When Nickelodeon announced it would conclude 'Legend of Korra''s televised run in favor of an all-digital release schedule, one reason that didn't come to mind was the possibility that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's show was unfit for Nick standards. 'Legend of Korra' benches weighty material, but it's not mature by the HBO definition. Deaths range from Unavaatu's metaphysical dissipation-by-spirit-bending to the off-screen explosion that killed Amon by implication. But with “Long Live the Queen,” 'Korra' takes a step over the line into darker territory. Or that's how Zaheer puts it, when he suffocates the Earth Queen by airbending the oxygen out of the body. If the Parents Television Council knew how to navigate Nick.com, its members would be flipping out.

Writer Tim Hedrick and director Melchior Zwyer rattle the cage two-thirds of the way into “Long Live the Queen,” one of Book 3's stiffer episodes. With three episodes left in the season, the half hour feels like the deep breath — er, pre-storm quiet...? — before a propellent conclusion. The death blow lights a fuse. When we pick up with Team Avatar, they're spread thin by Zaheer's ambush in “The Stakeout”: Korra and Asami are prisoners of Earth Queen henchman, chained up for delivery from Port Bosco (yes!) back at Ba Sing Se, while Mako and Bolin are equally comprised, captives of the Red Lotus who hope to catch the Avatar at the Earth Kingdom capital. The planned interception never goes down.

What Hedrick scripts instead is a surprising, stagnant alternative. With straps preventing Korra from bending her way out of trouble, it's up to Asami to MacGruber her way out of the airship prison cell. We needed this moment. Sidelined for a chunk of the season save for an epic Pai Sho butt-whooping, Team Avatar's only non-bender is a character brimming with thematic and action potential who complicates whenever she steps up to the plate. In “Long Live the Earth Queen,” Asami reminds us that bending is not a requirement for empowerment. Knowing what fine craftsmanship looks like, Asami easily breaks through the shoddy construction job, burrows into the airship's ventilation, and hits the guard from behind. With Korra free, the female duo trounce their earthbending captors.

Taking cues from “Flight of the Phoenix,” Korra, Asami, and the earthbending goons crash land in the desert only to realize they have no way home. But with only half the episode dedicated to the story, the show doesn't have time to sufficiently emulate Robert Aldrich's 1965 drama, nor can Hedrick easily write himself out of the logic hole of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. The appearance by a Xenomorph-like sand shark starts the ticking clock to a plot spinning its wheels. Rebuilding the airship isn't that interesting. To see it scrapped for a sand-sailer (the superior, sweeter ride) wishes they would have thought about that in the first place. Combined with a surprising lack of atmosphere to the arid wasteland — Where's the sweat? The grunge? The mirages? — makes for a meandering diversion, even when a sand worm worthy of Frank Herbert is one chomp away from ingesting the Avatar.

Let's hear it for Mako. Even when he's tied up, has zero hope of saving the day, is still a super sleuth. From Gahzan's feet, Republic City's emo detective barks at their captors for answers. Gahzan learned media relations from the impenetrable Zaheer: “All you need to know is that the world is about to change… for the better.” The Red Lotus do open up about their excruciating experience in prison, a touch of comedy that doubles as a sympathy card. Gahzan and Ming-Hua were in the Guantanamo Bay of the Avatarverse, individualized torture chambers more mind-shattering than anything Boiling Rock could offer. Stripping Ming-Hua of her waterbending means stripping the terrorist of her arms. If 'Legend of Korra' wants to be a reflection of modern society's structured chaos, that ol' beast we call government, imprisonment and the ramifications of war are part of it. As funny as this scene plays, it's pretty scary. We know why the Red Lotus would strike back. As President Obama might say, "We tortured some folks."

Was there ever a scenario where Zaheer's trip to Ba Sing Se didn't end in assassination? The first plan was to negotiate with the Earth Queen for ownership of Korra. When news of the fallen airship reached his ears, Zaheer switched gears and imploded the government from the inside out. Or did we see Zaheer slip? Screaming "Show proper respect for the crown!" at Mr. Red Lotus is like taunting Marty McFly with “Chicken!” There will be blood. The Earth Queen's death doubles down on the pain. More so than any Disney-ified demise (i.e. people falling to their deaths) and more than Japanese anime's penchant for animated bloodbaths, Studio Mir's detailing of the scene takes the breath out of our lungs. Zaheer's tai chi movements, the Earth Queen's blistering eyes, and her shaking hand as the last breaths of air evaporate above her — the nuance gets under our skin.

If Zaheer had murdered an innocent, he'd be the ultimate evil. Korra could swoop in, bend his butt back to next Tuesday, and the world would cheer. But the Avatar won't face that enemy. As Bolin and Mako learn while imprisoned, and as we see when Gahzan melts down the walls of Ba Sing Se, the people welcome the Red Lotus' revolution. They see the end, not the means. There's another mention of prison that Hedrick wraps inside a joke. Mako and Bolin's prison neighbor says he hasn't seen his family in four years (“The first few months were great, I could finally get some sleep, but now I really miss them”). It's a system out of control. Bolin's a little too busy not metalbending to notice. (If there was ever a Chekov's Gun on the table, it's Bolin ripping through some serious metal before the finale.) By the end of the episode, they're tasked with Zaheer to deliver a message to Korra.

Whatever he has to say is already on her radar. After out-sailing the sand shark, the Avatar and Asami return to the Misty Springs Oasis to find Lin, Tonraq, and Zuko... having a drink? Chillin'? Catchin' up? Ready to spring in to action, at the very least. A radio informs them of Zaheer's attack. It's showdown time — although, for the first time, Korra's not first out the gates. She hesitates. There's worry in her voice. This is trickier than duking it out with a skyscraper-sized Kaiju. When Tonraq asks for the skinny on Red Lotus, Korra comes up short: "I'm afraid the is only the beginning, Dad.”