Chapter Forty-Five: “The Beach”
(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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.