After Korra is captured, Zaheer confronts the Earth Queen. Long live the morally ambiguous antagonists.
Episode 10 of Legend of Korra: Book Three, “Long Live the Queen”, takes the series down a darker path, one which might be part of the reason the show is no longer broadcast on the Nickelodeon channel, but only on their website. Things were already looking grim with the entirety of Team Avatar captured, Mako and Bolin by the anarchist Red Lotus group, Korra and Asami by Earth Kingdom forces. With the Red Lotus in pursuit, that brings them to the capital of the Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se, and directly before the Earth Queen herself.
These two factions have been built up through the course of Book Three, and the confrontation is a turning point within the Avatar universe. It’s dark, especially for a Nickelodeon series, but it goes beyond the obvious actions taken by the antagonists. This entire season, the Red Lotus have seemed questionable, but not entirely evil. They may be Korra’s enemies, but are they wrong? The Red Lotus leader, Zaheer, has called out the ineffective or cruel leadership of the various nations and commended Korra for her past decisions and current wisdom. Ba Sing Se has been the example of a population suffering under poor leadership, both in Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and bringing a group like the Red Lotus to the city of the Earth Queen is bound to have severe consequences.
As for Team Avatar, while they have the majority of the screen time, they are certainly not the stars of the episode. Still, Asami gets to shine in this episode in all the ways that make her an excellent member of the group. Her problem solving skills, technical ability, and physical prowess all shine in this episode, reminding anyone who may have forgotten just why she’s a part of Team Avatar. Bolin also continues to be what we wanted this whole time. Book One Bolin was great, but in these series, you have to develop, and his growth in Book Two left much to be desired. Now, in Book Three, Bolin understands he is a bigger part of a bigger world, but he still maintains a positive connection with most people. It seems at least once an episode he gets more than a few lines straight of fantastic interaction with someone different.
The Legend of Korra is now released digitally, on Fridays at 12pm, est, on Nick.com. The site also includes the previous episodes from Book Three, with the first two seasons on Amazon (Book One is free with prime). If you’ve missed them, make sure to check out the reviews and recaps for previous episodes.
Spoilers through episode ten of Legend of Korra: Book Three “Long Live the Queen” ahead.
After freeing the airbenders conscripted by the Earth Queen, Team Avatar has had a bounty on their heads and are being hunted by Earth Kingdom forces. At the same time, the Korra has been the target of pursuit by Zaheer and his gang, now revealed to be the Red Lotus. In the last episode, Zaheer told Korra that the objective of the Red Lotus was to bring balance to the world by eliminating nations and leaders, but he still hasn’t revealed why they are after the Avatar. By the end of the episode, Korra and Asami had been captured by the Earth Kingdom and Mako and Bolin by Zaheer’s gang.
In “Long Live the Queen”, Asami helps Korra to escape while they are being transported to the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se, but they end up in deeper trouble as a result. Meanwhile, in Ba Sing Se, Zaheer and the Red Lotus offer Mako and Bolin as well as the location of the airbender’s Korra and friends rescued, all in exchange for the Avatar. Zaheer, who has stated his distaste for political leaders, actually plays the political game quite well. He treats the Earth Queen with reverence and offers her logical reasons for not keeping the Avatar, mainly that every other nation would attack the Earth Kingdom for taking her. While Mako and Bolin are locked up, Zaheer patiently awaits the arrival of Korra.
Above the desert, Asami busts out of her prison cell after convincing a guard to place her in a more comfortable position. As I said earlier, Asami kills it in this episode. She breaks the bar she’s chained to from the wall, pulls up a floor panel, and knocks out the guard outside the cell before freeing Korra. When they attempt to take the bridge and Korra accidentally destroys the controls, it’s Asami that guides the restoration of the airship after it crashes. In a surprising moment, a desert monster they had been hoping to avoid utterly destroys the airship just as it starts to function again. Once again, Asami steps up and leads the Earth Kingdom crew and Korra to build a small sandship, and they make their way to Misty Palms Oasis, where they were taken. There, Korra and Asami find Lin, Fire Lord Zuko, and Tonraq, Korra’s father, but their reunion is interrupted by a radio broadcast: rioting and looting has taken over the palace in Ba Sing Se.
When a guard rushes to deliver a message to the Earth Queen, Zaheer follows to eavesdrop (with some sick sneaky airbending). After learning that the Avatar has escaped the Earth Queen’s forces, Zaheer insist on taking Mako and Bolin back, as he told the Red Lotus earlier that he intends to make Korra seek out him and his gang. Here’s where things get dark. After the Red Lotus easily defeats the Dai Li, Zaheer approaches the Earth Queen, who claims he would not dare attack a queen. After stating that he does not believe in queens, Zaheer airbends the air from her lungs, creating a suffocating ball around her head, while he chastises her for taking the freedom from her people. It’s definitely the most graphic moment in both Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender, but the Red Lotus isn’t finished yet.
Zaheer leads P’Li and Ming Hua to the broadcast room, and when the operator refuses to comply, Ming Hua attacks him, but Zaheer stops her, stating that this operator is exactly the kind of person the Red Lotus is trying to help. Zaheer then announces to the city that they are now free and that he has taken down the Earth Queen. The writers of the episode are very careful not to mention death or murder, but like Jet in ATLA, while it’s unclear, we all know what’s up. As he makes his announcement, Ghazan, the lavabender, destroys the walls that have separated the classes of Ba Sing Se for centuries. After releasing all of the prisoners except Mako and Bolin, Zaheer informs the brothers that he will release them, but they must deliver a message to Korra.
The murder of a character on screen on a Nickelodeon show is a big deal, and not a decision the showrunners made lightly. It was graphic, but as we watched the Earth Queen’s eyes bulging as she suffocated, how many of us were at least a little pleased. She was horrid, forcing children and other airbenders to become soldiers, overtaxing her people, encouraging a classist society, and while murder isn’t exactly the best thing ever, when we see a character we dislike die, we cheer.
So what happens when two “villains” encounter each other and one kills another? What if the victorious antagonist is actually not too terrible in his ideals? Zaheer is working to bring balance between all people, he doesn’t have some obscure goal of bringing “balance to the world”. And seeing him defend the operator as a part of the people he is trying to help only encourages empathizing with his objectives. So what happens when all of this goes down on a children’s TV station? I’m not saying kids can’t handle this sort of thing; kids are tough and actually learn from this stuff. But perhaps Legend of Korra wasn’t pushed to online-only just because of its lower ratings this season.
Avatar: The Last Airbender did well with its antagonists not being completely evil. Most cartoons have villains that simply want to control the world, but Zuko was fighting for something more personal. While Fire Lord Ozai did fall into the direct villain role, the rest of the Fire Nation was shown to be victims of conditioning, best shown when Aang ended up in one of their classrooms. The first season of Legend of Korra followed suit, with Amon, at least at first, making a decent argument for his attacks. I even felt bad for Lieutenant, the loyal soldier that felt betrayed by Amon upon learning he was a bender. Zaheer and the Red Lotus have proven to be some of the most understandable and human villains of the Avatar universe, even in committing their criminal acts. Not only am I left wondering how the series will resolve this, but how will viewers resolve empathizing with a group that murders, kidnaps, and whatever else the Red Lotus has planned.