Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Forty-Seven: “The Runaway”

8

(Rating Out of 15)

Among the things I contemplated while “The Runaway” played before me—including but thankfully not limited to suicide—was just how difficult it is to make a film and/or an animation, and how much of a miracle it is that anything good can come from such a nerve wrecking endeavor. It certainly takes a great deal of passion and integrity to see a project from an idea in one’s head to a finished product, especially if the project in question is actually personal to the creators and not merely a corporate product. And since corporate products pretty much rule the day on television and elsewhere, it’s truly amazing that, every once in a while, something as unique and obviously heartfelt as Avatar: the Last Airbender ever gets a time slot.

Still, the sheer industrial nature of television animation production doesn’t always make for the most nurturing creative environment, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that episodes like “The Runaway” make it through that entire process practically unscathed. Do DiMartino and Konietzko and company put episodes like this into production knowing damn well how bad they are? I can imagine it must be difficult to fulfill their contractual obligation of twenty episodes per season and to make all twenty shine with the same radiance. Do they think to themselves that, as far as the big picture is concerned, some episodes are just not worth stressing over as much as other episodes? I can’t know what their actual thought process was, but they probably just decided that even though not every episode could be “The Southern Raiders,” they should still try to make sure every episode was as good as it could be. Sometimes they judged poorly. That can happen.

But enough aimless rambling. Ultimately, no amount of rationalizing can make up for the fact that “The Runaway” is still one of the most miserable viewing experiences of my life. Don’t let the generously high rating of 8 fool you: if it weren’t for Sokka’s speech about his sister and most of the third act, this episode would have been right next to “The Painted Lady” and “The Great Divide” as one of the worst episodes of the series.

Honestly, I wish I could just say that and be done with it, but now I have the responsibility of explaining myself. That, of course, would require me to actively remember the events and elements of the episode, a process that literally causes me pain. Please give me strength, unseen makers of the universe.

The main conflict of “The Runaway” is between Katara and Toph. Katara is upset that Toph is being such a wild child, and Toph believes that Katara is a total square uncapable of having any fun. This swiftly escalates to Katara accusing Toph of acting out because she misses her parents, despite them being overbearing. In turn, Toph accuses Katara of trying to be the boss and mother of everyone, even though she’s just a kid like the rest of the group.

Could these elements have made a good episode? Most definitely, and the fact that “The Runaway” finds nearly every possible way to fuck it up is all the more upsetting.

The hook of the episode is a prologue in which Katara “betrays” Toph by handing her over to the police. The rest of the episode is thus a flashback leading up to this moment, and we’re supposed to wonder what made Katara do this to Toph.

This prologue is simply a cheap, idiotic, manipulative gimmick that has little value beyond being a cheap, idiotic, manipulative gimmick. DiMartino and Konietzko and company have never been good as disguising their put-ons, so any interest in how the actual moment came about quickly evaporates. If the payoff was better—that is, if there was legitimately a ripple in Katara and Toph’s friendship that drove them to this point—then maybe it would have worked.

For an example of a prologue that does work, check out the opening scene from Goodfellas. (Warning: even the prologue of a Martin Scorsese film can be pretty brutal.) Or just rent Goodfellas immediately.  Unlike “The Runaway,” this prologue actually hooks you and gets you to ask a lot of questions that you want answers to, not the least about protagonist Henry Hill: this is why you wanted to be a gangster? What’s also great about this prologue is that, when the story comes right back to it midway through the film, we understand that things like this happen all the time, and yet it’s still the biggest turning point in the characters’ lives.*

But back to Avatar. Once we’ve flashed back, we’re immediately given another red herring: while training Aang in the art of fighting blindfolded—which deserves more attention, but doesn’t get it—Toph and Katara get into a cat fight in which names are called and mud is flung.

Please tell me what this fighting has to do with anything. It’s not thematically connected to the main conflict. It comes out of nowhere and is forgotten just as quickly. It establishes absolutely nothing new and/or interesting about the characters. Why is it in the episode? I have a nagging suspicious that the initial script for “The Runaway” wasn’t long enough for the running time, so they hastily stitched this scene together, forgetting to connect it with anything. Since “The Runaway” is already a filler episode with plot, that would make this filler-within-filler. Good Lord.

(I just thought of something. Considering that Toph gets on Katara’s case about being too bossy and motherly, perhaps this scene, in which both parties act extremely immaturely, was supposed to prove that neither is more in the moral right than the other. But maybe I’m giving the writers too much credit.)

Then there are the scams. It’s not the scams themselves that bug me—some of them are actually pretty clever—it’s the fact that, with the exception of Toph, they play out disconnected from the characters as we know them. That is to say, why are Aang and Sokka so on board with these scams?

You could argue that Aang is on board because they give him the opportunity to be a clever trickster again, only the episode does nothing to explore that notion. Sokka just never gets a decent explanation. (His Wang Fire the guard business is funny, though.)

I guess my problem is that the characters aren’t really “in-character” as they are required to do these things that are solely motivated by the plot. Should an approach can be called “fanfiction-esque,” which is probably the worst criticism you can give an episode.

What is the point of having Aang and Sokka in on the scamming anyway? They don’t learn anything or experience anything new from it. They are simply required to go along with Toph, who then gets chewed about by Katara, who considers the scams “dangerous.” Maybe a better episode would have explored why these scams are so fun, the excitement of breaking the law, and perhaps why “danger” is essential to the concept of “fun”: it’s the thrill of getting away with something you otherwise wouldn’t/shouldn’t be able to. (Hell, even investigate why someone like Katara, for whom danger is not something actively sought out, could never really understand that particular brand of fun.)

But I digress. Soon, Toph is wanted by the local village, who call her “the runaway” (the reason for which is never explained, but I guess they couldn’t call her the “blind bandit” again). The scenes in which Sokka and Katara confront her with the wanted poster results in yet another blind joke that is funny in concept, but only mildly amusing in execution. They keep asking her to explain the poster, forgetting that she’d have to be able to see the poster to do so. Once again, voice actress Jessie Flower let’s us down: the girl just does not know how to let loose and display extreme emotions. I’m not asking her to be Nicolas Cage, but to EMOTE when the occasion calls for it. (Let’s put it this way: if Flower overacted as much as Jack De Sena, and De Sena underacted as much as Flower, you wouldn’t hear me complain one bit about their performances.)

And so Katara and Toph finally have a falling out, and Aang and Sokka try to find a way to resolve their conflict. Unfortunately, this means stupid hijinks. Sokka decides to use his new carrier hawk to send an apology note to Katara while pretending it’s from Toph. This plan is so stupid that not even the character’s admittance of its stupidity–when it fails, of course–makes it forgivable.

Finally, Sokka does the reasonable thing and talks to Toph about his sister. This results in the only completely good scene in the entire episode. In fact, this little exchange between them—while, unbeknownst to them (or is it?), Katara listens in on it while bathing—is so well-written and genuinely heartwarming that I’m willing to bet this scene existed long before DiMartino and Konietzko and company ever gave any thought to how they could reasonably fit it within an episode. While the rest of the episode is as maddeningly unfocused and idiotic as the show is at its worst, this scene is as clear, precise and emotional as the show is at its best.

My favorite part of this scene is probably Sokka’d admittance that he barely remembers his mother at all. She died when he and Katara were young, and he was probably just not as close to her as Katara was. So whenever we tries to remember his mother, instead, he sees Katara since, for all he knows, she was always there for him.

And so Toph and Katara make up, but that’s not the end of things. Katara, trying to prove that she can be fun, wants to pull the ultimate scam: pretend to have Toph arrested, collect the reward money, bust out of jail, and hightail out of the town once and for all. I must say, it is a perfect scam. Henry Gondorff would be proud.

Which brings us back to that stupid put-on of an opening. Seeing how the kids actually got to that point makes it all the more meaningless. Sure, I guess it’s surprising that it was Katara who came up with the scam, but otherwise, nothing is gained at all from it.

But I digress. If anything, the real twist is way more effective: the police are onto the kids’ scam and place them both in jail. Why? Because they will be used as bait for Aang to come and rescue them. Then Combustion Man will appear and kill him! Oh no!

But, of course, everyone escapes. I’ll just say it’s a perfectly satisfactory last-act action sequence and leave it at that. (Plus, we get a glimpse into Combustion Man’s eventual demise.)

Speaking of which, there’s some “funny” business about what to name Combustion Man before they finally decide on that name. The first choice was “Sparky Sparky Boom Man.” De Sena came up with that one, didn’t he?

Oi. What a headache of an episode. I suppose it’s much better to have an episode that starts horribly and ends well rather than the other way around, but this was simply torturous. It’s episodes like this that sometimes make me hate Avatar.

*The Goodfellas screenshot is from this blog post, which gives more insight into the power of its opening scene. The blog is called “And So it Begins…,” and is worth checking out by all cinema lovers.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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4 responses

  1. SpiderHyphenMan

    I disagree with a lot of this. Let’s start with the big things.

    1. You say that it’s giving the writers “too much credit” to believe that they didn’t intend either Toph or Katara to be in the moral right. Both of them say things they know will hurt the other, both of them do backhanded actions that are morally questionable at best, and both steadily refuse to see where the other is coming from. None of this, to me, felt like it was being done because the plot demands it.

    2. Sokka’s motivation for the scams is simple: money. He outright says this. Where do you think he got the money to make armor for Appa? Supplies are a very real need in this show. They need to buy food. It’s a concept that drives, or at least serves as a catalyst for, a lot of the individual episodes. I’m shocked you didn’t get this.

    3. The episode proper gets off to a slow start, the intro there is to grab your attention and show that shit will go down. It’s not exactly made to be this mind-blowing thing.

    4. Jessie Flower did a great job being angry that people couldn’t remember she’s blind. I dunno what more you want from a 12 year old girl. Unless you wanted a full-on tantrum, but that would have sucked.

    5. “Maybe a better episode would have explored why these scams are so fun, the excitement of breaking the law, and perhaps why “danger” is essential to the concept of “fun”: it’s the thrill of getting away with something you otherwise wouldn’t/shouldn’t be able to. (Hell, even investigate why someone like Katara, for whom danger is not something actively sought out, could never really understand that particular brand of fun.)” I really, REALLY think the episode would have suffered had any of this been stated outright. Avatar respects its audience (most of the time). Just because something isn’t outright stated doesn’t mean that it isn’t shown by how the characters interact with each other. How you recognize Azula’s self-loathing in The Beach but not feel that the idea of “fun” is properly explored in this episode is beyond me.

    So yeah, this is actually one of my favorite episodes that isn’t essential to the plot, but I still await your views on The Puppetmaster.

    May 31, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    • 1. I’d like to think it was intention, but the entire episode is so muddled and unfocused that I can’t know for sure.

      2. Wow, you’re absolutely right! In fact, I distinctly remember him mentioning that he wanted to buy armor for Appa. (Which he does later.) I take back my statements on the matter.

      3. My problem isn’t that it’s “not exactly made to be this mind-blowing thing,” so much as that it doesn’t work. It’s simply a storytelling device I thought they shouldn’t have used, or, if they had to use it, shouldn’t have used so clumsily.

      4. Don’t always underestimate twelve-year-olds: some child actors were very good at that age (e.g. Jodie Foster). Flower is good overall, but she doesn’t sell the more intense emotions very well.

      5. I didn’t ask for those things to be “stated outright.” I don’t rule out subtly and precision in the storytelling because DiMartino and Konietzko and company have shown many times that they’re more than capable of it. It’s just that here, the story suffers because there’s too much emphasis on elements that don’t need it, and too little emphasis on elements that do. The episode is very unbalanced, and that makes for an unsatisfying experience.

      I sincerely hope there’s not some pathological block that prevents me from enjoying some of these episodes (or the show as a whole). Then again, I can’t wait to revisit “The Puppetmaster,” which is one of my favorite episodes.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:39 pm

  2. Ian

    I just think that the scams themselves weren’t morally right in the end, at first they are fine, its Toph cheating cheaters and it gets them money, and she keeps doing this in games but I think it crossed the line when they stole all that money from that one guy by faking Toph dying. I wish Katara would have not only mentioned its dangerous but how wrong what they were doing was, it went from harmless tricks to stealing pretty much. But in the end they get caught by combustion man so I guess its not like the show says, hey kids its ok to scam people out of money. And yes I agree, youd think aang would be a bit more cautious.

    Please reply. Thoughts?

    July 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    • I think you’re onto something. In fact, the lack of an actual moral stance by anyone in the episode (not even Katara) may just be the reason I hate this episode so much.

      Look at how they handled the last scam where Toph pretends to be hit by the cart. They attempt to lighten the situation by making the victim a moneygrubbing creep, but it doesn’t change the fact that they guilted him out of all his money. What if he’d just be a rich but essentially good man? That means they’re essentially playing with his good will for their own selfish means. Generally, especially in storytelling, this is not acknowledged as a “good” thing, not even when it’s done by the protagonists. That sense of right and wrong is missing from this episode, which not only renders it meaningless, but also once again makes it indistinguishable from most other kids’ show these days, some of which are so devoid of any moral compass that it is absolutely infuriating.

      July 13, 2013 at 12:28 am

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