A major part of sequel appeal, especially for those that are as chronologically distanced from the originals as The Legend Of Korra is from Avatar: The Last Airbender, is seeing how the world and its people have changed over time. Book One of Korra was largely spent exploring the new urban environment of Republic City, an industrial setting that was a drastic shift from the villages and kingdoms of Avatar, but the wonder of this central location began to wear off in Book Two, which lagged until it started going into the spirit world. Avatar was a show that did a remarkable amount of world building as it took Aang and friends around the globe, and that exploratory spirit has returned to add extra momentum to Book Three of Korra.
“In Harm’s Way” closes up the Bao Sing Se arc with a major turning point for the new Air Nation, and then the story quickly moves to a new locale for “The Metal Clan,” an episode that combines the show’s beautiful design sense, clever social commentary, and complex character work into one dense half-hour. This season has the show’s writers and directors doing what they do best, and it’s a joy to watch. Those four elements I mentioned in my review of the season opener—spectacular action, imaginative design, smooth animation, and a socially conscious, character-driven story—are all present, and the new developments in these episodes make this season even more captivating.
The big picture regarding Zaheer and his team of criminal benders becomes clearer when Lin Beifong arrives to warn Team Avatar of Zaheer’s escape, revealing that the group of villains tried to kidnap Korra as a child 13 years ago. That’s why her father and Tenzen sheltered her away. Learning that Zaheer and the Bad Benders were put in prison for trying to abduct the Avatar dramatically increases their threat level and puts Korra in a riskier position, one that Beifong has dedicated herself to defending. Unfortunately for her, that means accompanying Team Avatar to the metal city of Zaofu, founded by Lin’s estranged sister Suyin. “The Metal Clan” introduces a tenuous new dynamic to the series, showing a new side of Lin’s personality as she reverts to the behavior of a petulant child once she finds herself back in her overachieving sister’s orbit.
After her acclaimed guest-starring role as Cherry Cream Soda on Adventure Time last season, Anne Heche returns to the world of cartoon voiceovers to play Suyin, and she’s an excellent casting choice. There’s a natural softness in Heche’s voice that makes Su immediately likable, and it’s easy to understand why Korra and friends are so enamored with their host and her shining home. As family is wont to do, Su brings out the worst in her sister, and Mindy Sterling’s vocal work for Lin is even chillier than usual, and while Lin may just be acting out, there’s probably something hidden that neither sister is revealing in this situation.
Or maybe Lin is just bitter. I like that possibility best of all, because it paints one of the characters in a very unflattering light, but one that is familiar to a lot of sibilings. Hell, a lot of people in general. Sometimes jealousy can be just as damaging to a relationship as anything else, and the worst part is that it’s a one-sided issue that could be resolved if the jealous parties learned to accept the happiness of others without holding themselves to those same standards. Su explains her side of the story to Korra, telling the avatar about the freedom Toph gave her daughters and how that forced the sisters to compete for their mother’s attention. Lin walked in Toph’s footsteps and became a police officer while Su paved her own path as a globetrotting rebel, eventually settling down with an architect husband that would build her a giant gleaming city.
Su has five kids, a loving husband, and a gorgeous home, and Lin doesn’t. There’s most likely a deeper issue at the root of Lin’s disdain, but I’d be impressed if there isn’t. That shot of Lin crying at the end of “The Metal Clan” after she verbally attacks her niece for no good reason reveals a woman whose emotions have severely impaired her judgment and forced her to act in ways that don’t make any sense; you get the impression that Lin knows that she’s acting out of order, but that she can’t control the way she’s feeling because of her long-gestating animosity. It’s a great depiction of the conflict within a person when you feel jealousy for someone you’re supposed to care for, and the fact that Su wants Lin back in her life so badly just makes Lin’s reactions even more heated.
As an adult fan of children’s entertainment, I’m always pleased to see a kids’ cartoon tackle political material, particularly because these shows boil down complex ideas in ways that can be easily digested by young viewers. In tonight’s episode, we see the clash between the old and new worlds in how Hou-Ting the Earth Queen and Suyin run their cities: Hou-Ting is a heartless, greedy ruler that is solely concerned with her personal gain, seeking to reclaim former Earth Kingdom territories because it means more land for her. She’s focused on expansion while the majority of her citizens suffer from sickness and hunger, the stereotypical monarch that has gone mad with power, while Suyin is running a utopia where there are no secrets, everyone prospers, and the arts take precedence over violence.
There’s little chance a city like Laofu is that prosperous without some sort of shady dealings behind the scenes, and I suspect we’ll discover some of those secrets in upcoming episodes. Of course, it’s also possible that Suyin’s method of governing just works. When Korra tells Su about the Earth Queen, Su responds that the idea of a queen is outdated; the world is evolving and the Earth Queen needs to step aside and let those changes happen because that’s the best option for her people. Compare the equally distributed prosperity of Laofu with the huge percentage of poverty in Ba Sing Se and it becomes clear which woman has a better sociopolitical strategy.
An episode of Korra isn’t complete unless it has at least one action sequence that makes me clap my hands with gleeful excitement, and these two chapters are very complete. “In Harm’s Way” begins and ends with two breathtaking jailbreaks, the first orchestrated by Zaheer and friends, the second by Team Avatar, and “The Metal Clan” gives an unexpected character the action spotlight when Kya faces off against Zaheer on Air Temple Island. The evening starts out with a series of bangs thanks to the escape of P’li the combusting firebender, and the choreography and camera work in that opening sequence captures all the speed and force of a no-holds-barred brawl between Zaheer, Ghazan (who is an earthbender), Ming-Hua, Zuko, Eska, Desna, and Tonraq.
There are more bursts of action during the scenes of Kai being forced to train as part of the Earth Queen’s airbender regiment, but things kick into high gear when Team Avatar breaks the conscripted soldiers free. Mako, Bolin, and Kai kick ass in a close-quarters bending showdown with a group of Dai Li officers, and Korra and the freed airbenders combine their might to keep the rest of the police force at bay above ground. It’s the first strike in a new war between the Earth Kingdom and the infant Air Nation, and I can’t wait to see what kind of consequences Team Avatar’s actions bring down the line.
I was worried that Tenzen’s pilgrimage to the Northern Air Temple would mean less time with the characters up at Air Temple Island, but “The Metal Clan” shows that they haven’t been forgotten. This provides me with my Ikki and Meelo fix, something that I expect regularly to ease up the tension. (Seriously, those guys make me laugh so much.) In his search for the avatar, Zaheer goes to Air Temple Island under the pretense of being a new recruit for the Air Nation, and when his plan is discovered by Kya, we get to see Tenzen’s sister show off her waterbending moves in an exciting action sequence. It doesn’t matter how old the characters on this show are, if they can bend, they can be a total badass in the hands of these directors, and there aren’t many cartoons where the older characters are just as cool as the younger ones.
While the second episode places a greater emphasis on character development and world-building, the first is a fast-paced action extravaganza that calls back to Avatar events while showing off Jinora’s new spirit projection powers. While searching for Kai, Jinora projects her spirit form into Lake Laogai, discovering locations from the first series that have been completely flooded over time. Little moments like that tie into that sequel appeal of showing how the world changes, and when a series has the kind of rich mythology that Avatar and Korra have developed, it’s worth going back and revisiting what’s been built in a different context.
Tonight’s episodes also see an upsurge in romance, building on the budding relationship between Kai and Jinora and introducing a new love interest for Bolin in Suyin’s daughter Opal. The adorable new airbender makes an instant connection with Bolin, and she’s a much better match for him than Desna, a shy, but self-assured girl who thinks Bolin is at his most attractive when he’s just being himself. Opal doesn’t want to be showered with attention, and when she is, she tells Bolin to stop because he’s making her uncomfortable.
This show can always use more female characters (every TV show can always use more female characters), so hopefully Opal sticks around for a bit and explore her bond with Bolin because they’re very cute together. Granted, if Lin continues to be a giant bitch to everyone related to her, I can see why Opal might choose to stay home instead of joining Team Avatar, because nobody wants to be around a fun-sucker like Beifong when they’re young and in love.
Five episodes in, it’s safe to say that Book Three is a major improvement after last season, and it’s only going to get more intense as Zaheer and the Bad Benders get closer to their target. One of my favorite things about Book One of Korra was how rewatchable every episode was, and we’ve reached a point in Book Three where I’m getting very excited about revisiting all of these chapters once they’re all released and binging on a four-hour movie-style viewing marathon. It feels wonderful to have this kind of affection for Korra again, and I can’t wait to see what other surprises this season has in store.
- Things I love in these episodes: The sound of beads when the Earth Queen moves, metalbender dancing, Korra’s faces during “crazy criminals” and the awkward silence between Opal and Bolin, Bolin trying to act cool.
- When Pabu hides in Bolin’s shirt, he becomes Bolin’s beer gut. I can’t handle how adorable it all is.
- This Guru Lahima guy is going to be important, isn’t he?
- Bumju is with Team Avatar at the start of the airbender prison break, but then he disappears. I demand more Bumju!
- Angsty adolescent sculpture: Is it a banana, or is it the dawning of a new age?
- “Really? Right now?” Make out after the mission, please.
- “Topside, this is Papa Bear. The breezies are in the hole, cue the balloons!” Bumi is the only one that likes code words.
- “Now that man’s a leaf.”
- “I mean you’d be surprised how bad food from a dumpster can be.”
- “I mean, what are any of us doing here? Food for thought.” Oh yeah, Varrick is back. That’s not going to be a problem at all.