Chapter Twenty-Four: “The Swamp”
(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?
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.
Now where had I seen this visual before?
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.