In Which There is Service and Sacrifice
There is a point in every long running story where the true depths of the narrative unfurl, where ideas hinted at or pointed toward finally come into focus and the crux of the themes emerge as a unified idea. Korra the show, with its hectic production, was never really allowed this moment, because it always had push it’s way forward, that is until now. For in the final minutes of the third season there blossoms a tragic and heartrending theme, a moment that the showrunners have carefully set in motion, but have kept hidden through a marvelous mix of narrative sleight of hand and action glamour.
In the entirety of Korra we’ve seen two forces crash upon each other. One is of Korra’s identify as the Avatar, and how her whole world has been wrapped up in her position, and the other is a rapidly modernizing world that sees less and less value in a singular messiah. These opposing polarities are the narrative engine of the show, but until now they haven’t stripped away and revealed more about our heroine.
In the third season of Korra we’ve seen The Avatar struggle for legitimacy in a myriad of circumstances, despite the fact that she just averted the apocalypse and brought back the Air Nation. The duly elected president of the United Republic wants nothing to do with her, the authoritarian queen of the Earth Kingdom impedes her progress, and the finally Red Lotus want to simply annihilate the Avatar cycle. Again and again the world has lost faith in the Avatar, and finally after so much pulling away of the components of her identity, the immense suffering, pain, and loss she’s felt in her life the most important person in the world has lost hope in the prospects of The Avatar. Korra herself.
It’s been a long time coming for this particular development in the franchise. There have been hints and insinuations about the possibility of a person being crushed under the weight of the role of Avatar. We saw it with Wan in his dying moments, realizing that the work will never be completed, Aang came close when he rejected the identity, and now Korra suffers under the full brunt of this awful realization. Barely a year out from training and the fact stands before her, life as The Avatar means that day in and day out there will be people whose sole purpose in the world is to destroy her, either mentally or physically. These days will keep coming, the Red Lotus will not be the last, the cycle eternally continues, and the quest for balance remains an endless struggle.
What makes “Venom of the Red Lotus” so singular is that this incredibly hefty piece of thematic material sits beautifully next to what is, at least to me, the most extraordinary piece of animation that the franchise has concocted. This finale contains the best parts of the best elements of the franchise, a staggering piece of choreographed action and a emotional gut punch of an ending. That these two halves are so elegantly tied together is kind of what puts this episode over the top, and it remains easily one of the best entries from either series.
What’s fascinating is that from a macro perspective “Venom of the Red Lotus” might be the most straightforward concluding chapter in the entire franchise. Zaheer’s big plan is incredibly simple, though completely copacetic to his ideology, most of the entry is taken up by whizz-bang action pieces, and there’s no big character reveal or plot twist. It’s the cleanest piece of storytelling in the season, but as always it’s those details that really gum up the works.
With Korra chained, and the poison readied, Zaheer states his goal. Force Korra into the Avatar State, and then kill her to end the Avatar cycle. It’s a graceful and brutal idea, one that Zaheer believes will finally free the world from any higher moral authority. Individuals will govern themselves without the need for leaders and messiahs. Korra can’t stop what’s coming right now, and the poison is thrust into her skin.
At first she tries to resist the work of poison, but she slowly and surely succumbs to its noxious effect. While suffering through this moment she is treated to a recitation of her previous enemies. Appearing in nightmarish forms on the visages of the members of the Red Lotus. Amon, Unalaq, and Vaatu all arrive and chant the same message. The time of the Avatar is over, it is the moment to give in and die. What’s important to note is that these messages are not the words of Korra’s enemies (though they certainly comply with they acted upon), but the words of her own mind. One of the complaints though the show’s run is that Korra’s traumas never amounted to much, here we see that they have been fully internalized, and are now given voice to by Korra’s innermost thoughts.
Each of her encounters has systematically removed a key component of what is means to be The Avatar to Korra. Amon removed bending, Unalaq severed the connection to her past lives, and Zaheer wants to ensure that there is no more reincarnation. Each and every one of the villains of the show have peeled away the elements of what the identity of The Avatar is, and the toll on Korra is greater than one could have imagined.
Meanwhile the rest of the crew is working on saving the imprisoned airbenders. The trapped group comes up with a simple diversion. The children distract the guards while Jinora and Opal sneak away the keys, it’s a cute piece of cohesion that shows new unity among the recently reformed Air Nation. Luckily the group lead by Su and Lin arrive. Bolin reunites with Opal, and Tenzin finally catches up with his family. With the hugs out of the way Mako and Bolin head out to deal with Red Lotus.
Korra has finally been forced into the Avatar State, but for the second time this season (after his fight Tenzin) Zaheer has underestimated his opponent. All of his previous encounters with Korra have seen the Avatar handicapped in some way: knocked out, in the spirit world, or chained up. Zaheer thought it would be easy enough to kill the Avatar while she’s in glow city, and it turns out that defense mechanism is way more powerful than the Red Lotus thought. Korra pulls her self free from her chains and begins her pursuit of Zaheer. The airbender may be able to fly like the wind, but he has not met a power like the full fury of the Avatar.
The battle with Zaheer and Korra through the sky is such a monumental piece of action choreography and technical animation. This is a high speed, mountain tossing, and fire fueled duel that is almost unmatched in the entire franchise. I’ve mentioned before how difficult it is to communicate flying objects through drawings. To give weight and buoyancy to images that inherently have none in the first place, and keep the geography of the world clear when there are few anchored elements. That the two characters zooming around in the atmosphere is not only completely comprehensible, but enhanced by such techniques as rack focusing, extreme wide shots, handheld camera movements, and a frankly astonishing single take that twists and zooms through the mountains all leave this as a jaw dropping spectacle. Mix in a thunderous score that incorporates brass fanfares to the usual strings and percussion, and the heart starts to completely race.
What’s even crazier is that the cross-cutting to the duels with Ghazan and Ming-Hua are almost as good. The battles Mako and Bolin go through are intricate and exciting in their own ways. My favorite shot featuring the camera weaving around some stalagmites as Mako and Ming-Hua duke it out. We also fully get to see the force of two lavabenders going at each other. Though this rematch has a better outcome for the bending brothers. Mako is able to get Ming-Hua in a body of water and electrocute her (and she seemingly dies, which is kind of shocking in its own right), and Bolin pulls his fight to a draw before Ghazan decides to bring the whole thing down around him.
Korra does seem to have the advantage in her bought with Zaheer, but the poison is starting to get to her, and she can’t focus on the fight anymore. So just like The Earth Queen Zaheer begins the process of suffocating The Avatar, pulling her life straight from her lungs. It looks like she might be a goner, but the airbenders on the ground have a realization. Jinora notes that there hasn’t been this many airbenders in one place for nearly two hundred years, and together they might be able to pull off a move powerful enough to save Korra.
So Jinora begins a circle to create an enormous cyclone to capture Korra and Zaheer. The force is too great for Zaheer to escape, and here we get one of the most poetic moments of the show, one done entirely through unspoken visuals. All season Zaheer has rejected the community of the New Air Nation and railed against the bondage and advocated freedom. But here we see how he imprisoned the airbenders and chained the Avatar, and these actions turn out to be his undoing. As the cyclone pulls in Zaheer, Korra drops below him, whips up the chain around his ankle and slams the man who could fly all the way down to earth. In his pursuit of tearing things down Zaheer unwittingly set up the circumstances for his capture.
On the ground Korra is in rough shape. Tonraq tries to comfort her, but it seems like it might be too late. The light fades from Korra’s eyes and she’s unable to move. Maybe Zaheer will be triumphant in the end. Ah, but Jinora points out that the poison can be removed, and Su sweeps in with the save, allowing The Avatar to live for another day. Though what life she has left is hard to determine.
The final five minutes are then there own self-contained piece of emotional dynamite. We’ve just been through the wringer of taking out the Red Lotus, and now we have to bask in the fallout. In a way this epilogue is a morose mirror of the season premiere. Once again we find our heroes dealing with the aftermath of a huge showdown mere weeks down the line, but now we see that Korra has been hobbled by the experience. Worn out and wearied.
Asami tries to to console our heroine. Putting together her formal wear, and making sure she’s ready for Jinora’s big day. But the spirit is gone from Korra’s eyes. The slow reveal that she is confined to a wheelchair is the first of many small cracks pulling apart at this moment. Korra has not recovered, and is enfeebled in one way or another. The messiah cannot even walk on her own. These feeling are more acutely heightened when Raiko makes a conciliatory move towards Korra. In her presence he’s cordial enough, but once she’s gone there are notes of pity in his voice. Everyone knows that she’s got a difficult road ahead of her.
The Air Master ceremony might be the single most affecting moment that the franchise has cooked up, every element plays off one another to create a sense of extreme ambivalence within the viewer. Almost everything about it structured to catch one up in the sweep and majesty of the moment, of the joy and wonder of the Air Nation returning and anointing a new master. But under everything is this creep of sadness and dread, of uncertainty and muted terror about what will happen next.
For as beautiful as it is to see Jinora with her tattoos (and boy does she look like Aang when her head is shaved), and as stirring as the speech Tenzin gives, there’s still Korra in the background living with the terrible realization that this isn’t the end. Just another step in her path, that again and again she will be called to lay down her life, and provide, “service and sacrifice.” Even if Tenzin promises that the new Air Nation will step in to help while she recovers, it is still a blow to Korra. When the world needed her most, she did not vanish, or disappear, she simply could not act because the world had so thoroughly hurt her because of her actions.
The music swells as Jinora reveals her tattoos. Tenzin lovingly embraces his daughter, and acknowledges all the good Korra has done for the world. There is applause for the possibility of what the future might hold. But not for Korra, in the most joyous moment for her friends and family she can only respond in one way. Look upon what she has accomplished, who she saved, how she survived. and shed a single tear for the damage it has done to the person Korra. Not just Korra the Avatar, but Korra the individual who must carry the albatross of her title. The burden of The Avatar finally breaks the person bearing that moniker. That is her service, that is her sacrifice.
Odds and Ends
- This is fittingly the 100th episode of the franchise.
- No coincidence that the only episode written as a season finale is perhaps the best.
- The music that plays over the final scene is so good, mixing in elements of the main theme of the show, the Red Lotus theme. It strains to a cathartic climax, but it can’t quite make it.
- Bryan, back when he was posting on tumblr about the show’s production, goofily posted a storyboard of the final shot of this season in an impressive troll of the show’s fans.
- Speaking of which the power of the final shot is partly because of how brief it is, you almost have to go back to check what happens. Very subtle.
- Zaheer weirdly quotes the St. Crispin’s Day speech before he tries to kill Korra. Odd pull from the writers.