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Archive for July, 2012

Chapter Fifty-Six: “The Southern Raiders”

15

(Rating Out of 15)

(Warning: This is a very, very long review.)

“The Southern Raiders” is the greatest episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Nothing has swayed me from this position in all these years, not even after the episode’s Initial Visceral Impact has waned. Then again, I’ve experienced countless works of great Initial Visceral Impact that fell out of my favor upon a moment of critical thought or, worse, a repeated viewing. I believe that truly great works of art merely produce an Initial Visceral Impact to hook you in and invite you to revel in their greater depth and mystery. A repeated viewing, therefore, doesn’t always evoke the same reaction, but instead strengthens what has already resonated in your soul. That’s how I see it, anyway, and based on that criteria, “The Southern Raiders” remains as powerful as ever. This is the one episode of Avatar that will stay with me until the day I die.

Perhaps my love for this episode was inevitable. Faithful readers will recognize that “The Southern Raiders” contains nearly every elements of Avatar that I’ve always loved (from the major character drama of Katara’s dark side to silly biases towards overcast days). This includes my own inclinations towards the darker aspects of any given work of art, and “The Southern Raiders” is unquestionably the darkest episode of the series. But let’s get one thing straight here: darkness does not automatically make any work great, not even in a kids’ show. “Jet” was dark, but it was also unfocused and manipulative. It didn’t handle its subject matter in an honest way; “The Southern Raiders” does.

Roger Ebert once famously said, “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” No subject matter is impossible to deal with on cinematic terms as long as it’s approached in a manner that is entertaining, insightful, and emotionally resonant. For the most part, Avatar is fun and lighthearted, which is perfectly fine for the average episode. But because the series is founded on themes such as war, pride, balance, and hope (among other things), failure to address those themes in a meaningful way would result in an unsatisfying viewing experience. (One problem with The Legend of Korra is that it brings up the issue of what equality is without actually finding a resolve for it.)

As a quick digression, take the anti-war/anti-Vietnam comedy M*A*S*H. This generally lighthearted film follows the antics of several army surgeons around their hospital base. Their antics are indeed funny, but not the entire point of the film. What makes this such a classic is the way it constantly reminds the characters—and the audience—why these people are there in the first place: to operate on and save the lives of critically wounded soldiers. By intersecting the silly moments of the characters with the stress of their job and the grim realities of war, the point becomes clear: their silliness is their method of keeping sane in the middle of a war zone. They don’t want to be there, but if they have to, they’re going to have some fun, too dammit (even if it’s at the expense of the higher-ups)!

But enough ramblings about some old Robert Altman classic. Let’s discuss “The Southern Raiders.”

What Goes On

The plot of “The Southern Raiders” is very well-known. With the help of Zuko, Katara is finally able to confront the man who killed her mother all those years ago. The biggest question becomes: what will she do to him once she finally meets him? Kill him? Or, at Aang’s insistence, forgive him?

The reason she and Zuko are able to find the man in the first place is thanks to Sokka’s recollection of certain details of what happened on that fateful day, particularly the symbol of the Fire Nation ships that attacked the Water Tribe village. Zuko realizes that the symbol described to him belongs to the titular Southern Raiders, and that finding the killer is a strong possibility.

Of course, the reason Zuko cares so much is two-fold: it’s as much to provide Katara some closure on the matter as it is to finally make it up to her for hurting her so badly. She’s the only person in the group of heroes that hasn’t put his bad deeds behind her and fully warmed up to the poor kid. And if helping her confront the root of her issues with him and all the Fire Nation doesn’t put him in her favor, then what will?

Their journey involves a lot of sneaking around, one false stop (the current commander of the Southern Raiders is not the mother killer), and, finally, a brief but powerful encounter with the real killer, Yon Rha.

Just when it seems Katara is poised to kill this guy, she finds that she can’t do it. However, she does realize that only someone as empty and pathetic as Yon Rha would not only be capable of killing an innocent and defenseless human being, but also be so sick as to offer his own mother as a sacrifice to appease a Woman Scorned. With that, she and Zuko return to the others, where Katara finally forgives Zuko for his wrongdoings against her. They hug, they’re happy, and that’s that.

Right?

The Sum of All Things

Earlier, I stated that “The Southern Raiders” contained just about every element of Avatar that I’ve always liked. Truth be told, it also contains one or two elements I tend not to like. The difference, however, is that, within the context of the episode, even these elements are effective. Because of this, I’m able to look beyond them to what I think is the point of the episode. The elements in question include:

Sokka the Funny and the Serious

It’s no secret that I typically loathe Sokka and his voice actor Jack De Sena when it’s their turn to be “funny.” I’ve even said numerous times that Sokka/De Sena is much more endearing when he’s serious and dramatic. Both sides of the character are present here in a big way, sometimes within the same scene.

In fact, Sokka is responsible for what may be the single funniest moment in the entire series. You know the one.

I especially love that he swallows what appears to be a rose. If it is, then it must not have been very comfortable going down his throat with all those thorns on it.

Because it is Zuko who interrupts this attempted passion play—in need of certain information about the day his mother died—the tone of the scene, and thus Sokka’s attitude and performance, changes accordingly. It’s drastic, but not at all forced, and Sokka recalls that day with complete sincerity and sadness. Unlike Katara, though, he doesn’t harbor any guilt over this event that, while traumatizing, was beyond his control.

He even tries to reason with Katara regarding this, and why confronting Yon Rha is a bad idea. Which causes Katara to retort with one of the most venomous things that can be said in such a situation:

Then you didn’t love [mother] the way I did.

Sokka is extremely shocked and torn apart by these words, and for the rest of the episode has nothing to say to his sister. I must say, he and Hakoda have incredible restraint when dealing with Katara on her bad days. Anyone else would have socked this bitch in the face, sister or daughter or not.

By the way, I generally hate it when the writers would try to make Sokka sympathetic by turning the other characters into assholes. This time, it is perfectly justified by Katara’s irrational behavior. Speaking of which…

Katara the Dark

I stand by my belief that Katara is much more interesting when she indulges in her darker nature. Because her default personality is kind and nurturing, it’s always intriguing to witness what drives Katara to become angry, selfish, emotional, and irrational. (That said, I don’t require all nice characters to have a dark side anymore than I require all art works to be dark; if their emotional truth shines through in their lightness, then that’s enough for me.)

For Katara it’s the pain and the guilt that arose from when the Fire Nation took away her mother. Note that it’s “the Fire Nation” that did this crime and you’ll understand how deeply rooted and wrong-headed that rationale is. She inadvertently attributes the evil of one man to the entire Fire Nation (or, at the very least, Firebenders). This underlying racism partially prevents her from initially forgiving Zuko after he’s done more than enough to convince a normal person that he has changed for good. That includes saving her life. Twice.

As for the guilt, she truly believes that her mother’s death is partially her fault, being unable to protect her despite being a Waterbender. So her mission to finding her mother’s killer is also an attempt to alleviate herself of said guilt.

This sort of ties into another very important aspect of Katara: she does not like to be humiliated, to be shown up, or to lose control of the things around her. We’ve seen it when she attempted to show Aang her Waterbending moves in “The Waterbending Scroll,” and in her fights with Toph in “The Chase” and “The Runaway,” and in her failure to avoid Hama’s wishes for her to Bloodbend in “The Puppetmaster.” (Hell, even in this episode, she’s extremely crushed when she realizes she’s Bloodbending the wrong guy.) This is yet another major factor preventing her from forgiving Zuko: he betrayed her in “The Crossroads of Destiny” right after she opened up to him.

At one point early in the episode, Zuko flat out asks Katara what he can do to make it all up to her. Her answer:

You really want to know? Hmm, maybe you could re-conquer Ba Sing Se in the name of the Earth King. Or, you could bring my mother back.

In other words, nothing Zuko can realistically do will change her mind. Harsh.

Zuko

Does this really need any further elaboration at this point? He’s the best character in the series, has the most interesting story arc, and is the most consistently entertaining and endearing human being throughout. See every episode of Avatar ever made with him in it for other examples of this.

Aang the Ideal

The Introduction page of this blog very plainly states that one of my biggest problems with Avatar has always been the title character. Most of the time, Aang simply doesn’t strike me as a real human being with emotions and the capacity for failure. This is largely a symptom of him being the main character, and thus doomed to succeed. There are very few episodes that deal with him as a twelve-year-old boy who just happens to be humanity’s savior and last hope. (Among them, “The Deserter” and “The Avatar State” are probably the best.)

One of the strengths of “The Southern Raiders” is that: 1) he is not the main focus of the episode; and 2) his role here has literally been reduced to spokeperson for the ideal. It’s Aang that urges Katara to forgive Yon Rha for his deed, despite how difficult (or impossible, as Katara puts it) it would be. Zuko berates Aang’s advice as the same as doing nothing. However, Aang insists that by seeking revenge, Katara would destroy herself as much as she destroys Yon Rha.

And yet Katara goes on her journey anyway, even going so far as to take Appa without Aang’s permission. Which he immediately forgives her for, as if that would change her mind.

This treatment of Aang as a token of idealistic thinking couldn’t have been unintentional. At one point, Sokka even compliments him for being such a wise kid, even if it is generally annoying. He might as well be speaking for all of us (or for me, at least).

There are two factors that undermine Aang’s idealism, however.

First, his approach to Katara’s problem is flawed. It is not Yon Rha who is in need of forgiveness, but Katara herself. She blames herself for her mother’s death, as irrational as it is. But I suppose Aang wouldn’t understand that kind of guilt, having never been even indirectly responsible for anyone’s death.

Oh, wait…

Second, the final scene. Zuko admits that Aang was right to allow Katara to confront Yon Rha, even if it didn’t need to resort to violence. Aang, still in infinite wisdom mode, takes this opportunity to state that violence is never the answer. Which causes Zuko to respond with one Hell of a question: if violence isn’t the answer, then how is Aang going to defeat the Firelord? It’s not so much the question that gets me so much as the fact that Aang cannot give him an immediate answer. And then the episode ends without an answer at all. It really flips Aang’s idealism right onto its head, making the notion of good and bad rather uncertain. Just like in real life!

By the way, I find it rather amusing that Aang is suddenly so anti-violence now. This is the kid who inexplicably killed a buzzward-wasp after it tried to take away Momo. “All life is sacred” my ass.

The Avatar Formula

The average episode of Avatar tends to follow what I’ve called the Avatar formula. Within that formula, there has to be a lesson learned; there has to be a last-act action sequence; there has to be a neat resolution to the entire plot; conflicts of one episode are rarely carried over from or into another; and one or two aspects of the episode actually contributes to building the world, developing the characters, and continuing the overall story.

Book One pretty much followed this formula to a tee. It sort of fell out of favor during Book Two when the episodes became (for lack of a better word) less episodic and more like significant parts of a larger story (the amount of filler certainly dropped). In Book Three…well, it’s called the Schizophrenic Season for a reason.

A very self-evident reason.

The Avatar formula isn’t a bad thing in itself. Lots of shows have their own set formula that work from episode to episode. It all depends on what’s done within the formula itself. I’d say on average, Avatar handles it pretty well. Sometimes not well at all (“The Great Divide”) and sometimes brilliantly (“The Puppetmaster”).

The episodes that tend to intrigue me the most are the ones that either disregard or go against the formula, even if it’s just in one element. That includes episodes like “The Avatar and the Firelord,” “The Blue Spirit,” the bulk of Book Two, and now “The Southern Raiders.”

For one thing, the big action sequence occurs not in the last act, but in the very first scene. It’s actually the only true action sequence in the episode. The remaining scenes of action—which consist of Katara going after her mother’s killer—play out more like scenes from a horror film.

It’s a fantastic opener which, in addition to being very thrilling, establishes a few important things: 1) Azula, who leads the attack on the Western Air Temple, is becoming a lot less cunning with her attack strategies, which can only be a sign of her eventual breakdown; 2) Zuko may have saved Katara’s life again, but when they all escape, he has also separated her from her father again, giving her yet another reason to be angry at him (seeing as the attack was led by Azula, she’d surely blame Zuko by virtue of him being the girl’s brother); and 3) it provides an interesting contrast to the climax of the episode when Katara finally meets Yon Rha.

I guess you can say that “forgiveness” is the lesson of the day. The thing is, Katara flat out states that she could never forgive Yon Rha. She does forgive Zuko, though. For some reason.

As for conflicts carrying over from one episode to another, we’ve got the death of Katara’s mother, Bloodbending, Katara’s hatred for Zuko, the Zuko-and-me field trips, the first-scene action sequence which could also serves as an epilogue to “The Boiling Rock,” Sokka and Suki’s reunion, etc. Nearly every plot point that sets up this episode has been carried over from previous episodes.

Lastly, I certainly wouldn’t say that “The Southern Raiders” has a neat resolution. If anything, the ending raised a few seemingly unanswered questions. And I don’t just mean the issue of what Aang would do when he finally faced the Firelord, but regarding why Katara could only forgive Zuko after facing her mother’s killer, why she didn’t kill Yon Rha, and what moral or message is supposed to be gained from all of this. I’ve drawn a few of my own conclusions and interpretations, which I’ll discuss later.

Ehasz, Ehasz, and Santos

Whenever I refer to the Avatar production team, I simply call them “DiMartino and Konietzko and company.” Rarely do I single out individual writers or artists, and when I do, it’s almost always the same people for one reason or another. I’m sure most readers are well-aware of my sympathy for the much maligned John O’Bryan. Beyond him, I’ve mentioned head writer Aaron Ehasz’ name more than a few times. Aside from pinning a few great episodes himself (“The Crossroads of Destiny”), it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint how important he was to Avatar‘s overall success. But considering that he’s responsible for, among other things, the existence of Toph and the warmth of Uncle Iroh (and, judging by the commentary for “The Chase,” some of the more off-color humor), I’d say he was very important, maybe even to the degree that George Meyer was to The Simpsons: “He didn’t create it, but he’s largely responsible for its greatness.”*

Now, if the question was who penned the most great episodes, the prize would go to Mr. Ehasz’s wife, Elizabeth Welch Ehasz. While she certainly has a few stinkers on her resume (who didn’t on Avatar?), she also has three of the very, very best episodes to her name, including “Zuko Alone,” “The Western Air Temple,” and “The Southern Raiders.” Whether she just got lucky, received favoritism in the writing room (there’s no way to prove or disprove that), or was just that good is unclear, especially since this is a television production we’re talking about: attributing authorship outside that of the shows’ creators becomes tricky. I do have to wonder if “The Southern Raiders” would have been as good as it is without Mrs. Ehasz’s direct involvement.

I can say this though: the episode would not have been as good without Joaquim Dos Santos as director. He is that good. His and co-partner Ki Hyun Ryu’s direction was the best and most consistent aspect of Korra. I’m glad he joined the Avatar team when he did: his expertise with action and emotions was much needed for episodes like this and the second half of the series finale.

What Was the Point of “The Southern Raiders?”

“The Southern Raiders” possesses a moral and ethical ambiguity that most episodes do not (though, incidentally, some of the best do to a lesser extent). It’s difficult to say what the moral or message is, if there even is one. The more I try to find one, the more it tends to evade me.

The word “forgiveness” is tossed around enough to make one believe that it’s the point, and for a while, I certainly did. Seeing Katara actually embrace Zuko in a hug—one of the most cathartic moments in the series—seemed to indicate that.

After seeing the episode a few times, though, something didn’t quite feel right. The best way I can explain is with this: was Zuko really the one in need of forgiveness here? After all, he’d truly done more than enough to earn her trust, including saving her life twice, teaching Aang Firebending to save the world from his father, and helping her brother rescue her father from prison. In the end, he literally has to show her the man who killed her mother to prove that one man’s wrongdoing does not make an entire race evil (even if they did start a war) before she’s ready to accept him.

If you ask me, this kid deserves more than forgiveness: he deserves an apology. And a thank you. And another apology for all those times Katara was a bitch to him over the last few episodes.

Now, you could say that, in her own special way, Katara did apologize and thank him in that hugging scene, albeit indirectly. The animation and the voice acting by Mae Whitman seems to suggest this much, especially in the rather sheepish expression Katara has before she states that she’s ready to forgive him. I guess she’s not quite mature enough yet to just admit she was wrong.

And that gets me wondering about something else. She flat out admits that she could never forgive Yon Rha for what he did. She says she forgives Zuko, but does she really? Or has she simply redirected her anger towards the man who actually wronged her? I’d like to think some actual forgiveness was involved, but…Katara is just not one of those characters I can be completely sure about when it comes to these things.

Which leads to the biggest question of the episode: why didn’t she kill Yon Rha when she had the opportunity and, obviously, the motivation?

I honestly do not know.

It doesn’t help much that not even Katara knows why she didn’t do it. This what what she says to Aang:

I wanted to do it. I wanted to take out all my anger at him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too weak to do it or if it’s because I’m strong enough not to.

Since the episode seems to lack a definitive answer, I’ve been forced to draw my own conclusions—not that I’m complaining. I’ve boiled it down to three somewhat interconnected points. (And for the record, I’m exempting the whole “because it’s a kids’ show” argument. Hell, it’s probably true, but it didn’t make the episode any less compelling.)

1) Because, deep down, she’s still very much “innocent”

She may not be the “helpless little girl” she was when her mother was killed, but she’s still the innocent, hopeful, idealistic girl she always was. And that innocent girl could never consciously kill someone (unless she absolutely had to, but more on that later).

As she and Zuko invade the Southern Raiders ship they thought the killer would be on, there’s a very brief shot of Katara with tears in her eyes as she blasts the guards away with water. Personally, that moment made me see this entire sequence as more of a childish temper tantrum than a revenge mission (which actually made it more frightening). These guards had nothing to do with killing her mother, but in Katara’s mind, they might as well have, being Fire Nation and all. That’s one of the downfalls of “innocence,” I suppose: all aspects of one’s being, good or bad, are treated with full conviction. Katara is as much a champion of life as she is a racist.

There’s one more brief shot near the end of the episode right before she and Aang discuss what happened—and what didn’t happen. Katara kicks her legs in the water while sitting on the end of the dock. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it strikes me as a significantly child-like action. I see children do it all the time, but rarely adults. An adult might see it as a pointless waste of energy. But for a child, usually a bottomless pit of energy anyway, such actions define their youthful existence. Katara often attempts to be the adult and the mature one in the group, but she is still very much a child at heart.

Is that to say a “mature” person would have killed Yon Rha? Well, according to Aang, a “mature” person would have forgiven him. Hmm…

2) Because she’d never killed anyone before.

A long time ago, I read an article—the link to which I, sadly, can no longer find—that detailed the story of how Japanese civilians were turned into soldiers. They were ordered to kill a POW with their bare hands. If they didn’t, then they themselves would be killed. And so, slowly but surely, those civilians did what they were told. Some time later, those same civilians were ordered to kill more POWs. They did just that, but something had changed. Killing came much more easily to them. It was as if a part of their soul had been destroyed after their first kill, and it allowed them to kill from then on without hesitation. The act of murder was no longer a sin against humanity, but a fact of their lives.

I relay this story not just for how it relates to Katara’s predicament, but to the series as a whole. Avatar is not a very violent show, and the deadlier implications of the concept of Bending are rarely given the light of day. However, I’ve come to accept this less as a limitation set by the Nickelodeon Studio and more as a reflection of the characters, particularly the main characters. It’s not that they lack imagination so much as they’re not horrible people who actively think up ways to harm people with their powers. We’ve seen what characters like Azula are capable of—she killed Aang in “The Crossroads of Destiny,” after all—which proves that the possibilities are always there. For the most part, our heroes won’t take them because: 1) they don’t see them; and 2) they wouldn’t want to if they did. For the most part.

I truly believe Katara would have killed Yon Rha if the act wasn’t something new to her. For solid evidence of that, look no further than the Bloodbending scene.

I remember before “The Southern Raiders” first aired, everyone was excited by the prospect of seeing Katara Bloodbend for the first time since “The Puppetmaster.” Then the scene went by in under a minute, and many were disappointed. I’m sure that disappointment has dissolved by now, because despite it’s brief appearance, it’s impact on the story is enormous.

Back in the “The Puppetmaster,” Katara was essentially tricked into Bloodbending for the first time by Hama; Katara never wanted to use such an evil power. But Bloodbend she did, much to her horror and to Hama’s delight. What Katara first saw as a sin against humanity became a fact of her life.

Combine that with her anger and determination to get her mother’s killer and one can see why Bloodbending came so easily to her second time (besides it being the night of a full moon). Bloodbending remains one of the most—if not the most—disturbing aspects of the Avatar universe, as much for how what it does to its victims as how it affects the perpetrator. It’s bad enough having to see the commanding officer of the Southern Raiders fruitlessly struggle with his invisible binds. Even more horrifying is the monstrous glare Katara gives him as she Bends him.

I bet you anything that if that commander had actually been Yon Rha, Katara would have torned him apart with her Bloodbending, Tetsuo-style. With all the power she was receiving from the full moon, she might have just been on a natural high that would have allowed her to take the next step towards becoming a monster. Luckily, for us and her, she didn’t. Realizing she had the wrong guy is certainly humiliating, but at least it saved her from herself. (It’s also good that there was no full moon when she finally found Yon Rha.)

But the most important reason Katara didn’t kill Yon Rha was:

3) Because it wasn’t a life-or-death situation.

That opening action sequence is very important to the overall episode, especially the fight between Zuko and Azula, because it establishes an underlying principle: in battle, sometimes killing is necessary; it’s either you or them (or your loved ones, as we’ll see). By the end of the sequence, Azula and Zuko blast each other off of the zeppelin they’re fighting on. After Zuko is saved by Aang and friends from falling to his death, he looks back to see Azula still falling. His concern that she won’t make it is, of course, invalidated when she improbably saves herself. Zuko is at once frustrated and relieved by this, and understandably so: who wants to be responsible for killing their own sister? Then again, if she hadn’t mad it, no one could blame Zuko for it. She would’ve killed him—as she memorably makes clear with her only line in the episode (“You mean it’s not obvious yet? I’m about to celebrate becoming an only child!”)—if he didn’t defeat her.

Going back to “The Puppetmaster” again: the sole reason Katara Bloodbended was to save Aang from being killed by Hama (though Sokka). In the end, Katara was horrified by what she’d done, even if she did it to save someone she loved. It reminds me of the classic confession, “I know I done wrong, but, oh, Father, what else was I gonna do?”

Katara’s confrontation with Yon Rha is neither a life-or-death situation nor a meeting of equals. Had Yon Rha been a strong, honorable man who gave Katara a fair chance to avenge herself, then maybe things would have turned out differently.

But Yon Rha is no Bill. He’s an old, cowardly, weak, and broken man who lives with his horrible mother. We only see him Firebend once, and it’s pretty lame. He gets tripped with a rope and suddenly surrenders. To kill this guy would be too easy. You’d have to be a complete monster to off someone who posed absolutely no threat whatsoever.

Oh, wait…

Close to the Edge

I think it’s fair to say that “luck” played a major part in how the events of “The Southern Raiders” ultimately played out. It’s lucky that Katara was psychologically incapable of simply killing anyone; it’s lucky she didn’t encounter Yon Rha on a full moon; it’s lucky that Sokka could remember the symbol of the Southern Raiders from all those years ago; it’s lucky that Aang is such a pushover that he let Katara and Zuko take Appa so they could go on their journey; and finally, it’s lucky that everything worked out so that Katara could finally forgive Zuko.

“Luck” (and by extension “coincidence” and “Deus ex Machina”) is often loathed in storytelling: if characters just got lucky all the time, where would their growth and struggle come from? But it actually works in this episode. Besides, with perhaps the exception of the Southern Raiders symbol, it’s not as if the elements that drive this story came out of nowhere. Nothing that happens in this episode contradicts or ignores anything that came before it, be it in the series or in life. The result is the most engaging and fascinating episode in all of Avatar, and the closest there is to a “perfect” episode. As co-creator Bryan Konietzko would say, it is “drama at its finest for me.”**

As much as I love “The Southern Raiders,” I can’t call it pitch-perfect for two relatively minor reasons.***

First, it wasn’t animated by JM Animation Co. Ltd. (It was animated by Moi Animation.) JM produced all the best looking and most solid, three-dimensional animation throughout the series. I prefer that to the looser and more noticeably cartoony styles of Moi and DR Movie. (One could argue that the looser styles of the other two studios allow for greater emotional expression from the characters than JM’s does, but that’s another discussion for another time.)

Second, Katara doesn’t seem that affected to learn that her mother essentially sacrificed herself for her. The Southern Raiders came to find the last Waterbender, after all. Maybe Katara already knew that. How? Did her father tell her later, before he left to fight in the war? But Hadoka wasn’t there when the killing happened, so how could he have known that Kya was killed when she lied to Yon Rha that she was the last Waterbender? Did Katara just come to this conclusion after hearing the stories of Waterbender abductions from Hama?

Who knows? This could very well be a plot hole, but it doesn’t hurt the episode very much. Besides, in Citizen Kane, no one actually heard Charles Foster Kane say “Rosebud” in the beginning of the movie, but that doesn’t make the film any less of a masterpiece. So it is with “The Southern Raiders.”

A major part of the episode’s greatness is thanks to the careful treatment of Yon Rha. What a sad man. Despite his old age, he strikes me as one of those people who peaked very early in their lives, only to spend the rest of it reminiscing and wondering where everything went wrong. In Yon Rha’s case, his commanding officer days might have just been the highlight of his life, and killing Kya his crowning achievement.

He is said to have retired, but if you ask me, he was probably let go because of his old age and limited prospects. We know so little about the man that it’s hard to say, but when you compare him to Uncle Iroh, it’s clear that Yon Rha had very little going on for him besides being a commanding office, and not even a particularly impressive one: he barely seems average, and he’s definitively not charismatic; his final words before killing Kya (“I’m afraid I’m not taking prisoners today.”) sounds like something he’d been rehearsing in his head the entire boat ride to the Southern Water Tribe. Iroh may have given up his position as General, but there is much more to the man than his job: he is a charming, friendly man with a passion for tea and helping others, among other things; Yon Rha doesn’t even seem to be a good gardener.

I’ve met a few Yon Rhas in my life, and they are indeed a sad and miserable bunch. My own father is a Yon Rha. What little prospects he had for a promising future were ruined by a narrow perspective on life and too many bad decision (of which I was one of). He’s paying the price with an existence so dull and monotonous that it’s painful to witness. It’s hard for me to watch this episode without seeing my father in Yon Rha, and thinking the same morbid thought: a death blow from Katara would actually be a mercy killing.

But enough of that. The fact is that Katara didn’t (or, rather, couldn’t) kill him, and thank the unseen makers of the universe. By that point, Katara isn’t just facing her mother’s killer, but her potential future. Going through with the kill might have ended her up just like Yon Rha. (I’m vaguely reminded of the climax of the film Se7en, although, suffice it to say, Yon Rha is no John Doe.****) Just how close she comes to realizing that future—and how understandable it would have been—is frightening.

So does the fact that Katara couldn’t even perform the act even if she really wanted to rob the climax of its emotional power, seeing as a moral crisis was averted thanks solely to the inate neurosis of the character? Obviously I don’t think so. As I said earlier, sometimes people do get lucky. Luck plays a bigger part in our lives than we sometimes like to admit.

In Conclusion

Perhaps through of all this, I was able to convince you that “The Southern Raiders” is the greatest episode of the series. If I haven’t, then blame my writing, not the episode. For me, there’s only a single moment in the series that has surpassed “The Southern Raiders” in terms of hard-hitting emotional impact (that would be Azula’s mental collapse). Regarding “The Southern Raiders” itself, it’s to Avatar what the Beatles’ Abbey Road was to that group’s discography: chronologically not the final episode, but ultimately the truest accumulation of everything that came before and beyond. Maybe it’s not the most entertaining episode, or the most pleasant to watch. But it’s certainly the most emotionally resonant, and the episode that, in its own special Avatar way, says the most about the human condition. And that is definitely no small feat for an American animated children’s program.

*The quote is from this George Meyer interview with the Believer.

**Ironically enough, Konietzko was referring to Lin’s sacrifice in Korra. A sacrifice that was ruined by the finale. Twice.

***An honorable third reason could be the lack of a substantial role for Toph.

****The Se7en comparison is actually more applicable to the ending of “The Puppetmaster.”

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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Announcement: Final Delay on “The Southern Raiders” Review

O, patient readers, I apologize so sincerely for the many, many delays on this review, especially this close to the end. But I can assure you that this Saturday July 28th, my review of “The Southern Raiders” will finally be posted. I say this with certainty because I’ve finally gotten a decent first draft done, so the next few days will be spent revising and prepping it for posting. This is the last delay that will be held on this review. I promise.

– Marshall Turner


Announcement: “The Southern Raiders” Review Won’t Be Up Until Wednesday

Unfortunately, my review for “The Southern Raiders” isn’t finished yet. I’m working as quickly and as diligently and as quickly as possible to have this done to make for a timely and detailed review. I apologize to those patiently waiting. This is a very important episode to me (being my favorite and all), and I really hope to do it justice with my review. Hopefully this is the last delay for “The Southern Raiders.”

– Marshall Turner


Please Tell Me This is All Just a Bad Dream: Further Disappointment with “Korra”

I really thought my disgust with the way The Legend of Korra ended would just disappear, or at the very least, I would be able to move on from it. Or that, hopefully, a re-watch would be the ultimate right of all wrongs. After all, there are much more serious issues in the world to get riled up over than the ending of an American animated children’s program, right?

Logically, and in theory, yes. But reality has proven that highly anticipated works that fail can often pack a much deeper emotional punch—albeit a negative one—than the previous works they sprung from. Why else would people still be pissed off about Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace thirteen years later? Why else would most people be savaging Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the “prequel” to his own classic Alien? Why are sequels so hated in the first place?

Ugh…

But I digress. The fact of the matter is that Korra was not a satisfying experience for numeral reasons (reasons so numerous that my own essay on the matter—the longest on this blog—was barely even the tip of the iceberg). One of the problems was that creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko attempted to tell a complete story in twelve episodes that unfortunately could not told in twelve episodes. At least, not in the sense that every single loose end in the story could plausibly be wrapped up by the end of those twelve episodes. I’m sure they had the ending thought out way in advance just like they did with Avatar: the Last Airbender, which means they were pretty much writing themselves into a corner: the route of the actual story seemed to be going in a much different direction than the one they had in mind. (The first seven episodes and some of the eighth are proof of that.) In trying to keep to their original plan, the end result was a big mess in which some characters received better treatment than they deserved (Korra and Mako), some characters were cruelly treated with almost Kubrickian indifference (Asami), and some were just flat-out shoved away or turned into nothing more than plot devices (Bolin, Tenzin and his family, and to a lesser degree, Lin Bei Fong).

I can’t know what was going through DiMartino and Konietzko’s head as they crafted this series, and I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming them for trying to tell a story in twelve episodes. I’m not even blaming them for Nickelodeon’s decision to order fourteen more episodes when the production of Book One was halfway done (that was clearly beyond their control). No, I’m blaming them for wrapping up their story with a nice, neat happy ending when nothing that came before warranted one. An open-ended finale probably wouldn’t have been as cathartic, but it certainly would have been more appropriate, not to mention more challenging and just as fruitful for the imagination.

The sad part is that Nickelodeon has ordered twenty-six more episodes of Korra, so by the time the series is finally finished, there will have been fifty-two episodes total. Again, this decision was clearly beyond DiMartino and Konietzko’s control, and I suppose for the more forgiving fans, the prospect of more episodes of Korra is a good one. Unfortunately, this giant order of new episodes makes the self-contained mess of Book One look that much worse.

Back during the production of Avatar, DiMartino and Konietzko had the full arch in mine for that series—from Aang’s awakening in the iceberg to his defeat of the Firelord—but initially, Nickelodeon only ordered thirteen episodes. That meant if the studio choose not to continue the series as DiMartino and Konietzko planned, then the last episode of Avatar would have been “The Blue Spirit.” But luckily for us and them, that never happened, and they got to see their story all the way to the end.

I this bring up to say that DiMartino and Konietzko probably should have had a game plan just in case the studio wanted more episodes of Korra than they originally paid for. The lesson they should have taken from their Avatar experience is that the television production machine is completely unpredictable: if they have the power to shut down an incomplete story, then why wouldn’t they have the power to expand a completed one? Konietzko himself worked on a show that was cancelled before its story could be properly concluded. It was called Invader Zim.

And it was GLORIOUS!

Maybe they’ll find some way to explain away their own Deus ex Machina in Book Two, or maybe they won’t. I can’t say I’m ecstatic about Book Two or any of the other books for that matter (despite how jaw-droppingly gorgeous some of that concept art is), but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. To drastically paraphrase Mr. Plinkett, “Well Book One sucked, but maybe Book Two will be better. Hopes are high that Korra can be saved, and maybe we’ll all just look back on Book One as being ‘that really bad one’.”

All screenshots taken by me.


Announcement: Next Review Will Be Posted on Friday

The next review, which will be on “The Southern Raiders,” won’t be up until Friday July 20th. This is one episode that I need more time than usual to gather my thoughts on because, frankly, it’s my favorite episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender. Hopefully with the extended deadline, I can do the episode some justice. Hopefully.

– Marshall Turner


Chapter Fifty-Four and Fifty-Five: “The Boiling Rock”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

14

(Rating Out of 15)

(Note: I’m not very satisfied with how this review came out either. I haven’t been on my rocker these past few days. Once all the other reviews have been completed, this will definitely be one of those that will be revisited and revised. I sincerely apologize, and promise that the remaining reviews will be much better.)

The Grand Stretch continues with “The Boiling Rock,” and the Zuko-and-me field tripper is Sokka as they go on an poorly planned journey to rescue Sokka’s father from prison. Much like “The Firebending Masters,” this is a very-plot heavy episode that is neither very deep nor profound, but is still very entertaining, and the best parts involve the character interactions and the climatic third act. I have to wonder if DiMartino and Konietzko and company were saving their depth and profoundness for the next episode, “The Southern Raiders.”

“The Boiling Rock” is the best and most coherent multi-part episode in the series (yes, even better than the four-part finale). Also like “The Firebending Masters,” it’s as much a genre exercise as it is an episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender: if that episode was the Avatar take on action-adventure serials, then this episode is the Avatar take on a prison escape movie. In both cases, it’s a great success. “The Boiling Rock” is fun and suspenseful in a way that we haven’t seen since Book Two’s “The Library.”

It begins when Sokka asks Zuko where war prisoners, namely his father, are being held and where the place can be found–just to ease his mind, he says. Zuko sees right through this, but tells Sokka anyway: his father is probably at the Boiling Rock, the greatest maximum security prison in the Fire Nation, and that it’s located in the middle of a volcano, and that it’s inescapable. Naturally, by the end of the episode, our heroes will have proven that last part wrong, but that doesn’t make the episode any less engaging. (Part of the fun of any traditional prison break story is how they escape, not if they can.)

Unwilling to let Sokka go on this journey alone, especially on Appa, Zuko helps Sokka out by using his war balloon to get them both to the prison. Unfortunately, the balloon gets destroyed when they finally reach the prison, so they have to figure out another way to escape. That, and all the while trying to find Sokka’s father and not get caught themselves.

I will refrain from attempting to summarize and analyze the entire plot—which is so dense that I would be stuck on this episode for a long time—except to say that it is fantastically pieced together. There’s not a single wasted moment in these two episodes: every setup and payoff, twist and turn, and success and failure of the characters is a joy to watch. It helps immensely that, every step of the way, we care deeply about all of the characters.

My respect for Sokka has gone back up again thanks to “The Boiling Rock.” He’s not much a jokester in here (which is almost always a good thing), but instead gets to display the two sides of him that make him the most endearing: his ingenuity and his genuine emotions.

Throughout the series, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have always attempted to show us that Sokka, in spite of his idiocy, is actually a pretty smart and sensitive guy. More often than not, that intelligence is overshadowed by his painfully bad sense of humor. (Even Zuko’s failed attempt at joke telling in this episode is funnier than Sokka usually is.) Not so much in “The Boiling Rock,” where his determination to rescue his father and redeem himself is so great that I have no choice but to sympathize with him. Considering this is probably the first time I’ve been sympathetic towards him without the rest of the characters being written as contrarian morons, this is quite an accomplishment.

Both of his escape plans are pretty clever, and each would have worked if it weren’t for certain complications (more on that later).

The first involves using the Cooler—a solitary confinement for disobedient Firebenders that is freezing cold—as a boat to float across the current of the boiling hot water surrounding the prison. The Cooler’s insulated insides make it the ideal getaway vehicle.

The second involves starting a prison riot to distract the guards while Sokka and the others take the prison warden hostage so that the can use the gondola to get across the water.

But most importantly, Sokka comes through as an emotional human being. His father is the whole reason he came to the Boiling Rock in the first place, and his initial anguish upon learning his father isn’t even there [yet] is devastating to watch. (More proof that voice actor Jack De Sena is best at drama, not comedy.) But then he brightens back up when he sees that Suki is at the prison. Even if his dad isn’t at the prison, getting Suki out is definitely a positive course of action.

But then when he learns that his father just might be arriving the day they all try to make their first escape, he has the dilemma of escaping then and there, or risking not just his and Zuko’s freedom, but the potential freedom of Suki just to see if his father will even show up after all. It’s a tough choice to make, and DiMartino and Konietzko and company carefully highlight that difficulty when Zuko ultimately persuades him to try again (even if another escape is unforeseeable).

Before moving on, I should note that Sokka’s reunions with Suki and his father Hakoda are both rather touching. Maybe too touching. Did both of them have to burst into tears upon seeing Sokka again? I can sort of understand Suki—not because she’s a girl, but just because she hasn’t seen him in a very, very long time (and who’d have thought that in all places, she’d see him again in prison?)—but Hakoda? A bit unnecessary, I think.

But of course, Sokka wouldn’t have gotten very far if it weren’t for Zuko. Zuko is mostly the way to Sokka’s will. Not only does Zuko get him to the prison in the first place, but he unbolts the Cooler from the wall, persuades Sokka to stay and wait to see if his father arrives, and is lucky enough to have a girlfriend who helps them all escape at the very last minute.

Regarding that last part, Zuko’s not the only one: Sokka is also lucky, because it’s Suki who ends up immobilizing the Warden and making him her captive.

That sequence is exhilarating and hilarious all on its own–seeing the acrobatic Suki climb walls and perform high jumps to reach the Warden–but it’s not like it came out of nowhere. Suki has always been shown as a girl of immediate action, and quite possibly the most competent and professional person in Avatar. Back in “The Serpent’s Pass,” she’s the one who swam out to save Toph while Sokka was busy trying to get his shoes off. Now she’s the one who retrieves the Warden after Sokka failed to come up with a good game plan as to how they would do that.

In the meantime, we get a new character named Chit Sang, who gets wind of our heroes’ escape plan and wants in. I wouldn’t say he’s a particularly memorable or distinctive character, but it doesn’t hurt the episode. He ends up escaping with them in the end, but not without some set backs.

By the time Sokka, Suki, and Zuko opt to stay another day at the Boiling Rock to wait for Sokka’s father, Chit Sang (and his girl and his best bud, who we learn nothing about and don’t ever see again) get away on the Cooler “boat.” Unfortunately, Chit Sang sabotages this escape by trying to paddle the “boat” out faster and getting his hand burned by the water. His scream alerts everyone, causing the Warden to put the entire prison on “lockdown.”

At least he’s good enough not to rat Sokka and the others out. After being tortured for information, he points out the guard who is an “imposter.” He chooses a guard who was tormenting him earlier in the episode by forcing him to Firebend when it’s against the rules. That’s pretty funny.

Chit Sang also helps the heroes out by starting the prison riot. Chit Sang must initiate a lot of riots, because the way he does it here is by simply picking up someone and shouting, “Hey, everyone! Riot!” Is this some kind of shorthand that the prisoners have developed to pass the time? Oh, who knows?

It all leads, as most things do in Avatar, to a last-act action sequence, made all the more exciting by the involvement of ATM.

Azula and Ty Lee don’t really have a specified reason for being at the Boiling Rock. Did the Warden message her that her brother was one of his prisoners? I guess it’s for the same reason the three girls were present in “The Drill”: your guess is as good as mine.

But it’s a good thing these two are there. When it seems like our heroes have gotten away on the gondola, here comes Azula and Ty Lee to provide some more conflict. Ty Lee the acrobat reaches our heroes by running on the high wire, and Azula reaches them by being Iron Man.

The fight is rather anti-climatic. Sure, we get to see Azula, Zuko, and Sokka exchange blows, as we do also with Suki and Ty Lee (in the rematch Suki’s been waiting for), but there’s no closure.

Fortunately, this is by design, not by accident. The reason is that the Warden, who wants to uphold the Boiling Rock’s reputation of being inescapable, tells the guards below to cut the cable line. He doesn’t even care that this would surely result in his own death. What a dedicated man.

With that, Azula and Ty Lee quickly jump onto the other gondola to escape. It’s always interesting to note how cold Azula’s goodbye is to Zuko—as if casually acknowledging that she’d been waiting for this moment for a long time—and how slightly saddened Ty Lee’s expression is as she watches our heroes on the verge of death. She never actually wanted anyone to die thanks to her alliance with Azula, but now it’s about to happen.

Of course, thanks to Mai, it doesn’t.

Which is somewhat surprising, considering how venomous she is to Zuko after meeting him in the prison. Zuko had been caught by the guards, but the Warden was the only one who knew that it was Zuko the traitor prince. How? Because Zuko broke up with Mai, who happened to be the Warden’s niece.

The crux of her anger comes out when she scolds him for not even having the guts to break up with her to her face, instead only giving him a vague and meaningless letter. (Then again, this isn’t the worst break up in the Avatar universe, so Mai should consider herself lucky.)

It doesn’t help matters much when Zuko leaves her locked in the cell, once again trying to keep her safe from his conflicts. Not that she really understands that. All she knows is that the one she loves is trying to get her out of his life. It’s actually kind of heartbreaking.

And yet, even after all that, Mai is the one who finally helps Zuko and the others escape by stopping the guards from cutting the line.

So why did she even bother to save “the jerk who dumped [her]?” This is also asked by Azula when the two of them have a final stand off. Mai’s answer is pretty well-known:

I guess you just don’t know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.

This is definitely Mai’s defining moment in the series, and proves once and for all that she’s got some depth to her. She’s often criticized for being shallow and having little to no personality. However, as “The Beach” makes clear, that’s not a flaw in the writing, but a choice made by the character. I’ll have to elaborate on this much later, but the main point is quite clear: in her love for Zuko, Mai has finally found something worth risking everything for, even death. (How many people can also say that?)

And death is certainly promised by Azula. That quote of Mai’s is not just a revelation for her character, but a bitch slap in the face of Azula. Azula is very noticeably outraged by this If she can’t control her friend, then she’s of no use to her anymore.

But that wasn’t Azula’s breaking point. She may not have expected betrayal from Mai, but she definitely did not expect it from Ty Lee. Ty Lee’s reason may not be as remarkable, but it’s perfectly understandable: she doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death, even if she’s not the one doing the actual killing. I still think she’s an idiot (mostly because of the vocal performance by Olivia Hack), but at least she’s a humanitarian idiot.

Azula’s breakdown—which, in my opinion, is the best aspect of the series—will be addressed more extensively in the finale reviews, but it definitely began in this episode. It’s all downhill from here.

Oh, and Zuko and the others escape, and Sokka and Katara are reunited with their father at the Western Air Temple. That’s nice.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Fifty-Three: “The Firebending Masters”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

(Note: I’m not very satisfied with how this review came out. Once all the other reviews have been completed, this will definitely be one of those that will be revisited and revised. I sincerely apologize.)

The Grand Stretch continues with “The Firebending Masters,” in which Aang and Zuko travel to the ancient civilization of the Sun Warriors in order to learn Firebending from the original masters. This is also the first of the infamous Zuko-and-me field trips, in which one of our heroes goes off on an adventure with Zuko that makes them realize this Fire Nation prince is actually not that bad of a guy. (Only Toph doesn’t get to go on one of these trips. I guess her conversations with him in “The Ember Island Players” is as close as she gets.)

“The Firebending Masters” is one of the most tightly written episodes, and definitely has one of the most beautiful and most cathartic climaxes in the series. So why no perfect rating?

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of saying something nice about Sokka and his humor in the last episode. Now the old, unfunny, annoying Sokka is back with a vengeance. They must have allowed Jack De Sena to improvise in this episode. My theory is that in “The Western Air Temple,” all of the humor had to accommodate the gravity of the situation, be it Zuko trying to join the kids or Combustion Man trying to kill them all. Nothing could be left to chance, so the jokes were very clearly and carefully crafted to fit the overall tone of the episode. With the tension of that episode gone, the sky was the limit, and De Sena was allowed to say anything.

Again, that’s just a theory. More to the point, if I hear De Sena say the word “jerkbending” in that smug tone of his one more time, I will kill him.

Now about the rest of the episode…

For some reason, Zuko can no longer Firebend. Having relied on rage and his determination to capture the Avatar to drive him for so long, the disappearance of those two things leaves him powerless. This is especially bad news for Aang, because who else could he possibly go to for Firebending tutoring? A trip to the civilization of the Sun Warriors would do them both a favor, because even if the people totally gone, at least their relics may have some helpful Firebending instructions.

This leads to an Avatar: the Last Airbender version of those old serial adventures from the 30s and 40s, including close encounters with booby traps, new dance moves, grumpy old men, strange euphemisms (“monkey feathers”), and—eventually—dragons, the original Firebenders, once thought to be extinct. Sozin apparently started the tradition of killing dragons for glory, and Uncle Iroh was the last one to do so. (That turns out to be a lie, but would we really have believed such needless cruelty would come from good ol’ Iroh?)

When Zuko first announces his Firebending problem to the rest of the kids, Katara is the only one to respond. And it’s with laughter. She’s pretty amused by the irony that Zuko now loses his Firebending when they need him instead back in the day when he was chasing them.

You know, Katara is kind of a bitch in this episode. Unlike Sokka, the writers don’t even attempt to filter her annoyances into something amusing. No, this is pure, raw hatred seeping out of her, and it’s very disturbing. This is an observation, not a criticism. It’s the same way I feel about Aang’s dark turn in “The Desert”: as reckless as I find their behavior, I can’t say I really blame them.

(Plus, is it wrong that I interpret Katara’s remark as an impotency joke?)

The solution to travel to the civilization of the Sun Warriors is inspired by Toph’s suggestion that Zuko learn his Bending from the original source like she did. A flashback shows a very young and very cute Toph learning Earthbending from badger-moles.

Ew…?

Since dragons are initially thought to be extinct, the civilization of the Sun Warriors is the next best thing. After Aang and Zuko get caught in a special trap involving a super sticky green goo—and remain stuck in it until the middle of the night—they discover that the Sun Warriors are still very much alive. After they free the kids and hear their pleas, the Sun Warriors allow the kids to attempt to prove they are worthy of learning true Firebending from the masters Ran and Shao. (If they are deemed unworthy, they’ll be burned alive.)

This involves each kid carrying their own piece of the “eternal flame” all the way to Ran and Shao’s lair. This is to show their commit to the art of Firebending. They make it to the lair OK, but then Aang, in a moment of fright, loses his flame. In trying to get a piece of Zuko’s flame, the Airbender accidentally renders both of them flameless. Whoops.

The best parts of the episode involve the interactions between Aang and Zuko. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that Aang immediately takes to his former enemy. More fun is Zuko trying to get used to Aang’s alternating optimism and timidness. There’s a nice moment when Aang compliments Zuko for being pretty smart, no matter anyone else says. Zuko smiles, but then instantly seems perplexed, as if Aang’s compliment was also an insult.

Neither of these two would have gotten very far without the other. They wouldn’t have gotten into that temple without Zuko’s cleverness, nor would they have found the Sun Warriors without Aang coaxing Zuko into doing the Dancing Dragon. Of course, Zuko is also responsible for getting them stuck in that super sticky green goo, but it’s all right because it leads to one of my favorite exchanges in the series:

Aang: You had to pick up the glowing egg, didn’t you?
Zuko: At least I made something happen. If it were up to you, we’d never have made it pass the courtyard.
Aang: (yells out to the Heavens) Help!
Zuko: Who are you yelling to? Nobody’s lived here for centuries.
Aang: Well, what do you think we should do?
Zuko: Think about our place in the Universe?

Of course, against all odds, they finally learn Firebending from the dragons Ran and Shao. Despite losing their eternal flames, Aang and Zuko win the dragons over by reprising the Dancing Dragon from the temple.

In return, the dragons fire a swirl of very colorful and beautiful fire around them, presumably showing them what true Firebending is all about: life and energy, not just destruction.

With their new found powers, Aang and Zuko return proudly to the Western Air Temple to show them off…only to be made fun of for the Dancing Dragon form. Zuko just won’t be able to catch a break, will he?

I’ll admit that, even without Sokka being his usual annoying self, “The Firebending Masters” is a slight step down from “The Western Air Temple.” In fact, it’s probably the least of the episodes in the Grand Stretch. It isn’t a particularly deep episode, or one I can really analyze in and of itself—what it contributes to the mythos of the Avatar universe is definitely worth looking into, though—but for what it’s worth, it’s very entertaining and remains one of my absolute favorites for its ending and the interactions of Aang and Zuko.

On top of everything, this was the last chance for everyone’s favorite writer to prove that he was an important part of the Avatar team. Our pal John O’Bryan manages to pull through with yet one more classic episode, absolving him of the sin of “The Great Divide.” Great job, JOB!

The John O’Bryan screenshot is from Avatar Spirits, the documentary on the making of Avatar.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.