Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Legend of Korra: Operation: Beifong

Things are certainly heading toward the grand finale now, with the Beifong clan reunited (and reconciled) and Kuvira demonstrating the power of her super-weapon. Once again Korra takes a bit of a backseat, with most of the action focused on Lin, Suyin, Toph, Opal, and other assorted Beifongs.

And I've been consistently wrong about the role certain characters are going to play in this season – I thought for sure we'd seen the last of Toph and Prince Wu, but they keep coming back when I least expect it! And though I like each one, it feels like we're struggling with character overload at this point. Tenzin and Asami have been well and truly side-lined this season, when arguably their relationships with Korra should be front and centre.

Mako has done fairly well for himself, but Bolin and Varrick definitely feel as though they've dominated a lot of these episodes, even to the detriment of Korra and Kuvira. And with only three more episodes to go, there's still a lot of material to wrap up.

Just to get the B-plot out of the way, President Raiko summons the Avatar and her allies together for a quick rundown of what they're all up to. Asami and Varrick have designed flying mecha-suits (can't wait to see them in action) while Korra decides to enlist the help of the spirits in the defence of Republic City. Prince Wu surprises everyone by suggesting they evacuate the city, a move that temporarily impresses Mako until Wu tells him he's only doing it to pick up chicks.  

There's a brief moment of interesting political commentary when both Varrick and Korra refuse to meet Raiko's demand for spirit vine weapons (atom bomb analogy?) which is continued when Korra ventures into the spirit world to ask for help. Turns out the spirits aren't particularly interested in getting involved in a human war, and since Korra has never been much good at the diplomacy part of being the Avatar, she has no luck in persuading them. Where's Jinora when you need her?

It's a frustrating conundrum, especially considering the Not So Different argument the spirits pull on her when comparing her to Kuvira. In broad strokes, sure – but there's a world of difference in each woman's motivation and goals. As of yet, I can't decide whether this is foreshadowing for Korra eventually bringing the spirits around to her side, or a necessary handwave to explain why they won't be participating in the final battle.

Then there's the Beifongs.

To sum up: Lin, Opal and Bolin arrive outside Zaofu where they run into Toph, who has scoped out the area and can inform them that Suyin and her family have been moved. They go together to a re-education facility where Kuvira plans to test her giant weapon on a village, and discover that Suyin and her family are being held suspended in a wooden cage within a giant underground cavern (for the writers it's probably becoming more and more of a challenge to come up with ways to contain benders, what with all the added powers they've been accumulating over the generations, but this at least was effective).

The initial bust-out is so straightforward as to be a little disappointing. Despite some beautiful visuals, there's not a lot of suspense, not even when Baatar has a panic attack and refuses to leave the cage. (Personally I wish it had been one of the sons that froze up, because it's a shame that Suyin is married to a bit of a sap. Was it done just to make the Beifong sisters look good? Because I hate it when that happens).

But then they make up for it with what follows, which is the Beifongs kicking ass. Seriously, I think the Suyin/Kuvira fight is the most incredible action-sequence this show has ever depicted. The movement, the emotions, the speed – it was beautiful. I've watched it five times already, and I'll probably watch it a few more after posting this.

The rest of the family acquit themselves well (in one of the twins' words: "we can't let Opal be the coolest!") though again it comes down to Toph to finish off Kuvira's soldiers with a shock wave that actually diverted around the Beifongs.

She's such a game-changer that the writers have to figure out a way to remove her from the action, pronto – and so they have her declare that she's simply too old to get involved in these affairs. It's a bit of a cheat, but it's also a bittersweet reminder that the remaining members of the original Gaang just aren't as young as they used to be. (Though I still hope we see some sort of get-together between Katara, Toph and Zuko by the end of the series).

So this might really, really be the end of Toph's involvement in The Legend of Korra.

Her characterization has been pitch-perfect, from her body language to her speech patterns. I know there's been a lot of grumbling throughout the fandom as to Aang and Toph's less-than-stellar reputations as parents, but I think it's a surprisingly mature way to handle these characters – and you have to admit that Toph's casual attitude about parenting is exactly what you'd expect from her. She's never been particularly fussed about other people or their feelings (not out of malevolence, but because her priorities revolve around attaining independence from all restraints), whereas Lin is more of a brooder.

And most of her beef with her mother is about her father. A couple of weeks ago I had a bit of a rant against shows that go meta, but I'll admit – this bit was funny. Out of the blue, Bolin asks who Lin's father was. Toph answers him, and it's just some random guy we've never heard of before. It's utterly abrupt and anti-climactic and perfect.

This was also hilarious - they're listening to
mother/daughter fighting across the fire.

Personally I've never much cared who Lin's father was, so I was happy with this result. (And I suppose for those hung up on a Toph/Sokka pairing, there's still room to believe that he's Suyin's father). So with an understanding reached between Toph and her daughters, the show marches on.

But before she left, Toph managed to contribute another of her skills to the episode – her abilities as a lie-detector. As we all suspected, Zhu Li has been faking her loyalty to Kuvira in order to undermine her construction of the spirit vine cannon. Her quiet sabotage has so far gone unnoticed until the time comes to the test the cannon – and she makes the (rather stupid, so I can only assume the writers were unable to come up with anything more sensible) decision to hide the evidence on her own person.

Naturally, Kuvira finds it instantly. This wasn't a very good episode for Kuvira; some of her charisma and nuance has been lost, and she was in full-throttle megalomania mode throughout this story, particularly in having Zhu Li taken to the village that was about to be blown up. I suppose nothing will top the murder/suicide that took place at the end of Book One, but the implications of tying Zhu Li up in a weapons test zone came pretty damn close.

Especially after this happened.

In one of Bolin's best moments, he insists on her rescue – and there's another lovely character beat when Baatar Junior realizes his little sister is about to be killed and desperately tries to halt the countdown.

I'm not sure that the information Zhu Li provides (that Kuvira is going to invade Republic City) quite justifies this little subplot – after all, Republic City is already preparing its defences – but it's provided some great insight into this character, who was largely mute for most of the second season. In fact, if she's not there already, I'm gonna go add her to the Badass Adorable page on TV Tropes.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Opal points out that Kuvira tore down all the domes around Zaofu. Unless I missed something obvious, this has yet to be explained.

That Lin and Toph awkwardly refer to each other as "chief" was a beautifully crafted moment, perhaps one of the most subtle and poignant character beats in the entire show. That's their entire relationship, summed up in a single word.

Appa shout-out!

I always love the spirits, and the design on this one (below) was fascinating. Though I'm not quite sure why they went to the trouble of creating a brand-new spirit to speak for the others. Surely one of the more familiar ones could have been used.

The blare of the machine as it was fired (along with the purple lights) reminded me a lot of Vaatu's energy-beams – which I'm sure wasn't a coincidence.

Only three more episodes to go!

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