‘The Legend of Korra’ Book 4: Balance Review: “Operation Beifong”
As the old adage goes: The family that infiltrates fascist concentration camps together, stays together.
“Operation Beifong” made for a thrilling end note to last season's “Old Wounds,” which saw Lin and Su put aside their differences (after a big metalbending smackdown) and become allies, sisters, once again. Book 4's follow-up brings the entire clan together. Disobeying orders from President Raiko to remain on the defensive, Lin, Opal, and future son-in-law Bolin fly to ZaoFu to break their kin out of jail. Heavy guarded and disassembled — Opal reminds of Kuvira's order to tear down the city's domes, a mystery that still sounds like the first stage of a super weapon — the trio's nearly barge into a swarm of tanks and soldiers. Luckily, Toph appears out of nowhere to kick them in the heads.
Reading the vines, the blind Earthbender discovered that Su and her family were removed from Zaofu days earlier. Bolin finally comes in handy: He knows of a re-education camp nearby. All a bit convenient, but 'Legned of Korra' is an economical show. If it needs to sacrifice logic to bring this wily bunch together, the ends justify the means. Making fun of Bolin for being an actor excuses any cut corners.
Light setup means more time for the juicy stuff (and I don't mean the snotty, still-huggable Juicy stuff). Settled down for an overnight in the woods, Bolin starts conversation with an atom bomb-sized question: Who is your father? It's one of two moments where Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino confront long-standing fan questions in exactly the tone in which they're delivered on Tumblr (the other snippy-response comes at the tail end of the episode, when Toph explains why Katara “didn't mess with that Civil War nonsense” — she was too old!). Toph's replied simply: His name was Konto and it didn't work out. THE END. That's life, folks. As it likely will for fans, the blasé answer gets under Lin's skin. She flips, lambasting her mom for raising her without a father. That's not really the issue, and we see it both Lin and Toph's facial animation. This is the first time they've been together in 20 years. Everything floods into this one fireside chat. If this is Mindy Sterling last big episode before the finale, it's a touching piece of voicework.
The makeshift squad arrives to Kuvira's facility with a bittersweet opportunity. Good: They'll have an opportunity to break Su out of prison, because the entire staff will be gone for one hour to attend a demonstration. Bad: Bataar Jr. wil show off the spirit vine cannon he's successfully constructed. Toph insists they stick to saving their family.
We've seen so many prisons in the 'Legend of Korra' — an odd bit of world building when you stand back and consider it — and all of them constructed to counter bending powers. To keep Earthbenders at bay, Kuvira ensures that Su doesn't have any earth to bend. Toph, Lin, Opal, and Bolin find the Zaofu matriarch suspended in a wooden box, which they easily blast their way up to. Kuvira's guard (a deadringer for Moopet Bolin) is too late. Lin swings the Beifong family to safety before escaping with Su in a blaze of fire and woodchips.
The escape makes a nice appetizer to the no-holds-barred Suyin-Kuvira brawl that ranks among the series' best fight scenes. When the fledging dictator discovers that none other than Zhu Li is behind recent efforts to sabotage the spirit vine weapon — fandom, you called it! — she sends her to the laser's test site for execution. Bolin can't turn his back on the woman, even with Opal and her family's safety at stake. Varrick clearly imprinted some memories on his piggyback-giver.
To buy him time, Lin and Su jump into superhero mode. I've often wondered why 'Legend of Korra' spent so much time focusing on Earthbenders in its final two seasons. Then I realized: It always looks amazing. Knocking out opponents with explosive crags, whip metal bands and chains around ninja-style, erupting a shield out the ground — the sheer number of options earthbenders have for fighting and the velocity at which they can manifest and combine is a gift to 'Korra' animators. We're still seeing styles we've never seen before. Su versus Kuvira felt like a pirate sword fight, Ben Wynn's sound design adding danger and rhythm. By the end of the encounter, Toph rumbling the ground under fleets of mechs, we've been explicitly left with one terrifying memory: Kuvira's cannon looks frickin' deadly. Blasting a hole through a mountain isn't quite blowing Alderaan to smithereens, but hey, the Death Star had to build up that. Probably.
Within Team Beifong's Great Escape, the writers still found time to return to Republic City and pick-up with Korra. All signs point to all-out war. In one of the most chilling scenes, Varrick and Asami present Raiko with plans for flying mech-suits (which, 1. look like robo-Bum-Jus and 2. are going to look amazing in action). The President isn't pleased — where are the spirit vine lasers? Varrick won't perpetuate that technology. He won't be the Einstein to Raiko's Manhattan Project. Wu has a better, pacifist idea: Evacuate the city and prepare for the inevitable. When Mako learns that Wu proposed the idea to look good in front of Korra, the writers give him the line of the episode: “You always have to ruin it.”
Zhu Li delivers foreboding news in the final moments of “Operation Beifong”: Kuvira is set to wage war in two weeks. Without knowing the intended plans, Korra is already trying to assemble back-up — and failing. Her stroll through the Spirit World in this episode is particularly poignant, recalling a drama that comes up time and time again when we talk about 'Korra': Hayao Miyazaki's “Princess Mononoke.” Like Book 4, Miyazaki's fantasy concerned itself with the spiritual and human, the metaphysical and technological. The spirits of that film don't want to fight, but humanity drags them into battle. The spirits of 'Korra' feel the same way about the Avatar's request for help. Kuvira is “perverting spirit power to use as a weapon” (an incredible turn of phrase) and now Korra wants to do the same thing for “the good guys.” Both sides are the same to Squawky Dragon Bird, Flobby Leaf Dog, and Floating Mushroom Thingy. Human-on-human strife will always destroy spirits.
Having come to terms with the constant flux of the physical world, Korra is faced with balancing two realms — and without the help of the Spirit World's residents. As she's left behind by disappearing spirits, Wan's path came to mind. “Beginnings,” how these two world's came to be yin and yang to one another. When bending emerged. When humans started fighting. What restore balance to the world? Maybe the answers are there. Maybe Wan's story, the world itself, ends with Korra. “Endings.”