Chapter Eighteen: “The Waterbending Master”
(Rating Out of 15)
What stood out the most while watching “The Waterbending Master” was how leisurely it was. The episode unfolds slowly but surely, neither with too much plot, nor with too little. This leisure generates not boredom, but an atmosphere and mood; it allows for quiet, meditative moments and more personal interactions between characters. Yes, it leads to the required last-act action sequence, but this is one of few times such a sequence forms organically from what we saw before. This is truly a unique episode.
There’s a reason for this almost Miyazaki-esque quality. DiMartino (who actually wrote the episode) and Konietzko and company are setting up for the big events in the upcoming two-part season finale “The Siege of the North.” These last three episodes of Book One are so closely tied together that I’m a bit surprised “The Waterbending Master” wasn’t subtitled “The Siege of the North: Prologue.” They probably realized that once all the action in the two-parter got started, there would be very little time to establish who all the new characters were, why they were important, the overarching situation, etc.
Above all else, this shows that DiMartino and Konietzko and company finally figured out how to write a stand-alone episode that still contributed to the overall story of the series. They would carry this mastery over into Book Two, making the most consistent season of Avatar: the Last Airbender, before losing it at the beginning of Book Three, only to gain it again midway through, resulting in the Grand Stretch of Book Three (that will be discussed much, much later). “The Waterbending Master” marks the end of the Experimental Season, and the beginning of the real Avatar.
I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s discuss the episode.
“The Waterbending Master” officially solidifies the parallel storytelling technique between Aang’s and Zuko’s stories, and for once, Aang’s is just as compelling as Zuko’s. Of course, if I had to choose between them, I’d still say Zuko’s is better, if only because at this point, even though he’s still technically a villain, what happens to him is just as shocking and effective as if he were a hero. He and Zhao both want the Avatar, but it’s their motivations that differentiates them: Zuko needs him in order to regain his honor in the eyes of his father, while Zhao needs him to become more powerful and rule over everyone. The lesser of two evils?
Zhao has come to realize that the Avatar is heading to the Northern Water Tribe to learn Waterbending. In an effort to finally nab him and also overtake the Tribe—it’s somehow remained out of the war for all one hundred years—Zhao takes every able-bodied soldier and crew under his command for this expediton. Including Zuko’s, which does not please the banished prince at all.
I can only wonder how the crew felt about leaving. No doubt after what happened in “The Storm” things sort of regressed back to normal (that is, Zuko seeming to take them for grant). They always loved Iroh, of course. In fact, before Zhao pulls them from Zuko’s ship, we’re treated to a little sequence of Iroh, the lieutenant, and a few other crew members performing a song. Iroh sings, the others play instruments or dance. It’s a nice moment of harmony that’s torn apart when Zhao arrives.
Zhao being Zhao, he has to one-up Zuko directly to his face (knowing full well that Zuko is no longer on equal footing, that is). Upon going to his room, Zhao does what he came to do, but also notices something: the swords displayed on Zuko’s wall. Zhao immediately recognizes them as belonging to the Blue Spirit, and realizes that was Zuko. Neither Zhao nor Zuko let up that they know about each other, but the horrified look in both of their eyes communicates everything we need to know. We know it’s only a matter of time before Zhao uses this discovery to his advantage.
And that he does in a clever callback to “The Waterbending Scroll,” in which Zhao gets in contact with the infamous pirates, knowing they’ve had their own trouble with Zuko in the past. After receiving a generous payment, the pirates rig Zuko’s ship with explosions.
The events leading up to the explosion are dreadfully suspenseful, and my heart sank when Zuko realized, too late, what was going on.
Even worse, after the ship explodes with Zuko still in the ship, Uncle Iroh looks on, saddened that he’s probably lost his nephew. This was a smart move on DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s part. Even if we didn’t really like or care about Zuko by this time (which I did, but I digress), we do love Iroh, and his heartbreak is ours.
This side of the story ends in two ways: 1) Iroh accompanies Zhao on the expedition to the Northern Water Tribe; and 2) we learn that Zuko survived after all, and he and Iroh have him disguised as just another Fire Nation soldier. I, one for, was relieved to know that Zuko would live another day to stop Aang from saving humanity.
Speaking of which, what have Aang and the others been up to while all this was going on? After flying for about two days, they finally find the Northern Water Tribe.
We’re treated to a well-done sequence of the kids first arriving in the Tribe. The background art and the music is beautiful, and it really creates an intriguing atmosphere for this brand new location.
If that weren’t enough, the kids even get a welcoming ceremony, complete with a Waterbending performance and a formal introduction to Princess Yue, who, much to Sokka’s excitement, is officially of marrying age.
Sokka’s growing crush on Yue provides the episode with another subplot, and I can only thank the unseen makers of the universe that he’s actually funny in this one. (Sokka is usually funniest when the joke is on him.) His first attempt at trying to woo results in him clumsily requesting that they get together soon to “do an activity together.” That’s priceless.
We’re also introduced to Master Pakku, the man who will be teaching Aang how to master Waterbending during his stay there. Pakku informs Aang right away that he won’t be getting any “special treatment” simply because the world depends on him. Pakku is a fun character. His sarcasm is constant, but never tiresome (unlike that other sarcastic guy everyone but I seems to love), partially because he’s played very well by his voice actor Victor Brandt (again, unlike that other sarcastic guy everyone but I seems to love).
There is, however, one problem: Katara can’t learn Waterbending. Or, more specifically, Pakku won’t teach her, as it is customary to never teach women Waterbending for fighting. They can learn healing from a woman named Yugoda, but Katara wants to learn the real, hardcore Waterbending.
Aang’s attempt to persuade Pakku doesn’t work so well in his favor (“If you won’t teach Katara, then…I won’t learn from you!”), so Katara just gives it a rest and goes to learn healing with the other girls. All of them are much younger then she is, though I’m not sure why, but none of them seem as disturbed by the customs in this Tribe as Katara is, and that’s disturbing enough.
While there, she does learn new things from Yugoda beyond the Waterbending lesson (which comes in handy later; clever, guys!). Namely, that Katara’s necklace belongs to her gran-gran, whose real name is Kana, who used to live in the Northern Water Tribe, but left before she was arranged to get married. Why? No clue.
Nothing seems to be going well for any of the kids. Aang is straining under the harsh teachings of Pakku. Sokka is essentially dumped by Princess Yue, who regretted even arranging for them to get together for their “activity” and then runs away.
As they all complain about their problems, Sokka potentially comes up with a solution for Katara’s: Aang should teach Katara the lessons he learns from Pakku. He wouldn’t even have to know. That plan is—quite suprisingly—shafted immediately when Pakku does find out that very night. To punish them, he refuses to teach Aang Waterbending anymore.
In order to get him back, Katara has to apologize to Pakku for disrespecting him(?). But Katara refuses, and what’s more, she challenges him to a fight and insults his manhood at the same time!
DiMartino and Konietzko and company manage to tight rope this scene and the subsequent fight sequence without it collapsing into an idealogical PSA. Yes, there’s an obvious message here about equality and women’s rights, but they choose wisely not to emphasize it. Instead, they focus exclusively on Katara, and these scenes work for the same reasons I proposed back in “The Waterbending Scroll”: Katara is at her most endearing when she’s doing something strictly for herself, and not for others. She’s not challenging Pakku for the greater glory of women everywhere, but because she’s sick of this fucking asshole. She wants to master Waterbending, too, dammit!
Only one line comes dangerously close to an outright message, and that’s this one from Katara:
Katara: You can’t knock me down!
This is easily the worst and most cringe-inducing line in the entire episode. The line, the delivery, and the way people cheer Katara on after it nearly destroys the scene’s intriguing.
Thank the unseen makers of the universe it doesn’t, for this is a brilliant fight sequence! Pakku and Katara exchange some of the most intense Waterbending moves we’ve seen at this point. I don’t recall Katara ever actually hitting Pakku with one of her moves, but her determination to beat this guy—even after he wipes the floor with her several times—makes it all the more exciting.
After the fight’s over and Katara has lost her necklace for the second time, Pakku finds it on the ground. As it turns out, he made this necklace for Kana all those years ago when he wanted to marry her. No wonder she left the Northern Water Tribe, and no wonder Pakku is such a grump. It was an arranged marriage, and she wasn’t going to let her life be controlled by anyone or anything other than herself. “It must have taken a lot of courage,” Katara says, causing Princess Yue to run away (?), and Sokka goes after her to make things right.
Apparently, Sokka didn’t really pay attention to Pakku’s story, because he thinks he and Yue can’t be together because he’s a commoner and she’s a princess. She embraces him in a kiss–confusing him even more–but then she reveals the truth: she is engaged, and is already in an arranged marriage. Hmm…apparently Princess Yue didn’t pay attention to the story either, because the point was that Kana refused to submit to the Tribe’s customs. That was her cue to go, “To Hell with customs; this is the guy I really want to ‘arrange’ with!” Maybe she lacks the courage that Katara said Kana had. I don’t know. I don’t understand.
Just so things don’t end on too much of a downer, we get a double cliffhanger. Turns out, Pakku is going to teach Katara after all. Groovy! Off in the vast distance, though, hundreds of Fire Nation ships are making their way to the Northern Water Tribe for a full-scale attack. Oh snap!
“The Waterbending Master” is probably the one episode in Book One that comes the closes to being as good as “The Deserter.” It may lack that episode’s singular emotionality, but otherwise, it’s an excellent chapter, and one that makes me excited to see what happens next, a very rare trait for a Book One episode.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.