The Legend of Korra: The Battle of Zaofu

We've got a spoiler heavy review of the latest episode of The Legend of Korra, "The Battle of Zaofu" for you...

This Legend of Korra review contains spoilers.

Su Beifong’s attempt to take Kuvira down backfires horribly when she and her sons stumble into a trap. Kuvira then meets with Korra, declaring that the truce is dissolved and that she plans to take Zaofu. A one-on-one duel is agreed to, the winner deciding the fate of Zaofu, but despite having rid herself of the metallic poison, Korra is still not at the top of her game. She’s still a bit rusty.

Nearing defeat, she goes into the Avatar State and turns the tide of the battle, but before she can land the winning blow another vision of Phantom Korra throws her off, and Kuvira wins the fight. Luckily, all the airbenders in the area manage to execute an escape and get Korra out of there, but Kuvira has won, and her forces take Zaofu. Meanwhile, Varrick and Bolin make an escape of their own, faking their deaths in spectacular style to ensure that Baatar Jr. won’t follow them.

This was a tight episode, not a moment wasted, with plenty of twists and turns. And the humor… oh, the humor. Seriously. While “The Battle of Zaofu” is a perfectly fitting title for this episode, it could have just as accurately been titled “Why Varrick is the Best Ever.” Not only does Varrick completely undermine Baatar Jr., he does it right under his nose and insults him throughout the entire process in the most beautiful way imaginable: with the truth of Baatar Jr.’s ultimate mediocrity.

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I seriously want to know what Baatar Jr.’s issue is, because his hostility toward his family and his rage at not having them submit to Kuvira (and thus to him) goes way beyond your standard “I was living in someone else’s shadow” resentment. What the hell is his deal? It’s clear that he finds his dad’s disappointment in him far more insulting than anything that could have been thrown at him in simple anger. Anger would have at least validated him, because anger is really just a byproduct of fear. To be on the receiving end of his father’s rage or resentment would have at least acknowledged his potency, but disappointment? Someone needs to have some form of authority over you to be disappointed in you, and there was nothing more infuriating to Baatar Jr. than that.

I guess it would make sense if Baatar Jr. felt that his identity got swallowed up in his father’s shadow, but this is Zaofu. It would run completely contrary to Su and Baatar Sr.’s beliefs to stifle their son’s own individuality or need to express his own identity. They certainly haven’t with their other kids. So what happened? Because if this all just comes down to Baatar Jr. is just pissy little bitch, that would be pretty disappointing.

You know who’s not disappointing me? Zhu Li. Because even though she seems to have turned coat, there’s something about her. She’s compliant with Kuvira, she says all the right things, but for someone who just broke away from a “bad” situation and empowered herself, she’s not all that enthusiastic. Yes, she was silent for two solid season and displays little emotion, but when Kvuira asks her to assist Baatar Jr. in developing the spirit vine superweapon, there’s just the slightest bit of hesitation. She gives the expected response, but really, what was the option? I don’t know. I smell something going on with her, and I can’t help but think that Zhu Li has something up her sleeve.

Ninja Su is totally bad-ass, and it’s nice to see that Toph taught both her daughters her seismic sense technique. While seismic sense is rather vague, especially for someone who doesn’t use it as their primary means of “vision,” and thus I understand why Su wouldn’t know Zhu Li was acting as a decoy, it’s odd to me that Su wouldn’t have considered the possibility that Kuvira would have set that trap for her.

It’s impressive just how masterful a manipulator Kuvira is. She has contingencies upon contingencies and sets everything up to make it appear as though she’s the good guy. Su attacked her in the middle of the night, but she knew she would. She backed her into that corner. Thus, when she took Su captive, even Korra had to admit that Su was the one who breached the truce. Kuvira is about to kill Korra, forcing Jinora and Opal to take action, thus violating the terms of duel and freeing Kuvira to send in her troops. Which is exactly what Kuvira wanted. While we’ve certainly had intellectuals, strategists, and tricksters in the Avatar universe, I don’t think we’ve ever encountered such a master manipulator. It would be a commendable achievement if it weren’t so awful.

Korra really does shine in this episode, even though she gets her ass roundly kicked. A common complaint from earlier in the series was that Korra didn’t seem to retain any of her character development from Book One, and that she was just spinning her wheels in Book Two, even regressing. This is clearly no longer an issue as her character has evolved on a rather steady trajectory from the middle of Book Two onward. It’s ironic that Opal and Jinora were essentially urging Korra to act the way she would have before all her character development, just going at a fight with brute force and no mercy. Back then it was a problem, but now that it would actually be the best option, Korra is approaching the situation with a level head. It really does well to show how her character has grown.

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Korra’s main problem in this fight is that she’s not being very conscious of her environment and how to use it to her advantage. She’s attacking directly from her body. She’s going to the trouble of, say, lifting a stone up out of the ground and heaving it, rather than just using the earth beneath Kuvira’s feet. Korra really is rusty and not at the top of her game. It is clear Kuvira is playing with her. There are a dozen points in that fight that Kuvira could kill Korra, but she’s milking the fight for every opportunity to humiliate and discredit the Avatar and establish her dominance.

Korra’s vision of herself came as a complete surprise, and while it bordered on Diabolos Ex Machina — an easy way to sabotage her victory — it kind of worked here. It helped immensely that Jinora was surprised as well and pointed out how Korra had seemed to have just gotten over the issues that had been crippling her. By having the characters give voice to what the audience is thinking, the writers are essentially telling us, “We know. We did that on purpose. Trust us.” And you know what? I do, at least for the time being.

The vision of Phantom Korra was unexpected and well executed, but that’s a one-time thing, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll allow it, because it’s absolutely true that sometimes we think we’ve turned a corner, that we’ve put something behind us and are ready to face the new challenges ahead, and reality gets the better of us. Echoes of our old and for the most part conquered problems can haunt us and make us stumble. That said, we already spent five beautifully executed, exquisitely paced episodes building Korra back up to fighting weight. Now, it’s fine that in her first major fight she’s still working out the kinks, but this issue better be laid to rest soon, because I don’t think I have the patience for an entire season of Korra getting her ass whupped to increasingly smaller degrees.

I do have a theory about the reappearance of Phantom Korra here, and it’s a reach but hear me out. Varrick is working with the spirit vines. When he stimulated them and they released all that energy, there was a strong bass chord like when Vaatu would release his energy. Vaatu, while defeated can never truly be destroyed. As Raava said, the small part of him that existed within her would grow until he could enter the world again. One cannot exist without the other. It is the nature of balance. If whatever Varrick is doing with the vines is somehow stimulating that dark energy, Raava would be reacting to it, and as Raava’s spirit is grafted to Korra’s spirit, that malignant presence is triggering all this dark spiritual shit within Korra’s psyche. Like I said, it’s a reach. And it’s probably wrong. But what if it’s not?

As for the supporting characters in this episode…

Seeing Su and her sons in those metal restraining units totally made me think of King Bumi in “Return to Omashu,” where he managed to earthbend with his face. Too bad none of those three have his skills. They are all metalbenders, after all.

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It’s some good characterization on Opal that, even though she is currently furious with Bolin, she still knows him well enough to know that he would not be down with Kuvira’s actions at this point.

Note that the element that really pushed back against Kuvira’s forces was air, the opposite of earth. I don’t think that was an accident. It’s also the first time we’ve seen the full extent of Jinora’s abilities since she was declared a master. True, Opal kept the vortex going while Jinora spirited out, but who knows if it Opal could have built it up to that strength on her own? My money says probably not. However, if she can… it makes me wonder. All these new airbender have been training now for three years. I’m sure it takes longer than that to master airbending, and Jinora was certainly a prodigy, but is it possible we might see more tattooed airbenders by the end of the series, possibly in an epilogue of some kind?

The visuals in this episode were fantastic. That dawn battlefield was a gorgeous backdrop, and its beauty and serenity really added a powerful contrast to the ugliness and brutality of Korra and Kuvira’s duel. It is nice to see these two officially designated as enemies. Because let’s face it, the villain is only halfway there until they’ve declared open hostilities on the Avatar.

That said, I don’t want to see these two face each other again until it’s really going to be a fair fight, because this whole crippled Korra bit? I’m over it. We went through the storyline of her healing, and it took the perfect amount of time. And now it seems like we’re dealing with some kind of aftershock, or a wake-up call of some kind telling Korra that she still has work to do before she’s 100% percent. And that’s all well and good. Everything about Korra and Kuvira’s fight in this episode made sense from Korra’s weaknesses to Kuvira’s reluctance to just outright kill her. But that is not going to hold. Another seven episodes of Korra going up against Kuvira with a lackluster performance and Kuvira not killing her for… some reason… just won’t fly. Given how solid the show has been, I am giving the writers every benefit of every doubt, but if we tune in next week just to see Korra get her ass handed to her Kuvira or someone else, I’m going to call bullshit.

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3.5 out of 5