I’ve reviewed a lot of cartoons for The A.V. Club over the last four years, but none have elicited an emotional reaction like the one I have while watching Book Three of The Legend Of Korra. This has been a truly magnificent season of television, delivering loads of character development, world building, socio-political commentary, and heart-racing action, all presented with beautifully smooth animation and impeccable voice acting (with one notable exception in that department).
The content itself triggers so many different feelings, but when you factor in all the frustration, anger, and fear summoned by the massive clusterfuck that was this season’s distribution strategy, Book Three becomes an emotional hurricane. The storm rages at full force in this two-part season finale, an incredibly tense pair of episodes that surprisingly wraps up most of Book Three’s major plots, a feat I didn’t think possible in the short amount of time left in the season.
Yet nothing feels rushed in “Enter The Void” and “Venom Of The Red Lotus,” primarily because the writers have done such great work building these stories over the course of the season. The first episode puts a button on most of the subplots surrounding the supporting cast—Lin and Suyin’s reconciliation, Bolin’s earthbending evolution, Mako and Kai’s friction—but all of these resolutions arise as a result of the main action rather than pulling away from it.
“Enter The Void” takes place over the course of just a few hours, chronicling the fall of the Northern Air Temple in one anxiety-inducing showdown between the Red Lotus and Team Avatar. It’s a battle broken up into three sections: Tonraq and a handcuffed Korra fight Zaheer; Lin, Su, and the Metal Clan keep P’Li distracted; and Bolin, Mako, and Asami save Tenzin before facing off with Ghazan and Ming-Hua. Cycling through these threads heightens the chaos of the battle, and it also allows writer Michael Dante DiMartino to dedicate ample time to supporting characters before the final episode, which is appropriately focused on Korra.
The music does excellent work building an uneasy sense of anticipation in the early moments of the Northern Air Temple assault when Korra gives herself up and it appears as if Tenzin and the airbenders are about to be rescued, and surely enough, things go south quickly. The shot of the airbenders’ clothes melting to the floor as Ming-Hua pulls in her water tentacles is the creepiest image of the entire finale, and it’s the moment when the action explodes. With her hands bound by platinum handcuffs, Korra has to defend herself using only her feet, and she does remarkably well, especially once her father joins the fight.
The Lin and Suyin plot was my favorite part of this season, so seeing the two sisters working together fills me with joy. While facing off against P’Li, Lin redeems herself for years of estrangement by showing a willingness to sacrifice her life for Su’s safety, and Su says thanks by saving Lin in turn, encasing P’Li’s head in metal armor just before she lets loose a combustion burst. (As someone who loves P’Li’s design and bending ability, it breaks my heart to see her die this week.) P’Li’s death is the first big “OH SHIT!” moment of this finale, and it directly ties in to the second one: Zaheer flying. His love for P’Li—who he saved from becoming a warlord’s killing machine when she was a girl—keeps him tethered to the ground, but when she’s dead, Zaheer is free from the chains of human desire and able to finally soar like the wind, just like his role model Guru Lahima.
The severity of the past two episodes dramatically raises the stakes for this finale, making it easy to fear for the lives of these characters, especially those that aren’t part of the core cast. Tonraq’s status as a world leader makes him a major target for Zaheer, and the tender moment between Tonraq and Korra before she gives herself up to the Red Lotus feels very much like set-up for his tragic sacrifice. He gets thrown off a cliff at the end of his father-daughter battle with Zaheer, and while Tonraq is saved by new character Captain Kuvira, Korra thinks her father is dead, and that makes the Avatar very angry. Zaheer may think he has the upper hand when he chains up Korra and poisons her, but he has no idea what he’s in for when she unleashes her full power.
While the battle rages at the top of Lahima’s Peak, Bolin, Mako, Asami, and Tenzin are pushed through the mountain by a wave of lava unleashed by Ghazan, leading Bolin to discover his advanced earthbending talent, and it’s not metalbending. With the lives of his friends and family on the line, Bolin charges into the rush of molten rock, pushes it back, and cools it into a solid wall, revealing a skill for lavabending that comes in handy when he has a rematch with Ghazan in the second part of the finale. After the lavabending save, Kai appears with his baby bison for the final part of this makeshift rescue mission, leading to Mako’s apology for being a total jerk (and Kai’s confession that he deserved it).
Now that most of the subplots have been resolved, it’s time to rescue Korra and the rest of the airbenders, taking an already excellent finale into overwhelmingly awesome territory as the good guys finally pull ahead after playing catch-up for a season. The turn of the tides is especially moving because the situation is so dire at the start of “Venom Of The Red Lotus”: Korra is in chains with metallic poison coursing through her veins, pushing her into the Avatar State and giving the Red Lotus the opportunity to end the cycle of the Avatar with Korra’s death. Thankfully, Jinora’s spirit is watching out for Korra, and Tenzin’s daughter will ultimately prove to be the key to Korra’s salvation.
One of the best things to come out of Book Two was an expanded role for Jinora (and her exquisite voice actress Kiernan Shipka), who plays a part that is very similar to Katara’s in the original Avatar series: a sweet, but powerful bending master in the early throes of puberty. (That connection is accentuated by her romance with Kai, who is clearly carved from the Aang mold.) Jinora was a little girl when this series started, but she’s blossomed into a young woman over the course of three seasons, completing her evolution by taking charge of the New Air Nation in the Book Three finale.
Drawing inspiration from her presumed-dead crush, Jinora tricks a guard into getting close enough for her to airbend his keys away, beginning an escape that really takes off when Team Avatar busts into the cave and starts busting heads. As the airbenders flee, Korra tries to fight the effect of the poison, which is causing her to hallucinate the faces of her old enemies Aman, Unalaq, and Vaatu, but eventually her willpower gives way to the irrepressible force of the Avatar State. Zaheer thinks this is the moment of victory and commands Ming-Hua and Ghazan to deliver the killing blows, but he greatly underestimates the Avatar’s survival instincts.
With the ability to bend three of the four elements from a young age, Korra was destined to be the strongest Avatar in history. Zaheer thinks he’s fighting a teenage girl with some fancy powers, but he’s fighting a force of nature that will not go down without one hell of a fight. After breaking her chains like they were pieces of spaghetti, Korra goes on the offensive, chasing down a flying Zaheer by propelling herself through the air with rocket hands and feet. At this point I’m cheering wildly from the couch, and things only get crazier once the nemeses get out of the cave and Korra starts chopping off the tops of huge rock formations and throws them at Zaheer.
The power on display in the final Korra/Zaheer fight is breathtaking, and director Mel Zwyer does phenomenal work capturing the full impact of the fight. The standout moment is an extended single shot following the two fighters as they exchange blows while navigating through the air, creating a disorienting sense of weightlessness as the camera gets swept up in their gravity-defying movement. The action is equally riveting inside the cave, where Bolin and Mako face off against Ghazan and Ming-Hua. Mako takes care of Ming-Hua by luring her into a giant pool that he pumps full of electricity—probably killing her in the process—and when Ghazan finds himself cornered by the two brothers, he brings the walls of the cave crashing down on him, choosing death over prison.
Despite the raw power of the Avatar State, eventually Korra’s body succumbs to the poison, leaving her vulnerable to asphyxiation by Zaheer’s air bubble. That’s when Jinora steps up for one last-ditch rescue effort, using the combined might of the New Air Nation to create a cyclone that can pull the flying Zaheer out of the sky. “There haven’t been this many airbenders in one place in a long time,” Jinora tells her father before enacting her strategy. “We have power together.” It’s the sentiment that will ultimately save this world from the scourge of the Red Lotus, and I predict the future of this series will see the four nations coming together to stop the anarchist force.
Zaheer tries to escape the pull of the cyclone, but Korra won’t let him flee, whipping the chain on her wrist around his ankle and throwing him to the ground with brutal force. The threat of Zaheer has been stopped, but the poison is in its final stages, giving Jinora the chance to save Korra’s life for the second time by telling Suyin about the poison’s metallic properties. If Jinora hadn’t witnessed the poisoning, Korra would probably be dead, but Suyin is able to bend the metal out of Korra’s body and save her life in the nick of time.
The threat of the Red Lotus is still out there, but taking out Zaheer and his crew is a big win for Team Avatar. For a moment it looks like this season is going to have a happy ending, and it kind of does, but the reason this finale works so well is that it doesn’t wrap up everything neatly. After Zaheer’s takedown, the episode takes a two-week time jump, revealing a deeply depressed Korra confined to a wheelchair. Her body is alive, but her spirit has been broken, and it’s not clear if this is PTSD or some deeper symptom of the Red Lotus venom.
Asami and Korra’s relationship experienced major growth this season, and their bond continues to grow in the finale’s epilogue, with Asami caring for her best friend by keeping her company and offering her emotional support. Rather than forcing these two women into romantic entanglements this season, the writers decided to focus on their friendship with each other, an extremely refreshing choice that reinforced the strength of these characters as independent women. The female cast dominated this season, which makes me even more depressed that this season wasn’t able to reach as many viewers as it should have.
There’s one subplot that is still left dangling by the time the epilogue rolls around, and it’s a subplot that I forgot about, making the finale’s conclusion a big surprise that destroys me emotionally. Back in “Original Airbenders,” Jinora expressed her disappointment at not being allowed to get her airbending tattoos, and “Venom Of The Red Lotus” ends with an inspiring sequence where a freshly tattooed Jinora is named an airbending master by her father, assuming a permanent leadership role in the New Air Nation, which is returning to its original nomadic state in order to keep the peace while the Avatar heals.
The direction, the music, the voice work from J.K. Simmons, it all combines to create a swell of positive feeling that would end the season on an uplifting note if it weren’t for that haunting final shot. As the crowd applauds, the camera lingers on a close-up of Korra, staring sadly ahead with a frown on her face and tears in her eyes. A single salty drop falls down the side of her face before the episode abruptly ends, contrasting the joy of the ceremony with Korra’s deep personal pain and leaving the audience on a note that suggests things aren’t going to suddenly get happy now that Zaheer is in captivity.
Just how much damage did the Red Lotus do to Korra? Can she find the strength within herself to overcome the pain? We’re going to have to wait for Book Four to find out the answers, and the wait is going to be more painful than ever after this incredible season. We know that Book Four is currently in production, so it’s going to find its way out into the world somehow, but at this point, we have no idea when or how. Will the show’s switch to online-only mean that next season will be distributed faster? Will Nickelodeon even be interested in airing Book Four based on how badly they dropped the ball with Book Three? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I’m going to marathon view this entire season to experience it all in one glorious sitting.
Season Grade: A
- As if I needed another reason to dislike Henry Rollins: He’s in the news this week for his “Fuck Suicide” editorial in LA Weekly, which attacks Robin Williams’ decision to kill himself and is a generally insensitive view of depression and mental illness. The piece makes me especially uncomfortable because Williams’ daughter, Zelda Williams, is one of Rollins’ Korra costars, debuting this week as Captain Kuvira.
- I once read an interview with writer Brian Michael Bendis where he talked about using neon green for the interrogation scenes in his comic book Powers because of the sickly sensation it evokes, and that’s the first thing I thought of when we see Korra bound in the Red Lotus’ neon green cave sancturary. Once again, a great use of color by this show’s animators.
- Kuvira is introduced in “Enter The Void,” and it looks like she’s flirting with the very married Tonraq. I’m intrigued by this new addition to the cast, although, based on when she appeared, it’s easy to assume that she’s a secret member of the Red Lotus getting set up for a bigger role next season.
- As the nonbender, Asami doesn’t have too much to do in the finale, but she does have one cool action moment where she uses her electro-glove to shock a Red Lotus soldier.
- This season has me wishing for an Avatar/Legend Of Korra next-gen video game. Imagine how cool it would be to have full bending control as the Avatar in an open-world action game. And as you level up, you can choose which advanced bending skills you want to learn.
- Bolin winking at the camera in the middle of his fight with Ghazan is one of the most blatant, and brilliant, bits of fanservice I’ve seen on this show.
- “Bad dog and rat thingie! I am very disappointed in you two.”
- “Caw caw! Caw caw! Caw caw! Caw caw!”
- “Being moments from death was a good motivator, too.”
- Bolin: “See what I did there? I put a sock in it. Literally.” Opal: “Classic Bolin.” Bolin: “I do what I do.”
- Meelo: “It smells like shoe trees.” Ikki: “Sandalwood, Meelo.”