The Legend of Korra: In Harm’s Way Review

There was a lot of ground for The Legend of Korra to cover in the latest mind-blowing episode.

Bolin and Mako’s family reunion comes to a bittersweet end, and they return to Korra with the news that The Earth Queen has been abducting airbenders, conscripting them to her army against their will. Team Avatar sets out to find them and set them free. At the same time, Zaheer and his crew execute their final jailbreak, busting his combustive girlfriend, P’Li, from her Northern Water Tribe prison in one brutal showdown with Tonraq, Eska and Desna, and Lord Zuko.

While the P’Li storyline is brief, it packs a punch, and considering what a slow burn the A-Plot is, it was smart of the writers to place the sequence at the front of the episode. No time is wasted. We start right in P’Li’s cell as she waits for deliverance. Ming-Hua continues to be a fascinating new addition to the world of Korra. Her waterbending arms turn out to be merely a symptom of her sheer creativity with the art. In these opening scenes, we see her make some truly inspired, not to mention masterful, use of her skills. Tonraq and Zuko hold their own, and we finally get to see some more of Eska and Desna’s tandem waterbending. And when P’Li gets her groove back and unleashes that psychic combustion technique on Zuko’s dragon — and don’t ask me how she managed to detonate an explosion on its skin without killing it — I literally fell back on my couch and gasped, “Fuuuuuuuuuuck.” And even in the midst of all that, the sequence was not without humor. As Zaheer and P’Li share a passionate kiss in the passenger seat upon their reunion, Ghazan side-eyes them from the steering wheel with, “Really? Right now?”

The rest of the episode followed one single storyline, but this was for the best, because there was a lot of ground to cover.

First, the Earth Queen tries to get Team Avatar out of Ba Sing Se by sending them on a wild goose chase with some bullshit report of airbenders popping up in some distant province. They play along, but have no intentions of leaving without the imprisoned airbenders, whom they now know of, courtesy of the Mako and Bolin family gossip chain.

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The first question is how they’re going to find the captives, and yes. Yes. YES! The first place they think of is the secret fortress beneath the infamous Lake Laogai! Did I not call that shit? Did I not call it?!

So, Jinora astral projects into Lake Laogai from the island on which Aang and company regrouped following Jet’s death in Avatar, but it appears to still be abandoned. They toss out some other possibilities including the catacombs beneath the Upper Ring (which I also called!), but there are just too many possibilities, so Korra suggests that Jinora focuses on Kai to find him the same way she found her during Harmonic Convergence. Tenzin’s quick little double-take at the mention of Jinora and Kai’s “connection” was a nice little touch that I hope to see explored later in the season.

There is so much great development for Jinora in this episode, but also for her father. For Tenzin to trust in his daughter’s abilities and allow her to participate without his supervision, especially after she got lost in the Spirit World last season, shows a remarkable change in him, that his need to control everything is something he’s starting to let go of, however slowly. This is echoed at the end of the episode when, unlike his previous dogged insistence that all new airbenders abandon their lives so that he can rebuild his culture, he tells the refugees that while he would like them to come with him to the Northern Air Temple to master airbending and learn the ways of the Air Nomads, they are free to choose their own paths. By allowing them this freedom, Tenzin actually comes closer to the heart of Air Nomad philosophy, something he’s often paid lip service to in lieu of actually comprehending and practicing. This shows us that even at the age of fifty-two, even on matters in which he is literally the world’s authority, Tenzin is as much a work in progress as anyone else, a message that’s profoundly important for every child and adult watching to digest.

The other character who really deserves note here is Kai, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite characters. It would have been really, really easy to write him as a clichéd stock character, and the writers do fake us out in that direction, but we quickly see that Kai has more depth than your typical “lovable scamp.” He has a moral center and, despite some of his less than savory habits, true integrity where it counts. In the abusive training scenes we get of him and the other new airbenders, he goes out of his way to stand up for a weaker and less skilled recruit, calling down the wrath of the Dai Li agent training them. And what happens? Kai holds his own with a display that drives home the point that he is truly an airbending prodigy… which makes sense. 

The first time we ever meet Kai, he’s running from the law. In the following episode, he’s darting away from the group, pulling one over on Mako and Bolin, using his wits to keep one step ahead of until he runs into the Dai Li. Kai is quick and evasive and clever. Avoid and evade. In other words, he already thinks like an airbender. Sure, he’s used these traits toward dishonest and even selfish ends, but regardless of the application, his personality is practically a textbook example of airbender psychology. No freaking wonder he’s taken to the art like a duck to… you know what? I’m not going to mix my elemental metaphors. You get the idea. And yet, even with all that going on, Mako doesn’t let him off the hook for all his shenanigans. I get the feeling that we haven’t seen the last of Mako and Bolin’s notably divergent attitudes toward Kai, and I’m curious to see how this dynamic continues to play out over the course of the season. 

The entire jailbreak sequence was heartpounding. Not a scene was wasted, the action was inspired, the animation was beautiful, and while I’m clearly not coming down on the side of the Earth Queen, I did enjoy the political complexity of what was going on. Bumi does point out that while forcing the airbenders to join the military is morally dubious, it is legally within the Earth Queen’s rights to conscript her citizens. Furthermore, the Avatar’s interference on this domestic matter, while generally accepted to be within her purview, can be (and is) interpreted by the Earth Queen as an act of war. And oh boy, do I look forward to seeing where that goes.

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Also, in an episode already packed with twists, the unexpected appearance of Lin Beifong was a perfect way to tie in the opening sequence in the Northern Water Tribe without letting the air out of the balloon in Ba Sing Se. After all, back in “Rebirth,” Zuko did tell the White Lotus sentries to contact Beifong with the news of Zaheer’s movements so that she could protect the Avatar. When Korra learns that Zuko is working with her father and that Tenzin immediately knows what Lin’s talking about, she demands the answers we’ve been craving. Let’s hear it for earned exposition! 

So, shortly after Korra was discovered to be the Avatar, Zaheer and the others attempted to kidnap her. Tonraq, Zuko, Tenzin, and CHIEF SOKKA — nice way to slip in that Sokka parlayed his Republic City Council position into taking over the Southern Water Tribe after Hakoda either died or stepped down — foiled the abduction attempt. They locked them away in prisons designed to impair their abilities. And with this knowledge, Korra finally realizes that this was why Tenzin and Tonraq raised her in isolation. Just… I can’t. This is just too good, people. It is too FUCKING good.

With that answer, another question is raised. If the prisons were designed to inhibit the criminals’ abilities, what was the function of Zaheer’s prison? Obviously, he wasn’t an airbender until recently (though it’s suggested he’s been spiritually attuned to airbending for quite some time; more on that in the next review), so what bad-ass skills did he have that would place him at the head of a gang of master-level bending criminals? And what did they want with Korra? 

Again we see Korra’s development in that she integrates this information and moves on. Book One Korra would have fixated on the reminder of her gilded cage, of adults doing things “for her own good,” old resentment rising back to the surface. Instead, she sees things from their perspective, understanding why they made the decisions they made and knowing that it came from a good place. And when Beifong tries to take the protective angle again, Korra rebuffs her efforts, but doesn’t explode. She stands her ground, explaining her intent and asserting her sovereignty and competence without having a tantrum. And when she acts like an adult, lo and behold, she is treated like one. Beifong doesn’t waste time trying to change Korra’s mind. She just tells her that they have to be quick and efficient, grab the captive airbenders, and get the hell out of Ba Sing Se. Well, how about that?

This episode packed a wallop from beginning to end. As I said, there was a lot of ground to cover. It was a big story, y’all, and it balanced plot development, character development, action, and humor (the Earth Queen’s allergies alone) so perfectly that it elevated the show to a whole new level. When Korra first hit the airwaves, it drew a lot of criticism from a portion of the fanbase for not being more like Avatar in style and tone, and I didn’t see why that was such a problem. It was a different show set in a different era, two generations after the first, and trying to recreate the first show would have been a waste of time and a failure. And while I still think it was smart and right to give Korra its own identity, it can’t be denied that bringing the show back to its Avatar roots has, on every occasion, made it stronger.

To paraphrase the wisdom Aang imparted to Tenzin in last season’s finale, “Korra is not Avatar, and it should not be Avatar.” However, coming closer to Avatar’s mythology and history and exploring the new face of this vast, diverse, colorful world we fell in love with only serves to enhance the new experience. The cynical could chalk it up to pandering or fan service, but those shout-outs and Easter eggs add a sense of flavor and continuity that makes this world feel real, much the same way that all the history of The Silmarillion, even decades before it ever saw the light of day, created a sense of texture that made the Middle-Earth of Lord of the Rings feel like a world in which actual people (and peoples) were born, lived, and died. Anyone can create new locations all willy-nilly for the adventure of the day. True skill comes in knowing when to utilize what you already have, to delve further or even just acknowledge what’s come before, that it existed, that those places in the world, even when they remain unseen are still there. 

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Keep it up, Bryke. My mind is effectively blown.

Keep up with all our Legend of Korra coverage here.

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5 out of 5