This Legend of Korra review contains spoilers.
As Prince Wu’s coronation approaches, people begin to express their doubts about his ability to rule, none more so than Kuvira, who hijacks the ceremony to announce the subversion of the monarchy and the dissolution of the Earth Kingdom in favor of a new Earth Empire. Meanwhile, Toph tries to help Korra get her groove back, a task that proves easier said than done.
The callbacks continue with this episode, though this one’s is more subtle, couched in a line of dialogue. When Toph says “We’re here to work,” it’s clearly a nod to “Bitter Work,” one of my favorite episodes of Avatar, where Toph first began training Aang.
Toph reveling in kicking Korra’s ass was… man, I missed Toph. So, so much. She’s someone who I wouldn’t be able to stand in real life, but as a character I cannot do anything but love fiercely and vocally. In many ways, Toph is exactly who we knew her to be in Avatar, but a closer look reveals how she’s grown and changed over the course of her life. The way she speaks about the swamp and how it connects her to everything is deeply spiritual. Sure, it’s based in vibrations and root systems, all very physical, earthly things that jive with her earthbending sensibilities, but the way she speaks about it betrays a somewhat more spiritual mindset, likely a product of a lifetime spent hanging out with Aang. Aiwei even said that Toph went off “to seek enlightenment.”
This is something I’ve really appreciated about seeing Avatar alumni on The Legend of Korra. With the exception of Iroh, who’s pretty much exactly the same as we left him (and that’s fine, he was damn near perfect already), we get the benefit of seeing how their lives and experiences changed them as well as the ways in which they are very much the same. Check that flashback of 43-year-old Sokka from Book One: Air. He may be a middle-aged public official who speaks with the dignity of his office, but he’s still Sokka. He’s presiding over a criminal trial, but he just couldn’t help but throw in a little low-key boasting about his adventures with his trusty boomerang. Hmm… that reminds me. Whatever of became of him and Suki? Did they ever marry, have kids, or both? I certainly haven’t heard any mention from Tenzin, Bumi, or Kya of cousins. Eh, I digress.
The fact that Toph claims Lin and Su never really mastered metalbending makes me wonder just what Toph can do with it. Clearly she can’t lift the remaining traces of the poison out of Korra’s body without hurting her, which… I like that. I like that the reason for Korra’s funk isn’t entirely mental. There is a physical component to it. Still, the writers were clever to merge both her physical and mental blocks. She won’t be able to remove the poison without confronting her issues. Well done.
Meanwhile, back in Republic City…
With all the world leaders arriving for the Coronation, we see the return of Eska and Desna. More curtain call action, and I am fine with that. So, Eska and Desna share a room with one bed, and according to Eska, Desna sleeps in the tub. Suuuuuuuure he does. Anyone trying to tell me that those two don’t Lannister it up are in for a healthy helping of eye-roll.
That shot of Zuko’s daughter, the current Fire Lord, from the trailer pays off here, but her appearance was notably brief. Look, I know we have bigger fish to fry, and I’ll happily sacrifice it for more time spent on the people we know and love, but I’ll admit I’ll be a little disappointed if, after all this time, this is all we see of her.
Prince Wu (or, I suppose King Wu now, for all anyone cares), annoying as he is, actually serves a valuable purpose in the story. He needed to be foolish and incompetent to show that, while Kuvira’s actions are certainly not acceptable, she has a glaringly valid point. Not one member of the Earth Kingdom monarchy, even the nice ones, has ever been a very effective ruler, and Wu is clearly the most ridiculous of the lot. He doesn’t really understand the gravity of his role or the responsibilities that come with it. He’s a spoiled, pampered, egotistical fop who essentially has a meltdown when his fancy party (which is all he really sees his coronation to be) is ruined. Given the option, if I didn’t know the dark side of Kuvira’s agenda, I might be interested in her as an alternative as well.
Now, the timing on this was perfect, because Wu is pretty goddamn insufferable, and after only one episode, he’d come to a place where there were really only two things you could do with his character without pissing people off: shuffle him offscreen or start developing him, and it will be interesting to see where that character is going. It’s entirely possible that Mako will be a good influence on him, helping him to feel the weight of his crown. I don’t think he’s going to be forged into King Arthur over the next ten episodes, but he can perhaps grow into a responsible enough man to rule the Earth Kingdom well, balancing (Eh? Eh?!) his own judgment with the guidance and experience of his advisors.
There’s no guarantee on that, but even if it’s the case, Kuvira’s point stands. Does the Earth Kingdom really need the monarchy? Should it actually be reinstated? Perhaps Kuvira isn’t the best person to have in charge, but was the deposing of the Earth King for the best? It’s a fair question? Perhaps a constitutional monarchy would be the balance between the two ideals. An Earth King or Queen with a prime minister and legislative court? Time will tell.
And now… now we get to the heart of the episode: Kuvira and her people.
Varrick has apparently been pardoned by President Raiko. Good to know. Also… Zhu Li speaks! I’m still holding out hope that Zhu Li may very well be a mastermind herself and will make some kind of awesome power play. That would be neat. Varrick is not a spiritually sensitive person. In fact, he’s quite the opposite, and this was an aspect of his character I expected to be mined in Book Two, to contrast with Unalaq’s religious fundamentalism, but we might just see shades of it here after all, because he is using science and technology to analyze spirit vines.
What. The flying. FUCK?! This cannot lead anywhere good.
There’s a definite value to having Bolin on Kuvira’s side beyond just giving Bolin something to do. It gives us a morally reliable character to report to the others (and to us) on the results Kuvira’s activities have yielded. Bolin’s not just spewing out propaganda. He’s seen those results firsthand. We’ve met his and Mako’s family and seen their lives in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, so when he tells us that their neighborhood has been cleaned up, we believe him. In addition to Bolin being the logical choice to have joined Kuvira (he is an earthbender and was more in need of direction than any of the other supporting characters), his boyish optimism and naïveté would make it easier for him to think the best of Kuvira and get turned around by a little spin on her part. And his eagerness to prove he’s more than just the little brother and defend one of the most constructive decisions in his life so far would make him a lot less receptive to Mako’s criticism and big brothering (in the non-1984 sense)
Baatar Jr.’s behavior in this episode shows a side to him we haven’t seen before. Easily the least developed of Su’s children last season, his engagement to Kuvira certainly poised him to remedy that. It makes sense he’d be attracted to a strong, intelligent woman. Boys with empowered mothers generally are. And while I didn’t expect him to be blind to Kuvira’s true nature, at least not completely, I did expect for him to be a bit more reserved and logical as we saw him in the premiere.
I got the vibe that Kuvira made a thoughtful argument for her agenda to rebuild and unify the Earth Kingdom, and Baatar Jr., being an architect and raised to believe in the fulfillment of potential, totally dug it. I definitely felt that he believed in Kuvira, but his behavior in this episode, the tone he takes with his mother, the facial expressions he makes… it all leads me to believe he’s just as smug and arrogant as she is, only far less polished about it, which could prove to be interesting down the line. It makes perfect sense that Kuvira would corrupt a member of Su’s family as a way of garnering certain resources. However, is there a chance that Baatar Jr. influenced her as much as she influenced him? I wonder.
The scene between Su and Kuvira is revealing and well done. I get the sense that, however extreme Kuvira’s actions are and however eager for power she may be, it’s all rooted in a genuine interest in the welfare of her people. When she accuses Su of burying her head in the sand, it sounds harsh and is likely reductive, but I Su doesn’t say anything to actually deny it and given what we know of her character, it wouldn’t surprise me if she had been content to just focus on her own little corner of the world. It would be interesting if Su’s apathy toward national affairs were a contributing factor to Kuvira’s turn.
All that said, it is fantastic that Su straight up calls Kuvira out. While I appreciate subtlety in most instances, I found it incredibly refreshing that Su lays down the term “tyrant” right up front. This is one context where I actually like things to be spelled out, not to the audience, but to the villain. If you tell, say, Magneto that his notions of racial superiority and the global benefits of genocide are no different from the Nazis — you know, the murderous regime responsible for his trauma — and then he still finds a way to dismiss you and justify his actions, then that’s on him, not a hero who didn’t at least attempt to point that out to him. Similarly, Kuvira needed to be confronted exactly with what she’s doing, and our people needed to spell it out in no uncertain terms.
A wise Minbari once said, “When others do a foolish thing, you should tell them it is a foolish thing. They can still continue to do it, but at least the truth is where it needs to be.” With everything laid out, articulated plainly and clearly, if Kuvira continues on this path, it can’t be said that our heroes didn’t make every effort to reason with her. It can’t be said that she never heard the other side of the argument, that she never considered how others might perceive her. Either she disagrees with the designation of dictator, or she simply doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Either way, she has officially been christened a villain here, and the die is cast. And it is so much more satisfying to me than people just not articulating stuff.
At least we know that when Kuvira is taken down, it won’t be because of some kind of climactic revelation, some Armor Piercing Question that could have preempted the entire conflict if someone has just taken a few seconds to pose it. Nope. We’ve got our bases covered. Game on!
This episode took things down a notch. Not that it was bad by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, we got an episode of Toph being Toph for gods’ sakes, all those plot points were right on schedule, and the writing was strong. It’s just that, you know, it wasn’t as exciting or interesting as previous episodes have been. I mean, we’ve been running on a streak of a stellar quality episodes since at least — at least — the middle of last season, just one after another. The streak had to be broken some time.
Again, it’s not that this was a bad episode. It was good. Very good. It’s just that a streak running from “Enter the Void” to the “Korra Alone” is a tough act to follow. Bottom line, this episode was exactly what it needed to be, it was well written, and it was enjoyable. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Also, frog-squirrels are adorable and I need them in my life.