The wise sages of Avatar: The Last Airbender arrived at the finale of the series just in the nick of time. Made up of the heroes' masters and mentors, the White Lotus set the standard of moral paragons that the show's cast could aspire toward. Except, they aren't exactly as pristine as they seem. Given everything we know about The White Lotus, the group of sages have sins of their own not far removed from their massive displays of heroics.
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During their debut, The Order of the White Lotus certainly seem heroic. The core membership that reappears in "The Old Masters" is made up of figures from Team Avatar's past, including Aang's old friend Bumi, Katara's master Pakku, Sokka's master Piandao and Aang's first firebending master, Jeong Jeong. Leading them is the Grand Lotus Iroh, Zuko's uncle who frequently proved a fount of wisdom throughout the series. They lead the effort in freeing Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation in the finale, deciding it was finally time to reveal the secretive Order to the world.
And yet, puzzling questions abound surrounding even their appearance in the finale. Namely, what exactly were the White Lotus doing this whole time, if anything, to resist the Fire Nation's efforts in conquering the world for the past 100 years? Not only do we know nothing about their efforts in fighting the Fire Nation, there's even the implication that they did nothing at all. Just five years prior, Iroh was a Fire Nation general leading the effort to conquer Ba Sing Se in the first place. He was either already a member of the White Lotus during that time, or ascended to the rank of Grand Lotus in the short time since. Sitting idly by as their members commit injustices is nothing new to the White Lotus, either. Just consider Pakku's sexist practices in the Northern Water Tribe.
Pakku upheld a centuries-old tradition that discriminated against Waterbending women learning any martial application to their skill, providing a sole exception for Katara at the end of Book One. If there is any question of why the White Lotus may have been alright with that, viewers need look no further than the background of the White Lotus encampment: in the original series there is not a single female member that appears on-screen even once. Their membership is entirely made up of gray-haired old men. Though they eventually allowed female members by The Legend of Korra, they weren't exactly on the up-and-up, morally.
Korra kicks off with the White Lotus practically imprisoning the new Avatar for much of her early life. Though it seems well-intentioned, the consequence is a naïve Avatar eager to escape and explore a world she is unprepared for. It's also noteworthy that the greatest threat Korra faced before that time ultimately came from the White Lotus themselves. The splinter group, The Red Lotus, split from the Order after their founder, Xai Bau, grew sick of their maintenance of the world's status quo. Though the Red Lotus' violent methods are reprehensible, it's hard to look over the history of the White Lotus and not see that they have a point.
For the rest of Korra, the Order proves inept at fulfilling their duties and are largely absent from many of the world-changing events that happen throughout Korra. They were known to be present in the time of Avatar Kuruk and actively took a hand in guiding the Avatar's reincarnations in the time after, and yet they were as mistaken as anyone when it came to correctly identifying Kyoshi as Kuruk's successor. All the while they maintained a secretive and clandestine relationship with the world, completely puzzling if their intentions were truly so pure.
There is still a lot left to find out about the Order of the White Lotus, but from what we know it does not seem so clear-cut that they are the good guys. Much like their formations in a game of Pai Sho, it seems the White Lotus could be playing a game all their own.