Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Fifty-Seven: “The Ember Island Players”

N/A

(Rating Out of 15)

This episode…

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.

My Baggage

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.)

And yes, that is two Nicolas Cages in one film. What are you waiting for?

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.

I honestly would like to know this guy’s story.

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.

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12 responses

  1. Dan

    Yeah, the play in the episode feels more like how someone who hates or is satirizing the show would portray the heroes.

    The only problem I had with JM Animation’s episodes is that they had the tendency to give the characters what can best be described as “monkey faces/noses”. I guess that’s why one should never use FLCL as an inspiration for character designs!

    August 23, 2012 at 5:56 pm

  2. Eugene

    Your review hits on some major points but to me it’s like scratching the surface of why the episode should not have been made. Note, that just like you, I’m not saying that it was “bad.” I mean, in a way it was, but in another sense I enjoyed it.. much like I’d enjoy watching something if I was very bored. Or perhaps if I did in fact go to one of those comic-cons and they showed this for the fans – I would definitely get a kick out of it. Maybe sometime later I’ll put down my own thoughts on why this episode was awful, but in he mean time, I have a question:

    Have you ever found out just why this episode is listed in the top ten of most Avatar fans? I’m very interested to know.

    August 25, 2012 at 12:28 am

    • I would absolutely love for you to share your complete thoughts on this episode. The more we get to the bottom of this tragic misstep of an episode, the better.

      I’ll admit that saying every fan has this in their top ten was a slight exaggeration (aka not supported by actual evidence), but nearly all of them hold the episode in very high regard, and usually for the same reasons:
      – It’s the funniest episode in the series
      – It’s a nice, light, silly bit of relief after the terror of “The Southern Raiders” and before the intense finale
      – It gives the fans a chance to see how far the characters have come (that is, it’s a recap episode without the guilt of being a recap episode)
      – It’s awesome to see the creators poke fun at their own creation (and others’ perceptions of their creation)
      – This line: “This is the kind of wacky time-wasting nonsense I’ve been missing!” (If Hayden Childs is right about this line representing a good portion of the Avatar fandom, then I don’t want to know most of the Avatar fandom.)

      All of these points are arguable (ex. “The Western Air Temple” will always be the funniest episode in my book), and they all evade the fact that this episode is basically twenty-four minutes of pure Trolling. Remember the story of Pink Floyd member Roger Waters spitting on the fan who tried to get onstage to touch him? For me, that’s this episode in a nutshell, no matter what the actual motivations were. (Oh, and that fan was ecstatic that he was spit on by Roger Waters. Go figure.)

      August 26, 2012 at 10:45 am

  3. Eugene

    UGh… yes.. I listened to the director’s commentary on the DVD.

    Tell me, how does a creator make fun of his own creation when the funny things being referenced have nothing to do with anything in the story?

    Here’s just *one* topic I can bring up out of everything I could discuss: It’s about what you mentioned regarding Toph. When she says that the play is an accurate portrayal of the group, I assumed this would be one of “those” episodes in which the characters get to see what they look like on the outside. I got excited because I was looking forward to everyone being confronted with their personality ticks and flaws. I said to myself, “yes, finally, this is going to be good.” I mean, when you think about, the show never really deals with everyone’s various faults. I understand some episodes like the Southern Raiders dealt with a bit of that, but no episode really got to the meat of things.

    Am I making sense?

    For example, how Sokka always has to be immature and all his jokes are forced because he’s “the comic relief.” How Aang has to constantly remind people that violence is not the answer. Or that Toph has to act so manly to hide her vulnerabilities that it becomes embarrassingly obvious. Or how Katara has to be the moral center of the group when she’s broken more of her own morals than anyone else in the group combined.

    I was looking forward to the troop actually showing, you know, the truth… But then the actual episode continued and I saw that this was just some stupid Saturday Morning Cartoon business. The players get on stage and start acting dumb. They’re not caricaturing the characters, they’re just being foolish. This is something that a five year old might find funny.

    There are some nice touches, such as Aang’s parody being played by a woman (typical in voice acting business) or Toph being played by a man, as this was the original intent by the main creators of the show. That last one was about as close to an actual TV show reference as it got, and it wasn’t even a reference to anything in the story – just a reference to some behind the scenes development.

    But in addition to being disappointed that we wouldn’t be seeing actual parodies of the characters, I, like you, was also confused about Toph’s remark. She said her line as if the writer(s) meant for it to reflect truth – that this is how the kids really are. You can usually tell in a TV show when a character is speaking and when the script writer is speaking through the character. That was definitely the script writer speaking because any idiot with a brain could tell that those actors were nothing like the actual kids. And Toph is not quite an idiot, so…

    I dunno. I guess the writers wanted this episode to be BOTH an ep where characters get to see their real selves and at the same time, make a weird parody that isn’t a reference to anything but a few production development moments. The result being a hodge-podge of a mess.

    BESIDES, the whole comment about “using this episodes to make fun of our show before anybody else got to do it” is bull. The writers made fun of the characters the WHOLE time. One of the best parodies comes as early as season 2, in which Azula confronts Aang for the first time, covers half of her face and says “I must find the Avatar and restore my honor.” That scene was CLASSIC. Then there was a scene in which Zuko imitates Iroh and Azula in perfect fashion. There were plenty of moments like that in the show and they did a better job of parodying the characters than all of the scenes in this episodes combined.

    August 27, 2012 at 12:37 am

    • Sorry I didn’t respond sooner. I essentially agree with everything you’ve written so far.

      That is a very, very good point regarding the characters not getting a real chance to confront their personal flaws, and it definitely is one of the major missed opportunities of this episode. You’re right that the show rarely does deal with their faults–and by extension, the consequences of those faults–that often. This goes for the main group, of course: Zuko’s faults were always upfront and integral to his arc (not to mention ragged on by almost everyone).

      I guess one of the biggest problems was a lack of conviction. It reminds me of this little snippet from the oft-quoted Roger Ebert regarding the difference between spoof and satire in his Scary Movie 3 review:

      Scary Movie 3 understands the concept of a spoof but not the concept of a satire. It clicks off several popular movies…and recycles scenes from them through a spoofalator, but it’s feeding off these movies, not skewering them. The average issue of Mad magazine contains significantly smarter movie satire, because Mad goes for the vulnerable elements and Scary Movie 3 just wants to quote and kid.

      That’s essentially what’s going on in “The Ember Island Players.” A lot of kidding around, but no real reflection and deconstruction.

      Is there anything else you found wrong with this episode by any chance?

      September 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm

  4. Eugene

    Sure do! Let me put a few thoughts together and I’ll get back in a bit.

    September 16, 2012 at 3:05 pm

  5. Eugene

    Alright. Here’s a very popular subject which, in some way, has been discussed extensively by a great deal of the show’s enthusiasts (read: fanboy shippers). In another ways, it hasn’t been discussed very much at all because the focus has always been placed on a very amateur aspect of the subject. The subject I’m talking about is the relationship of our two protagonists.

    I have always thought that Aang and Katara had a great chemistry at the start of the show, which later developed into a very firm and believable friendship. The highest point of which has to be the ending of “The Desert,” which for me, is a fantastic exemplification of actual friendship, especially if little kids are watching and learning from it. One of my own prerequisites for such a relationship has always been that one is there for the other when no one else is. To that end, the climax of “The Desert” illustrates this notion beautifully and without words.

    It was disappointing, then, to see what the writers chose to do with that relationship in the second half of the 3rd season. Not that it should have surprised me in the slightest. When you take a piece of art and commercialize it into a kids TV show, you should expect cliches and tired tropes. And one of the biggest tropes in television has to be that the lead couple’s romance cannot be realized until the very last moment (in Avatar, taken to its very literal extreme).

    It started with the initial kiss, which was executed with perfect timing, but Katara’s reaction immediately gave away disappointment. This is fine except that it created some startling inconsistencies when (in retrospect) she gets jealous of Aang being around other girls and becomes (let’s be frank here) aroused when he’s dancing with her. On top of that, their long smooch, which Katara returns in full, before Aang goes off to fight the good fight, is completely ignored. I understand that a kiss is a kiss – it may not be a big deal to most people in real life – but it sure seemed like a big deal in the story. When the group arrives to their new refuge and Katara says, “Aang we need to talk,” I fully expected there to be a discussion about you-know-what. After all, with one of the bigger themes of the show being that a group of kids slowly matures and grows up through the events that transpire, it seemed logical that now these characters would start dealing with the subject of relationships.

    I was wrong. The subject was delayed until it was very briefly excavated in the “Ember Island Players” (and in a very mishandled way at that).

    There’s a reason for this delay. That reason being that because this is a TV show, there is a popular belief that once a couple gets together you lose a third of your audience. It’s a crazy belief which is nonetheless quite popular among TV producers. This is why watching the series, for me, felt very awkward after the kissing scene. It happened and then nothing happened, which felt contrived to a point of ridiculousness.

    And when “The Ember Island Players” finally revisited this subject it addressed it so poorly, with such amateur writing, I would have preferred if that “discussion” had never taken place. Firstly, if we judge the show on its most basic level as a source of escapism and entertainment, the scene in this episode lacked any and all emotional power, suspense, and intrigue. I say this in retrospect having watched the series finale. At the time of this episode, however, it seemed pretty clear that Katara simply wasn’t interested. That worked for me because while I enjoyed the chemistry between two characters, I didn’t have strong preferences about their romantic on-goings. I mean, well, they’re kids after all.

    But then the last shot of the series happened and having re-watched “Ember Island Players” I am now further confused. Or rather I am not confused at all because I understand exactly what happened. There was never truly any plans or structure for Aang’s relationship with the girl. The writers simply glued together whatever seemed to work for whichever episode. I suppose they wanted to have that argument scene “for the fans” since there were so many shippers at the time.

    For my part, I could handle the awkwardness of the episode as a whole (and its ridiculous premise), but that scene between the series’ two heroes just propelled it to new lows.

    October 2, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    • Eugene, this may be the most well-thought address of the romantic elements in Avatar I’ve read from anyone. I’ve never ever heard of that belief among TV producers, but it makes total sense in its lunacy.

      This isn’t much of a reply, because I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail of the head. Thank you so much!

      October 15, 2012 at 8:01 pm

  6. Pingback: Chapter Sixty: “Sozin’s Comet, Part Three: Into the Inferno” « Marshall Turner's Avatar: the Last Airbender Reviews

  7. Eugene

    Oh. Thanks!

    November 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm

  8. Tony :)

    A lot of the comments here give me the urge to write a fix fic of this episode. It had its moments, especially the one with zuko and Toph during the intermission, and it would be neat to explore the concept of “the characters see themselves and attempt to rectify them” as mentioned in the comments.

    April 24, 2014 at 10:16 pm

  9. huckmart

    dude. im usually one for sharing controversial opinions and you did articulate yourself well. but goddamn this is a cynical outlook. the fact that you could compare this episode to simple childrens show shlock like pokemon or other such trash is beyond me. yeah the stage jokes were stupid, it didnt make sense in canon and it the play itself was very cynical. but the fact that this episode manages to tackle the concept of propaganda and mass media persuasion in an elegant and emotionally impactful way is already enough. but the hilarious jokes like the failures of the stage effects and the cast just rolling with it, or “the scars on the wrong side”, or “i emmit a sonic wave from my mouth”. name one other kids show that would even attempt a meta commentary.

    yeah this might be a recap episode. a very tired and ultimatley pointless episode format for most shows. but its tackled in such a unique way, almost making you forget that its a recap episode. especially when you realize that the entire episode is original content that doesnt use a single flash back scene, which usually entirely encompasses episodes like this. im fine if you dont like the episode. personally its one of my favourites. it might be fan service, but its fan service at its absolute finest. but when you say it goes completley against the idea of the show, i just cant accept that. you explained in detail why this episode is great but choose to focus on the negatives

    July 21, 2016 at 6:14 am

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