Chapter Forty-Four: “Sokka’s Master”
(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…
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.