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Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Legend of Korra - Book 3: Change: Zaheer and Moral Syncretism

I'm not gonna lie, Book 3 of The Legend of Korra is easily the best season of the show that I've seen yet. I haven't seen Book 4, however, so I'll have to wait until then to judge whether or not this is in fact the best season yet. A word of warning though: Due to the nature of the post's content, some substantial spoilers regarding Zaheer's motivations will be mentioned.

The Legend of Korra - Book 3: Change is everything that this sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender was hyped to be from the start: bigger, better, and more beautiful than we've seen yet. Taking place a couple weeks after the events of the sadly mediocre Book 2: Spirits, we see that Harmonic Convergence (long story) left dozens of random non-benders across the world -including Tenzin's brother Bumi- with the ability to airbend. This prompts Korra, Mako, Bolin, Tenzin, Asami, Bumi, and Jinora to embark on a quest to gather the new airbenders and rebuild the Air Nomads from the ground up. Unbeknownst to them, however, a mysterious warrior poet named Zaheer (voiced by Henry Rollins) has broken out of prison under the watch of the strangely incompetent White Lotus, with airbending abilities of his own. He pulls together his own team of elite benders to strike at Team Avatar for enigmatic purposes. Will Korra and company succeed in their quest before Zaheer achieves his mysterious plan? (Good grief, I'm beginning to sound like Shiro Shinobi.)

Aside from the intense emotion, high drama, funny dialogue, stunning visuals, great voice acting, and cool action that is by now par for the course on this show, Book 3 boasts what is quite easily the best villain we've seen yet. Unalaq and Vaatu were just two more generic evil bad guys at the end of the day, and Amon, while getting an awesome build-up, was the victim of a lousy payoff. It didn't help that he and Tarrlok went out kind of stupidly, and don't even get me started on Hiroshi Saito. Zaheer though, Zaheer is a whole different animal. Zaheer is quite easily one of the best TV villains I've seen yet, and the best I've ever seen in an animated series. I'd even say that he's one of the best villains we've seen in the entire Avatar-franchise, up there with Azula, Long Feng, and Ozai. What makes Zaheer such a great villain? Simple: He has the most complex, well-developed, interesting, and well-executed motivation we've ever seen on this entire show, and in my book is tied with Zuko for that category in the entire franchise.

But what is that motivation, and why is it so important to Zaheer's character?

As any seasoned writer who might be reading this blog would know, in a story, character motivation is everything. Without a motivation, a character is just a random blip on the screen with no purpose and no place in the story. They're just there, doing nothing, affecting nothing, and that makes for a pretty boring story. Believe it or not, making up a character motivation is a lot harder than it sounds if you're a writer. I can't begin to tell you of the ribbings I endured in an old creative writing class I took a few years ago that stemmed from my characters having terrible, poorly thought out motivations. Simply put, the better motivation a character has, the better odds he (or she!) has of being a great character. And remember what Zaheer has?

That's the thing about Zaheer though: His motivation is so complex and mysterious that even Korra and the rest of Team Avatar doesn't know what's driving him and his pals until about halfway through the season, and even then it blows their minds even more than it does the audience's. The long and short of it is that the guiding philosophy of Zaheer's group is that the natural order of the world is, in fact, disorder, and that they are on a righteous mission to topple all the world's governments and throw the world into anarchy. Throw in a smattering of humanism, and you've got what amounts to Zen Anarchism, which is probably the most bizarre philosophical label I've ever seen, discussed, or otherwise conceived of.

It's also inherently unworkable.

I don't know exactly what the show's illustrious creators (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) were trying to do when they introduced Zaheer, but Zen Anarchism as a practical philosophy is fundamentally irreconcilable with its very self. Zen, insofar as I understand it, is the attainment of wisdom through meditation, which in Eastern philosophical thought is basically thinking really, really hard. Anarchism, on the other hand, advocates for a stateless society where no government exists, based on the premise that any kind of governance only leads to more suffering, which is right where Zaheer stands. But the entities that cherish the obtaining of knowledge and wisdom, such as institutions of higher learning and many religious bodies, are historically shown to be byproducts of an established society in which there exists some sort of governing authority. The environment of peace and safety required to pursue a Zen-like lifestyle is unattainable in an environment of anarchy. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." 


If men were angels. The key problem with with Zaheer's outlook is that he's got all backwards. Men aren't angels because of bad governments; certain governments are bad because men aren't angels. One particularly memorable scene from episode 3 of Book 3: Change ("The Earth Queen") features Team Avatar arriving at Ba Sing Se. In an obvious parallel to a similar scene in Book 2: Earth of Airbender, they come into the city, only to find that it's a old, broken down cesspit of poverty and pestilence, ruled over by a despotic dragon-lady of a monarch who bleeds the people of their tax-money and then leaves them to rot. The message: Things haven't changed at all. If anything, they've gotten worse. In universe, the Ba Sing Se of 75-plus years prior was, in Troper parlance, a Crapsaccharine World. At least there was a semblance of order, and things were relatively safe and peaceful. Now, it's a full-on kleptocracy, where the kingdom and its citizens are the chattels of the Earth Queen. 

Does this mean that all government is inherently bad? Not quite. While any human effort to erect a lasting authority based on its own principles, borrowed or invented, is doomed to fail, almost any government is worse than no government. An every-man-for-himself mentality, where the rule of law is defined by who carries the biggest stick, is unquestionably a chaotic nightmare that only a shortsighted fool would really want. Look no further than Somalia. Is Zaheer such a shortsighted fool? He's no dummy, but I think we'll have to wait until Book 4 to find out the real answer to that question, owing to the inevitable consequences of the back half of Book 3: Change.

In short, man was never meant to live apart from his neighbor, a situation which Anarchism cannot resolve. You can talk all you want about mutual cooperation without government, but again, men are not angels. A mirror of the ultimate authority is needed if the ends of God are to be met, that is, if mercy, justice, peace, love, and gentleness are to be the ruling attributes of a society. The common refrain in the book of Judges was, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Scary, huh? In the book of Romans, Paul wrote, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Jesus Christ himself said in the book of Luke, concerning taxes, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Zaheer may think he knows what's best for the world, but Korra and company would be happy to know that he's wrong, rightfully rejecting Zaheer's worldview.

In sum, Zaheer has great appeal as a villain. He's smart, cunning, cool, has a complex and compelling motivation, and feels like a flesh-and-blood person. He's not a megalomaniac like Ozai, nor is he a destructive tyrant like Unalaq. He has a lot more in common with Amon than anyone else, even though they fall on two opposite extremes of the ideological spectrum. He even has a girlfriend, for Pete's sake! (Incidentally, I think that "The Earth Queen" features the franchise's first onscreen lip-lock between two consenting adults.) I love how he quotes poetry and airbends like a boss, because he's just that awesome. It helps that he has some real badbutt friends. His "philosophical mumbo-jumbo," as Korra put it, may be unsound, but he's nonetheless a very charismatic villain.

Next time, we'll be talking about another interesting faucet of The Legend of Korra: The Metal Clan.

Images courtesy of avatar.wikia.com