Because fans should be critical, too

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.

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