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