To try to make a long story short, there's a time skip of three years in-between Seasons 3 and 4. Korra starts out still recovering both physically and mentally from her ordeal at the end of Season 3. (Speaking of, I know Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra both really push the envelope as far as Nickelodeon shows go, but mercury poisoning? That's just brutal.)
The season's new main villain is Kuvira, who was a minor character in Season 3. During the time skip, Kuvira has restored order to the Earth Kingdom, but rather than turning over power to the heir to the throne (who is, admittedly, a complete imbecile), she has seized power for herself and shown herself to be a dictator.
-------------------- "Kirito? I killed a thing and now it says I have XPs! Is that bad? Am I dying?"
-Asuna, Episode 2, Sword Art Online Abridged
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