Chapter Fifty-Eight: “Sozin’s Comet, Part One: The Phoenix King”
(Rating Out of 15)
“Sozin’s Comet,” the four-part finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender, is a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the adventures of Aang, Zuko, and friends in their quest to defeat the Firelord. Unfortunately, the key word is “satisfactory.” While there are certainly fantastic moments scattered throughout, the finale as a whole never rises above its functionality; it does it’s job of wrapping up the story with just enough of a hint of what the future will hold, and that’s about it.
Could I have just been in a pretty sour mood both times I watched this? I mean, I wasn’t enthusiastic to watch the finale again anyway, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be bored throughout most of it. Hell, the first time I watched it, I turned the sound off and attempted to [unsuccessfully] sync it to Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans. Just to make it interesting for myself. I could have written a review based off that failed screening, but decided it wouldn’t be fair, to the show or to anyone else. Still, that should give you an idea of how much I was not looking forward to re-watching these episodes. Hell, if I didn’t have to review the entire series, I probably wouldn’t have watched them at all.
Can you really blame me, you readers who know me well? The best episode of the series (“The Southern Raiders,” as far as I’m concerned) has just come and gone; the worst episode (“The Ember Island Players”) has destroyed whatever emotional credibility the series used to have; none of the finale episodes have good re-watch value; there’s not much real tension, probably because most of the stakes are mostly physical rather than emotional, and it’s not like any of the characters could die (that would explain why I can watch “The Puppetmaster” repeatedly and still be on the edge of my seat); and, most importantly at all, the series never ever succeeded in giving me a reason to care much about Aang, so his fight with Ozai and the issue of killing versus not killing is merely stimulating on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one.
There’s another, probably more significant problem with the finale, though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was well into Part Three, the best of the four episodes and where the contrast between the stuff that works marvelously and the stuff that works marginally is most apparent.
See, the really, really wonderful parts of the finale continue the tradition of emotional intensity and character introspection that the very best episodes (ex. “The Southern Raiders,” “Zuko Alone,” “The Crossroads of Destiny”) always relied upon. Because those episodes depended solely on who the characters were and how that effected the outcome of the story, they not only had the most humanity, but they were also the most uniquely Avatar episodes of the series. In the finale, a few of those moments include Zuko’s reunion with Iroh and Azula’s mental breakdown.
The rest of the finale is almost like a regression to the simplistic carefree days of Book One; just about everything that happens, sans the formal Avatar details–like Bending–could have come from virtually any show. For example, the moment we learn that Firelord Ozai plans to essentially destroy the world, whatever tension there may have been is immediately ruined. How many kids’ shows have you seen with this conflict where the villain actually succeeds in destroying the world?
In addition, the issue of whether Aang should kill Ozai or not becomes laughable when you realize that not a single character in the finale seems even remotely capable of dying. There are injuries—mostly endured by main male characters Aang, Zuko, and Sokka—but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for the fact that, with all this fire and destruction, not a single person dies or is even implied to have died. This is so clearly a symptom of being a kids’ show that it’s annoying. DiMartino and Konietzko and company are really doing their mostly teenage demographic a major disservice by implying that it’s more likely to die at a Radiohead concert than during wartime in a fantasy world where people can shoot fire from their fucking hands.
All-in-all—I really hate to say this—the finale as a whole is very, very perfunctory. After displaying emotional complexity and moral grey areas throughout the course of the series, the big final battle is reduced to a simple fight between good and evil where characters actually say things like, “If you don’t stop him now, there won’t be a world left to save.” How disappointing.
THAT SAID, I don’t want to give the impression that the finale is completely horrible. Sure, none of these episodes will be going on my Top Ten Episodes List anytime soon, but all things considered, they are all at least good episodes. Boring, but never offensive. I may not care all that much, but there’s still enough merit to keep my interest. Let’s just all agree that DiMartino and Konietzko simply suck at endings; keeping that in mind makes watching this finale a little bit easier.
Instead of judging each episode individually on it’s own merits—an all but impossible task considering they were all essentially designed as quarters of a feature-length film—I’ll just go examine the entire finale in four parts. That’s fair, right? I”ll start with the basic concepts that drive the whole thing…
If there are a few themes running through the finale, one of them surely has to be poor communication. A great deal of what happens in these episodes happens because everyone seems to be withholding very important information. For example, no one tells Zuko that Aang plans to wait until after Sozin’s Comet to face the Firelord. This is pretty crucial to know, don’t you think? Of course, Zuko doesn’t tell the others that his father plans to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom on that fateful day. Gee, that’s kind of important, too, regardless of if you knew Aang was going to wait or not. But wait: Aang forgets to tell everyone that he’s a pacifist, and that literally taking out the Firelord is not an option. As you can see, our heroes have the communication prowess of your average teenager. (And technically they are all teenagers at this point, so I guess it makes some sense.)
Apparently, the past Avatars aren’t very good at communicating either. When Aang finds himself on the back of the Lion Turtle and asking his past lives whether he should kill Ozai or not, not a single one of them gives him a straight answer. Their vague pseudo-wisdom essentially amounts to telling him that he must make up his own mind. You don’t say! Only the Air nomad gives anything resembling practical advice, and it’s basically the classic Spock line: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Not even the Lion Turtle gives a straight answer. I’ll admit that my frustration with the Lion Turtle’s jibberish is as much my fault as it is his. I mean, should I really have expected fucking sense from a giant Lion Turtle that knows English? I was very thankful when the giant hybrid animal stopped talking and just said all he needed to say by extending two fingers onto Aang’s head and chest.
And it doesn’t just stop at giving information: everyone seems suck at listening, too. Near the end, Zuko tells Katara to clear out so that he can take on Azula by himself. Later, we see her inexplicably show up behind Zuko for no reason at all, which damn near results in Zuko getting killed by Azula’s lightning. At this point, I’m starting to think Katara is the unfortunate victim of a cosmic joke: so many of her attempts to “help out” results in things ending up worse than they were before and requiring others to fix it. Hell, she was as indirectly responsible for Aang’s death in “Crossroads of Destiny” as Zuko was. Why so cruel, unseen makers of the universe? (On top of that, just how useful did Katara think she would be against a Firebender with about ten times more power?)
Granted, she does usually makes things right by herself sometimes. Even here, she does manage to defeat Azula without killing her, and she does heal Zuko after he was struck by lightning. Still, if this is the kind of suffering that being acquainted with Katara involves, I’d rather not be.
Still, the worst communicators throughout this finale are the writers themselves (come on, you knew that was coming). For knowing how their show was going to end, DiMartino and Konietzko and company sure make it seem like they pulled a lot of the plot elements of the finale out of their ass at the last minute. I get that they were trying to keep Energybending a secret and a twist, but couldn’t it have been handled better? The way it’s suddenly dropped into the show the moment Aang starts to do it feels like an abrupt “Oh, by the way, this is Energybending, it does this.”
These abrupt explanations are only appropriate when it’s one audience member explaining something to another audience member, because at least one member gets to feel smart. (i.e. explaining the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In the case of the finale, the entire audience feels dumb, and that’s a big filmmaking 101 no-no: never make the audience feel dumb.
I’ve already harped on this way too much, so I’ll finish by examining the only good communicating in the episode. Wouldn’t you know it makes just about as little sense?
Sokka, Suki, and Toph arrive just as the Fire Nation airships are taking off. Without hesitation, Toph asks Sokka where the nearest airship is, and just as Sokka points to it, Toph launches Sokka, Suki and herself right onto the ship.
Dear reader, please, please, please explain to me how she was able to do that. How did she know that those airships had a spot for them to even land on? How could she calculate the projectory force needed for them to land in that exact spot? How could she calculate all of that from Sokka simply pointing at the airship? And, considering how swiftly she launched them all into the air, how sure was she that Sokka was going to point at the airship, instead of saying something like, “It’s right in front of us”?
Honestly, I want to know, because it was pretty damn impressive. That feat would make a great question on a physics test.
I’d like to conclude Part One of this review by addressing Ozai’s plan to scorch the entire Earth Kingdom so that the new Fire Nation could rise from the ashes (thus justifying his title of Phoenix King). I am not very knowledgeable about military strategies or historical takeovers, but Ozai’s plan just seems awful. Why would you want to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom? The Fire Nation may be fruitful in its own way, but certainly the land and resources of the Earth Kingdom are worth preserving for your new regime.
Also, just how effectively would you be able to burn down the Earth Kingdom with a single fleet of airship? Granted, all that fire power is a wonder to behold, but from just one fleet? Taking out the Air Temples was one thing, but this is completely different. Maybe if you somehow spread airships around the entire Earth Kingdom coastline, but even that seems impossible. Unless this Avatar world is just smaller than Earth. (Also, just how long do the effects of Sozin’s Comet last? From what I gathered, about an hour, tops?)
I realize that Aang and friends had no way of knowing just what evil Ozai had in store for the world on the day of the Comet—again, thanks to everyone’s poor communication skills—but what exactly did they think he was going to do on that day? Nothing? Break the world record for largest bonfire? Burn all the world’s opium and marijuana so that everyone on the planet becomes high and incapacitated so they can’t defend themselves as the Fire Nation finally takes over the world?
The bottom line is that I don’t think DiMartino and Konietzko and company really thought this plan through. It feels like they were desperately searching for some world ending plot device that would raise the stakes and tension. Unfortunately, they went a bit too far and virtually destroyed all the tension. Too bad.
Sorry if this review seems more rambling than usual. In Part Two, I’ll focus more on a specific aspect of the finale. Namely, the action sequences.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.