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Archive for November, 2011

Chapter Six: “Imprisoned”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

Oh, man, did I use to HATE this episode! “Imprisoned” used to be the whipping boy for a vast majority of my past hatred for Avatar: the Last Airbender. And most of that hatred had to do with only one element of the episode: Katara’s inspirational speech. Of all the pretentious things you could do this early in a series, DiMartino and Konietzko and company decided to have Katara make an over-the-top, overwritten, and overblown speech about having the courage to fight your enemies even a situation so hopeless? Ack!

Thankfully, time heals all wounds, and I hold “Imprisoned” in much higher regard than I ever did back then (much like the series as a whole for that matter). Hell, “Imprisoned” is the first truly good episode in the entire series. Unlike the first five chapters, “Imprisoned” actually has significant re-watch value, with plenty of careful storytelling, interesting ideas, and–get this–humor that is actually funny! Even Katara’s big dumb speech works wonderfully in the context of the story. More on that later.

The episode begins with Aang, Katara, and Sokka having nothing substantial to eat (“First, round nuts and some kind of oval shaped nuts, and some rock shaped nuts that…might just be rocks.”). After some funny business with Momo and a rock, the kids discover a young man who knows how to Earthbend. However, their presence scares him away, and they follow him to his village. They find the boy, named Haru, and his mother in their shop, and quickly learn that Earthbending is forbidden in these parts, which is controlled by Firebenders. This point is further emphasized when Firebending guards arrive requesting more tax money while threatening to burn the shop down.

Katara, ever the idealistic, suggests that the villagers actually fight back and take their home away from the Fire Nation. This is impossible, unfortunately, as all the Earthbenders in town have been imprisoned and taken far away. One of these Earthbenders just happens to have been Haru’s father. In just a few moments of exposition, the writers manage to humanize the mother and make her fear of losing Haru real; something’s actually at stake for a change.

And after the kids receive a place to sleep, Haru and Katara talk more about his father and how his Earthbending makes him feel close to him again despite being so far away. Katara understands this because the necklace she wears was given to her by her mother, who was killed in a Fire Nation raid of her village. (This information is given much more skillfully here than in those overly sentimental parts of “The Southern Air Temple.”) What makes this moment touching is how both kids realize these material things, in spite of the emotional value they have, are no substitute for their real parents. And unlike Haru, Katara has absolutely no chance of ever getting her mother back.

This moment is cut short when Katara and Haru come across an old man trapped under a collapsed coal mine entranced. By the mere fact that they just happened to be there–more heartless people would have said “tough shit” and let the old man die–the kids try to save him, but realize the only way to get him out would be for Haru to Earthbend the fallen earth away. He’s hesitant, but since no one could possibly be there to see him–making the case for just walking away even stronger–he does Earthbend and he does save the old man. It’s a triumphant moment to say the least, but it’s soon ruined when the old man rats him out to the Fire Nation. Tsk. If only he wasn’t so nice…

What follows is a sequence that, in its economic storytelling, always made me laugh. Katara is getting water from a well and Waterbending it into a vase. She notices Haru’s mother with her back to her. Then she turns around, tears in her eyes. Katara, getting it immediately, drops the vase and it shatters on the ground. I promise you that I’m not sadistic. It’s just that the vase always made it funny, because ofterwise this is a supremely well-done silent bit of storytelling that tells us all we need to know in a few bodily gestures and edits. But no, DiMartino and Konietzko and company had to take it a bit too far and have someone drop a glass in shock. Without the vase, this is heartbreaking. With it, it’s suddenly cheesy as Hell, and just as funny.

Believing Haru’s arrest to be her fault, Katara resolves to get him out of prison. To do this, she plans to have herself arrested for Earthbending. To do that, the kids stage an Earthbending scenario that makes clever use of the mine ventilation system and Aang’s Airbending. All this leads to the single funniest moment of the episode, and the first real laugh-out-loud moment in the series. When the Fire Nation guards arrive, Katara and Sokka stage the start of a fight, in which Katara promises to crush Sokka “Earthbending-style!” Aang misses his cue, sends the earth up late, and for some reason Momo is right under it, his arms lifted up. So what do the guards see exactly?

Fire Nation guard: That lemur! He’s Earthbending!

Of course, the guard is quickly corrected–and humiliated–and they arrest Katara, taking her all the way to a large, metal platform far out in the ocean. The perfect prison for Earthbenders. It’s here that we’re introduced to the Warden, one of the most delightful one-time characters in the series. His pompous, condescending attitude makes every scene he’s in a joy to watch, especially during his moments of angry impulsive behavior. (The fact that he’s voiced by George Takei only makes him all the more wonderful to behold.)

Katara finds Haru, and he introduces her to his father, a pragmatic man and leader of the prisoners. He immediately dismisses Katara’s intentions of a prison escape as impossible and not worth getting worked up over. Of course, Katara thinks differently, and that where that damn speech finally comes into play. Let’s face it: there’s no getting around how hammy and overblown this speech is. The musical score that accompanies merely drives that point home. I can’t even imagine what those old Earthbenders were thinking when that dark-skinned hippie started rambling about fighting for their freedom when clearly they, as Earthbenders–and old ones at that–had nothing to fight with. Where’s Pete Townshend and his guitar when you need them?

And that’s why the speech works: in this context, that it gets no reaction whatsoever is precisely the point. These prisoners have no means and thus no will to fight. The Warden knows this well, and does nothing to stop Katara from making her speech, allowing her to humiliate herself.

However, Katara is not discouraged, and wants to stay and help the people. Or maybe she was discouraged? She was embarrassed because her plan didn’t work at all, was too proud to admit it, and wanted to redeem herself rather than admit that these people were hopeless. Hmm…that’s reading a little too much into it. Still, it’s better than thinking Katara was some sort of self-righteous Mary Sue, which was my mode of thinking a long time ago. Because frankly, while it was her idea to help the prisoners break free, it was Sokka’s brainstorming and Aang’s abilities that made these a reality. She was the will, and they were the way. How would this scenario have gone if Aang wasn’t there to help? I’m getting off-topic, but speaking of Mary Sues and reading too much into things, am I the only one who ever noticed the “halo” above Katara’s head earlier in the episode?

Back on track: Katara gets Aang and Sokka to stay and help the people, and they do come up with an ingenious plan that essentially magnifies the faux-Earthbending illusion from earlier in the episode. Now that’s clever writing! The producers even explain the plan with David Fincher-esque technique: Aang must close all the ship’s heat vents but one, and then Airbend all the coal onto the prison deck so the Earthbenders will finally have their natural weapon.

However, even with this, the Earthbenders still hesitate to fight. Why? Fear? Disbelief? Belief that their abilities have left them? Whatever it is, the Warden delivers his final belittlement on Katara and the prisoners before smugly walking away. However, a rather pissed-off Haru hits him with a rock, and suddenly an action sequence breaks out: Earthbenders vs. Firebenders, old vs. (mostly) young. And the fate of the Warden? He’s dropped right into the ocean (presumably to die, since he says he can’t swim, but maybe not).

The prisoners get away on the ships, intent on taking their village back from the Fire Nation. Haru and his father thank Katara for giving them the courage to fight again, although they should also be thanking Aang and Sokka as well for providing the know-how, but I digress; let Katara have her glory for now. It doesn’t last long anyway: she suddenly realizes her necklace is gone. How the Hell she lost it has been the biggest mystery to me, because she clearly had it on right before the conflict is over. Hmm…did she suddenly get extremely claustrophobic and inadvertently rip it off? Who knows? Who cares? What’s important is that Zuko finds it, and that’s very, very bad.

Yep, this is definitely a very good episode. Not great, though, and thus denied anything higher than an 11 rating. Consider it a strong 11, though, because this is the first episode that DiMartino and Konietzko and company actually got right. There’s hardly a bad moment in the entire episode, and there are so many wonderful individual moments, like when the Warden throws a guard overboard for arguing over minute details such as whether to call Appa a “buffalo” or a “bison.” And to think: we have quite a few even better episodes ahead of us!

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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Chapter Five: “The King of Omashu”

6

(Rating Out of 15)

I praise the unseen makers of the universe that I did not begin my Avatar: the Last Airbender-viewing days with “The King of Omashu,” for it’s highly possible I would have never watched another episode of this show. Then again, the first glimpse I did see came from “The Fortuneteller,” a decent enough episode that nevertheless failed to stand out, and then I didn’t really watch the entire first season until a year later. If I saw this episode first, would I really have never watched the rest of the show? I really don’t know.

I do know that this is a shitty episode. More to the point, this is a horrific miscalculation of an episode that nearly destroys the good will of the unsuspecting viewer who sat through the first four better episodes, wondering if this is the same “great show” that his friends told him all about. This wouldn’t be the last terrible episode the show had to offer—and it’s not even the worst—but it’s kind of shocking that DiMartino and Konietzko and company let something this bad to slip into the line-up this early.

This is why Avatar frustrates me so much. At its peak, the one thing Avatar definitely not was your average, disposable, run-of-the-mill kids’ “comedy,” and that’s the kind of show that “The King of Omashu” comes dangerously close to emulating in almost every aspect of its being. It even comes with it’s own end-of-episode lesson that has been learned. Completely without irony.

The entire concept resolves around a crazy-old king who gives Aang three brain-puzzle challenges, and if he fails, Sokka and Katara will be imprisoned in some kind of growing rock.

There are so many things wrong with this from the get-go.

First, where’s the suspense? The writers didn’t honestly expect us to be worried about the fates of Sokka and Katara this early in the series, did they? The growing stone placed on them isn’t even adequately explained, or at least made into a threat. One may not know how they’re going to get out of it, but you know they will anyway, so why care?

Speaking of lack of suspense, the Rigid Action Syndrome from “The Boy in the Iceberg” is back, and it nearly ruins the scene in which Aang takes Sokka and Katara for a ride on the sliding mail system. As someone afraid of heights, I felt kind of cheated out of a good, exhilarating slide sequence. They do add a clever moment where they’re being followed closely by a cart of sharp spears. There’s another funny moment when the cart surprises a group of soldiers ordered ot be prepared for anything. Otherwise, the sequence drags on too long until they finally crash and are arrested.

Second, to anyone with the slightest bit of common scene (not to mention the more genre savvy among us), the identity of the king of Omashu is pretty obvious. In a flashback, Aang talks about how he used to visit the city of Omashu to see his old pal, Bumi, who always saw more possibilities in the established order of things. For some reason, the animators felt the need to hold a close-up shot of Bumi’s goofy-looking face as he laughs like a weirdo. Disturbing. When we get our first look at the king, we instantly know it’s Bumi. Was this supposed to be a mystery? Or were we supposed to be in on the secret while our heroes were oblivious? I can’t place any bets on the latter, because the majority of the episode seems to hinge on the fact that Bumi’s identity is unknown.

And what’s with those lame jokes? It’s like the writers are making fun of the bad jokes you hear in those stupid kids’ show, only they wind up making the same kind of bad jokes without an ounce of notable satire or parody. The coughing noise after many of these jokes is funny the first time, but it loses its charm very fast.

There is one funny exchange, though. Bumi and one of his guards have a little dispute over the chamber he’s supposed to send the kids to: the good chamber or the bad chamber, or the newly refurbished chamber? Didn’t the refurbished chamber used to be the bad one? You get the idea.

Third, the challenges are kind of lame. The whole idea is lame. In fact, I learned from the Art of Avatar: the Last Airbender book that the challenges idea came from the infamous John O’Bryan, often credited among Avatar fans as the worst writer on the entire staff. Just how much blame O’Bryan deserves for this—he wrote the episode as well—is up for question, since it obviously got a pass from Konietzko and DiMartino.

Whatever. The challenges are: 1) get a key from inside a waterfall; 2) find Bumi’s pet Flopsy; and 3) fight with whomever Aang points to. The first one is a little interesting, and the solution is actually inventive. The second one is painfully obvious. The third one does surprise, because Aang chooses Bumi, and who’d have expected that old man to be so muscular and fit? Admittedly, I enjoyed the fight more this time around than I have previously. Still, it’s a little boring.

And when that’s over, Bumi will only release Sokka and Katara if Aang can guess his name. I’m not sure how young you’d have to be to be surprised by this stuff, but anyone and everyone should have figured it out by that point. And why did Bumi put them through all this? Why, to prepare Aang for his eventual task of mastering all four elements and defeating the Fire Nation, of course. But also, in Bumi’s own words, “It’s fun messing with people.” Not when they’re expecting something that rises above the dreck you’ve been emulating, you old prick.

Shame. I actually kinda like Bumi, too. Why couldn’t they write a better episode for him? Why did they have to make him a mystery? Couldn’t the writers have just let Aang in on it from the start, and then have Bumi give Aang the challenges as if he’d forgotten they were old, old friends?

Also, if we’re going to be really analytical, how did Bumi know Aang was the Avatar anyway? I’m going to assume the flashback with the two characters took place before Aang found out himself. I don’t know. I guess when you’re as old and as crazy as Bumi, nothing really is impossible.

So essentially, “The King of Omashi” is filler with plot. Like “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” it’s absolutely necessary for the rest of the series, making the padding around the story points unavoidable. But the episode is offensive in two more ways.

One, this is the first episode without a parallel Zuko story, and the absence of Zuko and Uncle Iroh is painfully felt. Aang’s side of the story just seems too prone to veering off into “crappy kids’ show” territory without those two around the balance it out. Not always–as “The Deserter” gloriously proves–but often enough.

Two, some of the drawings in this episode are just downright awful. Experimental season or not, the sloppiness in how the character designs are handled strangles the eyes. How did this get a pass for airing?

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Four: “The Warriors of Kyoshi”

9

(Rating Out of 15)

I’m still unsure of what to think of “The Warriors of Kyoshi.” For the most part, what makes evaluating a Book One episode difficult is the fact that DiMartino and Konietzko and company hadn’t yet found the perfect balance between advancing the overall plot of the entire series and crafting an episode that could also stand on its own. Because I’m viewing the show in retrospect of having seen the whole thing, I can easily recognize the foundation of story points being laid here. Kyoshi eventually becomes important, as does the character Suki and her interactions with Sokka, and Aang’s first real steps to maturity are taken here. In that sense, “Kyoshi” is indispensable to the show. Unfortunately, this makes its flaws as an episode all the more unbearable.

For a brief moment, though, it feels like it’s going to be the first great episode in the series. The two best moments—also the funniest—come right at the beginning back-to-back.

The first is a scene that starts with Zuko meditating and Uncle Iroh coming in with some bad news. Zuko says something about being able to keep a level head at all times was a sign of a good leader, and that he could take any news. Of course, hearing that they have no idea where the Avatar is pisses him off. Voice actors Dante Basco and Mako were just too perfect for these roles. Their interactions proceed so naturally and knowingly that just about anything they say to each other is, funny or not, always entertaining.

The second moment comes when Zuko seems to think Aang is a master of evasive maneuvering, but a dissolve to the kids shows he really doesn’t know where he’s going, except that the place is near water, a statement that is punctuated by an extremely wide shot of nothing but blue ocean surrounding them. It’s a stupid joke, on the face of it, but it occurs so quickly and with dry execution that I found it impossible not to laugh.

Nothing that follows is really up to par with these moments (though I did find the pants trouble amusing). While the episode isn’t a complete disaster—Hell, I found it more tolerable this time around than I have before—bad ideas are still bad ideas. Thus, when Aang goes into the water to surf on fish and his character design distorts worse than a character in Ren & Stimpy, it’s jarring as Hell, and just as stupid. At one point, he runs on water like a Looney Tunes character. I know this is the Experimental season, but what the Hell made Konietzko and DiMartino think this was acceptable?

After the kids land on the beach and Aang fish surfs, they’re attacked and captured by the Kyoshi Warriors, who, to Sokka’s disgust, are all girls. However, they manage to convince the people that Aang is the Avatar by having him do some Airbending stuff. And then whirling a marble. What’s with the marble? It was actually funny the first time, but not now. And can someone please explain the deal with that weird guy who apparently has a seizure and faints? It creeps me out every time, and I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be concerned or laugh. (And this was an addition given by the Korean animation studio. That animator sure had a strange sense of humor.)

Throughout the episode, Sokka’s reactions to the Kyoshi Warriors are pretty well handled. Sometimes they’re even funny. And guess what? It’s almost never because of Jack DeSena. More often it’s someone else, be it Suki, the leader of the Warriors, or Katara, that makes fun of his arrogance. When he goes into their training area to basically insult them more for being girls, he’s put in his place when Suki brings him down with just a few evasive moves. I’m still kind of surprised by how quickly he goes to apologize for being an ass and then asks to be trained by them. I’ll buy it for two reasons: 1) it demonstrates that these characters can and will grow in the course of the series; and 2) it’s one less annoying trait of Sokka’s to deal with. On top of that, it leads to a few good laughs when Sokka has to wear the Kyoshi uniform, which is a dress, of course.

OK, DeSena’s acting does help out a joke later on: the village head tells Suki and the “girls” to defend the village, and Sokka gives up trying to tell him he’s not a girl.

As for Aang and Katara, neither of their subplots does anything for me. Aang is enjoying all the attention he gets for being the Avatar from all the little girls in the village. This is all fine by me, and it while it generates some amusement, it never really goes anywhere. Hmm…maybe it kind of did? Maybe that’s what Katara’s jealousy was for, but that never really convinced me either. Why is she so concerned with the amount of attention Aang gets? Is it because she thinks he’ll become an arrogant prick? Is it because her mother died? Is she upset that she never got that kind of attention after that? Does she not like him projecting Sokka behavior? I can speculate all I want, but the fact remains that these scenes don’t really work.

The third act is mostly solid. Aang nearly gets eaten by the giant sea dragon again, but is saved by Katara in a pretty suspenseful moment. This is just before Zuko arrives and starts burning the village to lure out Aang. In between some nice action scenes, we get a cute moment between Sokka and Suki:

Sokka: I treated you like a girl when I should have treated you like a warrior.
Suki: I am a warrior. (kisses Sokka on cheek) But I’m also a girl.

As the three kids fly away, Aang finally begins to realize the damage he’s caused and regrets being so oblivious. Katara tries to console him by saying he did the right thing by leaving before more destruction could be done. This would have been a nicely bittersweet ending…except that Aang jumps back into the water, somehow is able to manipulate the sea dragon’s hydro blasts, and stops the village from burning. I can only wonder how the Hell he knew how to do that? More importantly, I curse the writers for copping out with a happier ending! The last exchange between Aang and Katara doesn’t help.

So, yeah, my attitude towards this episode has improved a little, but nothing’s really changed my mind about how clumsy the writing is. It would be a while before DiMartino and Konietzko and company finally figured out how to construct entirely satisfying episodes. But until then…

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Three: “The Southern Air Temple”

9

(Rating Out of 15)

After falling under the spell of the two Pilot episodes, “The Southern Air Temple” is at once disappointing and intriguing. (Fair warning: the word “disappointing” will pop up sporadically when reviewing these episodes.)

On the Aang side of things, we get to see his former home that was the once lively Southern Air Temple, and how completely dead and deserted it is after the war. On Zuko’s side, we are introduced to Commander Zhao, who will serve as a rival to Zuko in his race to capture the Avatar.

These are both fascinating developments. For Aang, we come to realize just how alone he really is as the titular last Airbender, and for Zuko, we suddenly begin to root for the villain as he begins to face off against fellow Firebenders less honorable and respectable than he is. So there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “The Southern Air Temple” in the ideas department; no, it’s the execution that turns some things a little sour.

It’s a little strange looking back at this episode and how it handles the genocide of the Airbenders. Unlike later episodes such as “The Southern Raiders,” the issue of death feels rather toned down and even overlooked, as if the writers didn’t want to depress the little ones too early in the show. The sentimentality they use instead really harms the episode’s integrity.

Zuko’s side of the story, on the other hand, is as effective as ever. Every single scene with him, Uncle Iroh, and Commander Zhao is wonderful. Our introduction to Zhao even comes with humor, as neither Iroh nor Zuko can come up with a good lie as to how their ship got damaged. It’s simply amazing how quickly the writers are able to get us to empathize with Zuko in his confrontations with Zhao, a suave and condescending man who appears to want to go after the Avatar only to humiliate Zuko even further. And there are depths to Zuko? A banished prince trying to get back in his father’s favor? And what about this exchange:

Zhao: If your father really wanted you home, he would have let you return by now. Avatar or no Avatar. But in his eyes you are a failure, and a disgrace to the Fire Nation.
Zuko: That’s not true!
Zhao: You have the scar to prove it.

Heavy!

The Agni Kai (or Firebending battle, I guess) between them is not very involving, but it’s definitely interesting. Zuko’s eventual victory is followed by a sneak attack by Zhao, which is stopped and criticized by Uncle Iroh. And the final exchange before he and Zuko leave is delightful, too.

Sadly, Aang’s side pales in comparison, even if he’s supposed to be the center of the series—personally, I think Zuko is the real center. Aang’s excitement over seeing the Southern Air Temple can’t be dimmed by Katara’s warnings that the Airbenders may all be dead. Not even the largely empty Air Temple totally shatters his hopes. I don’t really think they took full advantage of the lonely emptiness until the end of the episode (and it’s extremely effective when they do).

Now there are positive things here. The flashbacks to Aang’s old friend, Master Kyotso, are nicely done and inform us where Aang’s mischievous spirit comes from. The large room with the past Avatars is pretty cool. The first appearance of Momo leads to a fun chase scene, as Aang tries to get him to be friends, and Sokka tries to get him to be food. Aang’s advantages as an Airbender are put to great use, particularly in the exhilarating shots where Aang has jumped from a vast height, leaving Sokka behind. No Rigid Action Syndrome here.

Even with all this good stuff, these passages are largely marred by two things: 1) annoying Sokka humor; and 2) too much sentimentality.

My gripes with Jack DeSena and his “comedy” haven’t ceased after all these years. I understand that Sokka is the comic relief, that’s fine. My problem is that neither the writers nor DeSena really knows how to make the character truly funny. In this episode, they setup that Sokka is starving and can’t appreciate the thrill of being at an ancient temple. To pay it off, Sokka runs into a large door (that appears to have been drawn in color pencil), talks all the time about meat, and just acts silly. There’s only one good laugh, and that’s when they are hiding from an unknown threat.

Sokka (whisper): It’s Fire Nation. Don’t make a sound.
Katara (whisper): You’re making a sound!
Sokka and Aang: Shhhh!

And the sentimentality…oh, boy does it run thick. The writers make it pretty clear that the Fire Nation did indeed kill all of the Airbenders here. And they setup how worried Katara is about Aang realizing this, to the point of lying. That’s not the problem. My problem lies with moments like in the beginning, when Katara admits that the Fire Nation killed her mother. This information is just dropped in, and no one really reacts to it. Turns out this was meant to serve merely as a plot device for later, like a morbid brick joke.

So finally Aang discovers the skeletal remains of Master Kyotso surrounded by the remains of Fire Nation soldiers. Aang’s breakdown before going into the Avatar State was never really convincing to me. By the way, why are Kyotso’s remains the only ones around? Did everyone else manage to escape, or fall off the mountain? And why is it that when Aang goes into the Avatar State that all the statues in the room light up, as well as lights in other places around the world? I know this is meant to alert the entire world that the Avatar has returned, but does this happen every time Aang goes into the Avatar State? If so, did it happen in “The Avatar Returns” when Aang went into the Avatar State to save himself? And if it did, then doesn’t the world already know by this point that the Avatar is back? (That could be how Zhao knew Zuko was lying, but that’s a stretch; I don’t want to give DiMartino and Konietzko and company too much credit.)

As Aang’s emotional wrath causes a whirlwind, Katara makes it her duty to calm him down. This should be a powerful moment, but it’s completely ruined by bad writing choices. When Sokka tells that her that Aang found Kyotso’s body, her reaction is borderline nonchalant. Sokka is no better, as his response to her going to calm Aang down is, “Well hurry up and do it before he blows us off the mountain!” (Hmm, was his selfishness supposed to be a gag?)

Katara’s normal volume of speaking can somehow be heard over the strong winds, as she brings back the exposition of her mother dying to show Aang she knows what he’s going through. That’s lame, but then she goes on about how she and Sokka are his new family! Ack!

This calms him down, but he’s still sad to be the last Airbender. And as we reach the episode’s conclusion, we get the very best moments to be found here, and two of my all-time favorite moments from the series (probably because of my abandonment issues, but I digress).

First, Aang stands together with Momo and Appa, telling them that as the last of their kind, they need to stick together. Unlike with those Avatar State scenes, the writers don’t overdo it with sentimentality. Hell, I don’t think there’s any sentimentality here at all. Maybe that’s why it works so well.

Second is the very last shot of the episode, in which the group flies away from the deserted Air Temple. Aang watches mournfully as the temple disappears into the clouds, never to be visited again. It’s a sad, painful, yet poignant moment, and it almost makes up for the episode’s flaws. It’s moments like this that make Avatar: the Last Airbender worth watching, and if you’ll willing to wade through the shakiness of Book One, you’ll come to understand what a great show this is.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter One and Two: “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns”

10

(Rating Out of 15)

11

(Rating Out of 15)

Every series has to start somewhere, and Avatar: the Last Airbender started with “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns.” These two episodes waste absolutely no time in establishing the overall story, giving the audience just enough information to understand what’s going on, while leaving just enough a mystery to be explained and explored throughout the remainder of the series. By the end of “The Avatar Returns,” we have at least a broad understanding of what Bending is, who the Avatar is, what his disappearance and his return means for the world, who our protagonists are, who the villain is, etc. As the collective Pilot, these two episodes are virtually flawless.

But here’s the real question: setting aside their absolute importance to the overall story, how do “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” fare simply as individual episodes?

They’re nothing special really. They’re not bad, but there’s nothing truly resonant about them. By the series’ overall standards, these are just average episodes of Avatar (which is still better than just about anything else on television). This may have actually given the show a great advantage: if you enjoyed these episodes, you’ll like nearly everything the show has to offer. If you don’t like these episodes…well, some patience will be required.

Personally, I think they’re just all right (though “The Avatar Returns” is slight better). The thing that interests me most is how the genesis for every other episode and the formation of the Avatar formula definitely can be seen here, as well as nearly every strength and every weakness that has affected Avatar since. This includes the notion that, despite being an American animated kids’ show, Avatar was pretty original, intriguing, and surprisingly mature. Conversely, for its wonderful qualities, it was still an American animated kids’ show, and thus prone to all the traps that shows of its kind tend to fall into. How well could Avatar circumnavigate those traps without surrendering to them?

The plot basics: two Water Tribe siblings named Katara and Sokka find a boy named Aang who’d been frozen in an iceberg and is an Airbender. This discovery alerts a Fire Nation prince named Zuko that the Avatar is near, and he vows to capture him. By the end, we get the general idea: Aang, accompanied by Katara and Sokka, will travel the world so that he, as the Avatar, will learn to master all four elements (air, water, fire, earth) in order to finally bring the war—which has gone on for a hundred years—to an end. And all the while, Zuko, accompanied by his wise and very loving Uncle Iroh, will try to stop him.

 

It only becomes more complicated from there, and I must give creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and their creative team credit for never losing sight of the overall story. Avatar is never confusing or hard to follow, and the occasional 100% filler episode notwithstanding, nearly every episode builds on those that came before it and adds to the experience. Unlike other kids’ shows, Avatar actually has a story to begin, middle, and end. Maybe it wasn’t as clear cut as that, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company structure Avatar so magnificently that it’s hardly an issue. It all builds to an epic conclusion that leaves you, if not completely satisfied, glad you stuck with it all this time.

That said, these first two episodes only kind of lead you to expect such wonderful things from the show. It all really comes down to Roger Ebert’s law: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” As this pertains to Avatar, the story was always great; it was the storytelling that nearly foiled its success.

Take Aang, for example. Throughout the series, he constantly tightropes between being: 1) an energetic and mischievous twelve-year-old boy who also happens to be the savior of humanity that can end the war; and 2) a fairly amusing cartoon character who is doomed to succeed in the end by the mere virtue that he is the main character. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, for lots of cartoon characters are built on this premise (Bugs Bunny comes to mind). The problem is that it leaves very little room for any kind of emotional investment in the character. How are we supposed to root for a character to succeed if he doesn’t really have anything that would stop him from doing so? Characters like this may be entertaining, but they almost never feel real.

This is the main reason I’ve never really liked Aang throughout the series. Only on extremely rare occasions is his dual status of child and savior, and his choice between fun for himself and responsibility towards others actually addressed. These are the most interesting aspects of his character, and yet they’re constantly pushed aside in the interest of amusing hijinks (hijinks which, admittedly, are more often than not fun to watch).

In “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “the Avatar Returns,” this distinction is, thankfully, portrayed as more of a deliberate guise on Aang’s part rather than a lapse in judgment by the writers. Or maybe “guise” is the wrong word, because this really is Aang’s personality: he’s a fun-loving, compassionate, carefree kid who wants nothing to do with saving the world. Immediately after he’s unfrozen by Katara and Sokka, the first thing he asks Katara is if she’ll go penguin sledding with him.

This does set up an interesting dynamic between Aang and the two Water Tribe siblings. Having been frozen for so long, Aang didn’t have the exposure to war and destruction that Katara and Sokka had. He doesn’t seem to have been affected by the war at all. (Later on, it turns out he didn’t even know it happened.) This leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the entire series:

Katara: Why are you smiling at me like that?
Aang: Oh. I was smiling?

Aang doesn’t need a reason to smile. He just loves life. His exuberance is pretty contagious, especially when he meets the villagers of the Southern Water Tribe. All of the children take an immediate liking to him, but the adults, particularly Gran-Gran, are skeptical: who is this strange new boy, and why isn’t he gloomy like the rest of us?

They might be jealous of his youth and agility, too.

“The Boy in the Iceberg” also establishes the overriding traits of Katara and Sokka, for better or worse.

I realize I’m in a very small minority on this, but I don’t like Sokka. I really don’t. He’s supposed to be the comic relief, but his jokes nearly always fall flat. I largely blame Sokka’s annoyance on voice actor Jack De Sena, who apparently got the role because, as Konietzko put it, “he brought a lot of comedy and stuff into the character that we hadn’t thought of initially, but he’s really funny.” Either DiMartino and Konietzko are playing some sort of Kubrickian mind game with De Sena and the audience (I’ve often wondered if Sokka was unfunny by design, because characters tend to deride his lack of wit pretty frequently), or this is just a case of my own bias coloring how I view the character. It’s likely the latter, which is a real shame. I still, however, stand my belief that De Sena is a better dramatic voice actor than a comic one. So even though his snarky comments may be lame, when he’s ready to be serious and take the initiative, he’s a pretty cool dude. That’s not often, though.

Katara is much better—for one thing, she’s played consistently well by Mae Whitman—but until Book Three, I’d always had my reservations about her, too. Like Aang, there are times when she seems less like a human being or more like a quasi-Mary Sue. After all, it’s her voice that opens every single episode with lines like “…he’s got a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone, but I believe Aang can save the world.” Her extreme hopefulness combined with her severe stubbornness has been a source of controversy for her character, with a lot of people pointing out that she always gets what she wants without having to change herself.

About to throw another fit.

I’ll have to discuss Katara’s character in-depth later—especially once it comes time to examine Book Three—but I will make this observation about her in these first two episodes: she essentially dominates nearly every course of action and conversation that influences the plot. She’s the one that, upon accidentally surfacing Aang’s iceberg, breaks him out of the ice. She’s the one who yells at Gran-Gran for driving Aang out of the village, the guilt of which would later persuade her to let her and Sokka go with Aang to the North Pole. She’s pretty much the reason Aang goes to the North Pole to master Waterbending in the first place. Whether this is a positive and negative trait is another discussion for another time.

Do I even have to mention how much I adore Zuko and Uncle Iroh? For one thing, Zuko is the best character in the entire series, and Iroh, in addition to be a wonderful character himself, balances Zuko out so well. Their relationship is the warmest and most interesting, providing many entertaining and emotional interactions throughout. Even in these first two episodes, they steal the show away from Aang and the others.

That’s about it for characters at this point. I tend to forget to mention the animals in my reviews, so let me say this: I like Appa, but never when he has to carry an entire episode by himself (“Appa’s Lost Days”). Momo could pull that off easily—as his segment in “Tales of Ba Sing Se” proves—but not Appa.

As far as plot goes, both episodes proceed well enough, although a few things stood out in “The Boy in the Iceberg.”

The pacing is more leisurely than almost any other episode in the rest of the series (out of Book One, I only recall “The Fortuneteller” and “The Waterbending Master” having the same feel). For the most part, I’m pretty grateful for this choice of atmosphere over plot. Not only does it allow for some great animation, but it also allows the audience to take in this fantastic setting, as well as give them time to suspend their disbelief at the thought that someone could survive in an iceberg for over a hundred years. This may be a fantasy world, but it has rules. If Aang hadn’t been the Avatar, he wouldn’t have survived that trip.

However, for some reason, that same leisure didn’t stop the writers from getting extremely cutesy and sentimental in one scene, in which Katara realizes that Aang had been frozen for a hundred years and relays this fact to him. You’d expect his reaction to be a little more anxious than it is. Rather than taking a moment to let this fact sink in, we get this horrid exchange:

Aang: A hundred years! I can’t believe it.
Katara: I’m sorry, Aang. Maybe somehow there’s a bright side to all this.
Aang: I did get to meet you.

Nice try.

There’s a scene earlier where Aang and Katara go penguin sledding together. This should be a fun scene, but due to Rigid Action Syndrome, it isn’t. The movement is too slow and fragmented to really be any fun to look at. I feel like I’m watching a slideshow rather than a cool sequence. This also affects the scene where Aang demonstrates how he flies on his glider. It just doesn’t feel right.

Thankfully, Rigid Action Syndrome does not affect the action sequence in “The Avatar Returns.” The scenes of Aang running around on the Fire Nation ship looking for his glider are all fantastic and well-animated. His first real fight with Zuko is also pretty fun.

Probably my favorite moment in “The Avatar Returns” is when Aang jumps off the bridge of the ship to fly away, and Zuko jumps right after him and catches him. This is one determined guy! Imagine if he didn’t manage to get a hold of Aang as he took off. He could have very well killed himself. The fact that he even thought he could do this says an awful lot about Zuko.

There are other great moments, too. There’s the sequence in which Zuko’s ship crashes right through the village wall while Sokka, geared to fight, is vastly overshadowed by the ship’s size. Before that stupid sentimental exchange, Aang and Katara explored an abandoned Fire Nation ship that is pretty ominous. It’s also pretty thrilling seeing Aang go into the Avatar State for the first time.

 

I kind of liked the scene where Appa, after not living up to his flying bison status, finally takes off for the two siblings after Sokka says the magic words (“Yip-yip!”). However, I feel that they shouldn’t have used the moment as a joke. Initially, Sokka didn’t believe Appa could fly, and now when he does, Sokka is ecstatic, which earns him a knowing glance from Katara. It’s funny, but come on: this is their first time flying! This is one of the most magical moments of their lives, and it has to be a punchline?

In fact, a lot of the humor in Avatar (particularly in these early episodes) leaves me cold. Much of it seems to be the direct result of Avatar being a kids’ show, and that doesn’t bode well with me, especially when the jokes are accompanied by those distracting musical stings that essentially serve as the laugh track in case you forgot something was meant to be funny. I’ve found that much of the humor in Avatar is best when its understated, but right up front begging for attention.

More of this…

…and less of this.

In the end, though, “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” should be commended for doing their job well. They not only setup the rest of Avatar, but they set the bar for what the average episode would be. Again, these are pretty middle-of-the-road episodes from which the show could get better, or, sometimes, worse. Of course, it’s entirely possible that what I perceive as a weakness, you may see as a strength. That’s perfectly fine. But hopefully now you see where I’m coming from when I say that Avatar, as much as I love it, continues to frustrates me to no end.

Here’s the interview from which that Bryan Konietzko quote comes from those interested.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.