One of the reasons the death of the Earth Queen is such a huge moment for the franchise is that it finally, and truly, throws out the character safety net that has existed for the run of Avatar and most of Korra. Yes we’ve seen characters bite the dust before, but these moments are usually couched in a multitude of ways. Jet was the big death that haunts Avatar, and Tarrlok’s demise is uniquely isolated. However, with the Red Lotus having a successful act of regicide under their belt, the calculus has shifted. Korra has entered a live wire timeline where our heroes are in true life or death stakes, and those stakes will be teased with for the remainder of the show.
Indeed “The Ultimatum” is the first in a series of gut checks to push the envelope for what Korra can do in sustaining a level of tension and terror our characters can maintain. It’s the episode of the season that collapses every single element that has popped up so far into a thrilling climax. The dominoes are falling fast now, and it’s up to our heroes to do everything they can to stop them before the worst comes to pass. It’s pure excitement, one that is capped by the animators once again showing their chops.
Mako and Bolin need to escape from Ba Sing Sae as the city burns to the ground around them. Luckily the dissolution of order does provide them with an easy out in acquiring an airship, though Mako’s dopey display of detective superiority isn’t the right move when it comes to shooing away looters. With an escape route secured the bending brothers make a beeline to their family to extricate them from the city. It’s not as easy as the two would hope, as Yin is still in denial about the current political situation. A heartfelt speech from Bolin isn’t quite enough, so the mover star grabs grandma and forcibly evacuates the rest of the clan.
The group than heads back to the desert to re-team with Korra and Asami. Here we get a brief moment of respite from the growth in tension as The Avatar meets Mako and Bolin’s extended family. There’s a few great gags here: Bolin fanboying over meeting Zuko, Korra meeting Yin (and Yin’s compliment of her muscles), and finally Yin asking why Mako isn’t dating somebody like Korra or Asami. With the yucks out of the way Mako declares the titular ultimatum: Korra must turn herself over to the Red Lotus, or they will wipe out the new Air Nation.
A troubling ransom to be sure, so our heroes further regroup at Zaofu and try to make arrangements with Tenzin to evacuate the Northern Air Temple. While at Zaofu, Korra contemplates the position she’s put in, will she lay down her life for the new airbenders? She needs counsel, and unfortunately cannot turn to her past lives. So she drops into the spirit world and meets Iroh, who in turn suggests talking to Zuko about the current situation. Zuko’s advice is pretty clear: the new Air Nation would have been Aang’s greatest dream, and their existence helps restore a semblance of order to the world, but if Korra does indeed lay down her life, she must be aware of the consequences. Korra must work for all nations, and her death would not benefit the world right now.
With these thoughts swirling in her mind she finally gets ahold of Tenzin and tell shim to get everyone out as soon as possible. Tough timing though, because the Red Lotus are knocking on the doorstep of the Northern Air Temple, and the airbenders have few places to run. It’s now up to Tenzin and his family to help protect the swaddling culture as it faces its first existential threat.
The second half of this episode is mostly dedicated to a series of tremendous action setpieces that once again demonstrate the truly staggering animation that the show has unlocked. The thrill this time is the worry that one of the characters at the Northern Air Temple might actually bite it at this juncture. The show’s large cast of characters can be unwieldy at times, but it has a screw tightening benefit at this particular moment. While there are certain characters that I highly doubt would actually die now (any of Tenzin’s kids for example) there are enough extraneous figures that the show has invested some time into that would be a real gut punch (Kya, Bumi, Opal, Kai, and Daw come to mind as very vulnerable). The battles that conclude “The Ultimatum” are striking not just because of their masterful execution, but for a true sense of danger that surrounds them. The franchise hasn’t entered this realm since Avatar’s series finale.
So what about those fights. They once again are used to build out different elements of our characters before we close the book on this season. The most notable duel is between Tenzin and Zaheer. Zaheer is delighted to finally meet the only airbending master left in the world and contest him in a battle. Tenzin is happy to oblige, and for the first time in the entire franchise we get a fight between two aribenders. The action and animation is suitably exceptionable, but what’s more interesting is how this skirmish demonstrates Zaheer’s inexperience with true airbending talent. This contest isn’t particularly close as Tenzin is more agile, quicker to respond, and more dexterous than Zaheer. The Red Lotus leader was lucky his previous fights were with people who didn’t have experience challenging an airbender, because Master Tenzin is way ahead of him.
Bumi and Kya aren’t as lucky. Their boughts with Ghazan and Ming-Hua are difficult and almost cost them their lives. Kya and Ming-Hua are at about equal levels. With the two masterfully exchanging water-logged blows with each other. Bumi has to count on a bit of roughhousing to take on Ghazan. Bumi’s still a novice airbender, but that won’t stop him from biting his opponent. Still it’s not enough as the Red Lotus beat Aang’s kids back and they fall to their near demise.
The rest of the airbenders try to escape on the bison, but P’Li is playing air support and stopping them from escaping, Kai decides to risk his life and save the group. He distracts the combustion bender for a little bit, and the airdenders reach the bison. Alas Kai’s actions weren’t enough, he’s blown from the sky, and the escapees are captured. With this group nullified all that leaves is Tenzin.
Tenzin is still beating Zaheer, but he’s no match for the full force of the Red Lotus. He gets barraged with every element, and is backed into a corner. And even though we know Tenzin doesn’t die because of the next episode in this pair, for a moment it really feels like he could, with his final lines standing in defiance to The Red Lotus, “As long as I’m breathing, it’s not over.” If it weren’t for Kai escaping with a baby bison, the end of this episode would chill to the bone.
Odds and Ends
- Amusing how so much of the show’s tension is built off of building strong radio signals. Gotta love that early mass communication.
- There is a spirit that just floats in the background with a goofy grin on its face that makes me laugh every time it pops up.
Enter the Void
The penultimate entry in the season is, above all else, a technical showcase. There are plenty of big story moments here, but for the most part “Enter the Void” is a flex from the directors and animators for coming up with as many wild ways for different groups of people to engage in combat with one another. It’s to all the credit to Korra that this action feels totally justified and thrilling, and that each setpiece builds upon one another while winding to a breathtaking climax. The showrunners have spent all season carefully putting together this specific sandbox, and the delight they take in smashing it all to the ground is thoroughly engaging and exciting.
Team Avatar and the Metal Corps need a plan of approach to fend off the Red Lotus and ensure both the safety of Korra and the airbenders. They’ve been put in a tough spot, and Korra decides to follow Zuko’s advice to turn herself over to Zaheer to save the Air Nation. The group is hesitant, but decides to play along with the plan. They will split into two teams: Mako, Bolin, and Asami will get the airbenders while Korra, Su, Lin, Tonraq, and the Metal Corps will try to sneak up on Zaheer. The structure is in place for a swap.
So Korra stands alone atop a windswept mountain to turn herself in to Zaheer. The rest of Team Avatar await orders in the temple. Korra proffers herself, Zaheer puts her in chains, and Mako finds out that the airbenders are in fact just Ming-Hua in a disturbing disguise. Mako tries to tell Korra to cut off the deal, but it’s too late. She’s locked up, and Mako, Bolin, Asami, and Tenzin are trapped in the temple as Ghazan brings it down with a lake of lava.
Now’s the time for an attack. The Metal Corps swoop in to engage with P’Li, but her bombardment prevents them from being able to close in on Zaheer. Korra tries her own form of retaliation, but she’s at a stark disadvantage, having to maneuver through a battle with her legs and arms bound together. This chained fight doesn’t get many nods in the lists of all time Avatar action sequences, but it’s damned clever, a smart piece of hinderance put on Korra before she and Zaheer have their ultimate showdown. Luckily for Korra, Tonraq comes in with the assist, and there’s a pretty sick father/daughter smackdown as they try to get the upper-hand on Zaheer. Unfortunately Zaheers ekes out a win by tossing Tonraq off the the mountain, trying to send him to the same fate as the Earth Queen.
Meanwhile the other half of Team Avatar is trying to navigate the temple while lava flows through the halls. Bolin is trying his best to block up passages with boulders, but it just stalls the inevitable boiling fate. Things are looking bad as our crew stare out over a cliff’s edge with nothing but molten death behind them, and in this moment Bolin steps up to the plate and bends the lava back. This moment is one of those great pieces of sleight of hand by the writers, so much of this season has been focussed on metalbending that it easily distracted from the new form of earthbending introduced. It gives Bolin his hero moment at last in a new and thrilling context. Luckily for the group Kai is able to swing by as well to rescue them from the demolished temple.
Concurrently Su and Lin are trying to take down P’Li, but even the full force of the Metal Corps is drawing this battle to draw. So once again Lin decides to throw on her hero clothes and sacrifice everything to save the people with whom she just reconnected. She leaps out in front of the explosions and draws P’Li’s fire, just in time for Su to come with the assist, slam a metal can around the combustion bender’s head, and blow her to smithereens. This is another out of nowhere shocker for the show, while not displayed as explicitly as the Earth Queen’s asphyxiation, the death of P’Li probably stands as the most violent in the franchise. She literally exploded.
With that Zaheer finally achieves the freedom he is looking for, and with the words of the wise Guru Laghima ringing in his ears he lets go of his earthly tethers, enters the void, and becomes wind. Just as Su and Lin race up to confront him he jumps from the side of the mountain and reveals his newfound ability of flight. After years of speculation about what the most advanced form of airbending is, we finally have an answer, a total defiance of gravity without the need of a glider.
Zaheer spirits Korra with his newfound powers, and the rest of Team Avatar regroup. Kai reveals that he knows where the Red Lotus is going, and they make final preparations for the attack. In this sequence we are also introduced to the oddly conspicuous captain of the Metal Corps, Kuvira. She offers help, but Su denies it for now. The group race off to stop Zaheer’s plans. In the catacombs of the mountains we are audience to Korra’s fate. She’s chained up, and the Red Lotus has a poison ready to go. It looks like after everything Zaheer will finally have his opportunity to assassinate the highest of the leaders of the world. The life of the Avatar has come down to this moment.
Odds and Ends
- Poor Lefty has to burden five people.
- There’s a bit where P’Li implies she was used as a weapon for some sort of barbarian, interesting backstory right before her head explodes.
- Su straight up mercing P’Li also demonstrates that we have fully entered a different moral realm in this franchise. There’s no more waffling about sparing the lives of enemies. We have entered the shoot to kill zone of combat, and honestly it rules.