The four season long legend came to its conclusion with the airing of The Last Stand and it did so with a resolution both impressive and extremely satisfying. Much has already been written and will be written about the very last minute, but we will address it when we get there, but for now, the episode opened up in media res following the immediate end of the previous episode, The Day of the Colossus. Our heroes, Korra, Bolin, Mako, Lin and Su Beifong, are inside Kuvira’s titan thanks to the sacrifice of Hiroshi Sato, Asami’s father and officially redeemed bad guy from the end of the first book of the show. Korra’s plan is straightforward from this point, Bolin and Mako take out the energy supply, Su and Lin disable the weapon and mech in general, and Korra is going to confront Kuvira.
Beyond the fact that it’s great to see Korra assuming the leadership position without hesitation, similar to her plan to kidnap Baathar, Jr., earlier, the plan also throws up an interesting parallel for those involved. Each pairing resembles a setup of two sides to one coin. The brothers are different, but still brothers. The sisters, again, different in many ways, but still Beifongs. The last pair then is Korra and Kuvira, who have been compared and contrasted numerous times during the last season, and this point is ultimately driven home by the climax of the struggle between the Avatar and the Great Uniter.
Bolin and Mako make a quick trip to the power source with Bolin displaying an evolution in his lava bending, he has mastered the same flying lava weapon that Ghazan lethally displayed in his escape from his prison at the beginning of Book 3. That’s right, Bolin has officially powered up! Unlike Ghazan, he takes a bit longer to take out his opponent while Mako fights his own metal bender. This is the first major fight scene of the episode and even it is filled with creativity, such as when the anonymous metal bender forms a shield from his own uniform’s metal accruements to block the blast of fire from Mako’s fist. Then in one of the few, if first, split screen moments of the show’s history, the frame cleverly slides away from Bolin to show both brothers standing at their respective levers prepared to turn off the spirit vine energy core. The levers fail, but elsewhere, the colossus is on its way to being literally disarmed.
The Beifong sisters quickly split up, Lin to handle a nameless Earth Empire soldier and Suyin to disable the weapon. Suyin destroys the loading belt of spirit energy capsules, dropping them below with an explosive effect, reminiscent of the ethereal explosion that followed Darth Vader’s tossing of the Emperor down the shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi (also inside a monstrous super weapon with a powerful laser). Then together, the sisters direct their focus on crushing the very apparently non-platinum gears and inner-machinations of the colossus. The end result renders the cannon wielding arm useless. Kuvira, ever pragmatic, rips the arm off in disdain and sends it flying, with Su and Lin still inside. In a wonderful setup for later in the episode, the arm crashes into a building and the impact dislodges the cannon, sending it hurling into a forested spirit wild.
Korra emerges into the cockpit in a burst of flame and the fight is on. An exact opposite of the fight between Zaheer and Korra in the open mountain lands in the north, this fight is enclosed, tight and intimate. Kuvira bends the black metal balls out of the controls, which she had been bending to direct the colossus, and immediately uses them as shield and weapon alike. At one point, the shapes assume a more natural shape, and by all appearances seem to be meteorites from Suyin’s collection. It was in the garden where they were on display that we last saw Kuvira at the conclusion of the episode where Zaofu fell, and also the same episode where she had ordered the walls torn down for unknown purposes. Kuvira even played idly with one and now it seems they were repurposed from art to instrumentation. It might also say something of her attachment to Suyin that she takes something obviously close to her adopted mother and has it literally at hand at the moment of her greatest triumph.
The fight between the women is fluid and balanced with each opponent striking and counter-striking, best visualized in the moment when Korra sought to slam Kuvira backward with a blast of air only to be hit by a piece of metal by Kuvira at the exactly same time. One missing facet to the fight was Korra’s failure to enter the Avatar state. Was this a creative choice to keep the fight fair, i.e., more entertaining? We will never know and we really don’t need to know, as we were entertained, even when Korra borrowed a move from the Black Widow, leaping onto Kuvira to physically throw her against the ground. It’s a physicality one doesn’t usually see in bending fights and came as a bit of a surprise, but indicated Korra’s personal stake in this fight. It was personal and she was going to get up front and….well, personal in her effort to stop the Great Uniter. The dueling benders do not have the opportunity to finish the fight before something below decks brings it to an immediate stop.
For lack of any other means to turn off the spirit vine energy, Mako decides to unleash every fire benders ultimate weapon, lightning with a hope to cause the spirit vines to explode. It’s preceded by an emotional moment between the brothers in which Bolin essentially summed up probably what Bryke envisioned for Mako from the beginning, he’s awesome and he’s the kind of guy who will sacrifice himself for the better good. That Mako has been largely absent since Book One, and in this last send off, was now front and center. Bolin evacuates the unconscious metal benders from earlier, again, another example of the thoughtfulness put into the story. Almost any other movie or tv show would have quickly forgotten about the no named bad guys who were a temporary obstacle for our heroes, but not the Legend of Korra.
In a dramatic build up, Mako summons together arcs of lightning and then directs them straight at the spirit vine mass. The reaction is immediate as the vines begin to crackle with power, the force of which whips at Mako’s hair and eventually, blows backward to explode the clothing about his arm, while burning his back to his elbow. The music by Zuckerman emphasizes the heroics of the moment, but not in a cheesy or exploitive manner, simply endearing. For a moment, it seemed that Hiroshi Sato would not be the only hero to die in the conclusion of the show. Death, however, was not in the future for Mako, who collapses, but subsequently is pulled to safety seconds before the spirit vine mass goes critical. Mako’s death, while hard hitting, would have probably overwhelmed the finale and it was a wise choice not to go down that path.
The explosion that follows rips the giant mech apart, dropping the upper half with Kuvira and Korra to the ground. Korra drags Kuvira out from the rubble and assumes, her super weapon stopped, that her opponent will give up on her ambition to seize Republic City. She assumed wrong and receives a block of stone in the side the moment Kuvira gain’s consciousness. Of note were Korra’s terms, “Take your troops and leave.” It wasn’t surrender on unconditional terms or threats to go to jail, it was simply the same terms that she had requested when Baathar, Jr., was held captive. Again, Kuvira rejects the offer and flees into a spirit wild, the same from earlier, where the spirit vine cannon landed earlier. As Korra chases in after her, Kuvira leaps onto the cannon, suspended on a collection of spirit vines, and fires the weapon. (Time out: This has been bugging me since we first saw the cannon. It has rifling. Why would a weapon that does not fire projectiles, i.e., bullets or shells, need rifiling that’s designed to control the spin of a projectile upon exiting the barrel. Does spirit energy have a physicality that requires control via rifling? It doesn’t make sense! Time back in!)
The weapon, designed to be powered by spirit vines, does exactly what everyone expects it to do, and begin drawing on energy from the spirit vines all around it, resulting in Kuvira being unable to turn off the cannon. The Great Uniter falls from the weapon as it violently swings in all directions, it’s devastating ray blasting all surrounding buildings and earth, before turning towards Kuvira. Before she can disappear in a flash of purple laser, Korra leaps in front of her, her eyes glowing in the Avatar State, and uses her newfound skill of bending spirit energy (the only bending she can perform in the Spirit World when not in person), and bends the energy around them. It inflates into a giant black swirling sphere of energy that expands across the city in a salute to the end of Akira and an atomic explosion, causing our other heroes to duck for cover, before suddenly collapsing, pulling back like a vacuum, leaving spirit vine covered ruin in a giant circle around a new spirit portal.
In the aftermath, we are presented a scene that we first viewed in Book Two and in the midst of our introduction to Wan, the first Avatar, two Korras, facing each other, one bathed in red and the other in blue. The colors of red and blue have held a significant position in our Avatar universe with the former representing darkness or chaos and the latter representing light and balance. In the finale of the Last Airbender, our hero Aang was represented with blue light and the villain, Firelord Ozai, was red. In the battle between UnaVaatu and giant spirit Korra, again, red versus blue. Thus, it’s not a shock that the Korra bathed in red blurs and shifts into Kuvira. This is our final and very direct visual comparison of the two, they mirror each other, but one, Kuvira is chaotic or lacking balance in her red stature, and Korra is the opposite in blue. They are two sides of the same coin to beat that analogy to death one last time. Seconds later, they descend out of midair into a flower filled field in the Spirit World, the new spirit portal blazing behind them.
Kuvira’s first reaction is that they have died. The last thing she remembers is Korra stepping in front of the most powerful weapon in the world and the surroundings do nothing to reinforce a belief that they are where they were seconds earlier. Korra quickly corrects her and the conversation that unfolds is an interesting one. For the first time in four seasons, this is not a confrontation between an angry or forceful Korra and her opponent. It’s a quiet discussion in which Korra tells Kuvira that they are much a like, as much as Kuvira does not want to hear it. We learn the motivation for Kuvira was well intentioned, that she could not leave the Earth Kingdom to suffer and be abandoned, like she had been as a child. She would step into Suyin’s shoes and protect it, make it strong, but spurred by the very fact that Suyin had committed the sin that Kuvira’s parents had committed, also abandonment. The mother daughter relationship is a powerful one, as our first introduction to Kuvira was as the equal dance partner with Suyin within a metal lotus unfolding its leaves. Suyin had raised her as a daughter and kept her close, reinforcing the level of betrayal and hurt that Kuvira must have felt when Suyin refused to offer the Earth Kingdom the same salvation that Kuvira had benefited from. Her role model and hero had shaken off the appearance of greatness to expose a woman who preferred to remain within her enclosed world, against all the principles that the enclosed world promised, rather than stop the anarchy and chaos that raged beyond.
Kuvira also admitted one of the things that Korra could not have dealt with in her time in recovery, that what happened did happen because of her absence. A world without the Avatar, the agent of balance and harmony, is a world in chaos. Kuvira did try to step into the role of the Avatar to bring the Kingdom back together, but as Toph pointed out earlier in the episode, she lacked the balance to understand when she had gone too far. In this discussion with Korra, Kuvira was faced with someone who she finally listened to, though coincidentally, because she saw Korra as an unstoppable force in front of her. Kuvira wanted the power to make the Earth Kingdom invulnerable, but when faced with the fact that the Avatar is the supreme power, surrendered. Outside the spirit portal, both Korra’s friends and Kuvira’s troops in the midst of a search for both women, were greeted by the return of spirits. The return of spirits at the end of Book Two indicated the world was once again balanced, and in this instance, their return signaled that balance had again been achieved with Kuvira’s emotional and actual surrender to Korra. Kuvira is led away in handcuffs with an angry Suyin telling her she would answer for all that she had done, but one must wonder what form punishment under Suyin would take, given her propensity for seeing the good in others. Would Kuvira benefit from this same empathy and insight?
And like a good story, it all ends with a wedding officiated by Bolin in a somewhat bombastic style that Varrick most definitely approved. As Mako’s hand is still in a sling, we can presume that Varrick’s and Zhu Li’s engagement was a short one. With a fake backdrop invoking the wintry climes of the Southern Water Tribes and fake snow cast down upon the marrying couple and guests by extras on ladders above, the wedding is both lovely and as properly staged as one would expect by the inventor of movies in the Avatar world. The wonderful lightness of the ceremony, bathed in the golden light of magic hour, shifts to evening on Air Temple island, complete with a band of old familiar faces and dancing by various mismatched couples.
A conversation between Wu and Mako targets in on the prince’s catch phrase, “Wu down!” Our first view of Wu in the aftermath of the events is a man standing straighter, more confident in himself and his destination in life, which does not involve the throne of the Earth Kingdom. After proving himself worthy, he did what most likely hoped, decided that he would turn down the opportunity and push for democracy throughout the kingdom. The Earth Kingdom, which Kuvira deigned an empire, will become a republic.
Next is a conversation between Korra and Mako, our one time love interest to Korra, a relationship that carried its own rocky course for fans, was solidly set into a mortar of friendship with Mako simply telling Korra he would always have her back. From her happy expression at this promise, we cut away to a reflective Avatar gazing at the remnants of Republic City across the bay. It’s a ruined city of broken skyscrapers and shattered buildings surrounding a green expanse of spirit wild from which a brilliant spirit portal sends a shaft of light into the night sky. It’s a striking difference to the city that Korra arrived in years before, but so is the Avatar we now see compared to the young woman who made her own way out of the South Pole to see the world and master air bending.
Tenzin joins her and we watch an apology by Korra for her behavior earlier, when she was still recovering from the poison. It’s a touching moment and apology, one that we all know was unnecessary in the least to Tenzin, for she’s his pseudo-daughter as much as he’s her pseudo-father. But, it’s also one more sign of Korra’s maturity and a further sign that she’s ready to face the world on her own. By her own words, she wants to learn more and do more, adventures we hope are captured in graphic novel form down the world like her predecessor, Aang, and news that delights Tenzin. Tenzin’s own presence is cut short by Asami delivering a worrisome message from Varrick, the location of the air bender flight suits. Tenzin leaves and Korra invites Asami to sit beside her.
It’s intimate. Korra apologizing for being gone so long, an apology we never witnessed shared with any other of her close friends. Likewise, Asami confesses that she could not have handled Korra’s death after her father’s. It’s a specific reference, not general, “..anyone else’s death.” It’s made extremely clear that both women mean a lot to each other. Talks of a vacation to get away for a while soon follow and the Spirit World is the suggested course. We cut to the spirit portal and Asami and Korra, dressed and equipped for an adventure approach the bright yellow and green entry way to the other world. Hands clasp and the women turn to face each other before the camera zooms upward to reveal the equivalent of, “The End,” in Chinese kanji and it’s over. This moment, these past moments, may overshadow and define the Legend of Korra for its place in American animation history for the controversy it will engender between fans who wished for a different romance or for those who argue over the subject matter, but it seemed natural and developed, from the letter writing at the beginning of the season, to the blush over a compliment. It was earned and the final brave decision by the show’s creators to end their beloved show in an exclamation point to all the mature and complex issues they never feared to confront or address.
Thank you for the best, Bryke.