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Oh man. Legend of Korra returned this week with “The Ultimatum”. I have to admit, I was kind of dreading this episode. This season seems to have a knack for good setups and poor payoffs. Man was I wrong.
Let’s get to it!
As Ba Sing Se falls into chaos, Mako and Bolin escape the city with their family. After finding the Avatar, they give her Zaheer’s message: turn herself over to the Red Lotus or he’ll destroy the Air Nation. Korra tries to warn Tenzin, but it’s too late… Zaheer is already there.
That’s it. Yeah, a straightforward plot this time, I know.
This episode starts with Mako and Bolin’s efforts to escape the chaos of a fallen Ba Sing Se and I was pretty bummed. Well truth be told, I was pretty neutral at first. I figured something like this would take place. However, when they decide to spend time finding and convincing their family to come with them in their air ship, that feeling began to sink in. They broke the momentum. We’re going to do another character study miles away from the central conflict. Great. When they got to the desert to search for the wreckage of Korra’s ship, it all but confirmed it.
However, a strange thing happened when Mako found Korra and relayed the message. She jumped into proactive character mode and suddenly there was the feeling of… tension? Yes, tension. I felt for the characters. Too often this season I was disengaged from the goings on. Finally, I was sucked in, I wanted to know what happened next. It felt good.
It only got better when we hear Tenzin on the other line, “oh no…“. Zaheer’s already there. It’s too late. Finally, we’re here, the culmination of this season’s plot lines. All that sweet conflict comes to bear.
The end of this episode more than makes for the dry start. It also works to set up an awesome next episode, and maybe a great conclusion to the season. We’re talking real emotional impact here. Something we’ve kinda been missing. A lot of the cliffhangers this season have left us with just the promise of a cool fight. Now? Now I want to know what happens to the characters. I fear for their well being.
Speaking of this episode’s ending…
So as the Red Lotus attacks, Tenzin, Bumi, and Kya hold most of them off so that the Air Nomads can evacuate the temple. What follows is probably one the best fights in The Legend of Korra. It really offers a lot.
First off, for the first time in the Avatar franchise (that I can recall) we have airbender on airbender combat. And it is everything I never knew I wanted. Airbending fight styles are unique among the others for being much more acrobatic and it really pays off here. Tenzin and Zaheer, nearly matched in skill, fly through the air as they strike and block. Leaping up walls, soaring across chasms. It’s something truly new, and it’s really nice to see.
Another plus is seeing Kya, most likely an upper echelon waterbender due to training with Katara, battle with Ming-Hua. Ming-Hua’s unconventional use of waterbending makes her more monster than bender and putting her up against Kya’s more traditional technique was really cool to see.
One side note, though. I think this show really underestimates both the temperature of lava and the effect it has on things. I get that Bumi is a hardened soldier, and maybe the people of this world are much more resilient than we are, but he got suuuuper close to red-hot lava a number of times. At one point he even stood on cracked earth that clearly had some kind of magma under it. I’m sorry, but Bumi is every kind of dead. Lava can be anywhere from 1,292 to 2,192 °F. Which means if you’re even a few dozen feet away, you’re either dead, dying, or on fire. Maybe all at once.
This episode gets dark. And it gets dark quick. Not only that, but it ends on something of a down note. The airbenders fail in their escape attempt and are trapped by the Red Lotus. Tenzin, Bumi, and Kya seem to hold their own, but are soon beaten into submission. Bumi and Kya fall down a cliff and are left injured and unconscious. Tenzin, who seemed to get the upper hand on Zaheer, is defeated by the combined might of the Red Lotus.
Zaheer asks Tenzin to stay down, but Tenzin gives only an admittedly cliche “as long as I breathe” speech. The Red Lotus then starts laying into him, and we pan into darkness with only Tenzin’s cries of pain for company. Is he dead? The “as long as I breathe, I’ll never stand down” speech would certainly point to it. However, the Avatar franchise doesn’t really have the track record for killing off important side characters. So part of me feels like they might go with having him severely injured instead, but they killed the Earth Queen so I don’t know.
This marks a continuation of darker undertones in Legend of Korra. Certainly there were dark moments before — the boat suicide, etc — but this is a kind of sustained grimness. It’s not a complaint, in fact I enjoy the added gravitas, it’s just odd that we started with another lighter season (airbender recruitment shenanigans! That silly Earth Queen! How wacky are these Metal Clan guys?) only to dive into some heavy territory so quick.
We get another Uncle Iroh visit out of left field. It wasn’t bad, and I suppose it fit. I just feel like a big down side of The Legend of Korra is that it uses Avatar: The Last Airbender as a crutch. It’s awesome to use the past series as a foundation for world building, like having the Metal Clan come from Toph’s development of metalbending, but they often use scenes whose only real appeal is that of “hey look! You remember this character! This character is great!”
Iroh’s first appearance in Korra during season two made a lot of sense and it worked. Here again, this appearance wasn’t bad, if a little forced, I’m just weary of what it could become.
I think this episode wouldn’t have been as good if it wasn’t built up over the last couple episodes. As much as I baffle at some of the story choices, the season really helped to build up this fight. There’s probably a way they could’ve streamlined it, sure, but I think I see how they’ve built this season.
It’s kind of like a book that starts out dry, a little meandering, but starts to get good once the chaff falls away and the plot lines finally come together. If this trend continues, the last part of this season might make up for the first and actually put Book Three as the best of Korra.