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Archive for December, 2011

Chapter Seventeen: “The Northern Air Temple”

8

(Rating Out of 15)

I wasn’t expecting “The Northern Air Temple” to equal the brilliance of “The Deserter”–nothing that followed in Book One would–but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be so boring. “The Northern Air Temple” plays like a regression to the style and tone of the very early episodes of Book One. That is definitely not a good thing. Above anything else, “The Northern Air Temple” is a reminder of how much Avatar: the Last Airbender has improved, and why episodes like it are most unwelcome this late in the series.

This is yet another filler-with-plot episode. The closest comparison I can muster is to “The King of Omashu,” although to its credit, “The Northern Air Temple” at least tries to be about something. Aang learns that there may just be a few Airbenders alive after all, and the kids travel to the titular location to see for themselves. Much to Aang’s disappointment, the people there are not really Airbenders: just people who know how to glide extremely well.

We were probably meant to sympathize with Aang’s attitude through most of this episode, but he tends to come across as annoying. He criticizes the gliders for not having true Airbender spirit and their soulless flying. When he tries to show up Teo, one of the gliders, he’s like a bratty hipster who doesn’t want to be upstage by “phonies.” I don’t know what DiMartino and Konietzko and company were going for here, unless they mean for Aang to be a real prick.

His anger is more understandable when he sees that the people who live here have probably much desecrated the abandoned temple by sending pipelines through the walls and destroying many of the statues. This was the sacred culture of Aang’s people, and now it’s been ruined by steampunk modernization.

Teo’s dad, called the Mechanist, tries to explain to Aang that his people were driven to this temple after a flood destroyed their home. Teo’s legs were permanently paralyzed and his mother was lost. The Mechanist found the temple, as well as left behind gliders and had a brainstorm: bring his life’s work here and also create a life for his son so everyone could be equal. Since everyone can glide, Teo doesn’t have to use his legs. This story is halfway convincing to me, which is more than can be said for Aang, who still believes the additions to the temple weren’t necessary. They do have this nice exchange, though:

The Mechanist: We’re just in the process of improving upon what’s already here and after all, isn’t that what nature does?
Aang: Nature knows where to stop.

I like this line by Aang, because it’s precisely the imperfect wisdom you’d expect from a twelve-year-old monk. Had the episode just continued along these lines of what constitutes natural progression and the tainting of historical relics, this may have been a good one.

For a while, it stays on that trail. Teo shows them around some more, and even gives Katara her first gliding experience. This is a very nice sequence, especially in the handling of Katara’s evolution emotional state from fear to exhilaration to enjoyment. Aang begins to realize that maybe (but just maybe) this isn’t such a bad thing these people have going on in this former sanctuary, and that Teo, despite not being an Airbender, has the spirit of one.

Unfortunately, the Avatar formula take over, and the rest of “The Northern Air Temple” is on autopilot.

There is a door that Teo could never open because it’s one of these kinds that only Airbenders can unlock. Initially, Aang didn’t want to open it for him because he wanted it to be the only part of the temple to remain preserved and untouched. After getting to know Teo, Aang opens it anyway. And what do they see?

A big gaping plothole.

There’s a big question here, and that involve precisely how in the Hell the Mechanist was able to get into this room to hide all of these weapons without Airbending. This question remains unanswered, so instead of being shocked by this discovery, I feel cheated. Besides, all this reveal does is set up the last-act action sequence.

Speaking of which, if DiMartino and Konietzko were going to stick to this Avatar formula, they might as well at least have done it competently. “The Northern Air Temple” has the distinction of having the single most boring last-act action sequence of an episode of Avatar to date. I don’t even recall the one in “The Great Divide” being this dull (then again, I don’t remember much about that episode, perhaps for the better).

There’s a lot going on, for sure. Aang and the gliders dump different types of bombs (smoke, stink, stick, etc., but all non-lethal) on the incoming Fire Nation soldiers, and there are big war machines of infinite capabilities: they can scale mountains, catch themselves out of the air, and even have a revolving driver’s seat so you can’t ever totally fit them over (knocking them sideways might stop them, but no one tries that).

But there’s nothing at stake here; there’s no suspense. I never got to know Teo, his dad the Mechanist, or any of their people that well to really care about them, and neither Aang nor Katara seem to ever be in real danger. Katara even slashes a bunch of those war machines with no problem.

Their inevitable victory feels wrong. Throughout the episode, the Mechanist and Sokka form a bond based on each other’s intelligence (believe or not, I would have much preferred to see more of this), and in the midst of this, they come across a brilliant way to detect any gas leakage in the temple: since the gas is colorless and odorless, they’ll use rotten eggs’ smell as the indicator. Later on, after they’ve found a way to get the Mechanist’s war balloon functioning, they drop their engine into a giant crack where they realize gas is leaking to blow up the mountain and scare off (and kill, I’d assume) the Fire Nation. Why this plan didn’t result in the destruction of the entire temple and our heroes, I’ll never understand.

How did they survive this?

And after all this action is over, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have the nerve to go back to those themes about nature and progress. It’s sound message, I guess, but why not focus the entire episode around it? There’s no need for a big action sequence in every episode when the subject matter clearly doesn’t call for one.

So was there anything good about “The Northern Air Temple?” Despite being largely unmemorable, there are a couple of things. As mentioned earlier, I did enjoy the gliding sequence with Katara, as well as the Mechanist and Sokka’s bonding moments. The Mechanist himself is pretty amusing. The first few scenes of Aang looking at the changes made to the temple are fairly effective.

Double High Fives for geniuses!

The very end is definitely worth noting. The Fire Nation soldiers find the remains of the Mechanist’s hot air balloon after he and Sokka had to abandon it before it crashed. They quickly fill it up with hot air using their Firebending. The captain realizes this may hold the key to them finally ruling the world. Oh, snap! This plot element doesn’t even resurface until the middle of Book Three. Now that’s clever!

But clever foreshadowing is not enough to redeem an otherwise perfunctory and dull episode. I’m tempted to guess that this story point was all DiMartino and Konietzko initially thought out, and then hastily wrote a whole episode around it when the time came, following the Avatar formula to a tee. They had a few more good ideas, but ultimately, “The Northern Air Temple” feels like there was very little effort put into it.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Sixteen: “The Deserter”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

I concluded my largely negative review of “Bato of the Water Tribe” by stating that it “only proves that, after fifteen episodes, DiMartino and Konietzko and company still don’t know what they’re doing.” Now comes “The Deserter” to, however temporarily, put such harsh criticisms to rest. It took sixteen episodes, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company finally managed to get their act together and produce what is undoubtedly the best episode of Book One, and one of the best episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender as a whole.

Among the many, many things this episode does right, “The Deserter” is one of the very few episodes to make me truly and sincerely care about Aang. Previous episodes prompted us to care for Aang under the sole pretense that he was the main character. Here, however, he actually feels real. “The Deserter” carefully reminds us that, despite being the eventual savior of humanity, Aang is indeed a twelve-year-old boy who is appropriately impatient, prone to show off, and most definitely not ready to be the Avatar. For once, that narration by Katara at the beginning of every episode really means something.

“The Deserter” is visually and sonically fantastic. It was produced and animated at JM Animation Co. Ltd., one of two Korean animation studios that helped create all of Book One. I’ve always preferred the solid, three-dimenional style of JM Animation to the less stable and much more cartoony style of the other studio, DR Movie, and it definitely works to the episode’s advantage: the character animation and emotional expresses are the best they’ve ever been. The Track Team also tops itself here: never before has the sound design and music added so much depth and atmosphere to a single episode.

This is such a rich chapter that it deserves to be looked through beat-by-beat.

The episode opens with the three kids coming across a notice board. In great need of food and non-lethal Firebending demonstrations, Aang wants to try their luck at the nearby Fire Days Festival. Sokka is reluctant, as the notice board also has a Wanted poster with Aang on it. Katara remains in the neutral zone for a great deal of this episode, only half-heartedly supporting Aang and persuading Sokka to go to the festival. After all, the kid has to learn Firebending eventually anyway; why not start now?

The sheer naivete and goofiness of Aang comes through in the next scene, when the group disguises themselves to go to the festival. Katara and Sokka have dark, mysterious hoods, while Aang opts to put his red hood over his head, which barely hides his face, and if anything draws more attention to itself.

They get lucky when they actually get inside the festival, though. A vender is selling Fire Festival masks, which get the job done much more effectively. While browsing around, they gather with a crowd to check out a one-man Firebending show. This man does many tricks and makes many interesting shapes with fire. His next trick requires a volunteer, and Aang is quite annoyed when Katara is chosen instead of him.

After the Firebender begins his act with Katara, and seems to have “trouble” with the fire dragon he’s made, Aang brings it upon himself to save her and he stops the fire dragon with his Airbending. Additionally, he drops his mask, so now everyone knows he’s the Avatar. A chase ensues, but not before the three kids are aided by a shadowy man who leads them away from the guards and slows them down with smoke bombs. Aang calls Appa with the everhandy bison-whisper, and as they get away, the man throws one more bomb which ignites all the fireworks in a cart, making for an awesome display.

Up until this point, the episode is very entertaining. There a lot of funny bits, my favorite of which is a puppet show in which the puppeteer surely must have been his own hand for the sake of his act. In their own subtle way, these passages present most Fire Nation people as normal, passionate human beings who just happen to want the Avatar dead. Not the heart of the story, but interesting nonetheless.

Things become more interesting when we learn that the man who saved the kids is named Chey, and was a Fire Nation soldier. Now he serves a man known as Jeong Jeong, a Firebending genius who was the very first man to ever leave the Fire Nation army and live. For this, Jeong Jeong is a legend, a man whose reputation is surrounded by a mythical aura. Chey describes him in a supremely fanboy-esque manner, making it a little difficult to take him all that seriously.

In fact, Chey doesn’t seem to be very well regarded by anyone—including Jeong Jeong himself—and it’s not hard to see why. As the second man to quit the Fire Nation army and live, Chey is denied legendary status. (I’m reminded of the classic Simpsons gag, in which Buzz Aldrin himself, the second man to walk on the Moon, proudly proclaims, “Second comes right after first.”) I guess he figured the next best thing would be to wholeheartedly follow the man who did it first. Chey is the photojournalist to Jeong Jeong’s Kurtz, and it’s a just a little scary to see how devoted he is to this man.

Katara is not impressed…

Because Jeong Jeong is a Firebender who doesn’t work for the Firelord, Chey figures he is the perfect teacher for Aang, and Aang agrees. Once again, Sokka has problems with this and Katara doesn’t want to really choose a side, but before that discussion goes any further, all four of them are surrounded by disguised men who apparently work for Jeong Jeong. They’re none to happy with Chey, who was apparently told not to look for the Avatar.

Chey is called forth to speak with Jeong Jeong alone. When he returns to Aang, he has bad news: he won’t teach Aang. It’s interesting that Firebending can’t be learned now, especially since Jeong Jeong really does seem to be Aang’s only hope.

Aang goes to see Jeong Jeong anyway, which leads to a wonderfully intriguing lecture from the latter. At first, it seems like Jeong Jeong really is crazy, as he speaks in weird metaphors and analogies, but very soon, what he says does hold a lot of ground. Just from looking at Aang, he knows has no discipline at all, which the mastery of Waterbending and Earthbending would have taught him by now. Fire can easily spread on itself and destroys everything in its path, and requires a bender who knows self-control. Part of why this scene works so well is because, even if Jeong Jeong is being harsh and unfair, we know that deep down he’s absolutely right about Aang. It’s a bit painful to hear him call this eager kid “weak” directly to his face.

Only an intervention from Avatar Roku convinces Jeong Jeong to train Aang at all. This is where things get really interesting, because it teaches us that even in spirit, the Avatar is only human, and thus fallable. Roku’s judgment is this case is devastatingly wrong, and his appearance in the first place feels like cheating on Aang’s part, like a parent who bribes their child onto the basketball team.

No doubt this is all more clear to me in retrospect. I don’t remember my reactions from first viewing this episode, but I must have been frustrated with Jeong Jeong’s stubborn refusal to teach Aang (I also remember liking the episode more than most). Such is the intrigue and excellence of “The Deserter.”

So the training begins the next day, and anyone who has taken a material arts lesson will know what this means: basic breathing and concentration exercises. There will be no fire used in any of these first lessons. Aang is predictably (and hilariously) at odds with this teaching method, but Jeong Jeong will have none of his shit. Just breathing and concentrating is what Aang should be focusing on know.

Jeong Jeong really is the ideal one-time character. He’s not a cypher, like Bato was in the previous episode, and he’s not underdeveloped like Meng in “The Fortuneteller.” He is a character in the real sense. His harsh, uncompromising personality colors his every word and action, and he’s a pleasure to observe. He leaves his mark on the episode and then exits, leaving me wishing I could have seen more of him, but a little does go a long way.

Apparently Jeong Jeong had a pupil who was only interested in the destructive power of fire rather than restraint and self-control. Through voice-over and juxtaposition, we learn that the pupil was Zhao, who is currently going up the river to find the Avatar. Just on cue, Zhao blasts away several of Jeong Jeong’s guards, destroying most of the forest in the process. Does he care? Nope.

Aang seems on the verge of changing his attitude for the better, but then Jeong Jeong reveals that they’ll be working with fire now. Aang tries his best, and fails, to contain his joy.

Aang’s lesson: do not let the flame reach the edge of the leaf.

This serves at the catalyst to the most important and effecting scene in the episode.

Jeong Jeong is pulled away when the guards warn him that trouble (Zhao) is on its way. He leaves Aang to his own devices, and sure enough, Aang forgets that he was supposed to not let the flame burn the leaf any further. Instead, he ignites the whole fucking thing. Being the Avatar and all, he’s handy enough with the flame. Katara is there, and she warns him to be careful or he’ll hurt himself.

And finally, in an attempt to imitate the Firebender from the festival, he goes too far and burns Katara’s hands.

This truly is a critical moment in the series, for it dramatizes so many things.

First, fire really is as dangerous as Jeong Jeong said it was. It’s not like water, which Aang could easily show off with as in “The Waterbending Scroll,” and it’s most definitely not his natural element, which means he’d have a lot more trouble getting the hang of it.

Second, this is the kid who’s supposed to bring balance to the world? By the end of the summer, no less? For all his potential, Aang is not up to this challenge. He’s well-intended, confident, and compassionate for sure. But he’s also immature, and his priorities are all fucked up. I think this is the point Book One was trying very hard for, but only now managed to get across in a manner that resonated.

Third, and probably most importantly, if Aang had fooled around with fire and burned himself, I doubt it would have been as powerful. Earlier, Jeong Jeong warns him to “learn restraint, or risk destroying yourself and everything you love.” And it’s not just anything or anyone he burns. It’s Katara, the girl he really, really likes. She’s the one who believes in him most and knows he’ll save the world. She’s the one to pay the price for his careless.

So much said in one moment. DiMartino and Konietzko have been holding out on us all this time!

Immediately afterwards, everyone is mad at Aang. Sokka assaults him for burning his sister, a crying Katara runs away, and Jeong Jeong won’t even speak to him. This is a sad time for Aang, and I really do feel for him.

After Katara runs off, she places her hands in the water. And what do you know? She has healing abilities because she’s a Waterbender! Under my standard critical evaluation, I would call this a despicable cop-out.

Ah, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company finally show their true storytelling genius. They take this opportunity to have Jeong Jeong explain how rare such an ability is, thus easing him into a confession. He is indeed a self-hating Firebender, who envies Waterbenders as their element naturally heals and brings life, while fire can only sow destruction. For Jeong Jeong, a Firebender is always an outsider to humanity. There’s no stench of sentimentality here. In fact, there’s no time. After Jeong Jeong explains himself, he’s immediately attacked by Zhao and his soldiers.

There’s one more moment like this, and that’s when Katara finds Aang, who vows never to Firebend again. Not after he failed to listen to Jeong Jeong, and especially not after he hurt a loved one. Katara’s definitely right that he’ll have to eventually—he’s still doomed to succeed–but Aang is so sincere and absolute in his decision that we actually believe him.

I can’t say that the rest of the episode is up to the standard of these moments that came before it, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Avatar formula is back in effect for the last-act action sequence, and it’s a very good one. Jeong Jeong refuses to fight with his former pupil and disappears, leaving Aang and Zhao to duke it out.

But, having learned his lesson, recognizes that Zhao really does have no self-control, and brilliantly uses that to his advantage. By dodging his attacks and taunting him to no end, Aang actually tricks Zhao into burning and sinking his own boats. Excellent!

Aang escapes onto Appa with the rest of the group. Everyone else has left this site, too, except for Chey, who apparently was absent for the entire day and comes back only to find that he’s been left behind. Poor guy.

Anyway, as the kids fly away, Katara heals a burn on Aang’s arm with her newly discovered healing powers. I really do appreciate how carefully the writers handle this new skill. Immediately, Sokka gets on her case about not having this ability when he needed it in the past. For example, there was an incident that involved two fish hooks stuck in his thumb. (He tried to get the first fish hook out with another.)

So ends “The Deserter,” an episode whose excellent quality wouldn’t be matched again until Book Two (which is thankfully only four episodes away). However rich it may be, do you know what the most remarkable thing about “The Deserter” is? There is not a single appearance by either Zuko or Iroh! That means DiMartino and Konietzko and company were able to pull off an emotionally resonant episode just with Aang! Now that’s an achievement!

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Fifteen: “Bato of the Water Tribe”

10

(Rating Out of 15)

“Bato of the Water Tribe” feels like it could have—and should have—been a really great episode. Instead, it winds up being as contrived and as manipulative as any episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender that tries to hard to do too many things at once in a single chapter. This is yet another case study in how the Avatar formula can do more harm than good regarding certain subject matter. At its core, “Bato” is about loneliness, family, and losing touch with the ones you love. These are potent themes worthy of clever dramatization, but in “Bato,” the emotional moments are rushed and too sentimental, and the build-up to them is just as hackneyed. It’s just not a very well-written episode.

Well, not well-written as far as Aang’s side of the story goes, that is. After being MIA in “The Fortuneteller,” Zuko and Iroh are back in a major way. They steal practically every scene they’re in, and all but single-handedly save this episode from becoming just a sap fest. I’ll continue to stand by my judgment that these two, Zuko especially, are the real heart of Avatar, putting down Aang’s story rather than complimenting it.

Zuko and Iroh’s side of the episode involves their alliance with a tough and beautiful bounty hunter named June, whose secret weapon for tracking down so many people is her animal companion known as a shirshu, which has an incredible sense of smell. Knowing an opportunity when he sees one, Zuko asks for her services, which she should give in return for damaging his ship. Earlier in the episode, the shirshu tore a gaping hole in his haul to uncover a stowaway bounty.

June, however, doesn’t bargain that way: she wants actual cash. Iroh promises her weight in gold will be the payment. She only accepts after she raises the payment to Iroh’s weight in gold. No one’s willing to argue this one. Zuko’s too determined to capture the Avatar to care about actually paying the woman. And Iroh’s too much…um, intrigued by June to not want her to hang around longer. That Iroh’s crush on June never crosses the thin line between funny and creepy is a tribute to Mako’s always brilliant performance (though, I guess the writers deserve credit, too).

And it is a very thin line.

Up until the mandatory last-act action sequence, Zuko and Iroh and Jun spend their scarce screen time simply searching around for the Avatar and getting warmer each time, using the scent from Katara’s necklace (which he found in “Imprisoned”) as the guide. And yet these sporadic scenes are vastly more interesting and entertaining than just about anything involving Aang and the gang. There’s even an amusing, though now kind of sad, moment when our villains stop by the village from “The Fortuneteller,” and Aunt Wu and Iroh have this exchange:

Aunt Wu: Care to hear your fortune, handsome?
Iroh: At my age there is really only one big surprise left, and I’d just as soon leave it a mystery.

Zuko and Aang’s stories intertwine by the last act, so we better revert our attention back to Aang and company for now.

The episode begins with Sokka noticing signs and leftover weapons from a battle between Water Tribe warriors and Fire Nation soldiers. This leads to them discovering a Water Tribe ship that belongs to the group of warriors that their father is in. Quite understandably, Sokka and Katara want to see him again after all these years, so they set up camp by the ship until someone hopefully comes back for it. Just in these beginning passages, Aang is notably not as into the situation as Katara and Sokka are.

Late in the night, someone does indeed come back to the boat, and his name is Bato, a friend of Katara and Sokka’s father. Those two are very glad to see him, but of course, Aang knows nothing about these relationships, and has little to contribute to their conversations. If the writers had just stayed low-key with this, it could have worked. Unfortunately, we have to endure some forced scenes and moments in which Aang is systematically left out of nearly everything the three Water Tribe natives do and say.

Taking the same approach as in “Jet,” making Aang sympathetic involves making everyone else a jerk. I didn’t tolerate then, and I certainly won’t tolerate it now. And it’s not like this is some special subjective storytelling method in which we see things through Aang’s eyes and everyone else’s actions are exaggerated. No, Bato, Katara, and Sokka seem to be snubbing him on purpose. It’s actually kind of repulsive.

“It’s because I’m white, isn’t it?”

The worst part of this is how it’s all just a put-on. Bato shares big news with the kids: he waiting on a message from their father detailing the location of the new rendezvous point. If they wait for the message with him, he could even take them to see their father again. They’re excited, and why shouldn’t they be? This is the first time they will have seen him in two years. Aang, of course, leaves out, as he believes they’ll actually leave him to see their father. And once he’s gone, they state that they have to stay with Aang to see him through his Avatar duty and training. Aang doesn’t hear this because he’s gone. How convenient!

Even more convenient, when Aang leaves, he stops on the Water Tribe boat, where a messenger just happens to be there with the message from Katara and Sokka’s father. Aang takes the message, and crumbles it up, hiding it in his pocket. I guess we’re supposed to be apprehensive, but I was actually starting to feel genuine sympathy for once. As harshly as Aang was treated just a few minutes ago, this move made by him is completely understandable. But that thread won’t last very long.

The next day, they all go back to the boat again. Out of tradition and compassion, Bato allows Sokka to perform the “ceremonial test of wisdom, bravery, and trust” of all Water Tribe men: ice-dodging. Only, since there’s no ice around, they use the rocks as obstacles. On the boat, the three kids are assigned three different jobs. Sokka has the wisdom job and calls the shots. Katara has the bravery job and secures the mainsail. Aang has the trust job and controls the jib. Get it? Trust? Just in case things were too subtle before.

I’ll admit that this sequence is pretty cool, and Sokka’s leadership is actually not that bad. In fact, when they come to an apparent dead end, Sokka uses every resource available to his advantage: Katara’s Waterbending and Aang’s Airbending are used to lift them high above the rocks so they don’t crash. This is great thinking, but I must say, it’s a good thing this was not the normal ice-dodging test, otherwise that little stunt would not have worked at all.

Go ahead and try it with real ice! I dare you!

No matter. This all leads to the inevitable moment when Aang—after being given the official mark of trust and made an official Water Tribe member—reveals that he’d been hiding the message from Katara and Sokka’s father all this time. So furious is Sokka that he impulsively decides that Aang can go to Hell and the Northern Water Tribe all by himself. He and Katara are going to see their father. This is all handled with the subtlety and believability of a slightly above average soap opera.

And so they start going their separate ways, but then we come to the silliest moment in the episode. As Bato, Sokka, and Katara are on their way, they hear the sad howl of a wolf. Bato explains:

Bato: …it’s been separated from the pack. I understand that pain. It’s how I felt when the Water Tribe warriors had to leave me behind. They were my family and being apart from them was more painful than my wounds.

This gets Sokka to change his mind and go back to stick with Aang, as they are his new family now. Yep, we’re back to that whole family bullshit that first surfaced in “The Southern Air Temple.” I really can’t stand such sticky sentimentality.

Not to mention those cheesy flashback sequences.

But thank the unseen makers of the universe, because everything that follows is the big, last-act action sequence. Zuko, Iroh, and June find Katara, paralyze her and Sokka, and take them prisoner. They can now find Aang easily, because the message he hid away for most of the episode has a lot of his scent on it. Now that’s clever!

Fun fact: Aang smells like Blue Spirit!

Long story short, this sequence is nothing but fun. There are highlights abound: Aang and Zuko duking it out in, out, and around a well; Sokka ironically being hit by falling rubble; Iroh being Iroh; and the way they defeat the shirshu is genius. (In this village, the women make perfume for a living, so they dump in on the shirshu to fuck up its smelling abilities.)

Aang even gets Katara’s necklace back from Zuko. He proclaims to Zuko, “You have something I want!” Zuko probably should have said, “You are what I want!” Hmm…nah, that would have been weird.

Unfortunately, a good last act doesn’t always redeem the sloppiness of what came before it (even if that sloppiness was intercut with wonderful Zuko and Iroh moments). “Bato of the Water Tribe” doesn’t allow itself time to truly develop and explore the emotional elements at bay. On top of everything, I don’t even know who Bato of the Water Tribe is. He does little to stand out and fades from memory way before the episode ends. As far as I’m concerned, he’s merely a cypher, a plot device that only proves that, after fifteen episodes, DiMartino and Konietzko and company still don’t know what they’re doing.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Fourteen: “The Fortuneteller”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Fortuneteller” is a strange episode. On one hand, there’s never really a dull moment, and it’s definitely one of the funnier episodes. Hell, even Sokka’s actually funny in this one, probably because he’s mostly the butt of the jokes and not the initiator of them. Then, on the other hand, it’s very much a filler episode. This is probably the first time I’ve noticed what I’ll call the Avatar formula, and how its effect on episodes like this one is not always a good thing.

The Avatar formula dictates a watertight plot in which everything is tied up with a neat bow at the end. Every single miniscule detail will always lead up to a third-act action sequence simultaneously designed to exhilarate and (superficially or not) highlight an important aspect of one or more characters. Whatever extraneous characters are present won’t be developed any further than what the plot demands. All conflicts presented in an episode will be resolved completely in that episode.

Is this Avatar formula bad? Not necessarily, because single episode does follow it to some degree (although the best episodes, like “The Southern Raiders,” depart from it to great effect) and whether or not they succeed hinges on what they can do within the formula. So far, at best, we’ve gotten “Winter Solstice,” and at worst we’ve gotten “The Great Divide.” “The Fortuneteller” rests somewhere in the middle. It’s almost as if it’s a mediocre episode that just happened to be written very well. Interestingly enough, “The Fortuneteller” was co-written by Aaron Ehasz, head writer extraordinaire, and John “The Great Divide” O’Bryan. Maybe this has something to do with the flip-floppy quality?

In any case, let’s take a look at this episode as it pertains to the Avatar formula.

In the very first five minutes, we already know exactly what this episode will be all about: fate, Aang’s crush on Katara, and Sokka’s inability to persuade anyone that he’s right.

I guess Aang had to develop a crush on someone at some point, so why not Katara? He made a necklace out of fishing line—much to Sokka’s dismay—for her since she lost her mother’s necklace all those episodes ago. Isn’t that nice of him? But I guess that necklace must have really, really looked good on her, because suddenly Aang’s at a lost for words.

Puberty struck at precisely this moment.

Sokka kind of teases Aang about this, but Katara interferes, giving us this classic line:

Katara: Stop teasing him, Sokka. Aang’s just a good friend. A sweet little guy, just like Momo.

Ouch.

Soon after, they hear commotion in the forest. A man is being attacked by a platypus bear (Oh, God…I forgot about these stupid hybrid animals…I’ll address that much later…), but seems to be very accepting of this. He barely dodges the creature’s attacks, insisting that he knows he’ll be just fine.

Aang and Appa do scare the thing away. Sokka’s the first one on the guy’s case about how it would be impossible to know if things would have turned out all right. Ah, but you see, the strange man got his fortune told by Aunt Wu, whose tract record is perfect as far as everyone knows. Hell, he was even told to give an umbrella to any travelers he met. Sure enough, it does start raining, but Sokka stubbornly refuses to believe that the future can be foretold by anyone.

From there it’s just a reprisal of those same ideas over and over again in one form or another throughout the rest of the episode. For fate, we have Aunt Wu herself, Katara’s total obsession with foreseeing the future, and whether a volcano will erupt or not. True to the formula, the instant we see this volcano, we just know it will erupt before the episode ends. It’s like when you see a pregnant woman in a movie, you just know a delivery is going down before the end credits.

Speaking of which, just wait until Book Two’s “The Serpent’s Pass.”

For Aang’s crush on Katara, in addition to Aang’s fail attempts to get her attention, we get Meng, a grossly underdeveloped, goofy-looking girl who has a crush on Aang because he has big ears; Aunt Wu foretold that her true love would have big ears (See that? They just intertwined two of the three themes. Ain’t that clever?).

Sokka’s persuasion failure pretty much explains itself. His skepticism earns him a bad reputation when he tries to prove to everyone in the village that Aunt Wu is a hack and that such predictions have no logical validity. To make matters worse, Aunt Wu predicted that his life would be full of self-inflicted misery (just from looking at his stupid face), and sure enough, we’re treated to some delightful sequences of him bringing pain upon himself. Maybe it’s genuinely funny or maybe my hatred for Sokka/Jack DeSena causes these passages to bring me such joy, but either way, Sokka does make me laugh in this episode.

Katara’s pretty damn funny here, too. Her obsessive with getting her future told eventually grates on Aunt Wu. Not at first, though. The first time she gets a reading, she’s told she’ll marry “a powerful Bender.” Aang, having eavesdropped on this, knows he’s in good hands being the Avatar and all, but he still can’t get Katara to notice him at all. It doesn’t help that she goes back to Aunt Wu’s temple again and again to know about the most trivial of things. This would be downright annoying if it weren’t so funny.

Part of the frustration with this episode is that the key themes and issues aren’t really resolved in any truly interesting fashion. And thanks to the Avatar formula, very little of the new characters and new settings we see gain any further interest beyond what the plot needs of them. That’s a real shame, because it really affects how the characters come across. Aunt Wu luckily escapes with enough personality and charm to gain memorability. She’s not a hack like Sokka says she is, but rather a very realistic woman who does provide a positive service to the villagers, even if they take her a bit too much for granted.

Meng, on the other hand, doesn’t get nearly enough help from the writers. She’s not very well focused, and comes across as just another generic side character when she could have been something more. In her big confrontation with Aang regarding her feeling, she just hands over the cloud book Aang needs without much conflict. Imagine if she wouldn’t give him that book unless he actually gave her something in return for crushing her heart. Like a kiss, or something, to at least give her some sort of personality.

That cloud book, by the way, is needed so that Aang and Katara can rearrange the clouds into a shape that will convince Aunt Wu and the villagers that they are in danger. Just as the formula needed, the volcano is going to erupt after all! Aunt Wu’s earlier prediction that it wouldn’t has been ruined by plot!

Subtle.

So everyone does work together to save the village by digging a trench that would guide the incoming lava into the nearby river. Predictable as it is, this is still a pretty well-done sequence, especially when Aang gets into gear and fights the lava off when it starts overflowing the trench.

After this, Aunt Wu says something to Aang about people being able to decide their own fates by their own actions and intuition. So maybe there’s hope for his love life after all.

Oh yeah…

All-in-all, while “The Fortuneteller” manages to entertain and satisfy on a very basic level–which is not all that simple, come to think of it–it could have done a whole lot more. In fact, in a last ditch effort to give Meng some character, the writers have her call Katara a “floozy” behind her back, expressing her fury at Katara for stealing her man. Holy shit! Why wasn’t she this vicious earlier in the episode when this could have mattered? Especially since we’re never going to see her again! What a missed opportunity!

(The one good thing to come from Meng was that her voice actress, Jessie Flower, would come back in Book Two to portray Toph. Now there is a real character for you!)

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Announcement: Regarding Review Updates

Effective immediately, from now on, every three days I will post a new review of an episode. This will assure that: 1) these reviews get done in a timely enough fashion; and 2) gives me enough time to gather my thoughts on a particular episode before posting the review and moving on. For instance, my last review was posted December 18th, so expect my review of the upcoming episode (“The Fortuneteller”) to be up on December 21st. We’ll see how well this schedule works.

 

– Marshall Turner


Chapter Thirteen: “The Blue Spirit”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

According to creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, if Avatar: the Last Airbender hadn’t been renewed by Nickelodeon to continue the series, “The Blue Spirit” would have been the very last episode of Avatar ever. The show would have left off on a lousy cliffhanger, and probably would have gone down in history as one of the gravest injustices since the cancellation of Firefly. Thank the unseen makers of the universe that that never happened, but it certainly provides an interesting perspective on why “The Blue Spirit” is what it is: a non-stop, twist-a-minute thrill ride in the tradition of “Winter Solstice.” I guess they figured if they were going to go now, they might as well go out with a bang.

“The Blue Spirit” is a great episode—one of Book One’s best, and most definitely one of the best looking!—but I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed throughout a great deal of it. It was still exciting and funny for the most part (once again, no thanks to De Sena), so I’m not sure what was up. Maybe the episode centered a little too much around the mystery of the titular Blue Spirit, whose identity is all but obvious now. Maybe the eventual fate of Aang after his capture was also too emphasized, and that’s almost never a good thing: we know damn well that nothing bad is going to happen to Aang because he still has to save the world.

Whatever the case, it really prevents me from rating “The Blue Spirit” anything higher than a weak 13. But hey, the episode did plenty enough right to get that high a grade!

The episode opens with Commander Zhao requesting the services of the Yu Yan archers, a fierce group of the most absurdly accurate archers in the Fire Nation who could “pin a fly to a tree from a hundred yards away without killing it.”

The key word is "absurdly."

This request, however, is denied, as the colonel in charge of the archers won’t allow their talents to be wasted on Zhao’s “vanity project” of capturing the Avatar. But then something happens. A messenger hawk arrives with a message from the Firelord promoting Zhao to admiral. Which means he’s in total control around here and can actually do what he wants with this archers. Uh oh.

Out in the middle of nowhere, Sokka has developed a fever from the events in “The Storm.” In terms of storytelling—carrying over elements of past episodes in a creative way—this is pretty clever. Unfortunately, as usual, Sokka’s “humorous” ramblings are not. No matter what mental state Sokka’s in, he’s just not always that funny.

Anyway, Sokka and Katara, who is also starting to get sick, need medicine fast. Aang leaves to find some, but goes on foot as there’s a storm coming, thus leaving his staff behind (another clever plot point!). Luckily he can run freakishly fast. So fast that when he runs past a Fire Nation lookout post, he inadvertently blows away the post and the two lookouts’ skepticism of his existence and abilities.

Meanwhile, on Zuko’s ship, Zuko and Iroh learn off Zhao’s promotion. This does little to boost Zuko’s confidence, as his hope of capturing the Avatar has been reduced to nothing. And you know what? I genuinely feel sorry for him. Who didn’t, actually?

Aang finds the isolated home of a Herbalist, a crazy old lady who lives alone with her cat Miyuki. She’s pretty funny, and her cure for Sokka and Katara’s fever is equally amusing: gather a few frozen frogs from the swamp, and have the two siblings suck on them before they thaw out and lose their remedy. We have DiMartino, the nature freak of the two creators, to thank for that peculiar plot element.

She certainly looks like she knows what she's talking about.

And that’s really about it in the way of plot. Then the action starts, and Aang is attacked by the Yu Yan archers. This chase is made all the more thrilling by how agile these guys are. They’re not just archers; they’re fucking trapeze artists! Why weren’t these guys hunting the Avatar before? I’ll have to agree with Zhao on this one: their talents were wasted on basic security.

Aang does manage to find a few frozen frogs in the river before he’s ultimately pinned down by the Yu Yan. Damn. That’s especially bad news for Sokka and Katara. Left alone with only the animals well, Katara tries to communicate to Momo that they need him to bring them water. Momo, not being well learned in the English language, comes back with damn near everything but water. These hilarious scenes are sparingly intercut with Aang’s action sequences to great effect.

Brilliant!

So Aang has finally been captured and chained down in a large cell. Zhao comes in and talks a lot of shit about how he’ll keep Aang just barely alive to prevent any further reincarnations of the Avatar, as well as to just be an asshole. I really looks like all is lost after all.

And then the frogs start thawing out! Oh no!

No, not really. The Blue Spirit does arrive, takes out the guards, and frees Aang. Their escape and their almost constant battle with the many, many guards of this fortress is as inventive and exhilarating as any sequence up this point. I especially loved the moment when Aang and the Blue Spirit use a few ladders to navigate above the guards, which works until one of them is set ablaze. Wicked!

I must also observe that Zhao is absolutely wonderful in this episode. We come to understand that this is an overly confident, power hungry man who nonetheless constantly fails to retain his dignity. He’s a man totally unprepared for the unpredictabilities that life—and the plot—throws at him, seeming to think he’s got everything figured out. When he does, he’s a force to be reckoned with. When he doesn’t, it’s hilarious.

Since they can’t really kill the Avatar, the Blue Spirit cleverly takes Aang hostage at swordpoint(?). Knowing damn well he’s been beaten, Zhao lets the Blue Spirit escape with Aang, but only for a moment. He then orders a Yu Yan archer to “knock out the thief. I’ll deliver him to the Firelord along with the Avatar.” Once again, Zhao’s sadistic tendencies cost him the prize he was after. Why didn’t he just order the archer to kill the bastard and have the Avatar pinned down at the same time? I refuse to believe that wasn’t an alternative option.

The Blue Spirit is indeed knocked out. Aang pulls off the mask to reveal that it is…Zuko!

This twist, of course, doesn’t have the initial powerful it most likely did long ago, and neither does Aang’s resolve to save him from the incoming guards. However, what is still very effective is Aang’s monologue in the daytime when he and Zuko have escaped deep into the forest, and Zuko finally regains consciousness. Aang talks about how back in his own time, he’d had so many different friends, even some from the the Fire Nation. Seeing that Zuko is finally awake, he even asks him if he thinks they could have been friends before this war started. Zuko answers with a blast of fire, which Aang barely avoids before running away, never looking back. It’s a rather heartbreaking scene and the highlight of the episode, as it illustrates what could have been is never as important as what’s happening now.

Zuko returns to his ship and Uncle Iroh, requesting not to be disturbed as he rests. The final shot of him staring at the Fire Nation symbol before turning away is yet powerful moment, as it reminds us that the very thing Zuko is trying to return to is also trying to prevent him from getting there.

Aang eventually gets back to his friends, giving them newly found frogs to suck on and nurse them back to health. It is funny when Sokka and Katara realize they’d been sucking on frogs all that time. Hey, if this was the last episode as could have been, it was nice of DiMartino and Konietzko to leave out on a light note. Thanks, guys.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


The “Avatar” Oddity and my Expectations for this Site

When I watched “Winter Solstice,” a friend of mine happened to catch the end of the episode. Having never watched Avatar: the Last Airbender at all, he was greatly perplexed. Of all the things he didn’t get, he didn’t understand the purpose of Momo. No purpose really, I said, but a cool animal companion. But why bring him on such a dangerous mission, my friend asked. Hmm…well, if he wasn’t there, then the kids would have died in the tower, I answered. Then he wanted to know about Appa, and how, if all Air creatures were killed, he survived. The instant I tried to explain the thing about the iceberg, he just stopped listening.

That silly hat didn’t help, either.

By now, you’ve probably guessed (correctly) that my friend can be a narrow-minded asshole when it comes to things he doesn’t know anything about. That’s his problem. On the other hand, this did make me realize something I’d overlooked about Avatar for a very long time.

When you get right down to it, Avatar is an extremely odd show. I don’t mean odd just in its concept—which is so elaborate and mythical that it is truly a miracle that the show manages to hold together and compel—but in its execution, and I’m starting to believe that the latter is the reason Avatar isn’t as popular as it could have been. Don’t get me wrong: Avatar definitely has a strong fanbase and a depth that makes rewatches and analysis (such as on this site) possible. But then, I could give similar praise to the band Ween, a favorite group of mine who, despite their undeniable musical genius and brilliant sense of humor, haven’t been able to capture the attention of a truly mainstream audience since 1990. So where did Ween and Avatar go “wrong?”

Well, among many, many things in Ween’s case, calling your first song ever “You Fucked Up” was just asking for trouble.

I think the biggest audience killer for Avatar was the fact that it was “anime-inspired,” a term I’ve grown to hate over the years, not in the least bit because, when translated, it redundantly means “cartoon-inspired.” I don’t need to dwell on this, because it’s pretty obvious that anime has never had a good reputation in America for a variety of reasons. Most Americans association all anime with cartoon pornography, ultra violence, and/or super annoying franchises that only kids could tolerate (i.e. Pokemon). It has gotten better: Hayao Miyazaki has grown in popularity thanks to Disney and John Lasseter. But then you have the issue of anything “anime-inspired,” and even anime fans are divided here. Most “anime-inspired” shows tend to highlight only the most superficial aspects of true anime, forgetting to support it with a foundation of a strong vision and storytelling. Not all of these shows were bad per se (I liked the Teen Titans cartoon from a few years ago), but there was certainly something a little off about them. Avatar was the first American series that I know of to really use its anime influences in a personal and original way that, I hope, will finally bridge the gap between American and Japanese style cartoons for future shows to come.

Another factor that dampened expectations was that Avatar was being produced and released by, of all people, Nickelodeon. I’m sure many people were thinking, “Oh, great, now Nickelodeon’s going to make a fake anime, too? How could they sink this low?!” First of all, it’s not like anime was ever that popular to begin with (as I’ve mentioned above), and by the time Avatar came around, it wasn’t even “hip.” As far as Nickelodeon is concerned, Avatar was just about the best thing to happen to that network in a very long time. Everyone’s favorite childhood cartoons no longer existed (e.g. Rugrats, Hey Arnold, etc.), the few good shows were going stale (e.g. Spongebob Squarepants, Fairly Odd Parents), and then they cancelled their best show (Invader Zim). Avatar was a much needed breath of minty fresh air from Nickelodeon and I’m sure they know that. Hell, they somehow persuaded creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to make a whole new series based on the Avatar mythology. Yep, there’ll be milking this cow as long as they can.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I guess you could even blame Avatar‘s limited acceptance on its status as a kids’ show. Being a kids’ show doesn’t automatically exempt something from gaining a wide audience, (I still remember a time when my entire family would get together and watch Spongebob Squarepants!), but with those first two strikes against you, it doesn’t really help.

And, of course, the most recent disaster was that M. Night Shyamalan adaptation abomination that more than likely lost the show any chance it possibly had for gaining a bigger audience. I’m definitely not going to dwell on this or else this rant would go on forever, so I’ll just say that watching that in a movie theater was one of the most painful, mind-numbingly excruciating experiences of my life; I could literally feel my soul draining from my body the entire time.

Just thinking about it makes me violently angry…

Does all this really matter? To a degree, yes, but then again, maybe it was those who needed Avatar that ultimately got it, even if that audience wasn’t Star Wars-sized, and even if that excludes my asshole of a friend. In the end, Avatar will always be a quality-made show that may or may not have been the victim of bad timing, and nothing more.

Speaking of bad timing, I should probably take the time to discuss what I really want with this site. It’s been up for almost a month now and has gotten a more than decent viewership, but I still haven’t gotten what I’m really aiming for: substantial, argumentative comments. I’m really hoping that at some point some Avatar fan(s) will come along, see these reviews and feel obligated to tell me how wrong (or how right, which is not as exciting) I am in my evaluation of these episodes. A good discussion is what I really want. Whether that will actually happen anytime soon or at all is uncertain. Still, it probably doesn’t help that I finally came to my senses and started a critical re-evaluation blog on Avatar over three years after it ended. That’s my fault. I guess I should have liked the show much earlier. Than again, if I did, I probably wouldn’t have a true perspective of my own as to why this show really matters, nor would I have been compelled to make a site explaining myself. Hmm…maybe it was supposed to be this way.

Only time will tell.