‘The Legend of Korra’ Book 4 Review: “Enemy at the Gates”
'The Legend of Korra' imparts an important lesson as it barrels towards its ending, leaving younger audience members to grow into the news-digesting, opinion-spouting, inevitably partisan Internet beings they'll grow up to be: World politics are hard. Impossible, maybe. Every situation is a lose-lose. There are no rights and wrongs because one side of the conflict is always right and always wrong. A major leader's decision will inevitably piss people off. The response can never be “the right way.”
Watching Kuvira's Earth Kingdom army camp out on the fringes of Zao Fu put the show on pins and needles. It's like watching 24-hour news cover the imminent eruption of war overseas. One false move from one party involved and the whole things goes kablooie. And though we, the onlookers, know better than to trust the rampaging uniter, she has yet to do anything visibly destructive that warrants violent retaliation. It's a pickle for Korra, who needed a solution yesterday. Close friends expect her to wipe Kuvira's army out with a blast of Avatar State force. That's not Korra. Not anymore. “Fighting was something the old me would do and that only made things worse” she says to Su, who urges Korra to employ force against her ex-protegee. “Let me talk with Kuvira. Maybe I can reason with her.” A noble effort.
Reignited Korra arrives to Zao Fu at a time when no one's looking to talk. That went out the window when Kuvira weaponized Bolin into her sympathetic spokesperson (luckily, he's still a lovable doof: “There doesn’t have to be sides! Let’s stand in a circle!”). The tactic couldn't fool Su, who barked right back in Kuvira's face. Impairing the situation even further are its familiar ties; Kuvira is basically Captain Hook taking Peter's son under his wing in Spielberg's 'Hook.' Maybe she's legitimately in love with Baatar Jr., but wooing him feels like a jab to get back at Su, rubbing success in the Zao Fu leader's face. By the end of the piping hot confrontation, you can almost hear the kettle wailing. But laying down a 24-hour threat bow down or be taken by force is still not cause for action. Not if you're the impartial Avatar, a peacekeeper.
The same way a guy like Hitler can rise to power before a global audience and go unopposed by American forces for years into World War II, Kuvira can orchestrate fascist evil behind-close-doors and remain untouchable. (Yes, there's nuance missing from that comparison, but let's dive deeper in the comments). To build a case against Kuvira, the 'Legend of Korra' writers take a page out of the 'Star Wars' playbook. As predicted in our review of “The Coronation”, Varrick and Zhu Li are building the Avatarverse-equivalent of the Death Star for their fearless leader. Through the “Varri-effect,” the inventing duo can harness a spirit vine's energy, pack it into a battery, and turn the electricity into a devastating laser. The first attempt blows up in their face in “Enemy at the Gates,” a mishap that awakens Varrick's morals. Not a fan of his new path in life, Kuvira Darth Vader-style chokeholds Varrick until he submits to her demands. If only Korra could see this.
Somehow, it gets worse. Realizing that Kuvira's do-or-die approach isn't quite what he bargained for — a brainwashing that feels genuine when coupled with the episode's flashbacks scenes of Kuvira's charismatic, urgent rise to power — Bolin attempts to bail from the Kuvirapiercer. he breaks Varrick and Zhu Li out of their lab-prison, not quite living up to Charles Bronson's legacy, and only gets a few hundred yards before encountering Baatar Jr. and his two mechsuited cronies. I'm not a big fan of what it takes to bring 'Legend of Korra's' technological advancements to life; While the first shot of this episode, airships descending towards Zao Fu as terrifying war music marches in the background, later sequences where mechsuit battalions storm the grassy knolls surrounding Zao Fu are enabled by stilted CG. Bolin, Varrick, and Zhu Li's fight scene vindicates this animation tactic somewhat, the mech-on-mech martial arts looking more like cel shaded animation than the clunky computer graphics from early on. It's action we haven't seen since the less mobile mechs in Book 1 took on Team Avatar, a welcome innovation for the show's setpieces (highlight: Zhu Li saving the day with metalbender-like zip lines and the return of Bolin's lavabending!).
Bataar Jr. catches the trio, who stand trial before Kuvira. It's “re-education camps” for the lot of them — the most Third-Reich-Hitler statement of the Great Uniter's career. Kuvira's fearmongering finally takes its toll on Zhu Li. She throws Varrick under the bus and pledges allegiance to the Earth Kingdom, enabling Kuvira to finish her Zap Zap Spirit Vine Laser without Varrick's help. If Kuvira has to take Zao Fu by force — and it's looking that way — the power that blew the roof of her train's caboose will likely be powered up to Alderaan-obliteration mode by next episode. Run, Skrillex Beifong!
As if to off-set the surrogate daughter uprising faced by Suyin. “Enemy at the Gates” threads in a short story of Asami's reconnection with her father, Hiroshi Sato. Years in prison took a toll on the Sotomobile inventor. He's white-haired and broken inside. “I can never expect you to forgive me. In the life of regret, you’re the one thing I look back on that makes me smile,” he tells his daughter in a prison meeting area. “You are the greatest thing I ever created.” OK, that's a little much Hiroshi. Asami is her own woman! But the father's sap trickles through a hardened exterior. Asami still wants a dad, and while she'll never forgive him, that doesn't change the love she can possess for him. In Professor X and Magneto-like fashion, the father and daughter set aside their differences for a thinking man's exercise: Pai Sho.
At first, this diversion felt a little superfluous amongst the danger bubbling in Zao Fu. But Asami's understanding of Hiroshi could mirror a plausible future for Korra, Su, and Kuvira. Evil can be squashed without sacrificing those who've turned towards it, good people who misstepped can come back across the line if they're allowed. Even if Kuvira goes too far, makes moves she can't take back, followers like Bataar Jr. can find redemption. Remember, Darth Vader killed millions of people, but by the end of “Return of the Jedi,” self-sacrifice allows him to die in his son's hands ad show up at the Ewok party as a ghost.
Or maybe Hiroshi's return will take enter into the big picture in a more literal way. He did invent the first mech-bots on the market, after all. Will it take Asami and her Dad, expert technicians, to trounce Kuvira's technological oppression? I hope so — I love having Korra back in action, but we need Asami by her side.
The episode concludes with a bit of a clunk, like a two-parter that forgot its second half. Not waiting for Korra's peacekeeping mission, Su takes off to end Kuvira on her own. Korra gasps! The end. Destruction is coming. Messy situations are on the horizon. There are no clear answers. With so much on the line, 'Legend of Korra' continues to build towards its most radical, philosophical and thrilling conclusion yet.