Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Forty-One: “The Awakening”

13

(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.

Where's your hope now? Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!

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).

"Your scar is soooooooooo sexy."

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.

Fuck. You.

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?

"Hey, everyone: I'm turning into Zuko!"

"Hmm...my ears are burnin...no, wait, it always does that."

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.

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16 responses

  1. SpiderHyphenMan

    Hey, congratulations on not understanding Katara. Here’s the thing: she’s a 14 year old girl who damn well knows that her feelings of anger at her father are irrational, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel them? How the hell is that selfish? You’re holding her to an impossible standard.

    April 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm

  2. SpiderHyphenMan

    If you thought it was poor writing and not, you know, showing that Katara is a human being with flaws and issues, then seriously, how do you hold consider yourself to meet any sort of analytical standard.

    April 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    • So they wanted to show that Katara is a “human being with flaws and issues,” and that’s perfectly fine with me. They’ve done it before in much better ways. “The Waterbending Scroll” comes to my mind first, because in that episode, her behavior had consequences that affected everyone. In “The Awakening,” the only people who seem to notice her behavior at all are her father and Aang. Aang doesn’t really do anything about–how could he? He didn’t know–and Hakoda does the adult thing and lets it wash over on its own, thus totally negating her actions. So literally nothing comes of her behavior, and that’s the real problem I have. There’s never even a moment of regret from her. (Then again, is Katara even capable of expressing regret? For the life of me, I can’t recall a single moment where she wished she hadn’t done something.) To top it off, the SERIOUSNESS of the episode pretty much magnifies this petty drama to the point of ridiculousness.

      If I’m holding anyone up to a standard, it’s the writers for not handling this more carefully. As for myself…well, the less I say about how I view myself, the better. I will say this, though: my strong reaction to Katara’s behavior may say more about me than it does about the writing. I’ll have to look into that as time goes by.

      April 13, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      • SpiderHyphenMan

        I don’t think “Hey dad, you left Sokka and I basically on our own, even though we really needed you.” is “petty drama/” What do you mean, “nothing” comes from her actions? She recieves closure with her issues with her father. You’ve always said that Katara’s a more likeable character when she acts more for herself than for some abstract concept of “the right thing to do”, so why criticize her for what is probably the most emotionally charged instance of this?

        April 13, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      • Again, my biggest problem was with the actual execution of this particular moment. It felt manipulative and contrived, and I don’t abide by that. But yes, I still stand by my belief that Katara is much more likable when she acts for herself. But if the writing is not going to support her, then what good does that do anyone?

        April 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  3. SpiderHyphenMan

    The writing DOES support her. You seem to act as though the show is having her be passive-agressive at her dad and have it be “LOOK AT HOW BRATTY KATARA IS.” The show makes it clear that it is perfectly okay for Katara to feel the way she does about her father, and that through the strength of both Katara and her father she is able to move past
    these feelings. That’s how character development works. People growing through the strength of themselves and those around them.

    April 14, 2012 at 1:01 am

    • I’m very tempted to see this as an example of how my lack of personal experience in the matter prevents me from seeing it for what is it. In that case, only time will tell, but just approaching this moment from a form perspective, it comes as across as contrived to me. OR could it be that Katara’s behavior viscerally got under my skin and I’m reacting extremely negatively without any real way to justify my feelings? Hmm…

      April 14, 2012 at 1:54 am

  4. takethecake

    This is actually a pretty civil and level discussion. Kudos that it didn’t descend into trolling, and i got to say great responses, marshall. This isn’t another one of those confusedmatthew-level bullshit. But i have to say i see spiderhyphenman’s POV, and that the main purpose of Katara’s plotline was really closure with her dad. I could see myself feeling that way if i were her and my dad had “abandoned” me; you can’t control how you feel, only how you react to those feelings. I think Katara’s honesty in this instance is admirable, especially when you see she’s willing to accept it and her father.

    April 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm

  5. anonym2008

    “Why? Well, if for some reason the Avatar was alive, that would be bad news for the readmitted prince, wouldn’t it?”

    There is another interpretation, an interpretation which does not try to make Azula look
    unfavorable.
    Azula told Ozai this lie because nothing less would have justified Zuko’s return to the Fire Nation and complete rehabilitation as member of its royalty.

    May 8, 2012 at 6:03 am

    • Ah, but wouldn’t that make it ever worse for Zuko if the truth were eventually found out? That Azula is so damn clever!

      May 10, 2012 at 4:39 pm

      • Batbender

        I personally love how her true intentions aren’t completely clear (I believe there’s enough evidence to support both claims). I’m a big fan of leaving things up to interpretation and I feel like having her intentions be kind of open to interpretation suits her character. Maybe it’s because as a huge Azula fan I analyze her character to death all the time, but I’ve always felt that there’s a lot about Azula that can legitimately be interpreted in different ways. I still believe she’s the most complex character in the series (even over Zuko who I know you love and is generally regarded as the most complex due to his character arc).

        August 9, 2014 at 6:50 am

  6. Chris

    I was surprised that you didn’t understand Katara, because most of the time I agree with your opinions, as I’m quite critical, too. I was extremely impressed by the psychological talent of the writers and by the way they portrayed a child’s feeling after being left by a parent. Probably I wouldn’t have understood Katara either, if I wouldn’t know a child from my personal environment, whose parents are divorced. Let me reassure you that it was not bad writing, but a really strong moment full of emotional understanding!

    August 6, 2012 at 7:46 am

    • Yeah, I’m pretty embarrassed about it now. If I’d only known–and, to an extent, used common sense–I’d have had no problem with Katara’s behavior from a storytelling standpoint. It didn’t help that it truly got under my skin and that, within the trying-too-hard vibe I always get from this episode, it felt forced.

      In any case, it was my mistake. A re-viewing and a revision are most likely in order for this one.

      August 6, 2012 at 10:59 am

      • Batbender

        Sorry about once again replying to an old post (I’m currently re-watching the series and I really enjoy reading your reviews alongside it) but I don’t think you were completely off base about Katara. I do believe that her actions were justified and weren’t in the wrong at all. However, the moment didn’t feel like genuine character development to me.

        First of all, I would have liked more foreshadowing and/or hinting about Katara’s emotional issues with her father. I mean it definitely makes sense for someone in her position to feel the way she felt, but I think it would have been much more effective if it had been built up more.

        Also, the character development felt like a one-off to me. If all those scenes had been taken out of the episode you wouldn’t be able to tell that anything changed between her and Hakoda (once again, this would have benefited from more buildup). There was no long-term character development and it’s not like the show focused a whole lot on Katara’s relationship with her father anyway.

        August 9, 2014 at 6:46 am

  7. Batbender

    I have one more thing to mention. I know, this is my third comment on a really old post but I feel compelled to comment anyway.

    I know you frequently talk about the emasculation of the male characters in ATLA quite frequently, but I’ve always viewed it in a different light. I never saw the series as emasculating any of the characters. Instead, it seemed, to me, like the show was playing around a lot with gender roles. Though this could be because quite a few of the female characters were intended to be male, I still appreciate it. I love that there isn’t a direct reversal of gender roles, but giving both male and female characters “masculine” and “feminine” traits.

    August 9, 2014 at 6:55 am

  8. tox

    “how the Hell did they get past that blockade? Did they get a deus ex machina, too? (Doubtful.)”

    Easy answer: They went underwater, with Katara bending a water bubble around them, as they did many times before to get past blockades (or I think they did).

    I love this episode. I loved Katara’s character (or I loved how much I disliked her character?), I loved the deus ex machina with Yue and Roku because it was tonally fitting, and I loved most of what went on with Aang.

    The only thing that is unbelievably contrived is that bit of Aang saying “I need to get my honor back” and it cuts to Zuko. Ugh. It wasn’t any better when Sokka said the same thing in the beginning of ‘The Boiling Rock’

    September 27, 2014 at 5:20 pm

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