TV Recap: The Legend of Korra, Book 3 Premiere

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This is a review of The Legend of Korra’s first three episodes of Season 3, all of which aired on Friday. The episodes are “A Breath of Fresh Air”, “Rebirth,” and “The Earth Queen.”

Plot: The Harmonic Convergence has altered the global landscape. Not only are spirits now running free throughout the realm, airbenders are reappearing far and wide. With the prospect of restoring the entire Air Nation, Avatar Korra (Janet Varney) sets out with her closest friends to find new recruits. Unfortunately normal citizens aren’t the only one with newfound abilities. A great evil has seized this new world and is aiming to destroy the Avatar.

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Change is easily the vaguest name for a chapter within this shared world of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Before this hotly anticipated Book 3, each chapter boasted clearly defined names. The Last Airbender was broken up into Water, Earth, and Fire which detailed former Avatar Aang’s journey to master the elements. The past two seasons of The Legend of Korra followed a similar formula with Air and Spirit, though the last was more about our protagonist learning how to handle an entire realm of indigenous spiritual creatures. With Change the writers had a completely blank slate. There’s absolutely no inherent structure based on the name outside of things being different. It’s not like Korra has much to learn about being an Avatar anymore either. In many cases, this lack of direction can cause less creative minds to lose focus. Thankfully none of those people work behind this absolutely spectacular cartoon. With three episodes already released, Book 3: Change looks to be the most original and exciting adventure we’ve ever seen.

Within the first five minutes of “A Breath of Fresh Air,” you can see why Change is the perfect name for this season. Absolutely nothing is the same following Korra’s decision to leave the spirit portals open. As you can expect, a lot of people aren’t okay with this. Giant spirit vines have completely consumed Republic City and Korra’s public opinion is at a dismal 8%. She tries to bring that up by destroying the vines but each attempt only makes matters worse. Korra is disheveled, believing she has failed as an Avatar. Losing all connection to the past incarnations doesn’t help either. As per usual, Tenzin (J.K. Simmons) brings Korra’s spirits up by giving her purpose: Airbenders are popping up all around the world and someone needs to bring them together again. This is all Korra needs to grab her friends and embark on a globetrotting adventure to rebuild a culture missing for over 200 years.

This alone is one of the season’s greatest strengths: its scale. The past two seasons have been almost entirely restricted to Republic City and the North/South Water Tribes. Considering how this show is all about how the world has evolved since The Last Airbender, we really haven’t seen most of it first hand. Now that we can, it feels amazing. It opens the door for entirely new conflicts and even bits of generous fan service for longtime viewers. Take the big return of Ba Sing Se in “The Earth Queen” for a great example. The last time we saw that city was when Aang ventured there to meet with the former Earth King. Previously Ba Sing Se’s Lower Ring was where the lower class lived in relative poverty and the Upper Ring was filled with the upper class. Now under the new Earth Queen, the Lower Ring is an overpopulated slum and the Upper Ring is siphoning whatever little money they have away. Plus Queen Hou-Ting (Jayne Taini) holds immense ill will towards the creation of the United Republic on Earth Kingdom Territory. It’s the same kingdom, but now entirely different.

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Korra’s mission to bring back the Air Nation is nothing to shrug off either. Ever since this universe first began way back when, the airbenders were a long deceased tribe. Tenzin himself took returning the airbenders through his family as his life’s goal. Now that random individuals have received bending abilities, including Tenzin’s brother Bumi (Richard Riehle), it gives the show an incredible update. “Rebirth” didn’t exactly give Korra’s crew much hope in their mission, but “The Earth Queen” proved that people in power plan to use the newly enhanced individuals for nefarious means. I don’t know what intentions the Earth Queen has with an army of benders, but it looks like she’s preparing for something big. War against Republic City perhaps?

Speaking of nefarious, you can’t get much worse than newcomer Zaheer (Henry Rollins). As a non-bender, Zaheer was a dangerous criminal kept in captivity by the White Lotus. It turns out he’s one of the many who have gained airbending abilities. His first acts? Violently busting out of prison and recruiting his equally dangerous allies Ghazan (Peter Giles) and Ming-Hua (Grey Griffin). For fans of Game of Thrones, Ghazan basically looks like Khal Drogo in cartoon form, but also has the ability to magmabend. To make up for her missing arms, Ming-Hua uses waterbending to giver herself two tentacles. Needless to say, these three new additions are really cool and deliver an excellent foil to the typical Team Avatar formula. Their fourth comrade is a firebender named P’Li (Kristy Wu) who, according to Fire Lord Zuko, is the most dangerous one. You can bet these four villains will all come together, and I honestly cannot wait to see what epic battles come of it. Oh yeah, Zuko is officially back for the first time and now rides a freaking dragon. Re-introductions do not get any cooler than that.

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Lastly, I really enjoy how this season is giving us a chance to learn more about Mako (David Faustino) and Bolin (P.J. Byrne). These brothers have been integral to Korra’s growth as an Avatar but have received exceptionally little in the way of actual background. We know they used to run with a gang, but what about before? Where did they come from and how did they become professional benders? “Rebirth” reveals that their father grew up in Ba Sing Se, and sure enough, the two reunite with distant family members in “The Earth Queen.” Not only did we learn more about their parents, but it also opened the door for what I believe will be a gripping family reunion. You see, Mako and Bolin’s mother was a firebender, and even though we were introduced to P’Li, we never actually saw her face. My money is on P’Li being Mako and Bolin’s long lost mother and you can bet their meeting will be ridiculously tense should this theory come to pass.

Change can sometimes be a very dangerous concept. It’s something that legitimately frightens people. In more ways than one, change was absolutely needed for The Legend of Korra. It was time to get our heroes out into the world, to see what else has happened to distant communities, and for the airbenders to return. With Book 3: Change, I had no idea what this show had in store for us. Like I said in the beginning, it’s an incredible vague title. Yet if these premiere episodes are any indication, we’re in for one hell of ride. This could very well be one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen.

Rating: 9/10

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Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.