Like the people of Westeros, winter is coming and with it a dearth of Game of Thrones. 2015 is the next time we will catch up with our band of aristocratic diaspora and until then, it can seem like there’s an absence of beautifully shot and well-written fantasy on television.
Nickelodeon may not seem like the first port of call for your fix of mature, magical adventure but the audacious and award-winning Avatar: The Last Airbender—no, not the M. Night Shyamalan movie—and its sequel The Legend of Korra are well worth watching if you’ve yet to be seduced. Korra, which returns for its third season this summer, is a bit more action-packed and a bit less sexy than Game of Thrones, admittedly—although it does mean there’s less dubious sexposition—but the television show has enough in common to keep you satiated until Jon Snow and Arya return.
The Last Airbender exists on a very simple premise: In a world where many people are gifted with abilities to manipulate the four elements (called “bending”) there is a messianic figure known as the Avatar who has supreme control over fire, water, earth, and wind. The Avatar is reincarnated into a new form that corresponds to one of the four elemental societies each lifespan, the last one being a firebender. But a hundred years ago an airbending monk named Aang escaped the genocide of his people and was never seen again. Discovered frozen in ice by two Inuit waterbenders, they begin a journey to help him access his full powers as avatar.
In the sequel, Korra, a waterbender fully aware of her avatar position, tries to perfect her powers as she moves to a big, steampunk metropolis called Republic City (imagine if Sylvain Chomet designed King’s Landing). Here she comes face to face with malicious gangs and sardonic city dwellers often less than pleased with the existence of bending and the entitlement of those who use it.
If you thought the battle of Blackwater was the biggest battle scene you’d see on TV or the battle on The Wall left you hotter than a flaming arrow, look no further for your fantasy fighting than the Avatar series. The Last Airbender is one large war, and throughout the show huge land, sea and air battles are staples of the series just like the naval combat outside the walls of King’s Landing. The show is loaded with beautifully shot, carefully choreographed sequences of magical kung-fu. In fact, the finale of The Last Airbender is four episodes of fighting on blimps, dueling in ruined temples, burning down entire forests (long before the wildlings did) and all kinds of incredible visuals that will leave your mouth agape. Red Wedding agape.
The Legend of Korra is even better at times. Season 1 was focused in the art-deco world of Republic City filled with car chases, plane chases, an incredible battle sequence inside a cavernous stadium, and by Season 2 the fighting even moves into strange otherworlds full of psychedelic colors and magical trees that are bigger and more gorgeous than ever before. Even in the brief clips of Season 3 so far leaked, it is clear that there will be a wealth of well-directed combat.
But like Game of Thrones, the fantastical and the outlandish are carefully balanced with human relationships and political intrigue. If the schemings and machinations of the Lannisters excited you, The Last Airbender provides an excellent equivalent during a long stint in the earthbending city of Ba Sing Se. Totalitarian policing, carried out by the KGB-like Dai Li and a series of identical tour guides called Ju Dee, and even the death of a recurring character are forewarnings of dark dealings. The war against the fire nation, which has played throughout the show so far, is never closer than it is here.
Cersei has an excellent twin in Azula, a sociopathic teen princess who kills everyone in her path and yet still invokes your pity as she loses her grip on reality. We’ve yet to see Cersei really get her tragic fall, although losing her son and possibly being raped by her brother meant Season 4 wasn’t her happiest year. Yet in terms of daughters spurned and motivated by patriarchy hating them, absent-mother complexes, thorny fraternal relationships and questionable moral codes, Azula is the fire-summoning sibling Cersei wishes she had.
Throughout The Legend of Korra the machinations of those wanting to control Republic City are a major plot point, with gangs and businesses staging their own war of the five kings, especially in the case of the anti-bending messiah Amon. One of the show’s standout characters is Lin Bei Fong, a steely police lieutenant who fights better than Brienne of Tarth, leads a police force unit against the show’s many malign agencies. Although I’m sure if Brienne had the ability to telekinetically manipulate metal she’d be able to do more than bite your ear off, too. Lin is even revealed to be the spurned lover of Korra’s patriarch and mentor, Tenzin. It’s almost as touching as Brienne and Jaime’s romantic undertext, sans the excellent scene in a bath… So far.
Lin is just one of the fabulous and mature supporting cast, the assorted middle-aged offspring of The Last Airbender characters, who are as rich and developed as Game of Thrones’ (with longer lifespans to boot). She’s also one of the many examples of well-written women, predominantly of color, throughout the show. The Last Airbender brought us the motherly but short-tempered Katara, the blind aristocrat and queen of sarcasm Toph Bei Fong, Amazonian warrior Suki, and the aforementioned princess Azula and her best friends Mei and Ty Lee, to name a few. The Legend of Korra is not only led by the deeply flawed but charming Korra, it also features the shrewd businesswoman Asami Sato, Aang’s free-wheeling waterbending daughter Kya, and Tenzen’s adolescent daughters and magical prodigies Jinora and Ikki.
If Arya Stark’s bad-assery has left you wanting for more action heroines, don’t worry. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have you covered. Although dry-witted, caring matriarchs like Olenna or Catelyn are largely absent from the Avatar series, barbed banter is delivered by the likes of the marriage-obsessed Eska or the noble and nihilistic Mei, who’s transformation in Season 3—well, I won’t spoil it. But if you’re looking for complex young women who don’t just sit in a throne room of slaver’s bay (here’s looking at you, Daenerys), the very proactive warrior women across both series of the show are a perfect replacement. Although you won’t find Justinian victims like Sansa, that may be for the best.
Avatar is equally good at exploring moral ambiguity in its cast. Katara, the lead girl and moral compass for much of the original series, eventually is forced to learn how to bloodbend (turning animals and people into her puppets) to save a life, but after using these powers there is no sense of justification. She leaves, scared of what she is capable of doing, her malign mentor cackling. The same skill of bloodbending comes back in The Legend of Korra as a major weapon of dark forces, and again is often only mastered by those forced to perfect it in tough moral choices. When Aang is presented with a final showdown with the big bad Fire Lord Ozai at the end of The Last Airbender, he spends much of the finale debating with his past lives and living friends about the morality of killing anybody at all when he has lived by pacifist Buddhist philosophies his whole life. His past lives all display a remarkable bloodlust, one he continues to discard.
The Legend of Korra’s lead characters spend much of the second season in support of the waterbenders who end up being the main villains, creating an all-out war that Korra spends much of the show trying desperately to stop: a decision the first-ever avatar also made when he accidentally freed a dark god from eternal imprisonment. The season even ends with the very nature of what it is to be an avatar, and indeed a leader, being revisited in time for Season 3.
But, maybe you’re afraid that The Legend of Korra as an animation just won’t give you a voice cast as strong in quality as Game of Thrones’ classically trained roll call of British talent. But never fear! J.K. Simmons, Aubrey Plaza, and Kiernan Shipka are all among the supporting cast of the show, and Mark Hamill and Jason Isaacs lended their talents to Season 1.
So if you find yourself in cold sweats because you haven’t seen a small girl kill a man, or start itching for some political subterfuge while you’re in bed, or don’t feel like you’ve seen human nature questioned enough by charming but nefarious warriors, then do not worry, my friends. There’s five seasons just waiting for you. No need to thank me. Just keep me safe if I ever decide to get married in Westeros.