The Legend of Korra Book 3 Premiere Review: Back in the Air

By Noel Kirkpatrick

Jun 28, 2014

The Legend of Korra S03E01, S03E02, and S03E03: "A Breath of Fresh Air," "Rebirth," and "The Earth Queen"

I normally do my best to manage my personal expectations of new shows and new seasons, but considering that Legend of Korra's Book 1 was one of my top shows for 2012, Book 2 had me pretty excited. Then Book 2 aired, and I grew less and less excited—and based on responses from you all in comments, I wasn't the only one. Slipshod animation, haphazard narrative, and a lack of follow-through on the big ideas that the show had made gestures toward being interested in left me decidedly disappointed, and I know that some of you, while perhaps not as extremely frustrated as I was, were still pretty miffed.

Going in, my expectations for Book 3: Change were, as you might expect, pretty low after the hot mess that was Book 2. As a result, I'm not entirely sure how my response to the first three episodes has been colored by these lowered expectations. But that's always the challenge with TV shows, isn't it? We come to them with all kinds of expectations and baggage and moods and different ways of approaching television, and sometimes it's difficult to get a bead on what's influencing us that day. 

So, what's the very early prognosis for Book 3 based on these three episodes and the weird soup that is my mentality toward Legend of Korra? "Optimistic" is probably too strong a word, but I at least enjoyed Book 3's opening salvo more than most of Book 2, which is a start.

The immediate thing that I think we can all agree on regarding Book 3 is that it's a real pleasure (and relief) to have Studio Mir back in the animation driver's seat. Studio Pierrot did half of Book 2 and the result just wasn't pretty, especially after we were spoiled by Studio Mir in Book 1. With Studio Mir back, so too are evocative faces (no unmoving expressions while animated mouths make word shapes!), sharper-looking action sequences, and painterly frames. I mean, just look at the Republic City bridge:

The metalbenders have shadows, for Pete's sake, even the one that's way, way up on the left, where, really, you could get away without doing a shadow, and no one would notice or even probably care. The city skyline beyond the bridge has some depth to it as well. That's craftsmanship right there, and it's very good to have that attention to detail back on the screen. 

So far as the narrative is concerned, Book 3 appears to be something of a departure from Books 1 and 2. While there are a couple of big ideas in play—we'll get to them—they're not as big-seeming as Book 1's notions of equality and Book's 2 undercooked approach to spiritualism in an increasingly secular world. So far, Book 3 feels less ambitious than its predecessors, but I'm not bothered by that in a way that I might've been had Book 3 actually followed Book 1. Between the search for new airbenders and Zaheer's gang of super-criminals with an ax to grind, Book 3's vibe feels more straight-up action-adventure-y than overly meditative. It's potentially less ambitious from a thematic perspective, but if Korra wants to tell a supervillain team-up adventure yarn, I'm game for that.

If anything, this trio of episodes ultimately felt like a return to Avatar: The Last Airbender's tone. Most of the episodes took place during the day, TLA's roadshow format seems poised to return, and there's a stronger emphasis on action and humor. This isn't to suggest that Korra didn't have an emphasis on action and humor in Book 1 and Book 2, but there's a lightness to the both the action and humor in Book 3 that was mostly out the window halfway through Book 1 and never really found its footing in Book 2. The fate of the Air Nomads may hang in the balance, but everyone, even Tenzin, seemed pretty laid back about it.

Those are some broad-stroke reactions. Below, you'll find capsule reviews of the three episodes to fill in some detail. 

"A Breath of Fresh Air"

It's only been two weeks since the battle with Vaatu, and Republic City was covered in vines from the spirit realm. President Raiko was unhappy. The press was unhappy. Korra's poll numbers (have I mentioned how much I love that Korra has poll numbers?) were in the basement, and she couldn't figure out how to get rid of the vines. Right off the bat, I appreciate that we're not getting a huge jump in time from the start of Book 3 and the end of Book 2. Some things were still fresh, like Korra's insecurities about being the Avatar, but some things were also sticking, like the smoother relationship between Korra and Tenzin. Nothing's been wiped away or ignored—even Mako's being weird around Korra and Asami!—from the finale, and the show addressed the impacts of its finale head on.

The biggest impact being, of course, that people who had no bending power at all can suddenly airbend, including Bumi. Tenzin saw it as the spirit world providing a correction to the lack of airbending in the physical world following the Fire Nation's genocide of the Air Nomads centuries ago. There's no rhyme or reason for this to have happened (yet), but I don't think one's really necessary, either. It's a good enough of a story idea that simply saying, "The universe is balancing itself out" worked for me, and worked for the world: no one understands the spirit world any longer, especially since Korra's access to her past lives was removed.

The episode also set up Book 3's other presumptive story engine: Zaheer, a criminal so dangerous that he's kept in an isolated mountain cell and is guarded by the White Lotus. Except now he can airbend, and he's looking for vengeance. Zaheer (voiced by Henry Rollins), like Amon and Unalaq before him, seemed like a blend of intelligence (he enjoys ancient Air Nomad poetry!) and strength (he seemed to have already pretty well mastered airbending). Like his predecessors, there's also calmness to the character, so already I'm happy that the show is continuing its tradition of making the villains proper foils for Korra's more aggressive, head-strong attitude.


What do you do when a culture is thrust upon you? Well, if you're any of the folks who have suddenly become airbenders, a strange bald man with an arrow tattoo will come to your home and demand you leave behind your old life and join him in an isolated temple in the mountains. While the montage of Tenzin attempting to woo people to the life of an Air Nomad was funny in and of itself—"Your best friend will be a giant bison!"—it did raise the dilemma of how to bring these new airbenders into the fold. Korra's still interested in this idea of spiritualism in a secular age, and aside from Unalaq, the Avatar universe doesn't get much more spiritual than the Air Nomads. They're monks, after all!

So instead of selling the trappings of the Air Nomads, Bolin came up with the idea of putting on a bit of a show, sort of an Air Nomad tent revival that used spectacle to get the possible converts interested. It's a fun little sequence, and one that reminded me a lot of TLA in its execution and tone. It's successful insofar as they managed to recruit Kai (Skyler Brigmann), an orphan and thief. I'm holding back judgement on Kai since, right now, he's just a stock street-urchin character, but he's at least providing Mako and Bolin with a way to begin thinking about their pasts.

Meanwhile, Zaheer's going around to other White Lotus prisons and freeing his own gang. They included an Earthbender named Ghazan (Peter Giles) who could apparently heat up rocks while bending them and Ming-Hua (Grey DeLisle-Griffin, who voiced Azula in TLA), an armless waterbender. Their oh-so-easy breakouts got the attention of Lord Zuko (!!!) (Bruce Davison), who, like Sozin and Roku, had a dragon to fly around on now. The show is taking this Zaheer thing slowly, which I appreciate. Obviously there's a big showdown coming, but I'm happy to let it develop as the B-plot for just a little bit.

"The Earth Queen"

Ba Sing Se was still terrible, even decades after we last saw it. In fact, it seemed to have gotten worse. The lower ring, in particular, had become a legitimate slum, and even more heavily isolated from the other rings: people needed a ticket and a passport to leave. The Avatar world has used Ba Sing Se to great effect at showcasing class issues, and "The Earth Queen" kept that thread going not only with the city, but the outpost Korra and Asami went to to collect the tax money. It's not just the outer ring that's suffering from the Earth Queen's expensive tastes, but the other areas of the kingdom as well. 

But lest we forget that Ba Sing Se was not just the city of walls but also the city of secrets, there were still shady dealings with the Dai Li happening, but this time at the order of the Earth Queen herself as she's decided to round up all the airbenders (using the Dai Li, of course) for her own personal army, including Kai. Given her attitude about the United Republic of Nations, if the Earth Queen isn't gearing up to reclaim some land or, at the very least, exert more control over Earth Kingdom villages, I'd be surprised. 

A lot of this could feel like a rehash from TLA—lousy leader of the Earth Kingdom, classism, the Dai Li abducting people—and truth be told, it was "The Earth Queen" that locked in my sense of Book 3 returning to a TLA vibe. However, if the show is going to rehash things, I'd rather it rehash from the high points than the low points, and Ba Sing Se is a very high high point.

Mako and Bolin ran into their family, including their father's mother, and it's a big, mostly happy, reunion that shed some light on their father's past. Like Bolin's attachment to Kai and Tenzin's desire for the Air Nomads to become strong again, the meeting of the family emphasized the notion of strength through bonds, particularly familial ones. It's something of a carryover from Book 2 with the struggle between Korra's dad and Unalaq, but one that the show seemed a bit more interested in exploring.

Even Zaheer and his gang, who didn't make an appearance in this episode, could be seen as a unit strengthened by their bond in hating the Avatar. There's one last criminal left, and it's a Combustion Woman named P'Li. She's being held in a secret prison at the Northern Water Tribe city, and Desna and Eska were mostly annoyed no one told them they had a secret prison. Sadly, I imagine that even the combined might of Zuko, Desna, Eska, and Tonraq won't be enough to keep Zaheer from getting his band back together.


– Future Industries must be doing okay if Asami can just loan out an airship. Also: I love that she and Korra are totally cool with each other and it's Mako being all weird and unsure.

– Bolin was pretty much on fire in all three episodes. His Mako impression was great, the grandmother was terrific, and I loved his mustache during the airbending demonstration.

Jon Heder, he of Napoleon Dynamite fame, voiced Ryu, the 22-year-old whose mother couldn't wait for him to move out.

– Exchange of the night: "We built this place secretly with your father to hold a very special prisoner. She's a powerful firebender name P'Li who can create explosions with her mind. Ironically, I hired a guy with a similar ability to kill the Avatar myself once. ...Didn't work." "Don't feel bad. I tried to kill Korra after she ruined my wedding. It happens." I love the shifty eyes that occurred in that scene. Little details mean so much. 

– I am super-interested in knowing how Ming-Hua waterbends. Obviously she's super-powerful.

– A reminder: At least the first six episodes of Book 3 were leaked online. Please do not discuss Episodes 4, 5, or 6 in the comments below, or even make allusions to them if you've already watched them. I'll just delete the offending comments, and I hate deleting comments that aren't spam. 

– Korra's off next week for the 4th of July holiday, but it will resume with Episodes 4 and 5 on Friday, July 11. 

What did you think of Book 3's first three episodes

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  • lawyermouth6 Jul 07, 2014

    A feeling swept over me while watching these episodes. It wasn't bitterness or disappointment like I felt in Season 2, but rather I felt genuine enjoyment for all three of the episodes. It reminded me of how much fun I had watching TLA. It wasn't perfect or anything, but I still found myself looking for the good instead of pinpointing the bad.
    I still am hesitant if this season can maintain this standard, but already it seems like they are going to have trouble balancing the "Change" theme that this book is suppose to draw on. It was very important in the first episode but it seemed completely forgotten by the third. I don't have too much of a problem with that as those deep spiritual themes weighed down the show in season 2 as the writers couldn't follow through with it, and hey a Team Anti-Avatar is just awesome and enough to keep me satisfied.
    Most importantly, I think so far the characters are clicking much better. At first I shouted at my television screen when Asami and Korra appeared together, saying "There is no good reason for you guys to be hanging out!" but I was pleasantly surprised when they aired out all the dirty laundry, were completely cool with it, and had Mako be the awkward one. The show needs to keep Mako and Bolin together because that seems to be the only way to make them interesting and watchable and the big emotional moment with the scarf actually hit me pretty hard in the feelings. Bring on the rest of Season 3!

  • LogicalDeduction Jul 06, 2014

    I seriously didn't know Korra had returned until I saw the three-part premiere this past Friday. And wow, am I hooked already.

    That being said, I already have a theory on this series villains, though I don't know how valid it will prove as the series progress. But oh well, here it goes:

    I think Zaheer and his friends might have killed Aang or be responsible for his death.

    My reasons:

    A) So, Aang died in sixties, correct? Now considering how long people can live in the avatar world -- even when they aren't avatars -- and the fact that Aang was always a fit/healthy guy, it's possible he didn't died of natural causes. And if I recall, his cause of death was never explicitly stated.

    B) Zuko was very concerned about Zaheer's escape. This is a man who isn't easily frazzled. His dad tried to destroy the world and his sister was certifiably insane -- if something rattles Zuko, you know it's a big freakin' deal. And it would explain why their securities so tight.

    C) Zuko was adamant that the current avatar be protected. Meaning he knows Zaheer will be targeting Korra. Which would make sense IF Zaheer has been known to be a threat to avatars in the past - namely, Aang.

    D) Someone in an earlier post mentioned something about how it was weird that these highly dangerous criminals weren't simply executed. I could totally see a fatally wounded Aang on his deathbed asking that his killers not be put to death for his crimes - b/c that's the kind of man he was, true to his ideals 'till the very end.

    Of course, this is all just speculation, and since we don't know what Zaheer's motivations are yet, it will be interesting to watch it develop on the show.

  • beeMikeB Jul 04, 2014

    * Regarding Future Industries, the stock only went down because the CEO and large shareholder was essentially a terrorist. Asami now is CEO and it seems has all her father's shares. Asami is working with the Avatar and is likely considered a hero by the people. Future Industries still is the best car company and its still the best weapons maker.

    In terms of wealth and power, Future Industries is probably something like General Motors, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin all rolled into one company. I forgot if Future Industries makes the ships the Military uses. If so, add General Dynamics to that.

    Despite the Earth Queen's hoarding gold and whatnot, it's possible Asami is much wealthier.

    * These episodes were delightful. The major problem with them is that if those 4 criminals were so dangerous, Why weren't they simply executed? Imagine how much money and resources were put into keeping those four prisoner. People are starving in Ba Sing Se. How much the Order of the White Lotus people the people instead of guarding 4 prisoners.

    * How much is Asami taxed? The Earth Queen's pointed comment about how Aang and Fire Lord Zuko essentially stole Earth Kingdom land to create Republic City was perhaps the most important and best point since The Last Airbender. Team Avatar essentially staged a military coup and put Zuko on the throne. The Fire Nation loved Azula and didn't like Zuko. Team Avatar conquered the Fire Nation and Zuko had difficulty eating Fire Nation troops out of the Earth Kingdom. And Republic City was put on Earth Kingdom land. But Republic City is its own thing. Asami's taxes -- if she get taxed -- would go to Republic City.

    * Republic City is ruled by what increasingly seems like a dictator. The Northern Water tribe was ruled by an evil man and now its ruled by his two evil children. The Earth Kingdom is run as the Earth Queen's personal piggy bank. And there doesn't seem to be any industry or whatnot in the Earth Kingdom. Its worse off than it was before and now is probably poorer than Republic City. How did the Water Tribes get nicer and the Earth Kingdom get worse? And the Fire Nation is ruled by Zuko's daughter. Therefore, most of the world is ruled by incompetent people and it seems the only modern city in the world is ruled by an increasingly power hungry and dictatorial leader.

  • serenachinglow Jul 03, 2014

    – Future Industries must be doing all right if Asami can just loan an airship out. Also: love that she and Korra are totally cool with each other and it's Mako being all weird and unsure.

    Asami is actually doing very great. Yea, I am absolutely turned by the first few episodes where instead of Mako gt together with Asami, at the same time in a dilemma about his feelings with Korra and the story goes over and over again.. he was the one weird out!! Logical, but not always achievable in reality. Korrasami is way better than Makasami or makorra.

    – Bolin's pretty much on fire in all three episodes. His Mako impression is great, the grandmother is terrific, and I loved his mustache during the airbending demonstration.

    Yeap... his character is the only one progressing from Book 1 to Book 3.. From an immature underdog to a seemingly analytical and mature joker.. See what happens when he experienced a thing for Eska.

    Jon Heder, he of Napoleon Dynamite fame, voiced Ryu, the 22-year-old whose mother couldn't wait for him to move out.

    Classic teenage geek.

    – Exchange of the night: "We built this place secretly with your father to hold a very special prisoner. She's a powerful firebender name P'Li who can create explosions with her mind. Ironically, I hired a guy with a similar ability to kill the Avatar myself once. ...Didn't work." "Don't feel bad. I tried to kill Korra after she ruined my wedding. It happens." I love the shifty eyes that occur in that scene. Little details mean so much.

    Honestly, these three new criminals are promising.. they are working as a team with all four bendings.. and the leader is the new airbender. Honestly, Zaheer didn't look grim and evil like Amon and Unalaq (or Fire Lord Ozai).. They were both one man show and making use of their high ranks power to tipped the balance.. These three villains have obsession for power.. While Zaheer, he is actually loyal to his friends. Though it seems too soon for me to say.. He looks generous and his cause might actually be legit... it would be a challenge.

    – I am super-interested in knowing how Ming-Hua waterbends. Obviously she's super-powerful.

    If she can blood bend.. That would have put Noatak to shame... She must have been bending the water with her mind.. How awesome is that? The only bender with disability since Toph.. who was blind and great at what she does... AWESOME!! She reminds me of a combination of Toph, Katara and Azula..

    It is nice to see new airbenders poping out of nowhere and bring bending balance to the world. However, it raises more question than that.. How did they get their skills without a lion turtle? Lion turtles don't even live in the spirit world.. SO, HOW ON EARTH DID THESE PPL GET THEIR AIRBENDING??!!!

    It is nice to see more airbenders again.. and does anyone sees Aang in Kai? Even his voice, so like Aang's yet it was not from Zack Tyler Eisen.. Zack probably don't sound like that anymore.. Anyone, Kai brought some Aang into the team, perky, witty, fast, he just apply all these wrongly that's all.. Welcome to the team Kai..

    And the Earth Queen.. I know her father is the past Earth King, but I would like to think that she is Long Feng's daughter instead. So, despicable..

  • serenachinglow Jul 03, 2014

    I kinda forgt about Zuko.. Still everso serious... but I like the fact that he keeps his beard like Iroh's.. At 86/87, he sure kept his belly intact..

  • Arska Jul 03, 2014

    Like you, I am loving the fact that Asami and Korra are cool with the 'aftermath' of their weird love triangle while Mako is the one unsure and awkward. I'd love to see the writers focus more on Asami and Korra's friendship. It felt like a breath of fresh air to see Asami be the one helping Korra out, instead of another bender.

    So far I'm digging this season.

  • PolarisCarver Jul 01, 2014

    Very excited about what looks like a return to form! But the beginning of book 2 actually set up what looked like interesting story lines at the beginning, and then for me it was the execution, notably the time it spent on the increasingly messy and not all that interesting storyline in Republic City, that was its downfall. There were a lot of good story lines being started in these three episodes, between the effects of the harmonic convergence and the search for air benders, the mysterious league of evil benders, the classism and oppression in ba sing se, the earth Queen gearing up to declare war on the republic etc. I just hope book 3 does a better job at executing them and tying them together.

    Then, everything looks good so far and book 1 is one of my favorite things ever, so let's not be negative and hope for the best.

  • vcivi Jun 30, 2014

    First i am very happy that it is back and totally agree that the expressions and the rest looked as it should be...that said..
    First i cannot wait, till the four villians and the avatar will have their fight, as we all know it will come to that point....very clever to use all elements against her, with four different and very bad people...
    Second, i really like Bumi from the first episode and know he can bend, i love him more..he is sooo funny..
    Tenzin really cracked me up, while he was trying to convince everybody...hahahahaha still laughing when i think about it..
    Loved that the whole group is together again...funny to see Mako, so confused and so official hahahaha nicely done that part..
    Zuko! Wow....he could cool and has a nice dragon now...nice...loved to see the twins again...they were awesome last season...
    Somehow i fear, that they will not long last against the villians...lets hope for the best..
    The Earth Queen, was so annoying....i had a complete different idea about that title....but at least they found another bender Kai...even he is a handfull, but it is nice...
    The show was very cooly done...poor Mako..
    I am glad that she left the city and hopefully we wont see the annoying and negative president...
    Really liking where they going with the story....nice job.

  • headclub Jun 30, 2014

    Just wanted to add, I'm afraid they just brought Zuko back to die heroicly... Hope I'm wrong bout this one..

  • PolarisCarver Jul 01, 2014

    Had exactly the same feeling. Sadly it feels very probable. :(

  • headclub Jun 30, 2014

    First 3 episodes were great!!! Nice mix of action, beautiful animation, & fun storytelling... It's also nice to have clear cut villains Unalaq was too ambiguous.....a team of super-villains is very super hero comic book-y, I DIG!!!

  • pa-tan Jun 30, 2014

    I am so happy even though we are only three episodes on the run I feel hopeful, mostly cause the animation feels so smooth and the storylines don't feel so forced.
    I specially apreciate Bolin's humor and loveeed Zuko's little appearance (I had a major crush when he was in A:TLA)
    Korra is still the headstrong girl and I like it but I hope she can get a little more of common sense in this season.
    And is it me or the spirits are only in Republic city? why is that? shouldn't they be everywhere?

  • PolarisCarver Jul 01, 2014

    Maybe they all crossed over to republic city and haven't started spreading out yet? But yeah I hope the show covers that point and comes back to how the spirits fit in the post-harmonic convergence world at some point.

  • ChrisCompton2 Jun 30, 2014

    Didn't even think about the fact that we don't see any spirits in the rest of the villages, good catch!

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