Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Thirty-Nine and Forty: “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

15

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny” are the perfect finish to an almost perfect season. So much so that too often I believe I’d been happily content with the series ending here if, for reason, it got cancelled. It’s a silly thought, yes, because how sad would we all be that the show couldn’t continue after leaving out on such a high note? (Not to mention that Book Three actually contains at least one episode that I’d argue manages to outdo these two.) Let silly thoughts stay silly thoughts. The fact is that “The Guru” and especially “The Crossroads of Destiny” are indisputably two of the greatest episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender ever made.

It’s tempting to just go through the episodes beat-by-beat and gush about how brilliant they are, but I’ll refrain only because the plot of both episodes is so complicated. How could I even begin to summarize these two?

In “Guru,” Aang attempts to master the Avatar State with the help of Guru Pathik, but fails when his attachment to Katara is stronger than his need to save the world. In “Crossroads,” Ba Sing Se has practically been taken over by the Dai Li, and Aang, his friends, the Earth King, and Zuko and Iroh have to escape with their lives. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

I suppose I should start—as I usually do—by explaining why “The Guru” is just one point short of a perfect score.

Maybe it’s just me, but those scenes of Aang learning to unblock his chakra seem to go by very, very quickly. His spiritual healing takes place all in two days, but the actual chakra unblocking goes by in a matter of second. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Aang is an inherently spiritual person, and that he’s matured greatly over the course of the series—at the very least, he’s not as annoying as he used to be—but somehow I don’t think it would be that easy, especially for somewhat with as much inner turmoil as Aang.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the urgency with which he needed to master the Avatar State gave him extra motivation. (Besides, isn’t the main premise that Aang has a limited time to master the elements—which takes years—before the Fire Nation can win the war?)

Even if that’s a nitpick, I still consider the scene where Aang sees that Katara is in danger rather clumsy. He is on the verge of mastering the Avatar State when suddenly he gets a vision of Katara in chains, screaming. This causes him to abandon the process, which in turn prevents him from being able to go into the Avatar State.

I still have no idea how Aang got that vision in the first place. We never get an explanation. I can assume it’s like in The Empire Strikes Back, where being a Jedi/the Avatar allows you certain extraordinary abilities, namely the ability to see the ones you love even when they’re far away. Or could it be that Katara is the one Earthly attachment he has, and when she’s in danger, he senses it?

If the latter is the case, then it provided for one of the most beautiful and brilliant visual metaphors in the series. The final stage of the process takes place in space, and when Aang wants to save Katara, he literally falls back down to Earth. That’s pretty damn clever!

But here’s the real problem I have with these two plot points: they are the only moment in the entire Finale that feel like they were solely motivated by plot alone.

Transversely, one of the things that makes these episodes so great—especially “Crossroads”—is that every single action and plot twist seems to come directly from the characters. Considering how clunky most episodes of Avatar can be when combining plot and character, this is the highest compliment I can possibly give.

In fact, perhaps the best way to analyze these episodes is by examining how each major character influences and is affected by what goes on. I’ll go from the least significant to the most significant.

Toph

Obviously the most important aspect of Toph’s story is that she discovers Metalbending. According to the Guru Pathik, in his spiel about how everything is connected, metal is merely earth “that has been purified and refined.” Once Toph realizes this, she is easily able to escape the metal box she was captured in.

I’ve made this criticism before, and I’ll make it again: Jessie Flower, Toph’s voice actress, does not portray cockiness very well. She undermines this triumphant moment with her wimpy delivery. It’s like playing the main riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a ukelele and not an electric guitar.

"Aloha, aloha, alo-how low?"

Thankfully the odd couple is still around for a while and they’re still hilarious. Their final line in “Guru” is one of the funniest moments in the entire series. Trapped by Toph in the very same metal box they trapped her in, the tough guy grudging accepts that he’ll be stuck with the Earthbending tutor forever in that box. And then—because earlier they wouldn’t let Toph out to use the bathroom—the tutor realizes he does have to use the bathroom. Brilliant.

Sokka

Sokka is dropped off at the harbor where the warriors of the Southern Water Tribe—and his father, Hakoda—are, and is welcomed with open arms. Actually, it’s a very nice scene.

The scenes of Sokka reconnecting with his father are nice, too. Because most of these scenes are dramatic, De Sena doesn’t have any opportunity to be obnoxious and ruin it. However, the one laugh to be found in these scenes are at his and his father’s expense, as Bato of the Water Tribe laments how alike their lousy senses of humor are. That said, those “stink-and-sink” bombs are a cool concept.

Probably the heart of Sokka’s story is when Hakoda calls for “all you men” to get ready for battle. It takes Sokka a moment to realize that he is of those “men” being called. Either this is a proud moment of acceptance for Sokka, or this is just more steps taken to his emasculation.

I say the latter because Sokka never actually does get to demonstrate his men-ness to his father: Aang arrives with the news that Katara is in trouble. Sorry, Sokka. You’ll never be able to prove that you are a man. That’s just how cruel this show is. To men, anyway.

His contribution to the plot twindles after that. He has a funny moment with Ty Lee when he dodges all of her blows and it looks like they’re dancing. That’s about it, and that’s enough for me.

Iroh

You really do have to feel for Iroh in these episodes. He thinks he’s finally gotten through to Zuko, and that together they can start anew in Ba Sing Se making delicious tea for everyone.

And then Azula just has to come and ruin it for everyone. (I’ll get to her soon enough.) She tricks him into thinking the Earth King has invited him for tea, and nearly has him cornered. Thankfully, Iroh’s a crafty one and in purely Iroh fashion, escapes.

Unfortunately, Zuko doesn’t come with him thanks to the return of his pride. (I’ll get to him, too.) What’s funny is that Iroh’s expression is not so much sadness or grief and more annoyance, as if to say, “Not again!”

Desperate, he actually goes to Aang, Sokka, and Toph for help in rescuing Zuko and Katara—who’s also been captured, hench why Aang didn’t complete his Avatar State mastery. Naturally, they’re pretty reluctant—helping Zuko is like suicide—but Iroh does get them to help out.

Probably the most intriguing part of Iroh’s part of the story is his talk with Aang as they go deep underground to find the catacombs that have Zuko and Katara in them. Learning from Toph that Iroh gives good advice, Aang tells him his dilemma as the Avatar: instead of mastering the Avatar State, he pulled out to still be with the one he loved. Iroh’s answer is pretty interesting: “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love.” Then when Aang wonders if he’d be powerful enough without the Avatar State to save the world, this is Iroh’s response:

Iroh: I don’t know the answer. Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving… (They find the catacombs.) You will come to a better place.

What’s most interesting about this talk is that, for the first time, Iroh is nearly one-hundred percent wrong. By encouraging Aang to abandon reaching his full potential as the Avatar, he inadvertently encourages Aang’s natural tendency to run away from all his problems. And while the metaphor about the light and the tunnel is poetic and quaint, that “better place” just happens to be the place where Aang nearly loses his life precisely because he didn’t master the Avatar State when he should have.

Iroh, you fucked up.

Now, when Aang gets hit, Iroh does hold the Dai Li off long enough for he and Katara to escape, and then allowing himself to be captured. Thanks, man.

Azula

If anyone deserves full cred points for being on their game in these episodes, it’s Azula. The way she pretty much single-handedly takes over Ba Sing Se is nothing short of fascinating.

Of course, it goes without saying that luck played a large part in her takeover. She was lucky that she just happened to run upon the Kyoshi Warriors earlier and stole their clothes. She was lucky that the Earth King spilled the beans about the plan to invade the Fire Nation on a solar eclipse. She was lucky that Katara accidentally told them that Zuko and Iroh were in Ba Sing Se. She was lucky that the Dai Li were such an impressionable bunch that they even turned on Long Feng when he went to take back control. She was lucky that Zuko caved in and fought on her side in the end. (OK, maybe that last one was, while disappointing, probably inevitable.) And she was very lucky to have struck Aang while he was in the Avatar State.

In fact, that last one is probably one of the most shocking moments in the series. Aang finally gets his priorities straight and masters the Avatar State, but it’s too late. Given that Azula positioned herself in the perfect spot to shoot him in the back, one wonders: does she know that the Avatar is best killed in the Avatar State? Or did someone tell her afterwards?

"Uh...yeah! I knew that all along! Sure did..."

Of course, luck, as best defined by my father as “preparation plus opportunity,” is only half of Azula’s success. If she wasn’t already the psychotic, confidence, fear-inducing leader she is, it wouldn’t matter how lucky she got at all. Her greatest attribute is being able to use every little thing she knows to her advantage. She knows human nature well enough to not even be surprised when her plans turn out well.

For example, there is the scene where Mai and Ty Lee are outside of the palace talking very loudly about how they are actually Fire Nation citizens disguised as Kyoshi Warriors. Loud enough for a few Dai Li agents nearby to overhear this, and that they need the Avatar. Naturally, the Dai Li scamper off like giddy schoolgirls to tell on them.

And this is just what Azula wanted. She knows that Long Feng wants to bargain with her: he reconquers Ba Sing Se, and he’ll give her the Avatar.

Long Feng never actually follows up on that deal because: 1) he wasn’t going to anyway; and 2) he couldn’t have if he wanted to. His attempt to double cross Azula is an embarrassing failure. His Dai Li agents are no longer on his side, but on the side of the clearly more powerful and more persuasive Azula.

By the end of the Finale, Azula is clearly the winner.

Before moving on, I have to ask: what exactly is going on between her and Ty Lee? She takes every opportunity to tell Azula how much she admires her confidence and her plans. I refuse to believe this is just clumsy writing: either Ty Lee is forcibly brown nosing to save her own life or her admiration is more like attraction. Ben Franklin once said: “Admiration is the daughter of ignorance.”

Yeah, that's about right.

Zuko

It goes without saying that Zuko has yet another emotional crisis, but for most of the finale, it’s a little different: this time he actually tries to change for the better and get used to his new life as a refugee, instead of whining about how he deserves his old life of royalty back.

The keyword is “tries.” He can just tell that Zuko is not entirely comfortable with this new identity he’s establishing for himself. There’s just something about voice actor Dante Basco’s performance that subtly burns with insincerity. Even as he’s congratulating his uncle on the success of his new tea shop, he just seems to be faking it.

I’m sure even Iroh picks up on this, but he most likely appreciates the effort. After all the kid’s been through so much and he’s finally making a conscious decision to make the most of what he has. That’s pretty nice.

And then Azula ruins it when she tries to ambush them in the Earth King’s palace. Iroh escapes, but Zuko—suddenly regaining those prideful instincts he attempted to reject—stays behind because “I’m tired of running! It’s about time I faced Azula!”

Uh huh.

Zuko, you fucked up.

But wait: he’s placed in the same catacombs as Katara—who was captured earlier by ATM when she thought they were Kyoshi Warriors—and has to face her brutal onslaught of verbal abuse. Poor kid.

However, he gets her to lighten up when he learns that have something in common: neither of them has a mother thanks to the Fire Nation.

"You lost your mother, too, huh?"

"Yep."

"..."

"Wanna start a rock n roll band?"

Unfortunately, before they can bond any further, Aang and Iroh arrive to rescue them. And before Iroh can tell him how much he’s matured as a human being for letting Aang and Katara get away, Azula arrives to screw things up even more. She promises Zuko that by helping her, he’ll his life of royalty back, and also, more importantly, his father’s love back. What will he do?

Join Azula, unfortunately, because apparently he’s learned nothing after all this time.

Zuko, you really fucked up.

Aang

And so we finally get to everyone’s favorite Airbender—well, the only Airbender, but he knows that—and his attempt to master the Avatar State with the help of Guru Pathik.

Aside from the problems I said I had with this bit, the entire subplot involving chakra is wonderful. In fact, it might just be my favorite part of the entire finale. Not to doubt DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s research, but I have no way of knowing if this chakra business is actually accurate to Eastern philosophy. Whether it is or not, it’s incredibly marvelous stuff, especially for a kids’ show (when is the last time a kids’ show actually promoted self-improvement rather than how to shoot everyone else down?).

I won’t delve too much into every stage of the chakra unblocking (this review is already too long as it is), but suffice it to say that going through them along with Aang is an enlightening experience. Every time I watch it, I try to keep up with Aang and go through what I’m personally afraid of, ashamed of, in grief over, etc. Guru Pathik is right: it is an intense experience.

But push on Aang does, as he comes to terms with the fact that he is the Avatar, he has made mistakes in the past, and that his love for Katara is a very positive factor in his life.

That is, until we get to the final chakra, in which all Earthly attachments—including love—must be abandoned. Aang is reasonably confused and upset about this, but in the interest of saving the world, he “tries.” And fails. And so he’s back to running away from the problem instead of resolving it.

Aang, you’re fucking up.

This really comes back to bite him in the ass during the last-act action sequence in “Crossroads” (“Guru” didn’t have a last-act action sequence, strangely enough). This is, in my opinion, the best last-act sequence in the series. Every blow, every injury, every burn, every twist, etc. means something, and it makes for an intensely emotional experience, especially as Aang gets his ass kicked.

By the time he and Katara are outnumbered by Zuko, Azula, and the Dai Li, Aang finally realizes that he’ll have to give up Katara in order to achieve the Avatar State. Sorry, Katara.

And we all know what happens next: Aang goes into the Avatar State and promptly gets shot in the back with lightning by Azula. Whoops.

Aang, you really, really fucked up.

Katara

Yes, in my mind, Katara is the most significant player in the events of the Book Two finale. Why? Because she pretty is the reason nearly everything goes wrong. Azula wouldn’t have known Zuko and Iroh were in Ba Sing Se if it weren’t for her. Aang would have already mastered the Avatar State if it weren’t for her. And then she has the nerve to tell Zuko what a horrible person he is! How dare you!

OK, I’m blowing this way out of proportion. After all, she did lighten up when she learned Zuko lost his mother, too. And she did save Aang’s life with the water from the Spirit Oasis. The same water she would have used earlier to potentially rid Zuko of his scar forever.

She’s also responsible for the most emotional part of the finale. Remember, I don’t care that much for Aang in and of himself, so when he got stuck by lightning, I was shocked, but not really moved. No, it’s when Katara saves him with the water from the Spirit Oasis that gets me. The sheer mixture of joy and relief on Katara’s face when Aang is resurrected never fails to bring me to tears.

In Conclusion

What a bittersweet ending. What a brilliant cliffhanger. What a perfect way to end Book Two.

Did I forget to mention that these are two of the best looking episodes in the series? The visuals are magnificent. DiMartino and Konietzko and company really spared no expense when it came to the production of this finale, and it really helps: could these episodes have been as powerful if they weren’t also well made?

It’s hard to say, but it does go without saying that if these episodes weren’t as well-written as they were, those beautiful visuals wouldn’t have been worth a crap. Speculations like this don’t matter; it’s the experience of watching the episodes that matters. Whether these episodes left you exhausted, depressed, angry, enlightened, or a mixture of all four and more, there’s no denying that “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny” are brilliant works of art. I would gladly sit through ten “Great Divide’s” for more episodes like these two.

With a review this long, why not indulge further by shamelessly promoting my favorite band Ween and the first song from their debut album (since it goes so well with what we’ve discussed).

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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4 responses

  1. TexasHammer

    I appreciate that you took the time to analyze Iroh’s quote valuing love and happiness over power. It’s probably the most thought-provoking in the entire series.

    My first reaction on hearing it was a realization that Iroh and ‘the Avatar’ (the spiritual, not the individual), despite both being considered wise, never really ran into each other before Iroh’s comment, which made me subsequently realize that even though we’ve seen a lot of Aang, and seen a lot of Iroh, these characters have NEVER had a conversation. Not particularly related to the question of wisdom, but interesting to note.

    Iroh’s statement is in direct conflict with the Guru’s wisdom, which would seem to be the first conflict between these two branches of philosophy. But looking back, these currents have always been opposed. Iroh encouraged Zuko to find and make peace with oneself, and to shape his own destiny. Roku’s advice says that Aang’s destiny is predetermined, and that he must sacrifice his own spirituality and values for the good of others. This has a lot to do with the transitions Aang and Zuko go through, Zuko being portentous and aggressive, and Aang being infantile and cowardly, and how they must tone down their extreme characteristics in order to be whole.

    But the question remains: Which is truer, Iroh’s wisdom, or the Avatar’s wisdom? You say that Iroh is wrong, because by choosing his path, Aang jeopardized himself and his friends. But look at Iroh himself. A widower, his son dead, and his birthright stolen, and yet he is happy. And look at Roku, who, despite a wife and children, led a sad, lonely life, followed by a century of regret. The Avatar has existed for thousands of years, but in that regard, isn’t its wisdom rooted in the past, and having spent their lives apart and above all others, how can the past Avatars possibly value love and happiness, which they could not experience? Perhaps the wisdom of Iroh, a man of sixty-something years living in the present day, having experienced the pleasures of a simple life, is more valid.

    I can’t say what conclusions can be taken from all this, but again, thanks for addressing this important point in this review.

    January 23, 2013 at 12:19 am

  2. jesus

    on the azula-tay lee relationship i always saw it as tay lee being azulas lackey think bout it when she was a kid her parents must have always told her to be on the firelords daugther good side, she grew up being used to sucking up to her either of fear of azula herself (perfectly understandable), of her loyal status or simply of being shuned from the group
    its not as if pretending to be closer than you really are is something uncommon in female friend groups, on the contrary

    July 15, 2013 at 3:58 am

  3. Dragon

    Aang did not fail to open the last Chakra. He was in the process of it, as him being bathed by the purple light of the Avatar Spirit showed, but chose to abandon it when he saw Katara was in danger.
    Also, abandoning the last Chakra was not typical airbending tactics of avoiding confrontation. He had no idea what would happen in Ba Sing Se if he could not arrive back in time, and made a snap decision. Both choices had consequences.

    January 30, 2014 at 9:28 am

  4. Batbender

    I know this is a super old post but I can’t help but comment on one thing. Regarding Aang and the seventh chakra, it really, really bothered me how Katara was his only earthly attachment. Like, I get that he is supposedly in love with her and she’s basically his best friend but what about Appa? You know his close companion since childhood, last remaining remnant of the Air Nomads. Also, what about the rest of the Gaang? Aren’t they important too?

    That just really pissed me off because it’s something that happens all the time in media. The love interest is always way more important than everyone else even over other longer close relationships.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents! What I just mentioned as well as your point about Aang going through the chakras so fast were my only real problems with these episodes.

    August 7, 2014 at 3:10 am

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