Deus Ex Machina and The Legend of Korra
The Legend of Korra has been great this season. I can give it that. Book 3: Change has demonstrated flashes of brilliance reminiscent from the latter half of the original series, including:
- fascinating world building
- clever, poignant, and often (intentionally) funny writing
- great character arches and exploration
- exciting new villains
- an emphasis of character growth over plot
In fact, Change already has the potential to be the best season this show has delivered in its three seasons thus far, and it’s only five episodes in.
So now is about the time where I make my plea with the writers to not mess it up. You guys…you’re great. I love you. I’m serious. At times, I watch your shows, and it discourages me because you’re so talented at weaving together stories and creating a deep, rich world that it makes me want to rip up everything I’ve ever written and enter data into a computer for living because it’s all I’m good for.
With that said, seriously, you guys, can we lay off the Deus Ex F****** Machina for this finale? You know, the crutch that you’ve used in nearly every finale you’ve ever done? Maybe this time let’s try something a little different?
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a journey:
Deus Ex Light – Seasons One and Two
Book One: Water
Aang realizing the Avatar State in the finale flirts with Deus Ex, but it’s such an integral part of the world that I can forgive it.
Book Two: Earth
Season 2 of the original show is also mostly exempt. You can argue about the sacred water in that vial or whatever that saves Aang, but it was built up and hinted at for a while, and if anything, I think it was a neat sort of “Chekhov’s Gun” that was introduced early on and was “fired” in a critical moment in the finale.
That’s where the non-Deus content ends. Seriously. That’s it.
Since then, we’ve had three Avatar finales – Season 3 of the original show, and Seasons 1 and 2 of Korra – and each has been marred by terrible instances of unexplainable or completely random events, on the characterization or the plot side. And sometimes both.
Book 3: Fire – Deux Ex Sharp Rock of the Gods
Things are going bad for Aang, when all of a sudden, he jabs his back on a pointy rock, removing the blockage of energy and allowing him access to the Avatar State again.
Huh? Really? So, basically, it all came down to most god damn lucky case of chance you’ve ever seen? Not only is that a completely silly turn of events and our young Aang would have been boned otherwise, but they never even mention it!
No “Good thing the spirits were watching over you,” or “Fate dictated that you would access the state once again.” Nothing. Not like that would have made it okay, but it would have been better than the kick in the pants the current ending was. I don’t have the same problem a lot of other people do with the finale – in fact, outside of this egregious cop out, I thought it was great.
A Batman tangent
Once I was watching Batman: The Animated Series, the episode where Batman goes blind and has to fight the Penguin anyways. And in the finale, Penguin has Batman right in the target hairs of his umbrella machine gun, and clicks to fire. Batman doesn’t even know he’s there. This is it for the caped crusader…until a blank fires. Penguin was out of bullets.
Are we f****** joking with this? We’re going to paint Batman into such a helpless corner that only the luckiest stroke of lucky unicorn luck is responsible for him surviving the day?
I would have been okay if Batman knew the gun was out. Like if he was counting the bullets, or was luring Penguin into a false sense of security, or anything. Nope. He lucked out.
This is how I felt when Aang slammed into that rock. He didn’t mean to. It was an accident. Had he been a few inches any other direction, the world likely would have ended. Horrible.
They should get that rock a medal, because he gave his life saving the free world. The rock did more in that finale than Aang did.
As bad as it was, it has nothing on the seasons to come though….
Legend of Korra Book One: Air—Deus Ex Airbending
After a very solid inaugural season for Korra, I was incredibly let down by the finale. It was bad enough that Korra magically learned how to air bend when she needed it. I can maybe buy it. It felt jarring, but it was a cool moment. I would have preferred her do SOMETHING that had to do with any of her training in the mentality “behind” the bending, like some sort of mediation or conscious spirit connection, but okay. Fine. What we got was:
“I can AIRBEND!”
“Well that’s CONVENIENT.”
Afterwards, however, she’s struggling with the idea that she lost the connection with the other elements. As she is completely wont to do, obviously. Mako wants to help, but she shrugs him off. She needs to be alone. And I get it.
It’s about this time where my head is reeling with possibilities for season 2. “Wow,” I thought. “What a cool, dark turn this just took. Next season, Korra is going to have to cope with losing her bending powers – maybe get them back, maybe not, but regardless, what a great emotional journey that’s in store for us!”
Nope. Instead, Aang magically shows up, professes a bull**** line that had never been uttered to that point in the show before (to my knowledge) regarding the nature of bending and being at one’s lowest moment, and voila. She’s cured!…and fans are robbed of any emotional maturity that could have gleaned from that experience – maturity that she sorely needed (and arguably still needs).
“Hey Korra. Don’t sweat it, I’m here to rob you of any character growth. That’s what Deus Ex is here for!”
An issue of choice
Now, some fans argue that they didn’t want to see another show of Korra on a journey to discover bending, ala The Last Airbender. I don’t care about that. Whatever that would have been is a separate discussion from the issue of characterization.
Instead of giving the character an opportunity to grow and deal with her issue head on, the writers copped out and found a way to conveniently solve the problem for her. It’s the difference between making a character choose who to be with out of a love triangle, and killing off one of the options in the triangle so the choice is made for them.
Other fans argue that they didn’t know if they were going to have another season, so they had to close things off and tie it in a neat bow as much as possible. To which I say, incorrect. Regardless of the situation behind the show, the creators are under no obligation to do ANYTHING except tell the story they wanted to tell. If we never got a season 2 of Korra, the non-Deus ending still would have had a powerful resonation with me.
Besides all that, the problem was that happy Korra was happy at the happy end, but she didn’t EARN it. It was handed to her. If this was the route the show makers were going to go, they were better off not taking away her bending to begin with. Instead of being an element that explored the depth of the character, it became a silly gimmick to add false drama to the situation.
You can make excuses for them all you want, but at the end of the day, it was lazy writing.
Book 2: Spirits—Deus Ex Jenora
Perhaps the most widely maligned and accepted instances of Deus Ex Machina in Korra is found in the conclusion to Book 2: Spirits. Kaiju Korra is fighting Unavaatu—and losing considerably—when all of a sudden, Spirit Jenora descends from the clouds, does some spirit-y stuff, and BOOM! Day is saved.
I’m sorry, what?
No really. What the hell just happened? What did Jenora just do? Why did it help Korra win? Why is no one talking about this?
Not only was this a problem in the “Why,” but also the “how.” If Jenora came down and started, like, blood-bending, or doing some power that had ever at any point been established in the show before, then that’s one thing. To descend from the clouds mysteriously, and THEN enact some cryptic power? Fans were left scratching their heads, to say the least.
Only now are we starting to explore what that thing Jenora did was, but it doesn’t matter in context of the season 2 finale. We could have gotten the answer hand wrapped to us in episode one of this season, and it wouldn’t have mattered – you can’t build the crux of the climax of your entire season on something that has had zero build up and zero context without it feeling like cheating. You can’t. Once again, it’s a better idea to leave it out.
Connecting Invisible Dots
Of course, fans were quick to try to connect the dots, and explain to the “oblivious” pundits of the maybe’s and what if’s of what had just happened. Unfortunately, fans connecting dots that aren’t there, and theorizing about MAYBE what the show creators intended, does not the mark of a good writer make.
Theorizing the meaning behind an act, or a piece of dialogue? Great! I love doing that! Hypothesizing what happened that defined the most critical moment of the entire season based on nothing but unsubstantiated conjecture? Not okay. Weaving in acceptable interpretation is admittedly a fine line, and sometimes difficult to articulate when it works—unfortunately, it’s much easier to point out when it doesn’t, and season 2’s finale is definitely one of those times.
A case for Deus Ex Machina
Now, writers (as if anyone is reading this at all, let alone Korra’s creators). I’m not saying you CAN’T use Deus Ex Machina, or that it’s a writing technique that you have to remove from your toolkit. There have been many great examples of Deus Ex in the past that have not only functioned properly, but also ADDED to the work.
The finale of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is one of them. In a final battle that represents vengeance and catharsis as much as it does contradicting ideologies about the nature of god and religion, Scar delivers the killing blow on Bradley when a glint of sunlight glances off Bradley’s sword and blinds him. It is an obvious use of the “Act of God” mechanic…which is precisely the point.
In the climax of a fight involving a character who does not believe in any higher power, and another who is on a religious crusade of sorts, the fact that the victor is decided by this act of God is a poignant and poetic ending, deftly built in and perfectly in line with these characters. Those who wanted Scar to win by ability alone missed the point.
My Final Plea
So, it’s possible to use Deus ex Machina to wonderful effect, Korra writers. Unfortunately, you have not demonstrated the ability to do so, and while I love you to death, maybe leave it out of this season’s finale? Let Deus Ex sit the next few plays out? You could always try writing a straight forward narrative with a conclusion that fits with the characters motivations and the revealed plot instead?
Think about it.