Okay, I’ve had the weekend to mull over how I feel about the Season Three finale of The Legend of Korra and Season Three in general.
OHMYGOD! That was amazing. Not only was the finale – a one hour block consisted of episodes 12, “Enter the Void”, and 13, “Venom of the Red Lotus” – one of the strongest, most action-packed, and gut-wrenching pieces of animation produced by the series creators and Studio Mir, it’s proof that Korra will indeed live up to her title, experiencing the trials and errors, and Pyrrhic victories of being a legend.
For starters, a little background.
If I’m being honest, and I usually am, Book One: Air and Book Two: Spirits suffered from uneven storytelling, which happens on any series. Certainly Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t perfect either; highs and lows occurred throughout all three seasons. And while Air was a great introduction to Korra and the societal unrest of Republic City, Spirits meandered for the first half of the season as it tried to recover from the rushed ending and last-minute pickup from the network. Thankfully, Book Two recovered at mid-season, ending on Korra’s game-changing decision to keep the spirit portals open and reunite humans and spirits once again. The consequences of her decision, however, fueled all of Book Three, the aptly named Change.
By keeping the spirit portals open after Harmonic Convergence, the unintended byproduct was the creation of new airbenders. Committed to helping Tenzin rebuild the Air Nation, Korra and company travel to the Earth Kingdom to find other airbenders. Unfortunately, one of the new airbenders is Zaheer, leader of the Red Lotus. Imprisoned for trying to kidnap Korra as a child along with his three equally powerful cohorts, combustionbender P’Li, armless waterbender Ming-Hua, and lavabender Ghazan, the group escapes and sets about completing the plan they’d attempted thirteen years ago: kill the Avatar and restore the world to its natural order of chaos.
Okay, now for the awesome stuff!
This has been one of the best uses of an ensemble cast since the first season. Even while we were introduced to new characters like the members of the Red Lotus, Lin Beifong’s half-sister Su, leader of the Metal Clan, and the return of an old friend in the elderly Lord Zuko, the season never felt overcrowded. Each character got a chance to shine in his or her own way, not just through their fighting styles and bending abilities, but as emotionally maturing people. As much as the show is focused on Korra, her friends and enemies are fully realized and there was never a moment where while watching one group I wished I was watching someone else. I especially loved how Team Korra became a stronger unit. Sure there was awkwardness because of Mako’s failed relationships with Asami and Korra, but the two girls showed great maturity by becoming friends, teaming up and kicking butt like they’d been at it forever. Yes, there was still squabbling, but it felt more like a family than petty in-fighting. Everyone was engaging and entertaining, showing the combined strength of the writers, directors, and animators to deliver a fantastic third season.
The villains, by far, are some of the best to come out of the world of Avatar. The members of the Red Lotus are charismatic, thoughtful, clever, funny, and none of them slack on the fighting. For crying out loud, Ming-Hua is an armless waterbender. An armless. Waterbender. How they show her utilizing her abilities is nothing short of brilliant. All of the Red Lotus are formidable on their own, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, the philosophical blueprint that Zaheer follows makes for a mature look at how a “villain” can perceive their own actions as heroic. He’s definitely the smartest opponent Korra’s faced and its that intelligence and skill that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. You want to like the villains this time around. Actually, you do like the villains and you understand their point-of-view. Like Zuko or Azula, a little part of you is rooting for the bad guys. Then you realize they wanted to poison and kill a four-year-old. Yeah…But, hey, they’re still awesome and I’m not even kidding when I say that Zaheer and P’Li’s romance was genuinely touching and tragic.
Lastly, the animation, all done by Studio Mir, is top-notch. It’s why something like Avatar and Korra can never be completely replicated in live action. The animated environment is more expansive, more fantastical, than anything that can be captured on film with actors backed by CGI. None of the fights felt wasted or superfluous. It wasn’t bending for the sake of bending, it was bending for the sake of storytelling. Lin and Su’s fight over their unresolved issues, the release of each member of the Red Lotus, and the training of the new airbenders all facilitated character development. And they definitely saved the best for last. The finale features the best fights of the season. Korra, with platinum cuffs on her wrists and ankles, still shows how skilled she is even while hindered. When her father shows up to help, it’s an effective team-up complete with leapfrog bending attacks. And the end fight between Zaheer and Korra in the poisoned Avatar State is unlike anything that’s been used in the series thus far and shows how much more sophisticated animation has become. The different perspectives achieved as Korra and Zaheer fly around and battle each other is breathtaking in its scope and scale. I can only imagine what’s cooking for next season.
And now for the analytical stuff!
From the beginning of Book Three there was a feeling of purpose and focus for Korra, the series and the character. After the battle with Vaatu and Unalaq in Book Two, Korra lost the connection to her past lives, making her the first Avatar since Wan to lack guidance from her predecessors. Instead, Korra had to draw from her own experiences – and the advice of her friends and mentors – to make decisions based on what she believed was something the Avatar would do. Understandably, making decisions as the Avatar comes with its own insecurities and worries about whether one is doing the right thing and, as the series has shown, Korra’s biggest fear is failure. This is a girl who, from the age of four, had practically mastered bending water, fire, and earth. Her struggle to master airbending in Book One and her lack of a spiritual connection in Book Two exposed her fears of failing to live up to Aang’s legacy as well as the legacy of the Avatar. Her need to fulfill the primary of duty of restoring balance thematically ran through the entire season and, surprisingly, managed to incorporate the plots of the previous seasons in a way that actually feels organic.
In a very strange way, it looks as if everything really has been leading to this point. After giving herself up to Zaheer in order to save the airbenders from being wiped out, Korra is poisoned so she’ll go into the Avatar State as a means of protecting herself and give the Red Lotus the opportunity to end the Avatar cycle by killing her. As she fights off falling into the Avatar State, she begins to hallucinate Amon, Unalaq, and Vaatu. Her previous foes taunt her, repeatedly telling her that the world doesn’t need an Avatar and she should just “let go”. Thankfully this didn’t turn into another Frozen parody, but the writers tapped into Korra’s longest-running opponent: the very world she’s trying to bring balance to. All three seasons have, in some way, stressed that not only is the Avatar unnecessary but that Korra has failed every step of the way. And in Korra’s mind, yes, those failures are real. She barely managed to stop Amon, she lost her connection to the past Avatars, the President of Republic City kicked her out because she couldn’t stop the infiltrating spirits, Ba Sing Se is in chaos, and as far as she knows the airbenders and her father are all dead. Instead of rebuilding, her actions have created more problems.
It’s why I feel that the ending of this season, when Korra sheds a single tear when Jinora is made an airbending master, is about Korra believing that, as the Avatar, she’s a failure. Korra has always prided herself on being strong, something she sees as a positive asset for the Avatar, but after facing off with the Red Lotus she’s left physically and spiritually depleted. It’s made even more obvious when she has to witness Jinora’s ceremony from a wheelchair. Though I imagine Korra is happy for Jinora, she’s essentially watching the young girl who has a stronger connection to the spirit world, who helped her find Raava when she thought the spirit of light had been lost to Vaatu, and showed tremendous bravery and leadership in saving Korra from Zaheer become a leader among her culture as Tenzin vows that the new Air Nation will help Korra by acting as surrogates to restore balance while she recovers. Though well intended, Tenzin’s commitment to helping the Avatar practically reinforces what Korra dreads – she’s not necessary or needed.
So what can we expect from Book Four? Well, as far as I’m concerned, they should call it Balance. Both Korra and the world are in disarray and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the next season showed Korra dealing with some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other than that, I’m just looking forward to what they do next.
The only thing I want to know is: WHAT HAPPENED TO SOKKA AND SUKI?