Chapter Forty-One: “The Awakening”
(Rating Out of 15)
The big delay in my reviewing time has been largely because of this episode. I’ve had a difficult time comprehending how I feel about “The Awakening.” Something about it really compromises its overall quality. It’s not even a bad episode: even by my nitpicky standards, “The Awakening” is a great chapter of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and definitely a fine season opener. It sets the tone just right for a much gloomier season than usual, as the fate of the world grows more and more uncertain as Sozen’s Comet gets closer and closer.
So what’s up? Why the shaky introduction to an episode I just called “great?” Why the high rating for something that, frankly, I don’t like?
It’s not the plot, that’s for sure. After about a month, Aang has finally awoken from unconsciousness to find that a lot has happened in that time. I’ll spare the details, but the bottom line is this: the entire world believes that Aang the Avatar is dead. According to Sokka, this is a major advantage for all of them because the Fire Nation won’t be actively hunting for him anymore. Unfortunately, this does not bode well with Aang at all: it’s one thing to think that the savior of the world just went away (on Sabbath, most likely) and will return any day now, and quite another to think he’s flat out dead and is never coming back. In his mind, Aang has once again let the world down.
It doesn’t help that in his absence, Ba Sing Se was indeed taken over by the Fire Nation. Whoops.
On the Zuko side of things, the kid has finally been welcomed back to the Fire Nation as the royal heir to the throne. Even his father speaks kindly to him, as if he never even banished him at all (which is really disturbing, actually). But despite having obtained what he’s wanted since the beginning of the series, Zuko is still unhappy. Why? Partly guilt, for having betrayed his Uncle Iroh. Then there’s the fact that Azula told their father that he was the one that killed the Avatar, and not her. Why? Well, if for some reason the Avatar was alive, that would be bad news for the readmitted prince, wouldn’t it?
Both story points are intriguing. For the first time, we see the once agile and energetic Aang in a position of extremely helplessness, and how poorly he reacts to it. I felt sympathy for him when the action started happening and he was constantly told not to go and fight for risk of: 1) blowing his cover (he’s supposed to be dead, remember?); and 2) injuring himself further, because he still hasn’t totally recovered from being hit in the back with lightning.
As for Zuko, in addition to those previously mentioned conflicts, he has a girlfriend in Mai. Whether this is a good or bad thing at this point is extremely hard to tell, but hey: she’s probably the only person in this entire world that actually likes him. Why? I don’t know. Probably for the same reason Jin liked him (whatever that was).
As the episode goes on, Aang finally decides that since saving the world is his responsibility and he failed once again, he has to go off on his own to make things right. That means traveling through a storm into the Fire Nation. This is the best part of the episode because you really feel Aang’s determination to get to the Fire Nation, and the while being injured, flying through a storm, getting past a blockade, and losing his glider. Eventually, he does give up, though, and that’s when Avatar Roku and Princess Yue appear from the heavens to give him the encouragement needed to get to the Fire Nation and save the world. Yue even creates a giant wave for him to ride all the way to shore.
This is unabashedly (and literally) a deus ex machina, but here’s the most interesting thing about it: while Katara is upset that Aang was selfish enough to go off to save the world on his own, Roku’s and Yue’s actions pretty much imply, “This is your duty alone. Your cross to bear, if you will.” Either Katara is really the selfish one (likely), or this is just another reminder that all of the Avatars, while supreme beings, were still human, and thus prone to human lapses in judgment. Why else would Roku admit that the war partially his fault and that he needs Aang to redeem him?
And reach the Fire Nation Aang does, landing right on the island that used to hold the temple of Avatar Roku. However, when he wakes up, he’s surrounded by his friends, who vow that they’re all in this together. That’s sweet, but it raises a giant question: how the Hell did they get past that blockade? Did they get a deus ex machina, too? (Doubtful.)
So most of the episode is all right, then why don’t I like it? After much pondering, I’ve finally figured out. There’s something present in “The Awakening” that was never present in any previous episode of Avatar, and is most unwelcome now: pretense.
“The Awakening” is a SERIOUS and IMPORTANT episode in the sense that those two words must have been the mantra during the writing and production of this episode. Rather than the seriousness stemming naturally from the characters and their situation, it feels tacked on. That seriousness pretty much overrides everything else. There’s hardly a single moment of humor in the entire episode. Even “The Crossroads of Destiny,” one of the darkest episodes in the series, made time for humor. (The one joke that is here—and it’s a good one—involves Sokka, the sea serpent from “The Serpent’s Pass,” a Fire Nation ship, and the universe.)
DiMartino and Konietzko and company must have been feeling very pressured after the massive success of “Crossroads.” I guess they felt they had to make “Awakening” just as big and awesome, which was a mistake, since the basic plot elements of “Awakening” didn’t really have the potential for such an episode like, say, “The Avatar State” did last season. Instead of elevating the episode, this newly found sense of seriousness brings the episode down.
This is most apparent during the most baffling aspect of the episode: Katara.
After all these years, I still don’t understand why she was so cruel to her father, Hakoda. She pretty much shuts him down at every opportunity, even during moments when it’s most uncalled for. Take this classy little interruption:
Hakoda: We’ve been working on a modified version of the invasion plan.
Katara: (annoyed) It’s Sokka’s invasion plan.
Near the end, when Aang leaves to face his destiny alone, the first person Katara runs crying to is her dad. And as she berates Aang for being selfish and stupid for leaving the ones who love him, Hakoda quickly picks up on the fact that she’s also talking about him. Despite the fact that he had to leave for the war effort, which was not his fault. Even she understands that her anger is totally unjustified, and that she’s really just sad and angry at no one in particular. He just happens to be the only person around who inadvertently caused her pain. That’s extremely immature and, dare I say, selfish, Katara.
It’s difficult to tell whether this is the result of uneven writing, failed intentions, or actual character development. It might be a mixture of all three.
Give Hakoda credit, though: he keeps his cool and doesn’t bitch slap this little brat when she badmouths him. He knows what’s going on and let’s Katara gradually resolve her own crisis. What a pro.
But Katara’s not the only one: Aang acts pretty strange, too. Usually the problem with his scenes are that, in concept, they’re fine. But in execution, the script goes a bit too far in trying to make its point.
When Sokka suggests Aang wear a bandana to cover his arrow, Aang refuses. Yeah, that’s reasonable, but they make Aang say, “I won’t go out if I can’t wear my arrow proudly.” When the Hell did Aang start using the word “proudly,” especially in regards to himself? It’s not in his character, and it’s way too on-the-nose to feel natural. And then, before he leaves alone to go to the Fire Nation, he mutters, “I need to redeem myself.” Groovy. That’s totally understandable. But then they ruin it by having him immediately follow that with, “I have to gain my honor back.” And just in case that was too subtle for some people, they immediately follow that with a dissolve to Zuko’s face. Were DiMartino and Konietzko and company pandering to the audience?
So what else is there to say?
There’s an action sequence, but I barely remember it. I can recall being impressed with Katara’s and Toph’s advanced bending abilities, but that’s it.
There are little moments that work, though. I loved when Aang stuck his broken glider in the volcano, obviously symbolic of his further emasculation, as well as his willingness to sacrifice his identity for the greater good (for now). There’s also a subtle callback to “Zuko Alone,” in which Zuko feeds a family of ducks in the pond he and his mother used to sit by. To top it off, when Azula shows up, the ducks rush away, frightened. That’s a clever touch.
All-in-all, “The Awakening” is a great episode that suffers from the fact that DiMartino and Konietzko and company were trying way too hard to make sure it was a GREAT episode. What better way to start off the “Schizophrenic Season” than with the worst great episode in the series?
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.