Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Forty-Eight: “The Puppetmaster”

15

(Rating Out of 15)

Mind control used to be one of my most irrational fears. To an extent, it still is, but “The Puppetmaster” has me convinced that “puppetry,” or body control, is just as bad, if not worse. At the very least, mind control alleviates you of consciousness and the memory of having done whatever your controller made you do. Puppetry provides no such solace; you are very much aware of what you’re doing, and you are powerless to stop yourself; you’re an innocent bystander to your own crime.

Within the Avatar universe, “puppetry” is possible thanks to a vile Waterbending technique known as Bloodbending. Even now, Bloodbending remains one of the most disturbing concepts ever introduced into the series. The idea that someone could control you by manipulating your blood is nauseating to even think about. Can you imagine how painful that would be? Is it any wonder that the technique would be deemed illegal seventy years later in The Legend of Korra?

By the end of Book One, I sort of came to terms with the fact that Bending would probably never be taken to some of its logical and more gruesome conclusions since this was a kids’ show (i.e. you’ll never see cute little Aang collapse someone’s lungs with Airbending). Book Two immediately changed that when Katara was nearly buried alive by an Earthbender, and later when Aang (likely) killed a buzzard-wasp with a blast of air. Hell, by the end of Book Two, Aang himself was nearly killed by a lightning strike to the back. These moments didn’t necessarily demonstrate the gruesome conclusions I had in my head, but they allowed for the possibility of them. Whoever said, “The threat of violence is more powerful than the violence itself” was definitely right. A world in which something as horrible as Bloodbending is imaginable by the audience and the characters is a pretty frightening world.

Having said all that, no concept, not even one as intriguing and repulsive as Bloodbending, is worth a damn if it’s not supported by good writing. In fact, lousy writing can rob a concept or theme of its potential and validity (something Korra sadly proved).

The genius of “The Puppetmaster” is that not only does Bloodbending not even factor into the main story until the last act, but when it does, it is a shocking yet totally natural development to an already gripping narrative. This is exactly how horror stories should be: the fear does not simply arises from the object of terror, but from the fact that we genuinely care about the people who encounter it, and we hope they make it out all right.

A quick summary of the plot: in the middle of the night, our heroes are found by an innkeeper named Hama, who offers them lodging. The full moon is fast approaching, and the town she lives in is infamous for people disappearing every night the moon is full. Aang, Sokka, and Toph decide to investigate this weird phenomenon. Meanwhile, Katara warms up more and more to Hama, especially after finding out that she’s a former resident of the Southern Water Tribe and a master Waterbender.

The script for “The Puppetmaster” (penned by Tim Hedrick) may just be the most perfectly crafted in the entire series. There’s not a single wasted moment. Every joke hits the right mark. None of the exposition feels forced. Everything builds up to the climax brilliantly. Like the very best episodes of Avatar, the writing puts absolute faith in its long-time audience; specific character quirks and motivations weave in and out of the story in a manner that’s both clever and casual. The result is an episode so organic as to feel inevitable, which ultimately makes it that much more emotional.

As for those specific characterizations: 1) Toph Bends her meteor rock from “Sokka’s Master” into a key to open a chest; 2) Aang initially believes spirits may be kidnapping the town folks, since something similar happened way back in “Winter Solstice”; 3) Toph’s Earthbending abilities help them find the missing citizens; and, in one of the episode’s most subtle and funniest jokes, 4) Sokka’s sword never once gets used simply as a sword until the last act, and when he’s not even in control of himself. Master Piandao would be proud.

Clearly this story could not be told anywhere but in the Avatar universe.

The emotional core and drive of “The Puppetmaster,” however, belongs entirely to Katara, and the rise and fall of her relationship with Hama. This episode is the first in what should be called the Katara trilogy (followed by “The Western Air Temple” and “The Southern Raiders”), which constitutes Katara’s darkest hour in the series.

We know that Katara is not quick to forgive those who betray her (as witnessed in the case of Jet and Zuko), but her betrayal by Hama is the absolute nadir. This sweet old lady was just too good to be true: a Waterbending gal from the Souther Water Tribe. The last of her kind. Just like Katara! Hama is more than just a kindred spirit and a generous mentor: she’s the quintessential maternal figure for a girl like Katara, especially since she’d lost her real mother.

So why, oh why did she have to turn out to be evil?

Hama has the distinction of being the only villain in Avatar to successfully gain our sympathy and then lose it once she is indeed revealed to be a villain (it’s typically vice versa, as in the case of Azula and even Ozai). The flashbacks to her young days–in which Fire Nation raids ultimately led in the capture and imprisonment of every Waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe—is gut-wrenching, especially in the single shot that reveals Hama to be the last captive. That she surrenders without a fight is simply heartbreaking.

But for every cloud there’s a silver lining: Hama never in all her years imagined she’d ever see another Waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe. (It should be noted that the fate of all the other Waterbenders is never made clear.) As an noted bonus, Katara is young and eager to learn: the perfect soul to pass on Southern traditions and wisdom before she passes away.

I don’t even have to mention how ecstatic Katara is about this. It’s all there in Mae Whitman’s vocal performance, the best she ever gave in my opinion. The excitement and sympathy she conveys is absolutely touching in and of itself. On subsequent viewings, however, that same emotional performance becomes absolutely devastating, especially since we know Hama’s true intentions. (Compare it to Grey DeLisle’s performance as Azula in the finale—particularly in her twisted devotion to her father—in light of her mental breakdown, and you’ll see what I mean.)

By the time Katara realizes the full extent of the wickedness she’d embraced so openly, it’s too late: it is the full moon, and Hama will teach her how to Bloodbend, whether she wants to or not.

What’s absolutely amazing about the flashback to Hama’s gradual discovery of Bloodbending is how subtly and logically it also explains her descent into psychopathic madness. She’d been locked up and isolated, her only contact with human life being the guards who served her water while she was in chains.

The genuine pigs of her Bloodbending experiments were the rats* that entered and left her cell at will. I think it’s fair to say that anyone willing to put any form of life through the torment of Bloodbending has pretty much forfeited a large chunk of their humanity. In Hama’s eyes, there’s no real difference between a rat and a human being: both are merely an obstacle, unworthy of trust and sympathy.

This would explain why it was so easy for her to Bloodbend Katara after the poor girl refused to Bloodbend herself. Unlike Katara, Hama doesn’t consider empathy a virtue, especially if that empathy is wasted on the very people who imprisoned (and presumably killed) their Waterbending brothers and sisters. It’s the old “if you’re not with me, then you’re against me” line of thought.

And if Bloodbending one of her own surviving sisters wasn’t enough—though, thankfully, Katara is able to overcome Hama’s power thanks to her youth—Hama attempts to subdue Katara by turning her own loved ones against her and each other.

While the last-act action sequence is not without its excitement and humor (“It’s like my brain has a mind of its own!”), it’s a real downer. Yes, Katara manages to stop Hama from killing her brother and Aang. Yes, Katara brings Hama down with her own technique. Yes, Hama is finally arrested and presumably brought to justice.

But this is by no means a satisfying victory for Katara. It came at the cost of having to perform a vile act on her own kind, the one person in the entire world she should have been able to trust with all her heart. In a weird way, Katara’s suffering is much worse than Aang’s. Sure, he lost his entire people, but at least he has good memories. Katara had no contact with anyone like her until Hama, and she turned out to be evil. How can the world be so cruel?

This is ultimately why “The Puppetmaster” remains so frightening, and only gets more frightening with each viewing. This is pure psychological horror; it is the loss of innocence–rather than the loss of life–that we are witnessing on screen. And there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it.

Watching this episode again just yesterday, I nearly had a breakdown. The moment I heard Katara’s initial eagerness to learn from Hama—in full knowledge of how it would end—I was trembling. The trembling continued for the rest of the episode, and it didn’t stop until hours later. The shocking moment in which Hama demonstrates Bloodbending for the first time—on Katara, no less—drove me to tears. I was just as sad and angry as Katara was, but unlike her, I was powerless to do anything. It absolutely tore me up to see have to her Bloodbend—and thus, figuratively, kill—her own maternal figure, but what other choice did she have?

Some things are just beyond our control.

*As much as I hate hybrid animals, I must admit that the elephant-rat is pretty funny. Not as funny as the spider-fly caught in its own web, but still pretty damn funny.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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13 responses

  1. Dan

    Very interesting analysis. Season 3 may have something of a bad rap among Avatar fans, due to the first nine episodes varying in quality, but it does contain plenty of great moments (this episode being one of the bright spots). This episode really drags Katara into some dark territory, and, in a way, it kind of sets up her character for when Zuko joins the Gaang. And the ending of this episode is really heartwrenching with Katara sobbing on the ground.

    On that note, I would say that this episode succeeds where Jet failed. Unlike Jet, Hama actually comes across as sympathetic and genuinely kind (at least until she shows her true colors). With Jet, the writers made it a little too obvious that he wasn’t the noble freedom fighter everyone thought he was, and because of that the episode suffered for it (as you pointed out in your review of that episode).

    I can’t wait to read your reviews of the Zuko mini-arch (Western Air Temple through The Southern Raiders). Weeks after I finished the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about those episodes, which to me is a good indicator that those were among the best episodes in the entire show.

    June 16, 2012 at 11:57 am

    • I share the same feelings for Book Three as you do, especially regarding Katara and Zuko’s mini-arch. It’s actually my favorite season of the show because those bright spots shine brighter than almost everything else in the previous two seasons. The Grand Stretch is fast approaching.

      Now that you mention it, “Jet” is the perfect comparison for “The Puppetmaster.” I may have to elaborate on that in my complete review, if only just a little bit. Thanks for reminding me!

      June 17, 2012 at 8:28 pm

  2. SpiderHyphenMan

    I can’t believe how unflinchingly they were able to portray a Prisoner of War camp. The image of Hama chained up and slurping water from a ladle haunt me to this day.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    • I absolutely agree, and it’s one of the reasons I have such reverence for this episode and others, like “Zuko Alone” and “The Southern Raiders.” DiMartino and Konietzko and company didn’t compromise how dark these episodes could be, and the result was a much more direct emotional impact than is typical of the show.

      June 17, 2012 at 8:35 pm

  3. takethecake

    i’m reminded of being john malkovich. that existential horror of not being in control of your body–and how it’s literalized in puppetry. yikes. but i have to say, i empathized completely with hama, which should stand as testament to how awesome the writing for this episode was. Definitely an inverse version of katara, and you can really sense the toll the war has taken in the avatar universe.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    • Being John Malkovich definitely came to my mind as well. If only we could have seen Hama perform a dance of despair and disillusionment with her puppets. (In fact, that’s the only complaint I have about this episode: we never get to see Hama do anything with those puppets, or at least give them a little mention.)

      Nonetheless, Hama is certainly one of the best one-time characters in the show. I still can’t believe the episode got me to feel sorry for her and cheer when she got her ass kicked by Katara during the climax.

      June 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm

  4. Molotov146

    From what you said here, I’m very intrigued to hear a full analysis of the episode. When do you plan on revisiting it? I’m actually really interested in hearing what you have to say.

    June 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    • I’ll revisit “The Puppetmaster” after I’ve gone through the stretch of episodes starting with “The Western Air Temple” and ending with “The Southern Raiders.” They’re great episodes, so why not review them all at once?

      June 26, 2012 at 12:05 am

  5. Alan

    Can’t wait til you’re done with the review. This is my favorite episode of Avatar.

    July 6, 2012 at 3:17 pm

  6. Jason

    I rewatched this episode today (probably for the 30th time in my life) and like you said in your review of the series finale, this episode has great re-watch value. I get chills every time I watch it and something else I noticed about this episode…NO zuko scenes or references and yet still so beautifully done. This episode didn’t need a “B” plot like so many other ones. It just carried itself and watching this episode followed by the Southern Raiders makes you appreciate the depth of Katara’s character. (Far more than aang’s). So yea…I know why you kept this review short. It’d drag on forever.

    P.S. I just found your site today and have been on it for 3 hours! I’m rewatching the series (more like re re re re re re rewatching) but so far I’ve agreed with 99% of your reviews! Your analysis of Azula’s insanity was remarkable and everytime I watch Part 3 I just watch her scenes! Ok I’m done!

    November 27, 2012 at 2:21 am

    • I’m glad you enjoy the reviews, Jason! I’ll be getting back to “The Puppetmaster” when I get the chance, but I must find a way to condense the review (otherwise, it’ll be as long as the one for “The Southern Raiders,” and that was borderline self-indulgent).

      December 17, 2012 at 7:13 pm

  7. Pingback: Announcement: Remember That “The Puppetmaster” I Never Finished? | Marshall Turner's Avatar: the Last Airbender Reviews

  8. Aradnor

    I’d like to point out something I noticed concerning the subtle touches for long-time audience. Aang is disgusted by the thought of eating faux-sea prunes, which he hated in ‘Bato of the Water Tribe’. I don’t know why that got me but talk about the little things!

    April 25, 2015 at 3:51 pm

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