Review: The Legend of Korra – Book 3, Episode 9

There are a lot of words you could use to describe this series, but “unambitious” should never be one of them.

It’s fitting that The Legend of Korra should shift from TV to Internet this week, as it not only explores complex philosophical topics, but does so with a directness rarely (if ever) seen in a Nickelodeon animated series. With the first face-to-face confrontation between Korra and Zaheer and the reveal of the Red Lotus Society, LoK launches us into a discussion on society, politics, and the efficacy of organized government. And you thought you were watching a kids show.

The trick to a good villain is to either make them reach Joffrey Baratheon levels of awful or to give their argument some weight, and with LoK we’ve seen a great deal more of the latter. Because Zaheer, like Amon and even Unalaq before him, is not entirely wrong. Whether it’s the blatant tyranny of Fire Lord Ozai or the Earth Queen, the squabbling of the United Republic Council, or the public-opinion-pandering of the new Republic City President, we’ve seen plenty of corrupt or ineffective governments during LoK’s run.

It’s these weakened systems that allowed Amon (and Tarrlok) to wreak havoc in Republic City, and Unalaq to (briefly) take over the Southern Water Tribe. Korra already lives in a time of great change and social upheaval. If the Avatarverse were a house, it would be a mighty unstable one. No wonder there are some who feel it would be best tear it all down rather than renovate the place.

On some level I think Korra recognizes this, which is why she agreed with Unalaq’s central argument against closing the spirit portals. It’s also why she struggles to outright reject Zaheer in this episode. Because the fact is that he isn’t entirely wrong, anymore than Amon and Unalaq were entirely wrong. These guys are not Fire Lord Ozai. There’s nuance here, and more and more Korra is recognizing that.

I’m curious to see what LoK and its creators are ultimately trying to say with this series, but it strikes me that the central argument has always been the Avatar’s mission itself: that we must strive for balance, for the “middle path” between the status quo and radicalism. Change is happening and change needs to happen. There’s no denying that the Earth Queen is a tyrant, and Korra herself has fought to right the queen’s wrongs. But Korra also refuses Zaheer’s complete anarchist perspective that the world should return to its “natural state” of chaos.

Whether Korra rejects Zaheer because she believes that the “natural state” of the world is NOT chaotic, or because she believes nature IS chaotic but man can (and should) create order from that chaos remains to be seen, and I doubt Korra has given it enough thought to know the answer herself, just yet. She will likely have to confront that question soon, though, as she now finds herself pinched between dictators and anarchists, the most extreme elements of both Order and Chaos.

I suspect Korra will search for that “middle path” she (and all Avatars) wish to tread, but it’s a path mankind has been seeking for millennia and has yet to actually find. There’s no easy answer here, which is why it’s such a compelling central conflict. I honestly don’t know how it’s all going to work out, or what the Earth Kingdom will look like after our warring factions inevitably collide.

When Zaheer tells Korra “Once change begins, it cannot be stopped,” it feels like a summary for the entirety of Book 3. It’s true of the changes Korra has wrought, the political and social upheavals that have been going on throughout her life, the changes in the lives of our adolescent characters as they become more aware of the socio-political complexities of the people and cultures around them, as well as the changes to the series’ tone and broadcasting medium.

LoK charges forward doing exactly what it wants, existing in the same uncertain realm that its characters inhabit, a land of not-quite-childhood and not-quite-adulthood. It’s YA. It’s anime. It’s anything but unambitious. And regardless of whether or not I agree with the conclusion Korra ultimately reaches, I will always be so, so glad this series exists.

This, That, and the Other

  • I love how Bryke have decided that the best way to get around the censors’ weird rules about directly killing characters is to just chuck people into Spirit Hell. Have fun wandering the mists for all eternity, Aiwei~ 
  • I’ve had so many good things to say about Book 3 that I’ve kind of glossed over any complaints, but it does kind of bug me that the spirits only seem to appear when the plot calls for them. They were nowhere to be found in Zaofu, but now that Korra needs a spirit-world message they’re buzzing all over the place. LoK is plot- and theme-driven to a fault at times, and this feels like one of those times. 
  • And speaking of vanishing characters, where the heck did Grandpa Zuko go? Did he just give up on hunting down the Criminal Quartet, or is he rallying the troops, or what? I’m going to be kind of sad if he ends up being a non-factor the rest of the season. 
  • I tend to get so wrapped up in overarching themes that I don’t get a chance to discuss technical elements, but the bending sequences this season have been absolutely fantastic—clever and fast-paced, with beautifully fluid animation and dynamic choreography. There’s a real sense of tension every time our teams clash, and it’s a joy to watch. 
  • “Water-Arm Lady and Lava Guy” – Poor Mako. You are a good cop, but you just do not have the talent for nicknaming enemies the way Sokka did. 
  • But That Pai Sho Game Tho…
    I wanted to spend some time talking about Bolin and Asami’s Pai Sho game, which I read as both a metaphor and possible foreshadowing. 

    We learn from the Pai Sho rulebook that it is a game of both strategy and chance, and that different cultures have come up with different ways to play. In other words, there’s no one “right” way to do it.  Given that Pai Sho is so intricately connected to the White Lotus in the Avatarverse, I think we can view this scene as a metaphor for the diverging paths that the Lotus have taken, particularly the schism between White and Red. 

    I also think that, given the current debate about how best to govern (or not govern) the world, we can also see the two main methods of playing Pai Sho as a related to the two current factions, with strategy (order) on one hand, and chance (disorder) on the other. 

    Of course, the rulebook says there’s no right way to play, but in the show itself, Asami wins every game. The only game Bolin comes close to winning is disrupted by Pabu—in other words, the “fast-paced game of chance” is disrupted by more chance. 

    Feel free to shake me if I’m reading too much into this, but it strikes me that Asami’s extensive winning streak suggests the series will ultimately fall on the side of strategy/order. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.

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