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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Legend of Korra: The Stakeout

Okay, so can we all agree that this season of Korra is excellent? Sure, there’s still time for it to go terribly wrong, and there were a couple of things in this episode that bugged me, but however clumsily this show may have started, by now things have well and truly been ironed out.

Right? (To be honest, I’ve avoided the wider reaches of fandom as I always felt vaguely odd about enjoying something that everyone else seemed to openly despise).

But Korra is acquitting herself well as a responsible Avatar, Mako is no longer a jerk, Asami is blissfully love triangle free, and Bolin’s comic relief duties have found equilibrium (taking the edge of the tension without coming across as obnoxious).

The continuity with itself and the original series is great, the storyline is clean and focused, the supporting characters are interesting (especially the villains) and the animation is fantastic. It's also gifted me with my new favourite GIF:

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So according to me, Korra has redeemed itself – which hopefully isn’t a pre-emptive thing to say.

So we get some definitive answers in this episode as to the motives of the Red Lotus (yeah, we got a name for them as well!), and though it certainly looks like they’re going to come down on the side of villainy (at least Doylistically), they’re at least given a point of view that paints them as more than mere terrorist kidnappers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We start with Korra and cohorts following Aiwei’s trail from the City of Zaofu to the familiar locale of the Misty Palms Oasis, where Aang and his gang once had a run-in with similarly minded trouble-makers. It’s on the outskirts that they find Aiwei’s abandoned jeep and deduce that he’s hiding somewhere in the township.

The boys don their (rather awful) disguises and go to search the streets, while Korra and Asami wait behind and end up discovering a clue in Aiwei’s jeep: a piece of paper with a time and place written on it. Details of Aiwei’s intended meeting with Zaheer?

Everyone gets something important to do: from Asami finding the piece of paper (she would be the one who’d know all the hiding places in a car), to Bolin’s mover fame securing a room for the four of them at the inn opposite Aiwei, to Mako taking charge of the stakeout, to Korra realizing that the address referred to a location in the spirit world. The long and tedious business of the stakeout itself was filled with Bolin and Asami playing Pai Sho, something that could have been equally long and tedious were it not for the obvious significance of the way each player approached the game.

Bolin insists the game is a fast-paced game of chance; Asami believes that it’s slow and strategic. Here’s what the rule book had to say about it:

The origins of Pai Sho date back over ten thousand years. It is a chance of both strategy and chance. There have been countless variations of Pai Sho through the centuries and each culture has its own rules and variations on the game.

It initially seems fairly pointless until you make the connection between Pai Sho and the White Lotus Society, which used the game's tokens to communicate with each other back in the original series. Soon enough Zaheer reveals himself as a member of the Red Lotus, a breakaway group of the White which has very different ideological understanding of the group's purpose.

Whoops, getting ahead of myself again.

Korra’s impatience gets the better of her and she decides to confront Aiwei directly – only to find that he’s deep in meditation. Realizing that he’s meeting Zaheer in the spirit world, Korra falls into a trance in order to follow him.

YAY, I LOVE THE SPIRIT WORLD! It’s as beautiful as ever, with autumnal light and giant floating spirits. It’s there that Zaheer confronts Aiwei about his failure in Zaofu and promptly throws him in the Fog of Lost Souls – but not before realizing that Korra has followed him.

As with the stakeout, the lengthy exposition scene that follows could have been terminally dull were it not for the fact that a) Zaheer is deliberately trying to stall Korra so that his allies can track down her vulnerable body, and b) that it’s interspersed with another great fight scene as Bolin/Mako try to hold off Ming Hua and Ghazan while Asami makes a run for it with Korra’s body.

It’s ingeniously done, though I have a few little niggles with the reveal of Zaheer’s goals and motives. As Zaheer tells Korra, the Red Lotus is a secret society dedicated to restoring freedom to the world (NOT balance, a striking comparison to the creed of the Avatars); an offshoot of the White Lotus whose ideals they rejected (namely in serving government bodies).

It was Unalaq who planned to kidnap Korra as a baby with the purpose of raising her to open the portals between the spirit and mortal worlds. When that fell through, Unalaq covered his tracks and let Zaheer’s people go to prison for the crime – turns out that his goal of becoming a Dark Avatar had nothing whatsoever to do with what the Red Lotus was/is trying to achieve.

Which is anarchy, basically.

Okay. So.

I didn’t really like that Unalaq was brought into all this, mainly because he was the weakest part of last season, and his involvement in the Red Lotus feels a bit like a retcon. I suppose if you squint you could slip this new background into his season two agenda: that his desire to bring the spirits back into the mortal world led to his ambition to become a Dark Avatar, but the whole mention of him is rather superfluous anyway.

It also felt like a deliberately muddied reading of Wan’s backstory, as we know that bringing Vaatu back into the world was the absolute last thing that any sensible person would want. And as with Unalaq, this whole spirit angle isn’t particularly important in the grand scheme of what Zaheer is currently trying to do (after all, the portals have already been opened).

And what Zaheer is trying to do is topple governments:

The idea of having nations and governments is as foolish as keeping the human and spirit worlds separate. You’ve had to deal with a moronic President and a tyrannical Queen. Don’t you think the world would be better off if leaders like them were eliminated?

When Korra argues that this will only cause chaos, he replies: “Exactly. The natural order is disorder.”

So I got my wish that Zaheer and company would be more than just mindless criminals. Hopefully they won’t be revealed as hypocrites (like Amon) or fall into megalomania (like Unalaq) by the end of the season; two unnecessary traits which completely undermined those previous characters as effective antagonists. Here, they are allowed to claim some degree of moral high-ground when Zaheer points out the corruption and/or ineffectiveness of President Raiko, the Earth Queen and the Fire Lord Ozai, whose genocide of the air-benders almost drove them to extinction. Heck, Zaheer can even quote an air-bending guru to justify his political stance!

And yet for all of their political clarity, these guys are clearly still meant to be considered villains, albeit of the Well Intentioned Extremist variety. Whatever your reasons, kidnapping a child and throwing a man into a misty purgatory are not good things, and we already know that their willingness to release Vaatu was based on (at best) intensely flawed logic. So at some point it’s going to come down to Korra defeating them – I just hope it’s in a way that allows them to keep some degree of their three-dimensionality.

After all, we still don’t know what they have planned for Korra in the present day. Why’d they try to kidnap her from Zaofu? What I find most interesting about all this is that for the first time, we really get the sense of the Avatar as a political symbol rather than just a spiritual one; an individual whose opinions, actions and upbringing can have very real ramifications on the history of the world. I mean, just imagine if the Red Lotus had been successful in brainwashing her as a child. What would have the world looked like then?

So my theory is that Bolin and Asami’s conversation about Pai Sho is a metaphor for the current conflict between the White and Red Lotus, with the Pai Sho board as the world and the playing pieces as the opposing societies. But whereas the white upholds law and order, the red seeks to undermine authority and impose chaos. The depictions of bureaucrats like President Raiko and rulers such as Queen Hou-Ting only serve to strengthen the Red Lotus’s argument, and yet the Red's tactics and goals make them just as morally unsuited for any authoritative role as any current  world ruler (beside, we have yet to see how Zuko's daughter is handling the Fire Nation). 

Which means that Korra will have to Take a Third Option – one that rejects the old ways, but doesn’t green-light the wanton destruction of government bodies and the communities they serve. And if Bolin and Asami can play the same game in vastly different ways with no overt conflict, then so can the world at large.

And I’m sure that this is where Suyin will step in, as the leader of a Utopian society that has found a way to balance leadership with democracy; a harmonious middle ground that rejects both extremes. She’s already voiced her distaste for the Earth Queen, and certainly feels betrayed by Aiwei – it will perhaps be with her help that Korra forges a new path for the world to take.

All rather like the Vorlons and the Shadows from Babylon 5, really.

Miscellaneous Observations:

There were so many great nuggets of foreshadowing, from establishing early that the Earth Queen is putting up wanted posters for Korra’s arrest, to the strange behaviour of the spirits while Asami was reading the map – it’s enough to make me forgive that the boys’ discovery of Aiwei was a lucky coincidence.

I saw the over-enthusiastic fans of “Nuktuk” coming a mile away – and I wonder if their creepy behaviour was born out of Mike and Bryan’s personal experience.

Asami making an escape from the inn with an unconscious Korra in her arms... *happy sigh*.

Arranging a meeting to take place in the spirit world is a fantastic idea – you can stay in the privacy of your own hideout and be assured that no one can follow you (well, except in this case). Probably my favourite scene was Korra and Zaheer talking in deceptively tranquil surroundings while their bodies remained in the physical world, some distance away from each other.

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 I suppose the shout-out to Hannibal Lector’s gurney, mask and straight jacket was meant to be a bit of a joke, but personally I found it quite a horrifying visual (and not just because of my claustrophobia). That our lovely heroine could be treated like a deranged cannibal serial killer is the greatest indication yet that the Earth Queen has got to go.

All in all, it’s clear why this season has been called Change. It’s a theme that has always been inherent in the show’s atmosphere (that is, its alternative 1920s time period), one that’s always been heavily infused with technology and revolutions, from Amon’s invectives to Varrick’s inventions to the influx of new airbenders.

Now the entire world is on the brink of political reform, with old royal institutions ready to collapse and fusty bureaucrats ineffectively fumbling in their roles. Zaheer wants to change the world by burning it all to the ground – I suspect Korra’s role as the Avatar will be to find a peaceful resolution that brings about much needed-change without casting aside the legacies of the past.
 

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