The relief at Korra’s safe return to Air Temple Island is cut short when Korra’s tale of her kidnapping makes everyone concerned that the Equalists are about to make a major move. There is further stress between Mako and Asami, as Asami finally confronts Mako about his feelings for Korra and gets denial and avoidance in return. Tenzin asks Lin to watch over his family before he leaves to see the council, but the Equalists have already begun their operations, seizing the council members and sabotaging key resources of the metalbending police. Overhead, Hiroshi Sato and Amon oversee the attacks occurring all over Republic City, while Tenzin narrowly escapes the Equalist capture team aiming for him. Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami return to the mainland and mount up, with Korra getting her first hint that something is amiss between Mako and Asami. Tenzin arrives at the overwhelmed police headquarters and manages to get a wire to the general of the United Forces before the Equalists attack police headquarters itself. While Tenzin enables several officers to escape the building, many of them are captured right outside by Equalist mecha-tanks. Tenzin himself is saved only by the timely arrival of Korra and her friends, who defeat the mecha-tanks in a pitched battle in front of the council hall. Their victory is short-lived, as they see Equalist Airships descending on Air Temple Island. Pema goes into labor as White Lotus guards engage the first wave of Equalist attackers. Lin Beifong faces off against a second group led by the Equalist lieutenant, and her defeat is averted only with the help of Tenzin’s kids. Tenzin, Korra, and the rest of Team Avatar return to find the island temporarily pacified and Pema safe with a newborn baby boy. However, Tenzin and his family must flee from Equalist reinforcements, with Lin Beifong insisting on accompanying them to protect the last Airbenders in the world. Following Tenzin’s instructions, Korra and her friends leave the island to hide until reinforcements arrive. Lin Beifong is captured in an act of suicidal self-sacrifice to buy time for Tenzin to escape, and her final act of defiance is refusing Amon’s offer to exchange the Avatar’s whereabouts to keep her bending. On the open ocean, Tenzin’s wire is received by the leader of the United Forces: General Iroh, presumably Firelord Zuko’s grandson. He sets course immediately for Republic City with his fleet in tow, setting up for a major conflagration for the finale.
Way back in episode 1 of The Legend of Korra, Amon said that the Equalists would have to accelerate their plans once the Avatar arrived in Republic City, but after the events of “Turning the Tides,” I think the real catalyst for the Equalists’ actions was Tarrlok. Tarrlok’s attempt to become the hero of Republic City by leading the anti-Equalist task force was a classic counter-insurgency mistake of thinking the problem can be addressed in purely punitive terms. In his book Counterinsurgency¬†, David Kilcullen summarizes counter-insurgency as “a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds, and acquiescence of the population.” While the use of force is necessary to achieve that goal, it is absolutely not sufficient by itself, and the misuse of force can be actively counter-productive. By focusing so purely on his task force, Tarrlok and the council (other than Tenzin) utterly failed to address the social conditions that attracted so many to the Equalists in the first place.
Tarrlok also inadvertently aided the Equalists in a number of ways by repeatedly countering Tenzin’s attempts at outreach to the non-bending community, and then by setting up Chief Beifong for a very public failure in episode 6. Tarrlok probably only saw an opportunity to replace an independent thinker with someone he could control more easily, but his power grab led to the successful attack on the Pro-Bending Arena. Tarrlok’s machinations may have succeeded in bringing down Chief Beifong eventually, but they also undermined faith in the government, which played into Equalist hands. That attack and the loss of metalbenders in the subsequent episode also left Republic City’s police force well under-strength, stretching them past the breaking point in this episode when the Equalists launched their attack. Tarrlok’s abuse of power in “When Extremes Meet” also benefited the Equalists more than himself, as his policies triggered widespread discontent among non-benders and his over-reaction to their gathering probably fanned a lot of that discontent into open antagonism.
No matter what Amon’s plans were, I think he was forced into action after Tarrlok kidnapped Korra, since that action led to Tenzin and Lin Beifong finding the Equalists’ underground network. Even more than uncovering Hiroshi Sato, that discovery threatened the lifeblood of the entire organization, making the only alternatives to fade out of sight immediately or to launch a major offensive. Amon opted for the latter, and in this light, I think the reason why he neutralized and kidnapped Tarrlok was simply to remove him from the playing field. As a notable public figure and leader of the task force, Tarrlok would have been the individual most able and likely to rally government/bender forces to a successful counter-attack against the Equalists. Removing him from the field entirely was comparable to al Qaeda’s assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan immediately before the 9/11 attacks, removing a potential ally and leader as a first step in a much larger plan. After that, the attack eliminated leadership and then relied on the ability of chaos to build on itself.
So, in short, this is all Tarrlok’s fault. I still wonder if he is connected to the Equalists more directly, or if open warfare between benders and non-benders was his goal all along because he was so effective at creating that state.
Of course, all of the above pretty much ignores Korra’s role in the larger Equalist plot, but that’s not too surprising in hindsight. Amon openly told her that she was going to be ignored until the endgame, and Korra has shown little patience or ability to see the big picture. However, this sets up some resolution to this story arc and significant character development for Korra in the finale. I’m going to guess that Korra’s ultimate victory won’t be military or martial, but spiritual. The “Old vs. New” theme I noticed back in episode 2 is still very much in play in the Equalist vs. Benders conflict, and I think the solution will need to strike a similar balance. This is also fitting in counter-insurgency terms, because the flip side of eliminating extremists is reconciling with those willing to negotiate, even if it means you have to grit your teeth and offer amnesty to people who had been gunning for you days or even hours before (there are numerous stories of exactly that during 2006’s Anbar Awakening in Iraq). I think a part of the finale will be Korra reaching out to someone on the Equalist side, but I’m honestly not sure who it will be. It’s more likely that Hiroshi Sato will come back to the side of the angels for the sake of his daughter, but it might be even more interesting if he turned out to be the hardliner and Amon was the one willing to negotiate. Korra can offer Amon genuine political power within the system, while she has little to no incentive to offer Hiroshi Sato other than his daughter. Either way, such a solution would be fitting with the non-lethal alternative that Aang came up with back in the original series.
There’s a lot to like in this episode for those playing the “Being an Obsessive Animation Fan for Fun and Profit” game at home. When Korra is recounting her experience at mealtime, you can catch Bolin stealing food off Korra’s plate — a cute little character moment in keeping with a few prior throwaway bits about his bottomless stomach. Also, watch Pema’s eyes tracking quickly between Mako and Asami in the kitchen before she beats a hasty exit with a hilarious expression on her face. You can see a little electric charge running through Tenzin’s beard that is his early warning of the Equalist attack. Finally, Lin Beifong’s story turns to tragedy through at least a half-dozen wordless looks that reveal volumes about her inner thoughts. The thing about these little character moments is that they’re the kind of thing you expect to see in feature films, but not TV animation. Like the multiple costumes each character has, these little throwaway moments take attention to detail to do, and attention to detail costs time and money that most TV cartoons usually don’t have.
The action scenes are, as always, spectacular, though I could have definitely lived without the Meelo fartbending. It’s also nice to hear the return of Dante Basco to the cast as General Iroh.
My last comment for now is about the Mako/Asami relationship being on the skids. Ladies, sometimes guys play dumb as an act of denial to avoid a truth we’d rather not face, but sometimes it’s because we really are that dumb. I’m pretty sure Mako’s not that dumb, but either way I find myself rooting for the couple to break up not because I want Mako to be with Korra, but because I don’t think he deserves to be with either one.