Review: The Legend of Korra – Book 3, Episodes 12-13 (Season Finale)

Wow.

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So I want to start by saying that, while I suspect the last five minutes will not be everyone’s cup of tea, I absolutely loved it. I’m a huge, huge fan of endings like these, simultaneously sad and hopeful, embodying both the wounds we receive in life and the strength we muster to continue living. This was the mixed-blessing ending I wanted way back in Book 1, and I’m so glad the creative team was brave enough to go this route. It was heartbreaking and beautiful, and while I’m going to spend the rest of the review trying to be all professional ‘n’ stuff, I had to start with that, because wow. Just wow.

Now, looking at the two-part finale as a whole—well, there are a lot of things we could talk about, but I want to focus on three major events, and the reason I want to focus on them is because they’re so indicative of something Bryke have excelled at for a long time now: Respecting the intelligence of their viewers, and trusting them to “get it” without “it” needing to be explicitly stated. So I wanted to take some time to discuss a trio of silences, and how LoK uses every element in its arsenal except on-the-nose dialogue to convey its story.

Zaheer and the Empty Vessel

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When Zaheer returns to the Red Lotus base, Ghazan and Ming-hua naturally want to know why he can suddenly fly. He tells them it’s because he is “no longer bound to this earth by worldly desires.” What he doesn’t say is that this is because P’Li, the love of his life and the last of his “worldly desires,” has just died. He becomes the “empty vessel” only by losing the one person he truly cared for.

Letting go of one’s attachments in order to achieve freedom is very much a Buddhist concept, and one we’ve seen in the Avatarverse before, perhaps most notably when Aang chose to abandon his training in favor of protecting Katara (the love of his life). While Bryke have often advocated Buddhist values, it strikes me that they have always ultimately come down against this total abandonment of worldly desires, because they always support the bonds formed between people.

Zaheer didn’t choose to lose P’Li, but he accepts her loss with surprising ease, as if the tradeoff (his love in exchange for “true freedom”) somehow makes it worthwhile. There’s something tragic about it, really, and while I generally found Zaheer despicable throughout these episodes, that moment when he calmly announced the loss of his “worldly desires” (followed quickly by his matter-of-fact explanation of P’Li’s death) struck me as genuinely pitiable, too. Compare it to Korra’s reaction to her father’s death and it’s clear that Zaheer is broken, a zealot so dedicated to “the cause” that he has lost sight of everything else. And it is this blindness that will prove his downfall.

The Rise of the Air Nation

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If Zaheer stands for individuality and freedom, then the Air Nation has come to stand for the opposite: They are the community, forged through shared trials and common goals, willing to put aside their personal desires in order to achieve something they could never accomplish alone. For all that Zaheer rails against leaders and structured societies, he was at his strongest when he had his allies by his side. It’s only after he separates himself from them (using flight, the symbol of his new-found freedom) that our heroes are finally able to defeat him.

As I mentioned in an earlier review, Bryke are forever searching for the elusive middle path, a balance between western individuality and eastern collectivism. If LoK spent its first few episodes showing the benefits of individuality and the dangers of collectivism, then these past few episodes have done the opposite, showing the benefits of community (family and friends alike) and the dangers of individuality.

So where does the “middle path” lay? For all my mistaken mistrust of Su, I think the Metal Clan is supposed to be demonstrative of the “ideal,” here: A blend of cooperation and personal fulfillment, where each member of the society pursues his or her preferred line of work but in a way that benefits the community (or, at the very least, doesn’t harm them). This season’s episodes even create a kind of spectrum from “individuality” to “community,” with the Metal Clan resting comfortably in the center. (Side Note: This is an absolutely brilliant way to structure a season, and further proof of how ridiculously good this show has gotten.)

If this middle path is truly the road LoK wishes its characters to forge, then this final confrontation perfectly encapsulates that. Without Jinora’s leadership and ingenuity, the airbenders never would have come together; yet without their willingness to come together, their plan never could have succeeded. While Zaheer and Korra try to fight alone, the Air Nation works as a unit, defeating both Zaheer and the ideals he embodies. It’s a largely unspoken central argument, but it’s the driving force of the entire season, and its presence gives this show so much more weight than if it were just about a bunch of benders throwing down on a mountaintop.

Korra and the State of the Avatar

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Of course, no review of this finale would be complete without a nice long discussion of Korra’s personal challenges and those final, poignant moments. There’s a great deal of beauty in the airbender ceremony, but Korra casts a shadow of sorrow over the affair—not just because she’s injured, but because she’s so completely not Korra. Our Avatar is a person of constant motion and sound, as full of life when she’s happy as she is when she’s upset. Yet from the moment she and Asami leave for the ceremony, she doesn’t say a single word. She is a silent, almost motionless presence, and we are left with only hints of what she may be thinking or feeling.

This is true for most of the finale, in fact, as after Zaheer’s men infect her with the poison, she only has three short lines of dialogue, and none of them tell us much about what Korra is thinking or feeling. The closest we get to an internal monologue is when she flashes back to her past enemies and hears them taunting her, reminding her of what people have been saying since Book 1: That the world doesn’t need her anymore.

And, based on everything that follows, I think Korra has finally come to believe them. She’s struggled all season with increasingly complicated problems, and on more than one occasion has admitted to feeling useless. “I’m the Avatar—I should be able to fix this” was her mantra all season, yet nothing she tried seemed to work. Also keep in mind that, at the moment the Red Lotus give her the poison, Korra has no idea where the Air Nomads are—for all she knows, Zaheer has already killed them. She gave herself up for the sole purpose of saving lives, and yet from her perspective, she’s only succeeded in losing even more, since she also believes that Zaheer killed her father.

But Korra is a fighter. So even with the weight of her failures, and even with the voices of her enemies telling her she’s useless, she still charges into battle, prepared to take Zaheer down with her if nothing else. But she can’t even do that. Weakened by the poison, she must rely on first the airbenders and then Su to save her.

Perhaps the most maddening part of all this is that, for the first time in LoK’s run, Korra has honestly done nothing wrong. She made solid decisions every step of the way, listened to her advisers, bravely walked into danger so she could save others, and fought Zaheer with all the strength and will she possessed. But it still wasn’t enough.

So it’s no surprise that when the Republic City President thanks her for “taking down the Red Lotus,” she looks away in silence. And it’s equally no surprise that when Tenzin thanks her for sacrificing herself for the airbenders, she seems genuinely startled, as if only just then realizing that what she did was, in fact, a noble thing, even if it didn’t work out the way she’d intended.

I think Tenzin’s decisions here are ultimately good ones, both for the world at large and for Korra. But it only solidifies what Korra has suspected for a while now: That the world will get on just fine without its Avatar. And so we are left with a Korra in despair, cut off from her past lives and unsure of her role in the world, crying silently as everyone around her celebrates. It’s a disheartening image to end on, to be sure, and hints at the conflicts (both physical and spiritual) that Book 4 will likely confront.

Of course, we all know Korra’s efforts weren’t a waste. The Avatar is a symbol of hope if nothing else (she inspired Tenzin to change Air Nomad culture, for heaven’s sake), and I suspect Korra will find a way to become something more than that as well. For all that she seems beaten now, Korra is a fighter at heart, and I don’t see her staying down for too long.

More importantly, she’s not alone. Korra may have lost her connection to her past lives but she’s forged plenty of connections in her current one, and the people who love her will be there to help her find her path in this new world. And, as this season has shown us, those connections can be a very powerful force indeed.

This, That, and The Other

  • Confession: I’m not great with names (I have to Google them when I’m writing these reviews pretty regularly) and I totally forgot Korra’s father’s name. So during the vast majority of Episode 12, I was just shouting “Don’t die, Avatar Dad!” at my TV. 
  • The animation during Korra’s poisoning was suddenly, disturbingly gritty, full of shadows, sharp lines, and distorted angles. Reminded me of a BONES anime, or even of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Which, you know, if you want to make your audience uncomfortable, that’s a hell of an effective way to do it. 
  • I was still waiting for Su to betray the group right up until she turned P’Li into an Easy Bake Oven (too soon?). Looks like I was wrong about her after all. Ah, well. Chalk it up to too much Game of Thrones and Orphan Black. My brain doesn’t know how to trust characters anymore. 
  • Have we ever seen Mako actually bend lightning before? I knew he could redirect it, but… 
  • Bolin has the Magic Sokka Power of being able to inject humor into the darkest of situations without it feeling forced or tonally inconsistent. While I’m still trying to figure out exactly how Bryke pull off that balance, I’m immensely grateful for it. “Classic Bolin!”

Thank you to everyone who liked and reblogged these reviews, and extra-special thanks to those who enjoyed them enough to start following me, too! This was my first time blogging a complete season of a series, so it was very encouraging to see that people were reading them and finding them worthwhile. I’ll keep working to improve, so I hope you’ll stick around for my other anime reviews and recommendations as well!

I leave you with this gif of Bolin. You to stay classy, Korranation.

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