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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.


"Rebirth"

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.



LEAVES ON THE WIND

– 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


Previously Aired Episode

TONIGHT AT 8PM

Season 2 : Episode 13

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