The Legend of Korra: The Stakeout review

Plot developments and callbacks to previous episodes of Korra and Avatar made for another great entry from The Legend of Korra.

Team Avatar tracks Aiwei down to the Misty Palms Oasis (did I call it or what?), but decide to hold off on jumping him once they learn of a meeting he’s arranged with Zaheer. Since they can’t find the location anywhere on the map, they settle in for a stakeout, waiting for him to make his move so they can follow. When it turns out that his meeting is in the Spirit World, Korra meditates her way inside just in time to see the meeting’s end, which does not go so well for Aiwei. While there, Korra finally confronts Zaheer, who rather openly answers her questions about him and his associates, finally named as The Order of the Red Lotus.

You know, I came to this episode very wary. Just the title alone sent a shiver up my spine, making me dread that it would be a companion piece to “The Sting.” You know, some contrived, slightly noir filler episode to showcase Mako’s cop-ness. Thanks, no. And indeed, the first half of the episode did nothing to dissuade me from these fears. It was slow, not much happened, and I didn’t really see the point of it. And then the second half happened, and it was beyond amazing.

First off, while this was another example of utilizing Mako’s cop/detective background, here it felt much more natural. Probably because Book Three’s plot has been, from the word go, far more coherent than Book Two’s, but whatever the reason, it felt like Mako was being used well in service of the story, not the other way around. And yes, I was afraid the stakeout itself would be boring, because that’s precisely what stakeouts are: sitting around and waiting for something to happen.

Instead, the writers use the characters’ boredom with the lack of plot progression as an opportunity to re-introduce some Avatar mythology and foreshadow the revelations to come later. Here we get mention of pai sho, revealed in Avatar to have been invented or at the very least highly honored by The Order of the White Lotus. Pai sho and the White Lotus have become closely associated, and the game’s appearance (plus a few new facts learned about it) hints at the involvement of the White Lotus in the plot, something that hasn’t been mentioned since the beginning of the season.

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Well, we get so much here. Before I get into it, there are a few smaller points I’d like to mention. The callback to the Fog of Lost Souls was unexpected and came much sooner than I’d have thought, but it’s no less welcome. Mako and Bolin vs. Ming Hua and Ghazan was one hell of a fight. Well storyboarded and exciting enough to make up for the thinness of the first half. The planting of the wanted posters by order of the Earth Queen leading to the pay-off where Korra is abducted not by the Red Lotus, but by the Earth Queen’s forces, was a clever way of keeping the threat of the Earth Queen fresh in the viewer’s minds.

But let’s talk about what’s really the heart of this episode. We finally learn what the Red Lotus is all about and what they’ve been doing all this time… and it’s spectacular.

According to Zaheer, the Red Lotus was formed at the end of the Hundred Years War, when the White Lotus came out of hiding, ceased to be a secret society, and essentially came into the service of the Avatar. Quite a few people didn’t like it too much, and thus a rogue faction split off and became the Red Lotus, a new secret society with goals of its own. And what are those goals, you ask? 

Well, the Red Lotus wants to maintain balance in the world. Sounds good in theory, but then why did they try to kidnap Korra? Well, because Unalaq was one of them and was behind the whole thing. Turns out his machinations last season were not his first attempt to use Korra for his own agenda. His whole Vaatu / Dark Avatar plan was on the backburner all along, not that Zaheer and the others knew about it. Unalaq wasn’t with them for the abduction attempt and thus avoided implication.

Zaheer further explains that Korra was right to leave the spirit portals open and allow crossover between the physical and spirit worlds, but why stop at that one boundary? Why not eliminate nations and governments all together so people can be truly free? Korra rightly points out that it doesn’t sound like balance at all. Sure President Raiko and the Earth Queen are kind of horrible, but taking out world leaders doesn’t sound like an improvement. It sounds like chaos. And before I can fully brace for the same kind of half-truth bullshit Unalaq vomited up in every scene, Zaheer just cops to it. Yes, it will throw the world into chaos, and in his view, that will restore balance, because chaos is the natural state of the world. AND I FUCKING LOVE THIS!

It’s not because I buy into Zaheer’s spiel. Please, I’ve had more “anarchist” friends than I care to admit, all of whom talked a big game about how great anarchy would be but would totally shit their pants if it ever really happened. I’ve heard all of Zaheer’s speeches before and far less eloquently, and I don’t buy what he’s selling, but he does make a strong argument. Natural systems do tend toward entropy and chaos. Whether or not that’s what’s best for the world is certainly subject to debate, but entropy is entropy. And thus he has a point. Zaheer believes in what he’s doing, and it’s not for evil, selfish reasons. He really believes this is what the world needs.

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And I believe his sincerity in his philosophical views in a way that I never believed Unalaq’s. Zaheer is kind of what I originally thought Unalaq would be before they just decided to slap a black hat on him. The Red Lotus (or at least this faction of it) truly believes that everything they’re doing is in the best interests of the world, and that is so much better than having them be selfish criminal masterminds or bargain basement extremists. For once, Team Avatar is truly dealing with an opposing force who also wants to make the world a better place, only their way.

What’s great about all this, besides providing us with villains who end up seeming even cooler than they already did, is that it recontextualizes certain elements from Book Two that didn’t totally make sense. Unalaq’s loyalty to Vaatu and his desire to become a Dark Avatar always seemed kind of deluded and nutty to me, and while Unalaq certainly proved to be insane, I don’t allow something like that to handwave logical loopholes. I mean, come on. Just his choice of words, saying “Dark Avatar,” betrays a cultural and philosophical bias. While certainly a goal that a villain could get behind, it’s a hard sell as something one has convinced himself is philosophically sound and morally righteous.

This was a glaring weakness in the construction of Unalaq’s character… until now. If Unalaq truly believed that taking the world back to a more primal state was for the best, if he believed that the separation of humans and spirits was just one of many constructs mankind has plagued the world with, if he believed in nature and that chaos was our most natural state, well, then… yeah. Of course he’d side with Vaatu. And looking back, this was hinted at with a comment he made about a new world order free of the construct of the Four Nations, so it makes me wonder how much of this was planned and how much was just some of the best retcon this show has ever seen.

Also of note is, again, Zaheer. His motives are revealed, both why he wants the Avatar (or at least why he did back then; they generously leave us with the mystery of what his current plans are) and what beef he has with the White Lotus. And it is *so* much more interesting than some kind of lame-ass, clichéd grudge for his captors. When he talked about taking them down, there was certainly some venom in his tone, but it didn’t feel personal. And it isn’t!

We also finally know how Zaheer knew Team Avatar was in Zaofu: he was meeting up with Aiwei in the Spirit World. He also mentions to Korra that the original plan was for his Red Lotus faction to become her elemental masters, but who was going to be her airbending master had their plan worked? All this seems to support my theory that Zaheer is a fallen Air Acolyte. How else could one explain his detailed knowledge of Air Nomad history and culture, the kind of spiritual acumen to not only enter the Spirit World at will and communicate with others through it but to also verbalize basic messages through his physical body while having an intensive conversation in the Spirit World? And then there’s his proficiency with airbending despite having only recently acquired his airbending abilities? Well, if he’d spent his youth learning at Aang’s feet on Air Temple Island, watching him and Tenzin airbend, studying their physical moves and combative psychology.

Zaheer’s entire life was spent in preparation for the day when he’d have to teach Korra to airbend without being able to do it himself, and then suddenly one day he ascended from a devoted wannabe to a true airbender. No wonder he believes he’s some kind of chosen one.

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I have to say, if Zaheer’s origin is anything other than this, there stands a very real chance I’ll be disappointed by it. What I was not disappointed by was this episode, and it totally faked me out in the beginning, leading me to believe it wouldn’t deliver. But holy shit, did it! We got some incredible plot developments, some amazing callbacks not only to earlier episodes of Korra but to Avatar as well, the fixing of dangling threads, and so much payoff. So, so much. I am DYING for more.

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4 out of 5