‘Legend of Korra’ Teaches Us That Cartoons Aren’t Just for Kids

Exploring adult themes in cartoons is something that’s been practiced since the days of Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, but the animated series that explore heavier topics like loss, growing up, and the pitfalls that go hand-in-hand with adulthood are few and far between. With Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra, we get just that: a cartoon aimed at kids with massive crossover appeal for adults, featuring themes that everyone can relate to. As the final chapter comes to a close in the coming weeks, let’s explore just what’s made each season so special (spoilers ahoy, so consider yourself warned).

Book 1: Air

The opening season of Korra fast-forwarded 100 or so years from the end of The Last Airbender into a steam-punky, pseudo-industrial future where the new, teenage avatar is presented with a whole new set of challenges. Very quickly we see our hero Korra, still learning to master both herself and the elements, thrown into a society that doesn’t feel as though they need her at all, and in fact views benders as oppressive and dangerous (which in the show’s history has been proven to be true).

Korra is forced to come face to face with her worst fear: having her physical skills taken away from her. The average 12-year-old watching this probably doesn’t often think of the impermanence of natural gifts, making for a first season that dives headfirst into a very adult fear that many of us share.

Book 2: Spirits

Here in Season 2, Korra’s itching to build on the spirituality she attained in Book 1 but is still making the hard-headed immature decisions of the past. In just a few episodes, she unwittingly incites a civil war, alienates the people who love and care for her, and is left alone to clean up the mess. We as an audience see firsthand here what it’s like to lose everything, as well the consequences of not learning from our mistakes. While an average kid’s show would soften its message and talk down to its audience, Korra does quite the opposite; Book 2 pulls no punches as it demonstrates the true meaning of understanding your past in order to have a future.

Book 3: Change

Season 3 completely embodies its namesake, as we’re thrown into a world where airbenders return after centuries of extinction. For a better part of this season Korra and friends get the tar kicked out of them on a regular basis, even up until the very final moments. Very few adult shows — much less cartoons — are willing to show a hero fail as mightily as Korra did throughout the third season.

All the while we see our big bad of the season, Zaheer (voiced by Henry Rollins), long for a world without oppressive leaders, making for an intriguing and politically charged story arc that questions the very premise of organized government. In what is likely the first children’s series to feature a political assassination, Korra slowly begins to see that the world she lives in may very well need the change its villain Zaheer so vehemently demands.

Book 4: Balance

In the still-running final installment, we’re seeing Korra cope with the fallout of her battle with Zaheer that, while she technically won, took a toll on her both physically and mentally. It’s not often we see our hero deal with the consequences of the preceding season, but here Korra starts off having never felt lower, needing to build herself again from the ground up.

She disappears for six months, roaming the world, marking the first time she’s been truly alone and not surrounded by friends and family. In that time, she finds that overcoming her own mental blocks is something that no one else can do for her. It’s a road to self-discovery that represents the final chapter in Korra becoming a fully realized avatar. The season (and series) wraps up on December 19, and your guess is as good as ours as to how it’ll end.

Many of the over-arching themes of Legend of Korra are depicted in ways that children’s shows have never attempted. It’s a series that digs into what it is to mature and better one’s self, set to a backdrop of gorgeous artwork. Now that it’s almost over, we can look back on its body of work and see that, more than anything, we were given a four-season adventure about one person’s journey into adulthood.

Catch up on Book 4 and tune into the final season here.