Re-Avatar State: “Operation: Beifong” & “Kuvira’s Gambit”

Operation: Beifong

While writing about a long form narrative, such as a TV show, it’s easy to get wound up in big ideas. Pontificate on characters, themes, and plots that have weaved in and out of the story over the course of years. But I would be remiss from noting that much of the appeal of not just Korra, but the franchise writ large, is just a creative execution of animated action. So much so that it can be easily argued that the series is the best action oriented TV program to run in America in the past two decades.

So I must say that “Operation: Beifong” while lacking in some regards, is just a head spinning delight of clever setups and beatdowns for the fans of the possibilities of this world. A whizz-bang episode that does everything in it’s power to remind the audience, that yes, metalbending is probably the coolest shit in the world. I mentioned in the last episode that Bolin’s new outfit was a reference to The Rocketeer. In this episode we see a fulfillment of that promise. An exciting riff on the old film serial style: filled with evil villains, giant weapons, daring escapes, and thrilling duels.

Bolin, Opal, and Lin are able to make it to the outskirts of Zaofu, but are already presented with a problem. Seems like the rest of the Beifongs are out of town. Luckily they get a bit of assistance with the reemergence of Toph. The old master decided to stop by and help after what Kuvira did to the Banyan Grove Tree. Bolin and Opal are thrilled by her arrival. Lin not so much. Never the less the three generations of Beifong (with Bolin) roll out to an abandon town where the Earth Empire is conducting the test for the spirit weapon.

The trio observe the weapon’s test. Bataar Jr. and Zhu Li are at the helm, but things aren’t running so smoothly. With each new run something appears to go wrong. This time a gear is cracked, and Jr. is furious that the weapon won’t be ready for inspection by Kuvira. Toph notes that Zhu Li is lying about what she knows about said snafus, but the team isn’t quite sure if Varrick’s former assistant is still on the level.

Still the group notes that there is a cavern beneath the test site where the rest of the Beifong clan is probably being hidden away. So they decide to deploy their breakout during the full blown weapon’s test. At night, over a campfire meal of instant noodles, Bolin broaches a tough subject for the elder Beifongs. He inconsiderately asks who was Lin’s father.  Toph blithely notes that it was a man name Kanto of no consequence. Things didn’t work out and she moved on. This response gets under Lin’s skin. This is her issue with Toph, the blitheness and inability to see that she’s hurt people and refusal to come back to help. However Lin has inherited such traits herself, as she was, until the last season, unable to reconcile with Su.

Never the less, now is not the time for a swath of family bickering. As Kuvira begins her glorious demonstration the gang hops underground to begin the titular operation. They’ve got to be quite as to not awaken the guards, but that situation is muddled by the fact that Lin has to fling her family across a gorge into the waiting arms of Bolin. They’re able to pull everyone out, but not before the guards get hip to the situation.

Above things aren’t so hot either. It seems like the weapon is backing up again, and when Bataar investigates he discovers that a piece is missing. A piece that Kuvira just so happens to notice being stored in the pocket of one Zhu Li. So the Great Uniter sends the former assistant into the blasting range just as the alarms ring about the prison escape.

The fight is on. And what a fight it is. I should note that Korra has done a pretty consistent job of demonstrating how bending could be used in more regimented battles. Here is another excellent execution of that concept as infantry use coordinated shielding and rocks like ammunition from a gun to attack their opponents. The Beifongs have to swing a bit more wildly as their power and numbers are limited.

So while Bolin and Opal swing in to save Zhu Li we are greeted to what may be the best 90 or so seconds of action the show has ever produced. The duel between Su and Kuvira is a perfect encapsulation of everything that Avatar does so well with action. It accentuates noted character traits (Kuvira is precise, Su more aggressive and emotionally driven). It’s exceedingly clever with the ideas it concocts to shift the flow of battle (the armor from Su and Kuvira’s blade). And it plays it with buttery smooth animation and razor like choreography. With every step perfectly considered and presented.

Still Kuvira gets the upper hand, and the weapon is launched (though it’s trajectory is altered) and blows a whole in the side of a mountain. Just when it looks like the group is on the outs, Toph comes in with a save for all of her family. It’s enough for her to partially reconcile with Lin, but things aren’t roses. Zhu Li notes that Kuvira is going to march on Republic City in a fortnight.

Back at Republic City there is a bit of prep work left to do. Mako proposes an evacuation just in case things start to get hairy. Varrick and Asami have their newest innovation, a flying machine design after a dragonfly hummingbird. Lastly Korra decides to talk to the spirits to see if they will help. No dice, spirits want nothing to do with material affairs after the incident with Unalaq, and so they all drift away. Korra is left alone with her wits and newly found strength.

Odds and Ends

  • Opal’s bison is a rather snotty fellow named Juicy.
  • There is a moment where Wei (or Wing) pats Bolin’s face. Cute.
  • I do like that the spirit cannon still makes the same Inception bwaam that Vaatu did.

Kuvira’s Gambit

So it has all come down to this. With the characters coming to grips with the current circumstances this is the last moment of shuffling the pieces for the grand finale. Though not explicitly tied in to the last two episodes of the series “Kuvira’s Gambit” really does feel like the opening act of a three part finale. One that establishes the stakes and allows the heroes and viewers to finally fully understand what the giant threat of the season truly is. So as many chapters in a story at this particular juncture it’s mostly table setting, but I think it’s pretty good table setting. Despite some odd moments here and there, a disquiet and fear pervades throughout the runtime of this episode, one that dramatically alters the tenor of the show in a surprising manner.

So Kuvira is going to march on Republic City, and Republic City is barely ready to respond. During a voluntary evacuation only 18 families have opted to leave. Well Bolin and the Beifongs sweep back in to another meeting with president Raiko (who grumpily notices that his meetings are always interrupted by people) to present some bad news. Kuvira is coming, and sooner than one would think. It’s time to up the schedule for getting people out of the way and into safe harbor. This evacuation is now mandatory.

As such Mako takes a first crack at getting people out of their homes, and royally whiffs at it. His dry monotone and by the book attitude contributing to the confusion instead of clarifying the situation. The radio and phone lines become jammed as he meticulously describes the handbook instructions. To stop the chaos Prince Wu decides to take over, and his cool demeanor and speaking style are able to calm people down enough to get things rolling.

Now here comes the odd part of the episode. During Wu’s speech, and in subsequent scenes of evacuation. We are treated to still images of people either listening to radios or moving on out. It’s an odd situation where I can’t tall if this was an artistic choice or a cost cutting measure. I bet that the production would like to keep as much of the budget of the season in the finale as possible, so here we are treated to static shots with soundscapes. It’s not terrible in any really actionable way, but you can feel the oddity seep through the screen.

What I do like about the process of evacuation is that it makes the threat feel very real. The normally bustling streets of the city are empty, and slowly but surely military encampments pop up at the outskirts of town. It’s a chilling sight. Reducing the location of much of the show to a hollowed out war zone.

Preparations are also apace for Varrick and Asami’s new vehicles. They appear to be on schedule, but things are tense. Not helping is Zhu Li’s return. What should be a joyous moment for Varrick turns once again into a reckoning of his own actions. Zhu Li wanted to be partner with Varrick, but was always denied that position. So when she talks to him, and he rebuffs her again, she rightfully storms off. If Varrick wants Zhu Li back, he needs to treat her as an equal and not a subservient member of the team.

To help with the preparations Team Avatar wants to execute a preemptive strike against the Earth Empire. Korra believes that she might be able to weaken Kuvira’s forces before they reach the edges of the city. So the group jumps on a bison and flies out to meet the marching army. To their surprise the weapon is not merely a cannon on a train, but a towering mech. One with the cannon attached to its arm. This weapon isn’t bound by no rail lines, will be much harder to stop. More than that Kuvira is ahead of schedule.

Team Avatar returns with the news, and everyone tries to speed up evacuation and preparation. But Kuvira arrives and orders Republic City to stand down. Hell she even blows up some of the forces to prove a point about her power. Raiko almost immediately waves the white flag, but The Avatar has a different idea. While Bataar Jr. is on his way to parlay he will be kidnapped and held for ransom by Team Avatar to force Kuvira’s hand.

The kidnapping goes off without a hitch, and Bataar Jr. is bound and gagged in the back of a warehouse. First the group tries to draw on his sympathies to stop the attack, Su even pleads with her son to rethink his position, and the danger he has put the world in. But Jr. stands firm, he will not change his attitude, and he know Korra won’t kill him outright in this moment.

Ah but Korra has another idea. The group will bag Bataar and lug him around the world and away from Kuvira. At every moment he will know that he is separated from the ostensible love of his life. He will be made miserable and used only as a bargaining chip for the rest of his life. So Bataar finally crumples and offers to radio in to Kuvira and ask her to parlay. Bataar pleads with Kuvira, and over the voice line she seems amenable, but in the mech suit she prepares an attack on her loved. So the giant robot aims at the group and fires. They rush out just in time to miss the brunt of the attack. But the action speaks loudly. Kuvira is here to conquer above all else.

Odds and Ends

  • Some old faces pop up in this episode during the radio briefings: the shopkeepers from the series premiere, Tahno, and the bush hobo.
  • Is the appearance of the mech a visual reference to Evangelion? You bet it is.
  • I love that the mech is controlled with meteorite trackballs that Kuvira moves around. Just one of those delightful pieces of design that is buried in the background.
  • Also I like that the domes of Zaofu got turned into the mech specifically.
  • Another budget thing? Lots of characters in this episode don’t speak: notably Jinora, Ikki, Kai and Bumi.