The Legend of Korra: The Earth Queen Review

The Legend of Korra: The Earth Queen shakes up the status quo on the show as we look beyond Republic City!

In the final half hour of tonight’s The Legend of Korra: Book Three premiere, Team Avatar arrives at Ba Sing Se, where they experience the homicide-tempting demands of her royal high maintenance, Earth Queen Hou-Ting, who throws nothing but shade at Korra from the moment they meet. She agrees to help Korra locate the airbenders in Ba Sing Se if she goes to collect the taxes from a small town that’s been terrorized by outlaws who keep stealing the payload.

Korra and Asami head off to take care of things and thoroughly clean the clocks of a biker gang who try to impede them. As the bikers retreat, defeated, they tell Korra that she’s on the wrong side and that the money belongs to the people, not the queen. Korra has a nagging feeling that they’re telling the truth, which is only confirmed when she returns to Ba Sing Se and the Earth Queen denies having located any airbenders. Korra calls her out on her bullshit and takes off.

Meanwhile, Kai has trouble kicking his pickpocket habit and sneaks away to have some fun. Mako and Bolin go after him, catching him in the act. When they confront him, he tricks them into a one-way train ride to the Lower Ring, where they get back to their roots by sleeping on trash in an alley. And also by stumbling into their uncle and cousin, who introduces them to their entire extended family, none of whom know that their parents died years ago. They explain what they’re doing in Ba Sing Se and learn that the Dai Li have been snatching up people who develop airbending abilities. There’s some brief criticism of the Earth Queen, which the boys’ grandmother quickly dismisses before a very conspicuous prayer for the continued rule of her majesty. Perhaps a prudent performance for anyone who might be listening? I’m looking at you, Dai Li, you shady fuckers! As for Kai, sure, he lived it up for a day on all the money he stole, but karma catches up to him when a pair of Dai Li agents capture him and throw him in a cell, informing him that he will be part of the first airbending army to fight in the “service” of the Earth Queen.

Zuko meets up with Chief Tonraq of the Southern Water Tribe, and together they inform Eska and Desna, who now rule the Northern Water Tribe in tandem, that they must go to a secret prison which houses a very dangerous prisoner. This woman’s firebending skills are so powerful, she must be imprisoned in a sub-zero environment. Her name is P’Li, she has the ability to create explosions with her mind, and she’s been rotting in that cell for thirteen years. What’s more, she knows Zaheer is coming for her.

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Three for three, people. Once again, we have a tight script that’s evenly paced, a script that develops both plot and character very well. The Korra writing staff is on a freaking roll.

Let’s start with the titular monarch herself. There’s no delicate way to put this. The Earth Queen is a rotten bitch. She’s a vain, greedy, materialistic dragon lady who deserves to have one of those giant badger mole statues fall on her. It’s a testament to the Avatar’s developed diplomacy skills that she doesn’t curb stomp this haughty bitch inside of five seconds.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t mind that the creative team is exploiting the dragon lady trope. Anywhere else, it would come off as clichéd and totally racist, but Bryke have proven their stripes. They’ve created a rich, sprawling fantasy world populated by a diverse spectrum of compelling Asian characters. We’ve seen all kinds of women in Avatar and Korra: warriors, peasants, mystics, politicians, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, captains of industry, and all of them are Asian. After all that, I would have forgiven a one-note dragon lady, but love her or hate her (and I personally love to hate her), Hou-Ting seems to be much more than meets the eye. Horrible, no doubt, but in what appears to be very interesting ways.

For one, she’s got the Dai Li doing some shady shit, which…why did her father not get rid of the Dai Li? I guess after Azula dismissed them, they returned to the Earth Kingdom, but why would the Earth King reinstate them? He saw firsthand how awful they were. Maybe he didn’t reinstate them. Maybe they’re just now making a comeback. Maybe a young Hou-Ting was more than a little influenced by a certain former advisor now imprisoned for his crimes. She certainly behaves like Long Feng. Hmm…either way, we can see the Dai Li are up to no good, and I’m sticking by my theory that the place where they stuck Kai and those other airbenders is Lake Laogai. Please let it be true.

After two episodes of teasing, we finally get a Korra/Asami adventure, and it does not disappoint. These two really do make an amazing team. They’re both smart, capable fighters, their skills complement one another’s, and their rapport is solid. I am officially on board the Korra/Asami BFF train. Hell, if this show wasn’t constrained by their home network, I’d totally ship them. I think they’d make a very interesting couple for SO MANY REASONS, but it’s never going to happen, so I’ll just settle for unlikely besties.

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Mako and Bolin take the spotlight in an episode that utilizes their backstory so beautifully that I don’t even know how to… I mean… yes. YES. At first glance, it appears this episode is going to be about their relationship with their new “little bro” Kai, further expanding upon the dynamics set up in the previous episode. And indeed that’s how it starts, but the point of it all is to get them down to the Lower Rings, the slums of Ba Sing Se, where they meet their family. They get to see where their father came from and learn why he left for Republic City in the first place. More importantly though, it pays off every Bolin scene in this season so far.

From the premiere, Bolin has made comments about family: how much he enjoys being a part of Tenzin’s household, how he feels a kinship with Kai because, like Kai, he and Mako grew up on the streets without any family. And now, in the span of a few minutes, they go from being each other’s only flesh and blood to having a massive extended family that welcomes them with open arms. We don’t often see emotion from Mako, so to have him give his father’s scarf to his grandmother so that she can have something left of her estranged son, whom she just found out has been dead for years…oh, the feelings. So many feelings.

There’s some subtle things going on with character design here. If Mako is giving up his iconic scarf, it alters his look, not drastically, but enough that he’s a slightly different character from the brooding teenager he’s been. Mako is growing up. One could argue that he grew up too fast, and certainly in a base survival sense, he’s always been beyond of his years. But he and Bolin have always been immature, just in different ways. Mako’s brooding nature, while sexy for about five minutes, is really more self-indulgent than anything else. It will be interesting to see how their sudden family will affect them as brothers and as people.

And of course, there’s Zuko, who was hands down my favorite character from the original series. Despite being much, much, MUCH older and somewhat gruffer, he still felt like Zuko to me, right down to his comic timing. His “didn’t work” line is right on par with “…That’s rough, buddy.”

It was nice to see Korra’s relatives again, and just to be in the Northern Water Tribe in general, and I think this points to one of the deeper reasons why this season of Korra has been so great so far.

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Book One, by necessity, had to be confined to Republic City for a variety of reasons. It was a deliberate tonal shift from the “road movie” feel of Avatar, and it helped to highlight the industrial revolution that might not be so apparent in the more rural areas. Plus, Amon’s influence could only be so big. And it worked.

When Book Two took us out into the world, showing us familiar locations and how they’d changed, the show began to feel more concretely like it was set in the same world as Avatar. It’s truly a beautiful world Mike and Bryan have created, and to be confined to a post-industrial city, well…let’s just say we didn’t really appreciate how nice it was to have the lush world of Avatar back until the plot kept trying to force us back into the greasy, grimy browns and greys of Republic City. We got a restored Southern Water Tribe, we got the ancient Bhanti civilization, we got more of the Southern and Eastern Air Temples, and their territories than we’d ever seen before, and we spent considerable time in the Spirit World. We even got to see the ancient world where all human cities rested on the backs of colossal Lion Turtles and were so isolated from one another that each population thought they were the only humans in the world. So, every time we were dragged back to Republic City, it just became more and more of a drag.

This time around, in Book Three, it’s stated in the premiere that the plot of the season is predicated on leaving Republic City. In fact, Tenzin’s plans aren’t to move every new airbender to Air Temple Island. Now that he’s not on the City Council anymore, there’s technically no need for him to remain there. He specifically talks about bringing the new recruits to the Northern Air Temple to train and learn the ways of the Air Nomads, fully intending for Pema and the kids to meet him there.

So far, Book Three: Change has certainly been living up to its name. The status quo is being shaken up in several places, both epic and intimate, and while the world is moving forward in irrevocable ways, it seems like all the best changes, whether it be the return of airbenders or the return to familiar locales, all have had to do with retracing our steps, reconnecting with the past, and getting back to our roots.

Keep up with all our Legend of Korra coverage right here.

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4 out of 5