Chapter Eleven: “The Great Divide”
(Rating Out of 15)
The music that accompanies the opening title card is annoying. I just wanted to get that observation out of the way because, frankly, it’s pretty discouraging when–upon trying to approach an ill-reputed episode with an open, unbiased mind–the usually reliable score of the Track Team mocks the very notion of a positive critical re-evaluation.
Not that it matters much anyway. “The Great Divide” is an accumulation of every single weakness of the series, and then somehow manages to be worse than that. It isn’t just bad; it’s flat-out insulting. There’s not a single redeemable value throughout its longer-than-usual twenty-four minute running time. There are no plot elements that appear later in the series. There’s no foreshadowing to any dramatic event. Zuko and Uncle Iroh are not present to provide an interesting parallel story. It’s not funny, it’s not suspenseful, and when it’s not simply boring, it’s maddeningly nonsensical. This is pure, unabashed filler of the lowest order.
Let’s start from the beginning…
“The Great Divide” opens with a feud between Katara and Sokka. Katara wants to put the tarp over the tent in case it rains, but Sokka doesn’t because it’s the dry season, and on top of that, Katara’s firewood pile stinks. Aang settles this relatively minor sibling quibble by having them switch jobs for setting up camp. Aang is pretty proud of himself for this.
Now aside from one little nitpick—the unanswered question of where and when they got that tent—this opening is not offensive in and of itself. In fact, it feels like a solid-enough setup for a much better episode that would incorporate the themes present here in the rest of the story. The episode could have explored the advantages and disadvantages of Katara’s thought process (feeling-based) and Sokka’s (logic and knowledge-based). It even could have challenged Aang’s pride by presenting him with a much more difficult conflict to resolve (which actually happens in “The Great Divide,” albeit very poorly), teaching him not to overestimate his current abilities. That might have been an acceptable episode. Unfortunately, we wound up with this shit.
The next day, the kids come across the titular Great Divide, the largest canyon in their world. The kids are pretty much set and ready to fly over the damn thing when, out of nowhere, some guy shows up.
(Warning: LOTS of exposition.)
He’s there to save a spot for his tribe, the Gan Jin, so that the canyon guide (whom we haven’t seen yet) will take them through the Divide and away from the Fire Nation. The canyon guide is an Earthbender, so he’s the only way in and out of the Divide. On top of everything, there’s another tribe tried called the Zhang that have been feuding with the Gan Jin for a hundred years.
All this guy’s purpose is to spew all this exposition, which takes up a whole forty-three seconds. I bothered to count the seconds because: 1) that’s a lot of information laid on us all at once, and 2) it feels longer because this guy’s voice is so annoying! The voice actor, Scott Menville, used to play Robin in the Teen Titans cartoon. In that role, he was reserved and dignified. What the Hell happened?
When the Zhang do show up, so does the canyon guide, who opts to take the Zhang through the Divide first because, well, the Gan Jin scout’s tribe isn’t even there yet. But the Gan Jin do arrive just in time to fight over the use of the canyon tribe. And thus we see that this allegedly one-hundred-year-old feud amounts to nothing more than childish name calling and “wisecracks.” That’s pretty lame, guys.
The episode quickly establishes both the Gan Jin and the Zhang as nothing more than a bunch of cardboard stereotypes meant to contrast with each other: the Gan Jin are clean, pompous, civilized snobs, and the Zhang are rough, dirty, barbaric slobs. There’s not an individual among them; at no point are any one of them developed into an interesting, relatable character. The voice actor for the Zhang leader tries hard to give her character personality, but the script ultimately lets her down.
As the Avatar, Aang has to bring this conflict to an end so that they may share the canyon guide and cross the Divide together. Since the goal of both is to escape the Fire Nation, they grudgingly agree. As for the sick Zhang tribe members and the elderly Gan Jin tribe members, they will be flown across on Appa to assure their safety. That we never get to see any of those characters—not to mention get their views on the whole Zhang vs. Gan Jin feud—is a sorrowfully missed opportunity for character development.
Before the trip begins, there’s one rule: absolutely no food, for it attracts predators. Begrudgingly, the two tribes eat as much food as they can. Hey, look: the Zhang eat like pigs and the Gan Jin eat with chopsticks and handkerchiefs.
And so the journey begins. The canyon guide is an old bore. He gets them across well enough with his Earthbending, but then he tells legends about the canyons being made by carved by angry benders who did not receive good human sacrifices. Or something like that. What really matters is that soon after they reach the canyon floor, the guide is attacked by a giant…
Whatever the Hell it is, Aang manages to scare it away. Unfortunately, the damage is done: the guide’s arms have been broken, which means he can’t Earthbend, which means they’re all trapped in the canyon. Now here’s where it starts to get confusing. How does Katara know both arms are broken from just examining one arm? Speaking of which, just how did the guide’s arms get broken? Judging by the way he fell, only one arm should have gotten injured. Either the creature’s toss was that powerful or swinging the guide in its jaws did some serious bone-crushing. But if either were the case, wouldn’t the guide’s other bones get broken, too? What about his spine? Actually, fuck that: WOULDN’T HE BE DEAD?
Anyway, both tribes start blaming each other for the incident, accusing each other of bringing food down into the Great Divide. I really wished they’d both shut up. Their wisecracks aren’t even funny. After a hundred years of fighting, they can’t come up with anything better than, “I could smell your stink a mile away”?
Frustrated, Aang decides that since they won’t get along for this journey, they’ll have to be split up as they cross the Divide. (That’s a horrible idea for many reasons, but I digress.) Katara is sent with the Gan Jin and Sokka with the Zhang to both keep them together and to find out why they hate each other so much. Whatever the reason, judging by how they handle themselves, it must be really, really petty, so I don’t even care.
Say, remember in the opening when Sokka and Katara butted heads over how to sent up camp? That situation comes back in the dumbest way. Turns out, the Zhang won’t set up their tarp because it’s the dry season and thus unnecessary. Sokka is grateful that someone—even if it isn’t the audience—is on his side. And guess what? The Gan Jin put their tarp up just to be careful, which Katara appreciates. This is one of the worst payoffs I’ve ever seen.
And then we finally get to the scene which finally tips the scale from confusing to maddening. Turns out, the Gan Jin did bring food! They attempt to justify their actions (they’re sure the Zhang brought food, too), but that doesn’t even matter: just how stupid and selfish are these people that they would disregard the rules of the fucking canyon guide and put all of their lives in jeopardy just because they didn’t want to go hungry for a day? Did DiMartino and Konietzko and company realize just how idiotic this was when they wrote it?
But the worst comes after this revelation: initially, Katara appears appropriately apprehensive that the Gan Jin would be this dumb, but then when she’s offered food, this is exactly what she says:
Katara: Well, I guess it’s okay if everyone’s doing it.
I’m not even going to waste my time fruitlessly trying to find the appropriate words to describe how much this moment makes me hate everything about humanity.
Across on the Zhang tribe, Sokka doesn’t seem to care so much that the Zhang brought food, since it’s meat. Actually, that part is kind of funny.
From their respective tribes, Katara and Sokka learn why the tribe hate each other.
As told by the Gan Jin, there was a Gan Jin Earthbender named Jin Wei who had the duty of transporting a sacred orb from an east gate to a west gate, as was the redemption ritual. However, as he reached the gate, he was attacked by a Zhang man named Wei Jin, who proceeded to steal the sacred orb. OK.
Accordingly to the Zhang, however, Wei Jin was just minding his own business when he noticed that Jin Wei had fallen to the ground. Jin Wei, unable to move, requested that Wei Jin take the orb back to the Gan Jin village. True to his word, Wei Jin did just that. And was promptly arrested and imprisoned for twenty years for “stealing” the orb.
There are three major problems I have with this entire bit:
1) This is an incredibly petty issue. Maybe it’s stupidity was the point, but if so, they succeeded a little too well.
2) Why are the characters named Wei Jin and Jin Wei? That’s just stupid.
3) WHY ARE THESE STORIES ANIMATED IN SUCH BIZARRELY DIFFERENT STYLES FROM EACH OTHER AND THE REST OF THE SHOW?! What is it supposed to mean? Is it how the Gan Jin and Zhang view themselves? Or how Katara and Sokka view the stories? What a distractingly horrible idea!
After that bit of business (Seriously, someone tell me: what are they supposed to mean?!), we see Aang alone with Momo and the canyon guide. Again, I wish we could have seen the elderly and sick and gotten their point-of-view on this Wei Jin/Jin Wei business (WHY THOSE STUPID NAMES?!), but nope. Instead, Aang laments to the canyon guide that he wishes he could help the two tribes get along and knew a way to get them out of the canyon. The guide replies, “I’m not so sure the two problems are unrelated?” What the Hell does that mean?
No, seriously, what does it mean? It’s never paid off later in the episode. Argh. Just more pointless dialogue. It doesn’t even develop the canyon guide’s character, so he’s still simply a plot device.
The next morning, the groups come to the end of the line. Now how do they get out of the Great Divide? Instead of coming together to figure that out, the two tribes start tossing dumb zingers around again. These people suck at insults! Aang intervenes with this line:
Aang: Guys! FOCUS! How many times do I have to say it? Harsh words won’t solve problems, ACTION will!
First of all, Aang only said that once before. And only to Katara and Sokka. In the opening scene. So the two tribes have no idea was he’s talking about. And once again, a perfectly fine setup from the first scene is idiotically wasted.
The two tribes take these words to heart, which at first makes Aang very, very happy.
However, they take the advice literally and decide that the only way they can settle this feud is by fighting to the death.
And they didn’t think to do this in the course of a hundred years because…? Good Lord is this episode stupid.
Aang intervenes, blowing both tribes away with a big Airbending move. In the process, he makes them spill all the food they’d hidden on the trip. Naturally, this pisses Aang off and he rightfully calls them horrible people. And then…
Aang makes this extremely disturbing and off-putting face. And he does it because he’s so hungry and he spots an egg custard pie. Nothing would make me happier than to never see this kid hungry again.
And then suddenly those creatures—called canyon crawlers—appear in droves and attack everyone! After a few minutes of trying to evade them, Aang comes up with a brilliant brainstorm. The canyon crawlers really love the food, so they all use the food bags to place over the canyon crawlers’ mouths to use as reigns. This allows them to ride the canyon crawlers up the canyon wall and out of the Divide.
You know, I’ve never quite understood these canyon crawlers. Everyone is told not to bring food as it attracts predators. But what do the canyon crawlers want? The food or the people? The first time we see one, it attacks the canyon guide—conveniently breaking his arms—but why? He didn’t have food. Besides, a vast majority of the food is meat (treated, surely). You’d think anyone venturing into this Divide would be eaten alive, food or no food. Besides, what do they eat when there aren’t any travelers in the Divide? Each other?
I’ll admit, though, that food-bag-into-reign trick is pretty clever.
And what do they all do when they’re safe from the dangers of the Divide? Why, the tribes start fighting again, of course!
And this is finally where “The Great Devide” delves into pure insanity, as Aang tries to explain exactly what happened between Wei Jin and Jin Wei.
You see, they weren’t from different tribes. They were actually brothers.
And they were twins. And eight-years-old.
And they were playing a game involving a ball (the sacred orb) and goal posts (the east and west gates).
And Wei Jin fell, allowing Jin Wei to steal the ball and go to the other post.
But Jin Wei went out of bounds and was put in the penalty box for two minutes (jail for twenty years).
The name of the game was Redemption.
There’s a little more to it, but I’m going to stop explaining this shit. It’s hurting my brain.
And THAT settles the one-hundred-year-old dispute between these people.
As the two tribes walk off as one, Katara says how lucky it was that Aang knew about the real story. And then just when you thought this episode was done fucking with you, Aang reveals that he made the entire story up.
At this point, when it’s not even possible to be angry anymore, I just throw my hands up and shout, “Why not?!”
What were DiMartino and Konietzko and company thinking? Why couldn’t they develop whatever ideas they were going for in a way that wasn’t a waste of our time? How did anyone finish a first draft of this thing and honestly believe it was acceptable even as a bad episode? Frankly, you could skip this episode and go right to “The Storm,” and it would not affect the storyline at all. Hell, it might even make it stronger. However, the greatest sin of “The Great Divide” is that it is practically interchangeable with any crap kids’ show on nowadays, and that definitely earns it the status of the worst episode ever mistakenly released under the title Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Did I also mention that a lot of these drawings are terrible?
And when it’s all said and done, and the episode credits appear, we find out the episode was written by…JOHN O’BRYAN?! NOOOOOOO!!!
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.