Chapter Twenty-One: “The Avatar State”
(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.
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?)
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.
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.