Chapter Nine: “The Waterbending Scroll”
(Rating Out of 15)
After the thrilling intensity of the “Winter Solstice” episodes, it’s only makes sense that “The Waterbending Scroll” would be pretty light. Maybe a bit too light. And not just because there are “pirates” in this episode, although that is strange. And I quote pirates because they’re so stereotypically pirates, especially the captain. In fact, every time the captain was on-screen, my only thought was, “Where the Hell did he get that hat?” I may just be overthinking Avatar‘s mostly Asian influences, because that hat strikes me as totally from another planet. I don’t know. They are pirates, so maybe they stole it from some race we haven’t seen yet.
Pirates aside, what always strikes me about this episode is just how inconsequential it feels. By the end of the episode, it’s like nothing of substance happened at all, and that the encounter with the pirates and Zuko was little more than a brief inconvenience. I don’t want to make that out to be a criticism because it’s not; it’s more of an observation. This is definitely filler with plot. As far as storytelling go, bits and pieces of this episode (ex. The bison whisper, the Lotus tile, etc.) show up later on in the show to great avail, and by the genial tone of the episode they’re extremely well-disguised plot elements.
Anyway, who cares if it’s inconsequential as long as its entertaining? “Fun” is the key word when describing “The Waterbending Scroll”: the pirates, the action, the humor, Iroh and Zuko, etc. Even Katara gets a real chance to shine. Maybe it’s because she exposes more of her humanity or because I’m a sicko, but it’s pretty hilarious seeing her obvious jealousy of Aang’s natural Waterbending talent.
That’s pretty much what the episode is about: to help Aang get a head-start on Waterbending before they reach the North Pole, Katara teaches him the few moves she knows. He then proceeds to outdo her with every single one. Her various annoyed expressions are priceless.
One Waterbending move taken too far accidentally sends their travel supplies down the river, and they go to a nearby town to get more things. Aang gets a bison-shaped whisper that makes noises no human can hear. (Gee, I wonder who can hear it?) Then they go into a ship full of ill-gotten merchandise being sold by the pirates. That’s where Katara finds the titular scroll, which won’t be sold for less than two-hundred gold pieces.
Aang tries to amuse the captain into giving him the scroll for two measly copper pieces—it’s pretty cute, actually—and fails.
Katara, suddenly in a big hurry, pulls Aang and Sokka from the ship so they can leave. Then they’re chased by the pirates. They’re barely able to escape because Aang can now carry people with him when he uses his glider. After “The Avatar Returns,” he must have learned how useful it would be to be able to fly with other people attached to you.
So why were the pirates chasing them? Why, because Katara stole the Waterbending Scroll! She tries to justify her actions—the scroll was stolen from the Water Tribe anyway, so why not steal it back? This is the first time that Katara has actually started to grow on me. Her envy and frustration is totally understandable (and funny), and presents the strange paradox of her character: Katara is the most endearing when she’s trying to find her own peace of mind and fulfillment rather than when she’s trying to be a voice for all people, and lead and help others. (Compare Bono-Katara in the horrible “The Painted Lady” to the Katara of “The Southern Raiders” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Her big lashout at Aang after he even gets a move from the Waterbending scroll before her is nothing short of brilliant:
Katara: Will you PLEASE shut your air hole! Believe it or not, your infinite wisdom gets a little old sometimes. Why don’t we just throw the scroll away since you’re so naturally gifted! (She looks at Sokka, who shakes his head.) What?
That final “What?” and the sight of Aang on the verge top off this moment beautifully. Of course, she apologizes and says she wants nothing to do with the scroll, but DAMN! We’ve got some darkness brewing under this candle light!
But enough of that. Zuko and Iroh are in this episode, too, and for hilarious reasons: Iroh has lost his Lotus Tile and needs a new one. Zuko, predictably, is pissed about this, but soon meets the pirates who saw the Avatar. They join forces to retrieve the Avatar and the scroll. They do find Katara, but it was as much her doing as theirs: they decide, correctly, that they would be camped close to the river, and Katara gives herself away as she fiddles with learning from the scroll.
So with Katara in their custody, Zuko tries to explain why he needs the Avatar, and is willing to give Katara her mother’s necklace back if she helps him.
So Zuko has the scroll, and the pirates capture Aang and Sokka pretty damn easily, and then the tradeoff is about to happen. But Sokka cleverly turns everyone against each other by pointing out to the pirates that the value of the Avatar—whom they have in their clutches—would be worth way, way more than the scroll.
And so fighting ensues, and it’s all fun to watch, but the best moment is undoubtedly after the pirates have filled the area with smoke bombs and Aang is lost in it while trying to find Sokka. Being an Airbender, he clears it away with one move, only to find himself surrounded by pirates and Firebenders. So he immediately brings the smoke back. Brilliant!
At some point, Aang and Katara steal the pirates’ ship by Waterbending it off the shore. But that’s after they have a strange sentimental moment, where Aang proclaims that two Waterbenders can do the job. Katara smiles at him with shimmering eyes. Why? I don’t get it…
Anyway, the ship is stolen, and Iroh breaks up the fight between the pirates and Zuko to point out that their ship has been stolen. Zuko laughs at their misfortune. Only to see that the pirates have commandeered his boat.
This leads to a climax on the edge of a waterfall, in which not even Aang and Katara’s Waterbending could save them. (Well, it could have if it weren’t for the other boat.) Good thing Aang bought that bison whisper, because Appa comes and saves them before they fall to their deaths. (Well, that’s not entirely true: we see the pirates fall down and survive…for the most part.)
The episode ends with one of its biggest laughs: after Zuko laments his lost boat, Iroh begins to laugh: turns out his missing Lotus Tile was in his sleeve the entire time. Pissed beyond words, Zuko snatches it from him and hurls it into the water.
Oh, wait! There’s even a tongue-in-cheek moral at the end: stolen is wrong. Unless it’s from pirates. Cute.
Aside from just being a very good episode, “The Waterbending Scroll” holds a special place in my heart for being the first episode of Avatar I actually liked all those years ago. So if anything, this episode was the reason I bothered to re-watch the show, always wondering, “Why can’t more episodes be like this?” Thank the unseen makers of the universe that change is always possible.
On a side note, this episode was written by John O’Bryan! Maybe he’s not so bad after all.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.