Because fans should be critical, too

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.

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8 responses

  1. Dan

    You’re not the only one who read Katara’s insult as an impotence joke. And yes, I also loathe the “jerkbending” joke.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    • Dan

      Minor correction: in the last paragraph, you misspelled John as “Job”.

      I remember reading some recap of this episode. The reviewer went so far as to consider this episode the worst in the series, even worse than The Great Divide, because it sacrificed story and character development for gags and shaming Zuko (he described Katara’s dialogue near the beginning as forced). He also said that this episode had the potential to be to Zuko what Bitter Work was to Toph and allow viewers to see how Zuko could have been as a teacher, and he accused the episode of having way too many retcons. Any thoughts on this?

      July 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm

  2. anonym2008

    Too bad Iroh never told Zuko about the Sun Warriors and truth about the dragons.
    Looks like he did not trust his nephew as much as Zuko trusted him.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    • Dan

      Yeah, that’s the one. Looking at it again reminds me of why I dislike the guide and TV Tropes in general. That guide might have been more readable if the author wasn’t such an abrasive, irritating prick who spends most of the time nitpicking every minute detail of every episode. That, and his need to repeatedly insert a trope reference.

      July 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      • One of the many, many things I hate this episode for is the notion that, to be great at something, you have to go back to the roots of it. In no field of human endeavour has this ever been true.

        Wow. I read that and immediately thought of Kenny Powers. And what does Kenny Powers always say?

        Fundamentals are a crutch for the talentless.

        This alone damn near makes it impossible for me to take Mr. Korval seriously, because I understand what he’s saying, and yet he’s completely missed the point by emphasizing the wrong details. It’s not about skill or tools or progress, but about motivation. Zuko had lost his motivation, and by understanding the bare essence of Firebending, he found a new one. Sometimes understanding why the pioneers of any field did something can provide you with perspective on what you want to do yourself. (e.g. Upon seeing Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, about Georges Melies and the first films, I was greatly reminded of the power of cinema, and why I love the art form so much.) In this fast changing world in which it’s easy to get lost and lose one’s motivation, sometimes looking back is a good thing.

        While I agree that “The Firebending Masters” certainly could have been a little better–as I’ve said in the review–it was good enough in its own right that I forgive its flaws. Part of the reason I want to rewrite this review is to further elaborate on this feeling, as well as try to defend poor JOB. (By the way, JOB is just my little nickname for and abbreviation of John O’Bryan, if only because the creators and everyone else are needlessly cruel to him.)

        @anonym2008: I like to think that Iroh would have told Zuko about the dragon in “Bitter Work,” but after seeing how eager Zuko was to have his uncle strike him with lightning, he refrained. As immature and impatient as Zuko was back then, he would have gotten burned alive if he did happen to encounter those dragons.

        July 9, 2012 at 8:59 pm

  3. Dan

    As fun as this episode is, I find the scenes with Sokka and Katara painful to watch; the former because he isn’t funny (you would be shocked by how many fans actually love the jerkbending comment; it’s like some sort of unfunny Internet meme) and instead comes across as the stereotypical cartoon bully (think Tad Mikowsky, the jerkass skier from the “Asspen” episode of South Park, who calls Stan Marsh “Stan Darsh”*) and the latter because she’s being genuinely spiteful and hateful. Coming from a villain like Azula, it probably wouldn’t bother me so much, but this is Katara, the motherly figure of the Gaang and ironically the one who has tried to hold the Gaang together up to this point (like in The Desert), we’re talking about. It’s obvious that she’s taking advantage of the situation to get on Zuko’s nerves.** The smug tone she uses makes it all the more grating, to the point that I actually felt like hitting my computer screen (I was streaming it on Netflix). Make no mistake, I understand she has every right to not trust Zuko, but it doesn’t make her behavior any less disturbing. I get fuming mad when I see good guys/heroes/protagonists act like that anyway.

    *The difference is that Tad was a parody of the stereotypical jerk jock/bully.
    **I think Katara’s behavior between this episode and TSR demonstrates that she isn’t as mature as she thinks she is.

    July 10, 2012 at 1:29 am

    • You’re definitely right that it demonstrates that she isn’t as mature as she thinks she is. That will become a key point in “The Southern Raiders.”

      July 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

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