Something amazing happened in the series finale of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, it’s follow-up to beloved animated action series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It wasn’t the destruction of a colossal mech suit with a laser cannon that thus served as an allegory for nuclear weapons (though that was awesome). It wasn’t Varrick and Zhu Li doing the thing and getting married (though that was adorable). And it wasn’t the creation of a new portal to the spirit world (though that was…interesting). No, it was two people holding hands.
The Avatar sequel series hit the height of its rollicking storytelling power in its third season, making the fourth a more intimately observed affair that focused on Korra overcoming trauma, connecting with several broken families, and using her own spiritual understanding to persuade a potential dictator to give up her empire. More importantly, for the rest of us (and the future of television), she got the girl. The final image of the series is of Korra and Asami Sato (a great, fascinating character in her own right), hand in hand, looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, ready to take vacation in the spirit world.
It’s possible to read this as “friendship” rather than a bona fide romantic relationship between queer women of color, but that requires some serious imaginative legwork to reach that conclusion. (And if you choose to put in that work, I wonder about your motives.) There’s been a whole heap of subtext hinting at the pairing fans call “Korrasami” since the beginning of the show, especially the revelation that Asami was the only person Korra communicated with while she was away from Republic City. That decision, one of the crucial emotional moments of a fourth season that sent one-time love interest Mako even further into the background, seems far more calculated now, given the finale. And it’s a conscious mirror of the conclusion of Avatar, which featured the first real kiss between Aang and Katara (their names even start with the same letters!).
Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino waited a few days to formally comment on the pairing, declaring that “Korrasami is canon.” Honestly, at this point, their opinion and interpretation are mostly irrelevant (the author is dead, tbh), but it helps to see the process behind reaching this ending for the series, which confirms initial fan assumptions that the failure to depict a kiss was the result of censorship from Nick, and the conclusion of a long game by Konietzko and DiMartino to get Korrasami into the show. “While they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it,” Konietzko admits, a tactful statement given how tense relations have been between Korra’s creators and the network.
In some respects, what we got might be even more subversive than an explicit version, as it sneaks Korrasami into more homes.
As Joanna Robinson notes in this fantastic essay for Vanity Fair on the show’s legacy, Nick was in fact skeptical of Korra from the get-go because the hero wasn’t a dude. And it’s not like the network treated the show any better as it matured—Korra was shunted to Friday nights after season one and then pulled from TV entirely during the third season, a decision the creators addressed more diplomatically than anyone could have reasonably expected. So, no matter what, this is a pretty big accomplishment from Konietzko and DiMartino.
Look: Korra is technically for kids, an audience that receives far more scrutiny from wary censors. But why is that? Because the minds of children are supposedly “sensitive” and unable to “handle” something like a same-sex relationship. Really, that means that the positive example Korra is setting—the mere suggestion of a heartfelt, emotionally intimate budding romance between two queer women of color—is threatening in how easy it is for children to accept. Literally threatening, in some cases: the series couldn’t air in certain countries with the relationship made truly explicit, a problem that has, for example, plagued Adventure Time’s attempts to formalize the Marceline-Princess Bubblegum pairing. In some respects, what we got might be even more subversive than an explicit version, as it sneaks Korrasami into more homes.
Fan reaction has been mixed, ranging from joy to frustrating confusion at Korra being a “lesbian” now (dive deep into comments if you dare). Most of the negative responses that I’ve seen center around Korra not ending up with Mako, who is fine but kinda lame. Others gripe that there wasn’t enough groundwork laid for Korrasami. That, oddly enough, is similar to the argument of those who think it didn’t go far enough. A friend of mine raised legitimate concerns over the ambiguity: Why couldn’t Korra and Asami have just kissed, and confirmed what we all already knew? Is the excitement over the ending just “settling” for a lack of real “progress”? Maybe. The frustration is understandable to me, but given the restrictions Konietzko and DiMartino were under, their description of the end as a “somewhat significant inching forward” sounds about right.
I have relatively little stake in this game, so it’s hard for me to fully appreciate how much this means for certain fans. But it’s still an important statement for the series, and for the television our children and siblings and nephews and nieces will be raised on. The finale is the tentative beginning of a romance, not the culmination or full-throated confirmation, as it was for Aang and Katara. And besides, it’s remarkable we got here in the first place. That’s not to say Korrasami is the be-all, end-all of progress for LGBT representation on kids’ TV. It shouldn’t be—it’d be too pat to say it’s “enough,” and besides, it’s not.
The great thing about the Korra finale is a certain sense of possibility for our hero, who has gone from a frustrating, headstrong, isolated teenager to a confident, empathetic, and powerful world figure capable of transforming an entire world. Korra’s not necessarily a lesbian, and why confine an animated character to something as basic as a sexual orientation binary? She’s a queer woman of color, and she can beat the hell out of you in one moment and compassionately convince you to give up your fascist dictatorship in the next. She can date Mako, break up with him (but still be friends, because she’s an adult) and start a real relationship with Asami. Korra is all of those things—she’s the spirit of potential for all of the people she helps, in part, represent. And that potential, more than anything, is the best thing to take away from The Legend of Korra.