The event we’ve been waiting for is finally here: Korra versus Kuvira, with the fate of Zaofu hanging in the balance. Is it thrilling? Yes. Does it go well for the Avatar? Hell no.

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While the title of this episode suggests a grand military skirmish, the actual Battle of Zaofu is surprisingly contained. Rather than launching her considerable army at Suyin’s city-state, Kuvira decides to confront the Avatar in a one-on-one battle, a decision that shows how well this season’s antagonist manages her public image. When Korra, Jinora, and Opal appear to rescue the captured Suyin, Wing, and Wei, Kuvira challenges Korra to a no-holds-barred brawl between just the two of them, loudly announcing that she would never ask her army to do something that she would never do herself.

When she’s not behind closed doors, Kuvira puts on her “Great Uniter” mask to look as admirable as possible, even though a large portion of her army is made up of people that she’s forced into service. By putting up this façade, she’s able to convince the rest of the world that she’s doing what’s best. This is why people are wearing Kuvira t-shirts; they see the image that Kuvira wants them to see, and it’s an image of a strong, confident woman that will fight to bring her fractured people together.

The audience sees what Kuvira is like when she’s not in the public eye, but it’s still hard to hate her after the work the writers have done establishing her motivations. She genuinely wanted to help the Earth Kingdom when she started her campaign, and she’s still a semi-honorable person despite the shadier aspects of her personality. Yes, showing up at Zaofu with a massive army is clearly a threatening act of aggression, but Kuvira does give Suyin the opportunity to willingly join the Earth Empire without any conflict. Kuvira knows that Suyin won’t back down and will probably try something like her late-night attack at the start of this episode, but she waits until that happens so that her actions will look like a response to Suyin’s first strike.

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When news gets out of Kuvira’s occupation of Zaofu, the narrative will likely be framed in a way that shows Suyin as a rebel unwilling to cooperate with Kuvira’s mission of unity, forcing Kuvira to take forceful action. Kuvira knows exactly what she’s doing, and her intelligence would be admirable if wasn’t being used in service of a campaign that threatens the wellbeing of the entire planet. It’s easy to see Kuvira’s Earth Empire becoming the modern equivalent of Ozai’s Fire Nation, and there’s no way of telling when Kuvira’s campaign will end. Empires are constantly looking to expand, and once Kuvira takes Zaofu, where will she direct her army next? (Probably Republic City, setting up this show’s big finale in the place where the series started.)

It’s easy to forget that it’s been just a few days since Korra got Zaheer’s poison out of her system, and she’s just not ready for the challenge of fighting Kuvira, who has been sharpening her skills over the last three years while Korra has been out of practice. Korra may have access to all the elements, but because she has so much bending potential, it hasn’t been explored as fully as Kuvira’s earthbending. Like Toph, Kuvira is a master earthbender that can dodge any attack with ease and counter it with incredible force. Korra tries to take out Kuvira by cycling through air, fire, and earth attacks, but she’s just swinging wildly while her opponent is patient and methodical, waiting for the perfect moment to strike as Korra wears herself out. Korra doesn’t even land a hit on Kuvira until she enters the Avatar state, and that’s when everything really falls apart for her.

Floating over Kuvira with a giant boulder over her head, Korra is prepared to end this battle until Kuvira looks up at her. Rather than seeing the face of her enemy, Korra sees her own; she hasn’t been in the Avatar state in battle since fighting Zaheer, and being in the Avatar state in these circumstances rips open old wounds that send Korra back into a powerless mode. As painful as it is to see Korra continue to struggle with her PTSD, I appreciate how dedicated the writers of The Legend Of Korra are to this plot development. It’s entirely possible that Korra’s healing process will never be fully completed, and she’ll be struggling with her deeper emotional scars for the rest of her life.

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No matter how many people try to help Korra get past her pain, the memory of it will always linger in her mind. She may have gotten rid of the last traces of Zaheer’s poison from her body, but that doesn’t mean she’s recovered mentally. It just means she can reenter the Avatar state, which returns Korra to full power, but also takes down her personal defenses to leave her vulnerable to the trauma of the past. It’s a fascinating contrast to how Aang interacted with the Avatar state. Aang was reluctant to enter the Avatar state after seeing the destruction he was capable of, but Korra is kept from the Avatar state because of the damage it’s inflicted on her personally.

The Avatar state gives the Avatar the advantage in the never-ending fight to maintain balance in the world, but that advantage has been stripped away from Korra because she now associates the Avatar state with personal pain and suffering. When she sees that former image of herself, she collapses, forcing Opal and Jinora to come to her rescue by starting a giant tornado. The fall of Zaofu is inevitable, but there’s no way in hell that Opal and Jinora are going to let Korra fall into Kuvira’s hands, and Jinora is able to spiritually summon her siblings to save the three women and fly them off to safety. (Side note: How awesome is it that all of the main characters on the battlefield are women? Very awesome.)

Once Korra, Opal, and Tenzin’s kids retreat, Zaofu goes down without a fight. It may feel like it’s a little too easy for Kuvira, but it reinforces the idea that Zaofu never stood a chance fighting Kuvira’s massive army by traditional military means. Its only hopes were subterfuge or the Avatar, and after learning that Korra wasn’t going to fight, Suyin chose her only other option to protect her territory. The episode does great work building tension during Suyin, Wing, and Wei’s covert operation, showing them quietly sneaking through Kuvira’s camp before they burrow underground and into Kuvira’s living quarters. The discordant strings in the score establish a fraught atmosphere, and surely enough, things go very wrong for the Beifong trio when they realize the Kuvira set them up by planting Zhu Li in her bed.

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As Korra fights Kuvira, Varrick is finding a way to free himself and Bolin from Kuvira’s forced servitude by experimenting with the spirit vines and turning them into a weapon that works in his favor. Knowing that it’s easier to just let spirit vines explode rather than trying to focus their energy, Varrick toys around with the vines and turns them into a ticking time bomb, giving Batar and his security force five minutes to abandon the train car before everyone gets blown up into little pieces. He and Bolin will go down with the ship to save them from a life as prisoners of war, and just in case Batar tries to take them off the train, Varrick also has a remote that he can use to blow everyone up faster. It’s a risky gamble, but it pays off. And while Varrick actually plans on committing suicide, Bolin is able to save their asses by opening a latch in the floor and burrowing their way out by bending the earth under the train tracks.

Once again, John Michael Higgins absolutely dominates this episode with his voice work for Varrick, and after this episode, I hope the pairing of Bolin and Varrick never splits up. (What would their shipping name be? Bolick? Varlin?) Higgins and P.J. Byrne interact so well together, and Byrne’s manic performance in their scenes is a great foil for Higgins’ cooler, yet still exaggerated, vocal quality. Bolin’s freaking out, but Varrick is surprisingly calm considering the circumstances; he’s resigned himself to death, but Bolin isn’t having any of that. I love Bolin’s body language in these scenes, and the animation team does exceptional work reflecting his chaotic mindset in the way he moves. Varrick and Bolin’s storyline balances drama and comedy very well, and I’m eager to get more interactions between the two of them now that they’re stranded in the desert.

As we approach the halfway point of Book Four, “Battle Of Zaofu” considerably raises the stakes by turning Zaofu over to Kuvira. She’s made this war personal by seizing Suyin’s territory, and the season’s narrative arc gets a big boost of forward momentum as a result. Where do we go from here? My best guess is the Fire Kingdom, which is the last big area of this world that The Legend Of Korra has yet to explore. I’m ready to see the Fire Kingdom, Northern and Southern Water Tribes, New Air Nation team up to put Kuvira in her place, and it’s beginning to look like that’s the only available option to stop Kuvira’s reign of terror.

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Stray observations:

  • I love it when those Beifong girls use their mom’s trick of seeing through the ground.
  • The evolution of Huan’s hair from Book Three to Book Four is wonderful. It does such a good job of separating him from the rest of the Beifong clan and establishing him as the artsy one that is wholly concerned with self-expression. (He also looks like he would fit right in with a K-Pop boy group.)
  • Varrick is productive for 15 minutes a day, around 3:45 in the afternoon specifically, which is when I feel the least productive.
  • The Huan/Meelo/Ikki art class scene is excellent comic relief in the middle of all the tense drama. Ikki’s drawing and Huan’s praiseful reaction to it are hilarious, and we once again get to see Meelo’s artistic skill on display as he draws a kingly portrait of himself. I need Ikki-style fan drawings to become a thing on Tumblr.
  • “Aw man! When am I gonna see some action?”
  • “Cookie jar empty… Hot towels… Waxy build-up. ZHU LI!”
  • Varrick: “Bolin. Do the thing.” Bolin: “What thing?” Varrick: “The thing! I never had to tell Zhu Li what thing.”
  • “You’ll be sorry you left me, Zhu Li! When they write the history books, your name will be synonymous with betrayal! People will say, ‘Hey, what happened to that guy?’ ‘Oh, didn’t you hear? He Varrick-ed himself because some girl Zhu Li-ed him!”
  • Varrick: “Do the thing!” Bolin: “Uh..” Varrick: “Unhook the cars. Oh come on, that was an easy one.”
  • Batar: “You’re insane!” Varrick: “You knew that when you hired me!”
  • “You can’t handle all this Meelo!”
  • “Get your hands off of me! You’re crushing my individuality.”

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