Legend of Korra: Book 4 – Beyond the Wilds

Book 4, as well the entire Legend of Korra series, has begun its snowball’s trajectory down the mountainside toward the avalanche that will be the conclusion.  The pieces have started their final movement to be in place for the finale and all we can do now is prepare ourselves for the end.  Excitement? Sadness? It’s all one big Varrick cake full of tragic sweetness waiting to be consumed!

Our episode begins with non-other than Ryu, the hipster air bender from Book 3 leading a tour, which includes his parents “visiting the big city,” of one of the spirit wilds of Republic City.  While Ryu has obviously found a direction out of his parents’ basement, his personality remains a bit antagonistic toward others interfering with his life choices, or in this case, reading the cue cards for the tour.  However, a spirit vine soon interferes after it’s poked by a stick, “Why would you do that?!” and immediately after, the entire tour group, including Ryu, are dragged away and out of sight.  While at first it seemed odd that an air bender is giving tours of the Spirit Wilds, when, after all, they’re supposed to be Avatar-ing it up around the world in Korra’s absence, it does make a little sense that the bending nation which identifies so closely to the spirituality is the one providing education and information about it.

We then cut away to Korra playing a game of earth bending pavers with Naga in a courtyard on air bender island.  For all the sadness and pain that Korra has dealt with this season, watching her smile as she plays with Naga, was a subtle delight.  The play is interrupted by an upset Opal, an understandably upset Opal, who complains that her family are being held hostage, possibly tortured, by Kuvira and no one is doing anything about it.  This frustration moment is also interrupted by Jinora who appears after sensing a surge of spirit energy.  Korra’s in ability to access the spirit world or her spiritual self is highlighted as Korra admits to feeling nothing at all.

Nonetheless, all three head to the nearest spirit wild where in a hope of sensing what happened to the lost tour group, Korra reaches out to a vine and attempts to sense their whereabouts.  The resulting vision is not of the tourists, but of Kuvira’s mechs chainsawing away at the roots of the Banyan Grove tree (which are not giving up lightly).  This shocking discovery sends Korra and Opal to see President Raiko to report this disturbing event, while Jinora remains in the spirit wild to continue the search for the group. 

Enter the council of leaders, Firelord Izumi, Tenzin, President Raiko and…King/Prince Wu, debating on what should be done about Kuvira.  Raiko, perhaps emboldened or encouraged by Lin Beifong, is arguing for an aggressive stance against Kuvira, suggesting that an attack must be made on the dictator.  Tenzin immediately objects to any offensive action without provocation and the Firelord immediately rules out any foolish wars by her nation.  Much of the dialogue here sounds reflective of the conversations had by European leaders in the late 1930s, as Hitler expanded his power from Germany to the Rhineland, then to Austria and eventually into the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, and the failed policy of appeasement.  Is Beifong our Churchill? Loud, but in a position without power?   For the Firelord, it’s something reminiscent of memories of the First World War, and no eagerness to rush headlong into another great conflict.  It’s clearly a moment when the powers that be are forced to balance action without direct provocation with action needed out of a sincerity that the risk of danger is so great, it’s better to act than do nothing at all.   However, here, the leaders agree to develop a defensive position with regard to Kuvira in the Earth Kingdom.

Of interest are a couple things.  First, for all that Kuvira is doing that is indeed troubling, there is an extreme deference to the fact that it’s an internal affair of the Earth Kingdom.  She has staged a coup, there are rumors of concentration camps, and seized the city of Zaofu and jailed the leaders of the Metal Clan.  She is definitely acting out of the norms of acceptable behavior, but she has not done anything to anyone outside the borders of the Earth Kingdom (kidnapping Prince Wu being the exception).  It was similar rationale regarding Hitler, that what he was doing wasn’t necessarily wrong, because it was German people and/or in Germany that he was doing it too.  This same opinion even holds sway today as a defense to outside intrusion, a nation can do what it wishes within its borders, a shield by many terrible leaders used to cover actions that are often tragic and devastating. 

Second, it’s the inclusion of King/Prince Wu.  We are given two examples of Wu’s incompetence as a leader based on his ideas, both naive.  Korra, who appears momentarily, speaks a lot for the audience when she questions Wu’s presence, at least over hers.  However, what it does symbolize is that even the monarch without a kingdom, is given a level of deference and respect still in our Avatar world.  It’s indicative that for the other leaders, Wu still represents the proper future of the Earth Kingdom and should be included in the plans that concern it.  The powers that be remain conservative!

Korra’s appearance and questions as to why she’s not included present us with another twinkle toes in mouth comment by Tenzin, who in his sincerest and grimace inducing way, explains to Korra that everyone believes she may not yet be ready to quite resume her full Avatar duties. Korra states it more bluntly, they have lost their confidence in her.  For much of this season, Korra has had to fight with her own lack of confidence, of her ability and necessity of being the Avatar.  We have watched her regain her self-confidence, which was shaken in her battle with Kuvira, but here again, it’s rattled by her own pseudo-father.  Strangely, later, we see the one man who she fears and detests the most restore it.

Before Korra can object any further, Varrick and Bolin appear, apparently fresh off the rickety boat.  They quickly announce Kuvira’s new plans concerning the spirit vines, and while Korra is dismissed, now with Mako in tow, it’s a brief reuniting of the former Fire Ferrets.  The party is ended abruptly by Jinora, appearing in spirit form in front of them, pleading for help, as she, too, has been snatched by the vines.  Mako and Korra, dash off to the spirit wild in hunt of now Jinora and the tourist group and soon find them (potentially in the old Police Station?) inside spirit pods.  Mako immediately fires up a flame dagger and offers to cut them out, but we see the new Korra again appear.  Rather than Hulk Smash her way against a problem, she seeks a more peaceful alternative first.  She attempts to spirit bend the group free, but fails.  This change in Korra continues to reflect a more mature Avatar, one who has learned she cannot necessarily rely on her brute strength and must consider other options first.  The spirit bending, fails, however and she moves to another solution that doesn’t involve violence, attempting to visit the Spirit World and see what’s happening on the other side of their reality.

One unexplained question remains from this point on through the episode, what was the purpose of attacking the tour group and later Jinora?  It obviously was not to kill them, but the pods and the capture of their spirits was underlined with no other possible purpose other than to draw the attention of the Avatar or others to the events going on in the Swamp.  Korra fails in her meditation and instead of reaching the spirit world, finds herself reenacting the moments of her fight with Zaheer, where she was slowly dying from the poison within her and experienced the sensation of the very breath from her lungs being pulled out by air bending.  Her solution to the failure?  To go see Zaheer.  Also, MAKORRA alert!  For the second time, we have a member of Team Avatar devotedly state they would do anything to help Korra.  The first, you might recall, was Asami.  What does it mean? Good friends? Or are our writers setting us up for a Mako and Korra romance for the conclusion of the show? 

To the mountain!  Mako and Korra are sent to the mountain prison where the remaining survivor of the Red Lotus lives chained to a metal platform, hundreds of feet away from the skies he had briefly flown.  Korra’s purpose in seeing Zaheer is to see him in chains so she can internalize that he’s no longer a threat to her.  She finds him levitating and in meditation.  She also discovers that she’s still capable of being frightened by him and that for the entirety of his incarceration, he has spent a great amount of time in the Spirit World.  This makes sense, as Zaheer’s ability to fly rested entirely on his letting go over the material world, and thus, a material prison would be incapable of truly imprisoning him.  One must wonder what he does with his time in the Spirit World.  The last individual who spent much time there got into a bad romance with the spirit of Darkness and Chaos. 

In the conversation between Zaheer and Korra, Korra admits painfully, that Zaheer had ruined her.  Here is where I tread into a somewhat dangerous observation, dangerous because of my gender, but it seemed there was a certain level of exchange in which Korra stood in the place of a rape victim and Zaheer the rapist.  Until that moment, Korra had been haunted almost exclusively by visions of Zaheer, and the poisoning definitely can be viewed as a forceful violation of Korra’s body that she was unable to prevent.  This is definitely a sensitive subject and all too often, it seems that media turns toward rape as a go to obstacle and traumatic event for its main female characters.  There obviously was not an actual rape involved here, but is the indication offered by Korra’s struggle with Zaheer and his actions reflective of such a horrible event?  Is just over thinking on my part?  Is it still in line with simply someone who has suffered a violent assault?  I personally want to believe that is indeed over thinking, as I hold the writers up rather highly and would like to think they would not purposefully go down that route or prefer to imply as much.

Going back to the dialogue, here we have Korra’s enemy, the one person who has a hold over her psyche, explain to her that her power, rather than be limited, is limitless.  If there is one person who can help Korra overcome every sense of being less than the Avatar she was, it is the man whose damage placed her in such a position.  Out of guilt of the monster that Kuvira had become, Zaheer helps Korra accept what happened to her and move on and spiritually, helps her move back into the Spirit World, where she’s finally reunited with Raava, and as she says a bit later, becomes finally “whole."  Thanks to Raava’s help, she locates the spirits of the vinenapped tour group and Jinora, and releases them through the bending of the spiritual energy.  We learn that Korra, rather than be powerless when spiritually in the Spirit World, can tap all the spirit power that exists.   

This observation has a couple things to consider.  First, in her show down with Kuvira, will Korra be able to draw upon spirit energy as a weapon or defense?  Second, at this moment, is Korra becoming the perfect founding Avatar of a new line of Avatars?  She’s the first Avatar to master metal bending and her understanding of spirit powers seems to have reached a level that makes her one of the most informed individuals alive on the Avatar’s relationship to the spirit world.  For all that Korra has had to suffer through and learn in the role of being the Avatar, it is making her the best future mentor for future Avatars in a line that was erased.  She is the rock upon which the future Avatar line will be built.

Closure is the word for Korra, as she tells Mako, she will never forget, but she can accept what has happened to her.  As she walks away from Zaheer’s prison, there is a renewed sense that she now the Avatar that we have all been wanting her to be from the very first day she arrived in Republic City.  While Korra’s emotional wounds have further healed, raw pain exists between Bolin and Opal on Air Bender Island.  Bolin in a very Bolin-headed way, fails completely to pick up on Opal’s own thoughts and emotions.  His wonderful reunion with Pabu is overshadowed by the complete disaster of his attempt to make up with Opal with a surprise picnic which doesn’t involve his legs being broken.  The fact that Opal is not immediately accepting Bolin back into her arms is fantastic, as we are seeing romances that have to be earned and are not simply written for puppets on strings.   We also have to wonder, when Opal responds to Bolin’s plea for guidance on what he must do to win her back, how much she wants to give him a chance to do so versus how much she suddenly realizes she has the opportunity to draw in one more person to support her and Lin Beifong’s secret mission to free the Beifong clan from Kuvira.  Since I believe Opal isn’t evil, she isn’t just using Bolin in this instance, but as for the state of the relationship, we will see how that ends.  One question outstanding, will this trio be involved in the liberation of Zaofu during the season finale?  Will this be the battle of Ba Sing Se of the ATLA finale, while the big show down happens elsewhere?

Varrick and Asami.  Varasami?  The two, now much more equals than their previous dealings, are brought together by President Raiko to help defense Republic City.  Prepare for some industrial size counter measures to Kuvira’s army and prepare for something huge. 

Further thoughts on the episode.  Loved Opal’s eyebrow arching in response to Bolin’s plea.  Skeptical eyebrow is an animation win!  Did Opal’s air bison have a snot problem?  Does it seem that Kuvira’s drive on Republic City (it’s coming, I stand by this!) be entirely on returning former Earth Kingdom land to the Earth Empire and not inspired by its abundant spirit vines?  Second props for Korra’s smile while playing with Naga.  The scene overflowed with the cuteness of a giant polarbear dog pouncing on one random stone after another.  Kind of similar to the requirement of the Hero’s journey to enter the belly of the whale, Korra must enter the underground, where she confronts her fears and is reborn again in the spirit world, and also remade, made whole, in the material world.  Likewise, she had to go into a subterranean world to come to terms with her own subconscious fears, where she confronts the face and voice within her mind.  It’s almost as if Korra entered her own mind by entering the mountain prison.  Groovy.  

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