Chapter Forty-Three: “The Painted Lady”
(Rating Out of 15)
One has to wonder what was going through Michael Dante DiMartino’s and Bryan Konietzko’s minds as they were conceiving “The Painted Lady” all those years ago. Maybe it went something like this:
DiMartino: You know, Bryan, people are still getting on JOB’s case about writing “The Great Divide.”
Konietzko: Who’s JOB?
DiMartino: Oh, that’s our nickname for John O’Bryan, seeing as no one likes him.
Konietzko: Oh. Well, he did write the worst episode of our show.
DiMartino: Yeah, but technically that was our fault. I mean, it was a pretty dumb idea.
Konietzko: True. We should make fun of it in the Ember Island Players episode. Then maybe the fans will forgive us.
DiMartino: I don’t know. Fans don’t forgive very easily.
Konietzko: Well, what are they gonna do? Cry about it on some stupid blog?
DiMartino: You’re probably right. But anyway, I thought we could make it up to John this season.
Konietzko: Again? We already gave him “The Library.” That was a great episode!
DiMartino: True, but I mean in a different way. Why don’t we make an episode that is even worse than “The Great Divide?”
Konietzko: …why would we want to do that?
DiMartino: Well, it would certainly help John out, so next time he applies for a writing job, he’s never known as “that guy that wrote the worst episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender.”
Konietzko: Sure. Whatever. I guess. But which episode should it be?
DiMartino: How about the one where Katara finds the guy who killed her mother?
Konietzko: How would that work?
DiMartino: What if it turns out that Katara killed her own mother? Like in The Quick and the Dead?
Konietzko: Uh…no. We’re trying to help out John, not kill the series.
DiMartino: True, true. Wait! How about an episode that neither adds nor takes away anything from the overall plot of the series?
Konietzko: Do we have an episode like that?
DiMartino: Of course! We always do!
Konietzko: Which one is it this time?
DiMartino: “The Painted Lady.”
Konietzko: Oh, yeah! I forgot about that one!
DiMartino: I did, too! It’s perfect!
Konietzko: All right, let’s do it!
DiMartino: Who should we have write it?
Konietzko: I don’t know. I hear John’s pretty good at writing bad episodes.
DiMartino: (glare) …
Konietzko: Just kidding.
I certainly hope that’s not how that conversation went down, for two reasons.
First, that would make “The Painted Lady” even more of a failure, because it doesn’t surpass “The Great Divide” in badness. There’s enough amusing stuff here to warrant “The Painted Lady” one more rating point. So it’s the second worst episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and as the great Buzz Aldrin once said, “Second comes right after first!”
Second, while “The Great Divide” was simple a bad idea from start to finish, “The Painted Lady” honestly could have been a pretty good episode. The initial premise is decent enough.
But you really have to wonder, though. The script of “The Painted Lady” seems to follow the madness formula of “The Great Divide” to a tee, in which boredom and confusion gradually give way to pure insanity. Coincidence? To be sure, I’m going to review this episode in long form, while at the same time trying to decipher the alleged “message” that it gives the audience. Let’s begin!
The episodes starts with Aang gradually realizing that the river he’s swimming in is quite polluted. This leads to Sokka attempting to tell a joke about fishing, only for Toph to brutally one-up him:
Sokka: Well that explains why I can’t catch a fish around here. Because normally my fishing skills are…OFF THE HOOK?
Toph: Too bad your skills aren’t ON the hook.
Because they have no way of getting food on their own, they decide to stop by a fishing town. Of course, first they have to make sure they have time according to Sokka’s schedule, which looks suspiciously like an animation production schedule. If this is supposed to be an in-joke, then it’s a rather pointless and dumb one. Are DiMartino and Konietzko and company are making fun of themselves for taking twice as long as usual to produce Book Three by not staying on schedule? I don’t know. It’s not worth speculating. The real question is: where the Hell did Sokka get that schedule?
(I could have very well called Book Three the “self-referential season” for reasons like this, but more on that in another review.)
Anyway, the kids get to the fishing town thanks to a strange man named Dock. Dock is one of the few redeemable qualities of this episode, in my opinion. I think he’s pretty funny, especially his personality “changes” into his brother Xu (and later Bushi). Of course, he’s not enough to save this episode, but his efforts are appreciated. I especially love how, in his explanation of the war factory, he calls the Army “Army,” without the “the.”
About that factory: it’s been set up because of the war, and it’s the cause of the river pollution. Unfortunately, this means the fishing town is not thriving anymore, and it’s citizens are all ill and/or dying. To make matters worse, it’s a melancholy town where the people never smile.
Katara wants to do something to help them, but Sokka objects: not only do they not have time to do this, but if they focus and defeat the Firelord, they’ll indirectly be helping the town anyway by making the factory obsolete, thus restoring the town back to normal. Katara begrudgingly agrees. And here we have the first “message” of the episode, which is bleak, but reasonable.
You can’t help everyone all the time.
Of course, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan put it more eloquently with Spock’s famous line: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” And by taking out the Firelord, they would indeed be helping the most people. Sorry, little fishing town.
However, before they can move on, there’s bad news: Appa is apparently sick, which means there’s no flying or staying on schedule. That leads to a funny Sokka moment, as he’s initially more concerned about keeping to the schedule than he is for Appa’s well being.
Left with no choice, the kids go back to the fishing town and notice something is different. The town is happy. People are actually active, and there’s even a ball being kicked around. Has the pollution from the river finally caused them to go a little bit insane?
However, they quickly learn what the hubbub’s something. The town was paid a visit in the middle of the night by the Painted Lady, who delivered food to them. Who’s the Painted Lady? A river spirit who helps the town out during times of need. Before now, they all thought she was just a legend.
So the message has changed now, hasn’t it? What is the new moral?
In your darkest hour, the spirits will come to your aid.
While it loses its universal real life value—after all, the spirits are only something that exist in the Avatar universe—it’s still a decent message, I guess.
Sokka, naturally, automatically assumes that the town doesn’t need their help, so when Appa gets better, they can definitely leave.
Later that night, the town is once again visited by the Painted Lady, and this time we, the audience, get to see her in action.
And this is where the episode begins to nosedive. It’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes and a pair of common sense that the Painted Lady is actually Katara. We don’t even have to see her face so much as follow the Law of Economy of Characters. As defined by Roger Ebert:
Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot: This “mystery” person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous.
Now that rule doesn’t strictly apply here, but the principle remains the same. Up until this point, who else have we seen that could have possibly been the Painted Lady? Katara’s the only female with a motivation. Why were they trying to make this a mystery?
Which leads to my next question: why didn’t they make it so Dock was the Painted Lady? That would have: 1) fit pretty well with his multiple personality disorder; and 2) been fucking hilarious.
Sadly, it was not to be. This also means the message has changed.
Sometimes, to do what is right, you must become a vigilante, as well as someone you’re not.
The next day, the kids go to town to get more food. Wait a minute…whenever they need to get to town, Dock gives them a ride. How the Hell did they get there without him if they meet him at the shop as Dock? I’m confused. I could be wrong, though. And besides, that’s not the weirdest thing that occurs in this episode.
The town is once again happy about the latest visit from the Painted Lady, in which she healed most of the sick people. So happy that they’ve built a huge statue in honor of her.
Wait, what? They built a huge statue of the Painted Lady that morning? How? Out of what? And for what reason? Just because she came by twice? I’m not exaggerating either: that statue wasn’t there any time before, and I simply refuse to believe they had it on standby for when she actually came around. Where would they keep it? In the river?
On top of which, this is supposed to be a fishing town? To Hell with that: these people are fucking artisans! Why are they wasting their time fishing in a polluted river when they could be making statues for the Fire Nation? Hell, if they can make statues, there’s no telling what other things they could create with their hands. Maybe weapons to help out the war effort? Now, it’s perfectly reasonable that they don’t want to help out in the war. Maybe they’ve suppressed these talents in order to not be drafted into wartime labor. But if that were the case, then why would they be giving all the medicine they have to the factory? I just don’t understand.
Let’s not speculate on that anymore. What’s important is that Katara is amazed by how the entire town is affected by one person, while Sokka cynically asides that without the Painted Lady coming around, this town would just stay the way it was: gloomy, unproductive, and dying. And I hate to say it, but Sokka is right. Retired artisans aside, these people have no idea how to help themselves. If they were smart, they probably would have either moved after from this dead zone a long time ago, or figured out a better way to live with it.
People like this need all the help they can get.
Night falls, and Katara dresses up as the Painted Lady to go and help the people some more. Only this time, she wakes up Aang, which leads to a hugely unnecessary and not very entertaining chase sequence. It ends with Aang finding out that Katara is the Painted Lady.
Katara explains that she wasn’t the Painted Lady first, but since the town thought that was who she was, she decided to take on the role. Turns out, she’s the one who made Appa “sick” by giving him berries that made his tongue purple.
This raises…quite a few questions.
First, Dock said on the first night the Painted Lady came by, she brought food. Where the Hell did Katara get that food? That’s never answered.
Second, where did she find all the materials needed to make that Painted Lady outfit in one night?
Third, she made that outfit after seeing a carving of the Painted Lady only once? She must have a damn good memory.
Fourth, why bother being the Painted Lady at all? After all, you faked Appa being sick to help them anyway, so why waste your time becoming a persona that no one is going to see anyway since you’re going in the night time?
Fifth, so in order to fulfill her own self-indulgence (because that’s all this little vanity project is, in the guise of charity and good will), Katara has been delaying their overall mission to save the world by making sure it looked like Appa could never leave? Katara has got to be the most selfish self-rightous person I’ve ever seen!
And yet, how does Aang react to all this? Why, he thinks it’s just so dang cool!
And it’s a good thing Aang is there, because now Katara wants to destroy the factory that is polluting the river to begin with. This is another case in which Katara is the will, but her friends are the way. After all, the idea to destroy the factory at all came from Sokka, and if Aang hadn’t caught her, she wouldn’t have been able to do it herself. She’s really lucky to have these two around sometimes.
So they destroy the factory, which pisses off the people working at the factory, so they take it out of the fishing town because they just know they had something to do with it.
Good action and good intention do not equal good consequence.
On top of that, Sokka finds out that Katara is the Painted Lady and rightfully scolds her for getting the townspeople in trouble. When she asks what she was supposed to do, Sokka chooses his words poorly when he utters, “Leave! Do nothing!”
Which causes Katara to exclaim a line that I swear was only written for the trailers: “No! I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me!”
Katara always gets what she wants.
And this where I check out of the episode completely. This is the moment where everything falls apart. The moment where Katara turns into Bono-Katara, a poorly written, borderline-Mary Sue-esque, insufferable bitch. The major problem is not that Katara is stubborn about this—she’s been stubborn lots of times before—but that the writers seem to think that just because she’s stubborn about doing the right thing all the time, somehow that makes her better than everyone else. If anything, it has the opposite effect and makes her seem…well, evil.
In fact, let’s make one thing clear: people with a pathological compulsion to do right are just as fucked up as people with a pathological compulsion to do wrong. The former only gets a break because we humans, the selfish species we are, will gladly accept their extreme “generosity” over the extreme prejudice of a sociopath.
Katara is a very fucked up individual. She’s very much like Zuko in that her compulsions often fly in the face of logic. Remember when Iroh scolded Zuko about never thinking things through in “Lake Laogai?” Someone really needs to scold Katara about that. If she didn’t have such a great support system of friends, her life would be very, very miserable.
And to top it off, this line reveals Katara to be an egotist of frightening magnitude. “I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me!” Who’s to say they need you at all? Shouldn’t it be, “I will never, ever turn my back on people who need help”, or “I will never, ever turn my back on people in need”? The last one even has one last word, and they’re both rather humanistic rather than egotistical.
But the episode doesn’t see it that way. It thinks Katara is 100% perfectly correct to do what she did. That means when she decides to go down to the town again, Sokka wants to help her. He should have just let her go. Let her try to do this on her own and see where it gets her. Maybe then she’d learn her lesson, because obviously she can only learn it the hard way.
But I digress. This leads to a big theatrical set piece that I guess qualifies as the last-act action sequence. Katara appears as the Painted Lady, Toph and Appa make loud noises to scare the factory workers—who are now unemployed thanks to a certain someone—Sokka plays his flute, and Aang hides under the town platform to blow air from under them. It’s a set piece I could care less about. There’s no tension, and there could have been: Katara’s safety is in the hands of Aang, who at one point blows her into the air to avoid a blast of fire. We never see how Katara feels about this dangerous display, and it hurts the scene.
Of course, they scare the unemployed factory workers away forever, allowing the fishing town to live in peace once again. Not that I care, because when the townspeople all come to thank the Painted Lady for her good deed, they discover all at once that she’s actually Katara. And suddenly they hate her for this.
These people are idiots.
Sokka attempts to point out their stupidity, but Katara intervenes to apologize that she pretended to be someone who doesn’t even exist. She also points out that they can’t depend on someone to help them all the time, so they must help themselves. But what can they do, they ask? It takes Toph to randomly yell out, “Maybe we can clean the river,” to make them realize something anyone with common sense could have figured out.
These people are idiots beyond saving.
And so everyone helps clean the river. It’s not clear how long this takes, but I’m guessing a few days. I’m surprised we didn’t get to see Sokka complain about the schedule one last time.
Whatever. The episode is almost over. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, Katara goes out in the night to get some water, and guess who shows up? The real Painted Lady. She just stops by, thanks Katara for what she did, and then disappears, never to be seen again.
This, naturally, raises the most important question in the entire episode:
WHAT THE FUCK?!?
Why didn’t she show up before? Was it because the river was polluted? If she is real, then why didn’t she help the town? Could she even help them at all? Where has she been all this time?
But wait: was she working through Katara all this time? If that’s true, that would explain Katara’s strange behavior. But does that also mean that no one is the Avatar universe has any free will at all? That they’re just pawns of spirits, doomed to do the bidding of their puppetmasters, Old Testament-style? What a horrifying possibility!
But I’m giving DiMartino and Konietzko and company way too much credit. They didn’t think this ending through. They didn’t think this episode through. At the end of the day, the only “message” I’m ever going to get out of this episode is:
“The Painted Lady” sucks.
Screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.