Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Seven and Eight: “Winter Solstice”

12

(Rating Out of 15)

13

(Rating Out of 15)

Finally! After six episodes the true appeal and greatness of Avatar: the Last Airbender shines brightly in the two-part “Winter Solstice.” Just about everything works: funny moments are usually funny; thrilling moments are exhilarating; for the first time, the Aang story is just as compelling as the Zuko story; and the emotional moments work just fine. In fact, I personally wish the emotional moments weren’t so few and far in between, but that’s a nitpick more than anything. “Winter Solstice” primary aims to thrill, not move, and in that respect, it’s a success.

The production must be noted here: there’s not a sloppy drawing to be found, and there are even some fantastic images here, more so than the previous episodes. The action sequences are particularly ambitious and exciting, and while there’s a bit of Rigid Action Syndrome in some spots, it’s not enough to detract from the moment. If I ever find someone who doesn’t know what Avatar is–which shouldn’t be hard–this is the set of episodes I’d show them first.

“The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part One)” revolves around Aang being asked to protect a village from an angry spirit that has been coming every night to destroy their buildings and kidnap the residents. As the Avatar–the bridge between the Spirit World and the real world–Aang should be able to talk to the spirit and request that it stop its destructive behavior before the Winter Solstice occurs, a time in which the line between both worlds is practically nonexistent.

This is the first time since “The Avatar Returns” that the role and function of the Avatar has actually been addressed. Of course, Aang knows next to nothing about how the Avatar is supposed to bring balance to the world, and the writers skillfully use this to their advantage. Because we’re just as clueless as Aang as to what his Avatar duties specifically entail, we are sympathetic towards him as he struggles to figure just what the Hell he’s supposed to be doing.

We even feel sympathy for him in an earlier scene when the kids discover a large section of burned-down forest. This sends Aang into a depression, as he feels it’s his fault since he wasn’t around for a hundred years to stop the Fire Nation. Frankly, it would be impossible to prove that this wasn’t Aang’s fault (albeit indirectly), and Katara cleverly evades such logic in an attempt to cheer him up. She shows him the seeds left behind by the long-gone trees, which will eventually grow and become a new forest. Life goes on is essentially the point. This is a fairly touching moment, and it’s pretty clever how it resolves the episode later on.

Meanwhile, Zuko is irritated with his Uncle Iroh for stalling their search for the Avatar by relaxing in a makeshift hot spring. Rather than bear the sight of a bare Iroh, Zuko allows him another half hour in his hot spring. Unfortunately, this leads to Iroh being discovered and taken captive by Earthbending soldiers.

All the scenes in here with Iroh reaffirm the perfect casting of voice actor Mako, who brings such a strong element of humanity and humor to his performance that every scene with Iroh is nothing short of delightful. I should also give total prompts to the writers—especially Aaron Ehasz, the show’s head writer and the writer of this episode—for getting me to care about the well-being of what is technically a villain. At this point, we don’t know enough about Zuko to root for him or curse him, but we do care about Iroh, and pray that Zuko can find him before the Earthbenders can lock him away.

Back on Aang’s side, he meets the angry spirit after dusk, and does a singularly poor job of getting his attention. This greatly annoys Sokka, who doesn’t want Aang fighting the thing alone and charges out to help. For a brief moment, I was convinced that Sokka was going to be useful for once, but he immediately gets kidnapped. (He’ll have his moment in the next episode, though.)

Aang gives chase, and the visuals are weird to say the least. Aang is suddenly a very stiff, unconvincing CGI model that flies through the forest after the spirit and Sokka. It’s so at odds with the hand-drawn background and it took me out of the show as long as it was on-screen. Thankfully, that wasn’t for too long.

Aang fails to save Sokka from the spirit, who disappears into thin air, and crashes somewhere in the destroyed forest. Aang awakens just before dawn to realize his failure. However, he walks back to the village and discovers that, somehow, he’s been transported into the Spirit World. Essentially, he’s a ghost that can’t be seen by Katara, Appa, or anyone. Except Uncle Iroh, for some reason, and that’s a matter to be addressed some other time.

How exactly Aang got transported is left vague. Technically, he did grab Sokka’s hand the moment the spirit disappeared, taking Sokka with him, so maybe Aang got transported by complete accident. I don’t know. Again, Aang is just as baffled by this as we are, so it still works.

It’s also during this passage that the one emotional element of the story comes into play, though very quietly. Katara is left alone in the village to worry about Aang and Sokka’s whereabouts, especially since she can’t notice Aang is present in spirit. It’s a little heartbreaking to see her in this state as Aang speaks words of comfort that, of course, she can’t hear.

Soon, Aang encounters another spirit: a dragon that belonged to Avatar Roku, the one person Aang desperately needs to get in contact with somehow, more than likely in the Spirit World. Through some sort of telepathy, the dragon persuades Aang to ride him to a great tower in the Fire Nation dedicated to Roku, complete with a sanctuary containing a statue of Roku. It’s here that Aang will be able to talk to Roku on the Winter Solstice at a specific time in the day when the sun’s ray directly hit Roku’s statue. This information is given in a beautiful sequence showing the passing days until the Solstice. What a great visual!

Having learned what to do about Roku, the dragon takes Aang back to the forest where his body was left behind on a bear statue. (Hint: remember this statue.)

While all this is going on, Iroh is being transported by the Earthbenders to the city of Ba Sing Se, which he apparently laid siege to for two-hundred days. What’s this all about? We’ll learn later. In the meantime, we get to enjoy Iroh cleverly dropping a sandal to keep Zuko on his trail (and we get a good laugh when Zuko finds it and recognizes from the horrible stench that it’s indeed Iroh’s), escaping the guards and creating a landslide.

What’s more is that when Zuko finally comes to the rescue and he and Iroh fight off the guards, Iroh defends himself with a fucking chain! What an incredible old man!

I have to digress to mention a flaw with the episode. The Aang/Zuko stories run parallel to each other to save on running time, which is fine. However, the crosscutting in this episode is not very well thought out. They cut from Iroh rolling down a hill, to Aang being taken to Roku’s sanctuary for several minutes, and then back to Iroh still rolling down the hill. It’s terribly jarring.

Back to Aang’s story, he returns to the village and awaits the arrival of the angry spirit once more. Aang, using the telepathy method of touching someone’s forehead—I don’t know how that works—realizes that the angry spirit is the spirit of the forest that was burned down. So Aang calms the spirit down the same way Katara got him out of his depression: by assuring him that the forest would definitely return, as represented by the seeds that are still there. This works, actually, and the spirit not only returns to it’s original form—a giant panda bear, like the statue in the forest—but also returns all the kidnappers in a way that a cross between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Hayao Miyazaki.

Oh, and Sokka’s only concern upon returning is going to the bathroom. Cute.

With all this resolved, Aang tells Katara and Sokka what he must do to talk to Avatar Roku: go to the tower with the sanctuary during the Winter Solstice. The problem: it’s all the way in the Fire Nation.

Now we reach “Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part Two).” It’s pretty incredible how relentless this episode is; it’s pretty much an entire nonstop action sequence with only a few moments of breathing room. But it works, so I’m all the more grateful for it.

It doesn’t take off from the start, though. Aang tries to persuade Katara and Sokka not to go with him so they can’t risk getting hurt. But they want him to go on the trip. Particularly, Katara can’t face losing him to the Fire Nation (he is, after all, the closest thing she has to a mother now). But of course, they all decide to stick together and go to the Fire Nation. They have to leave quickly, because the Solstice will occur at the end of that day.

They leave just in time, too: Zuko soon arrives and learns all he needs to know about the Avatar’s whereabouts.

Now begins the chase, and tension does not let up until the episode is over. For a brief moment, it’s just Zuko chasing Aang, firing foul-smelling fireballs at him from his ship. But it escalates FAST: a blockade surround the Fire Nation is poised to stop both Aang and Zuko. Why Zuko? Well, he was banished by his own father, after all, so they wouldn’t just kindly let him enter without a good reason. That, and Commander Zhao is head of the brigade.

In a matter of seconds, we’re suddenly rooting for both people to survive the blockade, momentarily forgetting that if Zuko succeeds he’ll be trying to capture Aang. Now that’s some clever writing!

Aang and others carefully navigate around several dozen fireballs before flying high above the clouds for safety. Which does not help at all!

In fact, at one point, they lose Sokka and he winds up falling through the clouds and toward the ocean. They just barely save him before he hits the water. Being so close to the water themselves, the fireballs are an even greater threat. Which brings us to the absolute highlight of the entire two-parter: a fireball flies straight into the kids, and Aang propels him ahead of Appa and to the fireball, delivering a perfect Airbending jump kick that totally decimates the fireball, allowing the kids to fly right through the debris! Amazing! I get chills every time I see it!

So the kids get pass the blockade fine, but what about Zuko? His ship is hit, and the blockade is set to collide with him. Then Zhao decides to let Zuko pass through unchallenged. Iroh knows that Zhao knows that Zuko knows where the Avatar is heading, and will follow him there. To slip Zhao up, Zuko takes a smaller ship out to continuing the Avatar while Zhao continues to follow the smoking main ship. Pretty smart…

The kids finally reach the volcanic island and go inside the tower to find Roku’s sanctuary. Immediately upon entry, they are attacked by the Fire Sages, several old men who are the guardians of the Avatar’s temple. Then why the Hell do they attack the kids?

A chase nearly ensues through the labyrinthine tower, but the kids are soon approached by a Fire Sage who actually knows what Aang needs to do and is willing to help him out. While taking them to the sanctuary, this Sage explains how after the war started and the Avatar was nowhere to be found, the Sages were put under the Firelord’s command and no longer servants of the Avatar, as they lost hope that he would ever return. It makes sense.

Unfortunately, they reach the sanctuary and find that the doors have been locked. Only a fully-trained Avatar or the five Sages powers combined can open. And now Sokka gets to be useful! Using skills he learned from his father, he creates five bombs that can produce faux-Firebending, places them in each hole, and lights them all to open the doors.

It doesn’t work.

However, as Katara points out, it looks like it did, and they use this illusion to their advantages when the Fire Sages believe that Aang actually got inside. They combine their blasts to open the door for real, giving Aang an opportunity to get inside.

Except that he’s been apprehended by Zuko!

Seriously, the twists and turns in this episode are absolutely wonderful!

Aang does break free of Zuko’s clutches and gets inside the sanctuary before the doors shut again. Just as the Solstice happens.

Now left alone with Roku’s statue—with Roku apparently having locked the sanctuary doors so even the Sages can’t open them again—Aang finally gets to speak with the Avatar before him. And what does he have to say?

(Warning: LOTS of exposition.)

There is a comet that came a hundred years ago right after Aang disappeared known now as Sozen’s Comet. This comet increased all the Firebenders’ abilities, which allowed them to begin the war in immediate victory and wipe out every single Airbender in the world—because the next Avatar was to be an Airbender, you see. That’s how the war started, and now that’s how it might end: if Aang doesn’t master the elements (Air, Water, Earth, Fire) before the comet arrives, then the Fire Nation will be able to finish the war and finally take over the world. After that, keeping balance is totally out of the question.

So here’s the deadline: master the elements by the end of the summer, or the world as we know it is over. Oh crap…

(End of exposition.)

While this was going on, Zhao arrives outside the sanctuary and prepares everyone to attack Aang the moment the doors open. Could this be the end? (Well, of course not, but it’s pretty intense anyway.) Before the Solstice ends, Roku helps Aang escape by deflecting the incoming fire blasts and destroying his own tower! This sends everyone running away back to their ships, including Zuko (I only point this up because I was actually relieved to see him get away). Once Roku has done what he could, he disappears, turning into Aang. (OK, I didn’t explain this well enough: Aang went into the Avatar State, which allowed Roku to do what he did in the first place. Once Roku was finished, no more Avatar State.)

Aang, Katara, and Sokka are only able to escape the falling tower because Appa arrives to save them. (Apparently, Momo went off to get Appa so this could happen… I’ll buy it.)

So the temple has been destroyed. How in the world is Aang supposed to get in contact with Roku to ask him more questions about being the Avatar? Roku assured him that he’d be able to find a way. Too bad Aang didn’t know those ways before hand, otherwise they wouldn’t have had to go through all this trouble to get to the tower in the first place. But that wouldn’t have been very entertaining, now would it?

The episode wraps up pretty fast: all the Sages are being arrested by Zhao, as he sees them all as traitors—even though technically only one was… Wow, what an asshole!; and Aang and company fly off into the night, silhouetted by the moon. Cool image, and it’s completely wordless, too. Excellent.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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