A bullheaded cadence and sisterly sweetness define Toph Beifong in 'Avatar: The Last Airbender.' Her animated exterior — blind, short, but empowered to the point of arrogance — seemed felt like an extension of actress Jessie Flower's voicework, even if logistics tell us it was the other way around. That sound was everything.

'The Legend of Korra' Book 4 has me hooked with story, but it's wowing me with the return of the original Metalbender, now 86 years old, and actress Philece Sampler's faithful rendition of her layered persona. It's Toph again, and not just on paper. The way she speaks, the way she jabs, the way concern slips out of her hard shell, the way she forcefully reels in that trace of compassion after noticing it snuck out — Toph is the most successful “classic” character to transition to the new show. She needed to be. Only someone as no-nonsense as Toph could whip the Avatar pack into hero mode, the human Zoloft to Korra's spell of depression.

After a Korra-heavy episode, the show springs back to parallel storytelling with a de-emphasis on the rehabilitation storyline. And yet the Korra-Toph moments we get are ridiculously fun. “If you want to go to hug something, go hug a tree,” Toph tells her house guest before smacking her into the ground with worming rock punches. Though she's blind, Toph sees with more clarity than Korra. Out of the brawny geriatric's mouth, the wisdom doesn't sound that spiritual. For Toph, connectivity and perceptibility has always about feeling the world, not understanding its order, necessarily. A more visceral connection, sensing her daughters from afar through vibrations in roots, rather than transportive meditation experiences.

When it comes down to blunt questions — “Why can't I get better?” — Toph's plot-driven purpose reveals itself. It's a little ho-hum, but any excuse to fit Toph into Book 4 is a good excuse. The master's sensitive metalbending skills detect remaining poison still in Korra's system. She'll never be 100 percent because tiny mercury morsels are still weighing her down. An attempt at exorcising the poison fails. Korra unconsciously resists the operation. That's when Toph hits the Avatar, and us, with some on-the-nose truths: If Korra actually wanted to get better, actually wanted to resume her position as Avatar, she'd allow Toph to remove the poison. This is a deeper problem than Korra thought. Only bravery will extract the remnants of Zaheer's attacks. Oh, I see how that metaphor works....

Off in Republic City, Kuvira arrives to Prince Wu's coronation and immediately asserts herself as the leader of the “Earth Empire,” denouncing the royal line and threatening to crush any opposition. Everyone has the same “whoa” look on their face when she drops the mic (er, Kyoshi medal of honor). Even Tenzin, eager to confront and quell Kurvira's militaristic campaign, stands in shock at the announcement. Seizing back her power isn't really an option; The government recruited Kuvira to bring the cities of the Earth Kingdom back together. She's done what they've asked and then some. She's not looking to go to war.

Fascism is a tricky mind set to cut off at the pass. She has success on her resume, feeding and supporting enclaves who were falling apart at the seams, and more importantly, she has support. There's nationalism behind Kuvira, despite her bending arms of the weak to get there. Smart, history-savvy commenters will be able to explain how Mussolini and Hitler turned positivity into negativity in the same way (I am unqualified to do so). But even our favorite humanist Bolin is naïve to the deadly possibilities of Kuvira's authoritarian approach. In Great Uniter mode, Kuvira actually says, “Anyone who crosses our borders or stands in our way will be crushed” and plays it off as tough rhetoric to Bolin. Terrifying and totally understandable. On some level, she's right.

There's no room in Kuvira's philosophy for pomp and circumstance, the foundation of Prince Wu's very being. Mako and the bumbling king-to-be are a great comedic pair, the firebending body guard being the last person in the world to understand luxury and ornament (see: Mako's letters in “Korra Alone”). He's rational. After fleeing Kuvira supporters in a comic booky footchase, Mako imparts wisdom to the Prince. “What have you done for your people?” he asks, regretting it the next second. But Wu knows he's right. Kuvira deserves her place at the top because no one would stand up against her and provide an alternative. Could Wu retake the throne with a wiser head on his shoulders? Depends on what he learns — but he's learning! Book 4 may be all about balance, but “confidence” would be fitting too. In this first half of the season, characters redefine it as the alternative to ignored weakness.

For a heady episode, there were plenty of intriguing tidbits setting up for down the road. The image of Team Airbender demands a fist punch in the air. Ikki, Meelo, and Jinora (with hair and tattoos!) are suited up and ready to track down Korra. That's a journey I can't wait to go on. And what is Varrick up to with that spirit root? In the last scene, Kuvira tells her in-house engineer that “developing this technology is the number one priority.” With all the “Empire” talk, it's hard not to imagine some Avatarverse equivalent of the Death Star in the works. Or maybe it'll be more tough rhetoric.