Review: The Legend of Korra – Book 4, Episodes 9-10

Double your Korra, double your fun.

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I was out of town last weekend with very limited access to a keyboard, and by the time I got back my Episode 9 commentary would have been so late that it made sense to just wait and do a double-post. It helps that these two episodes are connected by a few central conflicts and themes, and form a kind of overture to the explosive season finale that is sure to sweep up our characters in the coming weeks.

In some ways these episodes work as a mini-conclusion, tying up some loose character arcs and relationship drama among the protagonists so we can focus on the upcoming showdown without needing to worry (too much) about whether or not Korra’s got her groove back or Bolin and Opal can work things out. I will say that I thought these episodes both suffered from minor pacing issues—there wasn’t a lot of time to breathe between plot points, which meant our characters had to hurry through their various reconciliations—which I’m sure is a result of the creators losing Episode 8 to surprise budget cuts (“Niiiiiick!” *shakes fist at sky*). That said, there was still a ton of good stuff here, both for Korra and the supporting Krew.

Something I haven’t discussed much but which is worthy of commendation is the way this season deals with the split between public image and private behavior—or, to put it in fictional terms, dramatic irony (for those of you who were sick for that day of high school English, dramatic irony is when the audience knows more than the characters). We’ve seen this most notably with Kuvira, who remains quite popular with the Earth “Empire” because she behaves with calm rationalism and even honor when she’s in front of a crowd. Having seen her behind closed doors, though, we at home know she’s a lot more sneaky and vicious than she lets on.

But in these episodes LoK uses the same public/private split with some of its minor characters, as both Bolin and Varrick receive chilly welcomes in Republic City. Even knowing what we know, Asami’s hostility is totally justified, but I think the show tests its audience’s empathy with the Bolin-Opal dynamic. It’s easy to feel like Opal is being too harsh here, given that Bolin is an immensely likable character whose only real “crime” is that he trusts people too easily. I found myself wanting to shake Opal a few times, until I remembered that she doesn’t know nearly as much as we do—to her, Bolin was at best duped and at worst directly complicit with the woman who took over her hometown and captured her family. The hostility is frustrating, but it’s also understandable.

One last neat little way the show pits the knowledge and preconception of the audience against the characters: Lin and Toph. We have a long history with Toph (another popular character) that spans not just this season but two prior ones on A:tLA, and there’s a knee-jerk impulse here to defend or brush off her actions because of that past history. But, really, she’s at fault here: She may be a badass but she really wasn’t a good mother, and Lin has every reason to be upset (especially given the nonchalant way Toph suddenly reveals the identity of her father).

I’ve talked at length in past reviews about how adeptly Bryke & Co. handle family dynamics of all shapes and sizes, and they continue to juggle complicated emotions and relationships in the reconciliation reached between these two stubborn ladies. Toph acknowledges her failings but at last tells her daughter that she’s proud of her, and Lin agrees to “not hate” her, which coming from Lin reads like a freaking love letter. This isn’t a relationship that can be mended overnight (if ever), but there’s enough of a foundation here that they can at least work towards patching up some of the wider holes.

Geez, and I haven’t even mentioned Korra and Zaheer! This is what I get for doing a double-post—there’s too much to talk about and a huge risk that I’ll write a novel in the process. But I have to give this at least a few paragraphs, so pardon the super-sized review. I will say this is probably where I felt the pacing issue most keenly, as I think a little more between these two (particularly after Korra returns from the spirit world) would have gone a long way to helping flesh out this scene and the peculiar relationship between these two characters. That said, I mostly loved what we did get.

Part of what makes Zaheer such a fascinating antagonist is that he keeps his cards close to his chest, behaving with chilling calmness and rarely showing any emotion. He also encapsulates a trait we’ve seen throughout LoK: That of a villain more interested in ideals than people. None of Korra’s enemies have ever had anything against her personally, but rather against her role in the world as the Avatar, and how that role stood in the way of what each antagonist hoped to achieve. So now that Zaheer and Korra’s goals align (see? Kuvira really is the Great Uniter!), he has no problem helping her along on her journey.

This sequence also serves as a nice callback to one of my favorite lines of the season, when Toph suggested that Korra “learn something” from her past enemies. There’s no absolution here—neither Korra nor the series itself is about to forgive Zaheer for his crimes, and he’s staying in that prison regardless of any hybrid Yoda/Hannibal Lecter help he may provide—but facing her enemies head-on, accepting them not just as people but as people who can teach her makes Korra much stronger and wiser than she was before. When she leaves that prison, having accepted her past failures and traumas instead of fighting to forget or push them away, she finally, truly looks ready to tackle the challenges facing her. And that’s a very encouraging sight indeed.

This, That, and the Other

  • HAH! I knew Zhu Li was a double-agent! And yes, yes, I know huge portions of the LoKommunity suspected this as well and it’s nothing special, but let me have my moment, okay? 
  • “I’m gonna poke it with a stick!” Tourists, amirite? 
  • Ultimately I think I’m on board with Toph’s decision to stay out of the bigger fight. As much as I’d love to see the remnants of the Gaang come together to kick ass one last time, I mentioned in a Book 3 Review that a lot of LoK is about the younger generations living in the shadows of their predecessors and how that affects their actions (and often in a negative way), so it’s probably better for the kids that those shadows recede and they learn how to handle their challenges in their own way. 
  • But that Su/Kuvira fight scene tho. In a series chock full of fantastic action sequences, that brief battle may end up as one of my favorites.
  • I’m educated but by no means an expert on historical or current world events, which is why I don’t usually spend a lot of time discussing the political aspects of LoK, but damn, I love how the creative team uses the Avatarverse to touch on real-world events. Raiko’s push for a “preemptive strike” based on evidence of WMDs, the attempt (and failure) to form an international coalition, the arms race between Republic City and the Earth Empire, and the unfortunate scientists caught in the middle… it’s great stuff, really, and makes me wish other shows were half as ambitious as this one. 
  • And hey, speaking of the war council, that’s another great way LoK plays with character and audience knowledge: From Tenzin and Izumi’s perspective, it makes total sense not to attack the Earth Empire. From our godlike audience perspective, though, the issue gets a whole lot more ambiguous. 
  • “What’s up with him?” “He’s an actor.”
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