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Retrospective: Avatar: “Winter Solstice”

B.A.S.S. Line:

The ones where Avatar goes from a curious novelty to an exciting show.

Key Points:

  1. Up until now, Avatar could easily be described as original, humorous, action-packed, colorful, and a lot of fun, if not tremendously outstanding. From the two-part “Winter Solstice” on, however, Avatar proved it could be something that the vast majority of its contemporaries were not: emotionally engaging.
  2. I don’t want to sell the first six episodes short, though: they served their purpose, and did a commendable job of establishing our main characters and giving us a general idea of the world they inhabit. Had Avatar continued down this fun, meandering road, it still would have been a good show, albeit a trivial one, little more than a curiosity. What “Winter Solstice” does—and does in such an unexpected and effective way—is finally give us a reason to care about the outcome of this ongoing drama.
  3. This is largely thanks to the further development of the character of Aang. We know that he’s essentially a good kid, if a goofy and fun-loving one. More importantly, we know he’s the Avatar, destined to save the day and bring balance back to the world. But how exactly? Aside from mastering the elements, we don’t know yet. And neither does Aang, but until he figures it out, the Fire Nation will continue to destroy forests and terrorize innocent people to win the war. This is a great source of guilt and anxiety for Aang, as he blames himself and his lack of Avatar-know-how for the world’s problems. He wants to make things better, and he wants to fulfill his duty as the Avatar anyway he knows how; his resolve is so strong that we, the audience, want to see him succeed. And just like that, Aang goes from a fun kid character to a relatable hero whose journey we’re willing to follow to the bitter end.
  4. And that’s just in the first three minutes of Part One! The rest of the episodes follow through on Aang’s determination, from pacifying an angry, village-destroying Spirit to flying straight into Fire Nation territory to make contact with Roku, the previous reincarnation of the Avatar.
  5. Upon making said contact, the true conflict of the series is finally made clear: Aang must master the elements and defeat the Firelord before summer, when Sozin’s Comet returns.
  6. As Sozin’s Comet briefly passes through the planet’s atmosphere, a Firebender’s power increases tenfold. A single Firebender powered up by Sozin’s Comet could probably wipe out a small village all by himself. An army of Firebenders, however, could wipe out an entire race of people. That’s precisely how the Fire Nation were able to slaughter all the Air Nomads, and then declare war on the remainder of the world. That was a hundred years ago. Now that Sozin’s Comet coming back, the Fire Nation plans to once again use its devastating power to end the war once and for all. Once they do that, the world will be so damaged that the delicate balance would be lost forever. In other words, Sozin’s Comet does for the Fire Nation what the Ark of the Covenant would have done for the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (more likely known as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to younger viewers).
  7. In summary, Aang has less than a year to master the elements—something that normally takes years of practice—and stop the Fire Nation before they destroy the world. Can he do it? He has to! In narrative speak, we’ve reached the point of no return, and Aang’s journey has finally attained a sense of urgency and excitement that gives weight and meaning to every event and episode that follows—well, almost every episode—but without totally sacrificing the light-hearted charm of the first six episodes. How’s that for balance?
  8. Aang’s story isn’t the only one that garnishes a new layer of meaning. In the meantime, we’re still following Prince Zuko on his single-minded crusade to capture the Avatar and restore his rightful place on the throne. In Part One, however, there’s a major setback: Zuko’s wonderful uncle, Iroh, is captured by Earthbending soldiers and being transported to Ba Sing Se—the great Earthbending capital that Iroh failed to seize back in his military days—most likely to be executed. At a crucial juncture, Zuko has a choice: follow the Avatar’s trail to the nearby village he’s likely in, or rescue his uncle from certain death.
  9. It’s a bit uncertain whether Zuko would have actually caught Aang had he chosen the former, but Iroh would have definitely lost his limbs had Zuko not saved him in the nick of time. This is a relief to the audience, because at this point, Uncle Iroh is the most lovable and badass character in the series. And he’s technically a villain, but thanks to his easy-going personality (and the disarming voice performance by the late great Mako), we love him all the same. And the fact that Zuko chose to risk losing the Avatar’s trail to save him? Well, I’ll be damned, maybe he’s not such a one-note villain after all. Underneath all that bitter teenaged angst, the kid actually has a heart! (Very much unlike Commander Zhao, who never evokes much sympathy because he has none for others).
  10. All the same, though, Zuko may not be heartless enough to sacrifice his uncle to gain back his royalty, but he is still the “bad guy” since, at this point, he’s trying to stop Aang from saving the world. It’s this ambivalence that gives Zuko the most complex and interesting character arc in the series, to the point where it’s debatable whether he is the real protagonist of the show.

High Points:

  1. Well, gosh… I mean, the entirety of both episodes are high points within the series itself. Neither episode has much in the way of filler: every single narrative thread has a neat little payoff, each scene segues seamlessly into the next, and every plot development engages us further into the weird and mystical world of the Avatar universe. With such effortless storytelling on display, perhaps it’s no coincidence that part one is the first episode of the series credited solely to head writer Aaron Ehasz. (Co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino takes the reigns in part two, and while that particular episode lacks the emotional development of part one, it’s not one iota less entertaining.)
  2. I’ve already mentioned Aang’s subtle yet effective transformation into rebel with a cause in the first three minutes of Part One. Within those moments, however, the seed of the episode’s resolution is planted as well (no pun intended): while Aang pouts in the middle of the burned-out forest, Katara cheers him up with an acorn, symbolic of the fact that eventually the forest will grow back. Aang uses the exact same lesson to pacify Hai Bai, the spirit who is destroying nearby villages and who just happens to be the spirit of that same burned-out forest. Content with this symbol of hope, Hai Bai stops destroying the village, and also releases all of the people he kidnapped (including Sokka). Clever!
  3. Before that, Aang’s attempts to calm Hai Bai are hilariously ineffective, resulting in Sokka getting kidnapped and Aang getting trapped in the Spirt World, where no one in the mortal realm can see or hear him. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because he gets in touch with Roku’s spirit animal—a dragon—who takes him to the Fire Temple in the Fire Nation, the one place where he can talk to Roku during the Winter Solstice (the time where the boundary between the Spirit World and the mortal realm temporarily disappears). Through lovely time lapse visuals, the dragon reveals us that Aang has less than a day to get to the temple, or else miss his one and only sure-fire chance to see Roku.
  4. This is all perfectly ample set-up for Part Two, which is essentially one long and elaborate chase sequence between Aang and his friends, Zuko and his crew, and Zhao and the Fire Nation navy. Highlights include Appa avoiding fireballs above the clouds, rescuing Sokka after he falls off of Appa, and—in his most defining moment of awesomeness to date—Aang decimates an incoming fireball with a single air kick!
  5. Speaking of awesome, can we talk about Uncle Iroh? At the start of the episode, he’s relaxing in his makeshift hot bath before he gets captured by Earthbending soldiers. In captivity, however, he still leaves enough clues of his whereabouts to keep Zuko on his trail, and he causes enough mischief—while still bound in chains–to slow the soldiers down so Zuko can catch up with them. As a grand finale, he and his nephew tag team all the soldiers and take every single one out in less than a minute. Badass!
  6. Another character who gets to shine is Sokka (in Part Two, anyway; remember he gets kidnapped in Part One): at a crucial moment, he uses his technical genius to create fake Firebending to try and open the sanctuary door in the Fire Temple. And even when that doesn’t work, the evidence of the blast is still proof enough to convince the Fire Sages that they did open the door, prompting them to use their own Firebending to actually open the door for Aang. Clever!
  7. Those Fire Sages provide yet another obstacle for our heroes. Having abandoned all hope of the Avatar returning to restore balance, they’re quick to attack Aang and friends the moment they enter the Fire Temple. Thankfully, one of them is a turncoat who still has faith, and he helps the gang get to Roku’s sanctuary. This entire subplot is just another one of the neat little touches that gives the Avatar universe some lived-in believability. (In the end, after Aang and friends escape once again, Zhao has all of the Sages arrested for treason, despite only one of them consciously betraying the Fire Nation.)
  8. The entire climax is incredible, with Roku saving the day—by protecting Aang from a concentrated attack by Zhao and his army once the sanctuary doors reopen, and by destroying the Fire Temple—allowing everyone to escape with their lives. Even Zuko gets away (which I only note because, even way back before we knew he’d eventually turn good, knowing he was allowed to live was, shockingly enough, a relief)!

Low Points:

  1. Uh, not many this time around. Granted, Part Two is clearly animated by DR Movie, who will always be a step below JM Animation in terms of overall quality (but the animation in Part Two is still very, very good).
  2. I guess Katara doesn’t have a whole lot to do in either episode. Well, that’s not entirely true. She helps Aang out of his stupor at the beginning of Part One, and she flies out on Appa to search for Aang and Sokka when they’re missing. She even turns Sokka’s failed Firebending in Part Two into a positive. Then again, she also has the worst line in either episode: “Please don’t go, Aang. The world can’t afford to lose you to the Fire Nation. Neither can I.” Ugh…

Random Points:

  1. Speaking of Katara, there’s a small moment in Part One that I’d never noticed before. While Aang is attempting to get Hai Bai’s attention (and failing), Sokka wants to go out and help, but Katara assures him—without much conviction—that Aang will figure out what to do. She then closes her eyes and a weak smile appears on her face.
  2. It’s a tiny detail that perfectly falls in line with Katara’s feeble, unfounded optimism that Aang will somehow defuse the situation despite not having any idea what he’s doing. Once Sokka gets kidnapped and neither her nor Aang returns the next day, her optimism is all but gone, and she’s left sitting in the village gateway waiting for them to come back.
  3. Katara’s arc in Part One—and the whole series, I suppose—amounts to a test of her faith in Aang’s abilities and the positive outcome of things. On the one hand, that’s admirable, and to her credit, she doesn’t completely lose hope and simply mope around until Aang gets back—she does go out on Appa to look for them. On the other hand, what if Aang fails? That would mean losing yet another family member—and this time, not even because of the Fire Nation—and that probably would plunge her into utter despair.
  4. Thankfully, things do turn out alright, largely thanks to her innate positivity (remember her acorn pep talk to Aang is ultimately what Aang uses in return on Hai Bai); combine that with her brother’s innate skepticism, and they’re pretty much the perfect allies for the Avatar, aren’t they? (Maybe that’s another problem with Korra: none of those characters have complimentary traits that combined into something greater than the sum of their parts.)

Conclusion:

The “Winter Solstice” episodes really were the game changer, the ones that really made you sit up and take notice that Avatar was going to be a different kind of animated series, and one worth keeping up with each week. These episodes are to Avatar what “She Loves You” was for the Beatles’ entire career: everything up to this point was good, I guess, but now it’s like, “Wait a minute! These guys are GOOD! Really good!” And except for a few sporadic low points (“The Ember Island Players” is pretty much Avatar’s “Revolution 9”), it would just keep getting better and better. Leaving just one question: which Beatles’ subsequent solo career does Korra sync up to the best (and don’t you DARE say Ringo’s)?

This Saturday: Korra: “And the Winner Is…”

Announcement: New Retrospective Will be Up by Wednesday

Promises, promises. I’m honestly thinking of abandoning the idea of these self-imposed, frequently missed deadlines altogether. On second, I won’t do that, because how else will I learn to discipline myself?

In any case, I want the “Winter Solstice” retrospective up by Wednesday, followed by “And the Winner Is…” on Saturday. Then after that, the next Avatar reviews–which will encompass four episodes–will take two weeks to do a write-up on. (From now on, the general aim will be one week for one to two episodes, two weeks for three to four.)

So I haven’t given up, even if “And the Winner Is…” was, admittedly, a bit demoralizing. Suffice it to say, it’s no longer the shining beacon of competence within the ruins of Korra that I once felt it was. Aw well.

Announcement: Next Retrospective Delayed Until Next Saturday

My retrospective review for the “Winter Solstice” episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender won’t be posted until next Saturday. By then I’ll have actually had the time and energy to work on it. This week has been crazy busy, culminating on Saturday with the wedding of a good friend of mine. It’s out of state, so I’ll be away for the entire weekend. Once I get back, I can resume my work here. I was hoping I could get this one done in the midst of all this, but it just wasn’t working out. I’d rather put it off and give it the proper due than try and rush this thing (especially for these episodes, two of the best in Book One and in the entire series).

Speaking of proper due, I haven’t been true to my word in responding to my commenters  on the days I established. I swear I read all of them, and they’ve all been insightful in one way or another. For instance, latenightscribe’s last few comments taught me all about head writer Aaron Ehasz’s ideas for the Book Four that never happened because of the production of the live-action trilogy (that also never happened) , and how “shipping” created rifts in the writers’ room. The behind-the-scenes drama of Avatar and Korra is becoming just as interesting–if not more so–as the series themselves. I may write something on this in a post separate from the retrospective when I have the time.

For now, sit tight and I’ll be back next week with the retrospective on the two-part “Winter Solstice.” All I’ll say about them now is that they reminded me just how wonderful Avatar really was. This retrospective would not be nearly as tolerable if I had to watch Avatar and especially Korra straight through on their own. Even a terrible episode of Avatar is more inspiring and forward-thinking than any episode of Korra past Book One, so I’ll gladly sit through Korra every other week if it’s means watching Avatar again.

Retro: Korra: “The Spirit of Competition”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Bolin likes Korra, but Korra likes Mako, but Mako’s with Asami, but Mako actually likes Korra, and nobody likes Bolin.

Key Points:

  1. As is well known by now, Messieurs DiMartino and Konietzko have a weakness for teenage romantic melodrama, love triangles, and all that jazz. They attempted to fit it into Avatar—there would be a love triangle between Aang, Katara, and a boy named Toph—but that idea was annexed after head writer Aaron Ehasz argued that Toph should be a girl. That brilliant move saved us a lot of grief and created one of the most memorable characters of that series.
  2. With Korra being written solely by DiMartino and Konietzko, and with no Ehasz around to turn Bolin into Boleen or Mako into Makorina, they were free to inject all the corny romantic nonsense they wanted in their twelve-episode mini-series.
  3. They certainly go all out. Instead of the traditional love triangle, we get a love square, between Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami. Korra has eyes for Mako, but he’s already in a relationship with Asami. He does like Korra a bit, though, but for the sake of the Fire Ferrets, he refuses to date a teammate. This doesn’t phase Bolin, who sees no problem with trying to get Korra’s attention. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know that she’s only into his brother.
  4. Korra gets some “healthy” advice from Tenzin’s wife Pema on how to properly confess your love to a man who happens to be in a relationship with someone else. Here’s the catch: you have to make sure that, through no fault of your own, the relationship in question isn’t actually working out. This is bad news for Korra, since Mako and Asami seem to like each other just fine (although Mako does make an off-hand comment that suggests he’s only in it for the money).
  5. When Mako rejects Korra’s advances, she gravitates towards Bolin, whose own affections border on desperation. They do seem to have a great time on their “date” together, and apparently have a lot in common. Mako knows better, though: she’s just using Bolin to make him jealous (which he disguises as concern for his brother’s feelings being hurt).
  6. All of this comes to a head when Mako somewhat timidly admits he has some affection for Korra, so she moves in for a kiss. Unfortunately, Bolin catches this and runs away crying like a little girl.
  7. All of this romantic mischief nearly costs them their chance to play in the Pro-Bending finals. Before, they were a pretty darn good team, not stepping on each others’ toes, and even doubling each others’ efforts to be an unstoppable force. Once Mako and Korra start going at each other’s throats, however, the team dynamic falls apart, and Bolin, unaware of the romantic tension, steps up and wins them the next match.
  8. Unfortunately, after the infamous kiss, no one’s heart is in the game. Mako even seems ready to give up and try again next year (which is a great attitude to have when your girlfriend’s largesse is the reason you made it this far in the first place). Mako and Bolin get knocked out of the ring, and Korra saves the day with a miraculous three-in-one knock-out. Looks like our heroes are going to be in the championship match after all.
  9. That means they’ll be up against Tahno and the Wolf-bats, the reigning champs for three years straight. Tahno is a pretty boy who comes complete with a set of fan girls and cronies whenever he hits the town. If he’s a parody of someone or some character, it’s lost on me. In any case, it’s a good thing the Fire Ferrets have resolved their romantic differences, because they’ll need to stay focused to beat Tahno, who wins his Pro-Bending match off-screen and in less than a minute.
  10. Asami remains oblivious to all of these romantic antics going on behind her back. She’ll find out soon enough.

High Points:

  1. The Pro-Bending sequences, as usual, are well-executed and pretty entertaining, even when the romantic antics begin to eat away at the team dynamic of the Fire Ferrets.
  2. It was nice to see Bolin, who usually doesn’t have anything substantial to do, step up and win the tie-breaker for the team, especially since he notices Korra and Mako just aren’t on their A-game that match.
  3. For as little screen time as he gets in the episodes (and the series as a whole), Tahno is an amusing character. Did you know he was voiced by Rami “Mr. Robot” Malek? I didn’t!
  4. Korra and Bolin’s date was short and sweet, even if it ultimately ends with Bolin being heartbroken. And while we’re on that subject, I’ll admit that Bolin’s crying fit, while mean-spirited, was pretty funny. Maybe not as funny as Charlie Kelly’s reaction when his beloved Waitress revealed she slept with Danny DeVito instead of him in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but still pretty funny.

Low Points:

  1. Funny as it is in its own right, in the context of the episode and the series as a whole, that moment is intolerably cruel. It may be the lowest point in the series, on par with the moment when Aang suddenly appears and gives Korra her Bending back, and for a similar reason: Korra is as undeserving of this act of mercy as Bolin is as undeserving of this act of cruelty.
  2. The comparison to the similar scene in It’s Always Sunny is no accident. Charlie wasn’t exactly innocent in that whole ordeal (which is why his tearful reaction is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious), whereas Bolin was completely innocent: he genuinely liked Korra and was totally committed to starting a relationship. Asami is also innocent in this reckless game, but for more nefarious reasons (which won’t be clear until episode seven.)
  3. Contrast this with Mako, who the episode implies only started dating Asami for her money. And Korra’s attraction to Mako never receives an explanation of any kind, unless DiMartino and Konietzko were fully committed to the “all girls like bad boys” train of logic.
  4. Also consider the scene where Korra discusses her romance problems with Jinora and Ikki (which should let you know the maturity level we’re dealing with here), and eventually Pema. While both younger girls dish out their own versions of “love conquers all” wishful thinking, and Pema relays her own anecdotal advice, at no point does anyone ever ask Korra why she’s so in love with Mako. Nor does anyone discuss the ethics of pursuing a man in a relationship. (Both of which I’d almost expect from Jinora, since she’s apparently the smart one.)
  5. Instead, we have Pema essentially give Korra license to confess her “love” to Mako, since it worked for her and Tenzin. Of course, for no other reason than dramatic effect, she doesn’t outright say who she stole Tenzin from (nor what her lot in life was before meeting Tenzin, but never mind), just so they can surprise us in the next episode when we find out that it was Lin Bei Fong.
  6. By the way, what was the point of casting someone as uniquely funny as Maria Bamford as Pema, who has absolutely nothing worthwhile to do in the entire series (let alone anything funny)? Granted, Bamford has been a Nickelodeon staple since the 90s (ex. CatDog), so it makes some sense. Then again, Bamford was funny in those shows. This is just a waste of talent. (Jill Talley, another very funny lady, was similarly short-changed in The Boondocks.)
  7. The worst part about all of this is just little Korra herself suffers as a consequence of her poor decisions. By all accounts, she’s the absolute worst offender and the main instigator in this romantic nonsense, from leading Bolin on with their “date” to antagonizing Mako with lines like, “…when you’re with [Asami], you’re thinking about me, aren’t you?” This is the behavior of a sociopath, not the protagonist of a children’s program.
  8. But Korra faces no repercussions for any of this. She does apologize to Bolin after their last Pro-Bending match, but his reaction is so nonchalant that she might as well have said nothing at all. More to the point, the time to apologize (to Bolin and Mako) was in the Pro-Bending ring, when their lack of team work damn near cost them the game. Then they could have set their differences aside and won together as a team again, which frankly would have been the much more positive message for children.
  9. Instead, Mako and Bolin are booted and Korra wins the match on her own, because she’s such a Strong Female Character™. I’m not opposed to this victory so much as I’m frustrated that it came with no character growth or introspection of any kind. Imagine if they’d given Korra a moment to examine how her attempt at a forced connection with one teammate at the expense of the other drove both men away from her, leaving her and her alone to fix the problem, and in her determination to face the music, would have found the inner strength and resources to knockout all three players at once!
  10. It wouldn’t take much extra work. Just one of those cool 360 camera shots (which they do twice in this very episodes) showing Korra all by herself facing the three other players and ending with a determined expression on her face (similar to Katara’s shining moment of maturity back in “The Desert”). But I suppose that’s a bit too simple and too sophisticated a solution for a couple of writers who allowed their fans’ obsession with character relationships to poison their own intuitions as storytellers.

Random Points:

  1. And frankly, I think that is really what this all comes down to: DiMartino and Konietzko, and their turbulent relationship with their own fandom. And a lot of that has to do with shipping, a topic I’ve tried my best to avoid, which is all but impossible when you’re dealing with Avatar and Korra.
  2. Long story short, back in the days of Avatar, you had fans wanted Katara and Zuko to be together instead of Katara and Aang, and you had fans who wanted the opposite. The feud apparently bled into the writers’ room, with DiMartino and Konietzko and others aiming for Katara and Aang, and Aaron Ehasz and others aiming for Katara and Zuko. The series’ finale made it clear which side won, but just in case it wasn’t clear, for the following comic convention, the crew made a special video mocking any bizarre character pairings, including Katara and Zuko.
  3. Does any of this really matter in the grand scheme of things? Not in the slightest, and DiMartino and Konietzko should have known better than to have taken so seriously what should have only been a fun topic of discussion among fans. Not only did they take it a little too seriously, but they allowed it to negatively influence their writing process.
  4. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m willing to bet that the forced pairing of Mako and Korra was an attempt to pander to those fans who wanted Katara and Zuko to be together, and—in its negative impact on the rest of the characters like Bolin and Asami—prove once and for all what a “toxic” influence the two have on each other.
  5. In any case, it didn’t work. No one liked the pairing, no one tolerated either character’s terrible behavior, and frankly, no one cared whether Korra got with Mako or Bolin or Asami or Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice. All anyone wanted was a good story well-told, and the forced and unnecessary romantic antics were nothing but a drain on everyone’s time and energy, be it the audience or the animators. Unfortunately, DiMartino and Konietzko were still flying high on the good will created by Avatar, so whatever they wanted, they got.
  6. And let’s be absolutely clear about something: Korra was supposed to be DiMartino and Konietzko’s bid to be taken seriously as filmmakers. After the fiasco with M. Night Shyamalan and The Last Airbender, Korra was their chance to prove that they could still provide the goods and be true players in the Hollywood game. Lord knows they got major support: from major acting talent like J.K. Simmons and Steve Blum, to the often brilliant animation from Studio Mir of South Korea, to the utmost enthusiasm from the Nickelodeon executives—to the point that they got the go-ahead for four seasons right  after Book One finished airing—DiMartino and Konietzko had everything going for them.
  7. And they blew it. All for a few low blows at the fandom that helped create their success. Such self-destruction tendencies would lead to lower ratings, and eventually to Korra being taken off the air entirely before the end of its run. And meanwhile, Shyamalan has recently managed to make something of a comeback with The Visit and Split, movies that managed to connect with audiences in a major way, thanks in large part to their sheer commitment to telling their story in the most effective and entertaining way possible. If only DiMartino and Konietzko had the same discipline.

Conclusion:

I can remember watching this episode back when it first aired, and afterwards feelings like it was a completely pointless episode in a series with only twelve-episodes. In hindsight, maybe for DiMartino and Konietzko, this episode and all the ilk spilled from it was the point, and the vastly more interesting Amon and Equalist plot was just a means to that end. Pretty sad really. Needless to say, it’s all downhill from here. At least we get one last gasp of brilliance before the series completely derails itself.

Next week: Avatar: “Winter Solstice, Part 1 & 2”

Retro: Avatar: “The Warriors of Kyoshi” & “The King of Omashu” & “Imprisoned”

B.A.S.S. Line:

In the span of three episodes, Aang and the gang travel to three different villages, have three different adventures, and meet at least three memorable characters. And Katara loses her mother’s necklace.

Key Points:

  1. Unlike other American animated children’s programs—most of which are just animated sitcoms for kids, or “kidcoms”—creators DiMartino and Konietzko envisioned Avatar as a true fantasy epic, using the episodic medium to tell a single, coherent narrative, complete with expansive worldbuilding and overarching character development.
  2. As a by-product of that ambition, Aang and the gang spend every episode travelling to a new location and meeting new characters (allies and villains alike) on their quest to help Aang master all the elements and defeat the Fire Nation. The benefits are obvious from a storytelling standpoint, but from an animated television production standpoint, this could be a nightmare: every episode demands new character designs, new locations and backgrounds, new props, new voice actors, etc.
  3. That Avatar holds together as well as it does is a testament to the dedication and hard work of DiMartino, Konietzko, and the rest of the Avatar crew, most of whom probably never dreamed that they’d be working on something so challenging and so rewarding of their passion and creativity, let alone something so different from the usual “kidcom” stuff. Nickelodeon deserves some praise for allowing the team enough creative freedom to develop a series so radically different from their standard fare (at the time, though, they were looking specifically for their own fantasy-adventure franchise to bank on the popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s another topic for another time).
  4. “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The King of Omashu,” and “Imprisoned” establish what would be the typical pattern of an episode of Avatar (at least until Book Two, when they started to get real weird with it), which goes as follows: Aang and the gang travel to a new location (perfect worldbuilding and art direction opportunities), where they meet either an ally or foe who’ll present them with a conflict to be resolved before the end of the episode—most likely with a last-act action sequence full of awesome Bending—before they leave to go somewhere else.
  5. In “Warriors of Kyoshi,” they go to Kyoshi Island—Aang wants to ride the elephant koi and impress Katara—where they’re ambushed by the island’s inhabitants, specifically the all-female Kyoshi Warriors. Only when Aang proves himself to be the Avatar do the island’s residents relax and welcome the gang with open arms.
  6. Aang loves the adoration of the islanders, and wants to stay for a while. Katara, however, wants to leave soon to keep Zuko off their trail. She also finds Aang’s behavior around the villagers to be vain and childish, which Aang interprets as jealousy. Meanwhile, Sokka—humiliated to have been defeated by “girls,” the Kyoshi Warriors—wants to learn some moves and techniques from the Warriors, if they’ll forgive his initial ignorance.
  7. The gang ends up overstaying their welcome, because Zuko does eventually appear, and he immediately proceeds to burn the village in order to get to Aang. Realizing that Katara was right and that he inadvertently put the villagers’ lives in danger, he and the gang fly away on Appa (but not before Aang stops the fire and saves the village by spraying it with water from the mouth of a giant, ferocious sea monster).
  8. In “The King of Omashu,” they travel to the city of Omashu, which has a crazy, intricate sliding mail system that our heroes ride like a roller coaster. They’re caught by security and brought before King Bumi, who’ll only let them go on the condition that Aang completes three challenges of his design. The point of the challenges is to teach the Avatar to always think outside the box, especially if he’s going to be defeating the Firelord. Did I mention that Bumi is an old, old friend of Aang’s from one-hundred years ago?
  9. Finally, “Imprisoned” takes our heroes to a coal mining village being ruled over by the Fire Nation, since they use coal to fuel their war ships. In this village, Earthbending is strictly forbidden (which is odd, because you’d think that would help them mine more coal, but never mind), and anyone who gets caught is shipped off to a prison built on the water far from land, guaranteed no Earthbending. However, with a little ingenuity from our heroes, the imprisoned Earthbenders revolt and free themselves, resolving to take back their village from the Fire Nation.
  10. Unlike the previous two episodes, this episode revolves around Katara and not Aang. She’s the one who befriends Haru, the Earthbending boy who gets imprisoned after he saves an ungrateful old man from being crushed by a collapsed coal mining tunnel. She’s the one who resolves to rescue Haru by also getting herself arrested for Earthbending, thereby getting taken to the same prison. She’s the one who attempts to inspire the down-trodden Earthbenders to stand proud and fight for their freedom (to no avail). She’s the one who refuses to leave the prison without helping these people reclaim not just their freedom, but their fighting spirit.
  11. And what does she get for all her troubles? In the midst of the prison chaos, she loses her mother’s necklace, the only possession she has by which to remember her deceased mother. To make matters worse, at the end of the episode, it’s found by Zuko! (In an alternative timeline, this would be definitive proof that he and Katara must be meant for each other, but let’s not even go there.)

High Points:

  1. With the exception of “Imprisoned” (the best of the three, and a mostly good harbinger of things to come), these episodes are light as a feather, goofy and meandering, almost completely devoid of seriousness and substance. Is that a bad thing? I certainly used to think so, but the way I see it now, the seemingly aimless nature of these episodes perfectly match the temperament of our main character, Aang. And once the stakes are raised by episode eight, and our hero becomes more focused and motivated, so do the episodes. Pretty clever, eh?
  2. Until then, “lightweight” doesn’t automatically equal “bad” (as it will with the infamous “Great Divide”), and watching Aang bask in all that attention from the village girls is pretty amusing (as is Katara’s obvious annoyance with him). Besides, he does learn his lesson after Zuko arrives and nearly burns the village down, so it wasn’t entirely pointless either (unlike a certain divisive episode that we’ll deal with when it comes).
  3. Speaking of unexpected character growth, Sokka shows us a much more mature side to him than we’d been led to believe he had. He gets his butt kicked by the Kyoshi Warriors and then asks their leader Suki to forgive him and to teach him to be a better warrior through their principles. This is a much more altruistic message than the kind of “girls are better, deal with it” impression you sometimes get with The Legend of Korra, where the male characters, with few exceptions, tend to be either incompetent or evil.
  4. You know what else you’ll find in these episodes that’s lacking in much of Korra? Respect for the elderly. One of the few pleasures of “King of Omashu” is watching King Bumi, who’s over a hundred years old, best Aang with every single one of his challenges. The moment when Aang chooses to challenge Bumi in a fight—and the old man tosses off his robes to reveal he’s in better fighting shape than all three of our heroes combined—is the funniest gag in the episode. Don’t mess with crazy King Bumi!
  5. In “Imprisoned,” the show makes a point of showing just how old most of the Earthbending prisoners are, and how much their will to fight has been crushed by both their imprisonment and their age. And yet Katara still believes in them, and pushes for them to fight back even before she, Sokka and Aang bring them the coal to actually fight back with. As weak as they may be, once Haru, one of their own, instigates the riot and is nearly killed, they immediately jump to his aid, and soon every single one of them is kicking ass.
  6. There are lots of great little touches like that in “Imprisoned,” including a fantastic guest appearance by George Takei as the posh and smarmy prison warden. The prison itself is a clever creation, showing us just how thorough the Fire Nation is with its plans for world domination.
  7. I also love the elaborate gag involving Katara’s fake Earthbending, which peaks when the Fire Nation guards think it’s actually Momo that’s Earthbending. Good ol’ Momo!

Low Points:

  1. Foaming Mouth Guy. Yeah, I know, he’s one of the most iconic and most memetic characters in all of Avatar, and that he was originally supposed to just faint, and that his seizure was an animated ad-lib by Korean animator Ki Hyun Ryu (who’d go on to co-direct Book One of Korra), and I know most of the fans love, love, love Foaming Mouth Guy. I don’t get it. Why is this non sequitur of a man having a seizure supposed to be funny? It’s not acknowledged by any of the characters nor does it even get a simple reaction shot (which can save even the stupidest gags). No, it just comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere just as fast. To make matters worse, it follows a much better, much funnier gag involving Aang and a stupid marble trick he tried to impress Katara with earlier. (Hmm…maybe that’s why the seizure man’s overreact is funny.)
  2. Speaking of iconic characters that everyone loves but I don’t, the Cabbage Man (“My cabbages!”) is…kinda silly, but at least he’s not offensive like the Foaming Mouth Guy. I don’t understand his deal here, though. Is he a cabbage salesman? Before entering Omashu, the guy gets his cabbages thrown off a cliff because they’re rotten, but then he goes inside Omashu and has more cabbages? Did he buy them in Omashu? What?
  3. Also, remember how it said the meandering quality of the episodes cleverly matched that of Aang’s attitude at the moment? Yeah, it’s clever, but not much else. The episodes can still drag if they meander too much. Not “Warriors of Kyoshi,” that episode is pretty solid. “The King of Omashu,” though? Damn near filler. The premise, which is way too silly for its own good, would probably be fine in a lesser children’s show, but in Avatar you start to think, “Wasn’t this show about a kid whose entire race of people got slaughtered during a hundred-year war?”
  4. Don’t even get me started on the animation of “King of Omashu.” Seriously, what was DR Movie’s deal with Avatar? The show is no more and no less complicated than your average “real” anime. (I just saw their name credited in One Punch Man, so clearly they’re no slouch in the drawing department.) Did they initially just write off Avatar as another silly American project?
  5. Then there’s Katara’s utter determination to save the incarcerated Earthbenders, complete with a passionate, impromptu speech, which is NOT a low point in and of itself—what borders on cringe is redeemed when the speech appears to fall on deaf ears—but I want to bring it up because it sets an unfortunate precedence for Katara’s character as someone who is pathologically, neurotically, unquestionably good. It can get annoying, and the show is usually self-aware enough to call her out on her overbearing behavior. When it’s not, you get horrid episodes like “The Painted Lady,” of which “Imprisoned” is an unwittingly forebearer. (Then again, if I’m going to curse every early episode for a worse later addition it inspired, I might as well curse all of Avatar for giving way to Korra, and that just won’t do, will it?)

Random Point:

  1. While we’re on the subject of Katara’s speech, do you remember the running joke in “King of Omashu” where every horrible pun and joke was followed by the sound of some random guy coughing? If you listen closely at the end of Katara’s speech—after which she expects the Earthbenders to rise up and fight—I swear you’ll hear the exact same random guy coughing. Now that’s clever!

Conclusion:

It took six episodes, but Avatar is finally starting to gain momentum: the concepts and the world are starting to make some sense, and we’ve gotten to really know and like our main characters. It’s the next two episodes, though, that will really kick the show into gear and transform Avatar into the amazing and engaging series we all know and love. Stay tuned!

Next week: Korra: “The Spirit of Competition”

Retro: Korra: “The Revelation” and “The Voice in the Night”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Korra learns that the leader of the Equalist movement can take away people’s Bending. She does her best to cope with her fear by ignoring it.

Key Points:

  1. In Avatar, Aang was the reluctant hero who needed to accept his responsibility as Avatar in order to defeat the Firelord and save the world. Korra, being the anti-thesis of Aang, relished her Avatar status since she was a child and finds every opportunity to use (and abuse) her incredible power. What kind of villain could pose a threat to someone like Korra? Someone who could take that power away.
  2. Enter Amon, the leader of the Equalist movement. He preaches the evils of Bending, and how every single catastrophe in history has been instigated by Benders. After seeing his family be slaughtered by corrupt Firebenders, he vowed to rid the world of Bending and bring peace and equality. And the Spirits have given him the ultimate gift for the task: the power to take away a person’s Bending forever (just as Aang did to Firelord Ozai).
  3. But isn’t that a power only the Avatar possesses? Not so, as Amon promptly demonstrates in front of a huge crowd of Equalists (and Korra and Mako). He strips the most dangerous mob boss of his Firebending, rendering him helpless. Amon means business.
  4. This revelation of Amon’s power is a game changer, not just in the fight against the Equalists, but for Korra, for whom the prospect of losing her Bending is the ultimate nightmare, literally and figuratively. This may just be the first time that she has even experienced genuine fear in her entire life.
  5. Little wonder that she handles this new emotion pretty poorly. Aside from the traumatic nightmares, she does everything to hide her true feelings from everyone, especially Tarrlok, the smarmy counsel member who wants her to head his new task force to stop Amon. She rejects the offer, much to Tenzin’s surprise, opting instead to “focus on her Airbending.”
  6. This Tarrlok, however, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and does everything he can to suade Korra, including lavish gifts, each more expensive than the last. When that doesn’t work, he holds a party in her honor and, with the help of the press, virtually bullies Korra into joining the task force anyway.
  7. As Tarrlok is quick to observe, Korra’s fear can easily be overridden by her pride. It’s her pride that tricks her into accepting the task force position, but also to call Amon over the radio and challenge him to a one-on-one match at midnight on Avatar Aang Memorial Island (the island with the giant statue of Aang). Stupid is an understatement; even Tarrlok tries to talk her out of it.
  8. And Amon does show up—eventually, and not at all alone—but not to take away Korra’s Bending. Smart man that he is, he knows she’d only be a martyr if he defeated her then and there, and is waiting for the perfect moment to destroy her. Having come this close to having her Bending taken away, Korra finally allows herself to cry in Tenzin’s arms and admit her fear.
  9. She’s had a rough few days. On top of this Amon stuff, Korra now has a rival for Mako’s affection. Her name is Asami, and she’s the daughter of Hirashi Sato, Republic City’s richest resident and inventor of the automobile—called the “Satomobile” in the Avatar universe, which doesn’t explain where they got the Latin root for “mobile” from—AND the new official sponsor for the Fire Ferrets. To make matters worse, Asami and Mako have already had a few dates and seem highly compatible. Did I mention that Asami is very pretty?
  10. It’s worth mentioning that, before all the Mako hate started pouring in, he and Bolin’s back story as street rats orphaned by Firebenders did make him, however briefly, into a somewhat sympathetic and trustworthy character.
  11. Oh, and we also meet Pabu the red panda, who’d I actually forgotten all about until just now. Much like Naga is the new Appa, Pabu is the new Momo. Both new animals are equally memorable.

High Points:

  1. It takes a little bit of time before the third episode really takes off, but once it does—from the Chi-Blocker chase and fight sequence and beyond—these two episodes are amazing! The fight sequences are visceral and fun; the character interactions are almost always intriguing and actually move the story forward; the art direction, especially for the night scenes in the city, is gorgeous; and the suspense actually keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next. Even as I watch these episodes for probably the fourth time in my life, they still work magnificently.
  2. I think what makes all the difference between these episodes and the first two is the establishment of an actual conflict, which gives everything that happens from now on some gravitas and meaning. The battle with Amon and the Equalist movement is much, much bigger than Korra’s initial problems with Airbending, but now it makes those problem more pressing of an issue: if Korra can’t master this last element, does she really stand a chance against a man who take all her Bending away?
  3. Amon, what a villain! What a terrifying presence, even before we learn of his Energybending ability! What a pitch perfect performance by anime-dub veteran Steve Blum, who channels charisma and menace into every line! What a riveting show when he demonstrates his De-Bending technique (from lightning to fire to nothing)! And at this point, what a perfect opposition to Korra! You get the sense that this girl’s impulsive aggression is no match at all for Amon’s calculated cool. (No wonder DiMartino and Konietzko had to cop-out in the end: without a deus ex machina, this guy would have definitely defeated Korra fair-and-square, meaning they’d actually have to *GASP* develop her character!)
  4. All jokes aside, the towering presence of Amon puts Korra’s inflated ego and machismo in check, and you finally start to feel some sympathy for the girl. All she knows and all she’s good (arguably) at is being the Avatar, and now her entire being is threatened by Amon and his anti-Bending, anti-Avatar ideology. Her fear is completely justified, which is why every scene in which that fear is at the center works really well.
  5. Check out the scene where Amon interrupts the normal radio broadcast to deliver his message to Republic City. A simple shot-reverse-shot of Korra staring at the radio which tighten into close-ups of each, yet combined with Blum’s great delivery and Korra’s silent yet visible terror, it becomes a paralyzing moment of unbearable, almost Hitchcockian tension. It may be my favorite scene of the two episodes.
  6. Another favorite is Korra’s close encounter with Amon on Avatar Aang Memorial Island. Once again, Blum’s performance is the centerpiece, complimented by more great silent animation of Korra and subtle, moody lighting. The follow-up scene of Korra crying into Tenzin’s arms is effective, too, and for once Janet Varney finds the perfect note in which to portray Korra sympathetically.
  7. There are a few action sequences, the best of which is the first encounter with Chi-Blockers who have kidnapped Bolin and some other gang members. Great use of CG environments in that one, which allows the “camera” to circle and track the action at key moment, making for some kinetic shots. Same goes for the scene where Korra, Tarrlok and his task force infiltrate an Equalist training facility. Good job, Messieurs Ryu and Dos Santos!
  8. As new characters go, both Asami and Tarrlok are pretty interesting. Asami’s personality, as far as I can go, is deliberately left vague so that the show can throw a twist our way, revealing her true intentions. We already don’t trust her since she started moving in on Korra’s guy, so I’d say it works in the show’s favor.
  9. Tarrlok is such a smart guy, and an expert manipulator, that you already know not to trust a single word he says, even when he makes good on them. His task force with Korra on board is a success, but is he doing it for glory or justice? Both seem about right, and is there anything wrong with that?
    10. Finally, special mention goes to Lin Bei Fong. She gets a single line in which she gets to put down Korra again, and absolutely nails it!

Low Points:

  1. I said I liked Tarrlok, didn’t I? Well, I don’t really like his voice actor. Which is borderline heresy, because if you know anything about Dee Bradley Baker, you’d know he’s one of the most prolific and versatile voice actors in the business, particularly in the field of animal noises. (Appa? Momo? Pabu? Nagu? Daffy Duck in Space Jam? All him!) Tarrlok, though?
  2. And it’s not even that his performance is bad per se. It just sounds a little too cartoonish and theatrical next to the relatively natural and less obvious performances of Varney, Blum, J.K. Simmons, Mindy Sterling, and others. I’ve always theorized that Baker was a replacement for another actor who dropped out at the last minute. Imagine Tarrlok’s lines being read by someone like, say, Oliver Platt, and you’ll understand how Baker oversteps the line between sleaze ball and “sleaze ball.”
  3. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, P.J. Byrne is excellent as Bolin, even if the character is a little too silly for his own good. How does Bolin wind up getting involved with the gang that gets kidnapped by the Equalists? By putting on a street-side mini-circus featuring Pabu the whatever-I-don’t hybrid animal to raise money for the entry fee into the Pro-Bending championships. Come to think of it, this particular incident isn’t that bad, but as the series progresses, it doesn’t get any better for Bolin.

Random Points:

  1. I want to talk a little bit about that scene where Tarrlok’s task force infiltrates the Equalist training facility, because it illustrates some of the more trouble aspects of Book One’s message.
  2. The main conflict of Book One is between Benders and a certain faction of Non-Benders who believe that Benders have a disproportionate amount of power in society, and they use that power to oppress Non-Benders. The most extreme of this faction are the Equalists, the terrorist organization led by Amon and designed to take down all Benders and rid them of their ability to Bend, including the Avatar.
  3. It’s been observed many times by much more intelligent folks than myself that this isn’t exactly a black-and-white issue. While the Equalists are clearly the “bad guys” and Korra and the other Benders are the “good guys,” it’s definitely true that in the grand scheme of things, Benders do have a physical advantage over Non-Benders, an advantage which can and has been abused in the series itself (even by Korra, no less). It makes perfect sense that a group would come along to “equalize” the playing field in an attempt to bring “peace” to the world, even if by violent means.
  4. Extremists or not, the Equalists have a point, even if the show itself attempt to dissuade you otherwise. In the task force attack scene, we see a group of Equalists training themselves both in self-defense and in the art of Chi-Blocking, two skills that would come in handy with rouge Benders. Putting aside the Equalist agenda, are these not skills that any sane Non-Bender living in a world of Benders would want to have in case of emergency?
  5. And why is Chi-Blocking a skill limited to the Equalists? Along with Lightning-Bending(?), Chi-Blocking is one of those rare techniques we’d only seen used by one or two people in Avatar. In Korra, though, Lightning-Bending has been normalized to a degree that those capable of doing it can work in power plants to provide electricity for the city. Why isn’t Chi-Blocking also normalized? Apparently, everyone on the police force is a Bender, but wouldn’t that be a solid, pacifying skill to have at one’s disposable when dealing with out-of-control Benders? (Instead of, you know, fighting Bending with Bending, which the first episode demonstrated could cause more damage than it’s worth?)
  6. And not a single one of those Equalists arrested gets even a brief moment of humanity or sympathy to their plight. More to the point, am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that each one of those Equalists we see training in the facility are all wearing their Equalist masks while they’re training? As far as they’re concerned, this is a safe-space where they’re all in solidarity against the oppression of Benders, so why keep the masks (especially with banners of Amon plastered all over the walls? The easy answer: so the audience will know that they’re the “bad guys,” and thus will feel few qualms about seeing these folks ruthlessly frozen with Waterbending or assaulted with Earthbending. I doubt even the members of Antifa wear their masks all the time.
  7. In this day and age, when we’re seeing pretty close parallels to the Equalist movement being played out in real life, it’s a bit troubling to see how carelessly the conflict is handled in Book One of Korra. Generally speaking, Benders are the “privilege” class of the Avatar universe (at least, according to the series itself), and for writers as transparently left-leaning as DiMartino and especially Konietzko, their muddled handling of the politic crisis in their own fantasy universe either reflects a poor understanding of real world politics, or an even worse understanding of their own political agenda. It’s difficult to say, especially since their agenda seems to shift with every season until finally Korra and Asami close the series as symbols of LGBT representation, with absolutely no warning or development of any kind.

Conclusion:

Well that got a lot more political than I ever intended (Lord knows it won’t be the last time when dealing with DiMartino and Konietzko). But I don’t watch Korra or Avatar for the politics, I watch them for the storytelling, and on those terms, “The Revelation” and “The Voice in the Night” are pretty damn good. Since there aren’t that many episodes of Korra you can definitively say that about, you’d better enjoy them while you can. I have a feeling the next episode is going to be a tad more divisive.

Next week: Avatar: “The Warriors of Kyoshi” & “The King of Omashu” & “Imprisoned”

Announcement: Next Retro Review Pushed Back One Week; Research and Responses

The next Retrospective review is getting pushed back to next Saturday, April 29th. I won’t bother you all with the details, but let’s just say that a few days back, I experienced a “debilitating relapse” that all but wrecked my mental faculties for the rest of the week. I’ll be back on track by Sunday, by which point I’ll recommence with the Retrospective and the research.

Speaking of research, I want to say thank you to everyone who sends me links to interesting interviews or articles on Avatar and Korra. I’ll be adding them to the Research Hub. I also need to get better with responding to any and all comments I get, so I’m going to reserve Wednesday and Saturday as the days I respond to all new comments. We’ll see if that works out better.

In general, I want to thank everyone who’s been with me on this long, crazy ride to review Avatar and Korra (AGAIN). This entire process is always fun and educational for me, especially seeing what other folks feel and think about these two shows. To have created two shows so rich with ideas and intrigue is no small feat, and whatever my qualms with the quality and execution of either show, DiMartino and Konietzko deserve a good deal of praise and respect.

Thanks again for all the love and support. Have fun, be safe, and choose life!