Chapter Fifteen: “Bato of the Water Tribe”
(Rating Out of 15)
“Bato of the Water Tribe” feels like it could have—and should have—been a really great episode. Instead, it winds up being as contrived and as manipulative as any episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender that tries to hard to do too many things at once in a single chapter. This is yet another case study in how the Avatar formula can do more harm than good regarding certain subject matter. At its core, “Bato” is about loneliness, family, and losing touch with the ones you love. These are potent themes worthy of clever dramatization, but in “Bato,” the emotional moments are rushed and too sentimental, and the build-up to them is just as hackneyed. It’s just not a very well-written episode.
Well, not well-written as far as Aang’s side of the story goes, that is. After being MIA in “The Fortuneteller,” Zuko and Iroh are back in a major way. They steal practically every scene they’re in, and all but single-handedly save this episode from becoming just a sap fest. I’ll continue to stand by my judgment that these two, Zuko especially, are the real heart of Avatar, putting down Aang’s story rather than complimenting it.
Zuko and Iroh’s side of the episode involves their alliance with a tough and beautiful bounty hunter named June, whose secret weapon for tracking down so many people is her animal companion known as a shirshu, which has an incredible sense of smell. Knowing an opportunity when he sees one, Zuko asks for her services, which she should give in return for damaging his ship. Earlier in the episode, the shirshu tore a gaping hole in his haul to uncover a stowaway bounty.
June, however, doesn’t bargain that way: she wants actual cash. Iroh promises her weight in gold will be the payment. She only accepts after she raises the payment to Iroh’s weight in gold. No one’s willing to argue this one. Zuko’s too determined to capture the Avatar to care about actually paying the woman. And Iroh’s too much…um, intrigued by June to not want her to hang around longer. That Iroh’s crush on June never crosses the thin line between funny and creepy is a tribute to Mako’s always brilliant performance (though, I guess the writers deserve credit, too).
Up until the mandatory last-act action sequence, Zuko and Iroh and Jun spend their scarce screen time simply searching around for the Avatar and getting warmer each time, using the scent from Katara’s necklace (which he found in “Imprisoned”) as the guide. And yet these sporadic scenes are vastly more interesting and entertaining than just about anything involving Aang and the gang. There’s even an amusing, though now kind of sad, moment when our villains stop by the village from “The Fortuneteller,” and Aunt Wu and Iroh have this exchange:
Aunt Wu: Care to hear your fortune, handsome?
Iroh: At my age there is really only one big surprise left, and I’d just as soon leave it a mystery.
Zuko and Aang’s stories intertwine by the last act, so we better revert our attention back to Aang and company for now.
The episode begins with Sokka noticing signs and leftover weapons from a battle between Water Tribe warriors and Fire Nation soldiers. This leads to them discovering a Water Tribe ship that belongs to the group of warriors that their father is in. Quite understandably, Sokka and Katara want to see him again after all these years, so they set up camp by the ship until someone hopefully comes back for it. Just in these beginning passages, Aang is notably not as into the situation as Katara and Sokka are.
Late in the night, someone does indeed come back to the boat, and his name is Bato, a friend of Katara and Sokka’s father. Those two are very glad to see him, but of course, Aang knows nothing about these relationships, and has little to contribute to their conversations. If the writers had just stayed low-key with this, it could have worked. Unfortunately, we have to endure some forced scenes and moments in which Aang is systematically left out of nearly everything the three Water Tribe natives do and say.
Taking the same approach as in “Jet,” making Aang sympathetic involves making everyone else a jerk. I didn’t tolerate then, and I certainly won’t tolerate it now. And it’s not like this is some special subjective storytelling method in which we see things through Aang’s eyes and everyone else’s actions are exaggerated. No, Bato, Katara, and Sokka seem to be snubbing him on purpose. It’s actually kind of repulsive.
The worst part of this is how it’s all just a put-on. Bato shares big news with the kids: he waiting on a message from their father detailing the location of the new rendezvous point. If they wait for the message with him, he could even take them to see their father again. They’re excited, and why shouldn’t they be? This is the first time they will have seen him in two years. Aang, of course, leaves out, as he believes they’ll actually leave him to see their father. And once he’s gone, they state that they have to stay with Aang to see him through his Avatar duty and training. Aang doesn’t hear this because he’s gone. How convenient!
Even more convenient, when Aang leaves, he stops on the Water Tribe boat, where a messenger just happens to be there with the message from Katara and Sokka’s father. Aang takes the message, and crumbles it up, hiding it in his pocket. I guess we’re supposed to be apprehensive, but I was actually starting to feel genuine sympathy for once. As harshly as Aang was treated just a few minutes ago, this move made by him is completely understandable. But that thread won’t last very long.
The next day, they all go back to the boat again. Out of tradition and compassion, Bato allows Sokka to perform the “ceremonial test of wisdom, bravery, and trust” of all Water Tribe men: ice-dodging. Only, since there’s no ice around, they use the rocks as obstacles. On the boat, the three kids are assigned three different jobs. Sokka has the wisdom job and calls the shots. Katara has the bravery job and secures the mainsail. Aang has the trust job and controls the jib. Get it? Trust? Just in case things were too subtle before.
I’ll admit that this sequence is pretty cool, and Sokka’s leadership is actually not that bad. In fact, when they come to an apparent dead end, Sokka uses every resource available to his advantage: Katara’s Waterbending and Aang’s Airbending are used to lift them high above the rocks so they don’t crash. This is great thinking, but I must say, it’s a good thing this was not the normal ice-dodging test, otherwise that little stunt would not have worked at all.
No matter. This all leads to the inevitable moment when Aang—after being given the official mark of trust and made an official Water Tribe member—reveals that he’d been hiding the message from Katara and Sokka’s father all this time. So furious is Sokka that he impulsively decides that Aang can go to Hell and the Northern Water Tribe all by himself. He and Katara are going to see their father. This is all handled with the subtlety and believability of a slightly above average soap opera.
And so they start going their separate ways, but then we come to the silliest moment in the episode. As Bato, Sokka, and Katara are on their way, they hear the sad howl of a wolf. Bato explains:
Bato: …it’s been separated from the pack. I understand that pain. It’s how I felt when the Water Tribe warriors had to leave me behind. They were my family and being apart from them was more painful than my wounds.
This gets Sokka to change his mind and go back to stick with Aang, as they are his new family now. Yep, we’re back to that whole family bullshit that first surfaced in “The Southern Air Temple.” I really can’t stand such sticky sentimentality.
But thank the unseen makers of the universe, because everything that follows is the big, last-act action sequence. Zuko, Iroh, and June find Katara, paralyze her and Sokka, and take them prisoner. They can now find Aang easily, because the message he hid away for most of the episode has a lot of his scent on it. Now that’s clever!
Long story short, this sequence is nothing but fun. There are highlights abound: Aang and Zuko duking it out in, out, and around a well; Sokka ironically being hit by falling rubble; Iroh being Iroh; and the way they defeat the shirshu is genius. (In this village, the women make perfume for a living, so they dump in on the shirshu to fuck up its smelling abilities.)
Aang even gets Katara’s necklace back from Zuko. He proclaims to Zuko, “You have something I want!” Zuko probably should have said, “You are what I want!” Hmm…nah, that would have been weird.
Unfortunately, a good last act doesn’t always redeem the sloppiness of what came before it (even if that sloppiness was intercut with wonderful Zuko and Iroh moments). “Bato of the Water Tribe” doesn’t allow itself time to truly develop and explore the emotional elements at bay. On top of everything, I don’t even know who Bato of the Water Tribe is. He does little to stand out and fades from memory way before the episode ends. As far as I’m concerned, he’s merely a cypher, a plot device that only proves that, after fifteen episodes, DiMartino and Konietzko and company still don’t know what they’re doing.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.