The Book 3 finale of The Legend of Korra didn't just cap off the strongest season of the series; it was also one of the best episodes of Korra yet. It made us fall in love with our villains all over again while giving our main characters a chance to level up.
Confession time: while watching this week's finale with my earbuds in, I kept turning to one of my coworkers, hitting him, and squealing, "This episode is so good." Thanks for humoring me, coworker.
Once again, this episode shows us how much Korra herself has grown over the course of the season. This Korra decides to turn herself over to Zaheer not petulantly, not without listening to adult counsel or forming a plan, but carefully and deliberately. This is still a Korra who will survive thanks in part to martial skill, but also because all of the other turtle ducks were in a row. (Except Varrick; I'm kind of bummed his magnetic suit didn't make an appearance in the finale.) Team Avatar has two goals: rescue the captured Airbenders and to make sure Korra doesn't die.
But first, a moment with our antagonists.
At this point, I hit my co-worker and sighed, "They've been imprisoned apart from one another for 13 years and they are more in love than ever." I am putty in the writers' hands.
But Zaheer and P'Li find they have a lot on their hands rather quickly when Asami, Bolin, and Mako realize that Ghazan and Ming-Hua have led them to a battered Tenzin, but not the other Airbenders. Ghazan gets a good bit of lava started, forcing the four to make their own back passageway.
Bolin has spent a good bit of the last few episodes frustrated by his inability to Metalbend, but this episode did a nice job of showing that he's a very competent Earthbender, even without a specialization, keeping everyone one step ahead of the Ghazan's lava. But in the, ahem, heat of the moment, Bolin discovers that he does have a subspecialty: Lavabending.
It's a theme of this episode, that people discover powers when they are pushed to their limit. And it's nice to see Bolin, who has grown from bumbling celebrity to a fast-on-his-feet asset since last season, is growing in the bending department as well.
Meanwhile, everyone on Laghima's Peak has to deal with the very real possibility of loss. Even with her arms and legs chained, Korra manages to get a few shots in at Zaheer before Tonraq, Su, and Lin show up to free her. They end up separating into two different battles: Tonraq and Korra versus Zaheer and the Metalbenders versus P'Li.
Then an apparent tragedy occurs during each of these battles. Zaheer sends Tonraq over a cliff, seemingly to his death. (Only seemingly, though.) Then, when P'Li seems on the verge of killing Lin, Su encases her face in metal, suffocating her.
Edit: A couple of folks are pointing out that this happens just as P'Li activated her combustion, meaning she blew off her own head. Good stuff.
We've seen death on Korra before. Tarrlok killed Amon and himself, and Korra destroyed Unalaq's Dark Avatar in a purification ritual. But this season, any character can kill, for philosophy, for love, for self-defense.
But P'Li's death has an unintended effect. As soon as Zaheer realizes that P'Li is dead, he "enters the void" and unlocks the rare Airbender abilities of levitation and flight.
The moment that Zaheer reveals that P'Li's death was responsible his lack of earthly attachments and his ability to fly highlights why the Red Lotus are such strong antagonists. Zaheer's calm demeanor and contented acceptance of this exchange is repulsive, but at the same time, you feel awful for him. He truly loved P'Li, and her death actually leaves a void in him.
And the way in which Zaheer achieved these powers ties in nicely to the Airbenders' mythology. There is a reason that the Airbenders are nomads and eschew worldly possessions; their art is more effective the less tied they are to the material plane. It also goes a long way toward explaining why Tenzin can be an Airbending master, but lacks the higher level skills and spiritualism that Zaheer has so readily attained. More than Aang or Zaheer or even Jinora, Tenzin is firmly tied to the material plane through his friends and family. He has Pema, his children, Korra, Lin, and now the Air Nation. Tenzin is a father and right now that's what the Air Nation needs more than someone with legendary skills.
At last, the Red Lotus reveals its endgame. They force a metallic toxin into Korra's body, forcing her into the life-preserving Avatar state. (Fortunately, Jinora witnesses this in her spirit form.) Once she's in that state, the Red Lotus plans to kill her, thus ending the Avatar cycle and allowing chaos—and by extension "true freedom"—to flourish.
If this were the series finale of Korra (it's not; Book 4 is currently in production), then there would be something powerful about Korra resisting the Avatar state and dying without it. For a while, it seems like that's precisely what she's trying to do, although ultimately she succumbs to self-preservation. But what the Red Lotus didn't count on is just how powerful Korra is in the Avatar state. After hallucinating all of her former enemies—Amon, Unalaq, Vaatu—she tears free of her bonds and, maddened by both the poison and her mistaken grief over her father, fights back.
Bolin and Mako each get their own moment with Ghazan and Ming-Hua. Man, I'm going to miss those two. Ghazan is appropriately impressed by Bolin's new Lavabending, but ultimately suicides when he sees the possibility of being recaptured.
The Ming-Hua battle is appropriately fun and frightening, and it's hard to imagine that Mako could be anything close to a match for her. But then he does something smart, something I'd actually forgotten Mako could do: he Lightningbends, electrocuting her in a pool of water.
Didn't know you had it in you, Mako.
Then it's time for Korra and Zaheer's final battle, which was wonderfully animated and had me repeatedly swatting my coworker so he could look at my screen. Even in the Avatar state, Korra isn't quite able to defeat Zaheer, but the point is that she doesn't have to, at least not alone. Korra has friends who would follow her to the ends of the earth; she has helped rebuild the Air Nation and this is her reward.
The Airbenders are able to ground Zaheer, who believes, for a moment, that he has succeeded in ending the Avatar cycle. But Jinora knows that the toxin he used is metallic and that Su may be able to remove it from Korra's body. Su manages to force all of it into Korra's stomach and pull it out through her mouth. It does not look pleasant.
In fact, it becomes clear this episode that Korra's place in the Avatar cycle is not a pleasant one. Where once she felt frustrated as a peacetime Avatar, now her job is to bring order to the rapid changes of her world and absorb the abuse of destabilizing forces. Korra is a person whose identity is wrapped up in being strong, but in the process of preserving the Avatar cycle and protecting the Air Nation, she becomes physically weak.
I'm glad we're getting to see the aftermath of Korra's battle with Zaheer and the toxin. It hits home that being the Avatar takes a very real toll on the people who wear the mantle. We also see that, even after all this, Korra still isn't living up to popular expectations of what an Avatar should be. The President of Republic City believes and Avatar should be strong, and it obviously concerns him to see Korra so weak. But the people closest to Korra, like Tenzin, Lin, and Asami, see Korra as a human being, someone who has just been through an intense ordeal and needs time to recover.
Speaking of Asami:
What a tease. I don't mean Asami; I mean whoever wrote that line.
By the way, shoetrees is the new name for sandalwood and no one is going to convince me otherwise.
Oh, and we get a bald Jinora! Yay! Jinora is now officially an Airbending master and the very image of Aang in her new tattoos. And Korra, despite her frustration at her own weakness, is determined to be there for her friend, even if she isn't quite ready to be happy.
But Korra may have to get back on the polar bear dog before she's truly ready. The Red Lotus may have been defeated, but not before they left their bloody mark upon the world. Korra has rebuilt the Air Nation, but the Earth Nation needs its Avatar, too.
All in all, this was a wonderful season and a real treat to watch. Applause all around to the folks who make the show. We're looking forward to seeing what Book 4 brings.