to convince the firebending master to take Aang on as a student. In “Avatar Day,” Aang is able to summon Kyoshi to testify at his trial by wearing her effects, yet he summons her easily while meditating on the Lion Turtle for counsel in the finale. That same finale ends with Aang unlocking and mastering the Avatar State — after Guru Pathik told him he would never be able to enter it again.

By comparison, Korra sets up a far better-defined usage of the powerful ability. Its first usage at the end of Book One attracts attention from many who saw it as a deus ex machina as though the ability were anything besides that in the previous series, but thereafter, she employs it in a restrained manner during brief moments that amplify her power.

The constant recurrence of the Avatar State during times of crisis raises the following question: where was this powerful ability during all the other times? Such crises occur invariably throughout the series without a peep from the Avatar State — for instance, when Aang is helplessly imprisoned in “The Blue Spirit” or distraught over burning Katara in “The Deserter.” Even the function of the Avatar State seems to change according to what the plot demands, with “The Storm” providing a stark contrast between freezing him for 100 years and helpfully saving him and Appa from drowning at sea. There’s even less consistency when it comes to communing with Aang’s past lives.

An early plot point demands that Aang needs to reach a specific Fire Nation temple by the time of the solstice in order to communicate with his past life, Roku. Eight episodes later, Roku possesses Aang in the middle of a conversation with Jeong Jeong to convince the firebending master to take Aang on as a student. In “Avatar Day,” Aang is able to summon Kyoshi to testify at his trial by wearing her effects, yet he summons her easily while meditating on the Lion Turtle for counsel in the finale. That same finale ends with Aang unlocking and mastering the Avatar State — after Guru Pathik told him he would never be able to enter it again.

By comparison, Korra sets up a far better-defined usage of the powerful ability. Its first usage at the end of Book One attracts attention from many who saw it as a deus ex machina as though the ability were anything besides that in the previous series, but thereafter, she employs it in a restrained manner during brief moments that amplify her power.

Book Two’s “Beginnings” episodes flesh out the origin of the Avatar and explain how the spirit of Raava imbues the Avatar with a phenomenal reserve of energy that fuels the state, separate from the experience accumulated throughout the Avatar’s lives. Even when Korra’s connection to her past lives is severed, her usage of the Avatar State thereafter comes in consistent pulses that boost her power in reliable ways. While the series made additions to the lore of Avatar, it at least set up rules it reliably followed throughout the series.

Avatar never followed a perfectly designed schematic from the start, and the franchise gradually found itself more and more as the years progressed. The Avatar State seems like a clear area where the creators were not at first certain of the mechanics of how it functioned, and it was not until Korra that they really hit their stride in weaving it organically into the story.

There’s little doubt that both shows are masterclasses in worldbuilding, but as with any media, they are not free of fault. In criticizing one, it’s only fair to apply those same criticisms to the other — and at least in this regard, it’s extremely difficult to hold Korra at greater fault.

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