Something is rotten in the kingdom of Earth.
Family has always been an important element of the Avatarverse. In A:tLA, there were a lot of absent families and lost communities, and our kids weren’t given much of a choice beyond forging ahead down their own paths. This split between “what my forefathers would do” and “what I would do” was the central theme for both Zuko and Aang, and while they both certainly drew inspiration from their elders (Iroh and Gyatso), both ultimately chose to follow the path THEY felt was best. (These same themes are explored beautifully in the Last Airbender graphic novels, which I highly recommend everyone read if you haven’t already.)
We’re seeing these same themes played out in LoK and with much sharper focus, as families are more present and society is rapidly changing – and, really, had BEEN changing, long before Korra opened the spirit portals. Bryke love to use eastern philosophies as thematic focal points (Taoism and Buddhism both play heavy roles in the Avatarverse), and I think what we’re seeing with “Change” and especially these Earth Kingdom chapters is an exploration of Confucianism.
In very basic terms, Confucianism believes that the basis for society is the family, and that the government should be structured similarly to the “family model.” Each individual has a hierarchical “place” within that family and, by extension, within society, and so it is only when each individual acts according to his position that a society can function smoothly. We see these same ideas crop up to some degree in other cultures, such as Victorian England’s “social spheres” and the American “nuclear family,” so you certainly don’t need to be familiar with Confucianism to follow along.
All of which brings us to the Earth Kingdom and its Queen, who believes that her citizens belong to the State (and therefore to her) and sees no reason why she can’t conscript the airbenders (mostly children, it should be noted) into her army, with or without their say. After all, as a member of the “Earth Kingdom family,” it is their duty to perform as the matriarch commands. Korra (and likely most of the audience) see things very differently, but Bumi’s not wrong when he points out that the Earth Queen has every right to conscript her citizens. By definition of the law they are her “property” and she can do with them as she sees fit.
Now of course the Earth Queen is basically a tyrant, using her power for herself and not for the betterment of her people, and we’re supposed cheer when Korra breaks the child soldiers out of prison (and I did, although I do worry that Korra is going to be banned from EVERY major city at this rate). There aren’t many cultures that see this abuse of power as acceptable, after all. Call it “going against the will of Heaven” or “breaking the social contract,” but the people’s right to revolt was built into a lot of societies long before the advent of democracy.
But here’s where things get tricky. Because in the very next episode we come to the city of the Metal Clan, led by Suyin “Su” Beifong, Toph’s daughter and Lin’s half-sister. She’s antagonistic toward the Earth Queen and describes the governing system as “outdated” (something our teenage protagonist had never really considered).
And yet, when you look at the Metal Clan, it’s essentially the Earth Kingdom in miniature: a society led by a matriarch who has more or less total control over her people. Su is less of a jerk about it, but she does refuse to let her daughter leave for the Air Temple, citing the importance of “family” in pleasant tones that nevertheless echo the Earth Queen’s belief that the happiness of the individual comes second to the well-being of the state.
So what are we supposed to take from all this? I’m not quite sure yet. I suspect we’ll find out a good deal more about Lin, who’s currently being vilified for her rejection of family, and I’m pretty much convinced that Su is a lot more dangerous than she seems. Right now the story feels like it’s telling us that people (I hesitate to say “women,” but it’s there if you want to pick it up) without families are bitter and lonely, but Bryke have always been great with their portrayals of different lifestyle choices and female empowerment, so I’m withholding judgment until I see how this arc turns out.
Either way, this is a fascinating conflict carried out with intelligence, wit, and empathy. I’m 100% invested in our characters and their stories. Next Friday can’t come soon enough.
This, That, and the Other
- When I first heard “half sister” I assumed there was a remarriage or a death involved, but that “never knew our dads” line suggests something a lot less conventional for a kids’ show.The Avatarverse has always been pretty great about showing a wide variety of family models (and showing the benefits and failings of each), and we’ve certainly seen single parents before, but this is the first time they’ve ever gone for the “born out of wedlock” implication. Major props to the writers for putting this in, as well to the Nickelodeon Censorship Committee (I assume they have one of those) for allowing it to happen.
- Also, Toph is still alive! And… seeking enlightenment? Aang would faint from shock if he heard that. Here’s hoping we meet Grandma Nomad Toph in a future episode.
- Our Criminal Quartet haven’t gotten much screen time, but damn, do they leave an impression. Zaheer is a fascinating study in contrasts, a brutal fighter (and decent actor) who seems to truly believe in Air Nomad philosophy. I can’t wait to learn more about him and his group – I suspect there’s a lot more here than we’re seeing thus far.
- Something about Opal rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s her character design (it feels very stereotypically “pretty anime girl” to me), or possibly just how demure she is. Hopefully they give her a little spark in the coming episodes. Well-behaved women rarely make history.
- Just because I haven’t said it yet: GAH THE MUSIC IS SO BEAUTIFUL AND THE BACKGROUNDS ARE SO PRETTY I CAN’T EVEN *flails*
- “Does anybody have a badger mole that knows Morse code?”
Fan Theories! Glorious Fan Theories!
- No way do you get a life sentence in a maximum security prison just for an attempted kidnapping. Tenzin isn’t telling us something. And my ears perked way up when I heard mention of “Chief Sokka,” as this pegs his death somewhere in the last decade. Does anybody else have the horrible feeling that Sokka was killed during this attack? ;_; It would certainly explain Zuko’s personal investment in recapturing these guys, that’s for damn sure.
- Su has granted Varrick sanctuary. I love Varrick, but I trust him about as far as I can throw him. These two have GOT to be planning a rebellion against the Earth Queen, right?