Chapter Fifty-Seven: “The Ember Island Players”
(Rating Out of 15)
I’ve been dreading it since the very beginning. This is where the Avatar: the Last Airbender fandom and I officially part ways, never to look back. I mean, this episode is practically on every fan’s Top Ten Episodes List! Aw, well. I promised I’d be honest about these things, and if that means ripping this episode apart, so be it. Here’s my verdict: I wish that “The Ember Island Players” had never been made.
Notice that I didn’t say that I hated “The Ember Island Players,” or that I even disliked it. Truth is, I actually enjoyed it much more this time around than I did two years ago, back when I labeled the episode as “pure evil.” That’s a silly accusation, of course, because that would imply that DiMartino and Konietzko had any sort of ambition here whatsoever. (All their true ambitions were being saved for the failure of Korra.) “The Ember Island Players” was just meant to be a playful jab at themselves and some of the absurdities and many of the failures of Avatar. For serious artists, self-deprecation can be an admirable trait sometimes. This was not that sometimes.
It’s all but impossible for me to review this episode in a conventional manner because, on the surface, it sorta kinda accomplishes all it set out to do. I can’t say it just doesn’t work because, frankly, most of the time it does. I can’t say it isn’t funny because I laughed at more than half of the jokes, and three of them were very big laughs. I can’t say that the characters are ignored because part of the joke is their individual reactions to the play. Hell, I can’t even say I wasn’t moved because the ending is pretty damn disturbing. (And depending on how you feel about recap episodes, it kind of works in that regard as well.)
But there is a great looming and fundamental problem with the episode that goes beyond whether it’s “good” or “bad.” It’s neither. The problem with “The Ember Island Players” is that it’s wrong. This episode is the biggest mistake ever inflected upon the good name of Avatar. Yes, even bigger than “The Great Divide.”*
Wot’s…uh the Deal
Sokka finds out that there is a play being put by the eponymous players that’s all about Aang and friends’ adventures. Intrigued, the kids watch. What they see, however, they do not like, for their portrayals onstage are either: 1) wildly inaccurate; or 2) goofy exaggerations. According to Toph, what we’re seeing is “the truth.” After twenty-minutes of slander, episode assassination, stage humor, and general meta-silliness, everyone is startled to discover that the play is actually a piece of Fire Nation propaganda. stage-Zuko is killed, as is the stage-Avatar, and the Firelord finally wins the war. No matter how I feel about the rest of the episode, this ending is always effective and horrifying. Not to mention kind of funny.
I’ll admit that my attitude towards this episode is greatly shaped by how I first became acquainted with it. My first viewing of it wasn’t on its official premiere date, but several months before, when my sister showed me a video of a Comic Con screening of it. At that point in my life, I didn’t like Avatar anyway, and this didn’t help. Still, while I didn’t find it funny, I admired how dedicated the creators were to the joke. It looked like an actual episode, with high production value and everything (considering it was animated by JM Animation, who always made the best-looking episodes).
In that sense, I could at least appreciate it the way one could appreciate an Andy Warhol film: the idea of its existence is more amusing than the film itself. (i.e. there is a 484-minute long film that consists solely of a single shot of the Empire State Building.) You can certainly imagine my surprise—and horror—upon eventually discovering that “The Ember Island Players” really was a real episode of Avatar.
And that’s essentially where the issue lies: I simply cannot accept this as a canon-official episode of Avatar. As a joke, akin to those weird chibi shorts they used to make, it’s fine. But as an integral part of the overall story and mythos of Avatar as we know it? Sorry, that’s too much for my mirror.
Also, I hate recap episodes. What exactly is the point of stopping the story dead just to remind viewers of all the events we’ve already seen? Such tactics are more informative than emotional, which is a major problem for a story. I dunno, recaps are a waste of narrative space to me.
Where’s Charlie Kaufman When You Need Him?
I suppose there are a lot less creative ways to do a recap than by having the adventures of the heroes re-enacted by a theatrical production company. But it’s a little obvious, don’t you think? More to the point: did it have to be a recap at all?
According to co-creator Bryan Konietzko, the episode was just supposed to be a light, comical episode before the big series finale. The original idea proposed by writer Tim Hedrick—that the kids meet traveling performers who re-enact their adventures—was goofy and surreal, but just plausible enough to work on its own without any of this silly recap crap. DiMartino and Konietzko and company are no Charlie Kaufman, and as such have never been able to successfully merge the sincere efforts and desires of their characters with postmodernism and meta-humor. (See Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. to see how it’s done well.)
So someone wanted to make a play about the Avatar and his adventures. OK, fine. And he got a lot of his information second-hand from witnesses, travelers and the like. Gotcha. Unfortunately, his portrayals are either completely inaccurate or exaggerations of a single trait. So far so good, and with a lot of room for comedy. And the best part is that it’s all completely plausible. I cannot emphasize enough how perfectly fine the original premise was on its own. They didn’t didn’t need to recap anything; they could have just made up stuff that never happened (or even funnier: would never have happened) and kept the comedy focused on the portrayal of the characters. That would have been a great episode!
Sadly, we got “The Ember Island Players” instead, and no matter how much I enjoy it, the fact is, within the context of the reality of the Avatar universe, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Whoever wrote this play must have had some omnipresent eye-witnesses, because how else would he be able to write about certain episodes and moments in the series that no one outside Aang and friend were present for?
Take the Mexican standout between Azula and everyone else in “The Chase.” It’s depiction in the play is probably the episode’s single funniest moment, but it makes no sense how it got there. Who witnessed this? That episode made it pretty clear that that saloon the heroes and Azula fought in was abandoned, with not another soul around for miles. What random loiterer saw this, knew it was the Avatar and the exiled prince of the Fire Nation—and somehow neglected to alert the authorities looking for him—and then just happened to meet up with this playwright who was researching the Avatar?
For that matter, how does this playwright even know the Avatar emerged from an iceberg? Or that Jet died at Lake Laogai? Or that the Avatar actually survived that lightning strike from Azula? And where’s Admiral Zhao?**
The Thin Line Between Fanservice and Pandering/Trolling
These are all rhetorical questions, of course. The reason is pretty obvious. It’s the same reason most of these other scenes are present, the same reason this episode exists at all, the same reason shipping is so prominent nowadays, and the same reason General Iroh is played by Dante Basco in Korra. It’s nothing more than a wink to the shows’ fans and the general concensus of the series. It’s the most basic form of pandering, as if congratulating the fans for having simply watched the show at all. Again, if this wasn’t an official episode of Avatar, I’d be OK with it. Unfortunately, in this context, while the jokes are funny in themselves, they’re also lazy, idiotic, and insulting.
They really should have just stuck to character-based humor, because those are always the jokes that fair the best. Going back to that “Chase” send-up, stage-Azula manages to escape using the classic “Look, what’s that” gag. Since the “that” in this case in “Zuko’s honor,” stage-Zuko stupidly darts around to see it. Now that’s a great poke at Zuko’s single-minded ambitions of Seasons’ past! The play really should have had more moments like that.
That There, That’s Not Me
The central source of drama and humor in this episodes lies in our heroes’ individual reaction to their stage portrayals. Naturally, they’re all disgusted, except for Toph. Their reactions are mostly funny, but why did the portrayals have to be so mean-spirited? Not a single one of them receives even the slightest positive attribute or characteristic. (Even Kaufman gave his ficticious self some sympathy in Adaptation.) I know that this is a Fire Nation propaganda piece, but come on! The only character with any sort of positive trait is stage-Toph, and it’s the most inaccurate portrayal of them all.
Speaking of Toph, why is she—and DiMartino and Konietzko and company, I’m assuming—so convinced that this is “the truth” they’re seeing? Are we honestly supposed to agree with her that these silly knock-offs are really like the actual characters? There’s some merit to that claim in the case of Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh—and maybe even Aang—but for Katara? Not even close. If they really wanted to make fun of the Katara we know and sometimes even like, they would have made her an insufferably stubborn and idealistic hothead whose desire to do the right thing often nearly costs everyone their lives. That’s not her full character, but it’s still closer to “the truth” than whatever the Hell that stage-Katara is supposed to be. (Her crybaby hopefulness is funny only once, and it’s in the shout-out to “The Waterbending Scroll.”)
Now it is entirely possible that Toph is simply trolling. Her enthusiasm for her inaccurate, but at least dignified portrayal is very trollish. Unless Toph is trying to tell us something about herself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The Loss of Sincerity
There are two areas in the episode that are indisputably successful: 1) the details of the theatre production; and 2) the ending.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for backstage drama, but I love everything about how the Ember Island Players put on their show. I love that the actors are trying their hardest and having a good time. I love the cheesy stage effects, especially how they do Firebending and lightning. I love how the things didn’t go completely right, but the actors just had to run with it like professionals. I love the fact that it’s apparently just one guy operating the effects, the scenery, the wires, etc. Perhaps that fact that all this normal play stuff takes place in a cartoon is the funniest thing about it.
Now I already mentioned the ending, and it’s honestly quite disturbing to watch stage-Aang and stage-Zuko get killed in front of a cheering audience. Especially when the real Aang and Zuko are there to witness it. This is a pretty grim omen, seeing as they’re about to face the Firelord. It also begs the question: if Aang and Zuko are really killed in their final battles but no one is around to see it, does it still get an applause?
Sadly, no amount of guilty pleasure can compensate for the fact that this episode’s very existence goes against everything Avatar stood for.
One of the show’s greatest qualities was that—no matter what it was trying to do, whether it failed or succeeded—it was always completely sincere about it. Avatar was one of the few kids’ shows that had the guts to take itself and its characters seriously. The show loved its characters and respected the laws and realities in established, never willing to shortchange them just for stupid gags. (Most of the time.) It was OK to actually care deeply about the characters and hope they got through, knowing a lot of their plight was up to them and not the warped sense of humor of their creator(s).
“The Ember Island Players” violently tossed that integrity out of the window. I’ve long ago said that Avatar at its worst was just another stupid kids’ show. “The Ember Island Players” stoops even lower than that by unwittingly becoming a cynical, pandering, mean-spirited gagfest with almost none of the Avatar spirit. I know DiMartino and Konietzko and company didn’t intend it that way, and it’s nice that they can recognize their failures (even if that joke on “The Great Divide” is pretty cruel). But the way they address them in this episode just reeks of almost hostile insecurity. In fact, if you take what Konietzko himself said at face value (“…it gave us a chance to poke fun at ourselves before anyone else had the opportunity!”***), that impression only strengthens.
But what can I say? This time I laughed. I guess if they were going to throw out their last valuable asset, they might as well have done it with a smile, right? Go ahead and laugh it up! It’s what they want you to do! It’s all you can do!
*Yeah, yeah, I know John O’Bryan was one of this episode’s writers. My question is how come Josh Hamilton and Tim Hedrick got invited to work on Korra and JOB didn’t. What a couple of jerks.
**Now that I think about it, Zhao’s exclusive from this play is a pretty cruel but clever joke. This was a guy who was completely obsessed with how he would be looked upon in history. And apparently no one remembers him.
***This is straight from The Art of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.