That line up right there in the title is the reasoning given for Korra’s ability to connect to the Avatar State in the Korra finale, and it’s something that a lot of the fandom seems unsatisfied with. And, on the surface, it is a bit strange… after all, Aang never really had to hit rock bottom in Avatar: the Last Airbender to complete his own development as an Avatar.
So, let’s try unpacking it a bit, to see what’s actually being implied there and why Korra needs to hit her lowest point before she can become a fully-realized Avatar.
First thing to notice is that Aang isn’t speaking about change in general, but “the greatest change.” Korra doesn’t merely need to grow; she needs to become something fundamentally different from what she was before, in a way that even Aang’s difficulty with earthbending (and the unmovable mindset it requires) can’t quite compare to.
So, what is this fundamental change that Korra needs to make?
Korra needs to strip out the false foundation she’s created in place of an individual personality so she can rebuild on a new, stronger foundation.
Think about it: what’s the first thing Korra says when we see her?
"I’m the Avatar… you gotta deal with it!"
Korra is four years old, capable of bending three elements, and already defines herself as “the Avatar.”
She is then taken by the Order of the White Lotus to be protected, trained, and kept under controlled conditions where everyone she meets knows she’s the Avatar and treats her as such.
So, then, who is Korra? If you take away the role of “Avatar,” what is left? She’s never given the chance to find out, because her entire life revolves around that role.
Korra the Narcissist?
Calling Korra narcissistic might seem kind of questionable because she has an actual, legitimate reason to think she’s the most important person in the world. As the Avatar… she kind of is. Then again, Aang was the Avatar too, as were Roku, Kyoshi, Kuruk, and Yangchen. And none of them really acted the way Korra does (…okay, maybe Kuruk did, kind of, but he got his girlfriend’s face stolen because of it, so he might not be the best example in general).
Even granting that she was literally born to be the most powerful and influential person in the world, though, Korra clearly has an overly-inflated sense of her own importance and a major sense of entitlement. Within the first episode, she:
- Assumes that she passed her firebending test and starts celebrating her success before even getting her results (then responds with “finally!” when they tell her she passed)
- Tries to use her Avatar status to get Tenzin to stay and teach her/let her come with him, then follows him to Republic City by (quite possibly illegally) stowing away in a boat when he refuses so he’ll have to teach her there
- Expects the woman at the food stall to just give her food even though she doesn’t have money (note that she clearly knows what money is, and simply thinks it isn’t necessary for her specifically)
- Physically threatens the Equalist protester, who hadn’t done anything worse than annoy her with his anti-bending rhetoric
- Has a grand old time showing off her Avatar powers to the Triad thugs, then assumes the cops will be happy about her catching them in spite of the massive collateral damage that she caused in the process
- Violently resists arrest, then tries to use her Avatar status and connections to the chief of police’s mother to escape consequences
- Tells Tenzin that the city needs her while trying to convince him to let her stay
A lot of what Korra does seems like naivety, of course (especially stuff like Korra fishing in the park), but in the cases listed above it’s less that Korra doesn’t know better and more that Korra just thinks she’s too awesome for the rules to apply to her. Thankfully, she gets better at working within the rules over the course of the season (even if she still really wishes she could cheat sometimes, like in the finals against the Wolfbats).
On the other hand, Korra never really stops pulling rank as the Avatar except insofar as it ceases to be useful. She barges into a closed council meeting in And the Winner Is… to head off the council’s decision on closing the probending arena, literally tells Tarrlok, “I’m the Avatar; you need me, but I don’t need you” in When Extremes Meet (which is the last episode where Korra has to convince someone who’s not her friend to do anything, really), and then tries to throw her weight around to get Chief Saikhan to release her friends later in the same episode.
Seriously, I’m pretty sure that would get her arrested if she were anyone else
More interesting in terms of narcissistic traits, though, is Korra’s reaction to criticism and failure. She absolutely cannot handle it. She gets violently angry when she doesn’t get something right away, setting priceless artifacts and images of people she’s upset with on fire in frustration, and she’s highly vulnerable to direct criticism, to the point that she’s almost in tears from Tarrlok’s “half-baked Avatar” comment (which later becomes impetus for her to try to set him on fire).
According to Wikipedia, narcissists create an idealized concept of themselves to cope with a subconscious belief that their actual self is somehow flawed and unacceptable, usually due to complications in childhood development that make it difficult for them to create a more realistic view of their selves. This matches up frighteningly well to Korra, who is taken to be trained as the Avatar at a very young age and likely has no peers of her own age with whom to compare herself, and therefore relies on her role as the Avatar to define herself so much that she feels completely worthless without it. It really shouldn’t be any wonder that she ends up reacting with anger, fear, and shame to anything that threatens her concept of herself as Avatar.
Amon, Destroyer of Identity
In light of all of this, Amon’s powers become even more dangerous to Korra than they are to your average bender — Amon literally has the power to shatter the identity Korra built up with the touch of a finger, and that terrifies Korra.
In fact, Korra’s so scared of Amon that she actually attempts to take the other tack and withdraw, pretending to be too interested in completing her training to deal with him yet. Of course, this doesn’t work all too well because Tarrlok (being quite narcissistic himself) knows exactly how to use her inability to handle criticism to manipulate her; the second close encounter that happens as a result, however, is all that it takes to get her to ignore Amon completely in favor of probending (an activity which, it should be noted, is something that garners its participants quite a bit of praise!).
To her credit, once the probending arena is attacked, Korra stops finding excuses not to deal with Amon and actually seeks out confrontations with the Equalists whenever the opportunity arises. She is never able to defuse the threat that he poses to her sense of self, however, and eventually ends up having it violently destroyed at his hands after her (mostly) failed attempt to turn his followers against him.
Korra, the Ex-Avatar
So, here’s where we see Korra for who she is without the Avatar. Her ideal self is dead, bloodbent away in the least dramatic way possible. The only thing Korra has left is herself, and Korra without the Avatar is apparently impotent, to the point that she can’t even run away on her own.
But then Mako is captured and threatened, an something changes in Korra — she figures out how to airbend!
This is not, as it might seem, a simple example of Love Conquers All, though. Remember, Korra’s ideal Avatar self is dead — she’s finally acting on her own, and that’s the important thing. Note that it makes a whole lot of sense for someone whose problem is an excess of narcissism to finally overcome her spiritual block by acting out of empathy and love; Korra’s ability to care for her friends is the one thing that’s uniquely Korra that exists entirely apart from her self-image as Avatar, as well as her greatest departure from the traits of a narcissist.
Amon, ironically, freed Korra from the false self she created, and thereby sealed his own fate.
While Korra, acting in desperation, is able to save Mako, the foundations of her personality have still been stripped bare, and she doesn’t really know how to live without being the Avatar. When Katara gives her the final proof that her bending loss is irreparable, Korra abandons everything, leaving everyone she cares about behind as they attempt to comfort her, insisting that they don’t need to do her any favors anymore, and walking out to the edge of a cliff on her own.
And then she stops, sits down, and Aang shows up.
If, in that moment, Korra realized that she really did have something left to live for even if she wasn’t the Avatar anymore… well, that would make perfect sense.
We Are Open to the Greatest Change
And now, we come full-circle back to Aang’s line to Korra before she achieves the Avatar State for the first time.
Korra has built her entire life on the false ideal of herself as “the Avatar.” She’s able to make superficial changes — in fact, she makes a whole ton of them over the course of the season — but the problem with her self-image stubbornly refuses to change, no matter what she does, so her spiritual side remains blocked to her.
And then, she reaches her utmost lowest point, and that self-image is forcibly shattered. Korra literally needs to change to survive, because there’s nothing left of her if she doesn’t. And so, Korra opens up, and the Avatar Spirit is finally able to reach her, and she’s given the chance to rebuild, this time with a more solid foundation as the base.
Now, I can see how it might still seem too easy for Korra to get everything back in the last few minutes of the show. But I’m not really convinced that she’s all fixed, at least not psychologically. She has the immediate cause of her despair removed, but she’s still left with the knowledge that she has to find something more stable to base her understanding of herself on and the revelation of the true nature of the Avatar Spirit that she gets when she finally attains it (notice how Korra seems to be almost in awe of her own actions?).
It’s certainly too early, in any case, to assume that everything’s going to be rosy for Korra just because she got her bending back. It’s quite possible that she still has quite a ways to go before becoming a fully-realized individual and Avatar. There is a whole second season to come, after all!
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