The Legend of Korra: Korra Alone review

An actually perfect episode of The Legend of Korra Book Four. Here's Michael's spoiler-filled review...

This Legend of Korra review contains spoilers.

Right off the bat, Mike and Bryan are charming me with their reference to one of my favorite Avatar episodes in this week’s title, but does it deliver? Well…

Having seen last week how things have changed in the past three years, we now get some insight into how everyone (mostly Korra) got here. After a grueling period of isolation, psychological counseling, and physical therapy, Korra sets out to rejoin her friends in Republic City, only to find her journey haunted by a “Phantom Korra” every step of the way. She instead goes off the grid in search of her Avatar Spirit, which she apparently lost touch with after the Red Lotus poisoned her, only to find herself in The Swamp, where a hardcore smackdown with her phantom self lands her in the care of an elderly hermit who turns out to be none other than…


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What? What are you doing to me, show? What the holy hell? I was going to save all the Toph talk for the end of this review, but who are we kidding. It’s what everyone in the fandom is talking, nay, squeeing about, so we might as well just cut to the chase. We all knew from the trailer that Toph would be appearing in Book Four. I expected it to be toward the end, possibly even as early as the midpoint, but Episode 2? I was not ready for that. Not at all. There’s a certain symmetry to Korra finally meeting Toph in the same place Aang first saw her (albeit in a vision).

Toph herself has (no pun intended) gotten back to her roots, ditching the police uniform and wearing an outfit very similar, if not identical to the one she wore in her youth. It appears that after all is said and done, Toph really is at her happiest living off the grid and sleeping in ditches. I don’t think she disliked her career in law enforcement. In fact, she probably found it very fulfilling, but at her core, she’s a loner and a rebel and doesn’t do well with structure and rules. I’d wager that her retirement from the Republic City Police Department and the role Su played in it was far more complicated for her than was immediately apparent to Lin. I think it’s likely that being a cop, while fun in that she got to boss people around, was likely very difficult for Toph to reconcile with her own rebellious, rule-hating, structure-phobic nature. Su’s arrest was probably just the push she needed to do what was at least partially already in her heart. But I digress.

“Korra Alone” resembles “Zuko Alone” in more ways than just the title. Both episodes employ heavy use of flashback, while making use of a framing structure which advances the plot. The framing narrative of “Korra Alone” is far more connected to the action of the flashbacks, whereas “Zuko Alone” was more of a character study in which both storylines were connected on a thematic level.

There are a lot of parallels to Zuko himself in this episode. Korra’s abandonment of her identity, going incognito by changing her clothes, renouncing her name, and even her Very Important Haircut by the riverside. Hell, she’s even sporting an eye injury on the left side of her face. I sincerely doubt all these parallels were an accident. Given the brief moment of bonding between the two in Book Three, I’m interested to see how their relationship might further develop.

More notable than any physical similarities between the two, however, is the concept of a fractured identity. Like Zuko was in Avatar, Korra is now in exile, self-imposed but nonetheless lonely. The defining aspect of her identity has been stripped from her, and she’s seeking the means by which she can get it back. The image of Korra’s reflection being fractured in the broken mirror isn’t an original one, but it used very well in this context. Korra looks into that mirror, and the image looking back at her is broken, fragmented.

This neat little metaphor is paid off almost immediately with the appearance of Phantom Korra, who appears to not just represent Korra as the Avatar or in the Avatar State, but specifically Korra from the Book Three finale: hair down, chains wrapped around her arm, eyes glowing, her trademark outfit in disarray. Korra is haunted by this event, and this manifestation of her trauma is what is dragging her down, both figuratively and, at the end of this episode, literally.

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Korra’s trauma feels very real and potent, and not something that is easily overcome. After the “quick fixes” at the ends of Books One and Two, it was very refreshing to see Korra far from healed in the Book Three finale, and doubly so for us to see that her recovery took years and is still incomplete. Her physical and mental rehabilitation is not depicted as a one and done endeavor. Progress takes time and effort and is not always a steady progression. Korra’s outburst at Katara, while unfair, is understandable, and Katara knows it because she’s awesome.

Korra’s initial success with her physical therapy leads her to be very Korra about it, rushing the process and overeager to prove she’s all better when she still has further progress to make. In a sparring match that is in both design and music a direct callback to the very first scene of Korra as a teenager, it becomes clear to Tenzin that the young Avatar is not back up to full strength, and his assurances that she need not rush only make her feel worse. His comments about the airbenders having a handle on things in Korra’s absence are meant to be reassuring, but underline Korra’s own doubts about whether the Avatar is necessary.

Korra’s emotional isolation is also explored, and I am profoundly heartened to see the writers continuing to develop the friendship between Korra and Asami. The fact that all of Korra’s friends were writing her, but Asami was the first and only one to whom she replied, and even that took two years. It’s at this point that we start to really bridge the gap between her time in the Southern Water Tribe and the pit fight from the previous episode.

Korra made it all the way to Air Temple Island, only a mile or two from a reunion with Tenzin and her friends when she turned around. So, from what we can tell, it’s not like she planned to go off the grid from the beginning. It’s just that Phantom Korra has thrown her so completely off her groove that she would rather sail back halfway around the world than deal with it.

Her return to the South Pole was a pleasant surprise, again not something I expected to happen this early in the season. If Books Two, Three, and Four — which all went into production at around the same time – – are to be viewed as a trilogy, with Book One being something of a prologue, it’s only fitting that here in the third act of that trilogy Korra returns to a fundamental set piece of the first act. When Korra’s attempt to reconnect with her Avatar Spirit by meditating in the Tree of Time proves fruitless, she leaves to roam the Physical World in search of what she’s looking for. Her letter to her parents tells them she’s in Republic City, when in actuality she traverses the polar seas, walks along an active volcano, braves a vast desert, effectively walking through water, fire, and earth, Phantom Korra haunting her every step of the way.

All of this leads her to the town where the earthbending pit fight from last week’s episode went down, and we finally understand why Korra was participating. Throughout that entire fight, which we now see from Korra’s point of view, she wasn’t fighting some random earthbender; she was fighting Phantom Korra, seeking to defeat her, to finally be rid of her. This brings us right back to the present, where a cute and rather spiritually aware puppy leads Korra into The Swamp, a place where visions of the past, present, and future come to those who enter. Here, the puppy reveals itself to be the leafy dumpling spirit from the Tree of Time who brought her here to help her find not something, but someone. Naturally, Phantom Korra shows up, and the two Korras throw down in one spectacular swamp fight, but in the end, Korra is dragged down by her phantom self into a puddle of the same metallic poison Zaheer used on her, and it all leads us to the someone Korra was actually intended to meet: Toph.

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Holy shit. This is only Episode 2.

The “How We Got Here” episode is always a gamble in that it runs the risk of being didactic and overly expository. After all, its entire function is to explain how we arrived at this point in the plot, and considering we started Book Four in medias res, it was either this or multiple episodes laden with flashbacks. In this particular case, given how little time we have left in the Avatar universe, I’m in favor of the former, especially considering what a success it was.

You see, I really, really love Lost, but have always called bullshit on the writers’ claims that they couldn’t go deeper into the mythology of the show without grinding the plot to a halt. I have for years held “The Avatar and the Firelord” up as proof that the Lost writing team simply was not trying hard enough, and here with “Korra Alone,” they do it again.

It would have been so, so easy for this episode to be, while entertaining, clunkily expository. And I’d probably have been cool with it, given the payoff at the end. However, a lot of blanks are filled in for us and it never feels forced. We learn more about the changes the other characters are making in their lives through their letters, underlining how redundant Korra now feels. It’s through those same letters, as well as Tenzin’s visit, that we learn of Kuvira’s activity, giving us a glimpse into how she rose to the position she now occupies. And that is this episode’s great success. It fills in the blanks without killing the momentum in not one, but several places. Nothing feels overwrought, nothing feels forced. It’s a smooth clean story that covers an incredible amount of ground without feeling cluttered, and on the flipside of that coin, manages to pull us back to a decent momentum without rushing Korra’s recovery. Yet again, we have proof that it’s not how long you take to tell a story, it’s how you tell it, and in this case, they told it beautifully.

With all the callbacks in this episode, none of which feels the least bit gratuitous, I really do get the sense that this season is setting up a proper and satisfying farewell to the Avatar universe. With the appearance of Toph, the return to the Spirit World, and the references to Zuko, it really feels like everything is gearing up toward one hell of a final bow, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to play out.

To say “Korra Alone” was a solid episode would be a paltry appraisal. This episode was one of the best of the series to date. Last week’s premiere came in hot on the momentum left by the end of Book Three, and this episode performed against all expectations by keeping that momentum going. Two episodes in, and it feels like five. These are deeply satisfying meals, and I am already starving for the next course.

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A few odd notes:

I really appreciated the scene between Korra and her mother. So much of Korra’s dynamic with her parents has focused on her relationship with Tonraq, so having Senna be the one to step in at that moment was a nice touch.

The shopkeeper’s photo of Aang still doing the spinning marble trick (this time with corks) as an adult is just… bless you, Aang.

Wiggle your big toe. Anyone else have some Kill Bill flashbacks with that one?

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5 out of 5