The Battle on Zaofu’s Doorstep   Leave a comment

Well, I just saw the sixth episode of Korra’s fourth season.  It was a fun ride, and made me want to play Adventure! more than any episode yet this season (which is saying something, because all of Book 4 has had a very Adventure! appropriate vibe.)  This episode, The Battle of Zaofu, brings us to the conflict that we know has been coming for quite some time.  Before I get into just what that conflict is (Hint: it’s the title of the episode), I should put up the customary Spoiler warning.  Don’t read beyond the images of Stephanie Brown unless you’re fine with spoilers (or have seen the episode itself, I guess.)  Take it away, Spoiler!

Spoiler

Good ol’ Spoiler, always willing to do her part for reviews on the Internet.  There’s actually a fantastic image of her casually reclining in a tree that I found out there, I’ve gotta figure out who made that one.  Anyway, though, on with the review…

As you’ll remember from the previous episode, but as I neglected to mention at the end of the review of it, Korra had convinced Kuvira to wait, have a truce, and prepare to discuss things (though the truce was definitely under Kuvira’s terms, more on that later.  Also, I blame my sickness last week for neglecting to mention that, and not the awesomeness of Zhu Li’s betrayal.)  Korra went back to let the people of Zaofu know what was happening, but she learned the disheartening news that Su Yin and the twins had already left to take the battle to Kuvira.  This episode begins with Su Yin and her twin sons in full ninja get up, ready to strike.

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Dressed in ninja outfits and sneaking into the enemy camp, they’ve decided that if they can capture Kuvira, the army (largely made up of conscripted soldiers who they believe don’t want to be there), they seek out Kuvira’s chambers in the military camp.  Kuvira uses Toph’s ground-seeing ability to make sure that someone’s in there, and that she’s alone.  They break in, and prepare for action when surprise surprise…

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It’s a trap!  It wasn’t Kuvira at all, it was Zhu Li.  Su Yin recognized Zhu Li, and Zhu Li asked Su not to hurt her just before the walls of the building came down and Kuvira, with a number of troops and soldiers, surrounded them.  Kuvira feigns disappointment at the violation of the truce and quickly takes them captive.

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Meanwhile, back in Zaofu, Kuvira announces (somehow) that she was unfairly attacked while she slept (or while she pretended to sleep while waiting for attackers…) and that she’s willing to let the rest of Zaofu remain alive if the remaining city leadership meets her at dawn to agree to a surrender.  Jinora and Opal have very different opinions on how the current situation should be handled, and while it’s not overtly stated in the story we get to see Korra trying her hand at being balanced and impartial.  Opal wants to rush in, guns blazing, to save the kidnapped victims (is it weird that I forgot that she’s Su Yin’s daughter until, like, the very end of this episode?) while Jinora insists that she keep to the vow of nonviolence that Opal made when she became an Air Nomad.  Korra points out that while the situation is tense, Kuvira was, after all, attacked in her sleep, and as such it’s understandable that she’d be a little less reasonable.

Meanwhile, we get a quick look at Bolin and Varrick on the train.  Varrick wakes up, coming out of a dream that sounds like an Idea Storm from season 2, and then lamenting that Zhu Li is gone.  Varrick is told that he needs to get to work on his experiments, and he says he’ll need an assistant.  After convincing the guards that the hands of any assistant will be in danger, Bolin is nominated to be the assistant (much to Bolin’s chagrin.)

Back to Zaofu, Korra, Opal and Jinora go out to meet with Kuvira.  An understanding cannot be reached, and so Kuvira is challenges Korra to a one on one battle for the fate of Zaofu.  Even though she’s still not back up to 100%, Korra agrees.  When the fighting begins, Korra realizes how much trouble she’s in as the first “round” of their fight doesn’t go well.

I want to pause for a moment and admit something: whenever Kuvira fights, I always think about it as “slap bracelet style” or “slap bracelet fighting.”  That makes it sound sillier than it is, because it’s deadly and borderline frightening to watch, but her ability to command strips of metal to rapidly wrap around her opponents reminds me so much of slap bracelets.  I want to stress that I don’t want to make light of Kuvira’s fighting technique here, but if I slip up in some future review and refer to it that way, that’s why.

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Back on the train, Bolin doesn’t know what “the thing” is when Varrick asks him to “do” it.  Baatar Jr. asks Varrick to explain what the project is and how it works, and Varrick tries to explain what he can.  He says that he’s looking into recreating the original explosion that gave him second thoughts about the project, but in a way so that the explosion can be “directed”.  He also manages a really subtle wink at Bolin as he’s saying this, but I don’t think that Bolin caught it.  Heck, I almost didn’t catch it.  It was done really well.

Back at Zaofu, the fight continues to go poorly.  Earlier, Opal had requested that Korra use her Avatar state, but even when the fight doesn’t go well Korra is refusing to use that option so easily, deciding that it needs to be a last resort.

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Back on the train, Bolin gets a screwdriver for Varrick but says that he can’t believe that Varrick is willing to help these people.  Varrick is asked a few technical questions about the spirit vine machine as Baatar Jr. tries to keep up with how it’ll function, and Varrick reveals that he had the idea for the project when he watched the giant Unalaq monster rampaging through Republic City, and mentions how it was the monster that set him free.

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And then he gives Bolin a really sly look and says “Trust me, kid, I know what I’m doing.”  Bolin still isn’t quite picking up on what Varrick’s working on, or the fact that it’ll help them out.  It’s also kind of amazing that Baatar Jr. isn’t working it out, either, since he’s right there when Varrick says that to Bolin.  I guess not seeing the wink or sly look work in Varrick’s favor here, but still.  I don’t level this as a criticism, mind you (especially if we take Varrick’s tone there for a lowered voice that Baatar Jr. might not have overheard while looking over the equipment) but I do find it funny.

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Soon, Varrick activates his machine, and every single Spirit Vine in the place starts to glow purple.  When asked what a certain noise is, Varrick says it’s the timer, and when pressed for more details he says it’s the timer for the bomb.  He casually announces that the guards have five minutes to leave their portion of the train, while he and Bolin stay behind.  The guards at first try to catch Varrick, but he pulls out a remote.  Baatar Jr. asks why Varrick would have both a timer AND a remote, and Varrick starts explaining the thought process, but quickly gets to the point that it helped him to cover all his bases.

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Back at the one-on-one Battle for Zaofu, Kuvira gets ready to finish the fight, but Korra enters the Avatar State.  Korra gets the upper hand, quickly using the power of all four elements to, let’s be fair here, almost instantaneously slam Kuvira into a losing position.  Just when Korra’s about to drop a rock on Kuvira, Kuvira looks up and appears to be in the Avatar state as well (it might be my imagination, but it almost looked like Kuvira had Korra’s face, which reinforces my thinking that there’s meant to be a similarity to the two characters beyond their names.)  Korra sees that, and it causes her to falter and, ultimately, fade out of the Avatar state, giving Kuvira the opening she needs.  Kuvira quickly reverses their roles and pins Korra to the air with metallic manacles that she’s holding in place.

Kuvira thin drops Korra to the ground and holds her in place with stone before reforming some of her metal so that it’s a series of sharp, cutty edges.  She moves in for what looks incredibly like a killing move, and Opal and Jinora quite reasonably intervene, using air to push Kuvira back.  Kuvira angrily declares that they’ve broken the arrangement, and orders her troops to attack the two airbenders.

Earlier I said that I’d get back to something about Kuvira, and I’d like to do that now.  This moment is very telling about Kuvira’s method of operation.  She has the forces to conquer people, and the military strategy required to do it well.  She has the resources to save or starve any region, and she always deals with people on those terms.  And when she deals with people? She gives them impossible situations.  Basically, her go-to strategy for any situation is to create a new situation where an agreement is made.  When that agreement is breached, she believes she has “the right” to come down on the people who break that agreement like a hammer.  This quality is what makes her a bully, but she’s smart about it.  She can’t abide Zaofu’s freedom because it becomes an area where she has no control, and thus no ability to make deals with it.  It’s also what makes her “unbalanced” if I can pull in the theme of the season.  Finally, it’s what makes her the villain of the season.  Unlike previous seasons, it’s just barely possible that she can be reasoned out of this strategy, and that she will be willing to give people freedom that she can’t control, but I highly doubt it.  We’ll have to see how the final part of the season unfolds.  Anyway, back to the review.

Opal and Jinora create a windstorm to push back the troops.  Jinora tells Opal to keep it up, and that she’s going to call for help.  She enters her meditative spiritual stance and the scene shifts to…

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…a painting session in Zaofu!  Ikki and Meelo are being tutored on their artistic skills by… I forget, is he another of Su Yin’s children, or is he a nephew?  Ikki is praised for letting her raw emotions and expressionism pour out onto the canvas.

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Meelo, meanwhile, is told that his art’s just horrible.  He’s only drawing what’s on the outside, not expressing what’s on the inside.  Which I think is hilarious, as it’s obvious that he’s got a ridiculous amount of artistic skill, as seen in a previous episode.  It’s a good commentary on how teachers of one style of art can’t always appreciate the talent and abilities of other styles of art.  (Also, this picture is yet another indication of Meelo’s future totalitarian rule of all.  Hopefully Korra can figure out how to talk Kuvira out of it so that she’ll have some practice for when Meelo’s megalomaniacal tendencies truly begin to show up.  Kidding, of course… maybe.)

Jinora’s spirit-self arrives then, and requests a quick extraction.  Meelo is ecstatic that he finally gets to see some action, and they rush off.

On the train, the guards finally finish evacuating what is now Varrick’s side of the train.  Varrick tells Bolin to “do the thing”, which Bolin still doesn’t get, and Varrick says something like “Uncouple the train cars!  Come on, kid, that was an easy one!”  (Probably not verbatim, my notes aren’t clear.)  Bolin asks how to turn the bomb off, but Varrick reveals that it can’t be shut off. Varrick makes peace with his impending death, while Bolin finds a hatch in the floor (that seems to be his skill this season, finding hatches in things), grabs Varrick, and they both drop through the hatch as Kuvira’s departing guards watch the massive spirit-energy explosion from a great distance away.

The guards are amazed that Varrick actually blew himself up, realizing just how crazy he was. In the crater, Bolin earth-bends himself and Varrick out of the crater wall and Varrick collapses on the floor, laughing, congratulating Bolin on “doing the thing.” Bolin is exasperated, and comments that he can’t believe how long Zhu Li worked for him.

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Back at the Battle for Zaofu, Meelo and Ikki arrive on a sky bison, and extract Korra just as she’s waking up. They start flying away, but have to hold Opal back from leaping down to try and rescue Su Yin.  The airbenders and Korra retreat on their sky bison, leaving Zaofu to it’s fate at the hands of conquering soldiers, who may well be relieved that they didn’t have to do any actual fighting.

In Zaofu, Kuvira demands that everyone kneel before her in deference, and everyone does… except for Baatar and his artistic son.  Baatar Jr. demands that they kneel in recognition of Kuvira’s rightful rulership, but Baatar just says that he’s very disappointed in Baatar Jr. (even going so far as to just call him Junior).  It’s definitely a moment that stings for Baatar Jr.  They’re taken away by guards.

Later, Kuvira is speaking to Baatar Jr. about the events on the train.  She double checks to make sure that there’s no possibility of survivors (ah, the weakness of villains everywhere, not checking for bodies), and Baatar Jr. says that he thinks he can replicate Varrick’s work, but he’ll need an assistant.  Zhu Li is right there, and Kuvira asks if she’d be willing to help pick up the spirit vine project for the creation of a super weapon, and Zhu Li says that it would be an honor.

Ultimately, a very strong episode.  In some ways, the Varrick and Bolin plot was more of an “A Plot” than Korra’s battle against Kuvira.  The episode carefully balanced itself between the martial arts battle and the train explosion plot, giving both of them a mini-three act structure within the confines of the rest of the episode.  With this episode down, we’re halfway done with the season and preparing for the second half.  Starting next week, Kuvira will be the (mostly) uncontested ruler of her Earth Empire, leaving the advocates of the Earth Kingdom with fewer options.  I’ve got a hunch that next week might shift back to Mako and Prince King Wu, though I might be getting ahead of myself.  Still, a trip to Republic City wouldn’t be a horrible idea, for either the Avatar and the airbenders or the Bolin and Varrick team.

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