As I sat down to write this, I realized I may've done some hyping up "The Stakeout" in my review of last week's "The Terror Within," and that may've led you to expect a knockdown drag-out brawl between Korra and Zaheer instead of Zaheer sitting under a spirit tree while espousing ideology to a slightly bewildered Korra. In my defense, I tend to get more excited about the latter sort of thing than I do about watching people beat each other up with rocks and gusts of wind.
But I was also excited about "The Stakeout" because it finally provided an answer to the question of what Zaheer and his gang—hereafter the Red Lotus—wanted with Korra all those years ago: to instruct her in a different way of restoring order and balance to the world, before the White Lotus and the rest could fill her head with status quo jargon about queens and presidents and their ideas of what constitutes order and balance. I imagine that they would now like to either convert Korra or kill her so that the Avatar can be reincarnated into a new child... assuming that cycle wasn't broken when Korra lost the connection to her past selves.
Zaheer's thinking was fairly boilerplate TV anarchist stuff—"true freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are torn down"—mixed with philosophical kōans like "the natural order is disorder." It's the type of thing that can get a bit annoying, as many media representations of anarchism tend toward a "chaos is good" idea, but there are many different types of the philosophy, and sometimes they get jumbled up, as was the case here. Zaheer wasn't exactly clear, or even consistent, about the ideas of freedom that he and the Red Lotus are all about. He's opposed to corrupt governments, so would he be okay with a non-corrupted government? Or would any centralized system be inherently corrupt and limiting? The bottom line is that anarchists on TV can be a little squishy.
But while a fully fleshed-out line of thinking would be nice, it's not completely necessary. What is necessary—and exciting—is that Zaheer, and by extension the Red Lotus, are in fact continuing Korra's tradition of villains with philosophical and political aims, something I alluded to back in my review of the season premiere. Korra's antagonists haven't merely been despots with a focus on achieving world domination (admittedly a political aim, but such a tired one in fiction) like Ozai in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Rather, they've had ideas about how the world ought to be, whether that means freedom from the inequality of bending or the reconstitution of the spirits' place in the physical world. It's a more interesting approach to antagonists, and I'm always in favor of interesting antagonists... often more so than interesting protagonists, even.
Another exciting aspect of all this is that Zaheer's philosophy snaps some of Book 3 into much-needed focus. Book 3 hasn't been bad, but it has been looser and less urgent than its predecessors, perhaps in keeping with Korra's shift away from the hustle of Republic City. The aims of the Red Lotus—like the aims of the Equalists and Unalaq before it—provide a framework for thinking about what's become the central concerns of the show as a whole: How should this world be after 100 years of war? Wh should people keep relying on old hierarchies and systems of government? And where does the Avatar fit into it, if at all?
Korra hasn't presented any easy answers, and that's generally reflective of our title character's own struggles to figure out who she as the Avatar, and what kind of Avatar she can be in this world with anti-benders and world leaders who aren't interested in deferring to someone who can control all the elements and do some glowy-eyed spiritualism. For the purposes of Book 3, it also at least gestures toward what Tenzin and the newly minted Air Nomads need to do in order to begin the culture anew (here, @RaizenYusuke's comment on the season premiere finally comes home to roost a bit). Things have been completely destroyed, and Tenzin is clinging to the old ways when maybe it would be better if he followed the mentality of the guru Laghima and embraced a chance to build something new instead.
It'd be nice if this aspect of Book 3 had come to the forefront a bit sooner instead of when there are only four episodes left, but I'll admit that's my personal predilection these sort of elements. More than anything else, I prefer them to have the chance to breathe. I am a touch concerned, however, that the season won't have time to wrap everything up in a satisfactory manner. There are quite a few plot threads dangling—including what the Red Lotus has in store for both Korra and Ba Sing Se, and Tenzin and the airbenders at the temple (and how Lin will manage to rescue everyone). But, given that the show is only now shifting gears, I have hope that it will do so.
– Odds on Su being a member of the Red Lotus? We already know she finds monarchy to be an outdated concept, and she did send Team Avatar after Aiwei, which could now be seen as a backup plan in case Zaheer's abduction plot didn't work. The apparent decentralization and emphasis on personal freedoms and pursuits in Zaofu also falls nicely in line with the Red Lotus's ideology.
– Unalaq's connection to the Red Lotus does nothing to repair that character, and, honestly, it felt a bit like the writers were saying, "No, no, we had this plan all along, and we're just getting around to justifying Unalaq's motivations now." Sloppy and unnecessary.
– "I said I had the best drinks in the Earth Kingdom, and he called me a liar." "That's him! Any idea where he went?" "Afraid not. And he was right... my drinks are terrible." AWWWWWWW.
– That Nuk-Tuk doll was horrifying, especially when it squeaked.
– We're not yet sure whether we'll continue reviewing Korra week-to-week, or if we'll just circle back when the final episode is posted online and do a finale review/Book 3 wrap-up. The decision basically hinges on how well this review does.
What did you think of "The Stakeout"?
AIRED ON 12/19/2014
Season 3 : Episode 13