In The Legend of Korra’s third season, the Avatar franchise has fully mastered the elements.

Finally, there’s some real fire. Avatar: The Legend of Korra’s latest season (which concludes today at 12:00 p.m. EST, on Nickelodeon) has been an astonishing accomplishment, sneaking up from a relatively slow beginning to become, in all likelihood, the Avatar franchise’s most consistently excellent run. That’s no small feat considering the exaltation of parent series The Last Airbender, which is rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest kids’ shows ever (it measures up well against most “adult” programming, too); beautifully animated, well-written, and painstakingly designed, The Last Airbender brought its unique yet familiar world of elemental “bending” to life over the course of three seasons and one epic story.

Korra had big shoes to fill, but with the culmination of Book Three, “Change,” Avatar has reached its full storytelling potential.

In accordance with its title, “Change” finds the Avatar characters taking stock of the many ways in which Avatar Korra (Janet Varney) has irrevocably altered the world while trying to impart spiritual and political balance. Korra gets ejected from Republic City, the Avatar world’s de facto capital, by officials fed up with the problems created by rampaging spirits allowed into the material world by her actions at the end of Book Two, “Spirits.” With people starting to airbend seemingly at random, she has to help her mentor, Tenzin (an irreplaceably gruff and tender J.K. Simmons), midwife a new Air Nation into being. The Earth Queen’s tyrannical, oppressive regime presents a serious moral problem for an Avatar whose job is, to some extent, maintaining a peaceful status quo. And that’s not even including the season’s big bad: powerful new airbender Zaheer (Henry Rollins) and his Red Lotus anarchist sect.

All these plots simmer, to varying degrees, before boiling over in the two-part season finale, “Enter The Void”/“Venom Of The Red Lotus,” an unparalleled triumph of the Avatar franchise’s storytelling capacities. The fight sequences are astonishing, making creative use of bending abilities to finish off antagonists (I literally yelled “Boom!” at the screen when combustion-bender P’Li got hit with a suit of armor, causing her to explode her own head) and the full animation capacities of Studio Mir, who even manage to inject subtle levity into something as simple as several people sitting on a bison. A long, uninterrupted “shot” of Korra battling Zaheer through the air evokes a hundred aerial battles in superhero movies (and Aang’s climactic fight with Fire Lord Ozai), but far surpasses them in tension and sheer breathtaking power.

In sharp contrast to Book Two, “Spirits,” and even much of The Last Airbender, practically the show’s entire cast of characters proves vital. The action is split up between up to five different groups to give everyone something important to do, commensurate with their abilities. The Beifong sisters, Lin and Su, take out P’Li, finally burying the hatchet in the process. Mako and Bolin square off against armless octopus waterbender Ming-Hua and lava-bending jokester Ghazan, respectively, showcasing their full potential independent of Team Avatar. The young Air Nation first frees itself from other Red Lotus guards and then becomes the season’s final heroes, creating a cyclone to prevent Zaheer from taking Korra. Such nuanced character deployment has been the case the entire season, all the way down to newer characters like Su Beifong’s daughter and Bolin’s love interest, Opal. Even when someone isn’t on screen, it’s easy to figure out what they’re up to, and know that everything continues apace for others the Avatar world even when they’re not hanging out with Korra or Zaheer.

The finale’s head-spinning, breakneck plotting suggests the ways in which Korra, a more “adult” series by design, has used its increased freedom to surpass some of The Last Airbender’s achievements. That’s not to say it’s on the whole a better series, because it isn’t, but there are simply some things Korra can do that The Last Airbender couldn’t, and “Change” finds the show fully taking advantage of that. Even Bolin’s attempt at a comic relief plan early in the finale throws into stark relief how serious the season has gotten, almost without warning—it’s the kind of thing that Aang, Sokka, and Toph might have done to Fire Nation soldiers and actually gotten away with, but no one can take it seriously now.

In particular, the comparison of even the relatively buffoonish Red Lotus guards with those Fire Nation soldiers suggests part of why “Change” is the best season of Korra yet. Like any good superhero story, the Avatar franchise is often only as good as its villains. That meant The Last Airbender was frequently fantastic—Ozai might have been an overboard Evil Ruler bent on world domination, but he was such a rare presence (and so well voiced by Mark Hamill) that it didn’t matter. Azula’s occasionally tragic insanity and perfectionism made her impossible to dismiss, and of course, Zuko is one of the greatest television characters of all time. Picking up 70 years later, Korra’s first villain anti-bender Amon was a serious foe. But in “Spirits,” the writers came up with, more or less, the most epic story possible—Korra combating the original evil spirit Vaatu, repeating the conflict that created the Avatar in the first place—but Vaatu was so cartoonish, it became impossible to care. (Retroactively labeling Vaatu’s human collaborator Unalaq a member of the Red Lotus seems like penance.)

Even in their relatively short tenure, the Red Lotus proves themselves complex, formidable, and broadly sympathetic foes. Even up against the Earth Queen’s authoritarianism, Zaheer’s anarchism isn’t as compelling as it could be—his advocacy of total chaos makes it too easy to root against him. But the thing that ultimately makes Zaheer’s ideology empty isn’t Henry Rollins’ voice acting (it’s too bad he’s the only Red Lotus likely to appear in Book Four, since Ghazan and Ming-Hua are maybe fifty times more interesting and funny) or his rejection of government—it’s the rejection of community, of relationships between people. Zaheer believes the strongest win out, and he’s right, gaining the almost unprecedented ability to fly through relieving himself of all attachment, but that doesn’t mean that Zaheer himself, possibly the most powerful non-Avatar bender in the world, emerges victorious over everyone. It means a group of children, working together, brings him down to earth.

That highlights the season’s biggest strength. “Change” is, in many respects, the culmination of the Avatar franchise’s political bent. In the same way Aang’s journey allowed him to see how the different nations organized themselves, Korra sees the inequalities at the heart of Ba Sing Se (before Zaheer’s assassination of the Earth Queen) and the democratic principles behind Su’s metal colony. And though the main plot has seemed like it centered on defeating Zaheer and the Red Lotus, it was really always about something else.

The premiere starts with Bumi discovering his airbending and ends with Tenzin declaring his Air Nation the Avatar equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps or Caine from Kung Fu, traveling the world and righting wrongs. Though this decision seems likely to prove premature, it also makes perfect sense—the original Air Nation was removed from the world, but a spiritual commitment to balance can, and often should, take the form of action. “Change” is, in part, the story of how Korra evaded the Red Lotus, but it’s more about the destruction of one nation and the birth of a new one.

So here we are on the edge of the final season of Korra, the Earth Kingdom destroyed, the Air Nation reborn, and the Avatar potentially permanently weakened. Has balance returned? Not for the show. The greatness of “Change” makes Nickelodeon’s unfortunate program-bending, airing the season with all of a week’s notice to combat a leak and pulling the final episodes to digital-only, all the more frustrating. The shift in medium may have been the plan from the beginning, but as co-creator Bryan Konietzko bemoaned at Comic-Con, the transition was not handled particularly well. The change appears to have been for rating and content reasons, which isn’t surprising given the seriously dark turn “Change” takes toward its end—the Earth Queen and most of the Red Lotus killed on-screen, the Earth Kingdom in total political disarray, and Korra poisoned with something that’s likely gone a lot deeper than her physical health. Yet Korra produces something rare—an ending that’s legitimately upbeat yet uncertain without veering into straightforward triumph or The Empire Strikes Back-style grim resolve. Avatar​'s characters are cursed to live in interesting times.

There are, of course, some problems—among them, Su metalbending the poison out of Korra stinks of Lion Turtle-like deus ex machina​, and the Red Lotus' lying about returning the airbenders further reduces their adversarial credibility. But the biggest complaints about this season—that Book Three has been a retreat back to what the Avatar team knows it can do well, or that it's been boring—should fall far, far away when everything else is this well-executed. There’s no need for Korra to do anything radically new when the Avatar team is just now demonstrating such total, indisputable command of its powers.

Eric Thurm is a contributing writer. He tweets here.

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