Episode 1 of The Legend of Korra established the ground rules for the new series, episode 2 established the Tenzin/Korra relationship and the pro-bending subplot, and episode 3 established the Equalists as the antagonists. Episode 4, “The Voice in the Night,” looks like it’s establishing more background characters and deepening the Equalist plot, but I also suspect that its secondary (or perhaps even primary) purpose is to seed suspects for the true identity of Amon. The episode begins with Korra’s vivid nightmare of Amon taking away her bending. The scene shifts to a meeting of the Republic City council, where an ambitious councilman and Waterbender named Tarrlok volunteers to lead a task force to “bring the Equalists to justice” (although what law they’ve broken is notably not stated), and hinting at an earlier challenge to Republic City that Aang dealt with severely. He seeks the Avatar for the task force, but she turns him down, ostensibly to focus on her Airbending training but more obviously from her own fear. However, Tarrlok finally succeeds on enlisting Korra by ambushing her with a press conference during a party in her honor. It’s at this party that she learns that Mako has obtained their entry fee for the pro-bending championships from the wealthy industrialist Hiroshi Sato, whose gorgeous daughter Asami met Mako in a traffic accident.
One successful raid with the task force leads Korra to confidently challenge Amon to a duel. However, she is ambushed at the duel, neutralized by Equalizer chi-blockers and taunted by Amon, who says he won’t make a martyr out of her but that he’s saving her for last (becoming one of the few villains with a decent reason for not offing the hero when given a golden opportunity to do so). He knocks her out, leading to a series of mysterious images that might be from Aang’s life — we see a Water Tribe member (Sokka perhaps?), Toph leading the first metalbenders of Republic City, and an Airbender who I think is the adult Aang. When she is revived by Tenzin, Korra finally admits her fear to him and breaks down in tears.
One thing I loved about the early episodes of the series was Korra’s realistic reaction to her early failures at Airbending training. Her reaction to just give up felt authentic because, like many naturally gifted young people, she had never encountered a challenge that she couldn’t just blast her way through, and simply had no coping mechanism for failure. In a sense, Korra’s reaction of fear to the Equalists is another manifestation of the same character flaw. The Equalists are not only too big for her to solve on her own, but they are also able to neutralize the one tool she has for solving problems. As the Avatar, that tool also happens to be the foundation of her entire sense of self.
It doesn’t help that the ulterior motives and indirect actions of people like Councilman Tarrlok and Amon are as alien to her as Airbending, and for exactly the same reason. They both require an ability to address a problem through indirection, misdirection, and redirection, and just as Korra has no natural talent for this in bending, she has no talent for it in the real world. We see this working against her twice in this episode: first when she falls right into an ambush at Tarrlok’s party, and then when she allows herself to be ambushed again by the Equalists at the end of the episode on Avatar Aang Memorial Island.
With Amon, she first tries to craft her problem in a way she knows how to solve (power-bending her way out of it). The problem is that Amon refuses to play the game on her terms because he knows he’ll lose.
The one-two punch of those failures are quite a blow to her ego, but this is to be expected. As I mentioned in the first episode’s recap, Korra’s classic character flaw is hubris: self-confidence so outsized that it becomes arrogance. It’s a character flaw that pops up over and over in classic fiction, and the one common theme to any lead character who suffers from hubris is the same: a heaping helping of humble pie somewhere down the road. This episode is her first real serving of that humble pie, so I also don’t think it’s an accident that her crush on Mako is undermined in this episode by the appearance of Asami. You can bet that Korra is getting more servings real soon, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to predict that the final helping will be losing her bending ability.
While Tenzin understands Airbending as a physical martial art, he is no better than Korra at using its philosophies to address the problems of Republic City. He confronts Tarrlok directly at the council meeting, and is promptly outmaneuvered because Tarrlok knows exactly which buttons to push to get Tenzin to change the subject for him. Notice that Tarrlok never addresses Tenzin’s accusation that the task force is just another means to arrogate power. In terms of the “Old vs. New” theme
I raised in the second episode recap, Tenzin and Korra represent an Old way of thinking, where the ability to bend can give the right to rule. Korra believes that she can break the law just because she’s the Avatar (a belief Lin Beifong swiftly disabuses her of), and Tenzin’s power is at least partially because he is the only Airbending master in the world. In contrast, Tarrlok and Amon represent a New way of thinking, where the right to rule is obtained through political maneuvering instead of bending prowess. Tarrlok may be a bender, but his real skill is his ability to manipulate people; chi-blocking may be a means to Amon’s power, but his authority truly comes from the way he can convince other people to follow him.
The dream sequence at the end of the episode is sure to be fodder for much speculation. My guess is that it’s some kind of Avatar muscle memory: Aang is trying to tell Korra something important from the Spirit World, except that Korra isn’t attuned enough to the Spirit World for direct communication. If I had to guess what it means, I’d say that the threat that Tarrlok referred to was handled when Aang stripped another bender of his or her abilities through spirit-bending, and that Amon is linked to this event somehow (if he’s not the bender who got bent by Aang). In Amon’s view, “the benders took everything away,” so he sought a way to counter bending, discovered chi-blocking, and began the Equalists to wrest power away from the bending minority. The best current theory among the online fandom is that Amon is doing an advanced form of chi-blocking to take away bending ability. If my guess is correct, I think it’s possible that Amon is not even aware that he’s not truly spirit-bending. He just thinks he is because the effects are the same.
It is a funny coincidence that both Tarrlok and Amon lay traps for Korra in this episode, and that both of them stand to gain from the establishment of Republic City’s task force, isn’t it? I also have to wonder how accidental Asami’s accident was, who Hiroshi’s benefactor is, and what price will be required when that “generous loan” comes due. Just saying.