George R.R. Martin set out to make 'Game of Thrones' a demythologized expression of the battles between good and evil. He admired 'Lord of the Rings,' the Anglo-fantasy staple, but he saw it as “medieval philosophy.” In J.R.R. Tolkien's world, if a good king took the throne, the land would prosper. In 'Game of Thrones,' when a hero vanquishes evil to seize control, there's either someone ready to stab them in the back or his/her personal demons would come forward. Peace, boxed up pretty, could never be obtained.

'Legend of Korra' creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino harbor the same ambition for their 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' follow-up. Aang's LOTR-like quest dabbled in morals — in the end, he chooses to cripple the Fire Lord when the world begged him to slay the Sauron stand-in — but Korra challenged audiences from minute one. Book 1's big bad, Amon, led a group of “Equalists” hoping to cleanse the world of bending, a magical upper-hand that left the sociopolitical environment off-balance. Book 2 began with a religious war echoing China's Taiping Rebellion and ended with a battle between the Avatar version of Heaven and Hell. The spiritual conflict provoked Korra to slash through the mortal and metaphysical realms, allowing souls of the Earth to walk free among the physical plane. Korra didn't know how it would play out — but a decision had to be made. She went with her gut, for better or worse.

The title of Book 3's premiere, “A Breath of Fresh Air,” is quite literal. Book 2 was dense and hasty, Konietzko and DiMartino pulling off a complex arc with only 13 half hour episodes. There was too much to chew. The response is a season opener that takes time to survey the scene and basks in the unbroken camaraderie of old friends. Unlike most animated shows, Avatar and Legend of Korra build drama on the backs of relationships — not antics or one-off missions. And while there are big picture terrors and allegorical concepts lingering in the wings of “A Breath of Fresh Air,” the episode takes an essential beat to cement itself in the perspective of its protagonist and her closest confidants: Team Avatar.

A few weeks after Korra's battle with Unavaatu, Republic City is covered in vines — a result of the spirit world's explosion into the physical reality. While the adorable, Miyazaki-esque spirits parading about town aren't an issue, the overgrowth is sending President Raiko up a tree (er, vine?). In an era of politics where accomplishments are few and far between and anything that survive Congressional rigmarole winds up the target of partisan weaponry, one can't help but see a little Obama in Korra. By choosing to merge the worlds, the Avatar initiated inevitable “change” (the subtitle for this season and a former campaign slogan for Obama — coincidence?). Raiko isn't a fan of the decision. Turns out, since the vines entangled Republic City, he's been a target of critics. Korra too. "You don't have my poll numbers,” Korra tells Asami. “Eight percent! I should be able to fix this, I'm the Avatar!" When you're the leader, no matter what you do, it's wrong.

The spiritual expulsion takes a toll on the humans too. While futzing around with his spirit bunny Bum-Ju, Bumi, the nonbending son of Aang, discoverers he can suddenly manipulate the air. Soon, Mako and Lin Beifong discover another fresh-faced airbender: a local Republic City resident with little control over his newfound power. Other the Tenzin, his family, and Korra, airbenders were an extinct race for 170 years. So much for post-Civil War Reconstruction vacation — with the possibility of airbenders springing up all across the globe, Tenzin and Korra find themselves tasked with easing a vanished force back into fragile dynamic. So much for post-Civil War Reconstruction!

Korra tries to sustain a life in politics. She's adamant about clearing Republic City of the vines, despite Jinora's insistence that man and plant are both fortified with spirit world roots (her brush with the spirit world in Book 2 having a lasting effect on her philosophy). After speaking to an oversized hedgehog — pure bliss for fans of Avatar's animal hybrid oddities and fans of last year's Wan-centric twofer — it dawns on Korra that there might be spiritually sensitive weeding techniques. If anything good came from Unalaq's Harmonic Convergence terrorism plot, it's Korra learning to spiritbend. In an elegant sequence, Korra conjures a light to whisk a set of vines away. It appears to work — until the vines bounce back more aggressively than ever, capsizing a nearby skyscraper.

"It seems like I should be wiser," Korra. If Book 2 was like college, Korra rebellious, eager, stubborn, and moody as she flirted with the real world, then Book 3 is that next step into reality, a time when post-grads try to use their knowledge and ambition to do something positive in the world. It's daunting. But Book 3 Korra is tempered and fans who went ballistic at her mismanagement last season should find solace in her rationale and meditative hopefulness. Her talk with Tenzin isn't a Lord of the Rings faux-inspirational speech. It's the chat we have late at night on the phone with our parents when we reel back to naïve days. A wonderfully written, wonderfully portrayed beat on all fronts.

There's talk that Republicans might impeach Obama after the midterm elections. Other pundits speculate it might be too late for that — he'll be done soon and go off to assist the world in non-Presidential ways. That's almost what we see at the tail end of this episode, President Raiko exiling Korra from Republic City as she basically takes off on her own accord. Korra cares about her metropolis, but it's only a speck on the map. She has grander plans to execute — and people who care about her at home. There may not be romance in store for Korra this season, but the gal pal friendship between her and Asami, blossoming in the smoldering remains of Mako, is energizing. No hard feelings against Mako — he's timid, embarrassed, silly, and who wouldn't be? But strong friendships are as important as romantic love. If this season focuses on Asami and Korra kicking butt, we all win.

“A Breath of Fresh Air” ends on a spine-tingling note: Not everyone with airbending powers is a fun-loving oaf. Locked away in the high reaches of a White Lotus prison is Zaheer, voiced by grizzly Henry Rollins. Like Bumi, Zaheer was bestowed with airbending powers post-Harmonic Convergence. And he's been training. In a scene mimicking the best of X-Men/Magneto escapes (with the added bonus of jump kicking, acrobatic, gloriously animated action accompaniment), Zaheer gales his way out of prison and out to...? We don't know, but as the series Big Bad, we know it'll be a force to be reckoned with. Before breaking out, Zaheer tells the story of an ancient airbender guru who unlocked the secret of weightlessness and became “untethered from the earth.” Foreshadowing? However his confrontation with Korra goes down, rest assured it will happen in the Konietzko and DiMartino mold: Definitively, but not without its repercussions.