Chapter Twenty-Five: “Avatar Day”
(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.
“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.
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.
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!
But that’s just me and my silly imagination. Bottom line: “Avatar Day” works.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.