Because fans should be critical, too

Archive for February, 2012

Announcement: No New Reviews Until Next Week

Due to my hectic school schedule–it’s midterms week–I will not have time to post any new reviews of episodes all this week. The review of “City of Walls and Secrets” won’t be up until Sunday March 4th, at which point reviews will resume on their normal once-every-three-days basis.

– Marshall Turner

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Chapter Thirty-Two and Thirty-Three: “The Serpent’s Pass” and “The Drill”

12

(Rating Out of 15)

12

(Rating Out of 15)

(These episodes were first aired as a two-parter, so they will be reviewed as such.)

“The Serpent’s Pass” and “The Drill” are entertaining and sometimes insightful episodes that nonetheless leave me pretty disappointed. They’re hardly bad episodes, and technically their flaws combined aren’t equal to those of “The Desert,” an episode that continues to linger in my mind.

Maybe that’s the problem. “The Serpent’s Pass” and “The Drill” simply lack the emotional punch of the previous five episodes (yes, even “The Chase”) and subsequently feel rather empty. In fact, in terms of tone and execution, these episodes feel precisely like Book One episodes, and that is definitely not a compliment.

The episodes have their own individual failings: “The Serpent’s Pass,” which actually aims to be emotional, isn’t as moving as it should be, nor is “The Drill,” which shoots to thrill, as exciting as it could be. On the whole, they simply don’t work, despite how well done they are.

“The Serpent’s Pass” follows the kids as they journey to Ba Sing Se by traveling on the titular pass. Along the way, Aang learns to feel again instead of being an emotionless dick, Katara delivers a baby, Sokka and Suki—whom the kids happen to run into—officially consolidate first base, and Toph kisses a girl. (Not on purpose, of course; maybe Korra will break those barriers.)

Yeah, right…

Why do the kids take this dangerous route instead of, say, taking a ferry like the other hundreds of refugees? It’s pretty much because of this couple.

I don’t remember that girl on the right at all.

These two are part of the reason this episode isn’t as good as it could have been. They are melodrama personified, especially the woman. There’s no real attempt to make these people into human beings rather than the plot devices they so obviously are. Besides, the moment you saw that the woman was pregnant, you just knew she’d be delivering that baby before the episode was over.

As far as I can tell, these two are only in this episode to slow the protagonists down. When they go to the refugee port to get tickets for the ferry to Ba Sing Se—which, thanks to Toph’s royal status, is surprisingly easy for the kids—the couple somehow gets all of their things stolen, including their passports. Now they have to take the Serpent’s Pass. How convenient.

On the plus side, they’ll be accompanied by Suki, who just happens to be working in this port. How convenient.

This gives her and Sokka enough time to catch up and possibly begin an actual relationship—in spite of knowing each other for what must be an accumulative seven to eight days. Sokka is reluctant, though, because he’s afraid to lose a loved one again due to his own incompetence.

This is genuinely touching, but it’s misguided for two reasons: 1) it wasn’t his fault that Yue ended up dying, unless failing to protect the coy fish counts as that; and 2) as always with Sokka, this is really just an elaborate setup for another joke. But thankfully it’s a very funny joke, and it’s this: Suki is probably the most competent and independent person in the Avatar universe, rendering Sokka’s concern extremely limp and toothless. (Speaking of which, we can consider this yet another sign of the emasculation of Sokka; he’s pretty much the “girlfriend” in this relationship.)

This is most apparent in the scene where Toph is drowning in the water. Sokka says he’ll save her, but while he’s trying to take off his boots, Suki just jumps in after Toph, Kyoshi Warrior outfit and make-up still on. And she saves her, too! What a trooper!

And, of course, Toph thinks it’s Sokka—they really don’t waste any opportunity to poke fun at Toph’s blindness, do you?—and gives Suki a kiss on the cheek. How embarrassing.

Meanwhile, Aang is being intolerable again, but in a much different way than in “The Desert.” Instead of expressing his pain through fury, he suppresses his anger. Not only that, but he attempts to be “realistic” about the situation, concluding that getting Appa isn’t as important as getting the information about the solar eclipse to Ba Sing Se.

We know as well as he does that he’s lying his Airbending ass off about his emotions. Later on, when they finally get to the Serpent’s Pass, they see a sign that says “abandon hope.” Aang interprets it this way:

Aang: I don’t know. The monks used to say that hope is just a distraction. So maybe we do need to abandon it… Hope isn’t going to get us into Ba Sing Se, and it’s not gonna find Appa. We need to focus on what we’re doing right now, and that’s getting across this pass.

This would be neat wisdom if it wasn’t coming from an quasi-emo crybaby. Thankfully, Katara does counter it by admitting that something it’s hard to care because of the pain it can cause us, but that we should never stop caring. This is true, but the only thing she doesn’t do is give a good reason why. Why is caring better than not caring? I guess that’s for the viewer to decide, huh?

I know there was a long period in my life where I tried to stop caring, and it didn’t really get me anywhere. Sure, I was safe from the pain of truly living, but I wasn’t experiencing the joy and happiness and sense of accomplish (among other things) that comes with it. Life is hard—manic depression doesn’t help, but I digress—and it can get you down if you let it. It’s important to realize that some things are beyond your control, and the things you can control should be handled with care. Life has highs and lows, and, generally, the higher the highs, the lower the lows. If you can survive the lows, then the highs will be wonderful…

Anyway, there is a last-act action sequence involving a giant sea serpent after whom the Pass is named. I don’t remember much of it, though. I guess it was cool. Katara’s Waterbending moves were cool. Pretty lackluster overall, I’d say, except for Suki rescuing Toph.

Once they all make it across the Pass, the unthinkable happens: the woman’s water breaks and she has to deliver the baby now. How convenient.

You know, the process of pregnancy and birth truly is a freakish miracle of biology, and I will forever be grateful to all women who endure the pain of said process so that new life can be put on this earth. That’s why I wish writers would stop treating it as mostly a plot device, or as another obstacle preventing the protagonists from getting to the “real” objective of the story.

I will admit, though, that DiMartino (wo co-wrote this episode) and Konietzko and company handle the actual deliver scene amazingly well. Katara takes charge, of course—realistically speaking, who else would you think had experience with delivering babies? Toph? (She’d probably make a passable ultrasound technician.)

They deliver the baby, Aang catches a glimpse of the baby, and what do you know? It gives him hope again. Unfortunately, this scene doesn’t really give me too strong of a emotional response. I understand what I’m supposed to feel along with Aang—new life provides hope but the scene doesn’t provide enough of a visceral impact to actually make me feel it. I’m not sure why. I can recall a much better and similar scene in the film Children of Men, where the birth of a child literally was the last hope for a world where sterility prevented birth for decades. Is that where the difference lies?

Besides the fact that Children of Men is a consistently great film.

In any case, this event snaps Aang out of his emotionless stupor. Now he’ll go back to the relatively happy-go-lucky persona that typically leaves no emotional impact on me whatsoever. Oh goodie?

Aang goes ahead to Ba Sing Se to find Appa on his own, but something stops him: he sees that a giant drill is heading straight for the Great Wall. That leads us straight into part two of this journey, “The Drill.”

If I had trouble remember the last-act action sequence in “The Serpent’s Pass,” then I definitely don’t remember much of “The Drill,” which for all intents and purposes is just one giant action sequence, much like “Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice, Part Two” was. But whereas that episode was thrilling from beginning to end, “The Drill” is, more often than not, boring.

I’ve never had much to say about “The Drill” in the past, and that hasn’t changed. Half the things I can talk about would just be repeats of complaints and observations I’ve made in other reviews. So instead of bitching about the stuff I don’t like, why not just discuss the few things that work very well?

The drill itself is a pretty neat creation. It’s part CGI and part traditional animation, moves like a mechanical caterpillar, and you can really feel the weight and scale of it as it rolls over the landscape.

Speaking of scale, DiMartino and Konietzko and company do a brilliant job of making the Wall of Ba Sing Se feel huge.

The way Sokka and the others figure out how to take the drill down is pretty ingenious as well, displaying more practical wisdom than you’ll find in any other kids’ show.

We even get a brief moment of character development for Mai and Ty Lee (even though they remain rather shallow in my eyes). The two are chasing Katara and Sokka in the drill when the Water Tribe siblings drop into the slurry pipeline—which deposits rock and water out of the back of the drill. Ty Lee insists they go in after them because Azula said to, but Mai doesn’t care: “She can shoot all the lightning she wants at me, I am not getting in that wall sludge juice.”

This lets us in on a few very important things: 1) Mai does have a mind of her own—even if she hides it under a nonchalant facade—and will not mindless follow Azula’s orders if she doesn’t want to; this trait will definitely resurface later in the series; and 2) Ty Lee is a moron.

But we already knew that.

The final fight between Aang and Azula as he tries to setup the last blow to the drill is probably the best scene in the episode.

Of course, throughout both episodes, Zuko and Iroh are making their way to Ba Sing Se as well. Naturally, there’s not a dull moment in their story, aiding in making these two episodes pretty damn good rather than just acceptable.

While on the ferry, they meet Jet and his remaining two Freedom Fighters, Bumblebee and Longshot. Zuko and Jet immediately “get along,” and raid the captain’s kitchen for the wonderful foods that aren’t being shared with the refugees.

Jet believes that he and Zuko aren’t so different, and tries to recruit him into the Freedom Fighters. Zuko, humble kid that he is, refuses the offer, knowing Jet’s hatred of the Fire Nation would become a problem if he found out who Zuko really was. Which he does anyway, thanks to a silly mistake of Iroh’s.

He heats the cold tea he was given. Wow. I’ll have to agree with Zuko on this one: “For a wise old man, that was a pretty stupid move.” Now Jet knows that they’re Firebenders. What’s going to happen now?

Well, boys and girls, that’s pretty much it for “The Serpent’s Pass” and “The Drill,” two episodes that never fail to leave me cold each time I watch them. Again, there’s nothing necessary bad about them other than the fact that they’re boring. Maybe you don’t think so. More power to you.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Thirty-One: “The Desert”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

Once again, I must first get all of my complaints out of the way to explain why “The Desert” is, nonetheless, yet another great episode in a stream of consistently great episodes.

I forgot to mention earlier that, starting with “The Blind Bandit,” every episode begins with a brief prologue entitled “Previously on Avatar…” I do not like these prologues. I really don’t. I understand their purpose: this is Book Two, and the stories are getting more and more complicated, so DiMartino and Konietzko and company—or maybe it was the Nickelodeon executives—decided that these segments would help the audience understand what’s going on now. In theory, this is fine. However, I find them more distracting than anything else. They show certain snippets of previous episodes in such a way that tells you what to expect in the episode you’re about to watch. This approach sets up expectations that often ruin the enjoyment of watching an episode unfold in surprising ways.

Now let’s get back  to my favorite critical punching bag, Sokka/Jack De Sena, and one sequence in particular: the infamous cactus juice incident. This will forever remain one of those moments in Avatar: the Last Airbender I’ll just never get, and it gets stranger every time I watch it. It’s supposed to be funny—and sometimes it is—but I think I finally understand why it ultimately doesn’t work: it feels like it was written and performed by someone who has never been under the influence once in their life.

I’m not going to pick on DiMartino and Konietzko and company for living a lifestyle that most likely excludes substance abuse of any kind, but if they’re going to write a sequence involving an hallucinating character, they should have had at least some experience with it. Having been around inebriated folks—and having been inebriated myself on occasions—I feel like they got it totally wrong. Drunk people may be funny, scary, goofy, bizarre, extremely extroverted or intensely introverted, etc., but they certainly don’t behave like this.

But maybe I’m blaming the wrong people, and once again, I have to bitch about Jack De Sena and his “comedic” improvisations. Either this kid never truly utilized his college education to get wasted once in a while, or he’s much worse than even I give him credit for. His lines seem to come from third-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be under the influence. There’s nothing worse than a bad comedian whose probably never been stoned in his life pretending to be stoned.

Now there is a very real possibility that these scenes are so weird because of interference from the Nickelodeon executives. This is a kids’ show after all, and making any sort of reference to hallucinogens (even fictional ones) was going to be risky. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the memos DiMartino and Konietzko and company received read: “Make Sokka’s high on cactus juice as disturbingly unfunny as possible to discourage kids from ever wanting to do drugs.”

What disappoints most about the cactus juice passage is how thoroughly they waste a great opportunity for surreal visual humor. I know as a reviewer I’m not supposed to make suggestions on how a work can be improved, but come on: you don’t have to be Hunter S. Thompson to realize the possibilities here.

“We were somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, in the middle of the desert, when the juice began to take hold…”

Don’t just have Sokka lamely state that Toph is on fire. Show me Toph on fire. Don’t just have Sokka lamely ask how they got in the middle of the ocean. Show me Sokka in the middle of the ocean. Let me see the bizarre imagery that he sees. Show don’t tell! How could they waste the endless possibilities of the medium of animation for a few unfunny verbal jokes? ARGH!

Terry Gilliam, these guys ain’t.

(At one point, Toph asks if she can have cactus juice. Now that would have been interesting.)

This entire concept and its pathetic execution are enough for me to cut off two whole points from my overall rating of “The Desert.” A 13 is still very high, but this would have been a perfect episode. Of course, raise or lower that score depending on how you feel about Sokka’s experience (or Aang’s, which I’ll get to momentarily). Me, I treat it like I do the album Double Fantasy: the horrible stuff (whether they could from De Sena or Yoko Ono) makes the brilliant stuff feel that much more brilliant.

“The Desert” immediately takes off where “The Library” let off. The loss of Appa reveals two important things.

First, they really do not have a way out of that desert. Appa was always their default mode of transportation, his mass, and ability to fly and carry all of them great distance within reasonable time. And now he’s gone. This is one of the rare times I’m invested in the well-being of these kids from beginning to end: how are they going to get out of this?

Did DiMartino and Konietzko and company screen Aguirre: the Wrath of God before writing this episode? I ask because they do a damn fine job of making the usually twenty-four-minute running time feel like forever. This is definitely not a criticism, but high praise: they really establish a maddeningly lonely atmosphere that matches the harsh, merciless environment the characters must trek through.

Most of their time is just spent trudging along, barely conscious, and not saying much of anything. The attempt to punctuate these passage of despair with humor mostly fails, but not always—Momo high on cactus juice is much more entertaining than Sokka high on cactus juice.

The second thing that Appa’s kidnapping reveals is the dark side of Aang.

I have no real polite way of putting this, so here it goes: Aang is an absolutely unbearable little twat in this episode. If I tended to have no real emotional reaction to any of his behavior before, this time I really would have loved to have seen someone throttle this brat.

And yet, I can’t really blame him. I’m not excusing his angry and often uncalled for behavior, but think about where its coming from. This is a twelve-year-old boy who unwillingly had a huge responsibility thrown upon him, lost his entire race of people, and was frozen for a hundred years. Through all of that, the only friend he had from those innocent times was Appa, who is, along with Momo, one of the remaining living souls from those times. Now his best friend is gone, and Aang has completely snapped.

His fury is wonderful, thanks to the careful writing and Zack Tyler Eisen’s voice acting. His outbursts at his friends for only caring about themselves and not Appa are exactly the kind of irrational, emotion-fueled arguments you’d expect from a twelve-year-old. Unlike Jessie Flower in her portrayal of Toph, Eisen does not hold back; he delivers his lines with full conviction, and we believe his pain.

That said, if this is anyone’s episode, it’s Katara’s. While Aang is having his temper tantrum and Sokka is high on his own obnoxiousness and Toph can’t do much anything, Katara is the one who pulls them all together and gets them to keep going through the desert, even if there’s no chance of them getting out of alive. (After all, they have to get the information about the solar eclipse to the Earth King.)

It’s all summed up in one of the most masterful bits of animation in the whole series: Katara sees how low morale is, and for a moment let’s the despair of the situation get to her. But she immediately regains herself and vows to get them all out of that desert. This is not the naïve hopefulness that plagued Book One: this is the resolve a young woman who knows that true failure only happens when you lose your will to succeed.

Which is precisely what happens to Aang. Yes, he does look for Appa for, like, a moment, but gives up in a bitter fit of atomic bomb proportions.

Heh, heh.

Even when he returns to the group and receives an opportunity to aide their survival, he fucks it up. At one point, he sees a cloud in the sky and briefly believes its Appa. He’s so disappointed that Katara has to point out the obvious: it’s cloud in the middle of the desert. “Turns out clouds are made of water,” remember? They need water to survive! Aang does go up to get the water from the cloud, but he does it so hastily that he winds up getting almost no water at all. And then he has the nerve to ask Katara what she’s doing to help them out.

But their luck changes when they find a Sandbender’s sailboat buried in the sand. Convenient? Yes. Do I care? Nope.

They follow the compass—which is way off, according to the star charts they took from the Library—to a huge piece of rock in the desert (much to Toph’s delight). Unfortunately, on this rock is a huge hive of buzzard-wasps.

I won’t lie, these buzzard-wasps aren’t as scary as they could be. I say this as someone with a rather distint fear of wasps—not bees, though. (All right, no more suggestions.) They provide for a last-act action sequence, though, so…yeah.

Now there are two moments in this episode that really make me lose it.

The first is when Momo gets taken away by one of the buzzard-wasps. I don’t know how to explain myself. I’ve watched this episode probably five times, but it tears me apart every single time it happens. Before Aang goes after him, he says, “I’m not losing anyone else out here!” That’s touching, yes, but it doesn’t explain why I’m so attached to this animal. Is it because I adore him like I would my own pet? Is it because, over the course of the series, he’s emerged as an emotionally and physically alive character in his own right? Is it because he’s the funniest character in the show? I have no idea; I just know that Momo is one character I would never want to see anything bad happen to.

Aang does save Momo, and, from what I can gather, kills the buzzard-wasp who took him. You can rationalize with me all you want about how that thing didn’t actually die and Aang kept true to his creed to never kill anyone or anything. But as far as I’m concerned, Aang intended to kill that buzzard-wasp, and whether he succeeded is not important.

The second moment is after the kids are saved from the buzzard-wasps by Sandbenders. One of which was responsible for stealing Appa. Toph recognizes his voice and points him out to Aang, which sends him into such a rage that he enters the Avatar State. He destroys all the Sandbender’s sailboats and damn near kills them all.

And Katara braves the wrath in order to calm him down. It’s essentially a reprise of a similar moment way back in “The Southern Air Temple.” But whereas that scene was overly sentimental and false, this one works. There’s no talk about how “we’re family now” or “I lost my mother the same way.” In fact, there’s no talking at all, and the scene is all the better because of it. In her own silent way, Katara gets Aang to accept the fact that, even if Appa is gone, she is still there for him, and no amount of destruction he does will ever change that. It’s absolutely beautiful.

And that’s the last sequence of the episode, making “The Desert” the second episode in a row with a bittersweet ending. (That’s not entirely accurate, unless you consider reluctantly accepting those you may have lost forever uplifting.)

I didn’t mention that Zuko and Iroh are in this episode. In summary, Iroh manages to find a fellow member of the White Lotus–this will be very important later–and he helps get into Ba Sing Se as refugees. They have a brief encounter with the odd couple from “The Blind Bandit” who are looking for Toph, but decide that collecting a bounty for Fire Nation traitors would be worth looking into. Zuko and Iroh get away safely and are on their way to the great Earth Kingdom city that has remained untouched by the war. For now.

The reason I’m not going in-depth with Zuko and Iroh’s story is: 1) I’ve spoken about these two and their stories enough that you already know how I feel about them; and 2) while it’s nice to see them after they were absent in “The Library,” I kind of wish they weren’t in this episode. I honestly feel that their comparatively lighter story detracts from that of Aang and friends. (Last suggestion, I swear!) I feel like the trek through the desert would have been more resonant if there weren’t any occasion cuts to the going-ons of any characters; that way, the supremely effective atmosphere of the harsh desert wouldn’t be broken. Imagine the whole island part of Cast Away occasionally interjected with scenes of Helen Hunt finding a new life without Tom Hanks, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

So “The Desert” is an imperfect episode, just as Avatar has always been an imperfect show, just as that previously-mentioned album Double Fantasy is imperfect thanks to Ono’s involvement. But in all three cases, it’s within those imperfections that the moments of true genius shine their brightest. Sometimes that’s all you can really hope for.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Thirty: “The Library”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

A while back, I was accused of wanting more “grimdark” in Avatar: the Last Airbender. “Grimdark” is one of those grammatically elusive words that could only exist on the Internet, and when someone who wants “grimdark,” it means they want a specific show, film, etc. to be much darker and more brutally “realistic” than it is already.

Since “grimdark” advocators seems to be the Communists of Avatar fandom, I might as well explain myself. This accusation arose because of one of my complaints in my Introduction page:

…being conceived and produced strictly as a kids’ show was all but detrimental to the show’s overall success. At times, it felt like DiMartino and Konietzko were caving in to the demands and expectations of the Nickelodeon Studio that funded and aired the show…it’s pretty fishy that the worst of Avatar‘s episodes play exactly like the worst kind of shluck you’d normally find on any kids’ programming channel, Nickelodeon included.

If you read that paragraph carefully, you’d see that my point is not that Avatar should have been darker so much as it shouldn’t have been so childish at times—just because your format aims at the lowest common denominator doesn’t means your artistic standards have to stoop low as well.

I think the Beatles proved that better than anyone.

I’ll admit that I personally tend to gravitate towards the darker aspects of a piece more than anything else–and Avatar certainly has more than enough darkness to supplement my diet–so consider that another bias that colors my reviews. That said, what I always wanted from Avatar—which was only granted sporadically until now—was a certain honesty; stories that were fantastic but still true to human nature; an admission that, while there may not be good and evil, people’s interests and actions do not allow coincide, and thus there are often heavy consequences.

“The Library” has that honesty. The main conflict is not between good and evil, nor is there really a distinction between right and wrong. Unlike other kids’ shows, this lack of a moral or ethical stance is not the product of lazy, anything-for-a-laugh nihilism; by not choosing a side, DiMartino and Konietzko and company provide the perfect platform for exploring the implications and consequences of both sides. This is quite an intriguing episode, in addition to being one of the most thrilling.

In “The Library,” the kids meet an anthropologist named Professor Zei who is obsessed with finding the Great Library, a sacred place that seemingly contains all the knowledge in the world. Sokka immediately senses an opportunity to find a way to defeat the Fire Nation, and soon they’re all flying through the desert in search of a library that might not even exist.

This story is set in motion by a cute little subplot involving mini-vacations. The kids take turns picking places to go for a brief moment by selecting spots on Aang’s map. The map is, of course, outdated, so the vacation spots either no longer exist, or, in the case of the Misty Palms Oasis, are not quite the beautiful wonder it used to be.

Dammit, global warming!

It’s here that every major plot element comes together: the meeting of Zei, and the first encounter with the unpleasant Sandbenders who are interested in Appa. This episode is so well-written that the setup feels less like plot contrivance and more like a chance meeting that could have actually happened. (I sure wish I knew who wrote the episode so I could congratulate him by name.)

It also helps that Zei is such a delightfully eccentric character. He’s a friendly man totally lacking in normal societal interaction skills. He seems to live only to acquire great knowledge for no other reason than to acquire it.

After a very long flight through the desert—punctuated by yet another great “Toph-is-blind” joke—they finally come across a huge tower sticking out of the sand. As it turns out, the tower is the top of the Library; the rest is completely buried.

Dammit, Dust Bowl!

However, as Toph is able to “see,” the inside of the Library is completely intact and explorable. Not only that, but they witness a fox running up the tower and going inside. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Zei (and Momo) go inside, leaving Toph and Appa to wait outside. Their interactions as they wait are pretty cute, but notice how we’re subtly given exposition in the midst of it: we learn that Toph can’t “see” on sand because it’s too loose. This will be very important later. (Geez, who wrote this episode? This is brilliant!)

The group in the Library find that it is indeed very large, filled to the brim with all sort of books, scrolls, parchments, etc. It also contains a giant owl known as Won Shi Tong, the owner of the Library and knower of 10,000 things. (Why 10,000 things, I don’t know: even considering how big of a number 10,000 is, would a self-proclaiming “all-knowing spirit” really have limits to his knowledge?)

Wan Shi Tong no longer allows humans into his library, and for good reason: they only seek knowledge to gain the upper hand over other humans. While this is true for the most part, being an all-knowing spirit, wouldn’t he have come to terms with that very basic fact of human nature long, long along? (Unless that’s just not of the 10,000 things he knows.)

You’d think Wan Shi Tong would be more concerned with people destroying his knowledge than misusing it. After getting the information on the Moon Spirit, Zhao had the entire section on the Fire Nation burned down. I’m quite surprised Wan Shi Tong didn’t decide at that moment to take his Library back.

It’s not until he confirms Aang and pals’ true intentions for coming to the Library that Wan Shi Tong decides that enough is enough. He begins to sink the Library down into the ground, taking it back so it can no longer be abused by humans. He also must kill the group because…well, they’ve seen to much: can’t go using that knowledge to cause more trouble again, can we?

Throughout all of this, Wan Shi Tong is never—until the last-act action sequence, I guess—portrayed as a “villain.” His problems with humans are pretty reasonable, and his resolve to take back his Library is more tragic than evil: knowledge is only good if it can be used and/or shared. Wan Shi Tong would rather take away his gift rather than have it aid humans in their ongoing quest to destroy each other.

On the other hand, Zei’s resolve to stay in the Library forever—because of the vast knowledge it contains—is darkly funny for the same reason. He only seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake, without ever putting it to use and contributing in a real way to the world. For such an intelligent man, his demise is rather foolish.

But enough of that. What do the kids learn that ticked off Wan Shi Tong?

Sokka comes across a partly burned sheet with a date and the words “The Fire Nation’s darkest day” written on it. What does that mean? Not having the Fire Nation section available, the group luckily get help from a fox, who leads them to a planetarium.

The planetarium sequence has some wonderful visuals. I especially love the gradual reveal of the eclipse, which Aang initially thinks means that planetarium is broken. When they figure out what happened, Sokka puts the pieces together: the Firebenders lost their Bending because the Moon blocked the Sun, which gives them their powers. Without the Sun, they’re extremely vulnerable. That’s how they can finally defeat the Fire Nation!

Of course, they’re immediately found out by Wan Shi Tong, who chases them away. But it won’t easy: not only do they have to escape Wan Shi Tong and the sinking Library, but Sokka needs to go back to the planetarium to figure out when the next solar eclipse is. Trying to go through each day would obviously take forever, but Sokka has the perfect solution: start from the day of Sozin’s Comet and go back until they (hopefully) find a day that another eclipse will happen. This solution is so genius that it nearly makes me forgive every single, stupid, pointless joke that ever came out of his mouth. (Who wrote this episode?)

Luckily, they do find a day—we’re not told when, but that’s not important for us—and get the Hell out of there.

On in the desert, Toph has noticed the Library sinking and does her best to keep it above ground level until the others get out. And on top of that, the Sandbenders come out of nowhere and steal Appa away while Toph struggles to hold up the Library. Since she’s unable to actually Bend the sand and stop them, her attempts at doing so are fruitless. It’s heartbreaking, to say the least.

In a nutshell, this last-act action sequence consisted of:

  • Katara and Zei (and Momo) outrunning Wan Shi Tong and getting out of the library.
  • Aang and Sokka finding out the next solar eclipse before they can escape the library.
  • Toph holding up the library so the others can escape at all.
  • Appa being kidnapped due to a flaw in Toph’s Earthbending training (it’s not her fault she can’t see on sand).

These elements all play out without the audience ever getting confused or losing sight of how they all relate to each other. This is extremely masterful storytelling. (Aaron Ehasz! I bet he wrote it! He’s the best writer on the Avatar staff.)

And so the kids—remember Zei chose to stay in the Library forever—make it out in one piece and with the information they went in there for in the first place. Happy days?

No, because, even though Toph saved their lives, she couldn’t save Appa. Upon realizing this, Aang bursts into tears.

And that’s the last shot of the episode.

This is an Aang-centric episode—Zuko and Iroh were not in this one, maybe the high quality that much more remarkable—and this is the first time I can consciously recall an Aang episode (and not a Zuko episode) ending on such a downer note.

This is a good sign. This is tremendously good sign. The happy-go-lucky days that were threatening to disappear are finally gone for good. Not that I’d want to see Aang so miserable—although, the only times I ever feel anything for him is when he’s miserable—but that he’s even allowed to experience misery without a last minute resolve is incredible. It’s a sign of maturity.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes once described WALL-E as Pixar’s Rubber Soul, and how it’s achievements would pave the way for greater and greater animated films. (That next groundbreaking animated film still hasn’t come, but I’ll keep my hopes high.) In a way, “The Library” is the Rubber Soul of Avatar, and it does lead to greater and greater episodes, if not immediately, then eventually. And don’t more than enough Beatles fans consider Rubber Soul their best album anyway? It’s safe to say that “The Library” is, if not the best, certainly high up there.

So who wrote this Rubber Soul episode?

Pictured: NOT John O’Bryan

No way! John “JOB” O’Bryan?! So he can write! I’m damn near willing to forgive him for “The Great Divide!”

Daniel Thomas MacInnes’ Ghibli Blog is definitely worth a look. He’s a very passionate person, and it shows in all of his posts, be they about Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki, or otherwise.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Twenty-Nine: “Bitter Work”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

This would have been a great episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender to have seen first. “Bitter Work” exemplifies qualities that transcend arbitrary rating systems and individual episode scores. Of course, since I’ve obligated myself to a rating system that is probably too weird–not as weird as its source, though–I’m also obligated to explain why, despite having “transcendental” qualities, “Bitter Work” is denied a perfect rating. Let me get my nitpicks out of the way so I can explain.

I said I’d stop complaining about Sokka, but in this episode, he seriously reaches a new low.

Heh, heh.

He attempts to hunt a baby saber-toothed moose lion—did I mention before that I HATE hybrid animals?—but ends up getting himself stuck in a hole in the ground, his limbs too constricted for him to free himself. This is a gag inspired by a similar one in the film The Money Pit starring Tom Hanks, but where that gag was funny, this is just painful at times. And, of course, it’s because of the supreme incompetence of Jack De Sena.

Who wouldn’t want to slap that smug face off his smile?

He’s probably one of the few “comedians” I know who can take a potentially funny joke and absolutely ruin it. His delivery is so self-aware, overblown, and laboured. Perhaps part of the problem is that he’s an improvisational comic who absolutely needs his physical presence to be funny (he was a regular on All That! not long before being cast in Avatar), but I wouldn’t know. The only times Sokka is ever funny is: 1) when physical humor is involved (and of course, De Sena would have nothing to do with that); 2) when his delivery is actually (and rarely) appropriately; and 3) when he’s the butt of the joke.

The other complaint I have has to do with the amount of physical pain that characters are somehow able to sustain, often times solely for comedic effect. I simply don’t understand how I’m supposed to believe these people—Zuko and Iroh excepted—are capable to pain. I’m not going to try to dissect how Bending causes little physical harm—I’ve long ago accepted that Firebending and Earthbending were never going to be taken to their logical and nightmarish conclusion—but if Sokka can be launched ten feet into the air by a jolt of earth and then land without so much as a broken vertebrae, then how am I supposed to be fearful of these characters’ well being?

At one point, Toph attempts to get Aang to Earthbend by rolling a huge boulder at him while he’s blindfolded. A funny concept, but not a particular suspenseful one, because we don’t feel the danger of the situation. And let me make this clear: the lack of danger is not because Avatar is a cartoon, but because the reality of the cartoon too often changes on a whim for a joke or a crazy moment that on the long run probably wasn’t even necessary.

And my last complaint goes to Toph. As much as I love her character and how much she brings to the group, Jessie Flower is just not the perfect voice actress for her. She’s too restrained and comes across more as a wannabe tough girl than the real thing. I have absolutely no way of knowing if this ambiguity was deliberate, but if it was, then I think it was a mistake. Besides, we’ve seen child actors like Chloë Grace Moretz and Natalie Portman in her earlier years who could pull off alternatively charming and frightening performances with full conviction, so there’s really no excuse for Flower’s sometimes limp acting in this show.

Then again, since those two somehow got to act along side two of the most brilliant and potentially insane actors around…
…it was bound to rub off onto them.

My God, I just can’t be satisfied, can I? “Ambivalent” is the word for me, I suppose. All right, enough negativity: here’s why I regard this episode so well.

One of the great things about Avatar is its emphasis on the learning process. At no point in the series—except possibly in the finale—is a character simply granted new or special abilities for the convenience of the plot; they have to work for and actually earn them. And in order to earn them, they must be capable of change, like real human beings. That’s practically nonexistent in any other kids’ show I’ve seen, or just any other show for that matter.

While I stand by my belief that Aang’s story loses some of its emotional impact because he was doomed to succeed from the start, it’s nice to see him have to work at becoming the Avatar. The Earthbending training sequences in “Bitter Work” are fun to watch and rather insightful, especially once they address one of my main issues with Aang’s character: his main solution to any problem he encounters is to run away.

He may have lucked out when running away saved his life from the genocide of the other Airbenders, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company are smart to emphasize again and again how feeble this tactic is on the long run. In “The Deserter,” he decided to never Firebend again; in “The Avatar State,” he decided to never go into the Avatar State again; in this episode, Katara actually calls him out on this after he fails at Toph’s Earthbending challenge. If he’s going to become the Avatar, running away can no longer be an option.

And who better to teach him that than Toph, the most in-your-face person he’s ever met? Her methods are interesting, to say the least.

When Aang is feeling down about not being able to Earthbend, Toph picks on him by using his glider staff to crack open nuts, since he’s obviously too much of a wuss to do anything about it. As she leaves him to his meditation, she whacks his staff against the rocks around her. Now, for the longest time I thought she was doing that simply because the staff was, as Aang put it, a “delicate instrument,” and thus every little bit of damage was harmful. But when you take into account that Toph is blind, you realize she’s mockingly using the staff as a walking stick. This is probably the most subtle blind joke in the series, which is saying something because those jokes typically aren’t subtle at all.

Also, the emasculation continues. Can’t Aang’s staff be considered phallic, and that he can only get it back when he mans up?

Thankfully, Aang does recover after finding Sokka stuck in the ground. He’s been talking nonstop to the little baby saber-toothed moose lion, which has been making these passages watchable with its cuteness. At that point, the baby’s mother finally comes around and is as ready to massacre Sokka as I am. Aang saves the day, unfortunately, in what I suppose counts as the episode’s last-act action sequence.

The reveal that Toph was there to “watch” the entire event without bothering to help is great, as is Aang’s resolve to finally stand up for himself and not take any of Toph’s shit. And then, what do you know? Aang can Earthbend now! Wicked!

At the end of the episode, we learn that Toph actually took Katara’s advice from earlier about positive reinforcement being a good way to teach Aang anything. You could interpret this as a sign that in the grand scheme of things, Katara is the one manipulating everything for the better and that this is really her story—it’s her voice that opens every episode, remember—but I’m not prepared to back that theory up with any hard evidence, so I’ll just hold off on that until it’s clear as day.

“Everything is going according to plan, master.”

Besides, I haven’t talked about Zuko yet, who has his own learning curve through the course of the episode. Only his story doesn’t end on quite an upbeat note (but than what Zuko story does?).

This may be the talkiest Zuko story so far, but that’s not a detriment, because its Iroh doing the talking, and what he has to say is almost always interesting. In resuming Zuko’s training for a next encounter with Azula, Iroh basically distills his life and Bending philosophy into something tangible enough for someone like Zuko to grasp—which is not to say that Zuko is stupid, but he can be so thick sometimes that it’s not funny.

Zuko appears to get what his uncle is saying, but when it comes to applying those lessons into new techniques, it’s easy to see that he hasn’t learned anything. He fails to shoot lightning, which Iroh notes is an indication that Zuko has yet to resolve the inner turmoil he has (no kidding) and get rid of his feelings of shame. If Zuko can humble himself, he can overcome this problem, but it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon. Shame, too: I’m more desperate for this guy to succeed than I am for Aang.

After Iroh teaches Zuko a move he made up long ago—redirecting lightning, that is—Zuko eagerly wants to try out his newly discovered skill by requesting that Iroh shoot him with lightning. We know as well as Iroh does that if Zuko actually got his wish, he would be dead in an instant. So when Zuko goes high up in the mountains during a thunderstorm and dares the universe to strike him—like it’s done so many times before—it’s as funny as it is heartbreaking; it’s almost Shakespearian.

That’s the price you pay if you don’t learn to change. That’s the message I get out of “Bitter Work,” and it’s definitely a good one. By the end of the episode, Aang has taken another big step in the right direction, while Zuko is stuck exactly where he’s always been. The latter concerns me more, but is that really a surprise anymore?

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Announcement: Another Day’s Delay of “Bitter Work” Review

Strangely enough, this weekend turned out to be even more hectic than all of last week. Unfortunately, that means the review of “Bitter Work” will be delayed for one more day. Hopefully this will be the last time and I can continue my three-day deadline for the rest of the series. We shall see.

– Marshall Turner


Announcement: “Bitter Work” Review Delayed

Due to difficult circumstances–mainly school and soul searching–the review for “Bitter Work” won’t be up until Sunday February 12, 2012. This throws off my usual pattern considerably, but hopefully I can get straight back to reviewing every three days. We’ll see.

 

– Marshall Turner