Avatar: The Last Airbender was the story of a world.
The Legend Of Korra is the story of a woman.
The distinction in made clear in the titles. The preceding series was about the concept of the Avatar first and foremost, and Aang, the last airbender, was just the latest chapter in the Avatar saga. The show built that saga by devoting considerable time exploring the landscape of this world and delving into its history, delivering an astounding amount of material over the course of 61 episodes. The extensive world-building done in that first series made it possible for The Legend Of Korra to take a more personal, introspective approach, focusing on how a teenage female lead deals with her extraordinary power and the responsibility that only gets heavier and heavier with time.
More than any other season of Korra, Book Three felt like an extension of Avatar, expanding the scope of the series by forcing the characters out of Republic City and into Earth Kingdom territory. Korra started to drift into the background as the New Airbender Nation and the Red Lotus began to take up screen time, but those aspects of the plot were so intriguing that it didn’t feel like the show was losing anything by drifting away from Korra’s specific story. But at the end of the day, this is Korra’s legend, and the writers have chosen to bring the focus back to her in a big way for the series’ final season.
The result has been a Book Four that feels relatively small in comparison to what has come before it, but I prefer to use the term “intimate” to describe the scale of this season. This is an arc about Korra rediscovering her strength after experiencing trauma after trauma, providing an intensely emotional look at how a young woman comes to term with past horrors in order to realize her full potential once again. What this season has done so well is establish the weight of these past traumatic experiences on Korra’s body, mind, and spirit, giving Korra small successes along her journey to recovery but prolonging her full healing for as long as possible.
If Avatar’s final four episodes are any indication—and they very well may not be— Korra’s final four could be individual chapters of a four-part finale, so this is the right time to close the book on Korra’s PTSD and put her back at full power for the big closing battle. To do that, Korra needs to confront the man who has haunted her for the last three years: Zaheer. It’s a development that takes me completely by surprise even though I should have expected it given Zaheer is still alive, and writer Joshua Hamilton does exceptional work with the reunion of the two enemies, taking an approach that offers redemption for Zaheer rather than retribution for Korra.
It all comes down to balance. As Toph explained, all of Korra’s opponents have had noble intentions that became corrupted, but unlike Aman and Unalaq, Zaheer has lived to deal with the consequences of his actions. During his first stint in prison, Zaheer was still deeply committed to the cause of the Red Lotus and spent his incarceration plotting his moves in case he ever broke free, but he’s in a decidedly different situation for his second prison tenure. He put his plan in motion for the Earth Kingdom, and instead of ushering in a new utopian age from the ashes of an anarchist uprising, he simply gave a new dictator the opportunity to rise to power by repairing the broken nation by force. And he lost his friends and lover in the process.
This isn’t what Zaheer wanted, and he’s had three years to reflect on that. He reached a new level of enlightenment when he became an airbender, and he has a much more Zen mentality than he did before. He reveals that he spends most of his time in the spirit world, a place where he’s not bound in chains, and you get the impression that Zaheer has relinquished all ties to the physical world during his current time in prison. He’s more in tune with the spirit world, and now that Kuvira’s actions are starting to affect that environment, he has a personal stake in helping Korra take down the leader of the Earth Empire.
Kuvira’s gathering of spirit vines in the swamp has caused the spirit vines in Republic City to start abducting humans that pass through the streets, including Jinora, and Korra needs to enter the spirit world to save the people being held prisoner there. But whenever she tries to meditate into the spirit world, she’s ambushed by the memory of Zaheer’s attack, forcing her back into her physical body. The poison is gone and Korra has talked about her problems with the people she cares about, but she’s still being held back by something, and she realizes that something is Zaheer.
As I mentioned earlier, Aman and Unalaq both died after tormenting Korra. Their threat was extinguished once Korra proved herself against them, but that’s not the case with Zaheer. He’s still alive. That means he can hurt her again. He may be in prison right now, but he was in prison before and managed to break free, so the threat is always going to be there. Korra believes that if she sees Zaheer in chains she’ll be able to eliminate her fear, but Zaheer is no fool. He can tell that she’s scared from the moment he sees her, and all it takes is a quick aggressive movement from Zaheer to make Korra drop her guard. That moment is one of the most effective of the entire episode thanks to Ian Graham’s dynamic direction and Zaheer’s manic facial expression, making the viewer experience Korra’s shock when Zaheer rushes toward her.
Zaheer has no interest in further hurting Korra, though. He scares her to prove a point, to get her riled up so that she’ll express her true feelings. “I came here to look you in the eye and tell you that you have no power over me,” Korra says at first. “I am no longer scared of you.” But denial isn’t going to get her anywhere. She needs to say what is really bothering her if she’s going to heal, and all it takes is a little provocation to put Korra on that path. “You poisoned me! You ruined me!” Korra says after Zaheer exposes her fear. “People used to think I was unstoppable but now they don’t think I’m capable of anything!” She puts all of the blame on Zaheer, and while most of the blame does belong to him, ultimately it’s up to Korra do decide whether or not she’s going to let herself be limited by what this man did to her.
It’s very hard not to see Korra’s experience as a metaphor for the suffering experienced by women every single day. In reality, the female sex is fighting an uphill battle; fighting for equal representation, fighting for control of their bodies, fighting for change in a culture that has made women and girls the primary victims of abuse in myriad forms. Men have gravely threatened Korra’s wellbeing multiple times over the course of this series, and this season is all about the heroine’s struggle to believe in herself after the damage done by these violations. She let her life be defined by that fear, and it kept her down. She imposed all these limits on herself because it was safer to live that way, but now that the world desperately needs her, she has to take the steps needed to finally put her mind as ease.
In real life, learning to cope with past trauma is immensely difficult, but everything changes for the individual when that healing process is completed. The stakes for Korra are considerably greater, though; she needs to save herself so that she can save the world. And she does that by accepting what happened to her instead of running from it. In order to put her spirit at peace, Korra needs to fully relive Zaheer’s attack from three years ago, and with her former opponent’s help, she’s able to accept the pain of the past to break through her spiritual barrier.
The other major development this week is the arrival of Bolin and Varrick in Republic City, revealing Kuvira’s plans to build a spirit vine superweapon. To combat this, President Reiko forces Varrick and Asami to work together (yay!) on the city’s defensives, and Asami is not pleased to be partnered with the man who tried to steal her company for her. It’s fun to see Asami show her fiery side during her short scene with Varrick and Reiko, but this is definitely the smaller of the two subplots involving Kuvira’s former allies.
Bolin and Opal’s reconciliation gets far more attention because those wounds are much fresher, and the old Bolin charm isn’t going to get Opal to change her very negative opinion of her boyfriend. Opal’s family is currently being held hostage by the woman that Bolin pledged his allegiance to, and a romantic picnic with steam buns and a back-flipping Pabu isn’t going to make her forget that. Alyson Stoner does great work realizing Opal’s anger and frustration at Bolin, and the voice work strengthens the character’s steadfast position when it comes to not forgiving her boyfriend.
Bolin is going to have to earn back trust and affection on Opal’s terms, and it will require a lot more than a romantic picnic. Luckily, he has the perfect opportunity to make up for his past actions by helping Lin and Opal as they embark on a secret mission to save the Beifong family and reclaim Zaofu. A great episode builds up anticipation for the next, and my excitement for Chapter 10 is piqued after what “Beyond The Wilds” sets up. Lin, Opal, and Bolin on a covert mission. Varrick and Asami teaming up to protect Republic City. Korra back at full power, power that Zaheer describes as limitless. The future sounds thrilling, and after an emotionally charged episode like “Beyond The Wilds”, I can’t wait to see what this show’s writers have in store for the final four episodes.
- I wonder if Kuvira’s forces destroying spiritually charged natural resources in mechsuits is a deliberate homage to James Cameron’s Avatar.
- “Beyond The Wilds” begins with the return of Jon Heder’s airbender slacker Ryu (with bleached hair!) and his overenthusiastic mother voiced by Maria Bamford. It’s a very smart decision to start with comedy, heightening the impact when the story switches into horror mode for the attack of Ryu’s tour group by spirit vines.
- This episode has some outstanding music from Jeremy Zuckerman. I love the percussion in the score when Jinora is attacked by spirit vines, and there are two specific moments when the music swells to bring great emotional resonance: Korra’s final recollection of Zaheer’s attack, and her Raava-guided trip through the spirit world.
- Firelord Izumi speaks this week! And she’s a bit of a hard-ass. She won’t involve the Fire Nation in another war unless it’s absolutely necessary, but I have the feeling that it’s going to be absolutely necessary very soon.
- Raava’s back! She was inside Korra all along. How touching.
- “That’s my boy, Ryu. He used to live in the basement, but then he got airbending, and he’s been doing important air nation stuff all over the world!”
- “Excuse me, are we in the spirit world right now?”
- “I’m gonna poke it with a stick.”
- “You invited him but not me?”
- Bolin: “WE HAVE TOP SECRET INFORMATION FOR YOU!” Varrick: “OK, I guess we should have opened with that line.”
- “I know, I know. I should have listened to you but instead I sided with Kuvira and I helped her take over the Earth Kingdom and topple your home and get your mom captured and your brothers and your dad. Wow, that does sound really bad when I say it out loud like that.”
- “Aw. I love you guys. And I really wanna hug again.”
- “I’m sorry you had to see that, Pabu.”
- “I own that building! A man has a right to bomb his own property!”
- “You think your power has limits. I say it’s limitless.” Oh man, Korra is about to kick so much ass.