I don’t know about all of you, but I was just the slightest bit worried going into “When Extremes Meet.” After a somewhat disappointing turn last week, this was the episode that would determine whether that unfortunately flat, mecha tank-filled outing was simply a bump in an otherwise terrific road, or the point in which The Legend of Korra began a downward slide towards mediocrity.
I’m probably being over-dramatic here. Especially considering that my fears were soothed within the very first moments of “When Extremes Meet,” a perfectly structured episode that accomplishes the difficult feat of answering an important question while simultaneously raising countless new ones.
And that question: is Tarrlok really evil, or just an egotistical ass?
Finally, we have overwhelming proof that yes, Tarrlok is a real, genuinely evil villain. And the way that “When Extremes Meet” builds to this conclusion displays just how masterful creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino can be when they want to develop a complex and compelling antagonist.
All season long, there’s been something about Tarrlok that’s been difficult to place. Overall, he seemed to have Republic City’s best interests at heart, even if he went about serving the city in the most conniving and unpleasant way possible. Despite all the bad vibes the guy gives off, he did seem genuinely intent on stopping Amon and the Equalists. So despite his backhanded nature (and the fact that he just plain looks and acts like a bad guy), there was nothing that could distinguish Tarrlok from being anything more than your typical weaselly politician-type.
And it’s that ambiguous nature that makes his transformation into a full-fledged villain so believable. This isn’t like Hiroshi Sato, who went from a perfect father and lovable captain of industry to a revenge-crazed madman with the flick of a switch. Tarrlok’s already been firmly established as someone with a manipulative and a cunning side to him, and it makes perfect sense that the more power he gains, the more that power’s going to start corrupting him.
But I’d argue that the real turning point in Tarrlok’s character isn’t when he gains total control of the police force, or when he rounds up whole crowds of innocent non-bending citizens, or even when he physically attacks Korra in his office. For me, what pushes Tarrlok over the line from obnoxious pain to genuine threat is when he reaches out and grabs Asami at the non-benders’ protest.
There’s something so ugly in the way he does this. The way he reaches into her physical space without her realizing it. The way it was completely unprovoked. The way you can see him calculating how he could use this to get under Korra’s skin and potentially blackmail her into joining his task force once more. It’s such a nasty, bullying move that the second it happened, I felt an overwhelming need to see Tarrlok take a serious beating. And of course, so does Korra. But like us in the audience, Korra needs to cool down, and realize that perhaps it’s not the best idea to physically assault a city council member in front of half the city’s police force.
So when Tarrlok actually pulls the first punch and attacks her in his office, it should feel like the most satisfying thing in the world when she finally gets to unleash her full Avatar might on the little weasel-snake. And it is, at first. Seeing Korra break out of that rapid-fire ice crystal barrage (that seems like kind of an unfair move) and slam Tarrlok with the entire back wall of his office is a great, fist-pumping, cathartic moment. There’s no doubt about that. But, Korra being the still-in-training, reckless, overconfident Avatar that she is, she pushes harder and harder, past the point of no return until the entire City Council chamber’s in ruins.
And it’s here that I started to worry about what’ll happen if Korra takes this any further- right as Tarrlok whips out his incredibly creepy ace in the hole. Not only does this reveal forever solidify Tarrlok’s development from nuisance to psychotic villain, but it’s also a clever way of linking Korra to the mythology of the original series, ensuring that Tarrlok’s still a formidable foe in combat, and leaving me with a whole mess of questions to yell at the screen. When Tarrlok states that “there are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” he couldn’t be more right. I’ve got no idea how he’s able to bloodbend without the moon, what his overall plan for Republic City is now that Korra’s been locked up somewhere, or how he’s going to sell the whole “imprisoning the Avatar in an undisclosed location” bit to the general public. Also, I’ve got no clue what his relation is to our mystery flashback bloodbender.
Because there’s definitely a connection. Both of them do that crazy-eye spasm thing. Both of them are far more effective at bloodbending than anything we’ve seen previously (with Tarrlok going about it sans moon and the mystery bloodbender controlling Toph, Sokka, Aang and a whole crowd of twitching courtroom dwellers all at the same time). Sadly, we’ll probably have to wait just a little while longer to find out the real details here. Bad for us in the audience, good on Konietzko/DiMartino for crafting such a well-laid mystery.
But I’d like to jump back to Korra herself for a second. Not only do we get a nice representation of her character, flaws and all, in the Tarrlok fight, but “When Extremes Meet” also delves into her insecurities and her (and the audience’s) frustration the zero airbending we’ve seen from her thus far. The way Korra beats up on herself- “Didn’t you get the memo from the White Lotus? I’m a spiritual failure too,” on her sky bison ride with Tenzin is an incredibly human way to react to the overwhelmed feelings she’s been having. Especially when the best advice Tenzin can offer her is a vague suggestion to meditate on those mystery flashbacks. This kind of super-realistic, super-relatable character work really keeps Korra feeling like a genuine human being and not just a character in a cartoon show (as opposed to Mako, who’s only character traits are saying very little and being good-looking).
And as much as I love praising this show (especially when it rights itself after an episode I didn’t particularly care for), there are a couple of nitpicks that must be made before I finish this review. We’ve got a few overzealous attempts at a joke that are about as unsubtle as you can get- first with Korra screaming like a banshee and Ikki hissing like a rabid cat. The idea itself is funny and clever, but the execution seems to have gone just a bit too far over the top. Korra’s scream in particular moves so fast and is so loud that it actually jolted me out of my chair a little, which (at least from my perspective) is a sign that the gag has perhaps gone too far. I’d love to keep seeing stuff like this from The Legend of Korra, but I’d prefer to keep the crazy flourishes somewhat closer to last week’s overdramatic makeup puff. Still goofy, still over-the-top, but without actively making me flinch.
I also am obligated to mention Meelo’s giant unnecessary farting spree. I understand that this is, first and foremost, a kid’s show, but there’s a difference between the occasional fart joke in a lighthearted moment and starting a scene with Korra sobbing her eyes out and ending it with several seconds of continuous farting. It feels like something was needed to lighten up this scene and we went with the cheapiest, easiest, most obvious choice. I really could have gone my whole life without any reason to use the word “fartbending.” But it’s far too late for that now.
Nitpicks aside, I’m honestly just glad to see The Legend of Korra return to the heights it’s reached before. We’ve only got four episodes to go before the season comes to a close, and if those next episodes keep up the momentum that “When Extremes Meet” started, we’ll be in for some seriously good TV.
Have a couple closing thoughts to end this one on.
- With all our main characters in jail save for Tenzin and Lin Beifong, it would seem like we’re in for an episode centered around these two next week. And lo and behold, the synopsis for next Saturday’s “Out of the Past” describes how Tenzin and Lin Beifong will strike out on their own while Korra attempts to get in touch with her spiritual side. Personally, I can’t wait for a tighter focus on Tenzin. Eight episodes in and I still feel like we haven’t got to know him that well.
- I’m really glad that the pro-bending announcer is back doing the opening newsreels.
- Where are our heroes’ animal companions now that everyone’s in jail? Naga was waiting outside the City Council last we saw her, and doubt that Pabu’s sharing a prison cell with Bolin.
- Despite a much higher quality of writing than last week, Korra’s “this isn’t over, Tarrlok” is still pretty wooden.
- Did it seem fishy to anyone else that Tarrlok instinctively seems to know that Korra hasn’t made any progress with her airbending training? Either that information’s more commonly known than I thought, or Tarrlok simply made a very clever educated guess. Or maybe he knows something we don’t…
Whelp, that should about do it. I’ll see you all next time.