One of our biggest wishes for Legend of Korra Book 4 was that Kuvira, who is forcibly reuniting the Earth Kingdom, would be, if not a sympathetic antagonist, at least a relatable one. But after this episode, we could almost see ourselves rooting for her. And that's why she's so insidious.
Sure, Kuvira is a tyrant, and I'm sure that whatever she's doing with Varrick will prove sinister over the next few episodes. But I can completely understand why she believes her sense of order is best for the Earth Kingdom, and why so many people see her as the nation's savior. Fascism starts with bringing order to chaos. I mean really, what other choice does the Earth Kingdom have? Prince Wu?
While I'm sure that President Raiko and Tenzin mean well, restoring the Earth Kingdom's ruling dynasty in the name of stability (with some advisors who won't rock the boat too much), their plan isn't exactly a progressive one. Kuvira's right to some extent; Suyin provided a much better governmental role model, one that encouraged community, arts, and sciences. On the one hand, Kuvira seems to revel a bit too much in her dictatorial role. She buys her own hype. On the other hand...I kind of see where she's coming from. She has a noble vision for the Earth Kingdom; she's just really scary when faced with anyone who would stand in her way.
Bolin has been caught up in some hair-brained schemes (mostly those propaganda films), but he's not stupid. When he sides with Kuvira, it's because he has seen the ends—the good that Kuvira has done for the people of the Earth Kingdom, including his family—and it's easier for him to justify the means. And when he and Mako argue about Kuvira's usurping of Wu's leadership position, it becomes uncomfortably clear that neither brother is entirely right or entirely wrong. We're at a significant point in the history of the Earth Kingdom, and there is no clear answer yet, no hero.
Mako even uses Bolin's arguments about Kuvira to get through to Wu, to force him to recognize what a man-child he is. When Mako asks Wu if he even wants to rule the Earth Kingdom, it's revolutionary. Wu's focus has been on the missing crown jewels, the over-the-top ceremony he missed out on, the throne he can't even sit in because it's some kid's birthday. He never even considered that ruling factored into the bargain, or that the throne was something he might prefer to reject.
Even though the writers performed some gymnastics to get Mako into this bodyguard position, this is by far my favorite storyline of his. Bolin isn't just his equal; he's a person who has a profound effect on Mako's psyche and he's gone from brooding teenager to clear-eyed citizen of the world. His position as Wu's bodyguard may force him to be reactive, but he can finally pause and ask the larger, more difficult questions. It's because of Mako that I'm rooting for Wu to become a human being.
Oh right, Eska and Desna pop up to serve their roles as world leaders. I think we've decided these two are mostly good for one-liners.
Meanwhile, Korra is still off in the swamp getting her Yoda training from Toph. Toph stands in clear contrast to Katara, who coddled Korra when she needed it and took the Avatar's abuse like a champ. Korra doesn't need coddling, now, though; she needs several hundred quick kicks to the ass. And Toph is more than happy to provide that.
We also learn that Toph hasn't precisely dropped out of the world. Sure, she may not be a participating member of society these days, but she can watch the rest of the world through her connection to the trees in the swamp.
This is, incidentally, a callback to the Plantbending swamp Waterbenders we met in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Toph has just taken the idea that the world is connected and turned it into something practical, like Toph usually does.
But while Toph may spend most of this episode gleefully beating Korra to a pulp (and giving us a good look at the many delightful swamp creatures that land on or suck on Korra), she actually has some profound insight into what's going on with the Avatar. She can sense some of Zaheer's metallic poison still in Korra's body, and when Korra won't sit still for a removal, Toph accuses Korra of wanting to keep the metal inside her. Toph suspects (and I suspect she's correct here) that Korra isn't quite ready to be the Avatar again, and subconsciously, Korra allows the poison to stay in her body to put off her duties.
But even if Korra can rid herself of the poison, she's going to need more than punching to resolve the trouble brewing in the Earth Kingdom. The situation has grown far too complicated for this to come down to nothing more than a showdown between Korra and Kuvira. (I'm not ruling out a showdown, but other factors must come into play.) Toph is partially right; no matter what the Avatar does, trouble will always arise. But that's why the world still needs the Avatar.
So, anyone have any theories on what Varrick is doing with that hunk of spirit root? I suspect that this will be the thing that turns Kuvira from benevolent(ish) dictator to full-on scary lady, but how? I'm suddenly worried that dissenting villages might find themselves mysteriously choked with spirit roots.