A is for Assassination.
Things are looking pretty bad for Team Avatar about two-thirds of the way through “Long Live The Queen”: Mako and Bolin are in the Earth Queen’s prison, and Korra and Asami are stranded in the desert with a downed airship and a hungry, humongous sand piranha swimming around them. It’s a dire situation, but it’s nothing compared to what’s coming. While the heroes are occupied elsewhere, Zaheer and the Bad Benders make seismic changes to the Earth Kingdom, killing its queen by pulling the air from her lungs. They successfully hand over the power in Ba Sing Se to an oppressed people, but at what cost?
I was downright shocked during the Earth Queen’s assassination, a brutal scene that shows just how much this world has grown up since the Avatar days. The moment firmly pushes The Legend Of Korra out of children’s television territory and into the realm of young adult entertainment, trusting that the viewers are mature enough to see a woman get asphyxiated in rather graphic detail, complete with a close-up shot of the Earth Queen gasping for breath while her eyes bulge out in pain
There are strong connections to Chinese history all throughout Avatar and Korra, but the influence of real-world events is more explicit than ever in the Earth Queen’s storyline. I should have expected a coming revolution after meeting the Earth Queen, who is clearly modeled after China’s Empress Dowager Cixi, from her costume to her jewelry to her penchant for meticulous, extravagant landscaping. Cixi was the power behind the throne for most of the second half of the 19th century, and saw the dynasty’s power dramatically weaken under her unofficial rule. Three years after her death, the imperial dynasty would collapse during the Xinhai Revolution, but this show weaves her death and the uprising together for greater dramatic effect.
Zaheer makes a lot of speeches this week, meaning more wooden line delivery from Henry Rollins, which is starting to sound more and more like a deliberate character choice and it drives me bonkers. There’s something very creepy about a calm terrorist that is emotionally detached from his actions, but Rollins’ flat inflection strips a lot of the impact from the dialogue. It’s cool that a punk rock legend is playing an anti-authoritarian character on this show, but I wish there was more edge to Rollins’ performance.
That lack of emotion translates to a lack of intent behind the words, a quality that is desperately needed to fill out dramatic pauses in the dialogue. Without clear intentions, pauses become little vacuums that suck the momentum out of a conversation. Take Zaheer’s speech just before he kills the Earth Queen: “Maybe I forgot to mention something to you: I don’t believe in queens. You think freedom is something you can give and take on a whim. But to your people, freedom is as essential as (pause) air. And without it, there is no life. There is only (pause) darkness.” Those pauses are there to accommodate character actions in the animation, so the voice actor needs to make sure that there’s an emotional undercurrent filling out those breaks so that the sound and visuals have equal resonance.
My problems with Zaheer’s voice are not enough to lower this episode’s A grade, though, because every other element of the episode is so great, including Zaheer when he’s not talking. I actually think Zaheer is a totally kickass character, I just wish he was as interesting vocally as he in all other respects. He’s a villain that isn’t just scary because he can pull the air out of your lungs, he’s scary because he’s not wrong. We’ve seen the way the Earth Queen rules Ba Sing Se, hoarding the wealth in the upper rings while her people starve and live in squalor below. She pulls people off the street and forces them into military service, which is more accurately described as an extended prison sentence that includes being sent out to die every so often.
The Earth Queen is not a good ruler, but does that mean she deserves to die? Ba Sing Se descends into chaos after the demise of the queen and the crumbling of the city’s walls, but a tyrannical ruler is no longer in power and the people theoretically have control of their home again. These are good things, right? Avatar and Korra have never shied away from philosophical and political complexity, but this season has taken it to a completely different level, showing both sides of a conflict and forcing the viewer to decide which one is more just. Team Avatar is being put in the same situation; they’re definitely the good guys, but now they’re caught in the middle of two warring political ideologies and they’re going to have to pick a side eventually. (Or maybe they’ll take out both sides and create a utopia through an alliance between the New Air Nation and Zaofu.)
In the midst of all this intense political intrigue, we’re given brief respites via the comic misadventures of Bolin and Mako, who are taking two very different approaches to being captives. Mako wants to use this opportunity to learn more about the Bad Benders’ plans, but Bolin is just trying to find ways to pass the time. That leads to this wonderful exchange:
Ming-Hua: “Mostly I just made up stories about the guards. Who was having trouble with his girlfriend, which one secretly wished he had become a pastry chef...”
Bolin: “Ooh that sounds fun! Lemme try that on you guys! You were raised by an older sister, your mustache grew in when you were 10, and I’m sensing—just sensing—an unspoken attraction between you two.”
Ghazan: “Two out of three. That’s not bad.”
Once Bolin and Mako make it to the Earth Kingdom and a prison cell in the queen’s dungeon, Mako dedicates himself to helping Bolin metalbend, a fruitless endeavor that provides solid humor thanks to the sounds P.J. Byrne makes when Bolin really, really tries. The two don’t do much in this episode, but Bolin’s attempts to metalbend have become a big part of his story this season, so these little comic asides are factoring into that plot thread, building up the character’s frustration at his inability to find success. He needs the right motivation to spark that talent, and I predict that we’ll see finally see Bolin metalbend when the Red Lotus makes its way to the Northern Air Temple and he’s forced to metalbend to save Opal.
I foolishly suspected last week that Korra and Asami would need someone to free them from the Earth Kingdom’s chains, but I should have had more faith in the dynamic female duo. Specifically, I should have had more faith in Asami, who has constantly impressed me with her ingenuity and resilience. It’s easy to underestimate her as the one non-bender in Team Avatar, but like Sokka in Avatar, Asami makes up for a lack of elemental ability by honing her mind and body, proving adept at problem solving both on and off the battlefield.
Characters like Sokka and Asami are essential to this series, providing a grounded perspective to this fantasy world by not being able to bend. Sokka was integral in helping ease viewers into a sprawling new mythology by playing the audience surrogate and providing lots of comic relief, but Asami has a taken a much different path. She was initially coded as Korra’s romantic rival—a gorgeous heiress with a soft voice, yet a militaristic costume design that projects strength and discipline—but she’s become far more than that as she becomes less defined by her romantic entanglements.
This world is becoming more technologically advanced every day, which makes Asami’s engineering knowledge as valuable as being able to bend. Asami acts like a helpless, clueless prisoner to fool the prison guard into chaining her to a post instead of the ground, and she quickly escapes by taking advantage of the airship’s shoddy construction. I assumed a jail-break would be needed, but all it takes is a few quick moments of Asami being mentally sharp and physically flexible. And Asami continues to prove her worth once Korra is freed, using her engineering expertise to help the stranded group create a sand surfer like the ones old sandbenders used to use.
After an exciting sequence that climaxes with Korra roasting the sand piranha from the inside, the crew makes its way back to Misty Palms Oasis, where the Earth Queen’s bounty hunters decide to give up their mark because this is out of their pay grade. The episode ends with Korra and Asami learning about the fall of the Earth Kingdom when they run into Lin, Tonraq, and Zuko, a gathering of big guns as the world prepares for revolution. “I’m afraid this is only the beginning, Dad,” Korra says, and I have no doubt that she’s right.
- I haven’t talked about how much I love the design of the female Bad Benders. They are freakin’ awesome. Ming-Hua having no hands gives her this serpentine quality that is perfect for a waterbender, and P’Li’s size and stature brilliantly reflects the strength of her combustion-bending.
- If there isn’t a Naga/Pabu/Lin Beifong subplot coming up soon, I am going to be very disappointed. Maybe something like The Three Stooges, but Curly and Moe are animals. Sure it doesn’t make any sense, but I want it.
- The constant presence of an unsettling green in the background of the Zaheer scenes with the Earth Queen really helps amplify the tension in those moments. In general, Korra always makes great use of color.
- This episode needs a scene of Lin, Tonraq, and Zuko just chilling in the cantina catching up, because you just know they have some great stories.
- When is Toph going to show up? It feels like that’s going to happen soon.
- “Now that’s just shoddy workmanship.”
- “You realize I’m the Avatar, right? You don’t wanna fight me!”
- “Hey, you guys didn’t happen to bring any toilet paper, did you?”
- “First you scare the life out of me, now you wanna like me.”
- “Here, chew on this and leave me alone.” Mindy Sterling is my favorite voice actor on this show because of moments like this.