Exposition is a tricky beast. In a show with history as rich as The Legend of Korra, it can be difficult to give the audience information and background without slowing down the pace of the show. This has been especially difficult on The Legend of Korra because of the short length of each season when compared to Avatar: The Last Airbender, with Korra essentially having half the amount of episodes per season as Airbender did. The show has done a good job mixing exposition into the proceedings, and last year’s two-part “Beginnings” arc detailing the origin of the avatar was almost all exposition but were, in my opinion, the best episodes of that season. “The Stakeout” was a solid episode even if it felt like the show was killing time and setting things up for the last few episodes.
The first half of the episode continues the detective story from “The Terror Within,” with Korra and the gang hot on Aiwei’s trail. Bolin and Mako continue to enjoy brother bonding time by going undercover while Korra and Asami do some detective work of their own. It was cool to see the show hit moments from different genres quickly and then move on. Mako and Bolin enjoy some spy thriller moments as they try to evade bounty hunters and dig up information. I enjoyed the short foot chase and the payoff later in the episode with their would-be captors actually being fans of Bolin’s movers. It felt like a nice little shout-out to the types of intense and loving fans that Korra and Airbender have inspired. I guarantee that people have created plush toys of almost every character from this show. We got a little bit of western flavor by having our heroes wander into a desert town on a mission, and Mako and Bolin even talk to a type of bartender in order to gather information. The wanted posters were also a fun western shout-out. All of the detective work leads to the stakeout that gives the episode its name. The stakeout itself is mostly played for laughs with the pai sho game between Bolin and Asami being used to mark the passage of time. It seems like there’s more to that game than just a funny thing for Bolin to do, but I couldn’t exactly pin down what the show was trying to say. It could be commenting on the way that a subject or idea can be approached in different ways based on one’s background and experience. Bolin and Asami are both confident they know how to play the game but after consulting the rules we learn there is no “official” way to play the game, like two sides of the same coin.
This theme continues once Korra and Zaheer face each other in the spirit world and he attempts to explain his views to Korra. Both Korra and Zaheer agree that the Earth Queen is a horrible ruler and should not be in charge of the earth nation. Zaheer believes nobody should be in charge and all the world leaders should be displaced, while Korra, well… she’s not quite sure what she thinks. I’m enjoying the degree to which Zaheer reminds me of Amon. Both make good points and aren’t explicitly evil (at least at first), but it’s their methods that put them at odds with our heroes. Zaheer also has a few things in common with Unalaq. Zaheer spends a portion of his conversation with Korra trying to bring her over to his line of thinking and to the side of The Red Lotus. The show even frames their conversation as one between a student and a teacher with Zaheer seated slightly higher than Korra. The scene immediately made me think of the socratic method with the teacher imparting their wisdom onto the student. Unalaq was also a teacher to Korra in season two and he actually succeeded in bringing Korra over to his side. With those similarities in mind it’s not too surprising to learn that Unalaq was a member of The Red Lotus as well.
Of course Zaheer wasn’t just trying to have a peaceful conversation with Korra. He’s also stalling so that his crew can capture her while she’s in the spirit world. This leads to some classic Korra action as Mako, Bolin, and Asami try to protect Korra’s body from The Red Lotus. The battle isn’t nearly as impressive as the one from “The Terror Within,” but the show has yet to have a disappointing action set-piece and I particularly enjoyed Bolin’s fight with Ghazan. I’m glad the show acknowledged that Bolin would have a terrible time fighting against someone who can take all his attacks and literally break them down. At the end of the day Bolin and Mako don’t stand a chance against The Red Lotus on their own. I thought this would end with Mako and Bolin captured and waiting to be rescued by Korra and Asami. To my surprise Korra and Asami also end up captured, but by the Earth Queen’s forces, setting up plenty of action for the following episode.
Long Live the Queen
Ever since Korra and the gang rescued the airbenders from Ba Sing Se the Earth Queen has loomed in the distance as a potential threat. She was mentioned briefly while our heroes visited Zaofu and the poachers encountered by the new airbenders were connected to her as well. “The Stakeout” brought her back to the forefront by first having the wanted posters show up and then, of course, at the end by having her forces capture Korra and Asami. “Long Live the Queen” puts The Earth Queen and Ba Sing Se back at the center of the show, even if Korra spends the entire episode stuck in the desert. This season has been concerned with different leaders and contrasting the way they lead their people. The Earth Queen was clearly a terrible leader and needed to be removed from power, but she didn’t deserve to be brutally murdered. Let’s talk about her death for a moment. The show certainly went to great lengths to set her up as irredeemably evil in order to justify her death in a way, but it doesn’t make it any less shocking to watch a character gasp for air and then die on what’s ostensibly a “kid” show. Then again, Korra has had its share of dark moments. Remember Tarlok and Amon’s final moments on the show? And what do you think is going to happen to Aiwei’s body with his spirit lost in the fog of lost souls for eternity? At the same time we are clearly not meant to identify with Zaheer and his line of thinking. As bad as The Earth Queen was, and as good as it feels to watch Mr. Ghazan tear down that wall and free the people in the lower rings, it means the city descends into chaos. Having complete freedom doesn’t seem to serve the people of Ba Sing Se any better than being under the thumb of a crazy queen.
So what’s the correct answer? Korra didn’t seem to have an answer last week, but maybe her side plot this episode is trying to find one. Korra and Asami spend their portion of the episode escaping from and subsequently working with The Earth Queen’s soldiers after they’re stranded in the desert. Korra and the soldiers obviously begin the episode at odds with each other but you get the feeling the soldiers aren’t bad guys. In fact, the common phrase among the different soldiers is some form of “I’m just following orders.” As the entire group faces once challenge after another and they start to create a dialogue and understand each other. Even if it was a bit predictable, I enjoyed it. Sometimes all it takes is being forced to spend some time with people and talk and you can get to know them better and understand where they’re coming from. I also liked the way this happened a bit between Bolin, Ghazan, and Ming-Hua at the start of the episode. At the same time, I doubt Korra will be able to work things out with Zaheer by just locking themselves in a room and having a nice chat. As much as we’ve learned about Zaheer and the Red Lotus, we still have no idea what they plan to do with Korra. With only three episodes left I’m itching to know what the endgame plan is for Zaheer and for this season of the show.
There was plenty more to like about this part of the episode. For starters, the show remembered that Asami can be just as useful as any other character and sometimes even more so. It was nice to see Asami take charge and cook up a plan for her and Korra to escape. It was a great showcase for the character as she charmed the guard to set herself up in a favorable position and then used her knowledge of airship to free Korra and herself. Korra may have all the bending prowess and hard-hitting moves, but she doesn’t always think things through, which we see when she smashes controls for the airship by pummeling the soldiers into them. With Korra and Asami working together, and with the earth kingdom soldiers pitching in as well, they eventually manage to make their way out of the desert before ending up in the stomach of a sandshark.
We’re getting down to the nitty gritty as we approach the end of the season. Zaheer and the Red Lotus are starting to make good on their plans to eliminate world leaders. Korra has been united with some of the people that took the Red Lotus down 13 years ago. What’s next for the Red Lotus? Do they go back to Republic City and aim for President Raiko? Will we finally get to see how the Fire Nation has changed if they target the Fire Lord, who just so happens to be Zuko’s daughter? What is Zaheer’s message to Korra? Will Bolin ever metalbend? Big things are going to happen in the following weeks and I can’t wait to see them.