Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Fifty-Two: “The Western Air Temple”

15

(Rating Out of 15)

By blessing from the unseen makers of the universe, we’ve finally reached the Grand Stretch! That’s, of course, my personal nickname for the five episodes starting with “The Western Air Temple” and ending with “The Southern Raiders,” the single best line-up in the entire run of Avatar: the Last Airbender. The timing could not be more perfect. After the supreme disappointment that was The Legend of Korra, it’s nice to be able to watch the set of episodes solely responsible for making me fall in love with the original series.

Fear not, dear reader: I will not let this review dissolve into constant Korra-bashing, but I must say that re-watching “The Western Air Temple” made me realize what was missing from that unfortunate spin-off, and also reminded me of something film director Francois Truffaut once said:

I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.

That joy and agony is present in every frame of Avatar, even in its least inspired episodes. While Avatar certainly lacks the cinematic prowess and unity that Korra had under the direction of Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu*, this special quality gives Avatar a transcendental value that Korra never had. When I watch episodes like “The Western Air Temple,” I can easily envision DiMartino and Konietzko and company having a fun and stressful time putting this show together; it doesn’t matter if an idea came from head writer extraordinaire Aaron Ehasz (the man we can thank for creating Toph) or our infamous pal John O’Bryan (who, among other things, came up with Combustion Man), because everyone involved knew they were onto something wonderful, and they wanted to get it right and share it with the rest of the world. Sometimes they failed (“The Great Divide”), sometimes they succeeded (“The Southern Raiders”). Maybe it was the lack of collaboration outside themselves or a vast shift in attitude—those two are so poker-faced in their interviews that it’s hard to tell—but DiMartino and Konietzko couldn’t bring that same joyful energy into their next show. Korra felt like an obligation; Avatar felt like a labor of love.

But let’s put that aside and get into “The Western Air Temple.” Everyone pretty much agrees that this is a great episode, and how could it not be? Zuko catches up with our heroes, eventually gains their trust by trying to save them from Combustion Man, and is set to be Aang’s Firebending mentor. If there was any way to fuck up this episode, DiMartino and Konietzko and company successfully avoid it.

But am I alone in pinning “The Western Air Temple” as the funniest episode of the series?

Forget “The Ember Island Players” (that miscalculated mess that doesn’t know if it wants to be Avatar or Family Guy): “The Western Air Temple” cracks me up like no other episode I can think of. What’s more is that it’s funny in a way unique to the show. This is human comedy at its most painful and uncompromising, sometimes even reaching Curb Your Enthusiasm levels of discomfort and hilarity. That’s no small feat for a kids’ show.

This new sensibility arises naturally from the situation: how is Zuko going to persuade our heroes that he no longer wants to catch them, but help them? After all he’s done to make their lives miserable, they’re going to need some heavy duty convincing. I can’t say I blame them—particularly Katara, who felt his betrayal the most personally—but that still doesn’t make the scene of Zuko pleading his case (when we know that he’s completely sincere) any less painful. Or funny.

To be sure, even Zuko is well aware of how impossible this mission is. Some of the best moments in the episode are just Zuko by himself, either going over what he will say to the kids or fuming over how badly he failed to persuade them. The former case is definitely noteworthy for the moment in which he wonders what his Uncle Iroh and his sister Azula would say in this situation. His Iroh impression is a delightful jab at the seemingly nonsensical philosophy his uncle tried so hard to impart to him. You remember how it goes, right?

Zuko, you have to look within yourself, to save yourself from your other self. Only then will your true self reveal itself.

His Azula impression is no slouch either. Part of what makes this work so well is Dante Basco’s vocal performance. As Zuko, he wonderfully conveys the desperation of a kid trying so hard to overcome his tortured past and present dorkiness. It’s not that he starts his rehearsed speech to the heroes with, “Hello, Zuko here.” It’s that he starts his real speech to the heroes with that–in the exact same innocent and goofy manner.

DORK!

The scene in which he first confronts Aang and the others is the high point of the episode. Every time Zuko tries to explain how he’s changed, the kids bring up something awful he’s done to them in the past to make them not believe him. These kids are relentless, especially after Zuko let’s it slip that he sent Combustion Man after them.

There are three other things notable about this scene:

First, Appa is the only one completely comfortable with Zuko, which should have immediately been a good sign for the kids. Not only did Zuko really free him back in “Lake Laogai,” but in that same episode we saw what happened to people who actually did mistreat Appa, like Long Feng.

Second, Aang doesn’t decide to accept Zuko or not until he gets clearance from his friends, who have already made up their minds. I think he would have accepted Zuko if his friends weren’t there, because he does need a Firebending mentor. Once again, he puts his loved ones before his duty as Avatar, a mentality that has never worked out in his favor.

Third, the fact that Zuko humbly offers himself as a prisoner speaks volume about Zuko’s growth as a person. The kid who once sneered at the thought of being a refugee and a beggar is now willing to lower himself to his “enemies.” (I can almost hear his father and his sister calling him “pathetic.”)

Speaking of which, there are two flashback sequences in “The Western Air Temple” that relay the last time Zuko was at that very location, and with his uncle no less. These scenes painfully remind us of the old Zuko, so narrow-minded and melodramatically focused on capturing the Avatar above anything else. (Not even Zuko can look back on his old self without wincing.)

However, it’s satisfying to know that at least one of Iroh’s sayings–regarding destiny–finally makes sense to him (particularly after his hilarious attempt at Iroh-talk).

It’s interesting that Toph scolds her friends for having their emotions blind them from the reality of the situation when she falls victim to it herself. She never speaks up for Zuko when he first arrives, even though she knows he isn’t lying. Later, when she tries to see him in the middle of the night, he accidentally burns her feet out of panic, causing her to frantically crawl away, not giving him a chance to explain himself or even apologize.

What’s funny about the last point is how quickly the others take Toph’s recollection of this accident and immediately twist it to make Zuko look even worse. It’s amazing how this episode manages to make Aang and friends seem like self-righteous assholes.

Of course, there’s a last-act action sequence, and it involves Combustion Man. Zuko tries his best to stop him, but his orders and bribes will just not keep this man just trying to finish his job. In fact, he attempts to kill Zuko, the man who’s paying him. Why? Is the notion of being the man who killed the Avatar reward enough? (Probably.)

But it’s a good thing Zuko showed up when he did: if he hadn’t knocked into Combustion Man, Aang and the others would surely be dead.

In the end, Combustion Man is defeated when Sokka throws his boomerang directly at the Man’s forehead where his fire blasts come from. His final attempt at blasting the kids away results in a massive backfire, literally blowing himself up. The science behind this is never explained, but at least it was set up way back in “The Runaway.”

Do the kids even know that it was Sokka’s boomerang that finally did the trick? When Aang thanks Zuko for saving them, Sokka immediately mentions that it was him that threw the boomerang that injured him. Do they all just think that the boomerang distracted Combustion Man so that Zuko could deal a final blow?

Who knows? I kind of hope that none of them ever figure that one out because it presents a certain amount of irony for our heroes: for all the things Zuko has done to them to make them not trust him, it’s something he didn’t entirely do (as Toph would put it, “He did…and he didn’t…”) that puts him in their favor.

Or in the favor of Aang, Sokka and Toph, at least. The very last scene makes it frighteningly clear that Katara will not tolerate even the slightest hint of harm toward Aang from our friend Zuko anymore. Mae Whitman’s delivery is perfect; you truly believe that she would kill this kid if he ever fucked up again.

Except that, in retrospect, Katara’s threat turns out to be…not a lie, but it is deliberately misleading. She’s not looking out for Aang; she’s just looking for any reason to throttle this kid that toyed with her emotions. As far as she’s concerned, he tricked her into letting her guard down and exposing her feelings like no one else did before. Couple that with the recent betrayal of Hama and you’ve got a girl who will probably never open herself up to anyone but her established loved ones again. (It won’t be until the third part of the Katara trilogy, “The Southern Raiders,” that this conflict gets resolved.)

What else should I mention about this episode?

The titular location boasts one of the most bizarrely intriguing designs in the series. The structures appear to be built like upside down towers hanging under the edge of a giant cliff. I suppose there is no better place for Airbenders to live, though I do wonder who took it upon themselves to even think this temple up, let alone build it.

Haru, Teo, and the Duke are dead weight, and the writers know it. The three of them conveniently disappear whenever there is drama going on between our heroes and Zuko. (Also, this is a nitpick, but Haru’s facial hair just makes him look stupid. Just saying.)

Oh, yes! This is probably the first time I’ve ever found Sokka to be hilarious throughout an episode. I have no idea if the writers finally knew how to work with Jack De Sena’s “unique” delivery or what, but just about everything he says works. I especially loved his plan to make Zuko their prisoner, by having him offer himself as such again, and then jumping him to really make him their prisoner. “He’ll never suspect it!” the intellectual idiot says proudly.

It’s a good thing Sokka is consistently funny for a change, because that just strengthens the case for “The Western Air Temple” as the funniest episode of Avatar. After the infuriating and depressing ending of Korra, a good laugh is just what I needed, even if it is at the expense of my favorite character in the show.

*I’m now convinced that these two are the main reason I initially enjoyed Korra so much. Their often brilliant direction grandly presented ideas and characters that eventually turned out to be half-baked and unfocused.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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One response

  1. hoggersying

    I never understood why the Avatar-verse was so obsessed with “Ember Island Players” as the funniest of the series. The Zuko scenes in “Western Air Temple” are severely underrated (except in your review), comedy-wise. Thanks for giving Zuko-practicing-Iroh-and-Azula-speak some airtime (so to speak).

    June 25, 2013 at 9:42 pm

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