‘The Legend of Korra’ Book 3 Review: “In Harm’s Way”
Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino finally deliver a breakout episode of Book 3... in the most literal way possible.
If anyone thought this season was skimping on the action — and after last week's mini 'Warriors'-meets-'Mad-Max'-meets-'Akira' throwdown, I'm not exactly sure why you would, but hey, we all require varying amounts of stimulation — the 'Korra' creative team delivers 24 minutes of wall-to-wall action worthy of Danny Ocean. Paying off the finale of “The Earth Queen,” “In Harm's Way” launches straight into a set piece that would knock the wind out of Cirque du Soliel's trapezers. Recalling the classic 'Star Wars' setup, Zuko reports back to Tonraq that the ice prison housing Combustion Girl a.k.a Zaheer cohort, P'li, is safe from intrusion — save for an incoming snowstorm.
“That's not a snowstorm,” Tonraq says in a gruffer Obi-Wan tone.
The encounter is a lesson in action directing. Director Melchior Zwyer sets our expectations with Tonraq and Zaheer, blasts of water and air whipping across the battle field with all the fury of a 'Drunken Master' routine. Zwyer shows admirable restraint: Low angles, wide shots, uncut action. We've seen it before and it's still exhilarating. From there, the skirmish upshifts from kinetic to downright gnarly. While it's great to see Desna and Eska back in action, shooting off ice spears at ninja-speed, it's water-for-arms Ming-Hua who steals the show. If Lin Bei Fong is Spider-Man, Ming-Hua is our Venom. Here, in one deep breath, she propels from icy ledge to icy ledge with liquid tendrils, freezes them into a pick, shatters into the prison, frees P'li, and climbs back to safety by morphing her faux-arms into a pair of ice axes. How far we've come from 'Dragonball Z.'
And that was just the first five minutes. When the episode switches back to Team Avatar, “In Harm's Way” spins its wheels in neutral for a chunk of the middle. We pick up with Korra mid-training sessions, blowing off steam after being duped by the Earth Queen. When Bolin and Mako return, it's more waiting to figure out what the next move is in order to track down Kai, save the imprisoned Airbenders, and get the hell out of Dodge Sing Se. There's a cheeky scene between the Earth Queen and Team Avatar, but nothing as elegantly woven into the plotting as the previous three episodes.
Korra's return to panic and bullishness is immediately frightening to me; Not because hot-headed Korra isn't watchable — for a teenage character, learning to deal with problems in a calm, reasonable, and thoughtful manner is a massive task and one that deserves exploration over the entire series — but because a vocal sect of the show checks out at the sign of angered Korra. If you kept up with 'Breaking Bad' on social media, you're familiar with “Skyler hate,” a vicious and misogynistic backlash against actions of a woman conquering morally complex problems. 'Korra' nuts have the same issue: Why can't this girl just calm down and solve her problems like a real hero? Because that's not how reality works. And 'Legend of Korra' is a show about reality, however many dragons show up. So if you find yourself hating Korra... considering chilling out yourself.
As she did a few times in Book 2, Jinora takes center stage in “In Harm's Way” to tie up loose ends from last year's finale as well as plant intriguing new seeds for this season's potential end game. As Team Avatar struggles to locate the missing Airbenders, Tenzin's eldest daughter reveals she has the power of astral projection — which she kinda sorta had in the last season? Though the logic may not live up to scrutiny (concrete timelines/explanations welcome in the comments)? Well, she can, and she does, first searching under Lake Laogai (a nice bit of 'ATLA' fan service) then turning her ghastly attention to the Queen's palace. When she comes face to face with a locked up Kai, it's more Little Manhattan-esque adorableness. The I'll-save-you-you-save-me budding romance between these two is more than enough to fill the void left from the Korra/Mako break-up.
In what's almost a throwaway line, Jinora tells Kai that her projection is actually a “high level Airbender move with a little spiritual stuff thrown in.” Zaheer's quote from Episode 1 comes to mind, the tale of a spiritual Air guide who defied gravity. Is Zaheer hoping to obtain this same ability? We know at least one of his motives: Back when Korra was just a wee Avatar, Zaheer and the rest of the Deadly Viper Squad set out to kidnap her, only to be stopped and incarcerated by Tenzin, Lin Bei Fong, Tonraq, and Chief Sokka (nice). Now, he's out and trying again. Presumably.
“In Harm's Way” wraps with a two-squad operation: Mako, Bolin, Jinora, and Kai proving formidable opponents to the Dai Lei in a claustrophobic duel, and Korra, Tenzin, Bumi breaking the rest of the prisoners out of containment. When they escape to the airships, the Earth Queen gives them one more chance to turn back. “Taking them would constitute an act of war.” Korra goes the humanitarian route — and the epic escape begins. Where the opening fight was expertly, the finale bellows with a mighty soundscape. Longtime composer/sound design team Jeremy Zuckerman and Ben Wynn touch Planeteer rings as Korra and a team of Airbenders fight back against the Earthbender police. What starts as squealing bursts of air crescendos into the drone of a György Ligeti choir. It's frightening, intense, and an approach you won't find on any television show, cartoon or live-action.
There's nothing like watching Tenzin shed a tear. For one half-hour, there's hope for the Airbenders. The new recruits are in. They're ready to study. They're ready to bring back the tribe. We'll see how long they can last with Zaheer right behind them.