Because fans should be critical, too

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.

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