someone hold me
This moment makes Aiwei a terribly interesting character to me.
Not only is he in direct contact (psychically?) with the Red Lotus, he gives every indication of being a True Believer in their cause—something we didn’t know existed outside the Foursome. His threat doesn’t sound like the sort of bluff Unalaq pulled in “Civil Wars, Part 2” when he told Korra he didn’t need her to carry out his plans, and his reason for betrayal runs deeper than the shallow “bribery” he gives while framing the young guard. Aiwei honestly believes Zaheer and the others will succeed, even though they’ve been defeated and driven off, and it’s a conviction that must be older than the thirteen years the Foursome spent in prison.
Where could that conviction come from? I think our always-clever writers have dropped a few more clues in “The Terror Within.” For one thing, Aiwei has a “desert on a jar” (commented on by Bolin) that appears to be significant to him, considering the way he handles it. And the Red Lotus shoot Korra with shirshu venom; although the shirshu we see in AtLA goes everywhere, the only place we see its venom used as a weapon is in the Si Wong Desert, during “Appa’s Lost Days.” (In fact, I would’ve used shirshu venom in my desert fic if I hadn’t needed the buzzard wasps instead.)
Based on those clues, I’d speculate that Aiwei’s connection with Zaheer’s gang is closer to being familial or cultural (maybe tribal?) than just an association of ideas. Maybe his name doesn’t exactly scream “sandbender,” but his skin is significantly darker than most of the rest of Zaofu’s inhabitants, and he seems to have escaped to the desert at the first opportunity. All those clues suggest that the desert is where he originally comes from. (He’s a metalbender too, of course, but the Metal Clan is a relatively recent invention.)
He’s definitely interesting, alright!
There are too many desert references for it to be a coincidence at this point, I think. Even apart from the things you mentioned, you’ve got the names “Zaheer” (from the Arabic “Zahir”) and “Ghazan” (which sounds sandbender-y) to consider. It’s not that hard to imagine the Si Wong Desert being the Red Lotus’ base of operations considering everything.
I’m not entirely sold on the familial/cultural/tribal thing, though, because Zaheer isn’t dark skinned, unlike both Ghazan and Aiwei, and Ming-Hua seems unlikely to have any desert connections.
I’ll settle for a little of both (ideological secret society + some sort of cultural desert connection). The Krew are obviously going to meet some real sandbenders at some point, considering that scene with the sand sailer (…even though that’s the only desert scene that doesn’t fit easily with the rest of the theory we’re putting together here).
One thing I did see brought up once the Red Lotus-desert connection became clear was that the Misty Palms Oasis was the location where Iroh met his White Lotus contact back in A:tLA. The Red Lotus appears to operate a lot more like the oldschool A:tLA White Lotus than the current White Lotus does, so it seems plausible that the Red Lotus could have evolved out of the White Lotus’ original network of connections. That would explain the diversity of Zaheer’s team more than it being a familial or cultural thing, I think.
I think your post about the AtLA scenes with the pai-sho game (which, I admit, I usually fast-forward through when rewatching “The Desert” for fic research purposes ^^;) nicely fills the gap between “the Krew tracks Aiwei to the Misty Palms Oasis” and “Asami escapes with unconscious Korra [possibly running into even bigger trouble].” Your idea about infiltrating the Red Lotus using pai sho would be a lot of plot to cover in one episode, but I think our writers can move things along quickly enough to pull it off. ^_^
Actually, this not-quite-complete copy of the SDCC “newsreel” trailer is instructive about the pai-sho game (which Shinobi calls “the most epic pai-sho match ever played”!). When I saw the isloated screenshot of Asami and Bolin playing, my first thought was that it’s always fun to see the characters participating in downtime activities together, and my second thought was “When are they going to get any downtime on this mission?” Given the emphasis placed on that game by the trailer (with almost half of the 47-second video devoted to it), it makes a lot more sense for the game itself to be a major part of the plot!
(Also, I think that if the Krew did need two of their number to crack a pai-sho code by playing a game, they’d definitely choose Asami and Bolin; if they went with the other two, Mako would wind up having to lose on purpose to keep Korra from kicking over the board. -_-;)