When Book Three debuted less than two months ago, I never could have imagined that it would move in such distressing direction. By the end of “Ultimatum,” I’m more nervous for these characters than I’ve ever been, and I fear that things are only going to get bleaker by the end of the Book. We’re seeing a worst-case scenario unfold on screen in the best possible way, and it’s led to a truly outstanding season of television. The animation has been gorgeous, the exceptionally dynamic action sequences have increased in intensity each week, and the character work has been spot-on. It’s not just the best season of The Legend Of Korra, it’s the best season of the entire Avatar franchise, combining the best elements of the two series into a wildly fun, surprisingly mature narrative that builds on the past while pushing Korra into a stressful new future.
Taking inspiration from Avatar, the writers of Book Three give the story more room to breathe and spend time exploring the larger world outside Republic City and delving deeper into personal relationships, slowly building up the threat of the Red Lotus as the viewer becomes more invested in the rest of the cast. Storylines like Bolin and Mako meeting their family in Ba Sing Se, Lin reconnecting with her sister in Zaofu, and Tenzin rebuilding the Air Nation all ground the story in a strong emotional foundation, so when the lives of these characters are put in jeopardy, the fear and suspense is at an all-time high.
Those three aforementioned storylines all come into play in “Ultimatum,” which begins with Bolin and Mako making their way out of a burning Ba Sing Se and picking up their family along the way. They eventually find Korra and deliver Zaheer’s message: He’s going to the Northern Air Temple and he’ll kill everyone there unless Korra gives herself up to the Red Lotus. Team Avatar travels back to Zaofu in hopes of sending a radio message to Tenzin in time to evacuate Northern Air Temple before the Red Lotus arrives, but it’s too late. Cue incredible seven-minute fight sequence.
The pacing of this episode is perfect, easing the viewer into a false sense of security by bringing Team Avatar back together in the first two acts (complete with a cameo from Uncle Iroh!) before everything falls apart in the third. Putting the focus on Mako and Bolin in the beginning naturally pushes the story in a more humorous direction because of their dynamic, a smart writing choice that creates a contrast between the comedy in the script and the drama of the rebellion that surrounds the brothers. It’s easier to laugh because we don’t know that Zaheer is headed to the Northern Air Temple until Bolin and Mako find Korra, but even then, the episode is still in a fairly hopeful mode.
One of the many reasons I love Bolin is because he’s an Aang Gang fanboy, embodying the feelings Avatar superfans have when they see characters from the past series show up. I’m loving that giant statue of Toph as much a Bolin, and I’m just as stoked as he is to see Lord Zuko show up on his big red dragon. We don’t see Bolin’s reaction to Korra meeting Uncle Iroh in the spirit world this week, but I bet he totally freaks when he finds out.
Iroh is a character that radiates compassion and warmth—much of that is thanks to the voice work of Greg Baldwin (and Mako Iwamatsu, who established Iroh’s comforting vocal tone in Books One and Two of Avatar)—so he’s exactly the kind of person Korra needs to see in this moment of extreme anxiety. She doesn’t know what to do without her connection to past Avatars, but Iroh reminds her that the connection isn’t completely cut. Lord Zuko was one of Avatar Aang’s closest friends and advisors, so he’s the perfect person to ask for advice on how Korra’s predecessor would handle this situation.
Unfortunately, Zuko doesn’t give Korra definitive answers. Aang always dreamed of seeing the rebirth of the Air Nation, so he would be immensely proud of what Korra has done, but that doesn’t mean she should sacrifice herself to save Tenzin and the others. Aang also understood that, as the Avatar, he had a responsibility to all the nations, and in times of trouble the world needs its Avatar more than ever. Korra has a difficult decision to make, but the Red Lotus makes it for her by launching an assault on the Northern Air Temple just as Korra gets word to Tenzin to evacuate.
The ominous blast of bass that accompanies this episode’s title card foreshadows the brutal events of the episode’s last act; that blast is the sound of war, and war is spreading fast. Last week, I predicted the Red Lotus would be making its way to the Northern Air Temple, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Everything is happening so fast that it’s hard to find your bearings, which is the whole point. Things moved at a relaxed, but steady pace in the first half of the season, but everything has spiraled out of control since the Red Lotus reached Korra. The world of these characters has been thrown into complete chaos, and it’s emotionally overwhelming after the more low-key approach of the season’s earlier episodes.
Tenzin is the star of “Ultimatum,” but I sincerely hope that’s not because it’s his final episode on the series. He fights valiantly against Zaheer while Bumi and Kya keep Ghazan and Ming-Hua occupied, but the benders of the Red Lotus are stronger and work flawlessly as a team. Aang’s kids just don’t stand a chance, but they do make it possible for the rest of the Air Nation to escape, including Kai, who takes on P’Li single-handedly and survives.
The exquisite pacing of the episode applies to the fight scene as well, which cuts between separate battles at choice moments that amplify the tension of the larger sequence. The action flows smoothly from Tenzin to Kya, Bumi, and Kai, and jumping around allows for small individual victories to inject bits of hope that things will be alright for the New Air Nation. Those brief flashes of optimism ultimately make the defeats all the more heartbreaking; Kai gets shot down by P’Li, Bumi and Kya fall from a cliff and survive but are badly injured, and Tenzin may be dead.
Surrounded by the Red Lotus on all sides, Tenzin continues to fight and utters a phrase that makes me very nervous for his future: “As long as I’m breathing, it’s not over.” We’ve seen just how easy it is for Zaheer to get rid of that breath, but thankfully we’re not forced to watch Tenzin asphyxiate in a vacuum bubble this week. Instead, we get to see him get beaten within an inch of his life. The zoom out and slow pan of the camera as Zaheer, Ghazan, and Ming-Hua pummel Tenzin with their bending is one of the most chilling directorial decisions of this series, leaving the viewer wondering just how far the Red Lotus—and this show’s writers—will go.
There are theories that Nickelodeon moved this show off the air because of concerns regarding the content, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was in fact part of the network’s reasoning. Things have gotten extremely dark this season, and perhaps the only way the writers were allowed to go this grim was because Nickelodeon knew the show would be put exclusively online at some point in the season. I’m predicting that Tenzin isn’t actually dead, but will be used as ransom in exchange for Korra, building to a season finale cliffhanger where the Avatar is in the captivity of the Red Lotus when the world needs her most.
Book Three is moving in a direction that suggests an Empire Strikes Back “what are they going to do now?!” ending, and considering how great the show has been as the situation becomes more terrible, I’m eager to see just how bad things will get for Team Avatar. The good guys are going to win in the end because that’s how these stories go, but the harrowing the narrative, the more uplifting a conclusion when the light finally overcomes the dark.
- So many great action sequence moments: Ming-Hua giving herself octopus water arms, Bumi jumping on Ghazan’s back and pulling his hair, anytime slow motion is used. It’s just an incredible fight.
- I’ve never talked about the sound effects on this show, which is a shame because they are amazing. Sound effects are a huge part of making bending feel real, and it takes a sharp ear to know exactly what sounds are needed to heighten the impact of each element. My personal favorite sound effects are the thunderclaps of earthbenders and the firework explosions of combustion-benders, which accentuate the force of the action while punctuating the music in interesting ways.
- Zuko leaves to protect his daughter in the Fire Kingdom in this episode, and I think that may be the last time we see him in Book Three, assuming the Red Lotus doesn’t hit the Fire Kingdom in the next two episodes. I get the feeling that Book Four will be the series finale and most likely the end of this universe in animated form, so I’m expecting any living Avatar characters to show up for the big conclusion (I’m looking at you, Toph).
- Random theory with no basis in fact: What if Toph is somehow an ally of the Red Lotus?
- When all this horror is over, I’m going to need to some Bolin/Meelo scenes to make me happy again. Maybe in the same episode with my fantasy Lin/Naga/Pabu story?
- “Some folks just do not have respect for other people’s property. Now let’s steal this airship!”
- “Why is Bolin hugging that big rat? Now he’s kissing it!”
- “Agh, stop! You’re licking my mouth!”
- “Oooh my gosh. It’s Lord Zuko. I can’t believe it. (Squeaks of immense pleasure.)“
- Grandma Yin: “You must be the Avatar. Mako told us so much about you. You are even more beautiful than I imagined.” Mako: “Actually… that’s Asami. This is Avatar Korra. Korra, this is my Grandma Yin.” Grandma Yin: “You’re very muscular for a woman.”
- Zaheer: “You don’t have a choice.” Tenzin: “Yes I do.”
- “Yip yip!” The sound of hope, however slight.