Chapter Forty-Nine: “Nightmares & Daydreams”
(Rating Out of 15)
Watching “Nightmares & Daydreams” right after the dark and masterful “The Puppetmaster” is akin to visiting a beautiful beach resort right after it was hit by a hurricane. Despite the place being littered with debris, garbage, and maybe even some dead bodies, its patrons attempt to go on having fun just like they did in the good old days before disaster struck. Their spirit is admirable, yet disappointing. In failing to acknowledge the storm, they fail to make things better.
At this point in the series, do we really need episodes like “Nightmares & Daydreams?” It’s silliness and borderline inconsequentiality harkens back to the few entertaining episodes of Book One, and that can hardly be called progress. I mean, I understand what the episode is trying to do. After all, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have almost always followed dark episodes with lighter ones, probably so not to send the little ones who make up their core demographic into too much despair. I appreciate the concept, but as with much of anything in this show, the results vary greatly. At best, we get “The Chase” after “Zuko Alone.” At worst, there was “The Great Divide” after “Jet” (the latter of which wasn’t even a good episode to begin with).
“Nightmares & Daydreams” fits somewhere in the middle: in spite of how bizarre and pointless it is, it’s still rather entertaining and contributes at least something to the overall story (mostly on Zuko’s side). Naturally, I’d have preferred something a little more stable and meaningful—again, especially coming after “The Puppetmaster,” the best episode since “The Crossroads of Destiny”—but given what we’re given, it could have been worse.
The crux of the episode revolves around Aang and his anxiety over fighting Firelord Ozai during the invasion. Why he chooses now to stress over this is beyond me. (With all the craziness and fun going on in the past few episodes, did he just forget?) To make matters worse for Aang, he and the kids arrived at the rendezvous point four days ahead of schedule. What is he supposed to do for four days?
It’s my belief that Avatar is always at its funniest when it’s strictly about the characters and their situations. Self-referencial jokes by the creators or jokes that reference other works usually fall flat. There have been exceptions (e.g. that over-the-top metal armor in “Sokka’s Master”), but for the most part, this sort of meta-humor is really not DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s strong suit. (See “The Ember Island Players.”)
That’s why I really don’t like the first two nightmare sequences. They’re obviously poking fun at a few anime excess—hence Aang’s bizarre hairdos*—which really have nothing to do with the Avatar universe. More importantly, they distract from the surreal quality of the nightmares themselves, which is where the real interest (and the real humor) lies.
The next nightmare is much better, in which Firelord Ozai himself wakes Aang up to tell him he overslept and missed the invasion. Anyone who has dreamed about missing a deadline, only to awaken and discover there’s still time left, can relate to this.
The final nightmare is the best, and the one with the most surrealistic quality. I don’t know what this is an homage to—as far as I’m concerned, it’s way too out there to be an original creation of DiMartino and Konietzko and company—but it absolutely works. It almost has a Bunuel quality in which none of the images seem to connect, and yet they somehow do. I won’t get into these images right now, but I will say that my favorite of these is the shot of Momo’s shushing gesture.
No matter what his friends do, they can’t seem to get Aang to calm down. Katara’s sauna yoga fails, as does Wang Fire’s therapy—which ends in a hilarious bit of head nodding—and Toph’s special treatments. Well, at least they tried, and isn’t that what friends are for?
Aang’s final solution: stay awake until the day of the invasion, all the while brushing up on his training. Of course, this is an incredibly stupid idea: for all his brain dead paranoia, it’s surprising he doesn’t consider the possibility of falling asleep while fighting the Firelord. On top of that, he begins having strange hallucinations, ranging from getting smooth with Katara to witnessing a samurai duel between Momo and Appa. Maybe that last one goes a bit too far in terms of silliness, but I’m fine with it.
All’s well that ends well, though. Aang finally goes to sleep when his friends make him a big comfy bed out of koala-sheep** wool.
Finish that off with another silly dream sequence (see, this time it’s the Firelord who has no pants) and that’s it for Aang and friends.
But wait! Zuko is in this episode, too! Haven’t seen him in a while.
He’s still adjusting to the royal life, which is not at all what he hoped it would be. Sure, he can boss people around and not have to worry about being invited to important war meetings. But he quickly learns that the role of “perfect prince” doesn’t suit him at all.
At least he has Mai. He can’t confide in her emotionally like he could with Uncle Iroh, but at least she’s someone he can hang out with. Some company is better than none, something I always tell my friends during those rare moments that I actually talk to them.
To tell the truth, this is probably the least eventful—I don’t want to say “worst”—Zuko side story in the entire series. This side story has a very basic point, and it gets it across well, but beyond that, it’s not very entertaining. I guess they wanted a sane, grounded story to go along side the zany trippy antics of Aang.
Not that I’m complaining. Zuko’s track record still outshines Aang’s in terms of emotional involvement and entertainment value. And besides, it will be fully rectified in the next few episodes, when Zuko actually joins Aang and friends. Now there’s something to look forward to!
Oh, and guess who wrote this episode? Come on, take a wild guess.
*This did remind me, however, that, all things considered, Avatar is much, much more realistic than your average anime when it comes to certain aesthetics–hairstyles being one of them–and I’m really grateful for that.
**Admittedly, although I hate hybrid animals, I love the koala-sheep. Talk about a truly inspired combination.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.