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The Legend Of Korra: “The Stakeout”

Illustration for article titled iThe Legend Of Korra/i: “The Stakeout”
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Book Three sure is living up to its name. Change is in the air for The Legend Of Korra, and unfortunately a lot of those shifts are happening behind the scenes as Nickelodeon tries to figure out what to do with this excellent show, which hasn’t been bringing in ratings thanks to a streak of bad luck that is the network’s fault in the first place.

I went off on Nickelodeon last week for their mishandling of this season, which is now trapped in the low-def ghetto of Nick.com, but according to series creators and executive producers Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, this was part of the plan all along. All signs are pointing to digital distribution as the future of television, and The Legend Of Korra was going to make the leap at some point, so this news isn’t completely. It doesn’t mean the show is cancelled. In fact, next season is well into production, so the end of this series is still a while away.


The main issue here is that the entire plan was accelerated at a rate that makes it look like a total mess from the outside. Nickelodeon rushed the premiere and dumped multiple episodes at once while denying viewers the opportunity to stream new episodes online after they air, and now the network has made the series streaming only as if that’s some kind of victory. It’s not.

To start, watching The Legend Of Korra on my dinky laptop screen instead of a big TV where it would be presented in high definition with an easy-to-use interface is a big pain in the ass, especially because I like things like being able to move to whatever part of the episode you want without the stream jumping to some random other scene. Sure, viewers can pay to watch the series on Amazon in HD with a better interface, but forcing viewers to pay for something that they were already paying for by having cable is just unfair. Episodes will land on Hulu after a three-week delay, but by then, will those numbers actually mean anything to Nickelodeon and advertisers?


You’d think that moving to streaming only would mean an increased presence for Korra on Nick.com, but that’s not the case either. After “The Stakeout” premiered, there was no indication of it on Nickelodeon’s home page, further suggesting that the network doesn’t give a shit about the future of this show. If the switch to streaming were planned all along, you’d think that the rollout would be a lot smoother than this, but all signs point to this being another rush job to get episodes out into the world no matter how few people see them.

And as I’ve mentioned over and over again, that’s incredibly depressing because this season has been so good. “The Stakeout” pushes Book Three into even more ambitious territory as Korra finally learns why Zaheer and the Bad Benders want her, but the thing I love most about this episode is the pacing. It begins with Team Avatar heading to Misty Palms Oasis to track down Aiwei, a mission that involves a lot of sneaking around and hiding out in a hotel room, but the episode’s third act explodes with suspense and action, ending with Team Avatar separated and beaten.


There’s a deliberate decision on writer Michael Dante DiMartino’s part to keep things low-key in the first two acts of the episode, building tension by introducing Team Avatar’s current status as criminals wanted by the Earth Queen for stealing her airbenders and putting them in a cramped hotel room where they wait for Aiwei to make contact with Zaheer. The pace is slow, but that’s to ease the audience into the story and make it comfortable before pulling the rug out from underneath.

Those opening acts may not have much action, but they’re still full of great moments, most of them revolving around Bolin. After learning that they’re wanted criminals, Bolin and Mako go undercover to find Aiwei, wearing hilarious ensembles of bright yellow ponchos and goggles to conceal their identities, and Bolin even comes up with an elaborate backstory for his character. He plays an ex United Forces operative named Ting Ting; war was the only woman he ever loved, until Ivy came along and showed him what love really is. Unfortunately she was taken by his archenemy Dr. Razor, and that’s when Mako cuts Bolin off so that they can move into the oasis.


While making their way through the town, the brothers are spotted by two shady characters they assume to be bounty hunters, but who are in fact Nuktuk superfans desperate to meet their cinematic hero. It’s a smart bit of misdirection that builds to a fight before defusing the situation with humor, and those fans ultimately help Team Avatar secure the hotel room that they use to watch Aiwei. The laughs continue in the hotel room when Bolin discovers a Pai Sho board in the nightstand, challenging Asami to a match that quickly reveals he has no idea how to properly play the game.

The Pai Sho scene is a lot of fun, especially with the ragtime music in the background giving it a bouncy energy, but it plays a larger role in the narrative, foreshadowing the reveal that Zaheer and the Bad Benders are members of the Red Lotus, an offshoot of the White Lotus that is dedicated to restoring freedom to the world. Avatar viewers will recognize Pai Sho as the game used by members of the White Lotus to identify each other, and bringing Pai Sho into the story just before we learn about the Red Lotus is definitely not a coincidence.


Team Avatar can’t locate Aiwei and Zaheer’s meeting place because it’s in the spirit world, and once they figure that out, everything goes to shit. Korra goes into the spirit world to eavesdrop on their conversation, leaving her physical form vulnerable to Ghazar and Ming-Hua, who head over to the oasis while Zaheer keeps Korra busy in the spirit world with a massive info dump. This episode drops a lot of exposition on the viewer, but DiMartino and director Ian Graham prevent it from being a slog by balancing all that background info with intense action and making the lengthy explanation a strategic move on Zaheer’s part.

Like Bolin mentions earlier while playing Pai Sho, to beat your opponent you must first know your opponent, and Zaheer knows exactly how to keep Korra’s attention. She wants to know why he’s after her, so he sits down and tells her, explaining the nature of the Red Lotus and how her uncle Unalaq was a part of the organization, helping Zaheer and his crew with their attempted kidnapping in hopes of raising Korra to be the person that would open the spirit portals and release Vaatu. She ended up doing half of what the Red Lotus wanted at the end of Book Two, but her work isn’t done yet.


The Red Lotus believes that nations and governments are just as harmful as keeping the spirit world separate from the physical world, and they want Korra as their weapon to take down the current order. Continuing to mirror developments of the early 20th century, Korra is bringing in revolutionaries that believe “true freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are torn down.” That doesn’t sound all that bad until Zaheer clarifies that “the natural order is disorder,” revealing that he wants to plunge the world into chaos where only the strongest will survive.

It’s a lot to take in, and I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time unpacking the Red Lotus narrative as we learn more about the secret society. This is some seriously political material, and I love that an animated series targeted at younger viewers is tackling it in such an engaging way. We’re starting to see a greater emphasis on the different political systems of this world—the monarchy of the Earth Kingdom versus the democratic socialism of Zaofu versus the Red Lotus anarchist group—and the events of Book Three make me believe that this series is building up to another potential war, although this one will probably be shorter than 100 years.


The one thing about this season that isn’t resonating is Henry Rollins’ wooden voice work as Zaheer, which lacks the intensity and emotion you’d expect from a Big Bad. Rollins has a lot of weight to carry this week, and his huge chunks of exposition feel like line readings rather than a character speaking about knowledge he is intimately familiar with. It’s possible that the stiffness of his voice is intentional to reflect the character’s lack of empathy, but if that’s a character choice, it’s one that makes for an uninteresting vocal performance. Rollins isn’t going to be replaced, though, so its just something I’ll have to live with, and his underwhelming performance as Zaheer isn’t enough to diminish the impact of this episode.

This season’s fight scenes continue to impress, and Mako and Bolin versus Ghazan and Ming-Hua keeps the momentum moving quickly as the episode cuts between the spirit world exposition and the action in the physical world. The brothers put up a valiant effort, but ultimately they just don’t have the bending prowess of the two criminals, and they end up in the Bad Benders’ captivity after their hotel beatdown.


Bolin and Mako do succeed in keeping Korra’s body out of Zaheer’s hands, but the episode’s shocking cliffhanger puts Team Avatar in an even more difficult position, revealing that Korra and Asami have been caught by the Earth Queen’s forces and are now prisoners of the Earth Kingdom. That shot of Korra doing her best Hannibal Lecter cosplay, confined to a straitjacket on a gurney with a restraint muzzle covering her mouth, is one of this show’s biggest “Oh shit!” moments, showing just how little respect the Earth Queen has for the Avatar’s authority. I cannot wait for next episode, which I’m hoping will feature Lin and Suyin teaming up to get Korra out of prison (potentially with Varrick?), and when Korra gets out of her restraints, you just know someone is going to have hell to pay.

All the events of this season are coming together beautifully to create a thrilling viewing experience, and while it’s unfortunate that the distribution situation of this season is so abysmal, at least this story is still making it out into the world. Nickelodeon could have easily pulled this series completely, but at least the network is giving the creative team the opportunity to continue telling their story, even if its reaching a considerably smaller audience.


Stray observations:

  • Wonderful animal moments this week: Naga smacking Korra with her tail after she is denied a treat, Pabu jumping on the Pai Sho board just when Bolin is about to secure his first and only victory.
  • Have I mentioned how much I love having adorable little spirits everywhere? They’re just so cute.
  • There is what appears to be a copy of Enter The Dragon inside the hotel room nightstand. I like to think that this is what all hotel rooms have instead of a Holy Bible in this world.
  • “My drinks are terrible.”
  • “I made this Nuktuk doll for you.”
  • “Looks like we have ourselves a Pai Sho-down.”
  • “Korra, as the Avatar, you need to standardize these Pai Sho rules.”

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