I wrote last week that, at its core, The Legend Of Korra is about one woman’s struggle to overcome personal trauma and realize her full potential, but this series is still very much an ensemble piece. It’s built up a large cast of multi-faceted characters, and this week’s episode shifts the focus away from Korra and the events in Republic City to spotlight the Beifong family. There are some plot developments involving Korra in the spirit world and Varrick and Asami working together to create flying mecha suits (!!!), but, as the title suggests, “Operation Beifong” is all about rescuing the imprisoned royal family of Zaofu, and it is exceptional.

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I was already excited at the prospect of Lin, Opal, and Bolin teaming up to rescue the rest of the Beifong clan, but the actual operation is even better than I hoped thanks to the addition of Toph, who has been keeping an eye on her family from the swamp and is eager to break them out from Kuvira’s prison. Bolin’s ecstatic reaction when he meets his hero is probably the same response a lot of viewers have when the beloved Beifong matriarch appears at the top of the episode, and adding her to the rescue team creates a tense new dynamic within the group as Lin deals with her complicated feelings toward her estranged mother.

Mother-daughter relationships are the major theme of this episode, with Lin airing her grievances regarding Toph’s parenting while Suyin finally faces off against her adopted daughter, Kuvira. After 20 years apart, Lin and Toph have an icy reunion when they first see each other, and over the course of the episode we learn why Lin harbors so much anger toward her mother. Toph has always been immensely stubborn—as an earthbender, keeping a strong position is a priority, and Toph is immovable both in and out of battle—but that caused a rift between mother and daughter when Toph decided not to share any information about Lin’s father.

Lin is still angry that she had to grow up without knowing her father, and her feelings of resentment become even stronger when Bolin asks Toph who Lin’s dad is and she actually answers. Fans have been wanting to know the answer to this question for quite a while now, and Toph’s response is anticlimactic: he was a man named Kanto, described as a nice person, but not someone Toph was interested in pursuing a long-term relationship with. The identity isn’t a big deal, but Toph revealing this information after keeping it secret for so long is, and that fills Lin with rage.

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This show’s writers have done phenomenal work expanding on Lin’s character to explain how she became the rigid, chilly person she is today, and it all comes down to her family history. Toph didn’t show her the compassion and sympathy she needed, and Suyin put her in a position where she had to choose between her career and her family. Add in a failed romance with Tenzin, and you get the impression that Lin is a person that puts a barrier between herself and others so that she doesn’t have to feel the pain of personal relationships that go wrong.

When Lin hears her mother casually share her father’s identity with Bolin, it unleashes a wave of emotion that has been aching to break free for decades. There’s definitely some overreaction on Lin’s part, but it’s justified. Lin never got a chance to know her father because Toph didn’t want her to, and Toph never took into consideration how her stubbornness affected her children. “You make me furious, and you don’t even know why,” Lin tells her mother. “And when I tell you, you don’t care.” This is the perfect opening for Toph to try and smooth things over, but instead she just lets her daughter hold on to those feelings because that’s Lin’s decision and who is Toph to stand in her way? That’s immensely frustrating for Lin, but Toph just isn’t much of a talker; she speaks with her actions, and while she may not be able to comfort Lin in this moment, Toph is able to prove herself when her daughters need her later in the episode.

I appreciate the character work done with Lin and Toph, but the thing that really elevates this episode is the action, particularly the fight scene between the newly freed Beifongs and Kuvira’s army. Lin, Suyin, Wing, and Wei kick major ass as they pummel Kuvira’s troops with rocks, and the sequence becomes even more exhilarating when Suyin leaves the battlefield to confront Kuvira one-on-one. After the rousing fights in Book Three, the action this season has left something to be desired, but Suyin and Kuvira’s metalbending brawl delivers the kind of breathtaking dynamism I’ve been waiting to see.

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Last season showed that Suyin is an incredible fighter, and pitting her against her equally skilled protégé forces her to push herself even further. Melchior Zwyer does outstanding work directing this sequence, and he’s able to capture the differences between the two women by showing how they approach the fight. Suyin’s style is much more acrobatic, taking advantage of the environment in a way that Kuvira doesn’t. My favorite moment of the entire scene is when Suyin deflects Kuvira’s projectiles with a sheet of metal, turns that sheet into a make-shift suit of armor, then launches herself off the ground by bending the metal floor beneath her. (Here it is in .gif form.)

Compare Suyin’s style to Kuvira, who continues to stay grounded and only move when she has to. There’s a seriousness to Kuvira’s style; she moves only when she needs to, and always strikes with intent. Taking advantage of her aerial skills, Suyin leaps around to make it harder for Kuvira to hit her, but there’s risk to that strategy: If Kuvira does make contact while Suyin’s in the air, there’s nothing for Suyin to ground herself to, which leaves her vulnerable. That’s how Kuvira is able to gain the upper hand, knocking Suyin off the platform and sending her down the battlefield where Earth Empire soldiers are waiting to take her in.

Things look dire for Suyin, Lin, Wing, and Wei when they find themselves surrounded by Kuvira’s forces, but that’s when Toph steps in to save the day with a massive shockwave that sends the attackers tumbling to the ground. As Toph mentioned earlier, she’s here to save her family, and she’s certainly not going to let them get captured after she just helped save them. It’s great to see Toph in action one more time, but it’s a bittersweet moment because this will probably be the last time we see her in action.

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After the fight, Opal asks her grandmother if she’ll be joining them on the trip back to Republic City, but Toph chooses to stay in the swamp. She explains: “Don’t tell Korra, but my back is killing me now. This is why you didn’t see Katara messing around with that civil war nonsense. At some point, you’ve gotta leave it to the kids.” It’s a simple way of addressing a fan concern about Book Two, but also shows how this series isn’t all that concerned with spending time with characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Faces from the old series appear, but they don’t take up very much screen time when they do. This show really is about the next generation, and the guest appearances from Avatar figures provide a sense of history without pulling too much focus from the people introduced in Korra.

There’s a lot of redemption in “Operation Beifong”: Lin and Toph patch things up with each other by admitting their flaws, Bolin gets himself out of the polar bear doghouse with Opal by helping save her family, and Zhu Li reveals that she’s been working for the good guys all along by secretly sabotaging Kuvira’s spirit weapon. That last one is especially welcome because it shows what Zhu Li can do when she’s not saddled to Varrick, and so much of this show is about empowering women without the help of men. Zhu Li took it upon herself to undergo an undercover mission, kept it secret because she probably knew Varrick would fuck it up if he knew, and when she’s caught, she stands up for herself even though it could spell her demise. “Operation Beifong” cements that Zhu Li is awesome, and I’m glad she’s been on the side of the angels the entire time.

As I mentioned last week, a great episode builds incredible anticipation for the next chapter, and this episode sets up so many big things for the final three episodes. First, we have the Beifong clan heading to Republic City (sans Toph) with Bolin and Zhu Li, uniting all the heroes for the first time this season, just in time to prepare for Kuvira’s assault in two weeks’ time. And those preparations include Asami and Varrick building flying mecha suits (I am seriously so excited for those), and Korra finding a way to get the spirits to help save Republic City. Think about what that means. It’s very possible this series will end with benders fighting side-by-side with flying mecha and an army of spirits, which would be such a great mix of contemporary anime ideas and traditional mythological elements. I’m going to be very sad when this series is gone, but if the rest of Book Four is as strong as the last two episodes, it’s going to be one hell of a goodbye.

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Stay observations:

  • Mako has done so little this season. I don’t know if saddling him to Prince Wu was the greatest decision for his character; it’s made his narrative feel very shallow while the rest of Team Avatar gets more substantial material. Asami similarly hasn’t done that much, but at least she got that subplot involving her relationship with her father.
  • Is Juicy the air bison sick or just leaky? Either way, his oozing green snot is gross.
  • That glare when Bolin asks who Lin’s dad is. I would be very afraid if I was Bolin in that moment.
  • We know who Lin’s father is now, but who is Su’s father? I doubt we’ll find that out, but it’s probably a character we don’t know anyway.
  • Is that Wing or Wei that affectionately pats Bolin’s cheek after he’s caught? Either way, it’s an adorable moment.
  • “You. Zip it. Now. Had enough of your babble on the ride in.”
  • Toph: “What, you have to pee or something?” Bolin: “No. Well, now, maybe.”
  • Toph: “What’s up with him?” Lin: “He’s an actor.”
  • “You always have to ruin it.”
  • Opal: “Good thinking, Bolin.” Bolin: “Thanks. I kind of have a headache now.”
  • Toph: “Even blockheads like you can figure it out with the right instruction.” Lin: “Yeah, you’re a really sensitive instructor.”
  • “You’re a monster. I regret nothing.”
  • Baatar Sr.: “So, how’ve you been, mother?” Toph: “I told you never to call me that.”
  • “You give metalbenders a bad name!”

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