The Earth Queen is dead, and Ba Sing Se has fallen into chaos. Mako and Bolin “commandeer” an airship to find Korra and deliver Zaheer’s message, but stop off to grab their family on the way out of town. They track Korra to the Misty Palms Oasis, where they tell her that Zaheer is headed to the Northern Air Temple to wipe out the new Air Nation unless Korra surrenders herself. Team Avatar heads back to Zaofu so they can radio Tenzin, but their warning is too late. The Red Lotus descends on the Northern Air Temple for a brutal attack.
Well, it appears all ambiguity is out the window. The Earth Queen is most definitely dead, and with that, shit had already gotten real, but this episode? This episode was fucking HARSH. So much happened that at the end of each act, I literally said out loud, “Shit, there’s more?”
One…I wouldn’t call it a criticism, but certainly an observation about this season was that all the storylines, while certainly related to one another, weren’t intersecting much. In this episode, they finally do. All of the Earth Queen’s bullshit was to exemplify the Red Lotus’s point and give them a target to take out, which upped the stakes. The rebuilding of the Air Nation, while immensely fun to watch, was more or less on its own as a story and seemed to reach fruition in “The Original Airbenders,” when we see that, though there’s still miles to go, the process of rebuilding that culture has truly begun.
However, now? Now they have leverage with which Zaheer can bait Korra. I’m still waiting to see what role the Metal Clan will ultimately play in the endgame of this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something really good.
This episode is the antepenultimate episode of the season. After it, only two remain, and we’re picking up speed pretty steadily. True, Act One was spent mostly getting Team Avatar back together, but it was necessary to ramp up the suspense and it allowed us to address the situation in Ba Sing Se, and even include Mako and Bolin’s family. On that note, I found it rather curious that Grandma Yin insisted on taking the portrait of the Earth Queen with her. This is the second time she’s made some kind of conspicuous acknowledgment of it. It made sense the first time, what with the Dai Li everywhere and even the slightest hint of disloyalty reason enough to imprison someone.
But now…the Queen is dead. There is no clear line of succession. If anyone’s in charge, no one knows who it is. The Dai Li have no one to report to. No one’s listening. And from this, we can draw one of two conclusions. One, Yin is still paying lip service to the Earth Queen out of habit, or two, there is some kind of connection between Mako and Bolin’s grandmother and the Earth Kingdom’s erstwhile monarch.
Act Two was mainly about Korra searching for a way to cut Zaheer off remotely through the Spirit World. She didn’t find him, but she did run into Iroh, which is never wasted screentime, because IROH. Talk about a character who is never wasted. We also got to see Korra really interact with Lord Zuko, a sort-of reunion that’s been a long time coming. The fact that Korra is the first Avatar since Wan without any past lives to seek for counsel is also addressed.
Korra’s growth in both the areas of spirituality and humility is undeniable, and there is something so intrinsically bittersweet about her talk with Zuko, her best friend in another life. It makes me wonder how Zuko feels — how everyone who knew Aang feels — about the fact that he’s really gone now. Hopefully, this will be addressed at some point, probably in Book Four. That’s fine. I can wait.
Ultimately, the action returns to Zaofu where we see Su again. No time wasted. We just go. And then, just as Korra warns Tenzin of the Red Lotus’s plan… they arrive at the Northern Air Temple. And then… Act Three.
The assault on the Northern Air Temple by the Red Lotus is singlehandedly one of the most intense, intricate, and just plain brutal action sequences in the Avatar franchise. There was no holding back. Children’s lives were threatened. Kai fell off a cliff to what very well could have been his death. Bumi and Kya get their asses whooped by Ghazan and Ming-Hua and takes a nastly spill down the rocky mountainside. And Tenzin…Tenzin gets the crap beaten out of him by three of the Red Lotus simultaneously, so savagely, in fact, that the camera angle was conveniently obstructed.
This is not to say the Air Nation didn’t put up a good fight. They did the best that a bunch of novices, a master waterbender, and a master airbender could do, but…that ain’t much against a woman who can blow shit up with her mind.
We also got to see something we’ve only dreamed about since Avatar first premiered almost ten years ago: an honest-to-God, no holds barred battle between two airbenders. Zaheer takes Tenzin on, and I swear their fight is nothing short of poetry in motion. I did get a little antsy at the end when Tenzin made a comment about standing and fighting as long as he breathes, afraid that we might see an encore of Zaheer’s finishing move from last week, but thankfully Zaheer let that one go.
There is a glimmer of hope, however. Kai survived. A tree broke his fall after he passed beneath the clouds, and his leg got stuck in the branches. It turns out “The Original Airbenders” was the best kind of breather episode, one that sets up things to come, because the baby bison that Kai befriended comes to his rescue, taking him onto his back and carrying him off so he can fight another day.
This episode was just…it was just hands down solid and felt like a companion piece to “Turning the Tides” from Book One, a massive assault on the sanctuary of our heroes as a prelude to the finale. All battles are tough, but to have one’s home not only under siege but won and taken from them is such a violation, such a blow to morale. It really is the darkest hour, the stakes have been raised, and the stage set.
Two episodes left to go, and if the quality of the season continues, we may need to develop some airbending of our own, because I don’t know how else we’ll manage to catch our breath.