On July 20, 1944, a plot by the German Resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler by briefcase bomb failed. On November 7, 2014, a plot by Suyin Beifong and her two songs to assassinate the Great Uniter, Kuvira, failed. Fascist dictators: They're so hard to kill, real or not.

There was no question that Suyin taking matters into her own hands at the tail end of “Enemy at the Gates” would ultimately implode, ninja skills or not. Kuvira was her padawan. She knows the Zaofu leader's every move. More surprising was how Korra handled her capture: The girl who declared, “fighting was something the old me would do and that only made things worse” winds up in single combat fight. And loses. Badly.

A title like “Battle of Zaofu” hints at 'Lord of the Rings'-style action. What we get is whittled down and gut-wrenching, evoking a rarer breed of gladiator movies and modern peplum. Did you see 'Troy'? For all its big setpieces, its Hector versus Achilles duel stands apart as a display of maximum ferociousness. What Kuvira and Korra lack in Brad Pitt biceps they make up for with rage, cunning intellect, and an assortment of bending powers. Eat it Harry Potter — no wizard duel ever had the momentum of a good ol' fashioned Avatar brawl.

There's a weird gut feeling, one I can't quite resist, that tells me 'Legend of Korra' should crescendo to its ending, building bigger and more threatening with each passing 22 minutes. “Battle of Zaofu” takes the opposite approach, Kuvira literally bashing Korra back into the curled up ball we found her in the concluding moments of “After All These Years”. The episode still paid off the underling army readying to pounce when Kuvira gave the order (most of them swept up by Opal and Jinora's whirlwind), but instead of 'Game of Thrones,' we got a power play that rings a little more Shakespeare. Mano a mano fighting asks questions of the opponents: Who are they? Why do they fight? Why does the winner get the upper hand?

I first considered Kuvira a sociopath, lost in a cloud of ideology, convinced an iron fist is the only way to bring the Earth Nation back together. After her spat with Korra, we know she's a little more cognizant of her own “valor.” She's hungry for power, hungry for praise. People need to bow at her feet, not simply act as cogs in her socialist regime. As she sneered and gracefully out maneuver Korra, we finally see the Great Uniter transform from psycho tyrant to what Toph might call “unbalanced.” She's a straight-up villain.

Something's still wrong with Korra. The poison's out, though the inhibiting self-doubt remains. Maybe it's because she didn't want this fight. She didn't want to go into the Avatar state. By trying to do the right thing, Korra succumbs to Kuvira's relentless moves. And man, it's a firestorm. Even with fire, air, and earth at her disposal, Kuvira's sidestepping and metalbending counter every move. She slaps Korra with rock foot clamps and metal cuffs. There's no physical or moral approach that Korra can take (at least in her current state) that would trump Kuvira. Even the Avatar state fails — after gaining the upperhand for a hot minute, our hero sees her own face atop Kuvira's armored body. The true Luke-in-the-Darth-Vader helmet moment.

The fight ends with a rescue. Jinora summons Ikki, Meelo, and Pepper before Kuvira can land a death blow. Protecting the Avatar means sacrificing Zaofu, a choice Suyin condones. The retreat paves the way for one of the series' most sinister moments. Actress Zelda Williams sends shivers down the spine. Disheveled, hair undone, Kuvira looks up with her stampeding army moving in and declares, “ZAOFU IS OURS!” Way to rub it in.

“Battle of Zaofu” needed to stretch the Korra-Kuvira encounter across one entire episode. Each time we cut back to it, the pounding is harder and harder, the defeat that much worse. Luckily, it became a great excuse to give Varrick his day in the sun. I can't remember an episode with this much of the self-absorbed genius and his string-pulling antics. John Michael Higgins is hysterical, his explosive escape plan schizophrenically intruded upon by his love-hate longing for Zhu Li. The jailed Oppenheimer-like figure manages to turn his spirit vine laser into a ticking time bomb, sending the feeble Bataar running. If Book 4's “Balance” subtitle is code for redemption, this lovable criminal is on the right road.

The episode ends with more teasing about Kuvira's ultimate goal. After showing off a captured Suyin like she's a lion hunted for sport, Kuvira turns her attention to the next attack. Bataar thinks he can still build the spirit vine weapon. And now the Great Uniter wants to rip up Zaofu's domes? Will she metal bend them into an actual Death Star? Is Republic City the final target? And where's Korra going? Can Team Avatar regroup once more for a final showdown?? So many questions.

I haven't lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world.