Because fans should be critical, too

Archive for May, 2012

Chapter Forty-Seven: “The Runaway”

8

(Rating Out of 15)

Among the things I contemplated while “The Runaway” played before me—including but thankfully not limited to suicide—was just how difficult it is to make a film and/or an animation, and how much of a miracle it is that anything good can come from such a nerve wrecking endeavor. It certainly takes a great deal of passion and integrity to see a project from an idea in one’s head to a finished product, especially if the project in question is actually personal to the creators and not merely a corporate product. And since corporate products pretty much rule the day on television and elsewhere, it’s truly amazing that, every once in a while, something as unique and obviously heartfelt as Avatar: the Last Airbender ever gets a time slot.

Still, the sheer industrial nature of television animation production doesn’t always make for the most nurturing creative environment, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that episodes like “The Runaway” make it through that entire process practically unscathed. Do DiMartino and Konietzko and company put episodes like this into production knowing damn well how bad they are? I can imagine it must be difficult to fulfill their contractual obligation of twenty episodes per season and to make all twenty shine with the same radiance. Do they think to themselves that, as far as the big picture is concerned, some episodes are just not worth stressing over as much as other episodes? I can’t know what their actual thought process was, but they probably just decided that even though not every episode could be “The Southern Raiders,” they should still try to make sure every episode was as good as it could be. Sometimes they judged poorly. That can happen.

But enough aimless rambling. Ultimately, no amount of rationalizing can make up for the fact that “The Runaway” is still one of the most miserable viewing experiences of my life. Don’t let the generously high rating of 8 fool you: if it weren’t for Sokka’s speech about his sister and most of the third act, this episode would have been right next to “The Painted Lady” and “The Great Divide” as one of the worst episodes of the series.

Honestly, I wish I could just say that and be done with it, but now I have the responsibility of explaining myself. That, of course, would require me to actively remember the events and elements of the episode, a process that literally causes me pain. Please give me strength, unseen makers of the universe.

The main conflict of “The Runaway” is between Katara and Toph. Katara is upset that Toph is being such a wild child, and Toph believes that Katara is a total square uncapable of having any fun. This swiftly escalates to Katara accusing Toph of acting out because she misses her parents, despite them being overbearing. In turn, Toph accuses Katara of trying to be the boss and mother of everyone, even though she’s just a kid like the rest of the group.

Could these elements have made a good episode? Most definitely, and the fact that “The Runaway” finds nearly every possible way to fuck it up is all the more upsetting.

The hook of the episode is a prologue in which Katara “betrays” Toph by handing her over to the police. The rest of the episode is thus a flashback leading up to this moment, and we’re supposed to wonder what made Katara do this to Toph.

This prologue is simply a cheap, idiotic, manipulative gimmick that has little value beyond being a cheap, idiotic, manipulative gimmick. DiMartino and Konietzko and company have never been good as disguising their put-ons, so any interest in how the actual moment came about quickly evaporates. If the payoff was better—that is, if there was legitimately a ripple in Katara and Toph’s friendship that drove them to this point—then maybe it would have worked.

For an example of a prologue that does work, check out the opening scene from Goodfellas. (Warning: even the prologue of a Martin Scorsese film can be pretty brutal.) Or just rent Goodfellas immediately.  Unlike “The Runaway,” this prologue actually hooks you and gets you to ask a lot of questions that you want answers to, not the least about protagonist Henry Hill: this is why you wanted to be a gangster? What’s also great about this prologue is that, when the story comes right back to it midway through the film, we understand that things like this happen all the time, and yet it’s still the biggest turning point in the characters’ lives.*

But back to Avatar. Once we’ve flashed back, we’re immediately given another red herring: while training Aang in the art of fighting blindfolded—which deserves more attention, but doesn’t get it—Toph and Katara get into a cat fight in which names are called and mud is flung.

Please tell me what this fighting has to do with anything. It’s not thematically connected to the main conflict. It comes out of nowhere and is forgotten just as quickly. It establishes absolutely nothing new and/or interesting about the characters. Why is it in the episode? I have a nagging suspicious that the initial script for “The Runaway” wasn’t long enough for the running time, so they hastily stitched this scene together, forgetting to connect it with anything. Since “The Runaway” is already a filler episode with plot, that would make this filler-within-filler. Good Lord.

(I just thought of something. Considering that Toph gets on Katara’s case about being too bossy and motherly, perhaps this scene, in which both parties act extremely immaturely, was supposed to prove that neither is more in the moral right than the other. But maybe I’m giving the writers too much credit.)

Then there are the scams. It’s not the scams themselves that bug me—some of them are actually pretty clever—it’s the fact that, with the exception of Toph, they play out disconnected from the characters as we know them. That is to say, why are Aang and Sokka so on board with these scams?

You could argue that Aang is on board because they give him the opportunity to be a clever trickster again, only the episode does nothing to explore that notion. Sokka just never gets a decent explanation. (His Wang Fire the guard business is funny, though.)

I guess my problem is that the characters aren’t really “in-character” as they are required to do these things that are solely motivated by the plot. Should an approach can be called “fanfiction-esque,” which is probably the worst criticism you can give an episode.

What is the point of having Aang and Sokka in on the scamming anyway? They don’t learn anything or experience anything new from it. They are simply required to go along with Toph, who then gets chewed about by Katara, who considers the scams “dangerous.” Maybe a better episode would have explored why these scams are so fun, the excitement of breaking the law, and perhaps why “danger” is essential to the concept of “fun”: it’s the thrill of getting away with something you otherwise wouldn’t/shouldn’t be able to. (Hell, even investigate why someone like Katara, for whom danger is not something actively sought out, could never really understand that particular brand of fun.)

But I digress. Soon, Toph is wanted by the local village, who call her “the runaway” (the reason for which is never explained, but I guess they couldn’t call her the “blind bandit” again). The scenes in which Sokka and Katara confront her with the wanted poster results in yet another blind joke that is funny in concept, but only mildly amusing in execution. They keep asking her to explain the poster, forgetting that she’d have to be able to see the poster to do so. Once again, voice actress Jessie Flower let’s us down: the girl just does not know how to let loose and display extreme emotions. I’m not asking her to be Nicolas Cage, but to EMOTE when the occasion calls for it. (Let’s put it this way: if Flower overacted as much as Jack De Sena, and De Sena underacted as much as Flower, you wouldn’t hear me complain one bit about their performances.)

And so Katara and Toph finally have a falling out, and Aang and Sokka try to find a way to resolve their conflict. Unfortunately, this means stupid hijinks. Sokka decides to use his new carrier hawk to send an apology note to Katara while pretending it’s from Toph. This plan is so stupid that not even the character’s admittance of its stupidity–when it fails, of course–makes it forgivable.

Finally, Sokka does the reasonable thing and talks to Toph about his sister. This results in the only completely good scene in the entire episode. In fact, this little exchange between them—while, unbeknownst to them (or is it?), Katara listens in on it while bathing—is so well-written and genuinely heartwarming that I’m willing to bet this scene existed long before DiMartino and Konietzko and company ever gave any thought to how they could reasonably fit it within an episode. While the rest of the episode is as maddeningly unfocused and idiotic as the show is at its worst, this scene is as clear, precise and emotional as the show is at its best.

My favorite part of this scene is probably Sokka’d admittance that he barely remembers his mother at all. She died when he and Katara were young, and he was probably just not as close to her as Katara was. So whenever we tries to remember his mother, instead, he sees Katara since, for all he knows, she was always there for him.

And so Toph and Katara make up, but that’s not the end of things. Katara, trying to prove that she can be fun, wants to pull the ultimate scam: pretend to have Toph arrested, collect the reward money, bust out of jail, and hightail out of the town once and for all. I must say, it is a perfect scam. Henry Gondorff would be proud.

Which brings us back to that stupid put-on of an opening. Seeing how the kids actually got to that point makes it all the more meaningless. Sure, I guess it’s surprising that it was Katara who came up with the scam, but otherwise, nothing is gained at all from it.

But I digress. If anything, the real twist is way more effective: the police are onto the kids’ scam and place them both in jail. Why? Because they will be used as bait for Aang to come and rescue them. Then Combustion Man will appear and kill him! Oh no!

But, of course, everyone escapes. I’ll just say it’s a perfectly satisfactory last-act action sequence and leave it at that. (Plus, we get a glimpse into Combustion Man’s eventual demise.)

Speaking of which, there’s some “funny” business about what to name Combustion Man before they finally decide on that name. The first choice was “Sparky Sparky Boom Man.” De Sena came up with that one, didn’t he?

Oi. What a headache of an episode. I suppose it’s much better to have an episode that starts horribly and ends well rather than the other way around, but this was simply torturous. It’s episodes like this that sometimes make me hate Avatar.

*The Goodfellas screenshot is from this blog post, which gives more insight into the power of its opening scene. The blog is called “And So it Begins…,” and is worth checking out by all cinema lovers.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Announcement: Deadlines and Getting Back into Gear

I clearly haven’t been living up to my post-every-three-days deadline that I set up for myself long ago. I apologize to those who have been patiently awaiting my latest reviews on Avatar: the Last Airbender, and especially The Legend of Korra (particularly since there won’t be any new episodes for a while, giving me a chance to catch up). I must make a better effort to uphold these deadlines if I want to finish these reviews in a timely fashion and move on to other projects.

Expect the review of “The Runaway” on Thursday May 31st. From then on, there will be no more unannounced delays. (At this point, I can no longer promise that there won’t be any delays.)

– Marshall Turner


Chapter Forty-Six: “The Avatar and the Firelord”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Avatar and the Firelord” is the third and the best of the flashback episodes (preceded by “The Storm” and “Appa’s Lost Days”), and it answers two very important questions: how/why the war got started, and what Avatar Roku had to do with either. In “The Awakening” (as that annoying “Previously on Avatar” prologue reminds us), Roku mentions that the war was technically his fault and that Aang needed to fix his mistake. What mistake was that? That question is never actually answered–I don’t think–but we do learn about Roku and Firelord Sozin’s pasts.

Before the two were Avatar and Firelord, Roku and Sozin were great, childhood friends from the Fire Nation. Then Roku was announced to be the new Avatar and had to leave home to master the elements over the course of many, many years. During that time, Sozin became the new Firelord, and also, unfortunately, made new plans to expand the Fire Nation. Seeing as this would bring unbalance to the world, Roku refused to aid his good friend in his conquest. Sozin went on ahead without him, finally destroying their once sacred bond. Thus, when given the opportunity to let Roku die, Sozin took it: with the Avatar out of the way, world domination was possible. All he had to do was make sure the next Avatar—an Air Nomad—was taken care of…

This plotline could have very easily been botched and melodramatic, particularly with the friendship aspect. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. Part of the reason this episode works so well is because the friendship between Roku and Sozin actually feels like a real friendship. We’re not simply told that they were friends, we also see enough of how they interacted and felt about each other to believe it.

This makes their descent into bitter enemies all the more painful to watch. Naturally, part of the reason this happened was because of their long stretches of time spent apart. Sozin grew up believing that the Fire Nation was great enough to be worth expanding across the world, while Roku grew up learning that the very notion of Sozin’s idea would only lead to disorder. One has to wonder, though, if Roku would have so firmly opposed his old friend if he hadn’t been the new Avatar.

As far as the plot goes, there’s not a whole lot I can say about it. It proceeds as it must, and we learn what we need to learn, which is the best you can hope for from a flashback episode. However, God is in the details, and that’s where the real interest—for better or worse—in “The Avatar and the Firelord” lies: in the little moments.

The most resonant moment in the episode is arguably when the Fire Nation Sages come to Roku and Sozin’s birthday celebration (they shared the same birthday) to announce that Roku is the new Avatar. Everyone immediately bows except for Sozin, who needs a moment to take this fact in before he joins the crowd in giving his respect to Roku.

It’s amazing how much easier it is to acknowledge the unexpected greatness of a total stranger than that of a close friend. It’s even worse for Sozin since, before this happened, the only status difference between the two was that Sozin was destined to be the Firelord. While they treated each other as equals, in the back of Sozin’s mind, he probably felt secure around Roku, knowing there was no way his friend would ever “best” him. He was wrong.

This probably ate at him for the rest of his life, even as he gave Roku his royal head dress before he left to master the elements. This was supposed to be a symbol of their friendship, but then again, wouldn’t Sozin just get a new, better head dress when he became Firelord? And notice how he talks to Roku now, calling him “all-powerful Avatar” in an almost condescending way.

Also notice how he talks to him when the two of them meet for the first time in years. When Roku greets him, Sozin quickly and gravely says, “Customarily, my subjects bow before greeting me…but you’re the exception.” This is played off as a joke between friends, but it’s interesting that Sozin still considers his friend the Avatar a “subject.”

“I own you, bitch.”

Finally, it comes to a head when Sozin reveals his plans to expand the Fire Nation with Roku. In a sort of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” turnaround, Sozin sees their friendship as the key to his ultimate ascension to even greater power. With the Avatar by his side, anything will be possible. Could it be that Roku’s disgust was not just with this plan that would surely damage the world, but also with the fact that his old friend even considered trying to use him for his own selfish purposes?

Everything that follows is, for the most part, to be expected. When the two get into a fight, Roku wins, sparing Sozin only because they were friends. And when Roku is in danger, Sozin gladly allows him to perish so his more powerful foe is longer an issue.

The second most resonant moment in the episode comes near the end of Sozin’s testament, as he explains that he spent the rest of his life searching for the new Avatar, only to fail. And yet, in one scene, we see his ship pass right over Aang and Appa’s frozen ball of ice.

It’s a powerful moment that almost makes you feel sorry for Sozin. It was established earlier that he died peacefully in his sleep, but that turns out to be a lie. While the concept of missed opportunities has been explored more in-depth in other stories, the brief moment it’s given here is still effective. He spent his dying years searching for something that, at one point, was literally under his nose.

(Isn’t it strange that the two most powerful moments in the episode belong to Sozin, our bad guy? I didn’t even feel anything for Roku’s demise.)

Unfortunately, the rest of this review has to do with small problems, quick questions, or petty observations.

First, the plot has Aang learn about the past through Roku and a Spirit World journey, while Zuko learns about the past through reading Sozin’s final testament. After Zuko  thinks he doesn’t learn about his great grandfather’s demise, he has to go to Iroh to ask why. That’s when Iroh reveals that it was Roku who was the great grandfather—on his mother’s side. This is interesting information to be sure, but it raises a question: surely Roku knows this, too, right? How come he didn’t tell Aang? Did he think it wasn’t important? I would think it was important to relay the fact that my enemy and I are somehow related.

Second, at the beginning of the episode, Roku tells Aang he needs to know how the war began in order to end it. I don’t quite understand what he means by that. If anything, it was Roku’s giving Sozin a second chance that resulted in his own demise, the genocide of the Air Nomads, and the one-hundred war. Was the point “don’t give people who threaten the balance of the world second chances, even if they’re your friends?” (Obviously not, because the entire series finale is devoted to not killing Firelord Ozai, even though that would help end the war.) Seriously, someone help me out here.

Third, Roku’s line about how he and his wife (and Zuko’s great grandmother) Ta Min eventually married: “When love is real, it finds a way, and being the Avatar doesn’t hurt your chances with the ladies, either.” Look, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, I understand that you two are, like, pathological optimists, and that Avatar: the Last Airbender is, at heart, an optimistic show, and I also understand at times I’m too cynical for my own good, but I must seriously say, from the bottom of my heart—and I sincerely wish there was a more polite way to put this: FUCK YOU.

Fourth, this shot.

Whenever I watch this episode and get to this shot, it never, ever, ever fails to take me out of the show completely. And it’s not because it’s a bad shot, but rather because it’s too good, and, more to the point, too good in a way that’s radically different from the style we’re used to. It just screams out, “Look at me! Look at how beautiful and artful I am! Look at me!” I reminds me of something director Ridley Scott once said: “It’s beautiful…but what the fuck does it mean?!”* There have been many wonderful shots and drawings in Avatar before and after, but at least they went with the emotional and intellect thread of the given moment. The artfulness of this shot is so out of context that it’s almost funny how needlessly beautiful it is. Remember in Fight Club how Tyler Durden spliced in single frames of pornography into children’s films as they played in movie theaters? The effect here is almost exactly the same and garners about the same reaction.

“What the Hell am I watching again?”

Fifth, what was the point of Roku trying to stop the volcano that erupted on his home island? If he was trying to stop the lava from getting to the people escaping by boat, then I can understand that. But is that really what was going on? Or was he trying to stop the volcano from erupting period? If so, why? Why not just make sure everyone gets away safely, and let nature takes its course? What was the intent here?

Sixth, Greg Baldwin tries a little too hard to sound like Mako when he plays Uncle Iroh. I understand what he’s trying to do, but I think if he just plays him naturally in a variation of his own voice, no one would be bothered. By trying to imitate Mako, he just keeps reminding us that he’s not Mako.

And finally, seventh, the final scene. Aang says that the point of Roku’s story was that everyone, even the Firelord, should be treated like they deserve a second chance. Despite the fact that that attitude cost Roku his life and allowed the war to happen. Explain? (At least DiMartino and Konietzko and company were aware of how corny that holding hands and “friendships lasting lifetimes” business was.)

And yet, for all these problems—which can probably be waved away with simple, straightforward explanations—“The Avatar and the Firelord” is still a great episode. And unlike with “The Awakening,” I actually like this one. For the most part.

*Ridley Scott said this about the first rough cut of his brilliant film Blade Runner in the making-of documentary Dangerous Days. In case anyone was wondering.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


All Work and No Feedback Makes Turner a Dull Boy

It’s been almost six months since I started this blog of Avatar: the Last Airbender episode reviews. Since then, my monthly viewership has steadily risen, the number of comments received is no longer in the single digits, and I have three followers. By Internet standards, this is surely meager, but I’m happy to have gotten this far.

What I’m not happy about is how little feedback I’ve gotten on this project. I honestly don’t know if what I’m doing is any good at all. The few positive remarks I’ve gotten have been more praise for the idea of the blog and not necessarily the contents. The few negative remarks I’ve gotten all come from the same source, making their validity questionable.

It especially hurts since I established this blog to be open for discussion, because I knew there would be some disagreement with my views on Avatar. Not only do my views remain stagnant (not that’s anything wrong with a different opinion, but what if it’s misinformed?), but so do the reviews. Either: 1) people have chosen to respond to my reviews by not responding at all, as if I were some troll; 2) my reviews aren’t remarkable enough to warrant a genuine reaction; or 3) despite the high total viewership, this site simply hasn’t been viewed by that many people.

One of my friends suggested I do advertising for this blog, but I don’t know: it seems rather silly to advertise something as exclusive as reviews of one specific television series, no matter how popular it is. (Maybe when I extend my reach to music reviews—the next frontier—advertising might be an option.)

Until then, I’ll just have to trust the statistics, which is never a good idea, as Pauline Kael once explained about movie attendances:

The lines (and the grosses) tell us only that people are going to the movies—not that they’re having a good time.

So for those people who have visited this site, please let me know now: are you having a good time?

P.S. That Pauline Kael article, entitled Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers, is well worth a read of its own.


Chapter One and Two: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”

Seeing as they premiered together, I’ll have to discuss “Welcome to Republic City” and “A Leaf in the Wind” together. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because they offset each other perfectly when it comes to quality. That is to say this: I didn’t like “Welcome” all that much, but I absolutely loved “Leaf.”

The funny thing is, I actually watched “Welcome” the night before the official premiere broadcast on television, and I really did not enjoy it then either. I can’t even begin to explain how disappointed I was: to think, after all those years of producing Avatar: the Last Airbender and learning what and what not to do with their premise, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko still didn’t know how to make a good show!

Dammit, guys!

Admittedly, I jumped the gun too fast on that judgment. After watching the two episodes back-to-back, I was relieved to be proven wrong. Still, if the excellent “Leaf” proves anything, it’s not that these two don’t know how to make a good show so much as they don’t know how to make a good first episode. The first few episodes of Avatar were pretty lame, too, especially compared to most of the rest of that series. They got better over time, honing the Avatar formula, occasionally coming up with transcendent mini-masterpieces like “The Southern Raiders,” and now they’ve brought us The Legend of Korra, a spinoff that, for the most part, builds impressively on the strengths of its predecessor while exorcising most of the weaknesses (except for disappointing first episodes).

So what the Hell happened with “Welcome?” How did it fail where “Leaf” succeeded?

After much pondering, I think I’ve finally pinpointed the biggest problem, and it has to do with the title character herself.

Let’s describe what Korra is like in “Leaf.” She’s arrogant, abrasive, angsty and angry, and in-your-face, rebellious, passionate, and a smart ass, but ultimately good natured. (I’m still on the fence as to whether she’s sexy or not.)

She’s almost none of those things in “Welcome” (again, the sexiness is debatable). Why not? Even when I didn’t know what characteristics she wasn’t displaying before I saw “Leaf,” something was off about her anyway. She just didn’t seem like an actual character.

I think I know why now. I think in the interest of making Korra “likable” and “sympathetic,” DiMartino and Konietzko—who officially share all writing credits for Book One of Korra, which means they now take all the blame and the praise—suppressed those bits of her personality that could have been potentially off-putting to the audience. In essence, they took away all the things that made her interesting, which is always a bad idea.

That’s the thing about storytelling: it doesn’t matter whether the protagonist is “good” or “bad” in the moral sense, because if they’re not interesting, intriguing, and/or entertaining, the audience simply will not care. Take Richard III, for example: he is one of the most evil characters in fiction. So evil that he literally explains to the audience what evil he plans to bestow upon his unknowing subjects so that we have no choice but to helplessly watch his plans succeed. You didn’t necessarily “root” for him, but you sure as Hell wanted to see what he would do next. (So, in a way, you were rooting for him for your own enjoyment!)

You sly dog!

For a more traditional example, take Tony Stark from the Iron Man films (and now The Avengers). He may be a witty genius, but he’s also a narcissistic, arrogant, mischievous, and almost fratboy-esque asshole. Hell, he remains those things throughout the films. The one thing that’s changed from the beginning of the first Iron Man is that he now has a conscience and a will to do good for others. That alone made everything else about him periodically maddening, but always entertaining, especially when he got on other people’s nerves.

Maybe it’s because Korra is a kids’ show—which I still believe is ultimately a silly detriment, but I digress—that they had to make sure Korra was first seen as a role model before she could be seen as a character. Uh huh.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the Italian neo-realism film Umberto D. the following:

It is said that at one level or another, Chaplin’s characters were always asking that we love them. Umberto doesn’t care if we love him or not. That is why we love him.

I absolutely agree. The same could even be said of Katara from Avatar. Her character was always at her worst when she was portrayed as the ultimate good Samaritan who lead the People; conversely, she was always best when she was concerned only for herself. Since she was generally a nurturing character by default, this trait added a greater depth and humanity to her character.

With Korra in “Welcome,” we get no such thing. In fact, all we learn about her are things of little value. We learn that she’s eager to learn Airbending. Why? Because she has to learn it eventually, being the Avatar and all. (Much more interesting is her refusal to learn it in “Leaf.”) Ultimately, this does motivate her to disobey her potential Airbending tutor Tenzin’s order to stay home so she can follow him to Republic City, but that simply feels like plot mechanics at work: she has to get to the City, otherwise, the real plot of the show can’t start.

There are only three real moments in the episode where her true personality shines: 1) when she’s introduced as a destructive little girl who knows damn well that she’s the Avatar (topped off with the most effectively abrupt time jump this side of Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey); 2) when she beats up the gangsters because she can (don’t give me that “it’s my duty” shit); and 3) when she mocks Chief Lin Bei Fong’s “I’ll be watching you” expression after getting from under arrest by Tenzin. (I will admit, I’m glad she beat those gangsters up. After destroying the man’s music box and proclaiming not to be music lovers, they really deserved nothing less than death.)

These are all great moments, and pretty much the best parts of the episode, precisely because they seem to stem from her actual personality and not because of any plot requirements. Everything else is pretty boring. I mean, her flee from the Metalbending police is indeed a fun little chase sequence, but it’s not like she was running from them because she purposely did anything wrong (except get caught).

Wow. This is almost reminiscent of actual anime.

There are other things of note in this episode, too. Like that Katara is in it, and she’s played by that lady who was in that one Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s nice to see her (I guess?), but I’m almost certain the only reason she’s in this episode is because she gets to have an “emotional” moment with Korra before she runs away to Republic City. This scene is supposed to be reminiscent of the time Katara ran away from home so she could travel the world with Aang and become a Waterbender.

The problem I have with this scene is the same problem I had with the scene in Avatar. Neither girl really runs away, but instead gets caught and given approval from someone else to go away (in Korra, it’s Katara; and in Avatar, it’s Gran Gran). It’s a little better in Korra because there is actual opposition to her leaving—Tenzin sure as Hell doesn’t approve of it, and neither do the White Lotus members—but was this moment really supposed to make me feel something? Ultimately, the only reason these two did what they did is because there would be no show if they didn’t. The reasons they have for “running away” are self-serving, but conveniently it all works out in the end.

But enough about that. How about the scene where one of Tenzin’s daughters, Jinora, asks Katara about the whereabouts of Zuko’s mother? You see, she’s read about the adventures of Aang and friends and that was apparently never resolved then either. Before Katara can answer, Ikki interrupts with typical childish questions and comments.

Here’s my question: when are DiMartino and Konietzko going to stop pandering like this? This sort of fan baiting was annoying enough in Avatar (and resulted in the awful “The Ember Island Players”). Why do we need it here? I can only interpret this as a giant “fuck you” to fans who keep asking about it.

(Note: when I read a review on “Welcome” and got to this bit, I honestly thought it was a joke on the author’s part. I was horrified to find out it wasn’t, but a joke on the writers’ part. These are jokes for the fans to make, not the creators!)

What else is there to say about this episode?

Korra’s parents are boring as fuck. No wonder the girl had no qualms about leaving home.

And Lin Bei Fong is voiced by Mindy Sterling. Groovy!

My final consensus on “Welcome to Republic City” is that it gets the job done—introducing the show, the setting, and the characters—but that’s about it.

Now let’s talk about “A Leaf in the Wind!”

Seriously, it’s almost insulting how much better this episode is than “Welcome to Republic City.” That episode felt like something they had to do while this one feels like something they actually cared about. It’s so tempting to just going over all my favorite parts—especially with the episodes readily available online—but I’ll stick to generalizing and mentioning highlights.

I’ve already mentioned that Korra is at her full potential in this episode, whether it’s being a smart ass to Tenzin or kicking ass in Pro-bending. Now this is a heroine I can get behind.

Heh heh.

Speaking of Pro-bending: this is one fascinating game. DiMartino and Konietzko and company really went to great lengths to make it seem like a legitimate sport. I remember a while ago seeing a video of Konietzko explaining the rules of the game and thinking, “I am NOT watching all eighteen minutes of this boring fucking video!” The great thing is I didn’t have to: we gradually pick up on the rules of the games as they go on, thanks in large part to Korra’s unfamiliarity with them. The result is one of the coolest ideas in the show.

We get to meet two new characters, brothers Bolin and Mako. These two are different in many ways, aside from Bolin being an Earthbender and Mako being a Firebender. Bolin is just more excitable, more social, and much goofier than his brother, who is more like a less depressed Zuko. I like these guys. They’re a lot of fun to watch.

Korra’s Airbending training is pretty funny. This stuff really does not come naturally to her, which leads to many embarrassing moments. One of them involves spinning gates, which a skilled Airbender can navigate through without touching a single gate. Korra gets his ass handed to her several times before she finally, in a fit of rage, blasts the damn thing off with Firebending.

Meditation is no better. I actually know this one from experience: to sit still and just have your mind clear of all distractions is one of the most difficult things you can ever learn to do. (I still can’t do it after all these years.) Even if Korra did have patience, this would not come easily.

Luckily for Korra, Pro-bending does come much more easily, and through a series of plot mechanics that I won’t get into, she ends up joining Bolin and Mako’s team, the Fire Ferrets, and competes so they can go to the championships. Even more luckily for Korra, those Airbending lessons finally pay off when she realizes she can use them to dodge the waves of attacks directed at her. Her newly found skills help her win her first Pro-bending match. Even Tenzin admits that Pro-bending is the perfect learning tool for her.

Aside from these, there are other little details that make this episode so wonderful. I liked how Korra, upon putting on an Airbender’s outfit for the first time, instinctively rolls up the sleeves to show off her big biceps.

I also liked Bolin’s blatant womanizing, which is perfectly complemented by what a lovable goofball he is. Tenzin’s excited cheer for Korra’s victory in Pro-bending is probably my favorite part of the episode.

Speaking of which, if there’s a constant source of greatness throughout both these episodes, it’s Tenzin and his family.

I simply love all of them, from Tezin’s ever patient wife Pema—how could she not be patient with three kids and a fourth one of the way—to the kids, Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo. Ikki and Meelo particularly remind me too much of my little twin brothers with their high energy and talkativeness. They’re all so lively and interesting in their own way. (Unlike Korra’s parents, who were probably glad to be rid of that little demon.)

As of this writing, the show is six episodes in, and Tenzin remains my favorite character (with Korra in a far second). He’s old enough to be a wise mentor, but young enough to not be particularly good at it. This inner dynamic makes him the perfect teacher for Korra, since they can surely learn a lot from each other. Maybe Korra can learn to take things more seriously and Tenzin can learn not to be so serious all the time. And on top of everything, he’s played by the always wonderful J. K. Simmons. What more could you ask for?

Before closing, I should also mention that the production values are fantastic. Both episodes look great, and while the animation is still not “great”, by television standards, it’s the best there is. Besides, there are sporadic moments of brilliant animation throughout, so I’m more than pleased.

I’d like to think that “A Leaf in the Wind” paves the way for smooth sailing as the show continues, but I can’t. With an episode like “Welcome to Republic City” in the mix, it’ll be impossible to predict the quality of any upcoming episode. Will there be episodes just as bad as–or worse than–“Welcome?” Will there be episodes just as good as–or better than– “Leaf?” I guess we’ll just have to watch and find out. In any case, the bar has been set, and I’m definitely eager to see what happens next. Here’s to high hopes!

“Welcome to Republic City”

“A Leaf in the Wind”

All screenshots taken by me.


Chapter Forty-Five: “The Beach”

11

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Beach” holds a special place in my heart as an episode that contains everything I love about Avatar: the Last Airbender and everything I hate about Avatar: the Last Airbender. Psychological introspection? Yes please! Stupid 80s cliches passed off as “humor?” No thanks. Genuinely suspenseful action sequences that make me care? Why certainly! Sequences only intended as useless filler? Go away. Actual character development, where even non-entities like Ty Lee get my sympathy? You shouldn’t have! Ty Lee is in this episode? Fuck you!

And let me just get this out of the way right now: Ty Lee the character is probably all right. Once again, my hatred rests solely with the voice actor, in this case Olivia Hack. No disrespect to her—I’m sure she tried her best—but as I’m concerned, the wrong voice actor died during the production of this series. Either that’s not Hack’s natural voice or Darwin was a fucking liar. She’s so annoying! She sounds like those whiny anime girls in almost every anime in existence (because there’s always at least one).

…sorry…

Now perhaps this is just a bias. Maybe you don’t have a problem with Ty Lee’s voice actor. Maybe you do have a problem with Mai’s voice actor, Cricket Leigh, who’s on the whole other end of the spectrum as far as female voice actors are considered. I’ll respectably disagree with you and leave it at that.

Since I’m already ranting about the stuff I hate, I might as well get it all out now.

I understand the plot mechanics of the whole beach mythology and yada yada—that the Ember Island beach can help you understand yourself. It’s not very subtle; they might as well have called the episode “The One Where They Have Spontaneous Group Therapy.” If this was the only way they could have gotten these elements together, then I’ll just have to live with that. It’s not like I’m not used to having great things surrounded by lousiness.

Most of the first third of the episode is pretty much useless. At best, it’s mildly entertaining, but for the most part it’s just boring filler. It almost feels “fanfic-esque” in the way it barely seems to stem any sort of reality the creators have set up. It’s as if they were thinking, “Would it be funny if…” without actually connecting it to anything relevant. The few funny moments—which I’ll discuss later—don’t save the first third at all.

The second third, while slightly better, still feels wrong. I understand the intention: they wanted to send up/homage the teenage angst 80s films of John Hughes by merging their values with the situation of our Avatar characters find themselves in. It makes sense: Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are teenagers, so why not take a cue from the godfather of teenage angst pictures?

Unfortunately, they do the late great Hughes a disservice, because one of his strengths was being able to humanize even the lamest teenage stereotypes. The teenage stereotypes in “The Beach” remain just that: they’re not human beings in their own right, but mild nuisances for the main characters. This is also disappointing because DiMartino and Konietzko and company have proven before that they too can humanize one-time characters and make their brief appearances resonate (I still remember Jeong Jeong from “The Deserter,” even if I did just have to look up how his name was spelled). The one-time characters in this episode are just boring. The only thing of interest is that Chan is voiced by Eric von Detten (better known as Sid from Toy Story and Erik Lawson from Recess).

You could argue that since the focus of the episode is on the four main characters and their psychological problems, adding too much characterization and quirkiness (no matter how little) to the other characters would simply distract from that; they needed to be cardboard characters. I can respect that choice, but I still won’t like it. If that was the case, then their choice of homage should probably have been something like Animal House, not John Hughes.

At least Animal House knew how to make its caricatures funny.

So yeah, there’s a lot I hate about this episode, but I’m still willing to give it the relatively high score of 11 because I absolutely love everything else. (Well, almost everything else.)

This is probably the first time that Aang and friends’ story was actually better and more consistent than Zuko’s. They have their first encounter with Combustion Man, whom Zuko hired to kill the Avatar. It’s essentially one long action sequence, but one of the most suspenseful and, surprisingly, frightening sequences in the entire series. The very first scene between them is even done without music, underpinning just what a singularly horrifying presence Combustion Man is. As the sequence continues, there’s really nothing the kids can do but run away. Attacking him head-on proves totally futile.

While the Combustion Man scenes are objectively better handled than all of the Zuko and company scenes—probably because they are much, much shorter as well—subjectively, I still prefer the Beach Party Therapy scene. It appeals more to my personal tastes and, interestingly, it’s the only scene in the episode that feels remotely like an homage to John Hughes. The obvious reference here is The Breakfast Club, where five radically different teenage archetypes confess their feelings and true selves to each other.

Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee do the exact same thing (minus detention), and part of the scene’s success is that any viewer can easily sympathize with at least one character or the other to any degree. We’ve all been down these roads before. I particularly know Mai’s story a little too well, as summarized by Azula:

Azula: …You had a controlling mother who had certain expectations, and if you strayed from them you were shut down. That’s why you’re afraid to care about anything, and why you can’t express yourself.

That said, all of their confessions ring true to me (except maybe Azula’s, but in a way, that just makes her eventual end all the more poignant). I guess it goes without saying that I most definitely understand Zuko’s confusion about who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. And as for Ty Lee’s identity and attention issues…well, let’s just say this blog wasn’t made just because I love/hate Avatar, ya know what I’m sayin’?

But Ty Lee’s story begs the question: what were her six identical sisters like? No doubt they had their little differences, but isn’t it possible that they all felt like Ty Lee did? That they had no identity of their own and were “scared of spending the rest of [their lives] as part of a matched set?” What did they wind up doing with their lives? Who knows, but it actually is kind of fun to speculate. What possible careers could a Ty Lee have? A hitman? A therapist? A gangster?

“I’m funny how? Funny like a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fucking amuse you?”

Aside from those two major sources of greatness, there are several really funny moments sprinkled throughout the episode.

While on the beach, Zuko attempts to give Mai a seashell as a pretty gift, but she coldly dismisses it as something only stupid girls would want. Soon, we see that same seashell offered to Ty Lee by a random boy, and she gladly accepts. How am I supposed to interpret this as anything other than a sly hint that Ty Lee may just be one of those “stupid girls?”

That extreme game of beach volleyball is pretty damn funny as well, as Azula’s participation quickly turns the pleasant game into deadly warfare, ending with a huge explosion.

Also funny is Azula’s failed attempts to woo Chan, seeing as her compliments always inadvertently mutate into morbid fantasies of death and world domination. She only gets anywhere with Chan after receiving some helpful advice from Ty Lee: when getting a boy to like you, smile a lot and laugh at everything he says, even the unfunny bits. Azula objects that the advice “sounds really shallow and stupid,” which naturally means it works.

And that is does, even leading to what must have been Azula’s first kiss. So wonderful is this experience, in fact, that she immediately releases a psychotic proclamation that he and her will dominate the world together. That’s hilarious, but so too is Chan’s dumbfounded reaction.

And, of course, there’s Zuko and Mai. Just their interactions, even when they annoy each other, is a joy to behold. It actually feels like the interactions of real human beings who are uncomfortably getting used to the fact that no one will ever be as perfect for them as they are for each other. I think that’s rather touching.

One more note about Azula’s screw up with Chan: while this scene is funny overall, those instances of Azula actually taking Ty Lee’s advice to heart and laughing at Chan’s stupid comments are viscerally painful to watch. You can just feel Azula’s hatred for herself for having to stoop down to such idiotic tactics for some guy’s affection. It might have been funny if it wasn’t so damn heartbreaking.

“I hate myself and want to die…”

But I guess it all ends well. After the Beach Party Therapy, the four kids pretty much trash Chan’s place—which, in 80s movie kid tradition, is actually his dad’s place, so if anything gets wrecked, his dad will kill him.

Whoops.

I guess this is a triumphant ending, but it never really moves me. Chan was never even a real character to me, so why should I care that some non-entity is getting his comeuppance? On top of that, what motivates this destruction anyway? I mean, Zuko was the only one to be kicked out, and that’s because he did destroy something in the house. And it wasn’t Chan that was hitting on Mai, it was the other guy. And Azula was the one who scared Chan away. And were Mai and Ty Lee even kicked out?

At least Bluto and the gang had a reason to hate and destroy those preps in Animal House.

Maybe that’s the point. They are all still technically villains, so I suppose this shouldn’t be all that surprising. It’s ironic that through all that Beach Party Therapy, they never resolved their main problem, which is that they are brats from the Fire Nation, and that deep down they will always be one thing.

Assholes.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Forty-Four: “Sokka’s Master”

12

(Rating Out of 15)

DiMartino and Konietzko and company certainly have a knack for following up some of their worst episodes with really good ones. (They also have a knack for following up their good seasonal openers with lousy episodes, but let’s focus on one talent at a time.) “Sokka’s Master” is a great episode in a “very special way”: as the title [partially] suggests, it focuses almost exclusively on Sokka and his training to become a master swordsman. It’s nice to finally have an episode with Sokka where I have almost nothing to object to with his behavior.

That said, if there’s any episode in this series to support my “emasculation of Sokka” theory, it’s this one. The essence of the episode is that Sokka feels inadequate hanging around these three kids with remarkable Bending abilities. To become remarkable in his own way, he decides to take up a weapon and add it to his repertoire of abilities. Notice that his focus is strictly on the physical. He fails to take into account that he is the smart one of the group, the “idea” man, the way to the others’ will. If anything, he’s the glue that holds this odd team together.

Not that it’s not totally understandable. Take Pete Townshend, for instance. He was the leader, rhythm guitarist, occasional singer, and songwriting genius of the Who, but without the powerful singing of Roger Daltrey (not to mention the brilliant bass playing of John Entwistle and the insane drumming of Keith Moon), the Who wouldn’t have been all the unstoppable force that it was. Townshend more than anyone would know this well, and develop a subtle resentment of his fellow members. (And Townshend always did have an inferiority complex anyway.) Case in point, compare Townshend’s original demo of “The Real Me” with the version that ended up on the album Quadrophrenia. The former has great writing and qualities, but it’s the team that made it a work of art.

But then you can argue that Entwistle’s awesome basslines and Moon’s manic drumming would never have come to fruition without Townshend to write a place for them. So it is—allegedly—with the Avatar gang. When Sokka is off learning to be a master swordsman, the other kids lounge about, unable to think of anything to do. Personally, I think the writers were trying a little too hard to get their point across, but these scenes still ring true. When the funny guy in a group of emotional wrecks is gone, what you’re left with can get pretty damn depressing–trust me, I know–especially when they start trying to compensate for that guy’s lost, as Katara does:

Katara: It’s so hot, it’s so hot…Momo is shedding like Appa! Huh? Huh?

Fret not, Katara. My jokes are no funnier. Here’s the best I could come up with:

It’s so hot, the Devil wanted to sell me His soul for air conditioning.

Stand back, I’m a regular Rodney Dangerfield!

But back to my main point. This episode pretty much confirms that DiMartino and Konietzko and company have very little tolerance for machismo and will take any opportunity to make an impotency and/or girly man joke.

The episode starts with the kids putting out a fire from a meteor that fell to earth. Sokka cannot join in this mission because of his lack of Bending powers. When he’s feeling down about this the next day, Katara knows what will clear him up: shopping, oh boy!

The theme of “Sokka’s Master” has to be the recovery of a lost masculinity. Why else would Sokka be attracted to the most Freudian weapon in the weapon shop? During his training with Master Piandao, he is required to recreate his surroundings on paper, and promptly adds a rainbow when there was none. Now, this is probably just me being a conspiracy theorist and taking the interpretation too far, but considering what a rainbow symbolizes nowadays…

…it’s just a coincidence.

And isn’t it telling that Sokka wants to make his own sword out of the very substance that emasculated him in the first place? It’s yet another game of one upsmanself that defines stereotypically male behavior. Clever, and emotional satisfying from a story standpoint, but stereotypical nonetheless.

I really don’t want to belabor this point, so one last thing on the subject: watch the episode again, replacing the word “sword” with “Johnson” (or whichever phallic euphemism you prefer) and you’ll see that this episode is more dick-obsessed than your average high school jock.

Other than this, what else is there to say about the episode?

It highlights the learning process, a trait of the series which I’ve already praised. I’d say any child’s first cartoon should be Avatar: the Last Airbender because of that. As it pertains to this episode, and the teachings of a master swordsman, Sokka learns a few different things: 1) practicing a variety of arts to keep the mind sharp; 2) stamping your identity onto all you do; 3) grasping the lay of the land for future reference; 4) concentration; 5) manipulating your surroundings to your advantage; and 6) identity is more important than technique.

At least, that last one is what I gather from this dialogue:

Piandao: You’ve had a good first day of training.
Sokka: I have But I thought I messed up every single thing we worked on.
Piandao: You messed things up in a very special way.

It’s the whole Technician vs. Performer aspect of art that we can debate forever. Personally, I hold the middle ground, because your own personal feelings must inform whatever art form you choose to create within. But that’s another debate for another time and place. As for Sokka, he’s certainly “very special” in his own way, which I mean that way, but also not: he sincerely sees the world differently than his friends and most others, which can certainly come in handle at certain moments.

As you can see, this is when I begin to see Sokka as his own character deserving of empathy, and not simply a comic relief standby for someone like Jack De Sena to let loose his “immaculate comical skills” upon the world. De Sena the drama actor is fine and worthy; the comic, on the other hand, can die for all I care.

Speaking of voice actors, I used to not like Piandao’s voice actor (Robert Patrick, better known as the police officer in Wayne’s World), who sounded like…well, a “voice actor,” doing his job, but not convincing. However, I’ve grown to like his deliberately provocative remarks and his rather condescending tone of voice. It’s not a flaw, but a strategy: he’s supposed to discourage weak-willed pupils at every turn, but when someone as determined yet humbled as Sokka comes along, he can’t say “no” to him.

So I loved this episode up until the third act, when a last-act action sequence was all but obligatory. You see, Sokka admits that he is actually from the Southern Water Tribe and that he lied so that he could be traded. This incites one last duel with Master Piandao.

I’m still not sure what exactly inspired Sokka to give himself away. I’m really not. There was no indication before that his race or class had any influence on his willingness to train under someone like Piandao. What was it? Did his inferiority complex get the best of him?

(While we’re on the subject of stuff I didn’t understand, just HOW did that burning meteor threaten the village the kids were saving? Was the fire going to spread through the grass and eventually reach the village? Would the meteor have rolled down the hill and hit the village? Someone explain this to me, please.)

That said, the duel is fun and suspenseful, especially as Piandao compliments Sokka’s new found skills as he tries to kill him. Naturally, it’s all a put-on. Piandao just wanted to put Sokka’s skills to a real test before he leaves to face the world alone. He also knows that Aang is actually the Avatar. And he’s a member of the White Lotus, as his game piece informs us.

That reminds me: Uncle Iroh is wonderful in this episode. He has no lines of dialogue, but he really makes his impression once again. Turns out that during his time spent in prison, he’s been exercising like a madman, eventually developing an almost comically muscular physique. The guards keeping tabs on him are none the wiser.

If I had anything to really complain about in this episode, it’s that some of those “very special ways” in which Sokka screws up his training are just…bizarre. In particular, his calligraphy lesson ends with him—in order to stamp his identity on the page—covering his face in ink and imprinting his face on the piece of paper. Weird.

I should, on the other hand, praise this episode for containing the only successfully funny non sequitur in the series. When the kids are in the weapon store, Aang tries on hideously elaborate and over-sized battle armor that clearly is not meant for anything other than decoration.

Apparently this was DiMartino and Konietzko’s way of poking fun at anime excesses. Not being familiar with those excesses—I’m not an avid anime viewer—the joke still works extraordinarily well because God’s in the details: 1) a bright, physics-denying glare from the armor that blinds anyone from any angle who looks at it; and 2) the most perfect use of an evil-sounding, overdriven guitar solo that highlights the ridiculousness of it all. Brilliant.

(For a non sequitur that doesn’t work, see “The Ember Island Players.”)

And after all is said and done, does Sokka’s new found purpose in life really make that much of a difference? Um…

All screenshots courtesy of Sokka’s Master.org.