Well, if I had any trepidation about Korra having emotional issues in the final season, this week's episode has assuaged them. Korra's PTSD and her difficulty in recovering from her ordeals make for compelling television, even before we get to the very exciting ending.
Last week, we saw where Korra landed three years after her battle with Zaheer. This week, we saw both how she got there and what happened next.
When Korra left Republic City, it was with a few understanding lies: It'll just be for a few weeks. No, I don't need my friends. (And, implicitly) Of course I'll write. But Korra needs more than a bit of patching up. She already lost her connection to her past lives, and now she's lost two more of the things that defined her as the Avatar: her skill in battle and her connection to Raava.
If Korra inherited her impatience, she got it from her parents, who are anxious to see her recovered. They send her to Katara, who is still on this show even though she was conveniently left off-screen when her kids and grandkids were in danger. Katara is evidently a fan of Quentin Tarantino, because after she tells Korra that the damage to her body is reversible, she instructs the young Avatar to wiggle her big toe. That sets Korra on a path to physical recovery that is less inspirational training montage than an accounting of frustration. Korra has experienced setbacks, but she's never been physically weak, and now she's gone from a person who beats up Red Lotus members to someone who can't even dress herself. This isn't the Korra of Book 2 who was mad at the world because people didn't think she was ready to take on the responsibilities of the Avatar alone; this is a Korra who's not sure what she's good for anymore. And when she lashes out at someone (in this case, Katara), she can recognize it as lashing out rather than righteous anger. Korra may be pissed, but she's grown up a lot in the last few years.
That said, Naga hugs are an EXCELLENT walking incentive.
We also get a rather nice callback to the scene in which we first met the teenaged Korra when Tenzin comes to visit. But where in the pilot, Korra smashed through her opponents with glee, now she is haunted by visions of Zaheer and how he nearly ended not only her life, but also the Avatar cycle.
I've always imagined that the possibility of ending the Avatar Cycle by dying in the Avatar State is something that has weighed heavily on each Avatar, but in Korra's case, it's a fear that nearly came to pass. She didn't enter the Avatar State through her own foolishness; she was forced into it against her (admittedly strong) will. After that, it's small wonder that she's lost her connection to Raava. It must be terrifying to reconnect with the spirit after knowing how close you came to ending its relationship with humanity. I can understand why simply hanging out in the Tree of Time meditating won't do the trick.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
It turns out that Korra didn't lie to her parents about going to Republic City, at least not initially. Perhaps she felt that being with Asami could restore some sense of normalcy to her life. Perhaps she thought that in the city, she could move forward with her life the way her friends had. But she realizes just how difficult that will be as she sails for Republic City and faces her worst enemy: herself.
After facing defeat at the hands of some pretty ordinary criminals, Korra has a vision of her shadow self, a creature with the glowing Avatar State eyes and chains bolted to each arm. She looks like a demented version of Jacob Marley, alternating between a zombie shuffle and preternatural swiftness. And each time that she hurls those chains at Korra, she seems determined to drag Korra down into the past, to weigh her down with the expectations she feels she can no longer fulfill. The very sight of her causes Korra to turn away from Republic City.
When your demon wears your face (and when people expect you to chase down every purse snatcher because you're the Avatar), it makes sense to change your look. It's when Korra decides to turn away from Republic City and go on her own personal sojourn that she decides to become anonymous, ditching her clothes and cutting her hair. But when she does decide to meditate in the Tree of Time, it's not just the hair and the clothes that have the local spirits doubting she's the Avatar; it's the absence of Raava energy.
Finding Raava has become Korra's quest. It makes sense; maybe if she reconnects with Raava, she can go back to being Korra. And since none of the wise, super well-meaning people in her life have been able to solve her problems for her, Korra decides that she's got to solve this one on her own. The problem is that Korra is never really alone. When she wanders into an Earth city, she is plagued by her shadow self once again. It's this demon Korra who leads her into the empty physicality of the Earthbending ring.
Korra's problem though isn't that no one else can help her; it's that she hasn't found the right people to help her. And one of those people isn't a person at all; it's a spirit. A helpful sprite from the Tree of Time decides to guide Korra toward the proper path, and gives Korra her Luke Skywalker moment. She faces her shadow self in the swamp, but she doesn't cut off dark Korra's head as Luke did to his Darth Vader doppelgänger. Fortunately, though, she is discovered by a Yoda of her very own...
Yes! We knew that Toph was going to make an appearance based on the trailer, but I had no idea she'd show up this early in the season. Will Toph be able to get Korra's butt in gear and help her reconnect with her Avatar Spirit? And given that Toph's offspring are caught up in the conflict over Earth Kingdom unification, will she allow herself to get caught up in politics, or staunchly remain in her hermitage?