Zaheer gives Korra an ultimatum to surrender, or he’ll destroy the Air Nation.
The last episode ended with the Earth Queen dead and Ba Sing Se in total chaos. Everyone is rioting and looting the streets, particularly the lower classes who justify their actions as retribution for what the Queen put them through. Caught in the middle are Mako and Bolin, who Zaheer frees so they can deliver a message to Korra. They rescue their extended family and fly them to safety. When Mako and Bolin reunite with Korra, they tell her to surrender or see the Air Nation destroyed.
As I mentioned in the last recap, Zaheer’s polite and calm demeanor earns him a place as one of the more intriguing antagonists in the Avatarverse. Though he threatens the Airbenders with death, it’s mostly a show. He only means to use them as leverage to lure Korra and promises their safety if they cooperate. Noticeably, it takes Tenzin’s defiance and his attack the Red Lotus for the team to act on Zaheer’s bluff. He probably doesn’t want to kill the Airbenders – these are the foundation for his chief philosophy, after all – but Zaheer doesn’t have a choice but to use force. It’s rare for the villain to lack choices; usually it’s the heroes who get the raw end of the deal from their opponents. The mark of a good villain is when you can flip perspective to see things from his view and realize he doesn’t see himself as “evil.” And arguably, he isn’t. It doesn’t make him incapable of evil things like the Earth Queen’s murder, but he portrays his cause as something in service of the natural order. Zaheer’s entire character has been nothing short of brilliant this whole Book.
Forget what I said about the fight scene in “The Terror Within”, this episode knocks that one out of the park. The entire second half is an action-packed, intensely driven sequence of events. The amount of stamina the Red Lotus packs is incredible. They barely managed to escape back in “The Terror Within”, but held their ground well despite being a quadruple of sitting ducks. Here, the team has all the free range they need. Tenzin and his siblings put up an excellent fight with some of the most inspired choreography presented so far. The episode manages to balance Aang and Katara’s children as skilled combatants who nonetheless can’t keep up because the Red Lotus are simply more brutal in their approach. Tenzin’s brush with Zaheer gets increasingly desperate, ending in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes ever. A tired and bruised Tenzin barely manages to hang on when he delivers a weak Airbend. Zaheer counters with an equally soft blow, but he isn’t wounded or exhausted; he just knows Tenzin doesn’t have the strength to strike back anymore. “The Ultimatum” ends with the Red Lotus piling on him, leaving us with the grim possibility that Tenzin might not make it.
In fact, the second half is so good it’s a shame the first half had to dither around to get to it. There’s an awful lot of padding between the stuff we needed to see. For example, Bolin attempts to pilot one of Ba Sing Se blimps and fails spectacularly, only for Mako to turn out to be better at it thanks to dating Asami. What was the point of that scene other than injecting unnecessary humor in an otherwise serious event? For that matter, Iroh’s reappearance is beyond cheap, merely advising Korra to talk with Zuko because he and Aang were buddies. This bothers me for several reasons. Zuko stated he met Korra when she was young. Korra’s been the Avatar for thirteen years and spent the better part of her life training to be one. Her previous Avatar was Aang. I would think in good conscience that someone, anyone, would have told Korra her previous incarnation were close friends with Zuko. There’s no reason why Zuko himself wouldn’t have told her. I think seeking Zuko’s council should have been a conclusion Korra reached herself instead. I feel like this entire scene was a waste of time. I hesitate to say this, but it feels like the worst kind of fanservice: a case where too much of a good thing is bad. His first appearance works because Korra needed guidance. She was so lost within herself that someone like Iroh was a necessary and appropriate component to give her the boost she truly needed. By reusing him, the poignancy is gone.
“The Ultimatum” took time to pick up because it was busy loading it with a bunch of hodgepodge, but once it does, everything falls into place. It tops “Long Live the Queen’s” cliffhanger because it hits closer to home. Tenzin has been working hard to honor his culture and the possibility of the Air Nation falling again is a dangerous reality right now.