The Legend of Korra Season 3 Finale Review: Venom of the Red Lotus

If you're looking for a spoiler-filled review of The Legend of Korra season 3 finale, you've come to the right place.

This Legend of Korra review contains spoilers.

With Korra chained to the walls of a cave, Zaheer makes like a Bond villain and completely reveals his plan to her. A poison will be administered to her skin and, once absorbed into her bloodstream, activate the Avatar State, at which point the Red Lotus will kill her, ending the Avatar cycle. They get pretty far along in this plan, but don’t count on a delirious Korra breaking free from her bonds and fighting back.

Still believing her father dead, Korra comes after Zaheer with the white hot fury of a grieving daughter with cosmic superpowers. After a brutal final battle, Korra, who has taken a lot of abuse over the last few hours, is about to fall victim to Zaheer’s plot when Zaheer is defeated by the airbenders, led by Jinora. The poison being metallic, Su is able to extract it from Korra’s system, saving her life. Two weeks later, Korra is still recovering physically and emotionally from her ordeal, and attends a ceremony where Jinora is presented to her people as an airbending master, tattoos and all.

At the end of the previous episode, my first thought was that things did not look good for Korra. My second thought was that Zaheer’s plan was really fucking stupid. This scene was visually reminiscent of Zhao’s capture of Aang in “The Blue Spirit,” which I believe to be intentional as it reminds us of Zhao’s astute observation that killing the Avatar would be counterproductive; he’d just be reincarnated into the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation would have had to start their search all over again.

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If they kept him alive and under lock and key, at least they’d know where he is. So, why would Zaheer be so fucking stupid as to kill Korra? Because he’s not stupid. The eponymous venom would force Korra into the Avatar State, changing her death from a setback into the ultimate victory. Shit. This motherfucker is stone cold brilliant.

And hey, did I just hear a Shakespeare reference in there? “We lucky few. This band of brothers and sisters and anarchy.” Not word for word from Henry V, but pretty damn close. Tight. Despite that, however, I found myself rolling my eyes as Zaheer went on a histrionic tear with the kind of tedious, anti-social rhetoric that would make any Randian stand up and slap a “Who is John Galt?” bumper sticker on their car.

Luckily, Jinora is eavesdropping on this entire diatribe via her super-handy astral projection and reports back to the others that they’re looking pretty screwed. Ikki’s faith in Korra is sweet, but Jinora taking charge and forcing the novice airbenders to become proactive in their own escape is what the novices need. And though they ultimately do receive some help from the Beifong’s rescue party, it’s not really the point. They would have made their own way out eventually, possibly with a casualty or two, but they would have made it out.

While it was unexpected that Bumi, Kya, and even Tenzin be more or less out of commission for these last two episodes, I can easily accept it. They got to have their big finish for the season in “The Ultimatum,” and fought well enough and took enough of a beating, that their minimal presence in these episodes makes perfect sense. It’s also necessary. Kya is a waterbending master, and Bumi, while as much of a novice airbender as the rest, still has all the strategic and leadership experience that a decades-spanning military career can offer. For Jinora and the others to step up, those skills need to be unavailable to them. It really all fits together rather brilliantly.

Also nice that the Jinora/Kai romance gets a button without being fast-tracked with a kiss for the sake of it. Nice restraint, writers. I’m actually very pleased with the overall restraint shown in the romance department this season. We didn’t force any onto Korra, Asami, or Mako. They were allowed to breathe a little bit, to process the last two seasons’ worth of romantic angst and just figure themselves out for a while.

And the romance we got with the pairings of Bolin/Opal and Jinora/Kai feel effortless and natural. It’s the first love interest for Bolin that feels genuine and organic, and Jinora and Kai’s whole vibe together is some of the best written tween romance out there. There has been a lot of criticism about the romantic subplots in Korra, much of which I have penned myself, but I think it’s much fairer to say not that romance doesn’t have a place in this show, but that the writers needed to better understand its place, and it appears that they finally do.

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Book Three continues to be pretty hardcore. Korra’s anguish at having the poison bent into her skin is palpable. So, if this poison works as it’s intended to, how can she possibly survive? Apparently, she’s resisting the poison and only dipping into and out of the Avatar State. Thus, killing her in the split-second that she’s getting her glow on is, well, difficult at best. If the Red Lotus succeeds, they succeed big, but if their timing is just fraction of a second off, they’re shit out of luck and have to scour the entire Earth Kingdom for their next assassination target. The. Entire. Earth. Kingdom. Not for nothing, but that could make them a little gun shy.

I wonder how much of this is purely Korra’s willpower and how much has to do with the fact that she’s no longer connected to her past lives through Raava’s light spirit? Without that chorus of previous Avatars and all their skill and experience working through her, is the Avatar State less potent and thus easier for her to resist in its defense mechanism/override mode?

As for Korra’s delirious visions of Amon, Unalaq, and Vaatu, these cameos are perfect. Seeing Amon for the first time in 26 episodes, in such an alien context, really is chilling. I’d honestly forgotten how creepy that fucker really was, and even as a posthumous fever dream, he loses none of his menace. Unalaq and Vaatu, given their literal and conceptual contributions to the Red Lotus, felt appropriate and out of place at the same time. The whole sequence is rather unsettling and a subtle reminder of how much Korra has been through since we first met her, the kind of challenges she’s been up against, her victories and the toll they took on her. It underlines what she’s capable of in this battle as well as what it could cost her.

The final showdown between Korra and Zaheer is kinetic and brilliantly animated with lots of motion and camera movement, interesting angles, and some creative moves. And I could be mistaken, but… that location looks a LOT like the Wulong Forest from Aang’s battle with Ozai. The rest of the surrounding terrain doesn’t, so this is perhaps just a visual cue to evoke an association with that battle.

Despite this being Korra’s show, I appreciate the thematic significance of the airbenders as a group, a community, a nation, defeating the anarchist Zaheer. Air defeated air, and Korra did make some contribution, as is proper, but the moment really belonged to Jinora and the others. What we’re really seeing here and later, with their contribution to Zaheer’s defeat, is the summation of two separate arcs that have been running through this season, of Jinora proving herself as an airbending master, leading the rest from being a ragtag group with airbending abilities to true (if novice) airbenders. The moment was theirs, and I think after everything she endured in both this episode and the one previous, Korra’s peripheral contribution to the finishing move was more than justified.

It’s also worth noting that once grounded, Zaheer was immobilized by a brace of earth, his opposite element. Nice touch there.

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Korra really did take a beating in this episode. I mean, we’ve seen her knocked around before, but never to the degree where her recuperation required a wheelchair. It’s also interesting how this big battle seemed to disable her emotionally as well as physically. In these final scenes, her behavior is reminiscent of true depression. Even losing her bending, while it drove her to a fleeting thought of suicide, didn’t seem to crush her spirit the way this experience has. And it’s really great that at this time, her friendship with Asami, which was brought to the foreground in the season premiere, is what sustains her. It’s a great way to bookend the season.

On the subject of some bookending, it was probably more satisfying for me than it should have been to see President Raiko eating his words and recognizing how wrong and small-minded he was in the premiere. It’s also nice to be back at Air Temple Island. Having spent the season away from Republic City actually made me miss it. Not enough to warrant spending all of Book Four there, but I don’t think that’s on the menu.

The reason we’re back on Air Temple Island is two-fold. One, it’s now once again the capital of the Air Nation, now that the Northern Air Temple has been destroyed. Two, it’s Jinora’s home, and these last moments are about Jinora, whose characters has been so marvelously expanded from the ancillary presence she had in Book One. Even as early as the Book Two premiere, this moment was subtly foreshadowed, and now it pays off.

The name and theme of this season was “change,” and the rebuilding of the Air Nation has been a huge part of that. This cultural rebirth comes not just in the rise of new airbenders and the return of that people to their nomadic roots, but in the anointing of the first airbending master in a generation, the first since Tenzin. The instruction and leadership of his people will no longer be his burden to bear alone, because Jinora is now a master, tattoos and all.

Incidentally, I cannot wait to see her new character design for Book Four. For one, her hair will have grown in somewhat by then, and I wonder whether she’ll take a traditional, Yangchen style or something more modern. Also, as a master, she’ll no longer wear the training garb and will be able to choose her own.

This finale succeeded in so many ways, including the ways the finale of Book One came up short. It’s acknowledged that the Earth Kingdom is still in a bad spot, what with the monarchy dissolved and no provisional government set up. It’s also pointed out that even with P’Li, Ghazan, and Ming-Hua dead, and Zaheer in prison, there’s still no telling how many Red Lotus members are still out there. And so, for the duration of Korra’s recovery, the new Air Nation will once again become the Air Nomads, traveling the world and providing aid to those in need and restoring balance in Korra’s name until she is healed and can once again serve the world as the Avatar.

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After the rushed ending of Book One, and the general unevenness of Book Two, there was a lot of pressure on Book Three to really get it right, and it achieved that goal. There are several factors contributing to this. When Book One was conceived, it was a standalone piece. When the greenlight was given to Book Two, the creative team still believed that it would be the end of the series.

Book Three and Book Four got the go-ahead at the same time, enabling Three to really be the first opportunity to have some open-ended elements, and that sense of longterm storytelling was part of what made Avatar so successful. Not everything had to be wrapped up at the end of the season, which allowed some time for recovery, for the exploration of consequences. It would have been easy for Korra to have been so moved by Jinora’s ceremony that she gave us a little smile at the end, but it didn’t. She was moved, but we end on a single tear, no smile, because Korra is not okay, and even if she’s going to heal from all this, it’s going to take time.

In fact, it wouldn’t be far from the mark to say that the key to Korra’s success this season was that it more closely resembled its parent series. While I appreciate, admire, and enjoyed Mike and Bryan’s attempt to distinguish Korra in certain ways, such as the modern setting, being more stationary and centered around Republic City, beyond Book One, it just felt constrictive. Book Two’s attempt to negotiate between that tone and Avatar’s more road-trippy, world tour vibe was just awkward, teasing us enough to want more of this new world without delivering fully on it.

After all, the world has changed considerably in the last 70 years. We want to see how that world has changed. What is Ba Sing Se like now? How have these places changed? How have they remained the same? And what about all the places we never got to see in Avatar?

There’s still a lot of this world left unexplored. We had this bright, beautiful, colorful world, and suddenly we’re stuck in the same dingy, grey setting. It’s just a waste. Book Three remedied this by giving us exactly what we wanted. We revisit Ba Sing Se, the Misty Palms Oasis, the Si Wong Desert, the Northern Water Tribe, The Northern Air Temple, and we’re treated to new places, new villages and cities like Zaofu. We also see the return of Zuko, now a sort of ambassador, having passed the title of Fire Lord to his daughter. Even Toph makes an appearance in flashback.

Elements of the Avatar mythology were also explored, and even more so than Book Two, Book Three really deconstructed several elements of Book One, such as the fact that the function of the White Lotus has changed. Zaheer was right about that. In my review of the season premiere, I noted how interesting it is that Zaheer seemed to have a particular beef with the White Lotus, and the story cashed in on that brilliantly, better than I could have hoped for.

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What’s more, while the previous villains (with the exception of Tarrlok) had legitimate philosophical motivations, they were all to some degree hypocrites, their “noble” motives tainted by some kind of hunger for power. Zaheer was very refreshing in that he’s consistent with his morality and philosophy. His intent was to liberate Ba Sing Se, and he did. I mean, he threw it into chaos, but because he believed chaos was what was in everyone’s best interest. He didn’t do it to divide and conquer. He did what he thought was the right thing, and then left them alone to enjoy their “freedom.” This isn’t to say he isn’t willing to do horrible things in the service of his cause, but none of those things are antithetical to his philosophy. He’s morally consistent, and much as I think he needs to choke on a turd (or at the very least Bolin’s sock), you can’t fault him for being a phony.

Another major strength of this season was the character arcs, of which there were several, and none of them short-changed. Not only that, the development we got were in the form of natural, organic, stories that seemed like the next logical step for these people. Not every arc spanned the entire season, but they all got the attention they deserved. Korra and Asami’s friendship, Lin and Su’s family history, the return of the Air Nation and Tenzin’s coping with how his culture will inevitably change, Jinora’s coming of age, Kai gaining a sense of community and responsibility, Bolin learning to be himself both in regards to how he approaches girls and how his bending will evolve… there was so much going on, and it was great! There were some characters that could have benefited from a little more attention, but with Book Four still coming, I have faith it will be handled and handled well.

Overall, Book Three has succeeded in terms of consistency. We had a solid conflict that developed at a good pace, the momentum picking up in all the right places. The story came to a satisfying conclusion both dramatically and thematically with a nice helping of wrap-up to send us off. Each episode built on the story, even the seemingly filler “The Original Airbenders,” which to be clear was a good episode in its own right. However, it managed to set up certain elements that would play in to the second half of the season in an integral way. Even the weaker episodes of the season were incredibly strong and massively enjoyable.

This is not to say the season was without its flaws, the most egregious being the baddies. The Red Lotus is a fine idea, and the prospect of seeing them again in Book Four is very exciting, but aside from Zaheer, none of them got any real depth, and even Zaheer didn’t get much in the way of backstory. P’Li, Ghazan, and Ming-Hua, while thrilling to watch and fascinating in concept and design, were fairly shallow characters. They weren’t without their moments. The conversation with Bolin in the truck added a touch of humor, rounding them out a bit, and the scene with P’Li did give us some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it backstory, but it was just so little to go on.

I wanted to know how each of them got involved with the Red Lotus, what their different motives for joining were. How did Ming-Hua lose her arms? Is there any significance to Ghazan’s tattoos? And what drew Zaheer to airbending philosophy in the first place. My “fallen air acolyte” theory seems to have been debunked, but then what’s the alternative? Mike and Bryan created these wonderfully captivating characters, and I know you should always leave ‘em wanting more, but not when you kill those characters off without exploring their potential.

It’s also worth noting that such a huge hullabaloo was made at the end of last season and in this season’s premiere about the coexistence of humans and spirits in the wake of Korra leaving the Spirit Portals open, but aside from a few jokes and one actual plot point, this whole story was more or less dropped. Now, to be fair, there was a lot that happened in this season, and if something had to go in order for everything that we did get to run smoothly, then I agree the whole spirit thread was the one to put on the chopping block, but it is nonetheless a failing.

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Aside from that, however, I really have no complaints about Book Three. It was a fantastic story that was superbly written and beautifully animated, and I’m looking forward to what’s next. Let’s all sit back and raise a glass to one fucking spectacular season of The Legend of Korra, unequivocally the best so far, and await together news of Book Four.

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5 out of 5