This episode of The Legend of Korra gives us what we’ve been waiting for—a glimpse into the inner workings of Zaheer and his “Red Lotus” gang. I’m going to unpack that and sort through what we learn about our antagonists a-plenty, but that isn’t all we get, not by a long shot.
Last week I’d said we’d seen almost every kind of specialized bending, except the plantbending of the swamp folk. Well, now we’ve seen the Mos Eisley of the sandbenders, so check one more off the list. The desert seems “painted,” more brightly colored than the one where Sokka went cactus-juice crazy, but it still vibes Tattooine, right down to spirits being denied access to a saloon the way droids might be kicked out of a cantina. All this casual discrimination and political oppression! Almost makes you wish someone would do something about it, doesn’t it?
So I can stop calling it the “Red Lotus Society” now—no need for equivocating quotes! Zaheer and his crew of benders call themselves the Red Lotus Society, and the reason there’s an advanced bender of each element is because they were supposed to be Korra’s teachers, if their plan to kidnap her had worked. She accuses them of planning to brainwash her. I hope she at least stops to ask herself just what she thinks the White Lotus Society was doing, keeping her locked up and cut off from the outside while they raised her; ultimately, that shaped her beliefs about the world just as much. It also deepens the question of Zaheer’s personal background; presumably, he was meant to be her non-bending airbender instructor, but where did he learn his then-theoretical arts?
So this is Zaheer’s secret. He’s what I wish Amon had been from the beginning, a true believer…excelsior! The series has been about failed messiahs so far, in contrast to Korra as the genuine article. In Book One: Air, we had Amon. Amon’s iconography is unequaled, if you ask me—the mask, the self-possessed and minimalist body language, an organization of Equalists… Amon might have been “anti-bending,” but fundamentally his message was one of upsetting a broken social hierarchy. The problem was that his movement was betrayed. There was no Amon, no spirit-touched prophet, just Noatak, a bloodbender with a penchant for theatrics. Maybe Zaheer could take up the mask, or maybe Amon’s revolution will start again in another Avatar cycle, but to really be effective it needs to be more than an illusion.
Then there was Unalaq, another would-be chosen one, for the villain of Book Two: Spirits. Unalaq is the tempter, rather than the ringleader, but his ambition is ultimately the same as Noatak’s: power. Oh, sure, Unalaq has a better claim on being the “messiah,” since the dark spirit Vaatu did bond with him, which did give Unalaq the powers of a Dark Avatar. In this episode we even find out that Unalaq was part of Zaheer’s Red Lotus society, before his pride and hubris betrayed them. It makes sense and is just good storytelling—all of the cosmic exposition from the previous story arc is back on the table. Unalaq is, ultimately, petty, and Korra defeats the merged Anti-Avatar on her own, even without her Avatar powers. (I still think that Korra will ultimately repair her link to her past lives by combining and balancing Raava and Vaatu inside of herself: Book Four: Balance?)
Korra is defined by—exonerated by—the failures of her enemies. Noatak was insincere, and believed that his secret skill of bloodbending could be used to bring the world under his control—he and Tarrlock both living in the shadow of their father Yakone—but Korra learned her secret skill of airbending. Rather than using it to dominate the world, she’s spreading it, teaching what she learned.
Unalaq wanted to set up a power system with himself on top and everyone—even his children—below him as second class citizens. He was Korra’s dark mentor, but he failed. Look at her and Tenzin; rather than a hierarchy, they’ve become each other’s peers. Unalaq embraced the power of the spirits; Korra embraces the enlightenment of the self. Noatak creates the false symbol of Amon; Korra embodies the true symbol of the Avatar. She learns from other’s mistakes.
Zaheer seems to be at peace with himself. He has conviction, and that is one thing I think Korra can learn from him. I think she will pick up a belief in a cause. Her cause. What that cause is could be anything, but I’m betting that she ultimately defeats Zaheer and then pursues a similar agenda though non-subversive means, or with the authority of the Avatar. You have to admit, it is hard to argue that the Earth Queen should not be taken down. A tyrant doesn’t deserve to rule just because her father happened to be king, and let’s not forget what a useless leader he was in the first place. Heck, not to “Godwin the thread,” but Fire Lord Sozin and Ozai make pretty good arguments against aristocracy, too…
This episode also brings us some unexpected twists. Korra finally gets fed up with being patient and kicks in the front door… then lo and behold, she was right! They never would have discovered that the Red Lotus communicated by using the spirit world, otherwise. Mako and Bolin as Breaking Bad refugees is cute, but for me, you know what I really like—seeing their past actions inform their current behavior, or as experts call it, “character growth.” Mako knows how to be a cop, Bolin was a “mover” star, and both matter to the story. We get to hear more from Asami this episode than we’ve been getting—watching her dominate at Pai Sho made me a very happy Mordicai, and finding clues is always good—but I’m getting tired of crumbs. Pair her with Varrick if you have to, but give her a storyline!
Mordicai Knode knows the specific agony of having victory snatched from your claws by an upended game board and the subtle ecstacy of arguing about standardized rules. Find him at Tumblr or at Twitter.