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Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Legend of Korra: The Enemy Within

Could this be the best episode yet of season three of The Legend of Korra? I really think it is!

It’s also a beautiful example of how to turn twenty minutes of screen-time into an elegant whole. The structure, the pacing, the foreshadowing, the climactic finish – it was all beautifully done. And since this is the last episode we’ll get until August (WTF Nickelodeon?) it's lucky that it deals with two fairly significant plot-points.

Whereas the previous two episodes were focused more on characters and their relationships with each other, The Enemy Within finally introduces Korra to her antagonists, but not in the way you might expect.

This is the last episode we’ll get for a while, so thankfully it gets two fairly significant things done: it introduces Korra to her antagonists, and does so in a way that holds off any major confrontation until later down the track. As it turns out, Korra is unconscious for the entirety of their attempted kidnapping, and is still none the wiser as to their motivations by the end of the episode.

It’s a smart way to see our convicts in action (is there a group name for them yet?) but in such a way that it whets our appetite for a while longer.

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But to start with, there’s a brief opening sequence in which we see Korra and Bolin practice their newfound metal-bending abilities, and farewell Opal as she heads for the Northern Air Temple. It serves three purposes, firstly to introduce Bolin’s Chekhov Skill of throwing pebbles with pin-point accuracy, secondly to remind us of Aiwei’s truth-telling abilities, and thirdly to lull us into a false sense of security. By the time the convicts turn up, we’ve had nothing but pleasantries. Now shit gets real.

The convicts have somehow broken into Zaofu (yeah, I’ve been calling it Laofu – whoops) and for reasons that are still as-yet unknown, paralyse Korra with Shirshu-spit darts (great continuity!) to better make off with her limp body. Thank the spirits for Evil Detecting Animals, as between Naga and Pabu’s attempts at a warning, Bolin and Mako are roused out of bed and wake the rest of the compound.

Er...Bolin?

What follows is a beautifully choreographed fight in which both sides are evenly matched. Though outnumbered, the convicts are wide-awake and fully-hyped, whereas Korra’s team is running around in their pyjamas and still trying to make sense of the situation. A stalemate arises when the convicts manage to position themselves on an island surrounded by the effects of Ghazan’s lava-bending. Though P’Li’s combustion blasts keep everyone at bay, Zaheer is separated from the rest of the group, and Lin and Suyin come up with the idea to lower themselves down on cables from the retractable ceiling.

It’s a ploy that works, mainly thanks to Bolin’s aiming skills (which take out P’Li’s combustion abilities) and Su’s dexterity when it comes to negotiating the cables (those dance lessons really paid off!) So the convicts are forced to retreat, pulling a classic Batman-esque disappearance when Zaheer creates a dust cover that all four manage to vanish into.

This disappearance, as it happens, is a completely justifiable narrative “cheat”. I’m sure there will be a few people complaining that there was no possible way they could have escaped, but the contrivance works in the context of the story. Remember: if it serves the plot, you don’t always have to adhere to the rules of realism, and in this case the fight was over and the convicts had served their purpose. It doesn’t matter how they got away, only that they did.

More importantly; even though they've been defeated, they in no way feel like less of a threat.

Which lets the rest of the episode deal with the investigation as to how they got into the closed compound. With Aiwei as the questioner, each guard is brought before them, though to no avail. Sisterly tensions arise once more when Lin suggests that Suyin be questioned, but she defiantly submits to Aiwei’s procedure and comes out clean.

But it’s the very next guard that Aiwei finds suspicious: an eighteen year old that protests his innocence, despite a search of his apartment revealing evidence that he was complicit in the attack. But things don’t add up for Mako – the suspect is too young, the evidence too neat, and Aiwei too insistent that they wait for a while before questioning him.

Poor Mako, I know he’s been given a lot of flak in this fandom, but whether you’re a fan of him or not it makes perfect sense that he’s the one to question what’s going on here. Not only is he a cop (or trainee, or whatever he technically is) but he’s also been on the receiving end of a Frame-Up, courtesy of Varrick. And if you come to the conclusion that the young guard is innocent, then there’s only one person that suspicion can fall to...

The gang investigate Aiwei’s house, and again I was impressed by how well the situation was set up. Bolin shifts a vase on the bookshelf and Mako notices scuff-marks on the floor, indicating that it can slide back and forth. When Aiwei reappears the gang struggle to communicate in only half-truths, and very wisely do not touch a drop of the tea he pours for them. But Aiwei shifting the vase to its correct position on the shelf is a beautifully subtle indicator to the audience that he’s realized they’ve found his escape route, and a thick metal wall is raised while he makes his escape.

Turns out the man is Crazy Prepared, for once Korra finally breaks through the metal there’s a bomb waiting for them at the other end of the escape tunnel.  

It’s a neat little detective story, and I’ll admit it kept me guessing for a few seconds. Aiwei is well-established enough as a character that you feel the sting when he turns out to be the traitor, but there’s enough emphasis on Suyin insisting on being questioned that doubt is cast on her for a few seconds (initially I thought that maybe Aiwei would realize Su was lying about something, only to cover for her). Obviously the sisters haven’t quite patched things up between them, and another rift looks to be on its way when Lin finds out that Su helped Korra escape Zaofu in the middle of the night to hunt down Aiwei.

As far as cliff hangers go, it’s a pretty cruel enticing way to leave us hanging.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Hopefully we’ll see Opal again soon at the Northern Air Temple. I can’t say that I’m totally enamoured with her, but she’s a pleasant enough character who will probably fit in well with her fellow air-benders.

Asami is back, but her lack of bending abilities unfortunately means that she doesn’t get a lot to do. Still, I’m pretty sure it was her driving the getaway jeep at the end there (though it was blurry), and I’m still desperately holding out for this scene:

Varrick continues to be gold! His exchange with Mako over how to frame someone – which is precisely what he did to Mako last season – was hilarious.

I can’t say why exactly, but I love that P’Li is taller than the rest of her cohorts, including her boyfriend.

I love how the boys were so quickly on their feet and out the door once Bolin shouted the alarm. Mako didn’t even bother to look out the window to confirm Korra’s kidnapping.

A gorgeous little detail was the small mole on the face of the female guard. It’s things like this that really make the show feel like a fully realized-world, right down to the Bit Characters.

That Aiwei insists on waiting before interrogating the young guard further is quite chilling in hindsight. You can’t help but suspect that a “nasty accident” had been planned to get him out of the way before he could prove his innocence.

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 *shiver*

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