Chapter Fourteen: “The Fortuneteller”
(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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.