The Legend of Korra: Book 3

“Let go your earthly tether. Enter the void. Empty, and become wind.” 

From the very first few minutes of the first episode, I knew I was going to love this season. Sure enough, I did.

Almost all the issues I had with last season were blown out of the window by a newly-discovered airbender. Everything about Book 3 leapt bounds over the mess that was Book 2. The first half of the season took its time developing our characters and introducing new ones alongside our villains, while the latter half kicked the plot into full gear spectacularly. So much so that while I did have some minor issues at some points, everything gelled together so well that I don’t think I have a least favorite episode— only several ones that I especially loved.

So let’s go ahead and delve into the amazing season that was—

Book 3: Change


The fantastic first episode of the season, appropriately titled A Breath of Fresh Air, picks up two weeks after the events of the Book 2 finale. Korra has left the portal to the Spirit World open, and now humans and spirits are living together… or at least trying. But the main focus this season isn’t on the union of spirits and humans like I thought it would be, but on the sudden revival of the airbenders thanks to Harmonic Convergence. I liked that the whole plot of this season tied into the events of Book 2, so that for whatever issues we may have with that season, it ended up being quite instrumental to the future of the show.

What I enjoyed about Book 3 is that it actually takes the time to have some fun, which I felt the show hasn't done since the early pro-bending days. The world-hopping adventure looking for stray airbenders was such a great way to start the season. We finally got to really see this post-ATLA world outside of Republic City, and I wish we had gotten the chance to travel even more. But more importantly, it kept our Team Avatar together, and not scattered about on aimless subplots. In fact, this is the first time I really cared for our main four as a team. I was actually hoping for more low-key character-building filler really fleshing out this crew (or Krew) that we've come to know for the past two seasons. As cute as the chibi-style montage was with Tenzin wonderfully failing at recruiting airbenders ("Your best friend will be a giant bison!"), I would have preferred this be extended by an episode or two, so we could really enjoy the feeling of being on an adventure with our team and get to see them being friends and not just teammates. The stop at Zaofu may have even been a good point to do an episode similar to ATLA’s The Tales of Ba Sing Se.


Two of my favorite episodes were the really fun back-to-back The Terror Within and The Stakeout. The "shoot-out" sequence against the Red Lotus in Zaofu was one of my favorite moments in the series so far. We got to see everyone other than Korra show their stuff, all in nothing but their pajamas. Also, any episode where a noisy Pabu is MVP is a good one for me. The lead-up from the investigation at Zaofu to the hotel stakeout was so much fun, because for the first time since Book 1, we got to see our core foursome working together quite well. One of my issues with Book 3 is that we needed even more of these moments of them together.

All of our characters played a central role this time and got their chances to shine, both in kickass form in battle and in the emotional moments. And this season, there were plenty of both. Everything was structured so that even the newer characters introduced, like Kai, Opal, and the other airbenders, became important parts of the season as a whole and were given arcs that turned them into pretty likeable characters. What completely sold me about this season was the focus on character for everyone, even the villains.

And with that, let’s once again go through this one by one.

Korra


Where last season Korra’s journey was a spiritual one, this time she is confronting the full responsibility of being the Avatar – and now she has to do it without her previous lives to guide her. While it’s sad not seeing Aang, Roku, Kyoshi, or the other Avatars again, I much prefer seeing Korra try to forge her own path forward. Given how impulsive we know she is, this sets up an interesting arc of Korra having to find alternatives to brute-forcing her way through situations. One of my favorite moments of this season (and the entire series) was when she calmly confides in the frightened new airbender Daw about her confusion at how to approach this new stage of life. It was a quiet and gentle moment that didn’t call for any fancy bending moves, but also shows how much Korra has matured from the hotheaded teenager of Book 1.


Korra is a lot calmer this time, and we even see her get to have fun. She gets to travel the world with her friends, see new cities, eat fancy kale dinners, and even learn metalbending. My favorite moment from their jetsetting adventures had to be the enthralling roadshow "The Amazing Airbenders", featuring a ripped shirtless Tenzin and Mako as the less than enthusiastic escaped convict. I loved that Korra and Asami bonded this season, and this pays off quite well with the friendship they've formed by the finale.


Korra also notably does not go into the Avatar state until the final episode. It’s understandable that she would be hesitant to do so, given how the last time she went into it she lost her connection to all her past lives. But I also think this signals how Korra is trying to do things on her own and not rely too much on the power boost it provides. This makes it all the more satisfying when she lets loose and goes full berserk mode in the end. Korra’s Avatar state has always been more about pure physical power than super spiritual power, and I think that’s why she also hesitates to tap into it. Because a failure while in the state means a failure of her own strength. And I like that because of that, even in the Avatar state, Korra is still vulnerable.

Tenzin


Tenzin this season is focused on bringing the entire Air Nomad race back to life. His enthusiasm at finding new recruits and subsequently putting them through a grueling training regime is a reflection of the loneliness he must feel bearing the weight of being one of the last airbenders. I loved the moment early in the season when he tearfully talks about the prospect of new airbenders to his three kids. It’s the quiet moments like these that really made the season so good for me.


Having such a calm and even comedic Tenzin for the first few episodes makes it easy to forget what a skilled fighter he is. He could have held his own against any one of the four Red Lotus members, but was bested by all of them together. For a second, I thought they were about to kill Tenzin off, considering at that point the show had already already proven it isn’t afraid of killing people. That entire sequence with the raid at the Northern Air Temple was so well done and had the high emotional stakes that were sorely lacking in Book 2.

Tenzin and Korra’s arcs have always been tied together, and now even moreso considering he was one of the last airbenders just as Korra is the last Avatar of her spiritual cycle. They both support each other, and by the end of the season Tenzin is ready continue the journey Korra is physically and emotionally not ready for. Just as Korra helped Tenzin realize he isn’t alone in the world of airbenders, Tenzin is helping reassure Korra that she isn’t alone in her mission to help the world.

Mako and Bolin


They finally paired the brothers together for this season. Thankfully they dropped the romance, because without it, Mako improved a lot. The show poked fun at his brooding personality, and this made him become a more likeable character. I liked how they didn’t completely forget the love triangle. Mako is finally bearing the brunt of the romance melodrama and feels all the awkwardness and guilt over being around his two ex-girlfriends. I thought he was going to sit this season out, but I was glad Bolin convinced him to go on the trip (in true Bolin fashion). Mako acted as a capable leader this time and was finally able to put his detective skills to good use in a way that actually impacted the main plot . And the way he took out Ming-Hua was one of the coolest moments in the finale. You might say it was… shocking. :)


Bolin also finally gets his time to shine in an arc that didn’t have him as just the comedic relief, but instead focused on his inability to metalbend. They set up Bolin trying to learn metalbending really well, from admiring Ghazan's skills to failing to have his "Bolin moment" at the prison. Though I do still wish this subplot was played less for comedic effect and tied more into some of Bolin's deep insecurities. That would have made it even more rewarding when he discovers his lavabending instead. In a way he's probably more powerful now than if he were only a metalbender, because he can literally control the playing field in a way not many other benders are able to do. Though I was hoping more would come from his and Mako’s “little brother” dynamic with Kai, it is still telling of what an endearing character he is.


Mako and Bolin’s story starting with The Earth Queen might not have been instrumental to the main storyline, but it was such an important subplot for the brothers, where they finally get to reconnect with a family they didn’t even know they had. I was even hoping more of their backstory growing up as orphans on the streets. And we also got yet another one of my favorite character moments – Mako giving his father's scarf to his grandmother. This is what I think the show needs much more of. Storylines that aren't razor-focused on pushing the plot forward but instead get us to really care for these characters more. Between these lovely character beats, their adventures in Ba Sing Se, and seeing them fight side-by-side (which always gives me chills), the brothers together were one of my favorite parts of this season.

Asami


Asami finally gets to be involved more in the main plot and continues to prove what an asset she is to the team with her very practical skillset. The team wouldn’t have been able to embark on their airbender search and travel to Ba Sing Se without her. Her skills are especially useful given the technology-dependent world this show is set in. In the episode Long Live the Queen, we have our other three benders trapped while Asami is the one who’s able to outsmart her captors and free herself. Not to mention that she still sticks around the group despite the initial relationship drama that could very well have hedged her out. It was nice that by the end, Asami becomes Korra's emotional confidant, given how compassionate she remains despite all she's been through.

Lin and Su

We don’t just get to see the brothers in action this season, but the sisters as well. My issues with Lin’s screen time in Book 2 were addressed this time, as we get not one, but two episodes to delve into Lin and her sister Su’s childhoods. We already saw how Aang had issues as a father, so it’s understandable that the more volatile Toph would have difficulties as well. The first few episodes in Zaofu were a short break from the jetsetting airbender storyline to introduce us to the illustrious Metal Clan. Zaofu looked lovely, and it was backed by a wonderful score by Jeremy Zuckerman.


We’ve always known Lin to be harsh to her friends in Republic City, and now she transfers that to her family in Zaofu, specifically to Su. What we learned from her past does give her good reason to harbor bitterness toward her sister, who, despite mostly being in the wrong all those years ago, lives a more peacful life than her. Su is a pretty good counterpart to Lin's coldness. She's welcoming and as much a matriarch as she is a loving mother. It was also a nice change to welcome an adult figure into the group who wasn’t as authoritative as Lin or Tenzin.


The differences between the two sisters is manifested in a lot of ways. Lin is frank and gets straight to business; Su is laid back and allows the team to relax. Lin capitalizes on the domineering qualities of metal; Su uses its more decorative properties. And while they’re both from the same schools of bending, Lin’s style is centered on force; Su’s is more graceful and fluid. Her and Su represent the two sides to Toph – the disciplined bender, who would eventually form the Republic City police, and the aloof and impulsive spirit, who long ago left her parents to travel the world. It was really cool seeing Lin and Su put their differences aside and work together to defeat P’Li. And what a… mind-blowing defeat it was. :) (Another thing I love about this season is that the puns just make themselves.)

The New Airbending Master


The show continues its streak of featuring strong female characters of different ages. Jinora should have earned her airbending tattoos after helping defeat Vaatu. This time she is once again the key player who delivers the definitive blow in the epic final boss battle. But this time instead of being a glowy deus ex machina, Jinora proves herself using her determination and ingenuity, inspiring a group of airbenders to come together for the first time in more than a century. Jinora could have easily been the token little girl this season who gets kidnapped, but instead she became the newest airbending master to head this current generation of Air Nomads. Seeing her with her tattoos, looking very much like her grandfather, made me tear up.

Zaheer and the Red Lotus


One of the reasons this season worked so well was its main villain. Where Unalaq was the Dark Avatar, Zaheer and the Red Lotus were the Dark Team Avatar. For a while, I thought we were building up to a one-on-one showdown with our four versus their four. Right away, Zaheer was such an interesting and charismatic figure. He was imposing but strangely polite when he needed to be. The build-up to the Red Lotus was so gradual but effective in amping up tension, so that while we see Team Avatar having fun in Zaofu, we’re uneasy knowing that four scary benders are on their way. The fact that in the end they really were just very skilled benders and not beings of otherworldly power made them even more intimidating, and moreso for Zaheer, who had only just become an airbender upon breaking out of his prison.


Zaheer isn’t a generic world-dominating mastermind. He's a man willing to take a righteous ideology to an extreme point, and I think that’s what makes him so interesting as a villain. The best villains are those whose motivations you can understand— to an extent. What I also liked was how the Red Lotus weren't invincible and that we actually got to see them regroup, plan, and even fail, as with their attempted raid on Zaofu. Each member brought something terrifyingly unique and posed a very tangible threat to our group. I loved the fact that the Red Lotus were not only intimidating, but were also fun to watch. They seemed like they were even friends in an… evil villain-y kind of way. I feel like the other three members could have had at least their own episodes as main villains.

And to drive home the threat they pose, we get our second very clear death on this show. Zaheer using airbending, a force we usually associate with evasion, in such a gruesome way to kill the Earth Queen showed just how terrifying the element can be. It was this moment that prompted Nickelodeon to take TLoK off the air and show it online instead because it broke the studio’s no-death-on-screen rule. I’m still glad they showed this moment, because it illustrated that Zaheer was actually willing to act on his extreme goals of eliminating all authority. That, and it was pretty badass.


In a way, Zaheer is the antithesis to Aang. He even wears similar monk garments, but in darker colors. Both Zaheer and Aang believe in equality and freedom. But where Aang represents balance, Zaheer represents total anarchy. In the end, Zaheer did devolve into a more typical psychopathic villain, but I guess anyone who’s willing to go to some pretty outrageous extremes to achieve their goal would meet the same end. I was hoping for a bit more resolution to Zaheer’s arc, but what we got at least was very satisfying. Zaheer made the threat this season a lot more grounded yet very real, and his actions are definitely going to leave a lasting effect on Korra. With the exception of Azula, Zaheer and the Red Lotus were my favorite antagonists from both Avatar series.

Slowest (but still really good) Episode


No episode stood out as particularly weak. But Original Airbenders in particular marked the slowest point in the season, given that it was preceded by another filler episode, Old Wounds, and that it was right before the escalation of the season's conflict. But this episode was still a lot of fun and gave us good character development. It properly acquainted us with the new airbenders, and we got to see great character moments from Bumi, Pema, and had yet another lovely exchange between Korra and Tenzin. It heightened the emotional stakes of Zaheer's attack on the temple and makes Jinora receiving her tattoos in the end all the more satisfying.

Favorite Episode


The Venom of the Red Lotus. This was a fantastic finale and a brutal way to end the season. I liked that Korra didn’t even need to be saved while captured by the Red Lotus and that she would have won had Zaheer not pulled the dirty card by using poison. Jinora, Mako, Bolin, Su, Tonraq, and Asami also played important roles, coming through to support Korra in battle and emotionally. It was so satisfying to see that right as Zaheer was using airbending to literally draw the life out of Korra, it was also airbending that ended up saving her through the intervention of the new airbenders. I was honestly unsure about the airbenders coming back at first and thought it might have been some kind of nefarious trick, but that ending validated everything that was set at the start of the season of helping restore balance through bringing back the Air Nomads. That final fight had the spectacle of Aang vs. Ozai while feeling like it had very real stakes, and it feels even all the more impactful knowing how much of herself Korra lost.

That Gut Punch of an Ending


Okay, that ending got me. The Avatar state is usually a sign to cheer and lay back as we watch our hero deliver a good cosmic-powered whooping. But what made this final fight so effective was that Korra wasn't invincible, even in the Avatar state. For Aang, the Avatar state was a reflection of his sheer untapped power. But for Korra, it’s a reminder of all the insecurities and failures she’s manifested as the Avatar, and we only see her go into the state when she’s forced to by the Red Lotus. And in the end, she would have succumbed had it not been for Jinora and the other airbenders.

To see Korra go from having such power and spirit in the first half of the season to the defeated state she's in at the end was really sad. Unlike Aang, she's always wanted to be the Avatar. She's defined her sense of self-worth on her being the Avatar. And now, with that ending, she realizes she might have completely lost that. And what’s even worse is that the ending should have been a happy one. The goal set at the start of the season was met – the Air Nation was revived. Even Zaheer and the Red Louts were stopped. Tenzin assures Korra that him and the other airbenders will carry out her duty as she recovers, but this only makes her feel like she's failed in her duties even more. Knowing that Korra’s arc this season of finding her purpose as the Avatar ends with her, in her eyes, completely losing it is pretty devastating. In previous seasons, she’s always been saved by a last-minute spiritual boost. But while she saved the world and everyone she cared for, she is physically and emotionally unable to save herself. It’s not often we see our hero triumph over the bad guys but emerge so broken afterward. What an unexpectedly emotional way to end a great season.


The Legend of Korra Book 3: Change was a fantastic season with a great villain and a plot that was fast-paced and full of tension when it needed to be, but also slowed down and allowed all our characters to grow in a way we haven’t seen before. All the action scenes were some of the best we’ve ever gotten from the Avatar universe. It was the first season of the show I wanted to watch rewatch right after finishing it. My only problem with this season was that it was too short. I wanted to see more episodes of either our team bonding or developing individually.

The Legend of Korra Book 3: Change gets four and a half out of five quotes from the great airbending Guru Laghima.

Mara Fabella is a visual artist, writer, retired martial artist, yoga practitioner, booper of cat noses, and lifelong lover of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

3 comments:

Unknown said...

Book 3 is the first of Korra's seasons that I felt actually began to rival Last Airbender's. It's just so good.

sunbunny said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed season 3! Zaheer, imo, is the best baddie of the series. He's really scary. I love that airbending came back into the world! I've always wondered if the world of Pro-Bending altered after this. Like did they introduce airbending into the arena? Or were all the airbenders too focused on Air Temple Island. The baby bison are unpardonably cute. I love the character development Bolin got. lavabending, baby! I loved his and Mako's grandmother too. I think I prefer season 4 to this one because I relate to Korra's arc more in that season but this one's really good too.

Mara Fabella said...

Unknown - This season was amazing!

sunbunny - I really loved this season. And yeah, a big part of that was because of Zaheer and the Red Lotus. I loved that Zaheer wasn't a stereotypical villain and that his motivations were pretty clear throughout the season. And watching him and his own dark team avatar was so much fun! I loved each member's unique introduction.

Same sentiments about Pro-Bending. Something tells me the airbenders (or at least Tenzin's airbenders) would abide by their oath of non-violence. But since he did give the captured airbenders a choice whether they wanted to go with him or not, I guess there are still some out in the world who may want to try the sport? It would be cool to see how they might have integrated a fourth element.

Bolin as a lavabender was such a cool twist! I love how fluid (literally) a bending style it is, especially considering it's a subset of earthbending. I also liked how his and Mako's family storyline wasn't abandoned after their first encounter. That they still went back for them, and you can even see their grandma at Jinora's ceremony!

I feel like Korra's arc from now on is split into two seasons, with this being the first half. I enjoyed how more relaxed Korra was in the first half of the season, considering how darkly this one ends for her.