Nickelodeon surprised fans by releasing the entire Legend of Korra finale last night, giving us two hours of Avatar goodness. And while the final episodes did a lot to highlight the flaws of this season, it tied up several of the characters' arcs on a satisfying note and finally gave Korra a deed worthy of a legend.
These four episodes managed to encompass some of the best aspects of this series—its sense of humor, its design, the choreography of its fights—while highlighting the difficulty that the writers have had in balancing their ever-growing cast of characters. There were so many character moments during these episodes that had me thinking, "Ohhhh, this is what they were planning this whole time. If only they had done it in a more carefully structured way during the earlier episodes."
Bolin is a great example. Bolin has been off doing his own thing all season as the star of Varrick's serials, but as a member of Team Avatar, he has effectively been on the bench. He even vocalizes the weird disjointedness of Team Avatar in a conversation with Asami. So it ends up being really cathartic when Bolin gets in on the action, effectively becoming Nuktuk and taking out a trio of waterbenders keen on kidnapping the president. (I guess professional athletes are more skilled than Varrick's goons? Zhu Li aside, Varrick really needs to hire better help.)
As an aside, this episode's propaganda film might be my favorite television moment of the year. The way the storyboard artists designed the choppy edits and special effects was simply brilliant, and I almost fell out of bed when the fake paws came in to cover Naga's "crying" eyes. I almost ran to my partner to scream about how amazing it was, but he doesn't watch Korra and probably would have just stared at me as if I was a crazy person.
I did think that the parallels between Bolin's battle on screen and his battle against the waterbenders was going in a slightly different direction. What we're seeing is Bolin becoming the hero he appears to be in the movers, down to Ginger recognizing his earthbending prowess. I actually thought the entire encounter between Bolin and the waterbenders was another clever plot from Varrick, that he had somehow orchestrated it all so that Bolin would publicly chase off a bunch of "Northerners" attempting to kidnap the president. Effectively, Varrick would be doubling his propaganda, having the live thing echoed by his fiction on the screen. Since the show is pressed for time, I'll take what we got, but I groaned a little when the waterbender confessed to being one of Varrick's agents. Again, Varrick, you need better help.
This sequence had some really nice details—the police officers eating "Varrick cakes," which were basically jelly donuts, the pro-bending announcer narrating Bolin's battle—but it was particularly weak on the Asami and Lin front. The show has really been resting Asami and Lin on their laurels this season. Asami is never anything less than awesome, and she does finally get a bit of glory as we move to the final battle, but I feel like something was missed with the Varrick arc. When Mako was arrested, there was a hint that Asami suspected Mako was right about Varrick, but there's no hint in the final episodes that she was even working on uncovering the truth, and the claim that she refused to visit Mako in jail because it reminded her of her father rang false. As for Lin, she's remarkably blasé about trusting the wrong folks on the police force. Just because she's a tough, no-nonsense lady doesn't mean that she can't show a bit of humility.
Oh, and then there was this:
Mako, you are a goddamn coward. Asami, you are a good egg for not letting romantic tensions get in the way of Team Avatar's needs. Writers, I was totally convinced that you were trolling us at this point.
I was relieved, though, to see that Varrick has come out of this whole ordeal with a good sense of humor and a hat that is firmly gray. I was worried that he might tip into full-on villain territory, but he came off as a crook with a patriotic bent, a character who isn't afraid to lie, cheat, and manipulate to get what he wants, but who can be a valuable ally as well as an enemy. Also, I may be in love with Zhu Li.
After Bolin, it's Bumi who gets his solid character moment. The Aang family has spent most of this season tooling around, and Bumi has gone from eccentric military officer to an insecure dude with a mess of daddy issues. But even as Tenzin develops a fantastic eye-twitch from Bumi's tall tales, it's clear that there's probably a bit more truth than fiction behind Bumi's oddball adventures. And hey, if his words inspire Asami to get back in the cockpit, all the better. (Asami needs to drive more. In fact, next season should involve Asami and Korra starting a motorcycle gang.)
As lovely as the bending battle sequences are in Korra, it's nice to see to a physical confrontation that doesn't involve bending. The brief, quiet fight between Bumi and the dark spirit in the snow is both a nice break from the chaotic action of Team Avatar's push toward the spirit portal and a visually beautiful moment. Plus, Bumi ends it with something appropriately unexpected: his flute. And then the subsequent hilarity of Bumi's accidental destruction of the Northern encampments goes a long way toward explaining why Bumi's stories always sound so ludicrous.
And so, when Team Avatar steps into the spirit world (or one person of each flavor—Avatar, airbender, waterbender, earthbender, firebender, and badass normal—from Team Avatar), it's a viable team. Korra is still angry, but her anger has taken on a more righteous tone, and she has made amends with the father figures she has wronged. Bumi, we are reminded, is a strong and capable figure. Tenzin is increasingly aware of his limitations and his failings as a mentor, but brings with him a wealth of academic knowledge. And through Bolin's actions, Mako and Bolin seem a competent team of benders, freshly energized for the challenges ahead.
Note: If you are waiting until next week to watch the finale broadcast, stop reading here if you want to be unspoiled. If you've already watched the entire finale, feel free to read on.
If anyone on this team is particularly anxious about what they will face in the Spirit World, it should be Tenzin, who is still carrying around the shame of failing to guide Korra into the Spirit World and the potential loss of his daughter Jinora. But it turns out that Tenzin's years of studying the Spirit World have not been in vain; a hint from Iroh points him to Jinora's location in the mist of lost souls. And, while his siblings quickly succumb to the madness of the mists, Tenzin is rewarded for all of his angst by a vision of his father who tells him, once and for all, that Tenzin is wonderful as the man he is, and that he shouldn't expect to be a mirror of his father. In death, Aang was finally able to give Tenzin what he failed to give him in life: validation as his own man. Perhaps it is this validation that allows him to trust Jinora and not panic when she vanishes following her rescue, insisting that she is needed elsewhere.
It's a good thing that Tenzin got his closure with Aang, because Aang and all the previous Avatars are getting the tar kicked out of them by Unalaq and Vaatu. As many commenters have suspected would happen for a while now, Unalaq merged with Vaatu in order to become the Dark Avatar. And, if Unalaq had to go all supervillain on us, at least he had a plan that makes sense in the context of his spiritual nature: to usher in the age of the spirits, giving them free reign in the physical world. I can certainly buy that Unalaq believes that the Avatar is a force of chaos rather than a force for peace—especially where Avatars like Korra are concerned—and that he, in his hubris, would believe that he is a superior spiritual vessel, even if the spiritual power he wields is a dark one.
I was very curious as to how the final confrontation between Korra/Raava and Unalaq/Vaatu would pan out, given how much of this season has been devoted to getting Korra to rely less on her physical prowess than on her spiritual power. But even as the initial portions of Korra's fight with Unalaq are primarily physical, there are hints that force of will is an important component to their battle. When Unalaq threatens to squeeze Korra to death, the admonition from Raava is that she can't give up. But Korra's true spiritual task comes when Unalaq separates Raava from Korra and seems to destroy the Avatar spirit. And that's when things get interesting.
They get interesting in part because Tenzin and Korra must unite Tenzin's knowledge and Korra's spiritual power in order to call forth Korra's giant inner spirit. They get interesting because Unalaq storms Republic City, giving The Legend of Korra its very own tribute to tokusatsu media, with the Dark Avatar swatting planes out of the sky King Kong-style and Korra playing the 50-foot woman. They get interesting because Varrick escapes in yet another fabulous Zhu Li moment. (I want one of those flying packs.) And they get interesting because, in a key moment, we're reminded that, even though Korra is the Avatar, she can't win these battles on her own. Jinora arrives at a key moment to give Korra the extra boost she needs to reclaim Raava. (I love Pema for her plea for Jinora to be careful.) And, when her task is done, Jinora wakes, looking far more mature than the girl who led Korra into the Spirit World. Jinora will have some big tasks ahead of her as a spiritual medium.
And after Korra vanquishes Unalaq (perhaps kicking off the Dark Avatar cycle?), she also returns with a newfound sense of maturity. Her first act is not to revel in her victory, but to express regret to her cousins over the death of their father—and then consider whether Unalaq, for all his madness, was right about removing the separation between the spirits and humans. The notion that Unalaq was right goes a long way to salve my disappointment in his becoming the big bad.
Eska and Desna did get a heel-faced-turn during the finale, after Bolin convinced Eska (and himself) that he was in love with her. Perhaps Eska just needed to feel that she was loved by someone other than her father. It will be interesting to see if they return to the North as agents of their father's shame, or potential rebuilders.
And, at long last, Korra and Mako put their relationship to bed in a way that feels like it will stick. Yes, this relationship isn't good for either of you. Can Korra just worry about being the Avatar for a while without the romantic drama?
But at least we finish the season with a strong Korra, a Korra who seems to know what her internal struggles are and that she will have to fight with her own nature a bit in order to serve the world. And a Korra who has made a decision, to leave the Spirit Portals open so that humans and spirits can mingle freely. It's certainly a major complication in a series that tends to get bogged down in its complications, but although I accept that the next season may very well be as messy as this one, if these final episodes were any indication, there will be plenty to enjoy.