There’s intense, and then there’s “The Ultimatum.” Book Three is an exceptionally well-paced season of television on the whole, but it was in Episode 11 — the last before the two-part finale — that it really snapped into focus we were watching something utterly exceptional. And the reason it’s such a gut punch is that this is the one where, to put it succinctly, everything goes absolutely wrong.
Initially following the gang as they scramble to come together amidst the Earth Kingdom’s Red Lotus-imposed chaos, the episode takes a dramatic turn at the halfway point. Team Avatar and the Zaofu government finally manage to contact the Air Temple via radio to warn Tenzin of Zaheer’s impending attack, but the warning comes too late: The Red Lotus descends upon the temple like a tempest, and, following the most barn-burning 10 minutes of action in all of “Korra,” they manage to subdue and imprison every last member of the new Air Nation.
It’s a sight that boggles the mind even as it unfolds: Disaster, despair, and hope repeatedly reached for and then brutally quashed. This is the episode that establishes the Red Lotus as the greatest threat the United Republic of Nations has ever faced, with a power so terrifying it can scarcely be understood. Paradoxically, it’s also the episode that establishes Tenzin — fearless, indefatigable, fighting to the last of his strength — as not just the self-evident heart of the series, but the greatest combat airbender in “Avatar” history.