As a whole, “The Stakeout” is a decent episode. Mako’s detective skills are put to good use as he leads the team on a stake out against Aiwei when the latter hides out in Misty Palm Oasis. Asami has a significant amount of screen time and she notably finds a map of Aiwei’s secret meeting place. Not to mention the fantastic twist ending leaves us with Korra and Asami captured not by Zaheer’s group as it first seems, but rather the Earth Queen’s troops.
Sadly, there are two factors that keep this episode from perfection. The first is glaring pacing issues. The first half of “The Stakeout” drags the plot for no reason other than to obligatorily fill a half-hour episode. Bolin and Mako are pursued by a couple of bounty hunters early on, but they’re merely fans of Bolin’s films. It adds a level of tension that was unnecessary. Later, Asami and Bolin engage in a game of Pai Sho. I want to be optimistic and assume this has some significance to the overall plot. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the game was connected to the White Lotus, so perhaps this scene occurred in an effort to foreshadow the Red Lotus. Otherwise, I can’t perceive why this was needed. It’s a lovely and hilarious moment between Bolin and Asami, but it does drag.
The second factor is Zaheer’s motivation. Korra confronts the man in the Spirit World and he courteously provides answers. He and his cronies are of the elusive Red Lotus, a group founded by a White Lotus defector. Zaheer is disdainful of the White Lotus for coming out of secrecy to directly serve governments and official figures, upholding a system he views as corrupt. He prefers a world of freedom and mystery, a place of chaos and disorder. He had planned to kidnap Korra thirteen years ago in order to train her to bring such a world about. The opening of the Spirit World was an unintended victory score for Zaheer’s team, though we find out Unalaq was also a member of their group. This helps explain why that Unalaq wanted to unleash Vaatu, even if his motivation is still laughably evil.
I had to muse over this because something about Zaheer’s plans didn’t click with me. Eventually I realized why: his goal isn’t deep enough. The problem doesn’t lie in what he believes in, because it perfectly fits with his brand of ideology. The Air Nomads appear to be the only culture out of the four Bending societies to lack a traditional governmental system. My guess is that the oldest and wisest with full mastery of their Airbending abilities act as “leader” figures, serving as mentors and guides to younger Airbenders. Zaheer closely follows Airbending philosophy, so he adheres to their lifestyle.
But it’s also ridiculously obtuse. Why does Zaheer think chaos is better than order and law? What does he have against rulers and government figures other than they’re “corrupt?” He does point out the actions of the Earth Queen and President Raiko, which adds a slight bit of justification, but he never explains why disorder is the right path. The Air Nomads may not have stuck to this train of thought and they are certainly “free” in comparison, but how that does equate to “chaos?” What’s so good about a world with no order? Zaheer doesn’t give us a reason why this is benevolent other than “I hate the government”, which makes me think he really just has it in for anyone with a major position of power.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean Zaheer’s group has been reduced to a bunch of aimless antagonists. I think Zaheer has a specific bias that fuels his desires. Notice that he cites Airbending scriptures to justify his actions, twisting the Airbending philosophy to fit his own means. Imagine how Tenzin would react if he got wind of this; there is no way he would ever appreciate his people being dragged down in the mud to create a world of utter madness. This is as far from balance as one could go. Meanwhile, Zaheer has yet to answer the big question: why does he need Korra? He purposely keeps the answer in the dark, so there’s room for leverage. The show is more than capable of figuring out how to work on what is essentially an anarchist group, but there’s a few holes that need to be filled in.
In a previous review, I offered a theory that Suyin may potentially be working with Aiwei and that she could be on Zaheer’s side. She secretly slipped Team Avatar out to pursue Aiwei instead of letting Lin take them back to Republic City for safety. I wondered if her intent was to hand them over to the Red Lotus, but “The Stakeout” seems to prove otherwise. On the one hand, Suyin once expressed disdain for royalty and chided the Earth Queen, citing complaints similar to what Zaheer has said. However, Suyin stated that the concept of royalty itself is dated and stopped short of indicating that she wanted to bring about a government downfall. This is especially poignant once you remember that she’s Zaofu’s Matriarch. Suyin also told Lin about Korra’s team instead of keeping it a secret and making up a story about their absence. So now I’m willing to think Suyin wasn’t attempting anything malicious.
“The Stakeout” could have used some readjusting, but it certainly wasn’t dissatisfying. The Red Lotus’ philosophy is a bit clumsy, but workable in the grand scheme of things. At least their goal is comprehensible, compared to the nonsense we got during Book 2.