LEGEND OF KORRA was the long awaited and eagerly anticipated follow up to the excellent Nickelodeon show AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. The original show followed Aang, the Avatar. In this world, people are able to control the elements — water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar was the one individual who could control all four and, therefore, was tasked with keeping peace and balance in the world.

If you’ve watched the original show, you probably know Katara’s spiel by heart, but we’re not talking about THE LAST AIRBENDER. LEGEND OF KORRA picks up 70 years after ATLA ends. There’s a new Avatar in town: Korra. Korra is from the Southern Water Tribe. She is brash, loud, impulsive, aggressive, and everything that Aang was not. But in the course of the show’s four seasons, Korra becomes a complicated and fascinating character. In the final season, we see Korra struggle with her mental health, displaying PTSD symptoms after a terrible encounter at the end of the third season.

“You Gotta Deal With It”

The Korra we meet in the first season is very different from the Korra of the last season. We first meet Korra as a small child. The White Lotus Society is trying to identify the new Avatar after the death of Aang. They know it will be a Water Tribe child, but they have to look. They enter Korra’s home and disdainfully remark that they have tested many children. What makes Korra’s parents so certain she’s the new Avatar?

Korra busts through a wall using earthbending and firebending. She’s already confident and incredibly talented (for comparison, most Avatars don’t learn the other elements until they are teenagers or older). “I’m the Avatar, and you gotta deal with it!”

Book One Korra is so full of hope.

We next meet Korra at 17. She is excited and enthusiastic, and she has already mastered water and earthbending. The White Lotus, a bunch of old men, are less than impressed, however. They acknowledge that she is a powerful bender, but she lacks maturity. Katara, her waterbending master and Aang’s widow, sticks up for her. She’s proud of Korra and how she’s grown.

However, the White Lotus do have a point — Korra needs to learn more. She is not trained in spirituality; the Avatar mediates conflicts between humans and spirits. She has a lot to learn in this area. Given Korra’s demonstrated personality type — loud, conflict-oriented, impatient — it is clear that spiritual training will be difficult for her.

This is the Korra we start off with. She is talented and strong, enthusiastic and forceful. She makes rash decisions, has a “bend first ask questions later” attitude, and definitely shows potential to be a seriously powerful Avatar. At the same time, she has room to grow.

Be the Leaf

Korra still needs to learn airbending. Contrary to her natural talent with the other elements, Korra has never bent air before. She is impatient to learn, so when her airbending master Tenzin cannot come to her, she decides to run away to Republic City and find Tenzin herself.

Korra’s airbending training is difficult. She struggles with the airbending concepts of peace, flexibility, and avoiding conflict. At one point, frustrated with her inability to perform a basic maneuver that Tenzin’s young children can do, Korra burns an ancient relic. This is, on one level, purely an indication of her ill-suited temperament. On another level, though, this is a break with her past. This relic was saved by Aang, and now, she has destroyed it. She doesn’t care about learning from the past; all she cares about is action. She is too strong-willed, impatient, and aggressive to really get the hang of airbending.

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At the same time, an anti-bending movement is haunting Republic City. Their leader, Amon, takes away Korra’s bending — which is a really big deal. However, the experience unlocks Korra’s airbending. She is able to defeat Amon by putting to work all that she has learned about airbending and conflict management. Although she had not bent air before this point, it becomes clear that she has absorbed the lessons Tenzin attempts to teach her.

Unfortunately, even after defeating Amon, Korra cannot reach her other elements. Being an Avatar that can only bend one element seems like an insurmountable obstacle. In the end, she connects to her past lives and the spirit of Aang teaches her how to regain her bending. Aang explains that “when we are at our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” In other words, Korra is only able to access her past lives because she is opening herself to growth and change.

The Wan and Only

It’s important to note that this is not Korra’s actual lowest point. She will go through hell in later seasons. But after suffering this early defeat, Korra learns that she can overcome tragic circumstances. This only strengthens her spirit and her resolve going further; both will be tested in later seasons. This moment also opens her up to her past lives and all the wisdom they have to offer her.

The second season delves more into the history and mythology of the Avatar. Korra can communicate with all her past lives, but when she loses her memory she needs to reconnect with the first Avatar — Wan. The audience is treated to an amazingly excellent episode that explores how Wan became the first Avatar.

It turns out that the Avatar is a spirit joined with a human body. This spirit is called Raava, the personification of light. Wan finds Raava engaged in a battle with Vaatu, the personification of dark. He interferes and Vaatu is released into the world. This creates strife between spirits and humans. Left with the blame, Wan decides to help Raava defeat Vaatu before Harmonic Convergence, which will decide the fate of the world for the next 10,000 years.

He was Number Wan!

This mythology is not brought up at all in ATLA. The show doesn’t explore the history of the Avatar, just shows Aang’s journey. This is an interesting development in the overall world of Avatar. It brings greater depth to Korra’s character, as well, as she is able to communicate with Raava. This is a big change from Book One Korra, who seemed to disregard spiritual matters as less important. The story of Wan is not just fan service; it actually serves the purpose of showing how Korra can grow by learning more about her past.

New Benders

After Harmonic Convergence — which Korra and Raava very narrowly win — Korra decides not to close the Spirit Portals. This lets spirits enter the material world. This ends up causing a lot of problems, but one positive effect is that there are suddenly new airbenders. The Air Nomads had been wiped out before Aang’s story (hence THE LAST AIRBENDER). Tenzin had been left with the burden of being the only airbender, but he suddenly has new students. Korra is supportive of his goal to recreate the Air Nation and eagerly accompanies him on a quest to find the new benders.

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With her new connection to Raava and her decision to allow spirits free roam, Korra seems to be developing into a more mature Avatar. Keep in mind, she’s still a teenager at this point. Most Avatars don’t even master all four elements until they’re 32 — she’s only 18. Spiritually and powerfully speaking, Korra is way ahead of her age, and she revels in her power and responsibility.

Personally speaking, though, Korra is still a teenager. She’s growing and learning from past mistakes, like her ill-fated romance with Mako. She is able to move on from the past and become friends with Mako. She even develops a close friendship with Mako’s ex, Asami, a friendship that allows Korra to be herself more than she usually gets to be. Korra is still impulsive and brash, but she’s learning. She thinks things through (or tries to).

When the airbenders are taken hostage by the villainous Red Lotus Society, Korra tries to free them. She is unfortunately taken captive. This is where things get tricky.


The Red Lotus are attempting to end the Avatar cycle. To achieve this end, they administer a poison that forces Korra to enter the Avatar State to keep herself alive. They then plan to attack her; they have her chained so that she is open to all attack.

What they didn’t take into account is just how powerful Korra is. She fights the poison; she’d rather die than end the Avatar cycle. Everything she learned in Book Two — especially her connection with Raava — is in peril at this moment, but Korra will not give in. Even when forced into the Avatar State, she still resists. She breaks free of her chains and attacks the Red Lotus. She holds her own, despite being outnumbered, and — I cannot stress enough — currently being poisoned.

This was really traumatic.

Unfortunately, the leader of the Red Lotus, Zaheer, doesn’t fight fair. Zaheer is an airbender, and he attacks Korra by literally bending the air out of her. It seems to be the end, until the airbenders Korra had sacrificed herself for save her. Korra is very nearly dead when they realize that the poison is metal based, which means they are able to bend it out of her. She does not die… but she is still irrevocably changed by the encounter.

Korra is handicapped by the poison. She is wheelchair-bound and needs Asami’s help just to get dressed. Other characters remark how changed she is and worry about the future if the Avatar is incapacitated. Tenzin assures Korra that the airbenders will take care of things. She is not needed.

For someone who has always defined herself as the Avatar, this is not reassuring. The episode ends with a single tear on Korra’s face. Our strong, powerful, brash teenager has lost her physical prowess, her sense of identity, and her place in the world, all at once. How will she cope?

Korra Alone

The fourth season takes place three years later. Katara, the best healer in the world, has been helping Korra regain her mobility and, eventually, her bending. Things aren’t moving fast enough for Korra, who lashes out in her frustration. Korra’s not used to being inactive. She’s always been a very physical person. She’s been bending since she was a toddler, full of life and fight. Now, she has lost all of that.

She makes slow progress over the course of three years. Her friends back in Republic City are out living their lives, growing and changing as they enter adulthood. Korra stagnates. She cannot keep pace with her friends, and her growth is hindered by her situation. She pulls into herself. Eventually, she tells her parents that she will be returning to Republic City, thinking to rejoin her normal life.

She almost makes it… but then she is attacked by a spirit. She turns away and disappears for several months. Korra tries to leave her past behind. She symbolically cuts her hair and sheds her Water Tribe gear, becoming an anonymous person wandering the Earth Kingdom.

She can’t escape herself.

Everywhere she goes, though, she is haunted by the past. She keeps running into the same spirit, who attacks her and then disappears. The spirit that haunts her? It’s herself. More specifically, it’s herself at her worst point — in the Avatar state, dying from poison.

Korra suffers from PTSD. She has experienced something incredibly traumatic, and she cannot seem to get over it. Korra deals with flashbacks and nightmares. She starts to lose track of reality. Korra has lost herself — her strength was her identity, and now it’s gone. She’s literally haunted by the memory of when she lost that.

The Swamp

Eventually, Korra takes part in an underground fighting ring. We’ve seen Korra fight countless times. She’s dynamic, she’s talented, she’s powerful, and she never loses. But this is an entirely different Korra. Her opponent suddenly morphs into Korra’s ghost. She’s fighting herself — and she loses.

She’s beginning to lose her grasp on reality. Finally, she is brought to the Foggy Swamp, which is supposed to help her. Korra’s not so sure. She faces herself in the swamp again, and this time sees the poison again. It’s coming to drown her… she goes under… then black.

When she wakes up, we meet a familiar face — Toph, Aang’s friend and earthbending master. Toph explains that the swamp is a place of deep spirituality and connectedness to the rest of the world. By meditating in the swamp, Korra is able to be a part of the larger world, something she had been avoiding.

Korra loves bending.

Korra stays with Toph for some time. She regains something important: her enthusiasm. Meeting Toph is a big deal. Toph is a hero of sorts for Korra. She too is brash, confident, and powerful. And Toph displays this by repeatedly beating Korra in battle. By constantly sparring with Toph, Korra remembers how much she loves bending. This is something that was such a natural part of her that she was bending multiple elements by age 3.

When Korra was poisoned, she lost her bending. More importantly, she lost that inner joy, and it damaged her character. Finding that joy again is the first step toward recovery. She is able to do something she loves and starts to get over the flashbacks. This is the start of becoming herself again.

Raava Revisited

Korra learns more about herself and the world at large in the swamp. In the end, she is able to bend the remaining poison out of her body. It’s an intensely uncomfortable experience; when Toph had tried, Korra lashed out. This time she is successful, and she thinks that this means she is cured.

Unfortunately, Korra’s problem isn’t just physical. The trauma that causes PTSD is not always physical, but it frequently is. Korra makes the mistake of thinking that healing the physical is the only thing she needs to do. The show acknowledges that this isn’t always enough. Korra goes to fight the villain of the season — Kuvira — confident that she can win now that she has fixed the physical problem.

But she still sees the ghost, and ends up losing again. Korra needs to realize that her problem is internal. She eventually discovers that the poison and the near-death experience have severed her connection to Raava. Korra needs Raava; without her Avatar Spirit, she was something of an empty shell. The show emphasizes that you need to heal both physically and spiritually (psychologically) in order to return to a healthy frame of mind.

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Korra continues to grow throughout the season, and at the end is even able to empathize with Kuvira. She puts herself on the line — endangering the Avatar cycle — to save her opponent. In the past season, Korra struggled so hard to defend the Avatar cycle, but now she has learned that doing her duty, protecting people, is more important.

Korra has regained who she is. She’s the Avatar; she protects and helps. She is not just a powerful bender, she is someone who takes responsibility for the world at large. Now that she has allowed herself to heal, she is able to do her job and regain her identity.

So What?

LEGEND OF KORRA ended up being a surprisingly progressive show for a cartoon. The final season was eventually scrapped by Nickelodeon and shown exclusively online, rather than on actual TV. The idea was that the show was becoming more mature. The season finale actually made canon a same-sex relationship: Korra and Asami.

Yeah, I ship it.

However, another way the show had matured is in its characterization of Korra. Previous seasons showed her maturing from the rash 17-year old she was. However, she’s now 21. She’s dealing with a lot of stress. She’s losing track of her identity and even her grasp on reality.

To put it simply: Korra is having a mental health crisis. She displays several strong signs of PTSD. This makes sense; the poison/assassination attempt at the end of Season 3 is definitely traumatic (even for viewers). This horrible event has shaken Korra to the core and she has to change her entire worldview. She is not the ultimate power anymore, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe she shouldn’t be.


The show shows Korra dealing with her PTSD — at first she avoids it, then she becomes angry at her inability to move past it, and finally, she is able to overcome it by reconnecting with her inner self. For those who have experienced trauma, this can be incredibly difficult. Showing that this was difficult for Korra, that she had to try many ways to move on, makes it clear that this is a natural process. Overcoming trauma doesn’t come easily, not even to an incredibly prodigious individual.

By making the hero of the show — someone who is powerful, strong, self-assured, charismatic, etc. — deal with trauma in a normal way, the show normalizes mental illness and the need to seek treatment. Korra seeks treatment in family, in solitude, in violence, in spirituality, and finally, finds what she needs in self-reflection. That’s not necessarily going to work for everyone, but the fact that she keeps trying shows that it is okay to make missteps, that it is okay to try and fail, and that it is okay to take your time.

Korra shows that anyone can survive tragedy and still come out strong.

I’m not sure if the showrunners intended for Korra to be an icon of PTSD and mental health. But that’s what she became in Season 4. She is someone that viewers can look up to and identify with. Korra’s struggle of self-identity and healing shows that everyone deserves to be okay.

One Comment

  1. Eric Nierstedt

    June 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    The PTSD was done well, but I still disliked a lot of the things surrounding it. Korra didn’t absorb the lessons of airbending– she airbent in a cliched “my friend is hurt and NOW I can use my hidden power; moment. Her getting her powers back was because of a dues ex machina. Her injury was traumatic, but it shows her flaws too. Korra has no identity outside of being the Avatar. Given her aggressive nature, I don’t think she’d know what to do in a time of peace. And her trauma is also because this was her first real brush with the deadly nature of being the Avatar. It can kill you, and I don’t think she ever considered that before. That’s fine, but it’s something that should’ve happened much earlier in the series.


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