Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Forty-Three: “The Painted Lady”

3

(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?

Because that was my first guess.

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.

“You must be talking about my brother, Dock. I’m his sister, the Painted Lady!”

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.

Ain’t that right, Batman?

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!

Aang = whipped.

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.

“Have fun being killed!”

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.

Damn right!

Screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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7 responses

  1. JMR

    Yeah, my main problem with this episode is the whole schedule thing. It’s so obviously just a contrived way to give the story some sense of urgency and conflict, because it’s never brought up again and when they do get to the invasion rendezvous point, it is explicitly mentioned they got there FOUR DAYS EARLY. This even with all the other messing around they do in between, like Sokka’s sword training and gambling.

    It’s really grating because, when you think about it, were it not for the whole “We have to keep to our schedule” thing, there would be no reason for Katara to butt heads with the rest of the group in the first place. In all likelihood, they probably would have just stopped for a few days to help the village. The shoehorning of this plot point is just so painful.

    May 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm

  2. Merro

    While I agree it’s definitely not the best episode, I -think- it was implied that she was getting all the food from the factory, or stealing it from there, at least. Mind you, I’m only going off memory, but that might be my mind trying to make some sense of some of the events. Now, why they leave food around this factory, I don’t know.

    May 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm

  3. Ep

    They first met Dock at the dock and he took them to the village.
    Sokka does bitch at her for not thinking it through.
    She stole the food and medicine from the factory.

    Episode was still horrible, you just missed bits.

    May 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm

  4. Dman

    I think you were way too hard on this episode. Firstly, the animation was beautiful in this episode, which is always a plus. Secondly, I think the whole point of the episode was to show that the Fire Nation is just as affected by the war as the other nations which is a topic pretty much ignored in the review. In addition to this, I think Katara’s impulsive behavior is just part of her character, as she has always been one to press for the best in others, inspire change for the better, etc., all the way back from episode six. Lastly, I want to discuss the ending, as I feel like no one really understands what DiKo was going for. When the Painted Lady appears and thanks Katara, I don’t believe the Painted Lady was simply lazy and didn’t want to help the village, rather that she needed Katara, or any other human, to do it for her. As the episode makes clear, the people of the village are very foolish, dependent, and do not know how to take care of themselves. If they knew the Painted Lady had existed, and that she would help them, they wouldn’t lose their dependence of her; it would probably make them even more so. The Painted Lady needed a human to take on her persona, so that when they would be revealed, the villagers would realized that a regular person is capable of helping/saving the town. The Painted Lady thanks Katara for being that person who could inspire change and show the villagers the powers people possessed and that they have those powers within them as well. Because of this, the town realized their own strengths, and would now be able to provide for themselves, help themselves, etc. For these reasons, I believe that The Painted Lady, while not Avatar’s best, is not the abomination it is regarded as here and is much better than given credit for.

    June 2, 2013 at 11:19 pm

  5. tox

    I can’t say I’m impressed by your reviews. I know you’d never claim to have been otherwise, but a lot of your analyses are so colored by your personal feelings that it becomes a chore to sift through your comments of how much you dislike the writers, Sokka, Aang, etc. And frankly your writing and insight aren’t nearly good enough to warrant the self-importance that seems to seep out of every negative comment you made… and no, this isn’t to say you can’t criticize Avatar, but rather to bring to light that the way you do it is often insufferable (it’s particularly bad in Sozin’s Comet). And frankly, your ‘analysis’ of anything beyond character analyses is rather insipid. The operative word here is “self-important”: I would hope if you continue as a critic, you take yourself a lot less seriously, because you’re really just a guy writing on a blog about a kid’s cartoon.

    That said, when you actually respect the text enough to give it a serious analysis, you have some great insights about characters you actually care about thinking apart (i.e. Katara, Zuko, Azula). Despite missing a few obvious plot points (that Katara got the food from the factory, for example), your analysis here is spot on. In particular, what makes this episode so insufferable is the narrative’s insistence that Katara is in the right somehow (despite being called out on that point), and then that dumb decision for the real Painted Lady to come out: Can I make your ‘Katara was possessed’ theory canon?

    September 21, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    • Why couldn’t I have gotten a comment like this a few years ago? There’s no guarantee that my writing would have improved by now, but at least it would have gotten the ball rolling. Better late than never, I suppose.

      In any case, thank you so much for your critique. I’ve been wondering for a long time whether my personal feelings plagued my critical stances, and now you’ve affirmed that they have. I need to find a better balance between subjectivity and objectivity, which may involve banishing certain arbitrary (objective), but real (subjective) biases (e.g. my affinity for the imagery of overcast weather).

      That, or I should just stop playing the critics’ game altogether and commit to being a creator, where personal feelings are given shape by the strengths of the given medium, and vice versa.

      That said, never underestimate the significance of a kid’s cartoon. I wouldn’t have dedicated nearly as much effort to criticizing Avatar if I didn’t think it contained something special and different and more substantial than the usual kid’s cartoon (I feel the same way about Frozen and The Lego Movie, both of which I’ll be writing about very soon.) Avatar is most definitively a special show, which is why it’s shortcomings are so painful for me to witness. I apologize that my own writing and critical process cloud the issue, but hopefully I’ll improve. Your fair and honest critique has certainly got me panicking and trying to figure out how.

      And by all means, if you find the “Katara was possessed” theory that valuable, feel free to make it canon!

      September 22, 2014 at 12:24 am

  6. You know, up until now I thought the Painted Lady was a lazy ass fucker (even though I’ve always liked her), and I had always asked myself the same question you presented on your review: why the hell didn’t she help the villagers?

    The thing is that, today, I found a pretty interesting and possible answer, given by a Youtube user called “Katja”, and which ratifies the theory that the Painted Lady may have not helped the village before because the river was polluted (just like you suggested). Katja linked the behaviour of the spirits in the Avatar world with the one of the common Japanese deities in the real world:

    “The Japanese folklore is full of deities residing in everything: rivers, trees, plant, even toilets. And toilet paper. They are said, however, to only help humans when their environment is protected and untouched, thus respected. This is why Japanese constructions and gardens always aim to be in balance and mold into the natural/wild surrounding habitat. ”

    This also coincides with what the Avatar Wikia says:

    “She was once the guardian spirit of the fishing village of Jang Hui, but was driven away due to the region’s rising water contamination.”

    So yeah, I think this is a valid answer to why she didn’t appear until the end.

    September 26, 2014 at 12:35 am

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