Having survived Kuvira’s attack on the warehouse, Team Avatar flees to safety and regroups for a counter-attack. Their plan thwarted, they are forced to improvise and use every asset at their disposal, including Hiroshi, whom Lin has awarded some emergency furlough. Hiroshi and Asami pool their genetic genius, and father and daughter team up for the attack on Kuvira’s colossus. Hiroshi sacrifices himself to make victory possible for Team Avatar, and together they bring the colossus down.
Never one to give up, Kuvira keeps on fighting, fleeing from Korra into the Spirit Wilds, where the spirit cannon was flung during the battle. She tries to use it for one last attack, but being tangled up in the very vines that power the weapon causes it to go completely batshit, and it takes all of Korra’s spiritual skills to contain the blast. In the process, a new Spirit Portal is ripped open right there in Republic City. In the spirit world, Korra helps Kuvira to see the error of her ways, and Kuvira returns with her to the Material World, offering an unconditional surrender.
Meanwhile, Varrick finally wises up and asks Zhu Li if she’d like to “do the thing” for the rest of their lives, and she happily agrees. At their wedding on Air Temple Island, Korra reflects upon the past few years and how she’s grown since arriving in Republic City. A quiet moment with Asami yields the idea of a vacation for just the two of them to the Spirit World. The two head to the new Spirit Portal, and enter hand in hand, starting the next phase of their journey… together.
The Legend of Korra: Book Four finale hits the ground running, wasting no time bringing us up to speed on where everyone is and what they’re doing. There are really only two narratives at play when the episode opens, Team Avatar’s mission to take down Kuvira’s colossus and Pema and Wu’s efforts to calm the families who are trapped in the train station due to the tracks being wrecked before they could get out of Dodge. Before going into the obviously larger story, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge how freaking awesome Pema is in this scenario in particular, but also just in general.
Pema had the potential to be one of the hugest wastes of space on this show. She really did. What is she really to the story of Korra’s Avatar journey? She’s the wife of her mentor. I suppose on a spiritual level, she’s also Korra’s daughter-in-law, but not really. It would have been easy to have Pema be some saintly, motherly homemaker, her personality confined to fussing over her kids and supporting her husband. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. They’re fine qualities, but they alone do not an interesting character make. Fortunately, Pema is so much more than that and has been from the moment she showed up in “Welcome to Republic City.” For someone who could have so easily been window-dressing in this series, she has proven to be a worthy character in her own right.
Pema is a woman who had the fortitude and wherewithal to deal with a high-strung husband, three mischievous children, and a hot-headed teenager girl under her roof while she was easily seven months pregnant. She had no problem expressing her displeasure (like when Tarrlok came to dinner uninvited), and she knew how to talk so that people would listen. She gave great advice couched in an anecdote about how she did kind of a shitty thing for a good reason: stealing Tenzin from Lin Beifong because, well, Tenzin belonged with her. She knew when to butt in, she knew when to butt out (Mako and Asami in the kitchen), and she always did it with more tact than most people in the same situation could ever muster. Over the past fifty episodes, Pema has dealt with everything from family squabbles to acts of terrorism with calm, insight, and wit. She has proven herself to be flawed and fallible but ultimately strong and well-intentioned. And we know her kids very well, which is why when she says, “I raised Meelo. I can handle anything,” we fully understand what that means and we know that she’s got this. And she did. So, rock on, Pema. You’ve more than earned your stripes.
Of course, Pema wasn’t alone. Prince Wu had quite a hand in the solution to that entire situation. In true Avatar-verse fashion, his sillier qualities proved to be assets in disguise. His irrepressible love for singing and dancing (and badger-moles), first seen in “The Coronation,” finally pay off here. Over the past few episodes, he’s introduced one good idea after another. His motivations may not always have been pure, but his actions were effective.
Wu really steps up here, and yet I was relieved when he decided to dissolve the monarchy in the end, not because I thought he would have been a terrible king. With the right advisors and a little more temperance, he probably would have made a decent if not good king, and that was where it seemed the writers were headed, which is why I found it so pleasing that they went down a road less predictable and just as refreshing. It was really in keeping with the theme of the season that he found merit in Kuvira’s idea that the monarchy was a passe institution that wasn’t helping anyone, but decided to give the various city-states comprising the Earth Kingdom their sovereignty to elect their own leaders. I’m tickled pink that the message given here wasn’t “stick absolute power back in the hands of one bloodline for absolutely no reason, because that’s what’s best for everyone.” Wu found the middle ground between the anarchy of the Red Lotus and the fascism of Kuvira. It really seems that he embodied the spirit of this season better than anyone. Who saw that coming?
It was put out there before this season aired that we’d finally hear about Varrick’s childhood, which is slightly different here from the official story we got on Nick.com back when Book Two aired. Here it is revealed that he grew up on a farm, and went on to use his genius to become the millionaire businessman he is today (a backstory actually very similar to that of Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica, come to think of it). We don’t get much, and it goes by pretty fast, but the majority of that conversation more than makes up for it, because we finally get what we’ve been hoping for. Varrick proposes to Zhu Li.
Oh my God, bless Zhu Li. BLESS HER. She gets all primed for Varrick to finally say the words she’s been longing to hear, and then he starts in with his usual bullshit, and the look on her face is priceless. She’s just thinking, “Seriously. Are — are you going to do this right now? Right now?” Unfortunately, just as Varrick is about to reach that point, he’s cut off by imminent danger, but the few words he does say lay the ground work for the scene later where he proposes. And I have to say, if that proposal hadn’t included the phrase “do the thing,” I would have been just a little disappointed. But indeed, Varrick asked Zhu Li if she would do the thing for the rest of their lives. My heart. Also, did you see that jade ring? Awesome.
Equally awesome was the fact that not only was Zhu Li cool with Varrick talking shop only seconds later, it’s what she always dreamed of. And that’s why I think their relationship works. Zhu Li is bright, educated, and resourceful. She’s stayed with Varrick for so long because he was genuinely someone with whom she had a lot in common, someone she respected. The only missing element was reciprocity. As soon as she stood up for herself, demanding respect and partnership from Varrick, he could take her seriously. Because Ferris Bueller summed up this very situation perfectly when he said, “You can’t respect someone who kisses your ass. It just doesn’t work.” And it doesn’t. When did Varrick stop taking Zhu Li for granted? When she demanded that he not. Once that problem was solved, all systems were go, a perfect match had been made. All that was left was for Varrick to do the thing.
Now, of course, we come to the main story, the final confrontation with Kuvira.
This entire fight, which lasted all through “Day of the Colossus” and well into “The Last Stand,” was just… hmm… you know, I try to avoid the word “epic,” as it has in recent years been made pale by overuse, but here it applies. From the progression of the story, all the advances and setbacks and improvisation, to the storyboarding to the animation to the music… it was just superbly done, a final fight worthy of the finale. That shot of the spirit cannon slicing the top floors off the entire skyline while Korra ducks in the foreground just perfectly encapsulated the entire event. Nice use of that aspect ratio as well.
Meelo’s paint balloon plan was actually pretty solid, enough that everyone went with it, but seeing those balloons dangling from several airbender torsos just made me think of tanuki and their magical huevobending. It took me some effort not to giggle. I suppose, given how much spotlight she got last season, it’s only fair that Jinora got shafted for Meelo to shine, but poor Ikki is still suffering from some serious middle child syndrome, both in-universe and out. The girls barely got any lines in the finale, which would have been easier to handle if Jinora hadn’t been so in the foreground in Books Two and Three. That said, airbender kids aside, pretty much everyone got something to do.
Seeing Bolin go all out with the lavabending was immensely satisfying. In fact, there were several points in the episode when just as I was about to complain about why a character wasn’t doing something, they went and did it. And in that context, I fully enjoy being put in my place.
Bringing back the electromagnetic pulse from “Reunion” was a crafty move in that it both worked on the regular mecha suits the way it had previously and yet wasn’t enough to take down the colossus. That required a little more back-up, which is why Hiroshi makes his appearance.
Hiroshi’s story with Asami in “Enemy at the Gates” really did the job of resolving their relationship, and I would have been fine if that one appearance had been it for Mr. Sato, but I’m not going to lie. I am pleased as punch that he had a role to play in this finale. I suppose I should have known from the second he showed up that he was going to die. Thankfully, my enjoyment blinders went up, and I didn’t see it coming until shortly before it happened. Hiroshi’s death was an effective one. His sacrifice saved Asami’s life and made Team Avatar’s victory possible. I don’t know that it fully redeemed his actions from “Book One,” but it did redeem him in his daughter’s eyes and in her heart, and considering that his fanaticism nearly destroyed their relationship, perhaps that’s the only redemption that truly mattered.
Hiroshi’s arc in this season has been so spare yet so effective. It just goes to show that not every character needs loads of time devoted to them to be developed properly. It’s not so much about how much time is spent on a character, but how that time is used, only fueling my argument that Mako could have been handled better over the last three seasons, but at least he made himself useful in this finale. Everyone did, which is what made this episode work so well. Nearly every core character had a role in taking the colossus down. Lin and Su’s teamwork in taking out the spirit cannon was totally bad-ass, Mako and Bolin’s role in shutting down the heart of the machine was crucial, and Korra and Kuvira’s showdown in the cockpit was dynamic and fun.
Bolin’s whole “this isn’t the time to prove how awesome you are” comment to Mako felt just a touch meta, because I know for a fact that I am far from the only person who finds Mako to be a character who has been more or less functionally adrift for vast stretches of this series. A little tongue in cheek on the part of the writers is fair enough, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s just deflection, man.
The deterioration of Kuvira harkened back to Azula’s unraveling in the last few episodes of Avatar, though in Kuvira’s case it happened much more quickly. Unlike Azula, whose insecurities and underlying psychology did her in, Kuvira’s instability was born of panic. Her desperation made her sloppy, and she didn’t think about what the consequences might be of activating the spirit cannon while it was tangled up in spirit vines.
Considering how tenacious and unwilling to back down Kuvira was, I felt that her turn came a little too easily. And I like that she has this sad backstory. I like that it motivated her to become the kind of person she is. But I’m calling bullshit on her whole “all I ever wanted was to never feel vulnerable again, to keep my people safe.” Because I will concede that it started out that way for her. That’s what set her on her path three years ago and it was a truly interesting turn for motive for the character. She was a well-intentioned extremist like Jet, someone who set out to do good but lost her way. But by the time the events of “Book Four” rolled around, she was totally drunk with power. No one wears that much smug ass-face for thirteen episodes, smirking and gloating with enough self-satisfaction to power ten Tim Curry roles, then feeds me a line about how they meant everything for the best without me calling some serious bullshit on their ass. No, honey. Just… no.
I mean, it’s great that Korra completely holds Kuvira accountable for her actions and shows no quarter to her victim-blaming, “everything would have been fine if you’d just surrendered” garbage, but I don’t know. They’re something about the way all this was resolved that didn’t quite do it for me. It’s not that the logic of the situation didn’t work, because on a fundamental level, it did. It’s just that it all happened a little too fast. Korra throws a “we’re not so different, you and I” speech at Kuvira, and without really much prodding at all, Kuvira buckles. Her physical defeat, the taking out of the colossus, was executed beautifully, but her mental and emotional turns just came too easily.
The season was named and themed “Balance,” but the climax of the story and the solving of it didn’t feel very philosophical or spiritual, even when the weapon that led to the heroes’ victory was Korra’s spiritual energy. Because really, that spiritual energy was just a supernatural stand-in for blunt force. Kuvira’s philosophical wrongness was certainly addressed, but the root of it, her internal lack of balance, was not, and that’s what I think detracted from the overall satisfaction of this resolution. In the end, the resolution of this conflict wasn’t about spirituality or balance. It was about who had the biggest gun. And that’s certainly fine, but not when so much of your story hinged on psychological health and philosophical temperance. And this flaw, like pretty much all the flaws with the finale, can really all be traced back to one thing: Nickeleon screwing Bryke out of that one episode’s worth of budget.
The biggest problem with these last two episodes was that they felt kind of rushed. Not very, just by slices here and there, but all those slices add up. They add up to about an episode’s worth of content. There was a lot jammed into this finale, and it was heart-pounding and glorious, but for all that was stuffed into these final episodes, there was a conspicuous lack of connective tissue in some areas, little moments that could have been handled earlier or, if here, in lieu of other moments that could have come earlier, had there been time in the last few episodes to deal with them.
Just look at it structurally. The series finale of Avatar, as well as all season finales of Korra, resolve the climax of the season either during or at the bottom of Act Two, allowing for a final act comprised entirely of denouement. In this finale, however, the denouement didn’t start until well into Act Three. In fact, the exchange leading to Kuvira’s philosophical “defeat” didn’t even begin until Act Three. That’s some serious compression right there. So, let’s trace this backwards. If Act Three were all resolution, most if not all of which could have taken place at Varrick and Zhu Li’s wedding, then let’s say Korra’s one-on-one with Kuvira in the Spirit World (intercut with the other characters, of course) spanned Act Two. That means Act One of “The Last Stand” could have ended with the creation of the Spirit Portal and began with the felling of the colossus. Now, “Day of the Colossus” wouldn’t be able to absorb the rest of that content, so if we keep repeating this process backwards, we end up at the space occupied by “Remembrances.” Well, suddenly we’ve got all the room we need, don’t we? Or at least we would have if Nickelodeon weren’t such dicks.
So, bottom line? I blame Nick. I totally blame Nick. This finale was great, it really was, but if Mike and Bryan weren’t completely dicked over by the network to whom they delivered a fervent and lucrative fanbase, it could have been even better. If these cracks in an otherwise solid finale are visible, it’s not the creators’ fault. They did what they had to do to compensate for the time they were cheated of. And the end result is more or less satisfying, but it’s not what it could have been.
To be fair, the finale was not completely lacking character moments. We got the stuff with the Satos, the engagement and the wedding, and the scene between Suyin and Baatar Jr. was a very welcome addition. It felt natural, and I appreciated that while Su can be a stubborn, self-righteous hard-ass (clearly an inherited trait), when it comes down to it she’s a really good mother. She forgives Baatar Jr. his trespasses. It doesn’t mean he’s home free, and it’s acknowledged that setting things right with his family is going to take considerable time, but they’ll work through it as a family. I will confess that I’d have liked more on exactly why Baatar Jr. was so angry at his family in the first place, enough that he’d betray them and buy into all of Kuvira’s dogma, but again, this was likely a casualty of the time-suck, so whatcha gonna do?
However, while Baatar Jr. is forgiven, Kuvira is so fucked, because Su can see past the betrayal, past the imprisoning of her and her family, but once Kuvira was willing to kill Su’s baby boy? Ohhhh hell no, bitch. You will know the insatiable fury of a mama bear, and that shit will take. You. Down. Kuvira straight up apologizes to Su for everything in the end, accepting whatever punishment is deemed fitting, and Su could not give the tiniest of fucks. She is surrounded by every one of her fucks like a miser, for she has given not a single one about how sorry Kuvira might be. And good for her.
So, at last we come to the wedding of Sir Iknik Blackstone Varrick and the Lady Zhu Li Moon. I love that it was on Air Temple Island. I love that Varrick was using his special effects and hamming it up to the very end. I love the little Nuktuk outfits for the servers. There were a lot of things to love about the wedding from Bolin officiating the ceremony to the vows specifically stating that the marriage will be an equal partnership to the other ridiculata that Varrick added to the vows to “you may now do the thing” to, oh yes, ZHU LI DIPPING VARRICK. Let me be clear. The last “thing” that Zhu Li does in this entire series is swapping a traditional gender role moment, and her groom not only goes with it, he LOVES IT. Thank you, Mike and Bryan! Thank you a thousand times over!
Side note, I am loving everyone’s wedding outfits. Look at Asami’s dress. Look at it! I just can’t even with how awesome she looks. Seeing her next to Korra, I totally had a Kaylee Frye moment, being all, “They look so glamorous together!”
All of the core cast got a moment with Korra in the end, except for Bolin, which I suspect was due to the budget (and thus time) cut, so I’ll retract my claws on that one. At least he got some spotlight by officiating the wedding.
Of course, Korra got a moment with Tenzin, which was really beautiful and showed how much they’ve both grown as people. She learned to lead with her mind and heart, rather than her fists, to show compassion and understanding even to people like Kuvira. And Tenzin learned that life is just a huge mess, and sometimes it’s not about how much of it you can clean up, but rather how you handle what can’t be cleaned up. They’ve learned so much from each other, and it seems that even a lifetime later, Tenzin’s father is finding a way to teach him about life.
There was also a nice button on Korra’s relationship with Mako, their history as lovers, and their future as friends. The whole conversation got a little touch-and-go there for a moment, and I was really nervous that there’d be some last minute, ass-pulled recoupling, but not only did that not happen, what I got instead was SO MUCH BETTER.
So, here we are. The big finish… Korra’s final conversation with Asami and the ending that followed. That music that played as they walked up to the spirit portal… I am literally, as in reaching for tissues, tearing up as I type these words just thinking about it. Since the beginning of Book Three, I’ve been joking about how I don’t need Korra to have any more romantic material, but if they were going to go there, I would totally be cool with her and Asami getting together.
I never expected it to actually happen.
Now, a lot of people are going to jump down my throat on this. And I understand their complaints. “Why does everything have to be about romantic love?” It doesn’t. “Why is the beauty of a true friendship considered incomplete or less satisfying than romantic feelings?” I don’t think it is. “Why can’t two people of the same sex be physically close without it being interpreted romantically?” Speaking as a gay man with male friends who have zero hang-ups about hugging or being otherwise physically affectionate with me, I appreciate the destigmatization of platonic, same-sex affection. And, look, I don’t see gay in everything I read and watch. I’ll make plenty of jokes about Frodo and Sam from Lord of the Rings, but when the joking is done, I know they’re not actually gay. And the people that slash Chibiusa and Hotaru from Sailor Moon? They’re patently ridiculous. But Tomoyo of Cardcaptor Sakura is in love with the titular character. And not chaste crush love; that girl is in heart-pounding, come-puberty-I’ll-be-taking-cues-from-the-Divinyls-over-you love. So, why are people quick to jump on the Korrasami? Sometimes people see things because they want to see them, and sometimes they see things because they’re actually there.
Korra ends the way Avatar ended to the shot, with two optimistic if slightly damaged young people facing each other, wordlessly confirming the love that’s been growing between them for a long time. Okay, Korra and Asami don’t kiss, but smallest iota of common sense would allow for the understanding that such a kiss is something that was simply not possible given the network hosting this series. That kiss’s absence is not a sign that the creators didn’t want it there. It’s a sign that they were smart enough to restrain themselves just enough to get the point across without calling down a shit storm from the suits upstairs.
All you have to do really is look at the facts. Korra’s final words in this entire series are with Asami. Why her? Why this character? Why not any of the other friends Korra loves so dearly? Why not her mentor? Her parents? Naga? Why Asami? Why is Asami the one she goes on a vacation with — alone — to another dimension? Why is Korra the person Asami couldn’t lose? Why, with a dreamy, intoxicatingly sublime variation on Korra’s theme, do the two young women approach the Spirit Portal together, holding hands as they step into the light and gazing into one another’s eyes as they enter another world, a world of endless beauty and wonder? Why end on this image?
Could you read that scene as not gay? Sure, I suppose.
But why would you?
Final thoughts on the season, the series, and the Avatar-verse overall to come in one last post, but as for my episodic posts, this is my swan song. It’s been an amazing journey recapping this show, and I want to thank all of you, even the ones who disagreed with me vocally and often, for taking it with me.
Together… we did the thing.