Three years ago, a zealous anarchist abducted Avatar Korra, bound her in chains, and tried to kill her. Zaheer poisoned Korra’s blood and stripped her of her breath, putting her through a traumatic experience that damaged her mind and spirit even more than it did her body. When we left Korra at the end of Book Three, she was physically and emotionally incapacitated, and while her body heals over time, she still struggles to recover from the deeper wounds of Zaheer’s attack.

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“Korra Alone” details the Avatar’s three years of slow healing in one heart-wrenching character study, exploring the depths of her fear and self-doubt by pitting her against a familiar foe: herself. Korra was at her lowest point when she was trapped in the Avatar state with Zaheer’s poison in her veins and his chains around her wrists, and the pain of that memory manifests itself as a spiritual doppelganger that takes the appearance of Korra in that specific moment of hopelessness. Korra is haunted by this memory of utter vulnerability wherever she goes, but her chained spirit self isn’t just something her mind has created to deal with the trauma. It’s an actual being that poses a genuine threat to Korra, and she needs to defeat it if she’s going to return to her former glory.

When it comes to addressing an issue like post-traumatic stress disorder, a fantasy cartoon series like The Legend Of Korra has the freedom to take a less literal approach to the problem, interpreting it from an angle that makes it visually engaging and accessible to an audience that includes a large percentage of children. In the case of Korra, that means turning the heroine’s internal struggle into an external conflict between her current self and a past version of herself that embodies all her negative feelings.

In real life, people don’t overcome their PTSD by engaging in elemental martial arts battles with themselves, but that’s an exhilarating way of visualizing an internal emotional conflict. In real life, help isn’t going to take the form of a light spirit disguised as an adorable puppy, but help can come from unexpected places and its up to those suffering to decide if they are going to accept the assistance. Everyone deals with traumatic experiences at some point in their lives, and it’s refreshing to see a show like The Legend Of Korra go out of its way to delve into the psychological ramifications of painful events while still maintaining the magic and wonder that makes it so entertaining.

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Picking up immediately after the events of last week’s premiere, “Korra Alone” begins with Korra staring at herself in a broken mirror, a shot that immediately establishes that this episode will be about Korra’s fractured sense of identity. Zaheer broke Korra, but she can rebuild herself if she’s patient and open to help from others. Patience and humility aren’t qualities that come naturally to Korra, though, so she’s faced with a tough journey ahead. The very first thing Korra needs to do is open herself up to the possibility of healing. During her first three weeks with the Southern Water Tribe, Korra barely eats or sleeps, allowing herself to fade into despair. After her mother begs her, Korra finally goes to see Katara about beginning the healing process, and once she takes that first step, things become a lot less bleak.

This episode demands a lot from Korra voice actress Janet Varney, and she gives an exceptional performance that fully captures the Avatar’s pain, fear, and sadness. Her voice work is essential to bringing a sense of reality to Korra’s struggle, and the performance adds a lot of dimension to the character’s struggle. I can’t give enough praise to voice director Andrea Romano, and her decision to cast film icon Eva Marie Saint as Katara pays off big-time as Katara takes on a more significant role in Korra’s life. Saint’s voice has the perfect mix of softness and authority, and it makes the character especially inspiring when paired with her comforting, uplifting dialogue. There’s just something incredibly friendly about Saint’s voice, the same adjective I would use to describe Mae Whitman’s voice for young Katara in Avatar.

Katara is there to guide Korra’s healing, but ultimately it’s up to the Avatar to commit to the recovery, and her will is constantly tested. Korra’s body still thinks that it is in danger, and a major part of Katara’s therapy involves strengthening Korra’s mind so that she can overpower that sense memory. Eventually the Avatar reaches a point where she can walk and bend, but she’s still vulnerable if she’s in battle. When Tenzin visits her approximately two years into her healing, Korra attempts to show him all her progress by sparring with three firebenders, but once the men stop holding back, she’s overcome by memories of Zaheer all over again.

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As impatient as always, Korra decides to leave for Republic City before she’s completely recovered mentally, and when she tries to resume her Avatar duties on a small island, she quickly realizes that she has a lot further to go. As her ship approaches Republic City, Korra’s ghostly past self appears for the first time, and seeing that painful reminder inspires Korra to cut her hair and change her clothes in hopes that a new look will mean a fresh start.

Following those cosmetic changes, Korra charges forward with new vigor, making her way to the spirit world and the Tree of Time so that she can recover the spiritual connection she’s lost. A light spirit offers the Avatar help, but the ever-stubborn Korra wants to do this herself, despite already learning that the only way she can fully recover is by allowing others to help her with the process. With no success in the spirit world, Korra continues to roam the world searching for a way to tap back into her full potential, a journey that takes her to the fighting ring where we left off last week.

After suffering a defeat in the ring, a beaten and bruised Korra wanders the streets of the desert town, seeing the ghost of her past at every turn. Her prospects are bleak, but that’s when a small white puppy appears to lead the Avatar to salvation in the swamp, where she finally faces off against her spirit self in this episode’s big action sequence. With quick percussion music propelling the fight along, Korra navigates her way through the swamp, taking a defensive position against her raging spirit doppelganger. She tries her hardest to outrun the ghost’s bending, but ultimately she can’t escape that damned chain, which wraps around Korra’s ankle to drag her into a pool of metallic poison. It’s the perfect visual representation of Korra’s inability to cope with the trauma of that fateful day three years ago, and no matter how hard the Avatar tries to avoid it, her pain is going to keep pulling at her until she finds a way to conquer it.

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Luckily, Korra meets a person in the swamp that can help her find the strength she needs to be victorious. After being pulled into the pool of poison, Korra wakes up underground in a dark cave where a small, gravelly-voiced old woman is caring for her. The vocal quality of actress Philece Sampler gives the big character reveal away before Korra shines a light on her mysterious nurse, but that just makes the final scene all the more exciting as it builds to that last shot of Toph.

“Nice to see you again, twinkle toes,” Toph says nonchalantly, ending the episode as if no time has passed since we last saw the lovable blind earthbender. The twist ending elevates an already impressive episode to another level of greatness, and Toph’s sassy sense of humor helps close a dire, depressing chapter on a cheerful note. Korra’s future is suddenly a lot brighter now that she has Toph on her side, and bringing one of Avatar’s most popular characters into the fold can only mean good things for the rest of Book Four.

Stray observations:

  • I love how this episode used Asami, Mako, and Bolin’s letters to bring their individual personalities into the story. The fact that Korra only responds to Asami says a lot about how much their relationship has grown over the course of the series, and the episode incorporates that classic Bolin humor with his exaggerated prose and the child-like drawings he attaches with his letter.
  • How adorable are this show’s spirits? From their visual designs to their voices, everything just screams cute.
  • Katara urging Korra to wiggle her big toe: basic first step to recovery or overt Kill Bill reference?
  • That picture of adult Aang airbending some seaweed wraps with a huge smile on his face makes me really want to get to know adult Aang better. He seems like a lot of fun.
  • “Now don’t take this the wrong way, but I can’t wait for you to leave.”
  • “Spoiler alert: Pabu and I already miss you.”
  • Korra: “If you say, ‘Be patient,’ I am going to water smack you in the mouth.” Tenzin: “Nnnnnooo—I was going to say—you need to—not worry about the future. Be grateful for where you are now and the progress you’ve made.”
  • “And yes, I am the Avatar, I’m just wearing different clothes and I cut my hair.”

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