I hope you remembered to breathe during those last ten minutes.
Sometimes we talk about works of fiction as appealing to either the head or the heart—meaning that they either make us think or they make us feel (and, of course, the ones that leave the greatest impression tend to do both). I’ve known all season that LoK’s complex themes and technical prowess (music, art, animation) strongly appealed to the head, which is the main reason I’ve been a huge fan of Book Three. However, this episode was the first time I realized that LoK was more than just a cerebral experience—quietly but successfully, it has drawn me into the world of its characters and made me care for them with a whole lot of my heart as well.
While a show’s emotional resonance tends to be pretty subjective and harder to pin down, I think we can attribute a lot of this week’s nail-biting to last week’s climax. By murdering the Earth Queen, Zaheer established himself as not just an extremist but an actual killer, willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. And because of that willingness, for the first time in LoK’s run it feels like our characters are in actual, life-threatening danger, which is why the attack on the Northern Air Temple was fraught with so much tension this week.
Zaheer’s zealotry raises the stakes for everyone, no question, but more than that, it also serves to give the episode a thematic focal point. Our characters are constantly confronted with the question of sacrifice, and just how far they’re willing to go to protect the people (both blood relatives and adopted family) that matter the most to them.
Bolin and Mako save their family from the flames of Ba Sing Se, preserving the spirit of their “home” even as the place itself turns to ash. Zuko abandons the hunt for Zaheer in favor of keeping his daughter safe from extremists. Korra struggles between her desire to protect the new Air Nation and her duty to protect the entire world. Kai risks his life to save his new family, and both Kya and Bumi fight tooth and nail to protect both the Air Nomads and one another.
And then, of course, there’s Tenzin. Throughout the run of LoK he’s been something of a lovable loser, well-meaning but bumbling, easily overwhelmed and overly sensitive. I said a few weeks ago that he was the worst possible person to put in charge of rebuilding a nation, and while I do think there’s some truth to that, this episode reminded us that, for all his weaknesses, Tenzin’s greatest strength and the source of his courage has always been his dedication to the people he loves.
Fighting Zaheer not only gives Tenzin the opportunity to save his wife, children, and the new Air Nation; it also allows him to protect Korra, so that she need not choose between her own life and the lives of the Air Nomads. By sacrificing his own safety (and perhaps even his life), Tenzin keeps anyone else from having to sacrifice their own.
Zuko tells Korra that “rebuilding the Air Nation was Aang’s biggest dream” and that “if he’d accomplished that goal, he might have sacrificed anything to protect it.” Tenzin has spent his life chasing his father, desperate to prove himself worthy of Aang’s legacy. Yet every time he attempted the tasks he associated with being a “proper” airbending master—teaching Korra, entering the Spirit World, leading the new airbenders—he stumbled, so caught up in wanting to succeed that he could never quite manage it.
Only here, when Tenzin is finally thinking not of the past but the present—not of what matters to his father but what matters to him—does he finally (and unknowingly) act just as Aang would have, “sacrificing anything to protect” his new family. Tenzin may not survive this encounter, but he has proven himself a devoted husband and father, a courageous defender, and a worthy inheritor of the Air Nomad tradition. And whether Tenzin realizes it or not, we at home know that Aang would certainly be proud of him.
This, That, and the Other
- Sometimes Bryke like to use Bolin as a mouthpiece for the audience. His priceless reaction to meeting Zuko was absolutely one of those moments.
- At first I thought Mako and Bolin’s grandmother came off as a bit of a stereotype, and then I decided that she only seems that way because we’ve all met a grandma who acted exactly the way she does—pleasant, stubborn, and just a little bit oblivious. Plus, stereotype or not, she provided some of the few moments of levity in this episode, which was a very nice thing to have.
- Su claims that she tried to call the Northern Air Temple but no one answered. I’m calling shenanigans. I still don’t trust you, Su!
- Written in my notes when Korra is speaking to Iroh: “I hope Korra tells Zuko she met Iroh and then we’re all FULL OF FEELS.“
*Five minutes later*
Zuko: “You spoke with my uncle?!”
My notes: “FEEEEELS!!!!!”
- I loved how perfectly Korra handled Meelo, knowing just what to say (“This is your commanding officer!”) to get him to do what she needed. Further proof that she’s quietly becoming a very good leader.
- I’m legitimately worried that Tenzin won’t make it out of this alive. There’s not much more that can be done with his character arc, and everybody knows that losing one’s teacher is an integral part of the Hero’s Journey, so… dammit, LoK. You’re going to make me cry, aren’t you?
- “You’re quite muscular for a woman.”
“Um, thanks. You too?”