Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Sixty: “Sozin’s Comet, Part Three: Into the Inferno”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

Remember when I said much of the finale doesn’t have good re-watch value? That’s part of the cause for my procrastination with the rest of this review (the other part involves school and depression, but I digress). I didn’t want to continue writing without having seen all four episodes again, and having finally done so, it only reaffirms my stance on the matter: the finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender is a mostly boring (relatively speaking) enterprise that nonetheless manages to sometimes exhibit the hard-hitting emotional power that the best episodes always had. In that respect, I’m glad I re-watched it for those moments, even if everything else did little for me.

Having discussed the action sequences, it’s only natural for me to now discuss the surrounding dramatic and humorous moments that are allegedly creators DiMartino and Konietzko’s favorite things in the series. Let’s do this.

I’ve also mentioned before that a great deal of the finale feels much like Book One in terms of tone: for being on the verge of a world-ending massacre, it’s kind of weird how much silliness sneaks its way into a lot of scenes. And I’m not talking about the beach party that precedes Zuko’s revealing of his father’s master plan (by the way, I found the beach party rather amusing, even Sokka’s stupid sand sculpture). No, I’m specifically thinking about moments much later on, like how Sokka tricks the crew of the airship into getting themselves dropped out of the ship.

This scene practically epitomizes exactly what I’m talking about. After incapaciting the cockpit crew, Sokka commandeers the PA system and commands every single person onboard to do to the bomb bay area to celebrate someone’s birthday. Everyone does so. So far this seems pretty dumb, doesn’t it? Well, the joke is almost saved by this casual exchange between two of the crew members:

Elite Firebender #1: Hey. I’m Quin Lee, I work up in communications.
Engineer: Oh hi, I work down in the engine room. It’s probably why we’ve never met before. Big airship, you know?
Elite Firebender #1: Huh.
Engineer: Yep.
Elite Firebender #1: So, do you know whose birthday it is?

The fact that these two grown men are rightfully baffled by this command from the cockpit and yet are trying to make the best of it is actually pretty funny. Their maturity just about completely compensates for how essentially idiotic their reason for being there is. But then the writers ruin it by having another crew member chime in with this:

Elite Firebender #2: I can’t believe the Captain remembered my birthday! He really does care.

BAM! Suddenly, the joke that seemed to be poking fun at its own childishness becomes simply another childish joke. Granted, it’s still pretty funny, especially the final punchline after they all get dumped into the ocean (to drown), but that one line sends it over-the-top and into “undoubtably a kids’ show” territory. It’s not that this brand of humor is inheritently bad—I have personally admitted to really liking “Avatar Day,” one of the most prominent offenders—but do we really need it during the final epic battle of good and evil? Dramatic tension and the gravity of the situation just seem to fly out the window at that point.

Contrast that with, say, Dr. Strangelove, a straight up satire about the end of the world. Originally, it was supposed to end in a giant pie fight that further symbolized the destruction of all life and civilization on the planet. The problem was that the actors seemed to be having a grand old time, which was detrimental to director Stanley Kubrick’s point of the entire film: that even when the world ends, humans will remain paranoid, petty, and power-hungry creatures. The new ending wonderfully kept that message intact.

Speaking of people dropping out of bomb bays…

Basically what I’m trying to say is that DiMartino and Konietzko should have taken their own advice and been more “decisive” about what made the cut in these closing chapters. That’s how I feel about the majority of the humor in the show anyway: it doesn’t relieve us from tension, it destroys it.

Here’s another example: after Aang has defeated Firelord Ozai and reunited with Sokka, Suki, and Toph, the three kids attempt to insult Ozai* with the lamest namecalling since “The Great Divide.” However, it’s when Suki tries to be one with the cool kids that she’s told not to bother even trying. Are the writers trying to upset me?

Not all of the humor is like that, thankfully; occasionally a smart joke will surface. For example, when the kids split up to find Aang after he disappears, Toph immediately partners up with Zuko. She wants to have a life-changing adventure with Zuko like the others did, but her enthusiasm is not shared by Zuko. It’s great to see her opening her heart up so forcefully only to be shut down for it. Consider how few times Toph is willing to make herself vulnerable, and it’s even funnier.

I also loved King Bumi’s recollection of how he took back Omashu during the eclipse. After hearing about this splendid dose of typical Bumi lunacy, neither Zuko nor Sokka feel compelled to talk about what they did during the eclipse. Sure, Zuko faced his father and redirected lightning, but did he knock down a giant statue and take back a city? Nope. Bumi’s antics could be contained in one win/fail compilation of seven minutes, while Zuko’s story would take the length of Crime and Punishment to fully appreciate.

But I’m not just going to sit here and list all my favorite and not-favorite jokes and moments. The truth of the matter is, I don’t remember a great deal of the finale at all. No, not even after having just watched it for perhaps the sixth time in my life. Excluding the really, really good stuff—which I’m holding off discussing until Part Four—nothing is particularly memorable. Or, at the very least, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, for better or worse. As such, there’s really nothing I can say that I haven’t written before.

So, before moving on to those really, really good scenes, I must comment on two points of interest: Energybending and romance.

As far as the resolution to Aang’s main conflict (how to defeat the Firelord without killing him) and Energybending goes, I’ve completely come to terms with it. I was never really angered by and torn up about it like I was with the resolution of Korra. Far from it: Energybending as a concept actually made sense, and while we were understandably not prepared for it as well as we could have been—for example, we’re told literally seconds before it matters and before we can properly understand the gravity of it, that many Avatars actually failed and died trying to Energybend because they were not pure at heart—it still worked on an intellectual level.

Whether it worked on an emotional level was a different story, and for the longest time, it just felt like a cop-out. How convenient is it that, right after the kid decided that killing Ozai was the only option, suddenly a mythical creature appears with another way? Doesn’t this stunt Aang’s maturation? Shouldn’t having him disregard everything he thought was right for the greater good be the most challenging ending?

But after watching the finale again, it all makes sense. The way I see it now, the conflict was always whether he should change himself for the greater good or whether he should stick to his principles. Which choice is the right choice? Generally speaking, they’re both right depending on the circumstances.

That sounds like even more of a cop-out, I know, but consider this: how emotionally redundant would it have been to have one character learn the virtues of change and then be followed by another character who learns the exact same lesson? Through the turbulent arc of Zuko, we already know how important change is, not just for achieving balance within ourselves, but for the world as well. Now comes Aang to show us why standing our ground and holding true to what we believe is just as important. In this way, Aang and Zuko’s stories truly complement each other. Now that’s what I call great storytelling.

Now, about Aang, Katara, and the final shots. One of the commentators on this blog named Eugene posted a very lengthy but very clear reply and analysis on the issues with the Aang and Katara romance—particularly how it relates to “The Ember Island Players”—and frankly, I feel little need to elaborate on it. All I’ll say is that, as far as potential life partners go, Katara could do a Hell of a lot worse than the fucking Avatar. So good for her.

Also, because the final shots are so blatantly typical and fairy tale-esque (not to mention shipper service), the only way I can stand to ever watch them nowadays is if I put this tune on over them**:

Finally, I get to move onto Part Four, where I get to talk about the greatest moments of the finale! Oh, joy!

*I almost typed “loser-lord.” I almost fucking typed “loser-lord.”

**On a completely unrelated note, apparently director Joaquim Dos Santos is a Yes fan. Maybe his name is just more common than I can possible know, but if that’s his comment on John McFerrin’s music review site, than that’s a neat little factoid, wouldn’t you say? (Ctrl + F his name, but know that that e-mail address doesn’t work. I tried it.)

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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7 responses

  1. Alan

    Great review, but I can’t see the reviews on the Episodes by Season page.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    • I haven’t linked it yet. Once Part Four is up, I’ll link them both.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  2. Eugene

    I think it’s a pretty insightful of you to observe the opposing themes running through Zuko and Aang. I always understood the importance of Aang sticking to his guns, but did not realize how their stories compliment each other. I also never felt that the ending was a Deus Ex Machina because of its execution. It’s a very gradual build up throughout a 2 hour finale, and most importantly, Aang struggles a lot before he’s able to prevail. I think this was key in making the Turtle plot device work.

    I guess Korra struggled too but, aside for being rushed, it also missed certain grandeur and spirituality. Aang’s meditation scenes added to the emotional power of the final conflict. And the Energy-bending sequence was hauntingly poignant.

    My favorite part in the finale is right after this battle when Aang floods the forest and parts the ocean. This is punctuated by the brief flash in his eyes, which demonstrates the control over the “beast inside” that Aang had spend 3 seasons working to master. It’s this little moment that gave the entire series a kind of overarching purpose. An emotional climax.

    Of course, for some, the emotional climax was seeing two 12 year olds sucking face. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

    November 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    • That’s a fantastic point about Aang flooding the forest signifying his control over the “beast inside.” I may not care about him all that much, but this is most certainly an achievement that can’t be ignored. Good for him.

      December 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm

  3. Eugene

    Oh, and great review, by the way. I look forward to the last part and finding out what you consider to be the best part of the finale.

    P.S. I… hope it’s not the part with two kids shoving tongue into each other’s throat.

    November 13, 2012 at 9:31 pm

  4. The problem with the finale is that the writers resorted to Deus Ex Machina and never resolved a critical plot point: Aang’s tendency to run away. The idea of energybending was fine. The execution was appalling. The finale was Aang’s moment to finally take a proactive role and face his problems. If the writers wanted Aang to have a nonlethal way of stopping Ozai, that’s fine. But Aang should have been the one to make the effort to obtain that power. Instead, we have an episode where the universe feels sorry for Aang and hands him the ability. Not one bit of character development required. That’s horrible writing.

    If I had been the writer, this is what I would have done. Aang is determined to find a way to beat Ozai and spare his life. While meditating on the question, he realizes that Koh as an ancient spirit may hold the answers. But Koh is a perilous being. Would Aang be willing to risk his spirit to hold to his principles? However, Aang is far more vulnerable than when he was at the North Pole. His experiences have made him more susceptible to Koh’s needling. Only by enduring Koh will Aang learn of the Lion Turtle and energybending.

    With this addition, Aang is choosing his own fate instead of letting the universe direct him. He is no longer avoiding his problems, he is confronting and solving them on his own. With one scene, the Deus Ex Machina is eliminated and Aang has developed as a character. At the same time, the idea that one does not have to abandon their principles is preserved.

    How much more satisfying would such a scene have made the finale?

    January 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  5. tox

    “But after watching the finale again, it all makes sense. The way I see it now, the conflict was always whether he should change himself for the greater good or whether he should stick to his principles. Which choice is the right choice? Generally speaking, they’re both right depending on the circumstances.”

    Did you always have this opinion? I distinctly remember writing some lengthy posts here arguing with someone over the merits of the finale (my argument was a little different and revolved around the real battle being Aang. vs his responsibility symbolized by the Avatar State), and I can’t figure out for the life of me where it was or with whom I was arguing.

    April 28, 2016 at 7:08 am

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