When the lead-in episodes end with a supreme god of evil breaking free from incarceration after 10,000 years of plotting universal chaos and destruction, a show's finale has few options beyond “go big or go home.” So that's what The Legend of Korra did. “Darkness Falls”/“Light in the Dark” cranks up the action from minute one and doesn't stop turning the dial until the hour's final beats. In the end, the finale forfeits a fulfilling conclusion to Korra's spiritual journey in favor of stretching the elasticity of its world's rules. Instead of offering up answers to every question mark, the two-parter opted for Kaiju monsters. That's not a complaint.
“Darkness Falls" thrusts us right into the battle, Korra tossing Unalaq through the spirit portal for Mako and Bolin to ward off while she goes at it with Vaatu. Consistent with the past few weeks of Studio Mir–animated episodes, the action is an insane barrage of elements and angles. The show's directors never cease to find innovative ways to clash bending skills and it's all made tangible by an organic soundscape. The intercut sequences are a Foley artist's dream come true as boulders burst through the ground, fire rips like a lion out of Mako's hands, and Unalaq lets ice blades loose like ninja stars. At one point, Korra swooshes through the air, propelling herself forward with jets of fire bending out of her feet. It's her Iron Man moment, though more visceral than anything in the CG-laden Marvel movies.
As to avoid peaking too early, “Darkness Falls" balances the spirit rumbling with Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi's search for Jinora. The familial trio has been a highlight of the season, so to give them one more bickering/hugging-it-out moment is earned and welcome. They don't have much luck wandering the Spirit World looking for clues, but Tenzin's obsessive knowledge on the alternate dimension pays off when they run into Uncle Iroh's and his signature brand of mysterious advice. "If you travel too deep into the spirit world, you may end up in a place where only the lost can find you,” Iroh riddles to the group. Not quite "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" but faithful to the character's Alice in Wonderland-esque reintroduction.
Bookish Tenzin knows exactly where to find Jinora: The Fog of Lost Souls, a spirit prison for humans. Creators Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko often discuss in interviews how they come up with an abundance of ideas in the show and wind up only flirting with them when they finally appear because of time restrictions. The Fog of Lost Souls seems to fit that category — impeccably conceived and criminally underused. When Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi land themselves in the misty slammer, they not only find Jinora but a handful of other victims — including Avatar: The Last Airbender baddie Admiral Zhao (a cameo that brings Jason Isaacs back to the show for three lines). With the line between spirit and physical worlds abolished by the end of the finale, perhaps we'll return to The Fog of Lost Souls down the road ...
For Tenzin, the spiritual/hallucinogenic properties of the fog provoke his greatest revelation. Finally, the stubborn leader confronts his daddy issues head on, similar to how Yoda's vision cave works in Empire Strikes Back. "I am the son of Avatar Aaang. I am the hope for future airbenders,” he mumbles to the ghost of his father. Aang refutes the statement, telling Tenzin he's more than a product of the past. It's a lesson he and Korra both learn by the finale's conclusion.
Early on in the season, Book 2 was unfolding as a full-blown religious war (with hints of the Taiping Rebellion). While themes rooted in Christian history tapered off as the story progressed, the themes circled back, with Unalaq and Vaatu playing out an Antichrist/Armageddon scenario. When Unalaq breaks past Team Avatar to merge with the evil kite demon, they become the “Dark Avatar,” a harbinger of the end of days. In the war of good and evil, UnaVaatu (yes, that's what he's named in the end credits) trumps Korra, literally ripping the Avatar essence out of her body and slashing the spirit Raava to pieces. Hell literally breaks loose; with Korra incapacitated, a 60-stroy UnaVaatu strolls out of the Spirit World and towards Republic City, the Biblical “end of days” as enacted by King Kong.
The final confrontation between Korra and UnaVaatu has already elicited cries of “deus ex machina!” but when you're dealing with gods, spirits, and cosmic forces of the unknown, is that really off the table? As Unavaatu plods towards the city shore, slapping away airships with his glowing tentacles, a powerless Korra finds a new energy within herself. Apparently, Vaatu's prison is the Tree of Time, the center of the entire universe that packs every memory ever created. A touching confidence-booster from Tenzin helps Korra summon an astral projection of her soul, which she can grow into a worthy titan-sized opponent for UnaVaatu. The animators relish in this sequence, first calling back to Avatar: The Last Airbender's radical chakra-cracking sequences then sending a big, blue Korra down a rainbow bridge to fight the rampaging titan (worth noting: Norse mythology has both a cosmological tree, Yggdrasil, and a multi-color gateway, Bifröst).
It's a challenge to give animated characters weight, let alone the scale of skyscraper-sized Kaiju fighters, but the finale pulls it off. Crafty shots of human characters (after Lin Beifong saves the president, we're given a gorgeous shot of UnaVaatu through the decimated building) and cross-cutting with the ground troops of Team Avatar, back in the Spirit World fighting hoards of enemies, create an optical illusion. This is the big fight we've been waiting for.
And then it ends in a flash — another deus ex machina, this time in the form of Jinora. The series doesn't earn this moment as easily, though it adds intriguing questions about the importance of Tenzin's daughter in the balance of the spirit and physical world. Jinora descends on to the battlefield like a glowing angel (there's that Armageddon scenario again), swooping in to resurrect Raava inside the belly of the beast. She's always been tethered to Raava's spirit — why she's drawn to the Wan statue in the first two episodes — and now we see her birthing the representation of God out of the darkness. The buildup isn't in the fabric of Book 2 to make maximize the payoff of the moment, but as animated, it's glorious.
Unlike Book 1, the conclusion of “Light in the Dark” looks ahead to the future. Korra's Avatar powers are restored, though her connection to the lineage has been severed. She's been rebooted (let's pretend this is a glimmer of hope for those waiting for another live-action Avatar movie) and what she lacks in history she makes up for with insight. Maybe Wan, the man everyone thinks is perfect, made mistakes. Maybe spirits should live with humans. Korra has always followed her gut, not her instincts. She's always been a “lone wolf” desperate for the approval and assistance of others. Not anymore. Korra makes the mature decision to call it quits with Mako because she has to stand alone and make decisions for once in her life. And she tells the world that she's ready to take a chance that feels right to her — after 10,000 years, the spirit portals will remain open. If this season was Korra going off to college, the finale was graduation. Now it's time for change — a perfect (and just announced) subtitle for Book 3.
Odds & Ends
- "RAAVA, NOTHING COULD STOP THIS MOMENT." I don't know if this is the last we'll see of Vaatu — how could it be? The dark spirit can't die. But let's really hope that this isn't the end of Jonathan Adams, an amazing voice actor who can sell ridiculously evil lines like this.
- Fans have been pumped since it was first revealed that Grey DeLisle, the voice of Azula on Avatar: The Last Airbender, would be popping up on this season of Korra. They may have been underwhelmed by her roles, as a dark spirit spider and a talking mushroom in this finale. I thought it was wonderful, especially the mushroom. “I've seen that same spirit mushroom five times!”/“That's not the same mushroom.”/“Yes I am!”
- I'm convinced the Avatar State spirit ball, where all the elements swirl together, was the seedling that spawned this entire crazy universe. Always an adrenaline rush to see it in action.
- Desna and Eska's arc comes to a close with an emotional beat for Bolin, who realizes maybe did love the masochistic twin who nearly wiped him off the face of the planet for ditching their “wedding.” Both characters, Desna especially, took a major comedic upswing in the back half of the series and I hope they return in the future. That said, let's keep shipping Bolin and Asami.
- Awesome bending power: a water rope with an ice handcuff at the end, used to swing UnaVaatu into the air.
- If you're looking for anime to keep the post-Pacific Rim, post-Korra Kaiju times going, may I recommend Attack of the Titan on Hulu, which I couldn't help but think about when UnaVaatu grew into a big, Big Bad.
- I would be shocked if giant, blue Korra holding tiny lil' Jinora was actually a reference to René Laloux's 1973 French sci-fi cartoon Fantastic Planet, but it's an animation staple so who knows.
- "This … us … doesn't work." The good move on Korra's part. Still heartbreaking.
- What will Book 3: Change bring? Beats me. But here's hoping we see even more of the evolved world previously seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender. We know Zuko is alive. We know the Earth Kingdom is out there being ruled by a Queen. We know of places and peoples whose stones have yet to be turned over by Korra. I can't wait to see them.