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zaheer and p’li in legend of korra book 3

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The Legend of Korra’s provocative villain Zaheer raises questions of the moment

Season 3 questioned the definitions of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’

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“True freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are torn down.” These words read like a message Sharpied onto a cardboard protest sign, but in season 3 of The Legend of Korra, they’re spoken by the antagonist, Zaheer.

Like its beloved predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra speaks to the pain and possibility of our current moment, following the master of all four elements as she struggles to live up to her past lives, confront her opponents, and restore balance. This August, when the world needed it most — in the midst of a global pandemic — the groundbreaking, polarizing sequel debuted on Netflix. And while the entire show is apropos today, the third season of Korra hits differently in 2020: The series’ villain and his quest to free the world of monarchs, nations, and borders are ultimately righteous. Book 3 could be described as the “red scare” season.

Unlike The Last Airbender, in which Aang’s long journey leads him to a faceoff against the colonizing, genocidal Fire Lord Ozai, Korra goes head to head with four foes, one per season. Many have observed that these adversaries can be interpreted as metaphors for extreme political ideologies like theocracy (Unalaq) and fascism (Kuvira). Zaheer, voiced by former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, is no exception. Yet, Korra’s season 3 enemy is an outlier in the pantheon of Avatar villains: Representing anarchy, he works in a collective, and his end-goal is freedom, not power.

[Ed. note: The following contains major spoilers for all of The Legend of Korra.]

When Book 3 begins, Korra has just defeated Unalaq and reopened the portals between the physical and spirit worlds, integrating the two. Harmonic Convergence, an alignment of planets that occurs every 10,000 years, has also caused nonbenders to manifest airbending abilities, resuscitating the near-extinct power. Among those new airbenders is Zaheer, a student of airbender Guru Laghima’s teachings whom viewers meet at the end of the first episode as he breaks free from a prison cell.

Locked away for attempting to kidnap Korra when she was a child, Zaheer next liberates his co-conspirators and comrades: the lavabender Ghazan, waterbender Ming-Hua, and combustionbender P’Li. In his 13-episode arc, he murders the Earth Queen in a surprisingly explicit scene, holds a community of air nomads hostage, and attempts to kill Korra while she’s in the Avatar state in order to end the Avatar cycle forever. In the series, Zaheer’s actions are considered indefensible. The drama of the season positions the fugitive as radical and “crazy,” and anarchy is conflated with chaos. Characters within Korra’s circle who advise her like Aang’s son Tenzin and Toph’s daughter Lin Beifong, repeatedly use ableist terms like “lunatic” to describe him.

Zaheer meets Korra in the spirit realm in legend of korra book 3
Zaheer meets Korra in the spirit realm
Image: Nickelodeon

Team Avatar is the audience’s moral compass; though Korra and her friends are imperfect and make mistakes, their perspectives are meant to guide the audience. When they label Zaheer a terrorist, viewers listen. Reina Sultan, journalist and co-creator of 8 to Abolition, a resource about police and prison abolition in the United States, recently tweeted, “I can’t believe how dirty LOK did Zaheer.” She explained the tweet to Polygon: “It’s not lost on me that Zaheer has an Arab name, further othering him to American audiences who already fear any type of politics that decry capitalism and imperialism.” Even the moniker of the secret society to which Zaheer belongs, “the Red Lotus,” is a tip off to the audience that he presents a uniquely dangerous, fringe threat to Korra and the world; the color red is often associated with left-wing ideologies.

Over the course of the season, however, the freedom fighter’s motives become clear, while the difference between right and wrong becomes fuzzier. As Zaheer explains to Korra in episode 9, the Red Lotus began as a faction inside the White Lotus, an ancient group dedicated to sharing knowledge irrespective of borders and politics. Ex-White Lotus member Xia Bau founded the Red Lotus after the Hundred Year War because he believed the original organization had “lost its true purpose.” As Zaheer says, “Its members … became nothing but glorified bodyguards who served corrupt nations.” So the anarchist’s aim, like the Avatar’s, is to restore balance to the world, though their conceptions of balance are different. He implores her, “You’ve had to deal with a moronic president and a tyrannical queen. Don’t you think the world would be better off if leaders like them were eliminated?” As writer Toussaint Egan points out, one of Korra’s most consistent flaws is her blind faith in authority figures and existing power structures. Although Zaheer’s words initially give her pause, she never seriously entertains the merits of his ideas.

The worldbuilding in The Legend of Korra suggests they do have merits. Throughout the series, and particularly in the third book, we see the suffering wrought by the systems the antagonist seeks to topple. The White Lotus, acting as a United Nations-like entity, has assumed a role as the world’s police, guarding prisons and fighting in wars. The despotic Earth Queen uses her position to increase her personal wealth, forcibly conscripts Ba Sing Se’s new airbenders to her army, enables the segregation of the capital’s citizens by class, and subjugates the poorest residents in the lower ring. When Zaheer overthrows her, he announces over the city’s loudspeakers that the Queen has been brought down by “revolutionaries.” He bellows, “My identity is not important. I’m not here to take over the Earth Kingdom … no longer will you be oppressed by tyrants.” As he speaks, Ghazan lavabends openings in the rings, integrating the classes. The people cheer.

Zaheer stands over Tenzin in Legend of Korra
Zaheer stands over Tenzin at the Air Temple
Image: Nickelodeon

Unlike Amon, who exploits nonbenders’ discontent for personal gain, and Unalaq, who manipulates Korra into opening the portals to the spirit world so he can merge with Vaatu and become the Dark Avatar, Zaheer’s belief system is genuine — not a Trojan horse for power — and the series’ writers make his arguments compelling. He isn’t depicted solely as an anarchist straw man. From his romantic relationship to P’Li, to his sincere admiration of air nomad culture, to his desire to uplift the oppressed, the character possesses dimension. When asked about Zaheer, series co-creator Bryan Konietzko recently told Polygon that the antagonist’s complexity was very intentional, citing Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, a movie in which “there [aren’t] any villains, but rather people with competing interests,” as inspiration for depicting moral gray areas in his storytelling. “He makes some really good points,” the creator added. In the context of a multitude of global crises in 2020, this nuanced portrayal raises the question: Was Zaheer right?

A lot has changed since Book 3 of Korra originally aired in 2014. Under the Obama administration, seen by many as a time of measured progress, Zaheer may have looked more like an extremist, and anarchy like chaos. But the ideology isn’t out of step with the needs of our current reality: This year, anarchists have started mutual aid groups to step in where governments have failed during COVID-19, stood on the front lines at Black Lives Matter protests, and led the growing movement for police and prison abolition. Viewers’ relationships to power and heads of state have evolved.

In the show, Zaheer crosses a line when he murders the Earth Queen and when he attempts to kill Korra, but in our current cultural context, these acts are more morally ambiguous. The series mirrors many debates today about the role of violence in changemaking. This summer, during the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake, much discourse has focussed on whether “violent” protests do more harm than good, criticism often homing in on the dozen people who have died during these conflicts (though as of September, ABC reports that many of these deaths were circumstantial, not political). Many journalists have pointed out, and bystanders have seen, that while rioting is scary and dangerous, it can lead to quick social reform. As violent action in the pursuit of justice has become less stigmatized and its usefulness understood, a viewership’s ability to sympathize with Zaheer and his tactics has increased.

This season also raises relevant questions about why individual acts of aggression — Zaheer’s murder of the Earth Queen, protesters looting of stores — are often framed as violence, while state-sanctioned abuse — the Earth Queen’s imprisonment of air benders, police brutality — is positioned as almost mundane, the natural byproduct of a fallible system. Sultan also notes that in Korra, carceral punishment is glorified as a means of penalizing those who would identify this inconsistency. Much ado is made about the specialized prisons containing the Red Lotus members, guarded by White Lotus soldiers; when Zaheer is defeated at the end of Book 3, he’s detained in an ancient temple retrofitted as a maximum security facility, a structure symbolic of the society’s shift toward viewing prison as the ultimate instrument of justice. It’s worth noting, too, that as far as viewers know, Zaheer’s body count is considerably lower than Team Avatar’s over the course of the series. Clearly, pacifism is not the ultimate barometer of morality in the Avatar universe (or our own).

Both in the world of the show and in reality, violent acts that uphold systems of oppression are so inevitable, they’re nearly invisible. As Zaheer observes, “When you base your expectations only on what you see, you blind yourself to the possibilities of a new reality.” But that’s the real kicker: Korra doesn’t want to create a new reality. At least, not entirely.

korra stands on an airship listening to zaheer in legend of Korra book 3
Korra stands on an airship as Zaheer speaks over the radio line

As the Avatar, Korra’s function is to uphold balance, not to create change. Many of the people in her inner circle are themselves pillars of institutional power (Lin, the Chief of Police; Tenzin as a Republic City council member; Tonraq, the chief of the Southern Water Tribe) and inherited wealth, like her eventual love interest, Asami Sato. As the Avatar, Korra does not exist outside the systems Zaheer critiques. Rather, her identity necessitates her proximity to those in leadership positions, which impacts the perspectives she sees as valuable. While Korra has her own motivations, she is ultimately beholden to the leaders and governments of the world she serves. When she subverts expectations in season 2 by reconnecting the human and spirit worlds, she’s roundly criticized by President Raiko, the press, and the citizens of Republic City. Throughout the series, Korra strives to forge her own path while fulfilling her duty. Settling for this middle ground, she finds that Zaheer offers change too radical for her to abide.

Particularly in season 3 of The Legend of Korra, “bringing balance to the world” means preserving the status quo. In season 4, while recovering from the emotional and physical trauma of her showdown with Zaheer, Korra visits an elderly Toph in the swamp. The metalbending master offers the Avatar these words of wisdom about her previous enemies: “The problem was those guys were totally out of balance, and they took their ideologies too far.” Drawing upon Eastern philosophical traditions like Buddhism and Taoism, the series often suggests that balance is synonymous with moderation or centrism. But as Tayari Jones argued for Time in 2018, “The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there.” Korra’s respectability politics — prioritizing balance above all else — stall change, good and bad. And according to Zaheer, “Once change begins, it cannot be stopped.”

We’re living in an unprecedented time: The world is grappling with a global pandemic; America is reeling from a series of police killings of Black people and acknowledging its racist history, resulting in nationwide protests and strikes; increasing natural disasters portend the climate collapse to come; and a pivotal election will determine our approach to these crises and the path forward.

Provocative in 2013, the third season of The Legend of Korra leaves a more complicated legacy in 2020. Re-evaluating the motivations and actions of the show’s heroes and villains today forces audiences to wrestle with the blurring line between good and bad and determine whose side they’re on. These days, it’s harder to root for the hero.