We've known ever since the Book 4 trailer was released that we'd see some sort of showdown between Kuvira and Korra. But while the Avatar tries to figure out whether she really can solve the problem of the Earth Empire by fighting, it's Varrick of all people who strikes a real blow for freedom.
So who thought that Su's plan to capture/assassinate Kuvira would actually work? No one? Yeah.
Su and the wonder twins tried to go ninja on Kuvira's camp and capture the self-appointed empress while she sleeps. But to no one's surprise (except theirs), they've wandered straight into a trap. It isn't Kuvira in that bed; it's Zhu Li.
Kuvira captures her mother-in-law-to-be, which means Korra is the last person standing between Zaofu and conquest. And when Kuvira proposes they settle the issue in single combat, Korra is initially delighted. After all, fighting is what Korra does best, right? Easy-peasy, settle this with one fight. Kuvira may be a talented duelist, but Korra is the Avatar. She's even confident enough to tell Jinora and Opal that she'll only use the Avatar state as a last resort.
While Korra was knocking around her parents' place and then having mystical moments in
Dagobah Toph's swamp, however, Kuvira was battling bandits and hovering people over train tracks. We were promised a duel in the trailer, but what we got was a smack down. Despite having just one element to Korra's four, Kuvira handily knocks Korra around and forces Korra into the Avatar state. For a moment, it looks like she could end the conflict over Zaofu by dropping a rock on Kuvira. (Although what fresh problems would crushing the leader of the Earth Empire have caused?)
Now, it would have been nice for Korra if she could exorcise all of her demons by simply removing the Red Lotus' toxin from her body, but sadly, trauma just doesn't work that way. Last episode, when Kuvira and Korra had their heart-to-heart, it was clear that Korra empathized with Kuvira, even if she was mostly her projecting her own experiences onto Kuvira. An now Korra's subconscious is projecting her own toxin-fighting, Avatar-state face onto Kuvira's body. She quite literally sees her own pain reflected back at her, and she can't bring herself to fight any longer. The Airbender kids (after an amusing art crit from Huan) have to rescue Korra.
Each of the members of the Zaofu branch of the Beifong family get their moment this episode, with Wei and Wing helping their mother and Huan making his allegiance clear through self-expression (like he does). But the big emotional moments belong to Opal and Baatar Jr. Opal is struggling with her obligations as a member of the Air Nation now that they're preventing her from helping her family in the way she wants. I hope Opal proves significant in the resolution of this season's conflicts and/or the liberation of her family. But it's Baatar Jr. who overshadows even Kuvira when Zaofu bows to the Earth Empire. He's frustrated that his family not only refuses to accept his work, but that they also refuse to submit even when they're clearly defeated.
But Korra is about to acquire a powerful ally. When we first met Varrick in Book 2, I never imagined that we'd see him as this slightly wistful and wise rebel. He always made me laugh, but in this episode, he made me sigh. Many folks noted last week that the energy coming from the Spirit vines resembled Vaatu's energy, and we got a nice callback to the Dark Avatar this week. After Baatar Jr. forces Varrick to continue his work on the Spirit weapon, Varrick uses his quick-thinking and silver tongue to get Bolin as his assistant. As he works on the weapon, Varrick tells Bolin that he was inspired to work on the Spirit vines after the Dark Avatar's blast freed him from his jail cell. Then he gives Bolin that look that makes me sigh and sets the timer on his bomb.
Bolin may have stayed with Kuvira long after her goals went from "noble" to "batshit insane," but like Kuvira, he's been honing his skills over the years. While Varrick is half-ready to die (now that he no longer has his Zhu Li, his deus ex machina incarnate), Bolin immediately goes into problem-solving mode and saves them both before the Spirit bomb explodes.
But Baatar Jr. thinks he can replicate Varrick's work, and it sounds like he wants to build a much larger bomb. Kuvira tasks Zhu Li with acting as Baartar Jr.'s assistant on the project. And even though I suspect that Zhu Li is plotting against Kuvira, I still get chills when Kuvira orders Baatar Jr. to dismantle the domes of Zaofu.