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Archive for January, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Five: “Avatar Day”

10

(Rating Out of 15)

If you were to ask the average Avatar: the Last Airbender fan what were the worst episodes in the series, you’d get one of two answers: 1) a verbal shotgun blast to the face politely informing you that Avatar has no bad episodes, asshole!; or 2) a list of maybe five to six episodes that would most likely include “Avatar Days.” And for a long while, I absolutely agreed (with the second one, of course). I mean, the evidence is indisputable, even by my own critical criteria. Is it silly beyond belief? Yes. Is the overall tone at odds with the rest of the series? Enough, yes. Does it bring up unwanted associations with other, lesser kids’ show? Most definitely. Was it written by John “JOB” O’Bryan? Uh huh. Just from that, you’d think this was the worst episode since “The Great Divide.”

However, as I was watching “Avatar Day” again, something interesting happened. I was laughing my ass off more often than not at jokes I would have condemned in the past. And not only that, but by the end of it, I was surprised to find that I didn’t hate the episode at all. In fact, I kind of liked it.

Just to be safe, I watched the episode a second time—atypical for me, given my review-every-three-days deadline—to see if the song remained the same. I risk wrecking what little credibility I have by saying this, but the truth must be told: I enjoyed “Avatar Day” a lot more the second time.

Hey, don’t roll your fucking eyes at me! Hear me out!

“Avatar Day” has the kids discovering that a town near the ocean celebrates this special day by burning giant statues of Avatars Kyoshi, Roku, and Aang. (How they knew what Aang looked like is a good question, but considering that most Air Nomads have the same clothes, baldness, and tattoos, this is likely just lucky guess work.) Why? Because exactly three-hundred and seventy years ago, Avatar Kyoshi killed their town leader, Chin the Great. When Aang reveals that he is the Avatar, the town arrests him, and Sokka and Katara must try to prove that the Avatar didn’t kill Chin so he can be free.

There are a lot of seemingly unanswered questions in this episode that are the cause of a lot of hatred. Just how is it that two Water Tribe kids can piece together in a day what these villagers couldn’t in almost four-hundred years? And why did they only bother to look into it now? How does the village court system function in anyway if the jury and the judge are so one-sided? Lastly, the wheel of punishment: what the fuck is that?!

On top of all that, Sokka’s obnoxious levels are off the charts. Not only does he lose his boomerang, sending him into a mild depression, but when it comes time to solve the mystery of the death of Chin, he dons a detective persona and garb to match. Why was this necessary, where did he get those clothes, and how did he pay for it? (The villagers don’t take Water Tribe money. That’s the only reason Aang couldn’t pay bail to stay out of jail. Am I missing something?)

Finally, the general tone of the episode is kind of weird. It’s more sitcomical than just about any other episode of Avatar. The unsuspecting viewer who caught his first glance of Avatar because of this episode probably changed the channel and never looked back. (That’s probably not the best figure of speech for this, but I digress.) “Avatar Day” nearly commits the cardinal sin of turning Avatar into the average animated kids’ show.

And yet, for all these heinous crimes, I give “Avatar Day” a 10 out of 15, which is technically a good rating. Where is my mind?

Well, in my mind, three things save this episode from total disaster: 1) it’s funny; 2) it’s smarter than you’d think; and 3) in case the first two fail, it has a separate Zuko and Iroh story that keeps us grounded in the reality of what Avatar really is all about.

Now the humor in “Avatar Day” is very atypical of the stuff you’d usually find in Avatar. Yes, it’s the same silly humor that I once complained was too silly and childish, but for some reason, it works here. My guess is because DiMartino and Konietzko and company (and especially JOB) know it. They’ve learned from the mistakes (for the most part) that destroyed “The Great Divide,” and knew how to make “Avatar Day” work: they made it even sillier, but also self-aware.

But not self-aware in the meta-sense where it’s the author that’s winking at us—generally, I don’t like that kind of humor unless the author can do it right, and “The Ember Island Players” proves that DiMartino and Konietzko and company cannot—but in the sense that the characters know that in order to rise above the insanity, they have to go along with it for the time being.

Probably my favorite moment in the episode is the appearance of this horribly deformed old man. His line: “We used to be a great society before you killed our leader. Now look at us!” The joke here is so obvious, and yet the voice acting is so odd and peculiar that I laughed my ass off each time I watch the episode. Not to mention that Aang’s horrified reaction is perfect.

Essentially, this is the kind of humor you’re more likely to find in something like Invader Zim than in Avatar. But hey, I liked Invader Zim, so this is tolerable for me. (Bryan Konietzko was the art director on Invader Zim, which is a pretty neat fun fact.)

This also ties into my second point, that the episode is smarter than it would appear to be.

Well, for the most part…

From the start, the one thing that “Avatar Day” makes perfectly clear is that the townspeople—all of them—are idiots. These people, more than any of those in other places we’ve seen in Avatar, seem to be isolated not just from the war, but from any kind of foreign contact; they live in a very tightly sealed bubble. Their entire lifes’ purpose appears to be hating the Avatar for no other reason than he killed their great leader. And they don’t even know why the Avatar killed their leader, nor do they seem to care to find out.

It’s also implied that this is a seriously savage community. Not only do they have a wheel of punishment with various means of killing people—or, at least, inconveniencing them—but the townspeople actually cheer for their punishment of choice to be unleashed. With such a morbid thirst for brutality, I’m a little surprised “community service” even made it on the wheel at all.

Let’s talk about Sokka for a moment. As mentioned earlier, his obnoxious levels are enormous here. But again, the self-awareness of the characters—that is, Aang and Katara—prevents it from simply being annoying. It also affirms my belief that Sokka is only funny when he’s the butt of the jokes, and not the initiator of them. It’s pretty funny that, while he’s busy trying to create a detective persona, Katara is the one who actually puts the pieces together and solves the mystery, effectively stealing his thunder on numerous occasions. His constant bitching about wanting to be the one who solves the mystery eventually earns him a whack on the head from Katara by his own pipe. This is probably my favorite Sokka moment in the whole series. I could watch it over and over and over again.

This episode also continues probably one of the weirdest character arcs in the series: the emasculation of Sokka. It started in “The Warriors of Kyoshi” (when he had to wear a fucking dress), and it continues here when he loses his boomerang. He complains that losing his boomerang is like losing a part of his identity. More likely the male part, as he’s always been obsessed with being manly. I’ll talk more about this arc as the series goes on, but here’s food for thought: maybe Sokka’s posturing as a Charlie Chan knock off is him trying to create a new masculine identity for himself. Why not? Without his boomerang, he’s clearly going through an existential crisis, and latched onto the detective persona immediately as not to lose himself. Considering how phallic that dragon pipe he acquired is, I’d say this isn’t too far off.

“Without my boomerang, I cease to be a man…”
“…but this pipe…oh, this pipe…”

Back to the townspeople. The way Sokka and Katara finally convince these people that Aang is “innocent” is by having Aang dress up in Avatar Kyoshi’s clothing, hopefully to trigger some sort of…something. But before we can despair at the utter desperation of another men-in-drag gag, the clothing actually does work: Avatar Kyoshi appears to clear Aang’s name.

Or so we think. In fact, the first thing Kyoshi says upon her arrival is that she did kill Chin. Whoops. But she goes on to explain that Chin was actually a horrible leader and a brutal tyrant, and that if she hadn’t done what she did, he would have taken over her homeland of Kyoshi (which wasn’t named that then, of course). So she broke her homeland from the main land—because she was an Avatar and could do that—and turned it into a far away island, safe from Chin’s evil expansion.

However, she doesn’t kill him, so much as he causes his own demise because of his pride. (Much like Zhao, in a way.) He just stands there as the earth under him crumbles and he falls to his death in the water below. And considering that Kyoshi separated a huge mass of land by Bending the lava under the earth just seconds ago…yeah, that must have been some pretty hot water.

So, in essence, Chin died because he was just stupid enough as the people in this town who worship him, but just smart enough that he could become their leader. And a tyrant, at that. He probably just brainwashed these poor souls into believing him a wonderful man. Fucking tyrants.

So Aang is guilty. Whoops. But thankfully, because episodes still need last-act action sequences, the town is attacked by the same Fire Nation soldiers who attacked Aang and his friends at the beginning of the episode. Aang chooses to fight them off only if his sentence of being boiled in oil is lifted. It is, and so we get some fun action.

Sokka even gets his boomerang back. “Boomerang! You do always come back!” he exclaims. Call me crazy, but doesn’t this moment, in its execution and corniness, feel like something Dib would say in Invader Zim?

So the kids save the day, and a new Avatar Day is made just for Aang. Just because he saved their asses, they instantly forget that he confessed to killing the leader three-hundred seventy years ago. For once I agree with Sokka: “This is by far the worst town we’ve ever been to.”

Now let’s briefly talk about the Zuko and Iroh subplot, which is probably the only thing in the episode that everyone can agree is good. I say “briefly” because if you have read my other reviews, you know exactly how I feel about every Zuko and Iroh subplot in the series. They carry the entire show, I tell ya!

All you need to know really is that Zuko decides that it would be best if he traveled with Iroh, as he needs to figure out his own path. While I take issue with him just ditching his Uncle like that, I suppose it makes sense in that confused Zuko way. Iroh, ever the kindest man in the show, let’s Zuko take the dodo(?) with him for easier traveling. Their goodbye is understated, unsentimental, and yet still emotionally effective.

So that’s “Avatar Day,” one of the most misunderstood episodes since “Imprisoned.” Paradoxically, the more I ponder over the alleged flaws of “Avatar Day,” the more I grow to like the episode. I do wonder how much of this is JOB’s doing, though. I’d liked to imagine that after fucking up so badly with “The Great Divide,” DiMartino and Konietzko—like the jerks they can occasionally be—assigned him this one as a cruel joke. After a few angry, drunken writing sessions full of Patton Oswalt-esque ramblings, he turned in his draft of “Avatar Day” with a giant grin on his face. That seventy-two page satirical masterpiece unfortunately had to be chopped up and dumbed down to kids’ show standards, but the kernel of genius is still there. Great job, JOB!

Pictured: NOT John O’Bryan

But that’s just me and my silly imagination. Bottom line: “Avatar Day” works.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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Chapter Twenty-Four: “The Swamp”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Swamp” is one of those episodes that, like “The Waterbending Scroll,” simply feels inconsequential. Not in a way that detracts from the overall quality—which is pretty high—but in a way that, after you’re done watching it, you realize that “The Swamp” just doesn’t have that much going on for it to be outstanding and particularly memorable. And yet, it’s nowhere near being a bad episode. It’s just very basic and functional, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

It’s like Howard Hawks’ definition of a good movie: “Three good scenes; no bad scenes.” You can apply that same principle to Avatar: the Last Airbender, especially since, unlike most television shows, it has a single overall story. For the sake of this review, we’ll just replace “scene” with “episode.” (I’ll also pretend that Avatar has no bad episodes, which most people do anyway. Heh, heh.) Not every episode has to be extraordinary, but it does have to be serviceable to the story, the characters, and the world they live in.

I think DiMartino and Konietzko knew this, so they were smart enough to make episodes like “The Swamp”: 1) funny and entertaining as Hell; and 2) filled with numerous plot points and foreshadowing that make it indispensable from the overall story arc.

The latter point may be the more important of the two, because they setup certain plot elements that will be paid off much later in clever ways, sometimes emotionally.

For example, we’re told near the end that the swamp has a weird habit of giving people visions of those dear to them in their past. What this precisely means for the characters won’t be explained or explored until later, but the seed is planted in this episode. For instance, Katara sees a vision of her mother, who we know is dead. Sokka sees Yue, who is also dead. These are sources of emotional turmoil for the characters which will only later be granted some sort of catharsis.

Of course, Aang gets the strangest vision, being the Avatar and all. He sees a girl he’s never met or seen before in his life. How could this be a source of emotional turmoil, or conflict of any sort? If we’re to take what we’re told in the episode seriously (“Time is an illusion, and so is death.”), then this girl will play an important part in Aang’s life.

The girl is, of course, Toph, who we’ll meet in about two episodes. I can’t wait!

Of course, these plot elements are good and dandy for later episodes, but can’t I enjoy this episode on its own? The answer is, for most part, yes.

The episode even starts off with a great laugh. Zuko and Iroh are out begging on the streets. Zuko, of course, refuses to scar his dignity any further, but Iroh is bold enough to sing for those who ask for it. One such person is a sword welding thug that humiliates Iroh by making him sing and dance as he swings his swords dangerously close to his feet. Sort of the samurai equivalent of the old gag where the gunslinger shoots at his target’s feet to make him “dance.”

Of course, Iroh being Iroh, he’s simply grateful to have his gold piece from the guy. Zuko, not so much. At the end of the episode, he gets his revenge by once again becoming the Blue Spirit and attacking the man in the night. Groovy!

As for other comic highlights, I enjoyed every little thing that happened to Appa and Momo once they were separated from the kids. Whether its being chased by swamp hillbillies for food or simply trying to sleep, these two make for very amusing passages. I still say that Appa all by himself can’t (and won’t) carry an entire episode. He needs someone or something like Momo to play off of, where as Momo can (and will) do all right on his own.

The stuff involving the kids is mostly fun, too. Aside from those visions they receive from the swamp, they spend most of their time scared out of their minds by the noises and figures they encounter.

Now there are a few things that did dampen my enjoyment of the episode, and I’ll just list them off.

1) It’s never truly explained where that tornado came from that sent the kids crashing into the swamp to begin with. I bought that it called out to Aang because that does seem like something that would happen to the Avatar-in-training, and it does tie in pretty well with the overall spiritual message of how everything in the world, living or dead, is connected.

But they never say where the tornado came from. The swamp guy named Hue who attacks them (more on him in a moment) says he didn’t create the tornado, as that’s something beyond his capabilities. So what was it? We get a little throwaway gag near the end of a tree smacking an annoying bird away, but is that the answer? Nature just all of a sudden decided to take action? If that’s the case, then does that swamp guy even need to bother with his swamp creature act to scare off people? It would seem the swamp itself would do a pretty good job of that. I don’t know. It’s not clear.

2) Hue himself is pretty dubious. Why is he so adament on attacking the kids? He explains later that he only wants to protect the swamp from people like Sokka who chop through it with their machetes. So why keep attacking all of the kids if Sokka is the only one causing problems? Are Aang and Katara guilty by association?

That said, the swamp monster he creates is pretty cool.

It’s also pretty clear they just needed Hue for the last-act action sequence—as dictated by the Avatar formula—so when enough action has taken place, Hue suddenly drops the act and takes the time to calmly explain his situation to the kids. That, when a second ago he was trying to kill them. It’s pretty jarring to say the least.

3) The scene with Katara envisioning her mother seemed a little…rushed, to say the least. It’s supposed to be a sorrowful moment, but it all happens a little too fast for us to take it in and fully react to it. The purpose of the scene is painfully clear, but the execution of it fails to express the full impact of it.

“My mother is a stump.”

4) This.

Now where had I seen this visual before?

Oh my God…

First of all, never bring up that scene in such an off-hand manner that means nothing! Second, and most important, how dare they make reference to that scene without following through on it by actually having Sokka die!

In all serious, I’d be a little surprised if DiMartino and Konietzko didn’t realize how similar this moment was to Akira, especially since they tend to make references every so often (and it would go overboard when Book Three came around). That said, I completely commend them for not making another sort of Deliverance joke. Considering where the episode takes place and that it has those swamp hillbillies in it, it would have been really, really tempting to see if they could have gotten away it with. So, yep, great self-control, guys.

P.S. If you haven’t seen Akira–in my opinion, second only to Spirited Away as the greatest anime ever made–please check it out as soon. It was the first anime to be released in the United States, and therefore, at least partially the reason Avatar: the Last Airbender even exists.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Twenty-Three: “Return to Omashu”

9

(Rating Out of 15)

Let’s thank the unseen makers of the universe that the second half of “Return to Omashu” is vastly superior to its first half. Otherwise, this episode would be as bad as…well, “The King of Omashu.” The city of Omashu has yet to inspire a truly good episode in this series. I guess when the only thing a city has going on for it is a sliding mail system that can conveniently be used to stage obligatory action sequences, it’s unfair to expect anything else.

The episode mainly involves the kids discovering that Omashu is now under Fire Nation control and Aang stubbornly going in anyway to find his friend and potential Earthbending mentor King Bumi. By the end of the episode, they’ll have freed the entire residence of Omashu from the city, accidentally kidnapped the new governor’s baby, and had their first ever face-off with Azula and company.

This is not a very well-written episode. This is also the first time in a long time I was reminded that Avatar: the Last Airbender was made first and foremost for kids. The way the kids manage to get every innocent resident out of Omashu is pure kids’ craft: they make the guards think that the people have a deadly disease called pintopox, and since they wouldn’t want to get sick, too, the guards just release them all.

You see, there are these little starfish-octopi in the sewers that stick to you with their suckers, and when you take them off, they leave little spots that make it look like you’re diseased. So everyone puts these spots on themselves and essentially pretends they’re zombies.

What a dumb idea. Did John O’Bryan come up with that, too?* (Actually, the episode was written by Elizabeth Welch Ehasz, whose name I was shocked to see credited to such great episodes as “Zuko Alone,” “The Western Air Temple,” and “The Southern Raiders.” What the Hell was she thinking when she wrote this piece of shit?)

Thankfully, though, that bit is just one part of the episode, and only contained in the first half. There’s more than happens, not always for the better.

We’re introduced to Azula’s two friends and appointed partners-in-crime, Mai and Ty Lee. To say these two are underdeveloped is saying nothing: there have been one-time characters with more dimension and humanity then these two combined. At least the grimly sarcastic Mai, as voiced by Cricket Leigh, manages to hint at some kind of depth, which is more than can be said for the bubbly Ty Lee, who seems to have been imported from an anime assembly line. Olivia Hack’s voice acting is as sterile and annoying as your average dub.

Of course, it’s not like Azula picked these two for their personalities. Mai’s an insanely skilled at shooting knives and suchs things from her sleeves, and Ty Lee, a circus performer, is agile, flexible, and has a special ability to shut down a Bender power by hitting certain pressure point on the body.

Freaky!

They’re great allies, for sure, but why don’t Mai or Ty Lee have much character? Was the writers’ objective to present them as feeble pawns of Azula and then gradually develop who they really were further down the line? Are we supposed to assume that they hide their real selves out of fear of pissing off Azula? (Considering how Azula got Ty Lee to go along with her in the first place, this is a possibility: she essentially almost had Ty Lee killed in her circus act by setting the safety nets on fire, among other things.) Who knows? I can speculate all I want, but these two will remain pretty shallow (or Ty Lee will anyway).

Now onto the second half of the episode, which gets off to a great start thanks to funny business involving Momo and the governor’s baby.

Poor Momo just wants food, but after finding it, he has to deal with the baby trying to catch him. This involves exposing the baby to a lot of dangers, including falling off of a roof, but because the focus is squarely on Momo and his need to eat and get away, it winds up being pretty hilarious. He simply cannot lose this kid.

So when the residents are leaving the city, Momo—and subsequently, the baby—goes with them. This is a pretty clever plot point, because later the governor sends Aang and the escapees a message by hawk: give back the baby, and they’ll release King Bumi.

We don’t see a lot of Bumi in this episode—literally or otherwise: he’s encased in a metal coffin with only enough space for his face to show—and maybe that’s for the better. He’s much more endearing here than in that “King of Omashu” crap. I like him a lot. I’d like to imagine if Keith Moon was still alive and an Earthbender and not an alcoholic, he’d be just like Bumi.

Plus, wouldn’t “Cobwebs and Strange” be a great theme song for Bumi?

The trade-off would have happened if Azula hadn’t shown up to recruit Mai to go after Zuko and Iroh. Azula decides not to give up Bumi, and this leads to the last-act action sequence. And it’s a fun one! Mai and Ty Lee fight Katara and Sokka, and Azula chases Aang and Bumi on the sliding mail system. No Rigid Action Syndrome to be found here. The sliding chase is especially intense because now Azula knows Aang is the Avatar. Wouldn’t capturing him all by herself just make her father that much more proud of her and humiliate Zuko even more?

The chase ends when Bumi—who could apparently Earthbend the entire time—helps them get away from Azula. He pretty much tells Aang that he can’t teach him Earthbending because…he’s needed in Omashu…for some reason…whatever. It’s Bumi, so he knows what he’s doing. Oh, and we get a lesson in neutral jin, which involves “listening and waiting for the right moment to strike,” and that Aang should find an Earthbending mentor who’s mastered neutral jin. Groovy.

At the very end of the episode, Aang returns the governor’s baby. The governor and his wife are genuinely happy to see their son again, and you know what? I was happy for them. There’s not been another truly humane moment in the rest of the episode. No, Aang’s concern for Bumi was more controlled by plot than by emotions; it never felt real.

This whole episode doesn’t even feel real. I know why, though: this episode was animated by DR Movie Animation Studios. I don’t like DR Movie’s drawing style. I really don’t. I’ll admit that this is just a bias, but on a visceral level, DR Movie doesn’t do it for me. It’s too broad, too unstable, and, oddly, too cartoony. Not that all of DR Movie’s episodes look bad—the action and expressions in “The Avatar State” are some of the best in the series—but more often than not, their animation is only as good as the script they’re animating (“The Blue Spirit” comes to mind). With “Return to Omashu,” they were let down in a major way.

*I pick on John O’Bryan a lot, don’t I? Just know that I don’t hate the guy, it’s just in good fun. The man’s initials are J.O.B., for God’s sake!

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Twenty-Two: “The Cave of Two Lovers”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Cave of Two Lovers” is the episode with the hippies in it. I won’t even ask how or why these people somehow evolved into existence in the mostly Oriental universe of Avatar: the Last Airbender. If those pirates in “The Waterbending Scroll” could exist, then surely these hippies could. To be honest, though, I was more forgiving of the pirate intrusion because they turned out to be pretty entertaining. These hippies, on the other hand, are anything but.

They’re kind of cool in the beginning, but by the time they and the kids get to the titular cave, they have long since exhausted their welcome. But here’s the strangest thing about them: despite how perfectly well the writers capture the benign uselessness of the average hippie, they rarely utilize it for actual humor. More often, they’re played unbearably straight, and are just plain annoying. But when they are the butt of the joke, it’s pretty funny. My favorite moment in the episode is when one of the hippies fails to realize that lighting all five torches does NOT extend their individual light life.

Could it be that I’m biased? Does my general dislike of hippies prevent me from enjoying the episode? I mean, I don’t hate hippies. Certainly they’re not all like this—one of the most endearing hippies I ever met was my high school English teacher. I don’t even have any issues with their cause: we can always use a little more peace, love, and understanding in this cruel world. No, it’s not hippie ideology so much as hippie habit that tends to irk me. Maybe you tolerate the average hippie more than I do. In that case, feel free to raise my episode rating up a point or two. Personally, these hippies nearly ruin an otherwise good episode.

On the way to Omashu to learn Earthbending from King Bumi, the three kids meet the hippie nomads. They tell the kids of the Cave of Two Lovers that can take them to Omashu while avoiding the Fire Nation. That is, if they can navigate the cursed labyrinth within and not be trapped forever.

It doesn’t help at all that the Fire Nation destroys the cave entrance, trapping them inside anyway.

Once again, Sokka gains my total sympathy in the company of more despicable folks. His slowburning frustration is a joy to behold. While still in the cave, the group gets separated by a fallen wall of rumble, and Sokka finds himself alone with the hippies. The agonized scream he unleashes upon realizing this fact is probably the funniest thing that ever came of Jack De Sena’s mouth. That said (and I still stand by this), if this is what it takes to make Sokka sympathetic and/or funny, then count me out.

Aang and Katara (along with Appa) make their way through the cave and discover the tomb of the two lovers, as well as a wall that contains their legend. The following sequence presents that legend to us in a nicely done flow of images that mimic the ancient Chinese art style. (I have no idea why it’s in widescreen, though.) The legend explains why the lovers had to build the cave, how war killed one of them, and the other ended that war by creating what would became the great city of Omashu. (Her name was “Oma” and his was “Shu.” Isn’t that lovely?)

The secret of the cave is apparently found in this oft-mentioned line: “Love is brightest in the dark.” This, of course, plays on Aang’s crush on Katara, especially when Katara suggests that that maybe to find the way out, they should actually kiss.

Bashful Aang, of course, says all the wrong things and winds up making Katara angry. But here’s the thing: I could never understand actual Katara’s stance on the issue. The lines as written suggest one thing, but the manner in which Mae Whitman read her lines suggests something else entirely. I can’t tell if Katara’s being sincere, sarcastic, flirtatious, manipulative, offended, teasing, or whatever. Unless the writers were going for the old “I’ll never understand girls at all” approach, but I doubt it. (Then again, what do I know? I’m a guy.)

“Hee, hee. He’s so cute when he’s pathetic.”

Later on, in a well-conceived and well-timed moment, they actually do attempt to kiss as the torch goes out.

But the extinguished torch reveals the stones that glow in the dark and lead the way out. Very clever.

Notice, too, that Aang, while disappointed that the kiss never happened—or did it?—he’s just happy that Katara’s happy. That’s kind of touching.

They make it out of the cave, and, soon, so do Sokka and the hippies. Turns out they were attacked by giant badger-moles (the original Earthbenders, we’re told), but thanks to the hippies’ musical instruments, were somehow able to tame the beasts and ride them to the outside. Huh?

…sure. Why not?

The point is the kids can finally complete their journey to Omashu. Only to find it under new management.

Now, there was something I forgot to mention in all this.

Those songs that the hippies play suck.

Delaney and Bonnie and Friends this ain’t.

No, that wasn’t it.

Oh, yeah! Zuko and Iroh are in this episode!

Surely you can forgive my forgetfulness. Zuko and Iroh’s story feels like it’s from another episode entirely (which is a step up from Book One, in which a Zuko story might as well have been from another series). They’re busy trying to figure out how to survive as fugitives, which is extremely difficult considering that the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation wants them dead. (Hilariously, both agree that being killed by the Earth Kingdom is more pleasant than facing Azula’s wrath.)

Uncle Iroh winds up making tea out a poisonous plant, and they go into town to get him better before he dies. They meet a very friendly girl named Song, who attends to Iroh’s rash, and also invites them to dinner.

To say this dinner sequence is uncomfortable is saying nothing at all. There’s almost too much irony here, as Song and her mother describe how they were once refugees, and how Song lost her father in a Fire Nation raid. Song tries to cheer Zuko up by telling him that the Avatar has returned. She even shows Zuko the scar she received from the Fire Nation. It’s hard to tell what’s more painful. The fact that Zuko is realizing just how brutal the Fire Nation can be, or the fact that those are the people he was trying to get back in favor with all these years.

For all the hospitality they receive, though, Zuko insists on stealing Song’s dodo(?) for easier and faster transportation. It’s a dick move, for sure, but even Iroh begrudgingly accepts that this is for their own survival. It really breaks my heart to know that Song witnessed this hijacking of her dodo(?). The fact that this is the last time we see her in the series makes it even sadder. This is the only really emotional moment in the episode.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I honestly believe that Zuko is the main character of Avatar. While Aang and the gang are off goofing around with musically deficient potheads, Zuko is experiencing the true ups and downs of what life dishes out and working through them as best he can. When Aang runs away from something, it’s because he’s afraid of it. When Zuko runs away from something, it’s because he has to. Therein lies the difference.

Post-script: The lead hippie named Chong (get it?) is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker. Normally, Baker provides the sounds of animals such as Appa and Momo. He should really stick to that.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Twenty-One: “The Avatar State”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

Now this is how you start a new season! “The Avatar State” is as ideal a seasonal opener as one could hope for, and after the disappointment of Book One’s season finale, it’s exactly what Avatar: the Last Airbender needed at this point.

Much like the first two episodes of the series, “The Avatar State” performs flawlessly on a purely functional level. The stakes are higher than ever. Aang has a greater understanding of why he needs to master the elements to end the war. Zuko and Iroh have a much more menacing opponent in the form of Zuko’s little sister Azula. We learn more about the Avatar’s powers, and how, if used unwisely, they can destroy him.

We grasp all this and more, but “The Avatar State” exceeds its predecessors by fully complementing its functionality with brilliant storytelling. There’s hardly a dull moment in this episode, and for a script credited to four people–including our good pal John O’Bryan–it’s extremely coherent. Every theme and idea is developed in a meaningful and memorable manner. While there’s definitely still humor to be found here, there’s none of the distracting silliness of most Book One episodes. The last-act action sequences are some of the most suspenseful in the show. Finally, and most importantly, Aang is once again treated as a vulnerable, emotional human being, and as such receives our total sympathy.

He’s got a lot to deal with. He’s completely baffled by the few times he’s gone into the Avatar State. He’s never been able to control it, and he’s frightened by what it turns him into. But according to General Fong, his escort to Ba Sing Se, it may just be the key to defeating the Firelord this instance. Having heard of how Aang scared away the Fire Nation fleet in “The Siege of the North,” he realizes that if Aang learns how to control it, it would assure them a swift and easy victory that could potentially end the war.

In the Avatar State, the Firelord is as intimidating as this cancerous sticker.

While General Fong wants to help Aang manipulate the Avatar State, Katara is strongly opposed to this idea. She scolds Aang for wanting to throw away everything they’d worked for and believed in for an easy answer. What is Aang to do?

The greatest thing about this dilemma is that the writers don’t actually take a stance on it. Both Fong and Katara have their points. If Katara is right and mastering the elements is a necessity, then that means the war will just have to go on that much longer. By the same token, if Aang unleashes the Avatar State as Fong would want, without having learned to control it, there’s no guarantee that Aang’s actions wouldn’t do damage to both sides.

That is, of course, if they can figure out how to even activate it. We’re treated to a hilarious montage of many, many failed attempts to jolt Aang into the Avatar State. A highly caffeinated tea doesn’t work. Neither does a clever head trick Sokka does with Momo. An over-the-top ritual involving mud over succeeds in getting everyone dirty.

But Fong continues to press on for a solution to this problem. It helps immensely that Fong remains a credible character throughout. He genuinely wants to end all the suffering and believes that Aang’s powers can accomplish that. But alas, his greatest flaws are his ignorance of how the Avatar actually works and his extreme methods. He may be on the side for good, but by the time he resorts to harming Aang and his friends to get what he wants, his actions are pretty unforgivable, even if we do know where he’s coming from.

On the other side of the episode, Zuko and Iroh are paid a visit by Azula, Zuko’s little sister. She comes with great news: apparently, the Firelord realizes just how important family is, and lift Zuko’s banishment so that he may come back home. Zuko is unquestionably thrilled, but Iroh remains skeptical. The Firelord is Iroh’s brother, and he knows very damn well that he never regrets any of his decisions, even if one of those decisions was disowning his first-born son.

On top of that, we already know Azula is bad news. At the tail end of the Book One finale, she was privately commissioned by the Firelord himself to perform an unspecified task that involved Zuko and Iroh. (And really devoted fans remember her brief appearance in “The Storm,” as she enjoyed her brother’s defeat at his father’s hand a little too much.) So instead of keeping her intentions a secret until the end—which would have been incredibly lame: remember “The King of Omashu?”—the writers have fun introducing her and examining the methods of manipulation.

As played by Grey DeLisle, Azula has one of those personalities that walks the line between mischievously charming and venomously cunning. You never know which one you’re dealing with until it’s too late. Recall her first scene where she deals with the captain who won’t dock the ship because of unfavorable tides. She gradually twists his own language and logic against him, and when her threat is made clear, she gets her way. It’s a pretty tense moment. Maybe it’s not quite up to the level of Goodfellas‘s “What do you mean I’m funny?” scene, but for a kids’ show, it’s still effective. (Besides, any comparison to Scorsese is a good comparison.)

Of course, if you want to know once and for all that Azula is pure evil, look no further than the moment she, in her own Azula way, commands Uncle Iroh to shut the fuck up. If there’s one person in this series who deserves our utmost respect, it’s Iroh, and the fact that this little girl has the gull to be so rude is infuriating.

It’s interesting to note just how precisely DiMartino and Konietzko and company set up Azula’s downfall this early. Her obsessive with perfection in his Bending abilities—not only is her fire blue instead of red, she can also produce lightning—is demonstrated in a brief scene where a single hair out of place on her head appears to drive her insane. We don’t see the expression of this insanity, but we’re made aware of how it boils just below the surface of her deceivingly cool temperament. (Also, if you notice, the hair falls back out of place immediately after she fixes it. Symbolism?)

Her hair will pay the price for its insubordination in Book Three.

Both stories lead to—as they must in Avatar—their own respective last-act action sequences.

Zuko and Iroh are set to board the ship to “home,” but all of Azula’s careful planning is ruined when one of the guards refers to the two as “prisoners.” I’ll bet you anything that if Zuko hadn’t knocked that guard into the water, Azula would have incinerated his ass in a heartbeat.

“Oh, no, I fucked up! She’s pissed!”
“What do I do? What do I do?”
“Thank you!”

Zuko’s brief fight with Azula perfectly presents just how outmatched Zuko is against this little demon from Hell. She very well would have killed him with a single lightning strike if Iroh wasn’t there to redirect the lightning away.

Meanwhile, Aang is forced to fight Fong and his guards as a last resort to activating Aang’s Avatar State. This involves hurling giant wheels of stone at him, which Aang barely manages to dodge thanks to his Airbending evasiveness. This sequence contains the best use of spatial dynamics* I’ve seen in any episode of Avatar. The action seems to take place in three-dimensional space and time, making for a more visceral experience than previous sequences could provide. We can almost feel it as Aang dips, dives, ducks, and dodges his way out of danger.

Katara and Sokka make the tactical error of joining the action, which leaves Katara especially vulnerable to Fong’s methods. It’s rather gutwrenching to watch Aang literally drop to his knees and beg Fong not to hurt Katara, just as he proceeds to sink her further and further into the ground.

It’s, of course, only when she’s completely underground that the Avatar State is unleashed. It spares no one and nothing. Even the infirmary—which earlier, Fong explains held the “lucky” soldiers who were only injured in battle—gets totally demolished. This fantastic bit of destruction says more than any tacked on moral could say about the danger of trying to take the easy route when the results could wind up killing everyone.

This scene is followed by Avatar Roku coming along and explaining the Avatar State to Aang (whose spirit is now outside his body). I’ve always found this large chunk of exposition a little jarring within the context of the current situation—which, for all I know, may be the point. His exposition is crucial, though: even though the Avatar is at his most powerful in the State, if he is killed while in it, the Avatar, along with all his past lives, will cease to exist.

This is hollowing news, and it makes me wonder if the Avatar cycle has been broken before. If so, does that mean the cycle would have to start over from scratch, so the new Avatar has no past lives to rely on for important information like this? It’s a proposition best not thought about: the show doesn’t really delve into the subject any further than what Roku tells us in this episode, and why should it?

After Aang calms down again, he vows never to go into the Avatar State, particularly for Katara’s sake. Aang really believes that running away from the problem is really the way to fix it, doesn’t he? He ran away from the Monks when they told him he was the Avatar; he vowed never to Firebend again because he didn’t want to hurt anyone he loved; and now he’s ruling out the Avatar State as a legitimate last resort. (Note: this is not a criticism, but merely an observation, and one that is brought up later in Book Two for that matter.)

So it’s the long, but honorable route for Aang and friends: at the end of the episode, they’re on their way to Omashu so he can learn Earthbending from King Bumi.

As for Zuko and Iroh, they’re officially wanted fugitives.

The last scene in the episode is also the most intriguing. After making enough distance between them and Azula, Zuko and Iroh cut their honoric ponytails off with a small blade, and then drop them in the river to float away. Certainly those knowledgeable of Asian culture will know what’s happening, but about the vast majority, particularly the kids, who aren’t? This scene proceeds quietly, and neither Zuko nor Iroh even stops to explain what they’re doing and why.

And yet, somehow, they don’t have to. The solemnity of the moment says everything we need to know, especially after what just came before.  These two are no longer welcome citizens of their own homeland, and considering their homeland is the Fire Nation, they were never welcome anywhere else in the first place. They are wanderers, searchers, forever doomed to make their way through a hostile, unforgiving world.

It was a real testament of faith that DiMartino and Konietzko let that scene to play out as it did, and it pays off tremendously. “The Avatar State” is a great opener and a great episode largely because of the confidence it has in the audience to take in what’s happening and make up their own minds about it. The black-and-white days of Book One are over. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Announcements: Updates Made and Moving onto Book Two

All changes and updates spoken in the last announcement have been made:

  • The revised review of the first two episodes
  • The two pages made for finding specific episodes

Now I can finally get started on Book Two. Expect the first review to be published on January 17th.


Announcement: Re-Evaluating First Two Episodes and Creating New Pages

As eager as I am to start rewatching and reviewing Book Two, some important business must be taken care of:

  • The review for “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” will be revised. It was written long before this site was put up, and as such, represents outdated critical standards and, more importantly, less focused writing. I’ll correct this with another viewing of the two episodes and a new review.
  • Two new pages will be created for the sake of better organization. One page will link up to every episode by season. The other will link up to every episode by the rating they’ve received in my reviews.

All of this will be completed and uploaded by Saturday, January 14th.