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THREE. YEARS. LATER.

To start the final season of The Legend Of Korra (and likely the final season of the entire Avatar saga), the creators make the most dramatic move ever seen on either series, jumping forward three years to completely alter the character dynamics and political landscape for Book Four. The status quo was different at the start of Book Three with the rise of new airbenders and the return of spirits to the material world, but the relationships didn’t change all that drastically from the previous season. The core cast was still together, but it had a new mission in an evolving world.

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That evolution continues in Book Four, but this season premiere drives a wedge through Team Avatar, revealing that the four members moved in different directions as they entered early adulthood. Asami stayed in Republic City to run Future Industries, creating the rail system that has helped unite the Earth Kingdom following the chaos caused by the Red Lotus. Bolin has been riding that rail system as a soldier in Kuvira’s army, helping the former Metal Clan guard as she unites the city-states of the Earth Kingdom by forcing them to pledge allegiance to her. Mako works as the bodyguard of Kuvira’s political rival Prince Wu, the spoiled, ignorant great-nephew of Earth Queen Hou-Ting. And Korra? Well, no one really knows what’s going on with her.

“After All These Years” is a solid season premiere. It sets the stage for Book Four well, features slick animation by Studio Mir, and delivers characteristically dynamic action sequences, but there’s one key element missing: Korra. I understand the decision to begin the season with an episode that doesn’t feature the Avatar until the final two minutes—it shows the audience how the world has changed without Korra over the last three years—but this is Korra’s show and it doesn’t feel complete without her in it. I believe that’s all intentional, making the viewers yearn for Korra just like the rest of the ensemble, but it’s a choice that keeps this premiere from achieving greatness.

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That said, there’s still plenty to enjoy in “After All These Years.” The show is still as visually captivating as ever, with new character designs that reflect how the cast has changed over time. Asami’s wardrobe has shifted away from military chic to a more businesslike style, and she’s started to wear her hair like her mother. Bolin and Mako have similarly matured in their appearance: they wear formal job uniforms, and their wild hair has been locked into place to give them the clean-cut appearance of working men.

The coolest redesign of Book Four comes courtesy of The New Air Nation, which has switched out its loose-fitting old uniforms for sleek new flightsuits that incorporate the gliding ability of an airbender staff via a flying squirrel-like membrane under the arms. It gives the airbenders an appearance that makes them look almost like a superhero team—fitting considering their role as the world’s nomadic protectors— and the new costumes show how the Air Nation has fully embraced the modern age.

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The New Air Nation is primarily represented this week by Kai and Opal, who team up to protect the city of Yi from bandits, but their aid work is interrupted by the arrival of Kuvira’s forces. Bolin’s allegiance to Kuvira has had a major impact on his relationship with Opal, and the show does strong work creating a complicated dynamic between the characters by not making their problems overly explicit. Opal is clearly unhappy with Kuvira’s tactics, and seeing her boyfriend help put another dictator in power makes her question if Bolin is right for her. Bolin is largely oblivious to Opal’s worries, but by the end of the episode, he has a definite idea that something is wrong with their relationship.

This episode has a lot of backstory to cover thanks to the time-jump, but writer Joshua Hamilton smoothly folds the hefty amount of exposition into the dialogue without making each conversation feel like a clunky recap. The script doesn’t get into too much detail regarding past events, giving the audience a bare-bones summary of key points, but leaving plenty of room for further exploration of these moments in potential flashbacks. For example: Three years ago, Kuvira left Zaofu with Opal’s brother Bataar Jr. to reunite the Earth Kingdom, an action viewed as a betrayal by Suyin and the rest of her family. We don’t learn the specifics of Kuvira’s split from Suyin, but we know it wasn’t good based on Opal’s reaction when she encounters her brother and his new warlord fiancé.

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Kuvira is clearly being set up as this season’s villain, but she doesn’t seem all that bad in this week’s episode. Yes, she forces people to join her by securing their wrists to train tracks with metal bands (in the episode’s coolest action sequence), but she also provides food and protection for the people of Yi once their governor swears his total allegiance. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kuvira was working directly with the bandits in some way. She’s been steadily adding bandits to her ranks, as shown by the aforementioned train track scene, and it would be very easy for Kuvira to employ those new recruits to continue their old work for her gain.

The threat of the Red Lotus is still out there, but at this point it’s hard to say if Kuvira is a member. Her current campaign appears to go against the anarchic principles of the Red Lotus, but it’s also possible that anarchy is just the first step in a larger plot that ultimately ends with the Red Lotus in control of the four nations. Whether or not she’s affiliated with the Red Lotus, Kuvira’s power hungry campaign poses a threat to the balance of the world, and while she may be “The Great Uniter” of the Earth Kingdom right now, what happens after she’s taken control of all the Earth Kingdom territories? It’s very possible that Kuvira will try to bring the entire world under her rule, and that’s very bad for balance.

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This episode teases the return of Korra to Republic City, but when the ship from the Southern Water Tribe arrives, Korra is nowhere to be found. Tonraq says that Korra left six months ago and has been sending him letters from Republic City, but clearly he’s been fooled. So where is Korra? In a random arena somewhere, getting the snot beaten out of her by an earthbender.

Last season ended with a shot of a single tear falling down Korra’s sullen face, and her first appearance in Book Four is another close-up, but now Korra is getting hit in the face with a rock. Her feelings have transformed from sadness to anger, and the shift in those two close-ups perfectly reflects that emotional shift. Korra appears to have physically recovered from her fight with Zaheer, but the deeper scars haven’t healed yet. She’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, putting herself in an environment where she can make her body feel the pain that still aches in her soul. She’s running from her old identity—hence the new short hair—but she’s trying to escape her problems when she should be directly confronting them.

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It’s possible that Korra has fled her role as Avatar so that she can train and come back more powerful than ever, but there’s a disdain in Janet Varney’s voice work that suggests Korra is genuinely resentful of her past. She wants to distance herself from her duty as the Avatar because of how it has hurt her, but rather than choosing a life direction free of pain, Korra chooses one that ensures it on a regular basis. Korra knows that she is shirking her responsibility, and she’s punishing herself by stepping into a ring. She knows that the world needs an Avatar and that she’s the only one, and her guilt pushes her away from a life of blissful solitude into one where she is forced to suffer.

The big difference is that Korra is in control of that suffering in the ring. She can get hit over and over again, and when she’s had enough, she just has to fall to the ground and the fight ends. Nobody is going to put an air bubble around her head and asphyxiate her in the ring, and she’ll even get some cash for her trouble. How did Korra get to this low point? How will she pull herself out of it? Will she rediscover her self-worth in time to save the world from war? Where is Toph? These are just a few of the questions driving the final season of The Legend Of Korra, and I can’t wait to discover the answers.

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Stray observations:

  • Prince Wu may put the moves on Asami, but he’s definitely setting off my gaydar with his flamboyant personality, affinity for luscious spa treatments, and obvious affection for Mako. I get the impression he’s interested in Asami because he wants Future Industries, but he’s interested in Mako because he wants Mako.
  • I need Prince Wu and Varrick to meet so they can have a face-off of exaggerated body language.
  • One thing that immediately makes Kuvira a more engaging villain than Zaheer is Zelda Williams’ voice work. Her Kuvira is stern and severe, but you get the idea that she genuinely believes in what she is doing. You also get the smallest hint of pleasure from Williams’ performance, showing that Kuvira delights in her conquest. It’s much more multidimensional than what Henry Rollins was doing with Zaheer.
  • Bolin and Mako: cuter then or now?
  • I hope this season explores Spirit Wilds of Republic City. I love this show’s spirit designs, and I’m interested in seeing how the metropolis has adjusted to its new population.
  • If the voice of Yi’s governor sounds familiar, that’s because he’s played by noted character actor Robert Morse (Mad Men, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying).
  • I’m sad that we didn’t spend more time with bald Jinora, although she looks much less like Aang now that her hair’s grown back.
  • “Meelo the boy… has turned into Meelo the man!” This was the episode’s funniest moment for me, especially because of the hilarious direction from Colin Heck. The transition from the messy crayon drawings to the sleek inked artwork in the background, the electric guitar lick when Meelo poses… it’s all so perfect.
  • Lin Beifong: “The chances of you being assassinated are almost zero.” Prince Wu: “Almost?”
  • “Stop groveling like this is the worst day of your life. This is a good day.”

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