Legend of Korra’s final season will perhaps give us the most compelling conflict yet, one that has been hinted at throughout the whole series but never fully explored: Korra’s struggle against herself and her Avatar duty of being connected to the spirits. Three years after the events of Book 3, Korra’s body had recovered, but she has completely lost her Avatar abilities, i.e. her spirituality and spiritual connections, things that are essential to the Avatar. Her Avatar ghost haunts her, reminding her of her failure and stirring her guilt at her denial of her identity as the Avatar. She wanders the world alone, considering herself a failure and trying to be someone else, someone unknown and out of sight now that she has thoroughly convinced herself that she can never again be the Avatar. In a way, she is mourning the loss of her identity while also aching to step into it again.
While watching this week’s episode, mewithoutYou’s song “Carousels” just kept popping into my head, especially at the scene where Korra sees an image of Raava in the desert only to realize it was just an illusion.
Interpreting this episode and Korra’s state of mind through this song leads to some revelations about our relationship with spirituality and expectations about our spiritual lives vs. reality. For some, this may not even be a struggle since not everyone finds value or a sense of identity through spirituality, but I do think many people experience this sort of turbulence in their spiritual lives, which is why I find Korra’s current state so compelling. Now, I’m a Christian so my reflections are filtered through that lens. I am not suggesting that Legend of Korra involves Christianity or Western spirituality in any overt or significant way. The religion and mythology of the Avatarverse is firmly rooted in the East and the traditions of many POC cultures. Twisting the show’s spirituality to fit within the parameters of the Judeo-Christian tradition would be problematic on a number of levels and is not my aim here. Rather, I’m interested in Korra’s experience of denial from “God” (Raava, in this case) in her suffering and her guilt of her loss of spirituality. In unpacking these ideas, I’m going to use Christian language/experience, but I’m not suggesting that only Christians experience these things in their faith.
Denial From “God” and Desiring to Reconnect
The Avatarverse does not, strictly speaking, have a God in the Western sense. There are multitudes of spirits with varying relationships with humans, some more powerful than others. The closest the Avatar world comes to God is Raava and Vaatu, but there are stark differences between those spirits and a Christian understanding of God, the most obvious being that God isn’t conceptualized as one supremely good spirit battling with one supremely evil spirit. In fact, only Raava bears any similarity to God: she is light and life, and she takes on a human body. Still, in this universe she seems to be the highest spiritual authority and the Avatar is always supposed to be in close relationship with her.
Without any sign of Raava in her, even the spirits can’t tell if Korra is the Avatar and neither can Korra. Right now, Korra is just a body trying to find her way back to Raava–to being the Avatar. She enters the spirit world through one of the portals and tries to reconnect with Raava, saying, “The last time I was here, I saw all sorts of visions. Now I don’t see anything.” Then she leaves, still alone, still disconnected, and wanders the world in an attempt to find Raava, but this resentful Avatar spirit version of Korra haunts her everywhere. At last, Korra finds herself in the desert and finally sees Raava at the top of a sand dune. Korra runs up the dune, calling Raava’s name, but she reaches the top, she sees nothing but the vast desert and slumps to her knees, defeated.
This image of Raava is most likely just an illusion, rather than the actual Raava, but for Korra, it’s a very real denial from spiritual connection and spiritual health. It is after this denial from Raava that Korra starts denying, both to herself and others, that she is the Avatar. Many people at some point or another feel that God has denied them in the midst of their own suffering. They see God in the desert, so to speak, only to find that God is not there. Truthfully, God is there, just in a way that isn’t obvious or expected. Still, that doesn’t lessen the resulting pain from the perceived denial. I think this section of “Carousels” speaks to this scene and where Korra finds herself now.
And if I didn’t have You as my guide, I’d still wander lost in Sinai
Or down by the tracks watching trains go by
To remind me: there are places that aren’t here.
And I had a well but all the water left,
So I’ll go ask Your forgiveness with every breath,
And if there was no way into God,
I would never have laid in this grave of a body… so long, dear.
Specifically, I found a connection between Korra having this experience specifically in a desert and the line “I’d still wander lost in Sinai.” Being lost in the desert appears a lot in the Bible and is often related to various Biblical figures/the Israeli people struggling spiritually. I don’t think Legend of Korra is involving any sort of Biblical connections, but the subtle connection is certainly plausible since the shows creators do come from Western culture, which is heavily built around the Judeo-Christian tradition. It will seep through everything, even in an unconscious, vague way. However, there are some stronger connections between the song and Korra’s current state. “I had a well but all the water left” easily relates to how Korra’s spiritual dryness leaves her hopeless. Raava/her essence as the Avatar was once a well to sustain her, but now it’s gone. It left her. Furthermore, Korra is first and foremost a water bender, yet she has removed any signs of her being a water bender and from the water tribe so that no one will recognize her. Quite literally, all of the water has left her.
Despite all of this, I think Korra still has some sense of hope, though she doesn’t find joy in it because her suffering is too great. In the Book 3 finale, she could’ve let herself die. If she had no hope–no sense of anyone needing her–then perhaps she wouldn’t have fought so hard. Perhaps, if she truly believed that “there was no way into God,” or Raava in her case, then she “would never have laid into this grave of a body.” And her body is certainly a grave for her. It’s unresponsive, weak, and plagued by the aftermath of the poison. Its suffering and limitations severed Korra from Raava, yet Korra remains in it, thinking that she can find some way back into her identity as the Avatar and connect with Raava again.
Who, then, is her guide? “Carousels” overtly names the guide as God, but Korra actually has a couple guides so far and they aren’t of any spiritual authority or power. One is that tiny spirit that leads her to Toph and the other is Toph herself. Since only two episodes have aired, there’s no telling what sort of role Toph will play or how she’ll guide Korra. However, I think Korra will find her way again.
The Guilt of Spiritual Disconnect
A large part of Korra’s struggles right now stem from her inability to live up to the expectations placed upon her about being the Avatar in the first place. She is the Avatar, but clearly not the Avatar everyone wants or expects. The Avatar should always be connected to Raava, or in other words, have a thriving spiritual life, but Korra doesn’t. She no longer fits anyone’s understanding of the Avatar, especially her own, and this weighs her down. Two of her greatest enemies have had stronger spiritual connections than she has: Unalaq and Zaheer. Now, she doesn’t have one at all and the guilt is so bad that it’s manifesting as this haunting Avatar state ghost stalking Korra everywhere she goes. It reminds her of what she’s lost and how she’s failed and judges her for it. This guilt is the reason why she turns away from Republic City. She can’t face anyone again as a half-baked Avatar.
Feeling that we’re not as spiritually connected as we should be is something Christians go through all the time. What makes it worse is when other Christians question our spiritual life because they see no sign of it in us. The guilt can be overwhelming and can make it even more difficult to find our way back. However, the truth is that there is nothing wrong with being disconnected. It’s all part of the journey and always “feeling” spiritual is a rather narrow understanding of spiritual life anyway.
Korra’s guilt is a buildup of both her own expectations and the verbal poison that others have given to her over time. Now, it has completely broken her and it will take a long time for her to wade through that and find her way back into being the Avatar again. The result may be redefining who the Avatar is in the first place or whatever she may discover in her search for balance. Since that’s the title of this season, we’re led to believe that she’ll find wholeness again.