Another week, another great episode of the Legend of Korra! It is without a doubt that season four has started off fantastically, acting effectively as a culmination of the in-world consequences from seasons 1-3 (season three being the most obvious influence for season four’s plot), and this week’s episode continues that trend.
“Enemy at the Gates” shows no restraint, starting off with a bang. After three years, Kuvira has returned to Zaofu, but this time with an entire empire under her control, as displayed by the terrifying grandeur of her army (whether or not she brought the entirety of her army is yet to be seen). The scene is brilliantly set up, with the initial shot giving the audience an indication of the size of Kuvira’s war blimps (see: quite large) through the crevice in one of the many mountains that surround Zaofu, combined with Jeremy Zuckerman’s (always fantastic) music to emphasize the impressive scope.
It doesn’t take long before the episode directs the viewer’s attention to Varrick and Zhu Li. Working in the last maglev train car, Varrick and Zhu Li begin testing the capabilities of the spirit vine samples as a power supply (a rather obvious metaphor for nuclear energy), only for the experiment to backfire. After Varrick saves Zhu Li from death, we start to see the beginning of Zhu Li showing romantic feelings towards Varrick. It is a cliché that is thankfully sidestepped (at least for now) with the always humorous charisma of Varrick, ordering Zhu Li to clean up the mess caused by the burst of energy.
When Kuvira and Suyin have an unwelcome reunion, the conversation instantly becomes a clash of two stubborn individuals, with the shot showing both parties on opposite ends of the room. Bolin, acting as a mediator for peaceful negotiations, stands in the middle of the shot, trying his best to get both sides to come together. PJ Byrne’s voice work especially shines in this scene, as Bolin’s little spiel of a “bright future,” combines the innocence and kind-heartedness he has had since the very beginning of the series with a charismatic undertone that only three years of Varrick’s presence can provide.
It is also nice to finally get a reason as to why Baatar Jr. left with Kuvira, and while this is only briefly mentioned in a small quip to his father, it is enough to get an insight of his thought process. While it is easy to dismiss his decision as a result of Kuvira’s masterful manipulation, this is not entirely the case. In some way, Baatar Jr’s motivation is understandable enough to be seen as an emotional response that grew over time. As the son of an architect who played a huge role in the creation of Zaofu, Baatar Jr. has been damned to a life of living in the shadow of his father’s achievements. As the oldest child, it is very likely that he was raised in an environment that put pressure on him to surpass his father and create a legacy of his own, hence why he became an engineer. That kind of pressure probably built up a disdain for his father in the recesses of his mind over the years. All Kuvira had to do was coax Baatar Jr. into allowing that contempt to surface.
We also see the cause of Kuvira’s decision three years prior to reestablish stability throughout the Earth Kingdom, which in many ways is Suyin’s fault. When the world needed a strong, morally just leader to help reunite the Earth Kingdom and protect its citizens, Suyin outright refused. Suyin severely disliked the Earth Queen’s tyrannical, undemocratic rule, and understandably wanted to avoid using military force to impose control over the Earth Kingdom. What makes this flashback so great is that it is morally ambiguous enough to allow for meaningful discussion by the fans. There is no right answer in debating whether Suyin’s refusal was the best thing to do. While one side can argue that she didn’t want to become a corrupt leader and regress the Earth Kingdom once again into a monarchial state of haves and have-nots, it can also be said that her decision was dictated by a selfish fear of ruining her public image of equal representation rather than trying to work in the Earth Kingdom citizens’ best interests. Either way, it was at that moment that Kuvira decided to start her own military campaign, and Studio Mir did an excellent job of effectively showing Kuvira’s “transformation,” with her eyes relaying the contempt she had for Su after she shot down her pleas convincing Su to take action.
What really made this episode stand out was how it brought out different and/or darker sides to the characters. In a complete role reversal, Korra is perhaps the most level-headed character in the episode, actively avoiding conflict in any way she can and consistently vying for negotiations (a consequence of suffering from harrowing trauma for three years no doubt). Suyin on the other hand, immediately pushes for Korra to use violence to end the conflict. Kuvira’s betrayal has taken a deep toll on Suyin’s sensibilities, and her desire for violent recourse certainly brings into question her state of mentality. It is here that Su’s darker side comes out and as a result adds another (always welcome) layer of moral ambiguity to the plot at hand.
As with the previous episodes, Zelda Williams has done a phenomenal job in bringing Kuvira’s character to life. What is most impressive is her on-the-fly tonal change. Even though we know that Kuvira is carrying out terrible deeds, somehow her softer and kinder voice is still able to provide a convincing genuine sincerity, and yet when she unleashes her wrath onto both Bolin and Varrick, the absolute intensity of her militaristic tone still manages to surprise the audience and instill fear in them.
When Bolin, Varrick, and Zhu Li escape in mech suits, the ensuing fight allows Zhu Li to shine on her own, depicting her as a more than capable fighter. The fact that this scene is the only fight in the entire episode (not that I am complaining) only emphasizes how badass of a character she is. Like most (if not all) episodes, the choreography truly shines as the mech-on-mech fight combined with Bolin’s lava-bending truly makes up for the general lack of action that has occurred in the season so far.
Unfortunately, the three are captured and brought back to a very displeased Kuvira. Despite the implied intensity of the atmosphere, some bits of humor are expertly sewn into the dialogue, most notably from Varrick. The background commentary by Varrick and the irony he faces at the end never hinders the tension that the scene is meant to depict- a testament to both the writers as well as John Michael Higgin’s performance.
The secondary story between Asami and her father is both effective in its emotional impact, but also a bizarre inclusion that feels out of place in the episode. With Asami struggling to reconcile with her father, the audience is shown three very brief scenes that show her progress through said struggle. Why these scenes are included is beyond me, but I can only theorize that perhaps that their recovering relationship is foreshadowing for later episodes, in which Suyin must take that first step in reconciliation with Kuvira in order for the overall conflict to truly end, even after Kuvira loses the impending fight.
Despite some minor weaknesses, “Enemy at the Gates” creates a fantastic start-up to the conflict that the prior episodes were building up to, and with the momentous cliffhanger caused by Suyin, it is impossible not to be excited for what lies ahead.