Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Fifty and Fifty-One: “The Day of Black Sun”

9

(Rating Out of 15)

11

(Rating Out of 15)

I usually complain about episodes that contain more filler than they do plot, but with “The Day of Black Sun,” it’s damn near the opposite: there’s too much plot, and not enough of anything else.

Let’s put it this way: “The Day of Black Sun” is a vital couple of episodes in the series. We need to see our heroes attempt to attack the Fire Nation during the solar eclipse. We need to see that their plan fails because Azula knew about it all along. We need to see Zuko confront his father before he leaves to join the Avatar. We need to see that Iroh escaped from prison. We need to see that the Fire Nation has created those air balloons and zeppelins. This is a huge turning point.

And yet, I was absolutely bored throughout much “The Day of Black Sun” (especially part one; part two has some redeeming moments). This feels less like an actual episode and more like a dutiful set-up for the remainder of the series. There’s so much going on, and yet very little of it resonates. And despite the fact that a big battle was taking place, I just didn’t care about the fates of any of the characters.

I guess before I go into what I think went wrong, I’ll start off with what actually works in “They Day of Black Sun.” (Not my usual routine, but I’m desperate here!)

Part One is without a doubt the inferior of the two, but it has some good things. It was fun seeing a lot of the past characters all in one place. I particularly liked the Boulder’s explanation for his arrival. No longer fighting for entertaining, he fights for the Earth Kingdom. How noble of him, but how strange that he still talks in his usual exaggerated manner and refers to himself in third-person. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

Aang and Katara’s final exchange in Part One is really nice. Neither one really wants to contemplate the idea of never seeing each other again, but just to be on the safe side, Aang finally gains the courage to kiss her before flying off to fight the Firelord.

And isn’t it wonderful to see Uncle Iroh again? He appears to have made friends with a guard named Ming who is kind enough to sneak in extra bowls of rice and other things just for him. In return, Iroh subtly warns her not to be in or around the prison that afternoon, for that’s when he’ll make his escape (the aftermath of which we see in Part Two).

In Part Two, we actually get some emotional moments.

I’m sure everyone remembers the scene in which Zuko confronts his father, pretty much spelling out why his father sucks and why how he’s going to right the Fire Nation’s wrongs by joining the Avatar. Firelord Ozai predictably reacts with venomous anger, baiting Zuko to stay just long enough for the eclipse to end. How does he bait him? Why, by telling the poor kid that his mother was not killed in his place, but actually banished, which means she might still be alive (a source of much interests by fans, and subsequently a source of much trolling by DiMartino and Konietzko*).

It’s pretty horrifying—but strangely not surprising—that Ozai would be so quick to try to murder his son once the eclipse finished. That makes Zuko’s triumph in deflecting Ozai’s lightning all the more incredible. The kid finally gets his wish from “Bitter Work,” and he pulls through magnificently.

Elsewhere, in trying to find the Firelord, Aang, Sokka, and Toph instead find Azula, who wastes all the time they have during the eclipse by leading a pointless chase. By the time the kids figure this out, it’s too late: she manages to bait Sokka by telling him that Suki gave up hope that he would ever save her. Listen to the pain and anger in Sokka’s voice, and you’ll understand why I feel Jack De Sena should stop trying to be funny and stick to dramatic voice acting. That’s where his real calling lies.

On the lighter side, isn’t it nice to see that Toph has finally found a formidable opponent in Azula? Toph cannot tell when Azula is lying, even when it’s blatantly obvious. That and Azula’s obligatory blind joke provide two of the best laughs in this episode.

Another great laugh is provided by the surrender of a group of Firebenders during the eclipse. You’ve got to admire their spirit, if not their stupidity. (Were they not paying attention when their superiors warned practically everyone else what the eclipse did to their Firebending?)

I feel rather silly having to list the moments I found worthy in these episodes, but there you have it. Are they enough to save the episodes? Part Two, probably, but Part One is another story entirely, and where the bulk of my criticisms lie.

It’s a problem I had with “The Siege of the North,” and it’s a problem I have here: DiMartino and Konietzko and company simply do not know how to handle large-scale action sequences. And it’s not the fact that no one seems capable of dying in these battles. I’m now convinced that this is partially a mandate of being a kids’ show, but also a personal choice made by DiMartino and Konietzko and company—especially when you take in account how carefully they show the realities of war in other effective ways.

No, my problem is not that the characters don’t die so much as I don’t care if they live. I would not be moved in the slightly if anything happened to, say, the Boulder, because the show has done nothing to convince me he is worth getting emotional invested in. The same goes for those Waterbending hillbillies. And when it comes to the people we actually do care about—Aang, Zuko, and friends—there’s no suspense there either. We’ve still got ten episodes to go, so nothing too bad can happen to our heroes.

Contrast that attitude with how I felt during the climax of “The Puppetmaster.” Even though I knew how it would end, I was still invested in the action. The stakes were high because of the emotions involved, not just the physical action. In fact, episodes like “The Puppetmaster” have a much stronger impact upon re-watching them because we cared so much in the first place. It’s kind of like how you remember a dangerous time in your own life and recognize just how easily things could have gone horribly wrong. “I was this close to losing everything!”

That emotionality is missing from “The Day of Black Sun,” but the other issue involves the more technical aspects of the show. Whenever there is CGI used—especially for the submarines—it looks absolutely awful. And it’s not because of Rigid Action Syndrome, but rather because the CGI doesn’t communicate the heaviness and physics you’d expect from such cumbersome modes of transportation. Too often I feel like I’m watching someone play a cheap video game.

Finally–and you knew this was coming–here’s my problem with Sokka’s failed attempt at public speaking: it’s almost funny.  It teeters on the edge of being really, really funny, but for some reason, I never laugh. If anything, I just wind up embarrassed for Sokka. There’s something in De Sena’s delivery makes you really want to pity this guy, because he’s clearly making an ass of himself in front of all those people. It’s not a pretty sight. I was relieved when his dad finally came onstage to shut him up.

Bottom line: “The Day of Black Sun” is a chore to sit through. But the good news is it’s the last episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender to be so. The remaining episodes—with the exception of “The Ember Island Players”—are all great, and some are even the best in the entire series. For that, I’m willing to forgive “The Day of Black Sun” for not being that entertaining. As far as dull but important episodes go, at least it’s better than “Appa’s Lost Days.”

*To an extent, I can understand why being asked the same question over and over again (“Where’s Zuko’s mom?”) would get on their nerves, especially since they didn’t even pretend to have an answer. Trolling never solved anything, though. Just ask the Simpsons writers.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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4 responses

  1. Dan

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who hates Sokka/Jack De Sena’s attempts at humor. Whenever he’s being serious, he’s just fine, and even endearing. But when he tries to be humorous, he’s insufferable. In fact, now that I think about it, Zuko was funnier than Sokka ever was, even when he failed at telling a joke.

    Oh, well. The good news is that you’ll soon be diving into the Zuko mini-arch, the best part of this season by a long shot.

    June 24, 2012 at 12:12 am

  2. Eugene

    What’s interesting about the kissing shot, is that right afterwards Katara looks away in disappointment or guilt or… well, it sure isn’t pleasure. She follows that up by not addressing the kiss until Aang brings it up half a season later. And then she tells him that she’s confused. I always considered this as a pretty clear sign of “I’m not interested.” If you like someone, and I mean really like them, there’s nothing to be confused about. This is why I always found the last shot in the series rather forced. She clearly was not interested. Either that, or the writers just wanted to force the plot so that the main couple gets together only at the finale. That’s typical, but to this day the last shot in the series doesn’t feel right, even though it should’ve felt pretty triumphant.

    June 25, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    • That’s an interesting point. I’ve definitely experienced that reaction a few times before.

      Here are two possible, if not cynical, ways of interpreting her acceptance of Aang’s love: 1) she was either too nice to say, “No”; or 2) she was thinking, “Hmm…well, he is the Avatar; I could be set for life!”

      June 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm

  3. Dman

    I think you were too hard on these pair of episodes. First off, I think the animation was beautiful (Sure the subs weren’t the best CGI ever, but they weren’t nearly as bad as you give them credit for). Secondly I think the actions scenes were also well done and we’re led to assume that some people had died (Like when Aang and Katara started slicing through the wars balloons and the people inside plummeted to the ground; I pretty sure they were considered dead). The only gripe I have about these episodes is that Sokka was pretty foolish when buying into Azula’s taunts about Suki, knowing they had a strict time limit. But other than that, I think these were a great pair of episodes with great animation, great character moments (and in that character parallels with Ozai and Zuko/ Hakoda and Sokka, and their view on honor and fatherhood) and an all around great tale with a bittersweet end.

    May 27, 2013 at 11:12 am

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