Re-Avatar State: “Enemy at the Gates” & “The Battle of Zaofu”

Enemy at the Gates

I often wonder, in the many times I pick back up at different points in the franchise, why I kind of glide over Book 4 of Korra. Personally I find it to be a well executed season of television (with one exception, as we will get to next time) that satisfactorily concludes an often unwieldy series. Certainly an accomplishment in it’s own right, but one that comes at the expense of, dare I say it, fun. I won’t deny that there are many amusing moments in season four of the show (especially in these two episodes), but upon close rewatch I’m actually reminded why I don’t return here often. The first half of the fourth season of Korra is kind of a huge bummer.

Now this glum tonality is totally appropriate for what the writers and showrunners wanted to accomplish, and by the concluding moments of the series, well founded and interesting, but in the thick of it, there seems to be no actual progress. Just a parade of major setbacks for our heroes on almost all fronts. If the show, in the wake of the season three finale, is about the despondency of Korra’s removal from the world, than this pair is the mordent climax, an affirmation of our heroine’s worst fears. That again and again she will be defeated by her opponents. The fact that it’s so effective is why it makes it more of an uncomfortable sit.

Indeed this episode five and six are almost perfect reflections of the fifth and sixth episodes of the third season, but this time the darkness has oozed through every aspect of the narrative. Where last season we were treated to the wonder and the possibility of Zaofu, with a helping of reconciled family drama, now we are treated to the horrifying implications of the Metal Clan’s futurist ideology. Reaping the notions of greatness and purity of the world’s most technocratic and modernist bending form.

The full brunt of the Earth Empire’s army has marched upon the precipice of Zaofu, and Kuvira is ready reclaim her former homeland by force if needed. Though first she wants to massage the meeting a little bit with a show of grace and diplomacy. So she welcomes Bolin into the inner circle of confidence. Kuvira is aware that she has had to keep Bolin at a certain level of ignorance and prestige to ensure the lavabender remains on her side. So Bolin has been part of the vanguard, always moving in to install stability, but never to view what comes next. Opal has told him outright of the dictatorial manner the Empire comports itself once Kuvira’s train leaves the station, but Bolin has never been privy to such events first hand.

Kuvira’s cloak and dagger approach to Bolin leans on his need to impress and do good. He wants to help, and the position he’s been previously assigned to was perfect for keeping that balance. But once he’s hit with negotiating a truce between Kuvira and Suyin his faith in the project begins to waver. Maybe it’s the giant standing army, or perhaps the nagging sense that Opal is right, but Bolin is doubting his commitment to the movement.

Doubt is also suffusing our local mad scientist. Varrick has had a bit of a breakthrough with his latest experiment. It appears that Spirit Vines can create an extraordinary amount of energy, so much energy that it blows a hole in Varrick’s train car. Such a discovery unnerves the inventor and he puts a hold on his research, right until Kuvira decides to pull a full Darth Vader move on him. She strangles Varrick with and holds him over the edge of the fast moving train. He’s got a purpose to fulfill, and that means doing what Kuvira says no matter what.

There have been many comments by newcomers that have questioned why so many seem so fond of manic, mustachioed, friend, and I think these two episodes really demonstrate why his character is so interesting. He’s amoral and vainglorious, yes, but the events of since his appearance are starting to both wear on him and those he surrounds himself with. His constant hectoring of Zhu Li has been a great friction to create comedy, but here we see it pushed to the breaking point as the loyal assistant finally drops ranks with Varrick and sides with Kuvira. Such a move makes sense after the abuse that she has been handed down, and one could argue demonstrates the appeal of Kuvira’s influence. For those willing to do the fascist dance great rewards may await.

And Varrick is starting to grind himself down, realizing more and more that his great successes have been used judiciously by those who want to do harm. He’s had a bit of a revelation, even if it comes way to late to exit his current predicament. He now wants to evacuate from the Empire’s army, even if desertion could cost him his life.

Luckily Bolin is in on the scheme after the threat of being thrown in a re-education camp. Certainly it would be nice if our heroes weren’t so consistently drawn into the glow of villainous characters, but having Varrick be a part of the equation smooths out the bumps. His presence adds a bit of credibility to the proceedings for Bolin to follow. What proceeds is a nifty bit of action involving the mechs that Varrick has designed. Turns out Zhu Li is quite the hand at operating these beasts, and the battle also clearly demonstrates why Kuvira would rather have Bolin with her. His lavabending is quite the hand at taking at the mechanical battalion. And while the CG of the show will never fully match the ability of two drawn characters in combat, this battle is quite the technical achievement. Keeping 3D objects in a 2D environment feel bounded by the rules the show previously established. Alas they are stopped by Kuvira and Bataar Jr. And here is where Zhu Li turns, and Varrick/Bolin are tossed to the brig. Such is life for a deserter.

While these machinations go down Korra tries to navigate her return to the world. She promises to both Tenzin’s kids and the Beifongs that she’s well enough to intervene with the current crisis. Even Kuvira is willing to hear from her, even if the Great Uniter is not swayed by what the Avatar has to say. Korra’s uncertainty is still evident to all those around her. People constantly questioning her health and ability, she tries to put on a brave face, but it’s evident that she’s unsure if she can handle the situation.

Su tries to lay out the thinking behind Kuvira’s accession to power. Raiko visited Su after the Earth Queen’s death and offered her the role of provisional leader. With the Beifong name and her already considerable power she could easily corral the chaos in the nation, but Su refused, and that is where Kuvira stepped in. If Su was not willing to practice her own ideologies, than Kuvira would show them how to use the might and prestige of Zaofu to reunite the Earth Nation. It’s a bit of a recitation of Sozin’s actions, though Kuvira’s imperial mindset is more clearly defined. She’s a nationalist who wants to reassert control.

This information doesn’t really succeed in helping Korra navigate Kuvira’s demands, but it does explain the hasty move that Su makes next. Su is partly responsible for the current state of the world, and decides to take matters into her own hands. She will assassinate Kuvira and put a stop to this right now. So much for a diplomatic solution.

Odds and Ends

  • The C-Story in this episode involves Asami reconnecting with Hiroshi. If a tad perfunctory I do like Hiroshi stating that Asami was the greatest thing he brought into the world, and I enjoy the callback to “The Stakeout” as the two participate in a game of Pai Sho.
  • Hiroshi looks even more like Miyazaki now than he did in season one.
  • I love Varrick recording himself, adds a neat formal switch up for the show.
  • There is also that brief moment of connection between Varrick and Zhu Li where it looks like things might get romantic, and they don’t.
  • Which leads me to my final question, is Varrick attractive? After scuttling around the fandom in the past months people think so, though I’m not so certain.

The Battle of Zaofu

Throughout the entirety of The Legend of Korra our heroine has repeatedly fallen into a conundrum that seemingly could never be resolved neatly. You can’t punch your way through a political problem. Such messaging could be considered a critical thematic undercurrent of the program, one that highlights why Korra’s legitimacy could slip away as it did in Book 3. From Tarrlok, to the Water Tribe War, to the Earth Queen we’ve seen again and again that Korra brute forcing her way through a problem often exacerbates it.

Now, however, after years of struggle with the intricacies of the muddy politics of the Avatar world, Korra is finally given the easy out for the issue at hand. Kuvira cleanly and simply offers a duel with Avatar. If Korra wins, the Great Uniter will submit to the power of Avatar, if Kuvira wins, then she will march upon Zaofu and continue her imperial whims. Korra is finally given the opportunity to punch her way through a political crisis, and she simply can’t do it.

Korra’s fateful duel with Kuvira serves as the backbones of the episode and provides a unique structure to the events going on. Usually the show winds up until the end of act two or start of act three to deploy the big action setpiece. Here it serves as the continuous hook that the whole episode hangs upon, with each act containing a different arc of the fight. This extends this particular battle, taking what is about five or six minutes of screen time, and turns it into an excruciating descent into Korra’s inevitable defeat.

This particular duel is once again one of the show’s finest pieces of action choreography, though in a manner that distinguishes itself from most of the showdowns throughout the series. For all of the big fights we get this is by far the quietest and saddest we are presented. The soundtrack is restrained, with merely a touch of rumbling drums or minor strings. The actual fighting is remarkably small scale, for example there’s none of the mountain tossing present in Korra’s battle with Zaheer, but what it lacks in flash it makes up intricacy.

In the season premiere we saw that Kuvira fights with precision, using her armor as a scalpel rather than a hammer. She lacks the usual aggression of the average earthbender and replaces focused strikes to her opponent. What this allows her to do is dismantle Korra’s attacks bit by bit as the fight continues, pinpointing the Avatar’s weakness and exploiting it. The fight also demonstrates the lust for power and joy Kuvira takes in demonstrating her strength. She smirks, smiles, and laughs as she beats the Avatar. This battle, and ultimate win, demonstrates that her might does indeed make right in her mind, for should not the greatest leader in the world be the one that dominates it’s messiah.

Indeed this battle is an effective layout of how Kuvira works as a foil for Korra. Heck just look at their names. The Great Uniter is what the Avatar would be without all the baggage and backstory that accompanies the title. The Avatar is given great power, but they are also asked to carry a great burden, to be of and for the world. That means acting in a manner that serves the most people as well as possible. Kuvira is the modern Avatar, one born from no great legacy, but instead intense nationalism and power. She is not mediated by serving the interests of the world, but has the power and standing to act as The Avatar used to, using the might and prestige of her position to strike down her enemies.

This concept is visualized by the show excellently in the battle’s climax. Battered, Korra decides to enter the Avatar State, and unsurprisingly immediately turns the tide of the fight. She knocks Kuvira into submission and appears ready to strike the killing blow against the Empire’s leader. But in the moment Korra looks upon her enemy and only sees herself. The same glowing phantom that has haunted her recovery is now terrifyingly attached to Kuvira’s body, and Korra falters and is captured in Kuvira’s grasp. Looks like her return was premature.

Luckily Jinora and Opal are able to whip up a countermeasure to save Korra. The two execute the same move that helped stop Zaheer. It’s enough to stall the army and pull Korra out of Kuvira’s clutches. But the city of Zaofu is lost, and along with it Su’s family. Kuvira hardly seems mollified by the situation. As she instructs her subordinate officers to tear down the domes of the once utopian city.

All of this action is paralleled with some pretty wild events with Varrick and Bolin. The inventor is still reeling from the betrayal of Zhu Li. So he concocts a scheme to get revenge on his captors. With Bolin by his side, and under the supervision of Bataar Jr., Varrick has to whip another huge piece of Spirit Vine energy for the Empire. Well he’ll do just that, and a bit more. With a bit of know how and seemingly suicidal gumption, Varrick rigs his laboratory as a bomb and threatens to blow up the train.

All this bit of subterfuge allows for some genuinely amusing speeches from Varrick and a great deal of comedy from Bolin. What I also like about it is that Varrick is 100 percent serious in his threats to blow everyone sky high and get his way. I mentioned before how the assassination of the Earth Queen irrevocably changed the tone of the show, and we can feel that here in this sequence as well. While I was certain that Bolin would make it out somehow, Varrick is a legitimate question mark at this particular juncture. We’ve already seen other characters blow themselves up, so why not again.

Of course this particular course of action doesn’t happen, but there’s an undeniable tension that it could. A remarkable shift for a franchise that started with people explicitly stating they wanted lethally attack people all the time, and one that juices this final run of episodes considerably. So with Bolin and Varrick on the run, Zaofu conquered, and Korra still questionening her recovery, it’s time to head back to where it all started. Korra, Opal, and Tenzin’s kids make a beeline for Republic City.

Odds and Ends

  • I should mention Su’s plot that kicks off this episode. It’s neat to see her in spy gear. Zhu Li has rough duty as Kuvira’s body double. And those coffins Kuvira puts the family in are enjoyably bizarre.
  • Huan is quite the judge of art. He loves what Ikki does, but questions Meelo’s painting.
  • I kind of enjoy how every armored Earth Empire mook looks like Darth Vader.