Last night, I watched the final three episodes of Book 3 of Avatar: The Legend of Korra. If you haven’t seen them yet, spoilers ahoy. (For both Legend of Korra and The Last Airbender. You have been warned.)
If you have seen them, then let’s talk about what I’m calling “defying death saturation”.
Now, before I get into what I mean by that, let me just say that I loved these episodes. I really enjoyed this entire season of LoK, much more so than Book 2, which felt too disjointed and didn’t have a good flow, not to mention a serious lack of character development. (Korra, at least, I expected to finally understand who she is outside of her role as the Avatar, which has been touched on but never really explored. Twice now, we’ve seen her lose her Avatar status, and twice I’ve felt cheated because of a quick fix that brought it all back, but I do think that Book 3 made up for this, and introduced a set of villains nearly comparable to Amon, though he will remain my favorite Korra villain.) Even with the “bad” episodes, I’ve really enjoyed LoK, and I think it’s a great follow up to The Last Airbender, which remains one of my favorite shows of all time.
One thing that I have noticed, however, throughout both TLA and LoK, is that falling off of cliffs tends to be surprisingly un-fatal for everyone involved.
I realize that these series are ultimately both children’s shows, but it is all kinds of spectacular that they don’t condescend to their audiences, and are not afraid to tackle more mature themes. These shows really do prove that cartoons are not just for kids, and all the dumbed-down humor in the world cannot take the place of powerful characters, engaging plots, and smart storytelling. (Have I made it clear how much I love these shows yet?) Since they’re kids’ shows, it makes a lot of sense that there is not going to be a number of character deaths on par with A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, and that is absolutely okay! Neither TLA nor LoK is really afraid to kill characters, though.
In TLA, the only serious death that we witness onscreen is that of Jet. I bring this death up in particular because he and Aang have a treetop duel at the end of their first encounter episode. Despite gravity-defying stunts on both sides, neither Aang nor Jet deal with any real danger when it comes to slipping off a branch. Even when this is going on:
This is the kind of thing that never actually bothered me while watching the show, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this episode of TLA was just the beginning of a series of death falls being defied.
Yes, sure, it makes a whole lot of sense for airbenders to come out of free-falls unscathed. But what about everyone else? Honestly, I cannot think of an Avatar death that results from falling. Even when they’re not airbenders.
And when we get into LoK, the characters don’t even need ridiculously sturdy hairpieces to save themselves. Or airbending, come to think of it.
In fact, they always seem to pull through without them.
I don’t necessarily consider this a bad thing. No matter how many times these characters spite death by escaping a free-fall, the writers continue to do interesting things with them, and in a lot of cases, including Azula’s hairpiece stunt and Zuko saving the falling crewman in “The Storm” and Bumi catching Kya, these moments are used to show character elements. Azula’s escape from free-fall emphasizes how resourceful and clever she is, which makes her all the more dangerous. Zuko’s more compassionate side is shown when he saves the falling crewman, which is further explored as the show continues. Bumi catching Kya shows that he has learned to think and react like an airbender, and he has gained much from his training.
Other instances are just moments of convenience. Tonraq being saved by the metalbender. Bumi catching an impressively sturdy tree branch. Korra, Bumi, Kya, Sokka, probably even Aang, and lots of other characters falling hundreds of feet only to be “saved” (?) by bouncing off of rocks, branches with leaves, and maybe something else.
So yeah. This happens a lot.
I think that part of the reason why this did not bother me prior to watching these last three episodes of LoK is that I’ve had the experience of witnessing character deaths via falling from other films and shows. This tension has, in turn, bled into other things like the Avatar series, and heightened the sense of danger around cliffs. Disney, for example, favors the fall to death method when it comes to killing off their villains. And come to think of it, I think a fall is at least incorporated into almost every major Disney villain death. Tarzan, Up, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, The Lion King, Tangled… Even if the fall wasn’t the direct cause of death, it’s in there if the villain dies. You could probably make an argument about some sort of symbolic fall of the villain in addition to a physical one, but after watching Avatar… it feels a bit more like a quick exit strategy when it comes to getting rid of the villain.
Which is ironic, considering I’ve just spent several minutes talking about all the different ways falling off a cliff has become “defying death saturation” in the Avatar series.
Here’s the thing about that.
Cliff scenes just don’t hold much tension for me anymore. Not in the Avatar universe. I’ve seen too many characters get knocked off a ledge, shot out of the sky, and plummet to the ground only to twist around and element-bend, bounce, or roll their way to safety.
Or in the case of this:
Get rescued by another impressively sturdy tree branch and a deus-ex-flying-bison.
But they’re so darned cute, I’ll have to forgive them.
The point is, though, that cliffs are no longer a source of tension for me in the Avatar universe. I don’t fear for the characters when they fight near them.
Whether intentional or not, however, this has resulted in me experiencing an even stronger sense of dread whenever the characters interact with each other. Zaheer taking down the Earth Queen? Terrifying! P’li going after Lin and Suyin? Pretty scary, although combustion-people don’t fair too well in this universe as it is. Ming Hua attacking Mako and Bolin? Legitimately tense. Zaheer and Korra’s final faceoff? Edge of my seat. The whole time.
So, sure, TLA and LoK aren’t the most realistic shows when it comes to gravity. But their character interactions are made all the more powerful, because the real danger comes from these people and not the environment. It gets a little ridiculous when characters continually escape free-falls over and over again, as was the case with “The Ultimatum” and “Enter the Void” in particular, and I do sincerely hope that we get less people spiting gravity and more people struggling with and against other people in the fourth and final season of LoK. That really is where the strength of the show lies, and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Now, if you’re wondering if this has made me look at my own writing with a critical eye and kick up the fear that I might have some “death defying saturation” instances in my own work, you’d be absolutely right. What I’ve learned from Avatar, though, and what I hope all writing-loving Avatar fans take away, is that if your characters are going to defy death, make sure they a) go on to fight more powerful battles, even if said battles do not ultimately end in their demise, and b) defy death in a way that reveals more about their character. Showcase their cunning, their determination, their knowledge.
If they defy death, let them grow.