‘The Legend of Korra’ Book 3 Review: “The Earth Queen”
'Legend of Korra' Book 1 was a perfect season of television. Succinct, kinetic, and threatening to the final beat, it felt like slow-cooked ribs — every delicious moment just fell off the bone. It's almost impossible to replicate — but Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino are coming close with Book 3. A large part of it is setting: Book 1 had the shadowy, class-clashing war zone of Republic City. While “Change” could shape up to be a road movie of sorts, Team Avatar's jump to “future” Ba Sing Se has equally flavorful potential for the show. Same recipe, new meat.
As Korra's ship enters Ba Sing Se airspace, Tenzin warns her that the Earth Queen can be... a prickly personality to work with. A glimpse of the city's three sectors, ringed with a serious of walls, tells us exactly what we need to know about this woman. We might as well call her Prince John; Modern Ba Sing Se is a socioeconomic hell hole, the poor starving on the fringes while the Queen and other royalty live it up in the center. Traveling the radius of the city is a sharp bit of visual info from director Ian Graham. Studio Mir, the studio behind 'Legend of Korra,' is up to the task. There's sorrow, there's grandeur, there's a world teaming with life. I'm sure the helicopter tour of Ba Sing Se runs a tourist an arm and a leg, but it'd be worth it.
Picking up from the 'Alice in Wonderland' riff from last season's “A New Spiritual Age” (remember the Mad Hatter tea party?), the Earth Kingdom's Queen Hou-Ting is a regular Queen of Hearts, a nod given away when we meet her barking at servants bending topiary. She's not too thrilled by Korra's appearance in Ba Sing Se, holding a gripe dating back to the days of Aang and Zuko (for more on the territorial disputes that caused such a stir, check out Dark Horse's Avatar comic book 'The Search'). But she agrees to help Korra find new airbenders — on one condition: Collect tax money from the starving poor. Not only is Queen Hou-Ting a little bit Queen of Hearts, she's also Prince John and wants Korra to be her Sheriff of Nottingham.
The layered Ba Sing Se allows Team Avatar to split up in graceful fashion. While Korra and Asami head out to collect taxes, Mako and Bolin search for Kai, whose greed and grifter sent him off to pick pockets. When they find the scamp, 'Legend of Korra' launches into one of its signature chase scenes. Minimal bending required: Studio Mir hits the groove of Book 1 all over again, weaving in and out of a bustling scene with animated agility. No surprise Kai became an airbender post-Convergence — he moves like the wind.
After losing Kai, Bolin and Mako face an even greater challenge: Confronting their past. Up until this episode, we've only known trace details of the brothers' parents and what put them on the streets of Republic City. In the slums of Ba Sing Se — beautifully rendered with splashy backdrops that recall earlier Satoshi Kon — Bolin and Mako meet an uncle they didn't know they had, with a bro-tastic son they wish they didn't know they had. It opens the reunion floodgates, and soon, Mako and Bolin find themselves flipping through their long lost grandmother's photo albums. What could be saccharine and abrupt feels tender and dreamlike. Anyone invested in these characters felt the weight of Mako passing his scarf off to his grandma. Maybe it was a chain binding him, after all.
Balancing out the emotional is Korra confrontation with so called “barbarians” who are keeping gold out of Queen Hou-Ting's hands. After collecting the money, a raiding party descends upon Korra and Asami like 'Mad Max' road warriors. Konietzko and DiMartino go crazy with the designs, the positive kind of geekery than opens the world in a flash. Korra and Asami clean up the bandits with well-placed electric glove maneuvers and earthbending, but they're left defeated by the gang's words: “You're on the wrong side of this Avatar. That gold belongs to the people, not the queen!” Korra knows he's right.
Writer Tim Hedrick plants two intriguing seeds to leave us hanging until during the hiatus: First, Zuko recruits Tonraq, Eska, and Desna to help him guard a secret ice prison containing Zaheer's final gang member. P'li's a firebender capable of causing explosions with her mind (the same technique used by “Combustion Man” in the original Avatar series). Zaheer is likely right around the corner. Second, Kai sticks his nose too far into the Ba Sing Se elite. He's captured by Dai-Lei, the Earth Kingdom gestapo that might be the creepiest creation in the Avatarverse. They capture the kid, throw in jail, and reveal what the Queen is really cooking up. All the airbenders? They're in jail, to be used as an army. More political strife!
Unlike 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,' that can only mean great things for 'Legend of Korra.'