Re-Avatar State: “The Earth Queen” & “In Harm’s Way”

The Earth Queen

The Avatar is having a bit of a legitimacy crisis. It’s an idea that’s been haunting the entire background of The Legend of Korra, but doesn’t start to bloom into a full theme until now. In a world that doesn’t hinge it’s hope for a future and the outcome of a devastating war on the shoulders of a single messianic figure, The Avatar can be transformed into something flatter and harder to contend with. What happens when the arbiter of balance is plopped down in the world with little international conflict? When the the person with the literal most power on the planet has to meet different heads of state on supposedly friendly turns.

It’s an issue that Korra herself has greatly struggled with throughout the show. Yes she helped stamp out The Equalists and saved the world from dark spirits, but these conflicts are ones somewhat disconnected from the high minded ideals preached in Airbender. Korra’s battles have been both internal (Amon and the Water Tribe War) or so grand that an average person might not be able to fully contextualize what it represents (Harmonic Convergence). So she is stuck in a world that doesn’t automatically confer prestige to her existence. We’ve seen it with Tarrlok, Raiko, random airbending villagers, and now with Queen Hou-Ting. Korra cannot just play the Avatar card to get her way.

It’s the central reason the journey to find more airbenders has proven to be so tricky, and why Kai has so far been the team’s only recruit. When the populace have a general way of living that isn’t shaken by something like a century long war, it’s harder to drive home the import of the current situation from people like Tenzin and Korra. The return of the airbenders is indeed an earth altering change, but it isn’t one driven by immediate conflict, and might be harder for people to tune in and less driven to act differently.

The group hopes this attitude changes with their arrival at Ba Sing Sae. The Earth Kingdom capital is just as artfully and intricately rendered (complete with nifty tilt shifting effects, and vibrant colorization), but the mood is different this time. Where in Airbender there was an awe inherent to the walled city, here there’s something almost  grotesque about it now. After the assured modernism of Republic City, what with its representative government and open city planning, Ba Sing Sae stinks of regressive rule and ill treatment of its citizens.

This uncertain feeling turns out to be well founded when Korra actually meets the queen in person. While Hou-Ting appears to be aware of the life her citizens in a manner that Kuei wasn’t until Aang arrived, she’s little better than a petty tyrant. Using her vast power and wealth to redecorate her garden while her subjects suffer. She’s not particularly fond of Korra either, noting that Republic City is built on former Earth Kingdom land, and Aang was the prime mover in making that happen. Still Korra has to retain a sense of some formality while interacting with the noxious presence, and agrees to do some tax collection for the queen in return for more information about airbenders in the city.

An issue that Korra has had in the past is a bizarre credulity about the words of suspect politicians. Some of this can be chalked to mere naïveté, as was the case with Tarrlok, and other times bad writing as was the case with Unalaq. But the showrunners have taken notice of this particular habit of our heroine, and once again turn it into an interesting idea. This consistent subservience to other political powers speaks to the issue that Korra has in a world without raging international conflict, if she can’t smash heads she must act in a manner that reflects some sort of diplomacy, and that means kowtowing to the powers that be.

Korra is well aware of this dynamic now, and while she goes on the tax collection trip, she does with regret and reluctance, hoping that whatever dirt she gets on her hand will be washed away by new airbending recruits. Alas the trip to a small desert town reeks of suspicious motivation, and even the pummeling of a Mad Max-esque biker gang with Asami can’t alleviate her worries. It turns out her instincts were correct and the queen merely used Korra as a footman free of charge on the promise of something that she will not break away with easily.

That secret, of course, is the conscription of airbenders into a secret Dai Li training ground for the queen’s personal use. The revelation of this information comes from a winding plot through the slums and backstreets of Ba Sing Sae. Though Kai has promised Team Avatar to become a better person, he can’t help his rapscallion ways and takes to robbing the wealthy members of Ba Sing Sae with the help of his new abilities.

Mako, already on the street rat’s case, decides to chase after him. But airbending is a slippery talent, and Mako and Bolin eventually get left on the last train to the outer ring. The bending brothers, picked dry by Kai, are left to fend for themselves in the squalor of the lower ring. This section does a good job of highlighting the growing class disparity in the city. In the lower ring the poor must take on the brunt of new infrastructure for industrialization, leading to houses choked with electrical wires and streets cluttered with trash. The queen’s insistence on money, land, and a nice garden seems willfully negligent of the clutter some of her citizens live in.

Said citizens include Mako and Bolin’s extended family. Yes the two siblings finally meet relatives beyond their deceased parents and are surprised to find an extensive and loving family behind a stand selling rotten fruit. I’m of two minds about this revelation. On the one hand it is more than a tad contrived, though foreshadowed in the previous episode. On the other I think it’s good to get Mako and Bolin out of the rut of being just orphans as their backstory, and this succeeds in giving something actively fight for. Also their grandma is very sweet and cute, and it was nice to see Mako give his scarf to her.

The family does reveal a bit of trouble though. The Dai Li are the ones kidnapping the airbenders, and Kai is the next in line, as he’s caught pickpocketing and thrown into a jail cell with others like him. It seems like having a monarch who is in full control of the secret police is still pretty darn bad when it comes to treating people with any sense of civil liberties.

In the Northern Water Tribe Zuko has a turned up to prevent the final prisoner of Zaheer’s cadre from escaping. He’s joined by Tonraq and Eska and Desna in this venture and reveals a little more about the special prisoner. It’s a combustion bender named P’Li, and with Zuko’s arrival she knows that Zaheer has escaped. Zaheer himself doesn’t actually appear in this episode, but this extra bit of buildup emphasizes how bad these people getting out will be.

Odds and Ends

  • The Gilded Age vibe of current Ba Sing Sae is highlighted by continued emphasis on shimmering metals, and the increased griminess of the lower ring.
  • Zuko may look and sound different, but he is still the same awkward man underneath it all. I love his weird commiseration with Eska over their shared efforts to kill the Avatar. Things like that come and go.
  • The return of Eska and Desna point to what I think works about this season. These characters were a disaster the last go around, but they are still a part of the fabric of the world, and if we want to visit the Northern Water Tribe to go to a secret White Lotus prison. They would be involved. The show no longer forgets what happened in the past.
  • Mako and Bolin’s family were able to keep track of the brothers through the sports news and Bolin’s movers.
Spoiler

  • This does the thing I love in a serialized story where it sets up some obvious foreshadowing, but completely couches the information in a head fake. The Earth Queen’s rants against Rpublic City eventually ends up being the endgame for Kuvira and the Earth Empire. However since it comes from a character that gets bumped off in a few episodes it recedes to the back of the mind until it becomes important again. That’s good stuff.
  • The return of Eska and Desna also highlight another of the world leaders that appear this season. I believe everyone except the current Fire Lord show up, again to highlight the targets of the Red Lotus.
  • Mako and Bolin’s family also give them something to worry about when Ba Sing Sae goes to chaos in episode eleven.

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In Harm’s Way

In a world with magical martial arts there’s always an option beyond diplomacy. And when diplomacy fails, then the sick fights can start. That’s always been a bit of a tension in this franchise, we want to see people in conflict because it looks really cool, but that also means rigging a way for a battle to commence. Luckily the context of the last episode leads to some most excellent action as the audience is treated to two grand prison escapes.

Starting the episode is Zaheer’s extraction of P’Li from the chilly ice prison. Even with Zuko, Tonraq, and the Twins on hand, Zaheer’s group has the will to push through their oppoenents and a slew of special skills to give them the upper hand in the skirmish. Zuko and company have difficulty getting a handle on the situation, and are eventually bested by Zaheer. The reasons are pretty clear. It’s hard for experienced benders to grapple with an airbender, a technique so rare that one can never properly plan for its appearance. Given that we also have a lava bender, and Ming Hua’s tenacious water whips, it’s no surprise that our heroes are best. And that’s before we get P’Li out and combustion bending, making explosions with one’s mind will always give a cohort an advantage.

Back in Ba Sing Sae Korra is letting her anger out in a sparring match with Asami when Mako and Bolin come back and inform them where the airbenders are being kept. With this information in hand Team Avatar formulates a plan to rescue the airbenders and skedaddle out of the city. This  action represents a bit of a backlash to the legitimacy issue I talked about in “The Earth Queen.” Even if Korra struggles with trying to preserve international relations, she can still exert force as the most powerful being in the world when the time comes. Hou-Ting has proven to be just the kind of person to use force against.

Before the gang is able to enact their plan Lin swings by to announce Zaheer’s escape to Korra and Tenzin. This news puts Tenzin on edge, and Lin insists on spiriting Korra away to a safe location. For now The Avatar doesn’t feel this threat yet, and instead decides to push through with their current plan of rescuing the airbenders in the city, and perhaps finding more later.

First Team Avatar needs to determine where the airbenders actually are being kept. Jinora suggests that she can astral project where they need to search, and Mako at first proffers the old Dai Li compound underneath Lake Laogai. A quick trip to the old catacombs reveals that the place has been abandoned and flooded after years of misuse. So Korra comes up with a new plan. She knows Jinora has a bit of a crush on Kai, and Jinora could use that emotional connection to sniff out the airbenders. So Jinora is able to project herself into a cell where Kai is being kept under lock and key after helping out a fellow airbender. The two share a moment and Jinora discovers that airbenders have been held hostage right under the palace. The plan is set, and the jail break is ready to roll.

The final act of this episode is pure dessert, a moment where all of the elements the show has accumulated so far get to play out in fun and thrilling manner. Each of our main characters gets to have a fun bit of action or a character moment that highlights their skill and function in the group. Bumi gets to spout nonsense code talk over a radio, Tenzin gets to rally support from the airbenders, Jinora gets to dupe a couple of guards, Kai gets to play slick with some Dai Li agents, and Asami gets to swing in with the save at the last moment. It’s an exciting plan comes together moment that leads to an oddly positive conclusion to the season’s first act.

Interestingly the show has been shocking in its sprightliness for the first four episodes. Yes the menace is certainly there with Zaheer, and the Earth Queen’s promise retaliation can’t be good, but these elements have mostly been subsumed by a sense of energy and purpose from the main narrative. I think one of the smartest things this season does is keep Korra and the big bad separated for a while. It allows Korra to interact with her surroundings unburdened with the sense of inevitable showdown and flex her skills as person who can resolve issues that don’t revolve around life or death circumstances.

What’s even more fascinating is that this intentional airiness actually gives our characters space in opposition to the structure of the previous two seasons. So much of of Book One and Two were hampered by things cluttered around nonsensical conflicts, for the moment the world is open and the possibility seemingly limitless. Even though the informed viewer can note that things are bound to get difficult (we are watching a TV show after all and we’re literally in the middle of things). The end of this episode, with a tear in Tenzin’s eye as he welcomes a whole group of new aribenders makes it feel like Korra is moving along the right track.

Odds and Ends

  • First minor retcon alert. Korra was kept in a compound because of a kidnapping attempt by Zaheer that was stopped by Tenzin, Tonraq, and Sokka. Korra becomes a bit more understanding because of this information.
  • Ghazan takes a bit of comedic snark with Zaheer and P’Li immediately making out.
  • The queen hates animals because of her allergies.
  • This episode really does highlight how dangerous combustion bending is. A dragon is easily pushed aside with such power.
  • Airbending is still proven difficult to counteract by people not experienced with fighting it. The new airbenders all throw in together to stop the Dai Li, and it works because they never had to face such a force.