The Pro-Bending Arena is being shut down in the wake of the attack on the Pro-Bending finals, pushing Mako and Bolin out of their home. Korra arrives to tell them that they can move to Air Temple Island, but the brothers have already been invited to stay at the palatial Sato estate by Asami. Chief Beifong discovers Equalist manufacturing and printing equipment at Cabbage Corp, leading to the arrest of the owner. Elsewhere, she and Tenzin continue questioning witnesses from the Arena, including Hiroshi Sato and a dejected Tahno, who tells Korra that his bending seems gone for good, and then exhorts her to nail the Equalists for him. Korra’s visit to the Sato estate turns out to be more fun than she had expected, especially when she learns that Asami isn’t as prissy or sheltered as she had thought, but her laughter dies when she overhears a phone conversation that leads her to think Hiroshi Sato is working with the Equalists. She brings her suspicions to Tenzin and Chief Beifong, leading to further investigations of Future Industries with the cooperation of Hiroshi and over the objections of Asami and Mako. However, nothing is found, causing a major schism between Mako and Korra. An anonymous tip leads them back to the Sato estate, where they discover a massive hidden laboratory hidden on the grounds filled with giant humanoid battle tanks. It’s then that the trap springs shut, as Hiroshi Sato and the Equalist lieutenant attack with the tanks, ultimately disabling Chief Beifong, Korra, Tenzin, and the entire Bending task force. They are rescued by quick action by Mako, Bolin, and Asami, who manage to rescue Tenzin, Korra, and Chief Beifong when Asami turns on her father. As they leave the Sato estate, Chief Beifong declares she will leave the force and get her men back without the hinderance of the law. Korra welcomes Mako, Bolin, and Asami to Air Temple Island, and further nudges Mako to provide what comfort he can to a shattered Asami.
In the interests of full disclosure, I happily admit that I got the right idea but the wrong Sato in my speculations on last week’s episode.
This week’s crackpot theory is that The Legend of Korra presents a variation on themes in Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles, with “benders” taking the place of “supers” and the role of Syndrome getting split into Amon and Hiroshi Sato. People with special natural gifts stand out from the norm, sometimes using their powers for the greater good and sometimes in the name of selfish self-enrichment. Even those who mean well can sometimes be blind to how the exercise of their power looks to those who are powerless. Someone with gifts of his own launches a vendetta after deciding that the ones with the powers are to blame for all his ills, promising equality for all by bringing down the mighty, and those with power can only combat this foe by proving that they can use those powers responsibly. We haven’t gotten to that last bit in The Legend of Korra yet, but with 5 episodes to go in this story arc, we’re more or less in the back-third and prepping for a denouement.
The way that the Syndrome antagonist is split into Amon and Hiroshi Sato introduces an interesting wrinkle. Amon represents the part of Syndrome’s plan to strip the world of supers (although Amon’s methods are less lethal than Syndrome’s). Sato represents the second half of Syndrome’s plan to use technology to give powers to everyone: “when everyone’s super, no one will be.” While the end result is the same — no more supers — the first is fundamentally destructive while the latter is fundamentally constructive. Splitting that aspect into two introduces the potential for a fracture between the viewpoints because they really don’t have much in common. Syndrome’s plan is to tear it all down so he can build it back up in his image (essentially proving himself to be the super-est of all supers). Once Amon no longer has “benders” to blame, will it be long before he begins to blame, say, “the rich” or “those with technology?” And isn’t Hiroshi Sato doing the same thing as the benders by abusing his fortune and his gift for science to elevate himself above everyone else, regardless of his motives?
With the theme of power relationships in mind, I think the bit where Bolin tweaks the butler at the pool isn’t just a throwaway comedic moment. The subservience of the butler who works for the Sato family reflects the same power imbalance as the non-benders vs. benders. The fact that it’s Bolin exploiting the butler shows how quickly the power dynamics can shift if you’re not aware of them. To borrow recent political slang, Bolin and the butler are both “99-percenters,” and Bolin has even been on the losing side of a power dynamic with his sleazy Pro-Bending manager. That throwaway poolside moment shows that even Bolin can abuse power easily once he has it. The fact that he’s just playing around and there is no inherent malice in his actions doesn’t make the resentment of the butler any less. The fundamental fault lies in Bolin’s irresponsible flaunting of power, not in the butler’s resentment of it.
In both The Incredibles and The Legend of Korra, the one side of the coin is that the exceptional should not be expected to hobble themselves in the name of a too-literal “equality,” but the flip side is that being exceptional does not give you the right to run roughshod over others simply because you can. Everyone on the show so far (with the possible exception of Tenzin) is unbalanced on one or the other. This is also exactly why I think Lin Beifong’s declaration that she’s going after the Equalists outside the law at the end is fundamentally the wrong answer to the problem. Like Tarrlok’s task force, the response to the threat only reinforces everything bad that the opposition is saying about you. Even if she succeeds, the enduring fruit of her actions will only be more resentment. Of course, talking about balance is a lot harder than actually achieving it, especially when you’re under fire. It’s also hard not to respect Chief Beifong’s dedication to the metalbenders under her command, even if I think it’s pretty obvious that she’ll be walking into a trap.
“The Aftermath” also makes me think still better of “The Spirit of Competition,” since some of the threads from that episode still echo in this one. The jealousy angle allows for more doubt to be seeded before this episode’s climactic reveal. There is more resonance to events like Korra allowing Bolin to convince her to visit the Sato estate and the look of mixed emotion as Korra tells Mako to give comfort to Asami. I still find that episode more functional than really enjoyable, but I can’t deny the non-trivial role it’s playing in the overall season. The paranoid part of me also wonders if Asami Sato didn’t just position herself as an Equalist double-agent, insinuating herself into the Benders’ good graces with an ostensible show of loyalty.
The fact that I have no idea where any of these threads are going next is probably one of the best compliments I can pay to the series (the other being that I admire it for the political drama and the acting as much or more as for the action). This shouldn’t surprise me, considering the number of times I had the same feeling during season 2 of Avatar the Last Airbender, but it does and I’m glad for it.