Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Nineteen and Twenty: “The Siege of the North”

9

(Rating Out of 15)

11

(Rating Out of 15)

I sincerely hope that I’m just missing something, and that my two viewings of “The Siege of the North” were just in a bad state of mind. It’s been over a year since I’ve seen it, along with the rest of Avatar: the Last Airbender, but I particularly don’t recall this one being as lackluster as it is now. Have my tastes and my critical standards have just changed over that time? It’s hard to say, and just as irrelevant. What matters is how I feel about “The Siege of the North” now, and what I’m feeling now is extreme disappointment.

Maybe if it were a normal episode, I’d be slightly more forgiving towards it, but no: “The Siege of the North” is the finale of Book One, an epic two-parter that should be the culmination of all that came before, as our heroes face off with the villains in a fantastic, cathartic battle. DiMartino and Konietzko and company attempt to delivery all of this, but significantly come up short.

“The Siege of the North” takes place a few months(?) after “The Waterbending Master.” Zhao’s fleet has finally reached the Northern Water Tribe and unleashes its attack. Impossibly outmatched, Aang decides to call on the spirits of the Moon and the Ocean for help. That is, before Zuko has the chance to finally capture him, and Zhao achieves his master plan of destroying said spirits. Because if that happens, what will our heroes do?

There are a lot of action sequences, but almost all of them lack actual epicness and tension (at least until the second half of part two). Consider the scene where Aang takes down one of the Fire Nation ships. There’s a lot of activity and noise, and plenty obstacles for Aang. Yet there’s no suspense. There’s no sense that Aang is ever actually in danger. He just takes down the ship, no problem. The only moment he’s actually in trouble, he’s saved by Appa in an instance that should have very well killed him. Aang is tied by a chain by a big scary guy, but Appa pulls the guy away, also pulling the chain until it snaps apart. How did Aang not get squeezed to death?

You tell me.

If the action with Aang doesn’t work, then the large-scale action with anonymous Waterbenders and Firebenders definitely doesn’t work. Besides there not be any emotional attachment to these people, the action is just uninteresting. The only highlight of these battles is the Waterbending move Pakku does in the midst of a dozen Firebenders.

Other than that, there’s no excitement at all. And again, there’s never the sense that lives are actually at stake in these battles. I’m not asking for mass murder here, but a notable death or two might have given these scenes at least some gravity. As animation historian Michael Barrier put it, “Given the scale of the violence, this seems less like the exercise of good taste than an annoying cheat.”

This is made even annoying because earlier in Part One, as volunteers are being recruited to fight off the invasion. Princess Yue’s father gives a speech about how “some of these faces are about to vanish from our tribe. But they will never vanish from our hearts.” Only two people that I’m aware of noticeably die in these events, and not because they were fighting in battle. And they were both key characters, too. I guess in the Avatar universe, if you’re a nameless grunt, you’re at least guaranteed a better chance of survival than many of the established characters (the Airbenders notwithstanding).

OK, so most of the action isn’t any fun. What about everything else?

Well the good news is that Sokka is finally starting to grow on me. Not as the comic relief, but as a character in general. If you ask me, Jack De Sena is a much better dramatic voice actor than a comedic one. Sokka’s brief scene with Princess Yue as they fly on Appa is actually very sweet.

You can really feel his heartbreak when Yue demands they never see each other again. She feels her duty to her people is much more important than her romance with him, and that being around him only makes that duty harder to focus on. So when Sokka immediately volunteers to join the fight against the Fire Nation, it’s pretty intense for the both of them.

There is a problem, though, and it’s in the form of Yue’s fiance Hahn. To say this guy is a shallow character is saying nothing. He’s hardly a character at all. He’s nothing more than a plot device put there to piss Sokka and the audience off, and the episode’s writer Aaron Ehasz (whose episode are usually way better than this) accomplishes this by giving him the personality of a mindless, self-absorbed frat boy. Hell, he even looks like and is voiced-acted as such. This is wrong, lazy, and way too convenient, especially for Avatar.

I’ll admit it, though, it’s pretty hilarious to see Hahn’s demise as he fruitlessly attacks Zhao on his ship. It’s probably even more hilarious because of how lame his character is. Hmm…perhaps making Hahn so shallow was cleverer than I thought?

Aang doesn’t fare as well as Sokka, but at least (for the most part) it was intentional. In the opening of Part One, we see that Katara has exceeded everyone in her Waterbending training, and is practically a master herself. Aang, on the other hand, has been goofing off all these months, his immense talent only matched by his supreme lack of self-discipline. And this guy is supposed to be our hero. Maybe if Katara was the Avatar, she would have mastered all the elements by now. (Maybe that was DiMartino and Konietzko’s thinking when they developed The Legend of Korra.)

Goofing around, learning nothing. All in a day’s work for the Avatar.

When Aang gets the brainstorm to go to the Spirits of the Moon and the Ocean for help, Princess Yue shows him to the most spiritual place in the Northern Water Tribe, which is like a warm, isolated sanctuary with a small island of grass to meditate and a small pond with two fish.

As Aang stares at the two fish in the pond and watches them dissolve into the Yin-Yang symbol, he goes into the Spirit World. I think it was a wise idea to introduce this strange new world in the finale. What’s going on in the material world gives what happens in the Spirit World a certain urgency, especially since we don’t know any more than Aang how to navigate in this place. As usual, less is more, and the few glimpses of the Spirit World we get are definitely memorable.

In order to find the two spirits, Aang must talk to Koh the Face Stealer, so called because you must speak to him without showing any emotion or else he will steal your face. The face off (no pun intended) between Koh and Aang is tense and effective, but it raises a few questions: had Aang lost his face in the Spirit World, would he also lose it in the material world? How would that work?

Conversely, what would happen to Aang in the Spirit World if something happened to his body in the material world? If he was injured in the material world, would he feel it in the Spirit World? Hell, if he died in the material world, would he be stuck in the Spirit World forever (presumably with his past Avatar lives such as Roku)? At one point, Zuko, who has Aang in his possession, nearly loses him when he breaks a large sheet of ice underneath him. If Aang were drowning, would he feel it in spirit?

These ideas aren’t really explored within the episode, or, as far as I remember, the rest of the series. Such possibilities could have made for a very interesting subplot, but what happens in “Siege of the North” is still interesting itself.

Eventually, Aang does find out the identity of the spirits from Koh: they are the two fish in the pond where he first entered the Spirit World. Too bad he didn’t know this ahead of time: Zhao’s plan to conquer the Northern Water Tribe and then the world is to kill the Moon Spirit. Since Waterbenders gain their abilities from the Moon, Zhao’s actions will render them powerless, allowing the Fire Nation to finally win.

Until the last half of Part Two—when Zhao’s plan is put into motion—it is, naturally, Zuko’s side of things that sustains a constant level of involvement.

Before he leaves to get the Avatar, Zuko shares an incredibly heartfelt goodbye with Iroh, who admits that, since losing his son, he has come to see Zuko as his own. It’s such an understated moment between these two, performed perfectly by voice actors Dante Basco and Mako. (Did these two ever work together before Avatar? Their chemistry is the best in the entire series.)

Zuko makes his way into the Northern Water Tribe by taking several underwater tunnels. At one point, he nearly drowns, but thanks to his Firebending—and the fact that every structure here is made entirely of ice—manages to save himself. It’s still amazing how much we care about him even as he’s on his way to stop the only person who can save the world.

It’s also problematic in an intriguing way, when Zuko finds Aang has gone to the Spirit World, and then has to duel with Katara in order to retrieve his body. Quick: who exactly do we root for here? Zuko or Katara? Let’s put it this way: I was much more interested in seeing if Zuko would win than if Katara would stop him. Yes, Katara is protecting Aang so the world can be saved, but generally speaking, moral dilemma are arbitary when it comes to storytelling. What matters most is who is the most sympathetic and/or interesting, and what they do. (Can you instantly recall another character in Richard III that is not Richard himself?)

Katara does defeat Zuko temporarily. When the sun rises, however, he immediately frees himself from her icy constrictions and takes her out with one blow. He takes Aang and escapes into the barren landscape further north than the Northern Water Tribe. Clearly, Zuko didn’t think this through far enough. How the Hell is he supposed to get Aang to the boat and to his father when he’s getting himself lost in a blizzard on most uninhabitable land? (Now I know what Iroh is talking about when he scolds Zuko late in Book Two.) That doesn’t matter right now. What matters is, for the first time in a long while, Zuko finally has Aang in his clutches. And totally vulnerable, too!

“This would be a lot easier if you walked on your… Oh, yeah.”

When they take refuge in a small cave, Zuko begins pouring his soul out to Aang’s unconscious body, giving us a little more insight into his character.

Zuko: I finally have you. But I can’t get you home because of this blizzard. There’s always something. Not that you would understand. You’re like my sister. Everything always came easy to her. She’s a firebending prodigy, and everyone adores her. My father says she was born lucky. He says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck though, I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.

Hearing this subtly powerful monologue, I not only grow more and more sympathetic toward Zuko—to the point of actually hoping he does get away with Aang—but I’m also reminded of my own problems with Aang. Compared to Zuko, Aang’s back story seems pretty abstract. He’s never had the hardships of Zuko, who was burned and banished because he genuinely wanted to do his country good. Aang ran away from his destiny, and that’s been made a good thing because he now gets a second chance to save the world after a hundred years. Yes, he lost his entire people, but at least his people loved him. Zuko’s people think he’s a traitor and a shameful human being.

These complaints may seems useless in the grand scheme of things—after all, Aang and Zuko do eventually team up and fight for good—but they really affect how I view them as the story progresses. Very rarely does Aang strike me as a real, vulnerable human being who just happened to be the savior. He lacks the dimension and the humanity that make Zuko such a noteworthy character. Aang is more of an ideal, while Zuko is a real person.

But Aang is the hero, and Zuko is the villain (for now), so when Aang returns to the material world, it’s just in time for Katara and the others to rescue him. Katara defeats Zuko once more, knocking him unconscious. Aang decides that they have to save his life because it’s the right thing to do.

Technically speaking, it’s quite a good thing Zuko removed Aang from that sanctuary. Otherwise, when Zhao got there, he would have had both the Moon Spirit and the Avatar.

And Zhao does get the Moon Spirit, placing it in a sack, and causing the sky to turn blood red and all the Waterbenders to lose their powers. The extreme change in the color scheme is very effective, and it finally brings out about that epicness that was missing before. Suddenly, the shit gets real.

The kids realizes the Moon Spirit is in danger, and then we suddenly have a huge amount of expositional back story dropped on us, courtesy of Princess Yue. She talks about how she was practically born dead, how her father prayed to the Moon Spirit to give her life, and how the Spirit did exactly that, turning Yue’s hair white in the process. This is a pretty clumsy information dump, but I’ll excuse it, for what happens in “The Siege of the North” from here on out is very engaging.

In the midst of Zhao congratulating himself on his accomplishment and how history will look on him most favorably, the kids arrive to stop him. When he threatens to kill the Moon Spirit, things get even more serious. Aang warns that this killing would destroy the balance of nature, and Iroh shows up to confirm that. When Iroh threatens Zhao (“Whatever you do to that spirit I’ll unleash on you ten-fold!”) you fucking believe him.

Please, never piss Iroh off again.

But Zhao kills the Spirit anyway. Suddenly, everything is black-and-white, except for fire and Yue’s eyes. Realizing he fucked up majorly, Zhao runs away before Iroh can get his hands on him. Everyone is convinced that it’s all over now, but then comes the moment everyone remembers from this episode: Aang, upon spontaneously entering the Avatar State, merges with the Ocean Spirit to become a giant creature made entirely of water.

This merging is truly incredible, and the huge monster’s rampage is even more so. The Waterbenders are never harmed as they kneel before this mighty beat. As for the Fire Nation, the monster splashes away soldiers, tanks, and even the ships. At one point, he even slashes the bridge of one of the ships, surely killing everyone on the levels above the cut when it falls. This scares off the Fire Nation for good.

As this goes on, Zuko (who regained conscious at some point) and Zhao get into their own fight, as Zuko knows it was him who tried to blow him up in “the Waterbending Master.” Why is the fight between two villains more interesting than the big scale battles between good and evil?

Back at the sanctuary, Yue makes a big decision: give back the life that the Moon Spirit gave her so that balance can be restored. Sokka, of course, refuses to let her to do this, but she goes ahead with it anyway. Something about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. (They don’t actually say this in the episode, but they may as well.) And then, in a truly flabbergasting moment, after Yue gives up her life and Sokka tenderly holds her body, it just vanishes! Turns out, Yue was destined to become the new Moon Spirit. We’re not told that until later, so for know, this is just bizarre as Hell.

Balance is restored, so the giant water monster deposits Aang somewhere, and then heads back to the sanctuary. On the way back, it gets a hold of Zhao to make him pay for killing the Moon Spirit. Zuko tries to save him, but Zhao being Zhao, the proud bastard refuses to accept the help, and in a truly shocking moment, he is drowned by the Ocean Spirit.

The battle is over, and all is well with the world again. The denouement properly ties up a few loose ends and sets up what to expect in Book Two.

With Pakku going down to the Southern Water Tribe to help rebuild it, Katara will be Aang’s Waterbending master from now on.

Zuko and Iroh are reunited, and while Zuko mourns over his failure yet again, Iroh suggests they take it easy for a little while, and that they’ll go after the Avatar some other time.

And then we see that the Firelord is sending a young woman on an unspecified task, but seeing that he calls Iroh a traitor and Zuko a failure, we can easily take a wild guess as to what that task is. This young woman looks like she’s going to be a pretty formidable opponent, even more so than Zhao. Uh oh!

It’s really unfortunate that the rest of “The Siege of the North” doesn’t equal the impact of these final ten or so minutes. If it had, this would have been one of the best episodes in Book One–maybe even better than “The Deserter.” But it was not to be. I remember reading an interview in which DiMartino and Konietzko promised that the Book One finale would huge in every way possible. Looking at these results, their reach certainly exceeded their grasp, but they also said this: “you know, for Mike and I, our favorite episodes are just the really simple ones. You know, that just deal with the interactions between the characters and their smaller stories.” I couldn’t agree more.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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4 responses

  1. Kyle

    To answer your question about dante basco and mako, they did play father and son in a movie once. I think it was called riot or something like that. That might explain there chemistry on this series.

    September 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm

  2. Alan

    The amazing color choice of the episode was enough to set aside those flaws you listed. I absolutely loved it, it was amazing. General Zhao’s death is awesome. I think I would have given Part One a 10, but Part 2 a 13 at least. I think you were a little harsh.

    November 5, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    • Funny thing: long ago, those were my original ratings for the episodes. I guess they just didn’t hold up as well as I would’ve hoped, even if I still like Part 2.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

  3. Alan

    Oh, and also, Kou. Nuff said.

    November 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm

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