Remember how Avatar: The Last Airbender used to position the different forms of bending? Firebending came off as the most threatening, especially because most of the villains were firebenders. Earthbending was kind of dangerous, because, well, rocks hurt. But waterbending and airbending always seemed rather harmless. You could blast people with air or soak them with water, maybe even freeze them in some ice, but the lasting damage never seemed all that severe, physically or psychologically.
And then "The Puppetmaster" introduced bloodbending, and suddenly, a whole new use for waterbending came into horrifying relief. It's scary and creepy, and the franchise's animation of the effects of bloodbending has always stressed its contorted nature, which makes it the worst to see. That leaves airbending as the one seemingly innocent and least life-threatening discipline of the bending arts.
Or rather, it was—right up until Zaheer airbended the air right out of the Earth Queen's body and we had the honor of seeing her eyes bulge as her oxygen swirled about her head until she (apparently) died.
As with waterbuilding and bloodbending, it's one of those applications that seems obvious in retrospect—well, of course you could do that!—but it continued to build on Zaheer's adherence to the more radical and less peaceful ideas that have surrounded airbending since the inception of the this franchise. It wasn't just a shocking use of airbending for the sake of a shocking use of airbending. Bending the air out of someone's body isn't something we could imagine Aang, Tenzin, or sweet old Monk Gyatso doing; it spits in the very face of the Air Nomad's respect for all living things, after all.
Of course, within a scene or two of killing the Earth Queen, Zaheer and the rest of the Red Lotus did something that remedied a problem within Ba Sing Se that the show has long emphasized: They tore down the wall dividing two of the classes in Ba Sing Se, bringing a violent end to the class stratification that has marked the city since we first visited it. "The Earth Queen" earlier this season served not only to remind us of the city's intense classism, but to showcase that it had, in fact, gotten worse since the end of the 100 Years' War.
Korra previewed this particular moral and political conundrum last week, as Zaheer explained his distaste for corrupt rulers and Korra retorted that there are better ways to handle such rulers than to kill them. "Yes, of course, what Zaheer did was wrong, and his method was was horrifying," the show says, "but look at what he accomplished by doing it: He broke down the walls of Ba Sing Se, the symbols of its class warfare that divided a city. It's an injustice that even Aang couldn't fix."
So we're left with that age-old question: Does that end justify these means? I don't think Korra is advocating for the assassination of leaders—boy, would that be bold for a kids' show to do!—but it does want its audience to think about the questions of who governs, how they govern, and on whose authority they govern. The collapse of the walls won't suddenly transform Ba Sing Se into Republic City, let alone establish whatever form of government the Red Lotus sees as the best option. What comes after the revolution?
While Zaheer was liberating (if you want to call it that; he certainly would) Ba Sing Se, Korra was playing in the desert! There was very little hope of her storyline being anywhere near as interesting as what was happening in the Impenetrable City, but at least those little hopes were met: Korra hooked up with some allies—OMGZ KORRA AND ZUKO ARE GOING TO BE AWESOME TOGETHER!!!—and the sandshark was, in fact, sort of cool.
If there's one thing that was legitimately cool, however, it was Asami. She hasn't had much of a chance to shine this season, so I was happy that the plans for escaping captivity and then the desert were left to her to devise and largely execute. Korra's done a nice job of remedying the "Bolin is a dolt" perspective that ruled Book 2, so it could stand to correct the similar issue that plagued Asami, too, and this episode was a very good step in that direction.
– Fort Bosco!
– "Bolin, will you stop making friends with the bad guys?" Bolin's real-life fanfiction for Ghazan and Ming Hau was the best. Also: That little exchange went a long way toward helping humanize those two characters a little bit. Hopefully P'Li will get a moment along those lines, too.
– I remain unconvinced as to the narrative reasons why Mako didn't do more to melt the bars holding them. (I understand the dramatic ones: He was tying to convince Bolin he could metalbend.) I guess this also falls under the "he only lightning bends when he's generating electricity for Republic City" rule of limiting Mako's abilities?
What did you think of "Long Live The Queen"?