OK, I think I've calmed down enough to write a review now. Spoilers ahead!
First, let's start off with what worked in the season finale. The animation was just...incredible, the action was exciting and sweeping in its scale, and Zuko's voice was reincarnated as General Iroh the goddamn determinator!
Bryke once again pulled off a writing device they're very adept at - namely, making previously hated villain(s) seem sympathetic in hindsight. Honestly, the flashback we got on Tarrlok and Noatak was one of the most interesting, tragic, and heartfelt plot threads in the ENTIRE show, and it lasted like what, 4 minutes? I was way more invested in the relationship between those two brothers than I've ever been invested in the relationship between Mako and Bolin. I think a big part of this is the fact that we got to actually SEE their childhood, see the pain on their faces, watch as their father badgered and emotionally abused them...wow. If we had seen a bunch of flashbacks of Mako and Bolin's childhood - actually seen their parents get killed and their subsequent struggles on the streets - well, they'd be more compelling characters. And ending Amon and Tarrlok's story in such an incredibly ballsy and heartbreaking way, with effing SUICIDE AND FRATRICIDE, just, OMFG. My cousin kyosgirl11 and I literally fell over each other in disbelief.
I got honest-to-God chills when Amon unveiled the captured airbenders. There's something about seeing children bound and gagged on stage that is just SCARY AS HELL...especially when those children are the last of their kind. I also enjoyed the 'betrayal' scene between Amon and his lieutenant, but I would have enjoyed it more if I actually KNEW more about the Lieutenant's character. Oh well. Not a big deal. I'm SO happy they brought back the bush-dwelling hobo from the first episode...re-featuring oneshot characters is a great way to make a story feel "tied together", and Bryke have always been good at this. I was also psyched to see Bumi the cray-cray in person...it's OBVIOUS the original was reincarnated into Bumi 2.0
Now for what didn't work in the finale. I was kinda disappointed that no explanation was ever offered for why Yakone and his progeny were able to bloodbend at all times, or more importantly, HOW ON EARTH AMON WAS ABLE TO USE BLOODBENDING TO TAKE PEOPLE'S BENDING AWAY. "I don't know how he does it" is not a sufficient answer for a power so extreme and so central to the plot. No mention of blocking chakras, or spiritual powers, or anything. Leaving that a mystery was not satisfactory, in my opinion. It just shows that the creators couldn't come up with a good explanation.
Secondly, it kind of bothers me how bending was portrayed not just in the finale, but in the series as a whole. In the original Avatar, bending was first and foremost a martial art, with all the intense training and emotional discipline that that entails. Great masters were essential to the training of the next generation, and there was an element of wisdom (pun intended) passed down during this process. Morals and values were an integral part of bending; each style emphasized a slightly different worldview, which was then further colored by the personality of the individual bender. In Korra, the bending wasn't treated like a martial art. It was treated like a superpower. For example, I know they were trying to make General Iroh look like a badass, but having him literally fly from plane to plane using firebending seemed...well, like a superpower, not like a martial art. I miss the philosophy of bending, the intricacy and and uniqueness of each style's movements, the hours upon tireless hours spent practicing to achieve results...that stuff made bending feel REAL. Like you too could move the water in your swimming pool if only you trained hard enough. Even though Korra is set in a world more like our own, I felt less connected to it. The bending wasn't as creative, as personalized, as visually interesting. I was never in awe of the fighting sequences. But hey, that's kind of subjective. The next item on my list is not.
So, here we go: I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO MAD AT AN ENDING SEQUENCE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. EVER. The more I sit and think about it, the more I am completely shocked by how much cop-out they were able to pack into 1.5 minutes of screentime. I literally cannot BELIEVE it. I know some people were bothered by the fact that Korra instantly "unlocked" her airbending abilities after Amon took her other bending away, but I didn't have a problem with that. It seemed pretty reasonable that her airbending would finally kick in once she no longer had her preferred elements to fall back on. So yeah, that didn't bother me.
But oh God, they ruined the most AMAZING setup by having Aang restore her bending like 5 minutes after she lost it. When Katara walked out of the room and announced that she couldn't heal Korra, I thought, "wow, this is incredible. Now Korra's REALLY gonna have to learn airbending. She's going to have to study hard, adjust her view of herself, and come to terms with what it's like to be a regular bender. It's just like what Avatar Yangchen said! The Avatar has to learn how it feels to be human!"
As I watched Korra walk outside, angry and lost, completely undone by the sudden change in her identity, I thought "OMG. This is the greatest setup ever. Korra's entire life has been about being a super-powerful, in-your-face, physical chick, and now she's going to have to learn spirituality. Diplomacy. Flexibility. She's going to have to look INWARD rather than outward." And then, if things weren't delicious enough, she turned down Mako's (premature and unconvincing) declaration of love, because she was too torn up about her personal issues. I thought, "Holy shit, this is perfect! Now the writers can ACTUALLY develop the relationship between Mako and Korra in season 2. Asami will have time to adjust and won't just get tossed aside, and Mako and Korra can come together naturally, rather than just being thrown together because hey, 'it's meant to be!11!'".
And when Korra's tear fell from the edge of the cliff, I felt closer to her character than I ever had before. Because let's get something straight - I like Korra, but she's not an easy character for the average person to relate to. Showing her heartbreak, showing her feelings of inadequacy and helplessness, showing how painful it can be to deal with CHANGE...ugh, it was just so powerful. When you have a character like Korra, who's headstrong, brash, arrogant, and in a rush to beat things up, a key part of their character development has to be a period of "humbling", where they are forced to see the world in a different way, learn new problem-solving strategies, and come out a slightly kinder and more rounded person. So when I saw Aang appear and offer a word of wisdom, I literally got misty-eyed for a moment. I thought, "OMG, this is it! She's finally got in touch with her spiritual side! Now she can begin the journey of learning about her inner strength and her connection to past ages! And maybe, with enough hard work, personal growth, and gains in badassery, she can learn to restore bending just like Aang could take it away! AGGGH THIS IS AWESOME!!"
But then, just when I was SO excited for the second season, so psyched for the character development possibilities, SO pumped for Korra to grow into a more complex person, they just HAND HER BENDING BACK TO HER ON A SILVER PLATTER. No personal growth necessary. And then she runs off and embraces Mako (who yet again explicitly ignored her AND Tenzin's commands to give her some space), and I'm supposed to feel happy about this??! Woo-frickety-hoo. I'm glad it's possible to restore bending (and let's be honest, after Lin Beifong got hers taken away, we all knew it would be), but this was NOT the way to do it. Oh, God was it poorly handled. I don't think I've ever been so let down by a Deux ex Machina plot twist. I cannot for the life of me fathom WHY Bryke added this. It goes against the most basic principles of character writing. I guess maybe they didn't want to end the season on a "dark" note or whatever, but that's BULLSHIT - if you can show a councilman BLOW HIMSELF AND HIS BROTHER UP, you can leave your protagonist with a little bit of inner turmoil. And Jesus Christ, she still had airbending. It wasn't like she was left crippled and helpless.
Korra NEEDED to have a big obstacle like this to overcome. You wanna know why? Because writing a compelling character arc is about showing CHANGE. It's about showing that the protagonist has learned an important lesson or has emerged a different person, for better or worse. Nobody in this series learned anything. Korra didn't have to adjust her thinking, or learn thoughtfulness, or discover some new part of herself. It was handed to her. Mako never had to learn his lesson about stringing along two women, or acting like a controlling ass, or having more mood-swings than a PMSing teenage girl. Bolin didn't grow up at all, or strengthen his relationship with his brother, or even ACKNOWLEDGE what happened with the whole love triangle fiasco. If anything, Asami was the person who changed the most in the first season, if only because she started out rich, happy, and secure, and ended up hanging out with hobos underground and fighting her daddy. But even she didn't really change her worldview. I still don't really know who she IS. I know some of you are going to say "but we still have the second season! There's still time for them to change!" Well, there would have been, if they had been ballsy enough to cut out like the last 45 seconds of the episode. But now the setup for character growth is gone. We've been returned to status quo, and poorly so. So what's the point of a second season at all? When your series is only 24 episodes, it's not wise to start from scratch at episode 12. Looking back, the 1st season works neither as a stand-alone miniseries, nor as the first half of a longer series. I don't get what they were going for.
I've tried not to compare Korra to A:TLA too much, but I feel compelled to make a comparison now, if only to illustrate how important CHANGE is to crafting a compelling character arc. Let's look first at Sokka. He starts out as a sexist, egotistical, somewhat incompetent, comic relief character. And, though he stays funny throughout the series, by the end he grows into a humble, resourceful leader who demonstrates great intelligence and respects the talents of men and women alike. He keeps his essential core of ridiculous "Sokka-ness", but he grows to be so much MORE than just a comic relief character. He becomes real, and he does this by changing for the better - though that change isn't always easy. Or take Zuko. He starts out as an obsessive, hate-filled, rude and insensitive prick who cares about nothing other than restoring his honor. Yet, as the series progresses, we begin to see his layers peeled back, and we understand WHY he's acting like a tool. After many, MANY mistakes, Zuko ends the series by seeing the light, telling off his asshole father, joining the Avatar, and helping restore the honor of the fire nation, rather than just his own honor. Many of his character traits - like his anger, his awkward grumpiness, and his desire to redeem himself - stay constant, but those traits evolve as the context evolves. There's a reason Zuko is a fan-favorite...and it's because we were there with him as he went on his journey. We saw him change right in front of our eyes, and we were thrilled about it. And what about Azula? Even as a villain introduced in season 2, she got some AMAZING development. She starts out on top of the world - -self-controlled, successful, deadly, and the favorite child of her father. And yet, with the collapse of her fear-based friendship with Mai and Ty Lee, her whole foundation of stability is rocked to the core, and she begins to collapse as a result. The cackling, crying Azula of the series finale is a far-cry from the precision-oriented lightning bender we met at the beginning of the second season, but we SAW how she got from point A to point B, and we were on the edge of our goddamn seats. There are so many more examples - Katara starts off as a helpless, isolated peasant in the southern water tribe, and ends up as a well-traveled, powerful bender with the ability to impact world events. Mai starts off as a seemingly boring, diffident villain, and yet by the end she stands up to freaking AZULA and shows, pretty clearly, that she has major hidden depths. The list goes on.
I think the poorly-executed ending just underscores the biggest problem with The Legend of Korra as a whole: insufficient character development. And don't offer me the "they ran out of time 'cause it was only 12 episodes!!" excuse. They got way bogged down in the completely useless love triangle thing, and they squandered precious time with Degrassi-like shipping drama that could have been used to show the audience what kind of PEOPLE Korra, Bolin, Mako, and Asami are, not just who wants to bone whom. Mako wouldn't have looked like a douchebag, Bolin wouldn't have been painfully sidelined to make room for Makorra, and Asami wouldn't have been romantically shafted and irrationally hated by half the fandom. I read in an interview with the creators (I'm not sure whether it was Bryke who said this, or the questioner) that "one of the main sources of tension in LOK is the love triangle". This, to me, is the crux of the issue. Your tension does not come from the love triangle. It comes from the mask-wearing psycho who lurks in the shadows, and who preaches a philosophy that involves robbing another person of a key part of their identity. It comes from a manipulative, blood-bending politician keen on exploiting any situation for his own gain. It comes from the threat of imminent social unrest in a city where two different classes of citizens could potentially try to annihilate one another. It comes from a father so warped by grief that he tries to destroy his own daughter, or a pair of brothers ruined by the cruel and twisted nature of their upbringing. THAT'S where your tension comes from, not a ridiculous ship war. Jeez.
And, when you've got such danger hanging over the heads of your characters, it is VITAL that you allow them to bond and trust one another. The love triangle really undermined the unity of team Avatar, and I find that rather sad. By focusing on the divisive elements within their foursome, rather than on their friendship and mutual support, I was never really able to root for the Krew the way I was able to root for the Gaang. I just didn't CARE about the characters, and I'm not sure whether that's because the characters themselves were so flat, or rather because the relationships between them were so weak. Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg scenario.
It's a real shame, because the things that LOK does well, it does VERY well. The show is at its best, in my opinion, in its dark moments - the moments that make our hair stand on end, that make our throats constrict with pity or fear or rage. When Korra wanders into political territory, it excels. It does a fantastic job building up the idea of a moral gray area, and it touches upon the conflict between tradition and modernity in a way that, I wish, was more thoroughly explored. The plot and villain were really neat, and the finale SHOULD have been beyond incredible, but it just didn't quite work. And you know why? Because, in the end, a good story depends on good characters. You can have a brilliant setup, a huge budget, great animation, and amazing music, but if the audience doesn't cry with the protagonist and her friends, doesn't laugh with them, doesn't feel physically sickened when they get punched, doesn't feel HORRIFIED by the thought of losing any of them - well, the series won't ever reach its full potential. Believe me when I say that I came into this WANTING to love Korra and her new buddies. I wanted to lose myself in this world, to drink in the heady rush of fictional life-and-death conflicts. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot bring myself to become invested in these characters.
Except Lin Beifong. I hope season 2 is about her.