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Friday, September 5, 2014

Legend of Korra: A Book Three Breakdown

**obviously, this contains all the spoilers for Book Three.  If ye have not finished the season, what in the hell is wrong thou?  Get thine ass to the couch!**

            Given the degree to which Nickelodeon made literally every wrong decision it could have possibly made in regards to how to handle both this franchise as a whole and this new season in particular, the fact that Book Three is not only good but easily the best season in the series so far is something of a Christmas miracle.  It’s so good, there is absolutely no sense in me doing the usual "What Worked" and "What Didn't Work" lists I did for Books One and Two.  Oh, there were parts I thought didn’t work, or where I would have liked to see the story go a slightly different way, or a few awkward jokes that whistled past my ear, but on the other hand, there is nothing at all approaching the head-slapping ridiculousness of Book One’s still-official ending, or the absurdities of Korra’s bemusing character relapses in Book Two.  At long last, we’ve gotten a season as perfectly formed and executed as any in The Last Airbender, so this time around, no negatives.  Instead, let’s just celebrate. 

            Something that I took note of after watching the finale (after my heart rate had returned to normal, obviously), is that, thus far, each season of Korra has ended with her being put through the ringer and having some aspect of her powers broken off.  Granted, they whitewashed this out at the very end of season one, but even there, for a period of time, Korra had lost her ability to bend any element except air.  At the end of Book Two, partially due to her inability to stop Tarrloq 2.0 earlier, Raava is literally ripped out of her and nearly obliterated, causing Korra’s spiritual connection to the past avatars to vanish, possibly forever.  And at the end of this latest season, she is injured from her bending battle with Zaheer and also suffering from the debilitating effects of a poison that may or may not have permanently damaged her spiritual and bending powers.  This time around, it’s bad enough that she is physically incapable, at least for now, of acting as the avatar.  The cumulative effect, after three seasons of this, is a final shot that rivals the end of Book Two of The Last Airbender for its sense of heartbreaking gravity; even with the Red Lotus defeated and the air nation reestablished, Korra’s face looks ravaged almost beyond recognition.  For better or for worse, the confidence and cocksureness that have been the hallmarks of her character are gone. 

            Because of this- because we finally see more consequences for Korra’s actions both good and bad, things that cannot be solves with a bending battle- Korra has finally become the interesting lead worth feeling invested in that I was sorely missing from the first few seasons.  I never disliked her, but on the other hand, she was always the least-interesting character on-screen, and it was during this season that that finally began to change.  Not only did I enjoy her presence far more than in the past two Books, for the first time since the show started, I also feel sorry for her losses. 

            Props must also be given to Mako, who, like Korra and Asami, has finally been unburdened of the frustrating relationship baggage that peppered the first two Books.  Able to focus solely on the story as a whole and not on romantic side plots, this season ended up being easily the most tightly written of the series.  I went back and rewatched the season trailer before finishing this post, and thinking back on everything that happened, from the start in Republic City, to the journey through the Earth Kingdom and the gathering of new airbenders, to the prison breaks, to Zaheer's pursuit of Korra, to the destruction of the Northern Air Temple, to the final battle and Jinora’s induction as an air master, I realized just how much story Mike and Brian managed to cram into 13 episodes, easily enough for a whole other season if they had had the time.  And yet, unlike with the previous Book, nothing ever felt rushed or pushed to the side.  All the pieces fell wonderfully into place. 

            The show has also continued to get a hell of a lot darker.  I imagine plenty of people are split about that, but personally, I think the franchise has matured in the right ways, tackling complex issues and the horrors of violence in ways that both provoke reflection and provide for gripping storytelling.  I thought I would never see anything out of this series to top the exploding boat at the end of Book One, but that expectation took a shot right between the eyes when the Earth Queen literally had the breath bended out of her body.  And even that moment of terror was superseded just a few episodes later with P'Li's death.  All it took was a second of seeing her face encased in metal, and a few more of Zaheer's reaction of utter horror.  The scene still gives me the shivers. 

            Something that I also appreciated in this season was its increased focused on real-world, practical politics as the basis of much of the storyline and plot.  As Rob Walker pointed out, other than the spirit Vaatu, all of the antagonists of Korra have been political, at least in terms of their motives.  And that has been the source of her failings and shortcomings as an avatar.  She really is the perfect mirror of Aang- Aang, at least at first, lacked the fighting and martial prowess to truly be able to take on the Fire Lord head-on, but already had much of the emotional and spiritual intelligence and understanding that allowed him to make, in many instances, to make beneficial decisions about maintaining peace.  Korra is the epitome of a natural, able to grasp any form of bending with ease.  But she has never had the real emotional or intellectual center to counter the claims made by Ammon or Zaheer regarding what the best path for the nations of the world is.  Her conversation in the spirit world with Zaheer was one of my favorite scenes of the entire season, the sort of direct debate that I had hoped for in Book One. 

            That said, obviously, there are a great many aspects of the story left unresolved, and whether or not that proves wise will be determined by season 4, which, thankfully, was already close to finished when the Nickelodeon management board suffered its latest psychotic breakdown.  This time around, I am fully excited for a new season without any of the reservations I held going into the premiere of each of the three Books thus far.  I can hardly wait.  

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