'The Legend of Korra' Book 3 Review: "Stakeout"

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"True freedom can only be achieved when oppressive governments are brought down,” Zaheer tells Korra, coming clean in a Spirit World safe haven. “The natural order is disorder.”

Is our villain wrong? Achieving a zen state is a lot easier when there aren't 6 billion people on the planet clashing like a cluster of energized atoms. Politics, morals, religious beliefs, fuzzy factual stances — while these POVs define society, define its inhabitants, they also add clutter. True enlightenment may never be obtained by people who reside in the real world, simply because the real world has people in it.

In 1969, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder wrote an essay called “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution.” In one stretch of musings, he details the practice of Buddhist Anarchism. “No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders,” Snyder says, pledging support for any “civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence” that moves the world towards an all-encompassing freedom. Infuse that philosophy with more frustration and hopelessness and you can see how a guy like Zaheer turns into a meditative assassin.

Though “Stakeout” begins as a cheeky detective story — somewhere between Richard Dreyfuss' 1983 screwball action comedy of the same name and Paul Auster's merciless short story, “Ghosts” — it's conclusion is like flipping through Snyder's Buddhist playbook. As Ming-Hua (a.k.a. “Water for Arms”) and lavabending Ghazan duke it out with Mako and Bolin by the Misty Palms Oasis' pool, Zaheer solidifies himself as Korra's most formidable opponent by appealing to her pursuits. Each week, 'Legend of Korra' opens with Tenzin's narration, remind us that only the Avatar can bring balance to the world. It shocks Korra to hear that harmony is all Zaheer wants too. His method just involves killing Presidents and kidnapping the Avatar.

What Korra refers to as “philosophical mumbo jumbo” is some lyrical word-bending from Michael Dante DiMarinto. Though Henry Rollins still feels foreign in the Avatarverse, he brings controlled power to Zaheer's expositional dump. There's an unsettling frankness to the way Zaheer reveals his ties to the past: He's part of the Red Lotus, a White Lotus alternative, and Book 2's usurper-turned-kaiju Unalaq was part of his team. Obviously, his demeanor suggests. Zaheer's original kidnapping plot was all about Korra opening the spirit portals. Now that that's done, what else does he need her for?

Anarchy is a solid guess. Korra's encounter with the Earth Queen earlier this season felt like a classic, 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' deviation, full of intrigue, adventure, and character building that would be more a stepping stone to whatever came next than an essential stop on the plot train. In “Stakeout,” Zaheer tells us we were wrong to underestimate the DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's layered storytelling. “Having nations and governments is foolish!” he bellows, taking the Earth Queen to task for what she did to Korra. Wanted signs calling for Team Avatar's head act as a bit of foreshadowing: Korra is caught in the middle two warring forces and picking a side isn't a satisfying option.

More terrifying, Korra's own race echos Zaheer's cause. A quote from Guru Lahima thrusts a stake through Korra's heart: “New growth can only exist with out first the destruction of the old.” In the beginning of “Stakeout,” Korra was ready to send the Earth Queen's head rolling. By the end... well, being kidnapped by the woman's troops and strapped into harnesses worthy of Hannibal Lecter won't win any favors, but the sides of this season's conflict just got a wee bit grayer after this episode.

The sillier side of “Stakeout” shouldn't go unappreciated. Have we seen an Avatarverse Western before? The now-thriving Misty Palsm Oasis is a town straight out of Sergio Leone's “Man with No Name” Trilogy. When the spirits start fluttering by, it's like Mos Eisley. But it's the quintessential American/Mexican ol' West town — complete with shady bars and even shadier patrons.

Team Avatar is looking for Aiwei, the escaped traitor previously seen on “The Terror Within.” Rather than interrogate/blast away informed townfolk Clint Eastwood-style, Team Avatar opts for an undercover mission. Bolin, impersonating Ting-Ting the ex-united forces operative, manages to stumble on to Aiwei's trail at a local motel. A few Nuktuk autographs later, the anxious quartet sets up shop in an opposing room. The stakeout begins, as does an epic game of Pai Sho. (Fun fact: You can play a variation of the in-episode game on Nick.com!) If you've been wondering where Asami has been the last few episodes, she's been revving up to deliver a graceful assault to Bolin's boys-are-better-at-games attitude. Try using your brain, bro!

Book 3 won't offer any Pro-Bending matches, but who needs the sport when Mako and Bolin go 2v2 against the Red Louts in the equivalent of a Day's Inn courtyard? The encounter rings true to the Western vibe — a little more “Butch and the Sundance Kid” than any Leone picture, but just as dangerous. Ming-Hua and Ghazan are the better team (Bolin: “I keep throwing ammo at him!”), the brothers only holding them off long enough for Asami to flee with Korra. Everyone earns a few bruises in “Stakeout.”

Korra and Asami are locked up under Earth Kingdom watch on the fringes of Si Wong Desert. Mako and Bolin are captives of the Red Lotus. Su and Lin are bickering in Zaofu. How will they come together? We end with a crazy theory: In “The Metal Clan,” Su steers dinner conversation towards politics. She can't stand the Earth Queen. Doesn't believe society even needs government. A shade of what Zaheer is promoting or a tip that Su may be more nefarious than we could imagine? Probably the former. But if the Earth Queen can pull a fast one....

Learn more about 'The Legend of Korra' Book 3 from our interview with Janet Varney and David Faustino at Comic-Con 2014.

Categories: TV News, TV Reviews
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