Chapter Fifty-Six: “The Southern Raiders”
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.