The Legend of Korra has been a huge success with both networks and online fan communities. Beautiful animation carries the story, and four episodes in we’re getting to know the three main characters. The fifth episode, “The Spirit of Competition”, hits fans head-on with the love triangle at the center of the Fire Ferrets’ story.
In the last episode, Korra faced her fears of Amon and the pressure of being the Avatar in some of the most realistic ways I’ve seen on screen. I love that she showed her fear, even crying. This makes her relatable, and it makes her successes even more sweet. We also see another trait that comes out even stronger in “The Spirit of Competition”: her bullheadedness. Korra was raised in a secluded Water Tribe, a small village where everyone knew she was the Avatar. She was given freedom to do what she wanted: if she got huffy, a ride across the tundra on her predatory pet would help her out. In the city, her forwardness comes off as uncivilized. We saw this get in her way in the first episode, when she got in trouble with the police; in the fourth episode we see her brashness lead to a humiliating encounter with Amon, who spares her life because it’s convenient for him.
Korra wasn’t entirely fleshed out before: her bullheadedness could have been a ploy by the writers to get her to look tough, but it isn’t. It’s a real trait, and one that means Korra isn’t just a stereotype. She takes “don’t mess with this guy” as a challenge. She’s getting closer to being a person. These writers are good, and we see Korra be rash and forward in social situations in episode five too. There isn’t a clear lesson at the end about whether or not her presence there is right. The consequences are simply felt, albeit wrapped up within the half hour.
“The Spirit of Competition” uses the love triangle to tell more about each character as well as complicating them. Korra is straightforward and blunt, both when she asks Mako out and when she kisses him. Neither turn out quite how she planned, and the consequences play out in realistic dialogue and dramatic twists and turns. When she says she and Bolin are “just having fun together” instead of trying to bait Mako, I believe she’s doing both at the same time. There is no easy answer.
Likewise Mako could be jealous and protective of Bolin at the same time. Korra goes from doubting herself to being so sure that Mako likes her because of one thing that he said, and while that shows how quick she rallies and how straightforwardly she thinks, it was also one of the few lines I thought came out of nowhere. But we’ve seen Korra suddenly gain confidence in times of stress before, like when she set up a meeting with Amon. She’s good at dealing with fiery emotional moments, but extended ones not so much. And she knows it - her sarcastic “Well played, Korra,” tells us.
Mako is in what appears to be a happy, Eskimo-kiss-y relationship with the suspiciously convenient Asami. He’s also interested in Korra, but thinks that it “makes for sense” for him to be with Asami. I liked that Mako wasn’t fawning over Korra: he seemed pretty lukewarm to her, acknowledging that she would be nice to date but remaining taciturn. Bolin is very conscious that Mako has most of the fangirls he mentioned in an earlier episode: Bolin’s “leave some ladies for the rest of us” makes it sound like Mako is used to being upstaged. But Korra is “more like a pal” to Mako, and I love that. It’s perfectly possible for people to be friends, or even attracted to one another on a surface level, without wanting to be in a relationship. I haven’t declared a side in the great relationship wars brewing in the fandom, but I like that Bolin is enthusiastic, even silly, about his feelings for Korra. On the other hand, she uses him as her fallback guy.
Bolin gets some of the best dialogue and delivers it with an earnest lost-puppy cuteness. His banter with Mako has some of the feel of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo attempting to advise one another away from Leia. It’s a very funny episode, mostly because of Bolin’s antics and dialogue.
One question I was left with is this: if a female character had been put in Bolin’s place, sobbing over a crush that didn’t like her back, would I approve? My first instinct is to say no, but then, Bolin’s situation is one a lot of people can identify with, and he carries it with his natural humor and passion. He also doesn’t let his love life get in the way of his relationship with his brother, and mending broken ties of friendship is always a good thing. Bolin stays strong partially because he has his brother. This is an interesting arc no matter what gender the character is.
But the final conclusion I came to from this episode was that there is no neat little moral lesson I can talk about - and that’s great. “The Spirit of Competition” shows the characters being themselves. If a show is so bad that one person’s pet peeve (poorly written female characters or love stories) becomes the dominant thing that person takes from the show, that’s a roundabout critique of the show in general. The Legend of Korra is good enough that the story as a whole feels more important than nitpicking questions about what a show is teaching us. If it was trying to teach anything in this episode, Korra taught that relationship drama happens...even if you’re a Chosen One in a civilization built on magic.