When I first watched Book 1 of Legend of Korra, I was baffled by the way Mako treated Asami. This feeling persisted through my viewing of Book 2, and it wasn’t until Korra and Asami teamed up to tease Mako in Book 3 that I started to really like him. It wasn’t just his endearing awkwardness that won me over by the series finale, however– it was the realization that Mako’s growth is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
If we think of the Hierarchy of Needs as a pyramid, physical needs form the bottom. It makes logical sense; who has time to worry about becoming a better person when you can’t get the food or shelter you need to survive until tomorrow? In order to ascend up the pyramid, a person needs a solid physiological foundation including air, food, water, shelter, and clothing. This is the tier where Mako has spent most of his life, as an orphan on the streets.
The second tier up is “safety,” which can mean physical safety, but it can also mean financial security and a support network to care for you when you’re sick or injured. In Book 1, Mako usually has his basic needs met, but he’s struggling with the safety tier. He comes from a background of extreme scarcity, and he clearly can’t rely on pro-bending winnings to build a safety net. It’s clearly something he’s cognizant of, as he snaps at Korra that having people take care of you isn’t “nothing.”
We repeatedly see him prioritize financial security over his love/attraction for Korra. (Case in point: ”She’s great, but I think it makes more sense for me to go for Asami.”) Viewed through Maslow’s lens, this is actually a highly logical choice. Love and belonging is tier 3, so it would be foolish (albeit certainly not unheard of) for someone to choose love needs over safety needs. This is also most likely why Mako didn’t tell Asami about Korra kissing him: he couldn’t jeopardize his primary safety net.