Three years have passed, and Avatar Korra has taken her leave of Republic City. Team Avatar has been disbanded, and while they still keep in touch, it’s not the same. Prince Wu, the great nephew of the late Earth Queen, is about ready to take the throne, hopefully to reunite the Earth Kingdom, bringing out of the chaos the Red Lotus brought to it with Hou-Ting’s assassination. However, others haven’t been so patient as to wait for the young Prince’s ascension.
Kuvira, formerly of Zaofu, broke away from her city not long after the defeat of the Red Lotus and formed her own army, traveling the Earth Kingdom and “stabilizing” it. Offering protection from the roving gangs of raiders in return for loyalty, it’s a very attractive solution for some, but others resist. “After All These Years” is mainly the story of one such Earth Kingdom state, Yai, standing up to Kuvira and refusing her contract with the support of Kai and Opal, who arrange to have farms in several neighboring regions donate food. While in transit, they find themselves besieged by raiders and lose the entire food shipment. With their only chance of retaining their independence gone, the people of Yai fold and accept Kuvira’s rule, which doesn’t seem so bad on the surface, though the creep factor looming in the background is palpable.
The premiere is conspicuously lacking in Korra herself, and she isn’t seen until the final moments where it’s revealed that she’s been off the grid for months, engaging in some kind of earthbending pit fighting scene. And she doesn’t appear to be doing very well in terms of her earthbending or her disposition. Clearly, not all her wounds from her encounter with Zaheer have healed.
Like the Book Three premiere, this episode was strong both on its own merits and as a premiere, though not by copying a formula set down by the former. “A Breath of Fresh Air” seemed to be mainly political, dealing directly with the fallout of Book Two, and not really establishing the main conflict of the season until the final sequence. Which makes sense. A two-week gap in story time enabled you to simply pick up where you left off, and as the reveal of Zaheer was predicated on the introduction of the new airbenders, it made sense to save it for the end. “After All These Years” is bringing us back to this world after a three-year break in story time, and the world is so different, that the elements of this season’s conflict are already in place, our characters are already caught up in them. Kuvira, introduced briefly at the end of Book Three, has been active in that time, and her actions lay the groundwork for the episode, a complete reversal of the Book Three premiere. Where last season opened with an episode full of Korra capped off the by the appearance of the villain, this season opened with an episode full of villain capped off by the reappearance of Korra. This final season hits the ground running with no lack of momentum.
All the characters have visibly aged, their character designs altered. The children are all a little taller, Jinora and Ikki are budding; even subtle touches like Mako’s hairstyle being a little more subdued and Tonraq greying at the temples really show the passage of time. Though I touched on it briefly in my analysis of the trailer, hair seems to be a major indicator here. Almost everyone’s hairstyles have changed somewhat. It’s even commented on by the characters. It was a nice way to show the characters’ growth in some direction or another, but there were other changes to the character design I was not so fond of.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about the new airbender outfits. It certainly makes sense aerodynamically for them to be skintight, and the built-in gliders remind me of Lexington from Gargoyles, which is never a bad thing, but I wonder if the world of Korra is going a little too modern too fast in places. I was all for the industrial 1930’s look and a healthy helping of steampunk, but the airbenders now look like something out of modern comic books, a little too sleek and streamlined, and I’m not sure I like it yet. One thing is for sure, there is way too much red in the Air Nomad palette. Red has always been there as an accent color, and I’m sure they want to help boost the Fire Nation’s economy (they do, after all, make the best red stuff there!), but I miss the autumnal golds and oranges of the classic Air Nomads. I do realize, of course, that this is a new Air Nation. That change was the entire point of last season, but I don’t see how that necessitates sacrificing a major visual cue to the audience of that people’s cultural identity. Just sayin’.
The disbanding of Team Avatar doesn’t weaken the episode. Quite the contrary. Seeing the characters developing in different directions does well to establish their autonomy and their identities outside of Korra and is clearly setting them up for some conflict down the line, particularly between Mako and Bolin.
Mako is not loving being assigned to Prince Wu as his bodyguard and is eager to see him leave Republic City, but he’s so good at his job that Wu requests he remain on his security detail permanently. Despite the fact that Mako isn’t an Earth Kingdom citizen, there’s not much he can do to protest, as President Raiko could end or at least damage his career with the Republic City Police Department if he refuses. Bolin, meanwhile, is serving under Kuvira and seems to have found a purpose. He’s gotten some direction in his life and has matured at least somewhat. And seeing as Kuvira is the only viable political rival to Prince Wu, this will likely set the brothers against one another somewhere down the line.
Speaking of the reappearance of President Raiko (and First Lady Buttercup Raiko), there are some light digs at the president and his political ambitions, a flaw in his character that seems to have persisted despite all the enlightenment he reached at the end of last season. This leads me to believe it’s going to come back at some point to bite him and our heroes in the ass. The Raikos aren’t the only recurring characters to make an appearance. Varrick and Zhu Li are also travelling with Kuvira, Tonraq makes a brief appearance, and Kai and Opal are central to the plot of the episode. If the premiere sets the tone for the season, I’m sensing a final bow effect that will draw all living Korra alumni (and if Korra’s hallucinations from the Book Three finale are any indication, possible even cameos by dead ones) into the story at some point, which would be awesome.
What’s for sure is that the supporting characters utilized in this episode are utilized incredibly well and feel like members of the family. Kai and Opal really earned their stripes last season. Interestingly enough, they’re the only characters whose personal lives are mentioned. Even more interestingly, I give a damn. Let’s face it, romance has never been Mike and Bryan’s strong suit. When they get it right (Zuko and Mai), it is glorious, but most often (the Korra/Mako/Asami troika) it just feels forced and falls flat. But you know what? Kai and Jinora? Totally bought their relationship from day one and I love how it played out. It was an accent to the story, not a detraction from it, and was really quite charming. Same thing with Bolin and Opal.
It was nice, especially after the infamous Ginger situation, to see Bolin find someone who was actually an interesting complement to his character, a girl with whom he genuinely seemed to click but was not shy about calling him on his bullshit. The fact that they’re on opposite sides of this Kuvira situation… it’s complicated. Bolin has very personal reasons for this. He believes he’s doing the right thing, not just for himself by providing himself with some structure and direction, but the people Earth Kingdom, whom he believes Kuvira is helping. And as an Air Nomad and the daughter of Su Beifong, Opal is opposed to Kuvira and anyone complicit in her activities. This makes for a more interesting conflict for a couple than some bullshit love triangle ever could.
This whole thing is complicated by the fact that Opal’s brother, Baatar Jr., left Zaofu along with Kuvira and is now apparently her fiancé. What exactly went down between Baatar Jr. and Su isn’t spelled out, but it seems to have to do with Kuvira breaking away from Zaofu. This has apparently caused a great deal of strife within the family, enough that Opal is angry with her brother and even Bolin for associating with Kuvira. It’s interesting to me that Baatar Jr. will play such a prominent role, at least on Kuvira’s side of things, considering he was the least developed of Su’s family in Book Three. Considering the two seasons were developed and written at the same time, that is a plant and a half.
Kuvira’s engagement to Baatar Jr. isn’t unexpected, but while it is plainly advantageous to have a member of the Beifong family on her side, I don’t know how I’d feel about it being a calculated move on her part. Calculated she certainly is, but she’s no Azula; she’s not a complete sociopath. Granted we didn’t see much of her in Book Three, but I for one would find it much more interesting for her to have broken away from Su out of a legitimate point of disagreement, her relationship with Baatar Jr. already in place, and that she “lost her way” gradually over the past three years. I would certainly prefer that to some reveal that she was a bad apple all along who was scheming for power since before we met her.
Kuvira’s motives are still unclear. She obviously wants power, but is it power for power’s sake or does she have some kind of greater plan? The hint dropped that she’s interested in regions rich in ore suggest some kind of metalbending agenda, possibly a rival city to Zaofu or perhaps even her own metalbending nation. What seems fairly certain is that she’s not Red Lotus, and for that I’m grateful. The Red Lotus are all about chaos, and that is clearly not what is on Kuvira’s mind. She’s all about order, specifically an order over which she rules. I like to think that the Red Lotus are still out there, weakened by Zaheer’s recapture but by no means gone, and what they would have to say about someone like Kuvira could prove very interesting, especially if a shared desire to take Kuvira down could ally our heroes with the Red Lotus temporarily to vanquish a common enemy.
There is just so much that is creepy about Kuvira. Her manipulations, the way she wins over the people by tending to their needs just enough to curry favor and inspire loyalty. The troops just casually marching in. The mecha suits. It’s all just very… totalitarian. She’s not just taking over by force, but through psychological warfare as well. She’s got all her bases covered. She’s clearly as brilliant a tactician as she is bad-ass a fighter. She knows politics and how to manipulate people, but she’s also willing to threaten people’s lives to get what she wants. She would have let those captured bandits get squashed by the train, but manages to spin indentured servitude into some kind of noble calling. And if anyone thinks she wasn’t behind the airborne bandit strike on Opal and Kai, they are clearly delusional. Bottom line, she seems a worthy antagonist to close out the series with, and I look forward to seeing how that story plays out.
This review, like the episode it’s about, is notably Korra-light until the very end, where it’s revealed that Korra told her father that she was on Air Temple Island when she very clearly wasn’t. We find her in a pit, taking a pretty hefty beating from an earthbender she wouldn’t have sneezed at in “Welcome to Republic City.” So, is the purpose of her wandering the Earth Kingdom, off the grid and pit fighting, to build her skills back up? Has she been out of commission for that long? Or is she just being self-destructive? She’s incognito and seems to have rejected her identity not only as the Avatar, but also as Korra. Why? This eleventh hour reunion with Korra and the in medias res nature of the premiere lead me to believe that next week’s episode will explore the back story of the past three years and show us how Korra got from there to here.
There was a lot going on here, and it was done rather well. We were reunited with a lot of characters and only one new character (two if you count the Governor of Yai, but I don’t see him becoming a mainstay), and yet none of it felt crowded or forced. We got some really meaty conflict between the characters we know and love and the set-up for the ascension of a striking new villain, who manages to establish herself well while remaining a mystery. One thing about Kuvira is apparent, though. The only thing more menacing than her megalomania is her hard luck case of Resting Bitch Face.