Re-Avatar State: “The Stakeout” & “Long Live The Queen”

The Stakeout

What does Zaheer want? A simple question that has been motivating both our heroes and villains, there’s been moments of chaos and calamity as our characters come into contact with the Red Lotus (thank God I can right that now), but the MO has remained mostly elusive until now. Yes we know he wanted to end The Avatar and the White Lotus, but what drives these goals.

In “The Stakeout,” another sterling entry in the season, we finally get an answer. Zaheer, and the Red Lotus writ large, are a kind of anarchist syndicate (we’ll circle around to this again in a second) a group bent on tearing down the fabric of organized society in the aim of returning to a more pure and chaotic state of living, one where pure freedom may live. It’s quite heady, and while Korra and Zaheer chat takes up a large chunk of the episode, the writers once again do a smart job of undercutting expectations and flipping tension on its head. For all it’s heightened stakes, this episode is another spry and fleet-footed entry in the season.

Team Avatar’s pursuit of Zaheer has lead them to the desert, and it turns out their presence isn’t really appreciated. The first bar they step into has their faces slathered all over the walls in wanted posters, looks like the Earth Queen is serious about getting after Korra. Still the group winds their way to Misty Palms Oasis, and they locate Aiwei’s car. To keep things from spiraling out with the local authorities Mako and Bolin don some (hilariously conspicuous) disguises to scope out the town. With the help of a shopkeep and the meddling of some spirits, the bending brothers are able to track Aiwei to an inn.

This whole section accomplishes what the opening of the “The Terror Within” did in the previous episode, we start an important entry with some silliness to temper the mood before things take a serious turn for the worse. There’s a lot to dig into here from a production standpoint, that the Misty Palms Oasis is a hub for the spirits. That Bolin has a lot of Nuktuk fans still about in the world. Even with all this goofy material Team Avatar is on a serious mission, Korra and Asami have determined where Aiwei and Zaheer are meeting, and the titular stakeout begins.

During the long haul watch and wait of said stakeout we are treated to an odd digression into the world of Pai Sho, a subject only slightly referenced so far in Korra. For a few minutes we see Bolin and Asami go back and forth about the correct philosophy and technique that need to be used to excel at the game. So what does this moment accomplish, it’s amusing enough on its own, but there is something more here. Bolin comments that Korra should standardize the rule sets for Pai Sho across the world, again a small joke, but one that illuminates the challenges the Avatar faces. No matter where Korra goes or what she does, there will always be different rules of engagement, the world simply does not work on a one size fits all system, and it’s that fact that makes her life incredibly difficult to sort.

As the stakeout continues Korra decides to do her thing and force her way in Aiwei’s room. When she does she finds the truth seer meditating into the Spirit World. Aha! Zaheer must be out of the physical plain. Once Korra enters the Spirit World she sees Aiwei and Zaheer meet, and quickly Zaheer turns against his mole (now made a loose end) and tosses the truth seer into the fog of lost souls. Zaheer’s not one to let threads dangle in the wind. Now, though, now is his time to monologue.

Amusingly the villainous speechifying from Zaheer right now is a clever inversion of the expected trope. He is indeed trying to buy time for the rest of his team to go out an catch Korra why he talks to her. Still he is pretty straightforward with the Avatar, and lays out his general world view and ideology for his audience of one. Zaheer leads the Red Lotus, a splinter group of the White Lotus. Their purpose is to return the world to place chaos where one can achieve a true sense of freedom. Originally the group wanted to take Korra and train her in these goals, but their defeat has lead Zaheer to his current course of action. He’ll tear down the current world order, damn the consequences.

Here is where I’ll pause and take a moment to note the slight naming issue with Zaheer and the Red Lotus. From the outside they are tagged as anarchists, a group dead set at destroying organized governments. But this is a bit of misnomer, that is in fact what Zaheer wants to do, tear down the existing order for something new, however it reads far less like the classic Conspiracy of Equals and more like a refined vision of the Bundy’s. The goals of the Red Lotus feel, and are in practice, much more in line with libertarian political analysis than true left leaning governmental anarchy. It’s annoying that the writers moderately conflate the two, but it makes sense given that this particular bad guy was concocted in 2013.

Never the less, Zaheer’s political screed resonates with Korra. She’s had to deal with the nonsense of both President Raiko and The Earth Queen. She knows how difficult it is to manage balancing the interests of governments and the interests of the citizens within them. It’s the entire job for her, and with the exception of Zaofu, she’s been rebuffed by all people in power she’s met this season. Even if Zaheer’s endgame is bad news for the Avatar, what he says has some salience to Korra’s current predicament.

While the convo between Zaheer and Korra continues. Ghazan and Ming-Hua storm on to Team Avatar. Asami is sent out with Korra’s body as Mako and Bolin hold off the onslaught from the lavabender and water arms. Again we are treated to another marvelous piece of action. Bolin and Ghazan’s duel highlights the difficulty of fighting lava with rocks, the more Bolin tosses at his opponent, the more ammunition he has. Mako is dexterous enough to maneuver a bit around Ming-Hua’s tentacles, but the spider like precision of the appendages eventually slap down our hero’s hopes for coming out on top.

With Mako and Bolin captured by the Red Lotus it appears that Korra and Asami are the only ones to stop what’s coming. But wait the Earth Queen’s forces are able to take advantage of Korra’s knocked out state and move the two into custody. With Korra in full Hannibal Lecter regalia and Mako and Bolin bound and gagged, all of our heroes and villains are on their way back to Ba Sing Sae for one more confrontation with the Earth Queen.

Odds and Ends

  • Along with the face mask and restraints, the switch up at the end of the episode feels like another nod to Silence of the Lambs.
  • The Misty Palms Oasis seems to be doing pretty good these days.
  • Retcon Alert: Unalaq was once part of the Red Lotus. This piece of information does almost nothing to change my opinion of the show’s worst villain, but it does widen the conspiracy of the Red Lotus in an interesting way.
  • Zaheer’s ability to enter the Spirit World offers an explanation to how he knew where Korra was last week.
  • We once again see the book with the Bruce Lee looking fellow on the cover, I wonder what’s inside.
  • The wanted posters for Team Avatar includes information from all the times each one of them was arrested in Republic City. This group kind of has an impressive rap sheet.

Long Live the Queen

If I may be so bold, and borrow a thought from the now eternally cursed Harry Potter franchise, there is a tension in the world of the fantastic that will always be nearly impossible to resolve. In the universe of Harry Potter there is a small detail that lingers throughout the second half of the series that speaks to an incredibly potent idea. Inside the Ministry of Magic, the governmental institution that oversees all things with wizards, there is a statue in the lobby depicting a group of people being crushed with a simple and worrisome engraving, “Magic is Might.” This slogan speaks directly to the tenuousness  of a political institution within a  fantastical setting. In these worlds there are people with power checks, that, if they so desired, override the need of nominal government.

Conceptually this theme has floated in the background of the entire Avatar franchise. Sozin and Ozai were able to defy the will of others through sheer strength alone when imbued with the power of the comet. Amon was able to topple a city because he had access to an ability that few possessed, and once again we see this recur with Zaheer. He has the power of airbending on his side, and can use it to execute his will.

This also proves a structural problem for Korra. Because despite all the previous examples of people overpowering the machinery of normal life, Korra is shackled to a sense of legacy and honor. Her crisis of legitimacy comes from the fact that she is indeed the single most powerful person in the world, but few of the heads of state actually act like it. She can be dismissed by Raiko and Hou-Ting because they know Korra can’t properly act out, lest she cause another international incident like a Water Tribe Civil War.

So all these troubles come to a raging boil in what is perhaps the show’s most startling entry. “Long Live The Queen,” presents the Rubicon of the series of The Legend of Korra where all the background musings about power and control explode with what is arguably the most gruesome moment in the entire franchise. The assassination of the Earth Queen by Zaheer is still a shocking sequence, even after Tarrlok’s murder-suicide. It represents the final and full realization of where Zaheer and the Red Lotus stand. They will destroy those they see as enemies without mercy or remorse, and Team Avatar needs to be ready for what’s coming.

The events that lead to the death of Hou-Ting are a series of mixups and miscommunications. Since The Red Lotus only have Mako and Bolin to offer to her majesty, they need to bide their time while waiting for Earth Kingdom forces to deliver the Avatar to Ba Sing Sae. It puts The Red Lotus on the backburner for a moment, but again Zaheer can act on his own accord, he is not bound by respect or the need for established laws.

Korra and Asami on the other hand need to make a daring escape out of the desert after wrecking an Earth Kingdom airship into a dune. The two are forced to work together with their captors to escape from a giant sand worm, and the process here highlights something Korra can do that makes her power and existence important. You see the airship crew is loyal to the Queen, not for any other reason than they have to be and are bound to do so. Korra can in fact act outside this supposed mandate, and build unity with the people out of power. It’s what eventually was able to sway the new airbenders to join Tenzin. Korra had to demonstrate that her abilities and insight can in fact aid those working underneath oppressive regimes.

The whole escape in the desert is an act of reconciliation between opposing forces that doesn’t need to be resolved by coming to blows. It demonstrates that the power and insight of The Avatar can in fact find purchase when separated from the high wire act of preventing world ending events. Korra and the ship’s crew end their adventure on good terms, and in a manner that points to the possibility of future comity. Plus it’s fun to watch the gang outrun a giant sand worm if I do say so myself.

This adventure actually scuttles the plan the Red Lotus had formed with meeting with The Earth Queen. Now that Mako and Bolin are in the slammer, and Korra’s out of the picture for the time being, Zaheer takes drastic measures to get what he wants. Nows not the time for waiting, now is the time for action. So the Red Lotus steps into the Queen’s chambers, dispatch her guards, and begins the process of extricating her breath from her lungs.

As Zaheer strangles the world leader he offers a bit of insight into his actions. He does not believe in queens, and he detests those who can adjudicate what matters to the citizenry. “You think freedom is something that you can give or take on a whim To your people freedom is just as essential as air. And without it there is no life,” says Zaheer, “There is only darkness.” And with that The Earth Queen has died, long live the queen.

That’s not the only bit of revolutionary action the Red Lotus participates in, he goes to the airwaves to make a proclamation. The people of Ba Sing Sae are free, the queen is dead, and the walls of the city will tumble. And those impregnable walls once again fall, but not to an invading force, but to simply the people on the streets.

As all this is going down Mako tries to encourage Bolin to metalbend the duo out of prison. Surely Bolin would have picked up something from his time at Zaofu. Alas it is all for not, and even when it looks like he might have his big moment it ends up just being Zaheer releasing the prisoners and proffering a message to the Avatar to be conveyed by the brothers.

Korra and Asami arrive safely back at the Misty Palms Oasis to find Lin, Tonraq, and Zuko waiting for them. There’s relief that everyone’s okay, but then the news of the queen reaches Korra. And she knows that things are going to get much, much more dangerous.

Odds and Ends

  • These were the first two episodes of the show to be pulled from the air and debuted online. There is a conspiracy out there that it was because the content of Korra finally crossed a line that Nick was uncertain to send this stuff to TV. I can both buy it, and am dubious. Again Tarrlok’s murder-suicide was seen far and wide at 9 AM on a Saturday.
  • But S&P still strikes, as Zaheer’s utterance of “darkness” at the Earth Queen’s death feels like a concession to let the scene play out as it is.
  • Bolin’s chit-chat with Ghazan and Ming-Hua is pretty amazing.
  • I like that Korra is still sloppy with her metalbending as she tears her way through the airship.
  • Also enjoy that the captain has a hook hand that he keeps in his pocket until the very end of the episode. Just a weird detail that is both slight and amusing.
  • Naga and Pabu can be nice to Lin as long as she has treats.