‘The Legend of Korra’ Book 3 Review: “The Ultimatum”
As post-Earth Queen Ba Sing Se erupted into a burning hellscape of violence and looting, you could hear the cautious lyrics of The Beatles' “Revolution” ringing in the background.
A few choice snippets:
“You say you want a revolution, well, you know / We all want to change the world”
“But when you talk about destruction / Don't you know that you can count me out”
“You ask me for a contribution, well, you know / We're all doing what we can”
“But if you want money for people with minds that hate / All I can tell you is, brother, you have to wait”
“You tell me it's the institution, well, you know / You'd better free your mind instead”
Mako and Bolin's grandma carrying a picture of the Earth Queen may not fit perfectly with the song's eventual jab at Chairman Mao enthusiasts, but the prudent words stick. Zaheer wanted to free the people of Ba Sing Se from the tyranny of government order and now they have chaos. Is the revolution successful if the lives we're living now smolder into ash? John Lennon to the Red Lotus: Nope.
By the time director Colin Heck's camera swoops down into Ba Sing Se's political unrest, Zaheer and the Gang are out of harm's way, sending Mako and Bolin to deliver a message to the Avatar. The latter wonders if they shouldn't do their hero thing to keep citizens out of danger. “This isn't our battle,” Mako tells his bro as they escape the Earth Kingdom capital's version of The Purge. What could be a frightening, timely echo of police-versus-citizen warfare (who didn't expect the Dai Li to continue enforcing “peace”?) is something much darker: pure freedom. Guards aren't keeping looters at bay, they're leading them to the good stuff. It's a dark corner for 'The Legend of Korra' to turn; with Zaheer's venomous touch running through its veins, Mako and Bolin are forced to acknowledge that Ba Sing Se can't be saved. At least, not yet.
What is their battle is saving loved ones. After a comical airship commandeering sequence that would make Tex Avery proud, Mako and Bolin head to their uncles house to load up the extended family. Grandma pulls a 'Dante's Peak.' She's not budging. She may live in the projects of Ba Sing Se, and the roof might be on fire, but she's staying put. Mako doesn't take no for an answer, picking the pint-sized woman off the ground and escorting her into the airship. They have to find Korra — and fast.
There's something in the 'Korra' DNA that makes the show susceptible to pacing that allows the audience to be one step ahead, undermining the in-the-moment action. It was the plague that riddled Book 2. In “The Ultimatum,” the race to track down a missing Korra, who we know is safe and sound in the Misty Palms Oasis, is more tolerable. The Mako/Bolin/family dynamic is just that sharp. When Mako and Bolin do catch up with the Avatar, they reveal the inevitable: Zaheer is en route to wiping out the Northern Air Temple, and probably Kai first. Zaheer's only human.
America doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Should the Avatar? With Tenzin and the budding airbenders in Zaheer's crosshairs, Korra considers it. After receiving word of the Red Lotus' plans, Team Avatar relocates to Zaofu in hopes of contacting Tenzin before it's too late. Korra takes even more desperate measures, entering the spirit world to search for a potential disembodied Zaheer. She finds Uncle Iroh, who returns after his brief cameo in Book 2 to do what he does best: advise. In more poetic words, Iroh tells Korra that praying only gets you so far — a rather humanist thread spun by the Buddhist-skewing 'Korra' writing team. Her spiritual connection to past incarnations may be severed, but a leader like Zuko could prove to be a wise confidant if she throws him the right question.
If you thought 'Superman Returns' was too heady, beware of this week's 'Korra,' which dabbles in the Man of Steel's philosophical territory. Zuko wrestles with Korra's quandary: to save the Airbenders and turn herself over to Zaheer, or end his reign at the potential cost of many? Considering what Avatar Aang might do, Zuko offers sage wisdom that could easily be yanked from Marlon Brando's Jor-el dialogue: “The world needs its Avatar.”
By the time Bolin reaches Tenzin on whatever crazy CB radio technology they have in the Avatarverse, it's too late. The Red Lotus is on top of the Northern Air Temple. The ambush begins. The 'Korra' creative team cooks up one of the more layered adrenaline rushes of the series, up there with the airtight Xavier School escape from 'X2.' Set against dark storm clouds and the verdant landscapes of the Air Temple, Zaheer's full-force assault is terrifying (that facial animation of Tenzin and the other fleeing airbenders makes the heart sink), maniacal (Ming-hua holding a girl at ice knife point), and straight up brutal when the good guys start engaging.
Tenzin is a monster. He's completely out-numbered, set up to lose, but he puts up a fight, dancing in and out of elemental attacks and lashing back with his own gusts of air. For the second time this season, Kya comes out of her shell to unleash hell against water-for-arms Ming-hua. Heck's angular direction combined with Studio Mir's craftsmanship gives the fight a front-row-seats feel where you feel melted water splash as Kya crushes ice blades with her bending. The reemergence of Ming-hua from the cliff side, serpentine tentacles in motion, is one of the show's iconic images. And this all before the epic double-team face-off that adds Bumi and Gahzan. The Earth Queen death sets expectations: someone we love might not make it.
This multi-pronged sequence is precise and thorough, even Kai looks like a king. The lil' scamp dares to provoke P'li, taking to the skies so that Jinora and the other airbenders can flee on bisonback. Kai takes one for the team, making it in the end (and sending chills down any 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' fan's spine with his Aang-like “yip yip”) but not without sending Jinora into hysteria. Any problems the plotting had with the audience being too far ahead of the characters are jolted backward in the Airbender Temple scenes. How dare Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko almost kill off our only promising ship.
That second to last scene. Blame 'Game of Thrones' for 'Korra' fandom's continued deathwatch, but the idea of DiMartino and Konietzko killing off one of the core cast members has been buzzing around since Book 1 (sorry, Bolin — we thought you were a goner). Now, the two self-professed tragedy lovers may have finally gone the extra mile to rip our heartstrings out. Tenzin fights the good fight in the final minutes of “The Ultimatum,” holding off the Red Lotus with moves that would make Kid and Play retire. Zaheer knows Tenzin's not going to best them. We know Tenzin's not going to best them. Tenzin knows he's not going to best them. That doesn't mean the airbending master can't channel Liam Neeson in the end. "It's over when I'm not breathing,” a busted up Tenzin grumbles to his foes. And with a beautiful pan into obstructed view, the audience is left to fill in the blank.
Korra will arrive to a devastated Air Nation. She might be prepared for it (although what amount of meditation can prepare for Tenzin's death?). As the two final episodes of the season come into focus, I'm clinging to the immortal words of The Beatles: “It's gonna be alright.”
Learn more about 'The Legend of Korra' from our interview with Janet Varney and David Faustino.