Legend of Korra: Book 4 – Kuvira’s Gambit

Big mecha takes the stage in the Avatar World with the reveal that Kuvira’s true secret weapon was not just a spirit cannon, but a gigantic metal arm attached to a gigantic mechanical robot.  The design was reminiscent of the giant protector at the end of the first Thor movie and perhaps, the robot soldier in Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky.  Beyond its appearance, it was a surprising and bold move by the Korra the creators to step up from advance mecha suits that stand above your average person to Neon Genesis Evangelion sized robots that tower over your average skyscraper.  Does it work? Resoundingly yes, and as to why, read onward.

The title of the episode is, “Kuvira’s Gambit.”  When Julius Caesar chose to cross the Rubicon on his way to Rome with an army to set himself up as dictator, he legendarily claimed to have said, “The die has been rolled..” The first scene begins with Kuvira facing a Rubicon of her own and declaring that the Empire stands on the precipice of completion and all that stands in the way is the stolen land upon which Republic City sits.  Sound familiar?  The writers planted this perspective in Book 3 from the lips of the deceased Earth Queen and it’s not ironic that the Earth Kingdom’s newest tyrant has adopted the exact same belief.  In the echoes of “Great Uniter!” from her followers in the otherwise empty courtyard of Zaofu, the romance of Baatar, Jr., and Kuvira is touched upon with words of marriage and support.  How sincere were her words is the ultimate question, as later, her actions indicate they fall short of the importance she places in her plans.  We’re left with a smile, contentment that her plan is almost in place or that she has a mate to share its completion with?

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled presidential status meeting with Bolin, star of Nanook of the North, bursting into the room.  The callback to episode 9 by President Raiko was a nice touch that preceded the update to our characters in Republic City of the nature of Kuvira’s super weapon and the timeline of attack.  We also learn of Prince Wu’s astonishingly bad ability to motivate Republic City’s citizens to voluntarily evacuate the city.  In short order, however, Korra, Asami, Bolin and Mako volunteer to destroy the super weapon before it can ever be used against the city and its defenders. 

This mission results in the Avatar Gang learning the same information of Kuvira’s army, time schedule and super weapon that we viewers gained earlier in the episode, courtesy of blast of spirit energy that nearly disintegrates our heroes and the sky bison they’re traveling on.  The early, first reveal of the robot, the veritable monster emerging from the mists, was an impressive debut (of which, there seemed a fairly certain fact that no parachutes appeared around the outpost after it was reduced to flaming slag by the laser – yes, this children’s show added plus two to the ongoing body count).  In a strategic decision to rely on fear rather than surprise, Kuvira allows Korra and her band of friends to escape to spread word of the impending attack and super weapon.

Prior to the unpleasant meeting with Kuvira’s military might aboard an air bison, Bolin had reintroduced Zhu Li to Varrick.  The two stood in silence, neither quite sure what to say as they lost themselves in the comfort of being in the physical presence of someone you care deeply about.  Then Zhu Li cuts Varrick off before he say his piece, leaving viewers to wonder if what he was going to say is the same he said shortly later or perhaps, something more empathic or heartfelt.  Zhu Li, however, confessed that all she had said before was done entirely to protect Varrick’s life and that he means the world to her.  Of note, for the first time we have Zhu Li wearing her hair down, instead of up in some form, be it a pony tail, braid or bun.  She’s visually reflecting her inner decision to let her walls down and to be honest.  This mirrors for recent animation purposes, Queen Elinor’s hairstyle change at the end of Brave, when that character adopted a more open and emotional perspective on the world.

Varrick promptly pats her on the shoulder, accepts her “apology” and instructs Zhu Li, as his assistant, to get to work!  Zhu Li’s response is the response everyone has been waiting for since her separation and outburst, as false as it apparently was, several episodes ago.  She demands to be treated as an equal, not an assistant, if Varrick wants to have her around.  Varrick is baffled and Bolin pulls off one of the best animated face palms in recent years.  We will have to wait until next week to learn if Varrick responds or not to Zhu Li’s demands.

Informed of Kuvira’s movements and battle a certainty only hours away, President Raiko orders a mandatory evacuation of the city.  This sets up perhaps one of the best written scenes for Mako, one that holds so very true to the character, as the former pro bender gets on a city wide radio and calmly instructs everyone to open their evacuation manual to chapter so and so, subsection so and so, to understand what to do.  The lights on the surrounding telephone circuit board flare up, “He’s creating a panic,” deadpans a nearby technician.  And at that point, Wu steps in and parlays his man of the people personality and relates what might be one of the worse uplifting speeches in the history of the animated medium, relating his conquering of his fear of going to the bathroom alone to the fear that everyone must be feeling.  It was worth it for the montage of scenes about the city, plus the cameo appearance of one of our favorite Republic City hobos, but it also cast a disturbing reality that the writers intend to have Wu take the throne of the Earth Kingdom by the end of the show.  It is not quite an earned honor and Wu has not really shown enough development to prove he is a suitable leader for a kingdom presently under the yoke of the Great Uniter.

As an aside on the evacuation, we are shown the citizens boarding trains at Asami’s train depot, but the question is raised and definitely not answered, where are these people going?  As we have seen from the maps prominently used by Kuvira, over and over, Republic City is surrounded by the Earth Kingdom, which recently has made an effort to expel foreigners.  Either for lack of time and money or imagination, an escape by sea was not used, and an animated Dunkirk evacuation to the water tribes and fire nation would have been an impressive and beautiful scene given the talents of the crew of the show.

In preparation for war, we finally get to see General Iroh again since Book 2, when his ability to help Korra was restrained by an isolationist President Raiko.  He has brought the full force of the United Republic military, airships, battleships, and ground forces.   Arrayed for battle with presumably benders from every nation lined up together in bender colored squares, they unfortunately seemed a paltry defense as Kuvira’s giant robot appeared and quaked the ground with every step forward.  The symbolism of the benders from every element, Earth, Fire, Air, Water, lined up opposite the metal colossus was heavy, this is a confrontation of the past with the future, the traditional with the new.  One might also consider Kuvira, herself, as representative of the new which does not belong, a ruler with no royal pedigree. Additionally, she operates the machine like an extension of herself through metal bending.

Now back to the giant mechanical colossus and the question of its propriety in the Avatar world.  At first blush, the mecha feels as if it should belong to another show, another genre, even, and mostly created and designed in another nation.  The Avatar world slipped quickly into the realm of steampunk in Book 1 with the introduction of crude mechanical suits, which actually make an appearance in this episode as part of the defense of Republic City, and for any fan of Legend of Korra, those suits that also appeared in Book 2, should be old hat.  They are as established as Asami’s electrifying Equalist glove and the metal airships (successors to airships deployed for the finale of The Last Airbender) that ply the skies of our present Avatar world. 

Book 4 updated those mech suits to appear even more in-line with common conceptions of such weapons and likewise, made them far more nimble, capable and deadly.  What the mech suits also did was reflect bending abilities, too, such as fire bending and metal bending.  They are artificial enhancements to their wearers, artificial benders empowered by technology and innovation.  It is a matter of the latter replacing and overcoming the traditional world that we were invited to explore with Aang and has continually vanished in our adventures with Korra.  In a way, this giant mechanical robot is a descendant of the giant drill that bore its way through the great wall of Ba Sing Se before our previous Avatar brought it to a halt. 

Its destructive power is stolen spirit energy, but one generated by technology.  It is a contrasting parallel to the finale of Last Airbender, which also had an end of the world weapon, but one of bending, the fire bending of Ozai and his soldiers abilities amplified to awesome levels by the passing of Sozen’s Comet.  Another incredible parallel from The Last Airbender is the consideration of the last time we saw something as giant as Kuvira’s meaning masterpiece, the spirit monster controlled by Aang that destroyed the Fire Nation fleet attacking the Northern Water Tribe.  Again, we have the theme of technology replacing the natural and spiritual which has run rampant throughout the Legend of Korra.  Book 2 even dedicated part of Unalok’s grievances to the loss of spirituality amongst the Southern Water tribe.

With all this in mind, Kuvira’s colossus is the natural pinnacle to this theme that has run through virtually every season.  Is the message of Legend of Korra (and the Last Airbender) one that technology is bad? No, but it definitely conveys a directive that it can be used for both purposes of good and bad.  In the elegant lines that cover the giant mecha are the memories that once they were the giant metal lotus flower petals that elegantly enclosed the communities of Zaofu every evening.

Yet, its use here is destructively wicked, as Kuvira displays her power by sinking several of the anchored battleships in the city’s bay.  Confronted by the spirit cannon’s awesome power, President Raiko makes one of the bravest decisions of his life, to surrender.  Any fight against Kuvira would result in the destruction of the city and the needless loss of life.  For all that Korra and General Iroh are upset by the decision, no one else voices frustration at it.  It’s a decision that Aang definitely would have approved of, as well King Bumi.  You have to get that neutral jin on to win! 

As previously mentioned, Korra, unhappy with the surrender, vows to find a way to stop Kuvira in her colossus and plots to kidnap Baatar, Jr., from an airship on its way to Air Bender island where President Raiko and Lin Beifong await to discuss terms.  It is a leadership moment for Korra, as her plan is given the highest approval with Tenzin cutting off her attempt to explain her idea by declaring, “I’m in.”   Korra requests the help of Tenzin, Jinora, Bumi, and Kai, obviously not asking Ikki or Meelo.  Only Meelo the Absurd, or rather absurdist Meelo, complains, and the less time spent with Meelo, his flatulence, and ill-proportioned sized head, is all together a good thing.  Meelo has existed since Book 1 as a vehicle for softball gross out humor, and while for a couple times he has risen above it, he’s probably a character that could have been rewritten to accomplish the same personality without any of the child-targeted crudeness for laughs.

The plot, however, goes off without a hitch, and Baatar, Jr., ends up in the hands of our heroes and as the center of an interrogation to spill the beans on the weakness of the giant robot.  Korra threatens violence, but it’s a threat that Baatar calls a bluff, and correctly so.  She could not kill Kuvira when it counted, she cannot kill Baatar in cold blood.  Instead, she threatens to take Baatar away with her on the run, a perpetual prisoner allowed never to be with the woman he loves.  A woman he has told his mother is his only family now.

This leads to a quick continuing thought on family and its importance in the Avatar world.  It’s the most important thing in the Avatar world, be it a family of friends or blood relatives.  One’s fate is almost always tied to the family one professes loyalty to, be it Ozai and Azula going down together, or the Red Lotus family of four which was reduced to one by the end of Book 3.  Baatar had a clear chance to reaffirm his loyalty to his mother and connection to the Beifongs, but rejected it out right.  His fate is tied to Kuvira’s, or more precisely, is in her hands to be literal.   Not to skip ahead, we return to Korra’s threat of a never ending separation, which some might call hardly a threat, but for this married reviewer, would be quite motivational.  In fact, it’s connected with pretty good terms, Kuvira gets to keep everything else she’s won and her and Baatar can go off and live happily ever after.  Baatar agrees.

As he attempts to reason with his fiancé over the radio, Kuvira directs her soldier to track the location of the radio transmission.  She agrees with Baatar, the city is not worth losing their future over, and then fires the spirit cannon at Korra, her friends, and Baatar, Jr.  Our last glimpse of Baatar’s face is one of confusion and pain.  Kuvira, meanwhile, glances away momentarily, and one has the impression that she weighed the importance of wiping out the only resistance left to her conquest against the importance of her future with Baatar, and the latter came up wanting.  Her expression was one of, “What could have been…” overcome by the sureness that she has worn with every victory and decision that has resulted in success.  Is she a tyrant or is she a zealot?  Did she sacrifice Baatar for a unified Earth Empire or for the final jewel in her crown of conquest?   That answer may or may not be answered next week.

The view of the warehouse smoldering in ruins from Air Bender Island with Lin responding is the last view before the end title screen and the seven days between us and the series finale.  Our heroes disappeared in an explosion that very likely will have dealt mortal blows to faces we know.  The director of the episode was Colin Heck, a man who has a strong knack for directing episodes that end on cliff hangers.  This may well be his masterpiece of the show.

Other thoughts:

The CGI of the giant mecha was slightly distracting, but one that seemed less a problem the longer it was on the screen.  During the montage of Wu’s speech, we also got to see a cameo appearance of Republic City’s former pro bending champs, the Wolfbats sitting in the same noodle shop from Book 1.  When Korra and the air benders leave the air bison to land on the airship, Korra is the only one using an air bender glider.  Will the future Avatars be the only ones who rely on them (minus an outfit change)? 

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