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Archive for June, 2015

Announcement: Next Review Will Be Late

This has been one hectic weekend for me, and as such, I haven’t even gotten to start writing the review for the two-parter “Winter Solstice.” As a result, the review won’t be up for another five days. In the mean time, I finally have time to check on what’s been going on in my absence. Lots of comments this time around! That makes me very happy.

– Marshall Turner


Retrospective: Chapter Six: “Imprisoned”

“Imprisoned” contains a multitude of firsts for Avatar: the Last Airbender.

This is arguably the first wholly satisfying episode in the series: it’s enjoyable from beginning to end; nothing feels like it’s only there to pad out the episode length; the plot is tight and well-thought out without being so straightforward as to be boring and predictable; and we learn more about the inner workings of the Avatar universe. In fact, “Imprisoned” is the first in a sequence of really good episodes. Starting from “Imprisoned” and going down to “Jet,” the quality of each episode ranges from “good” to “great.” (This hot streak is, of course, violently derailed by the infamous “The Great Divide,” but we’ll deal with that episode only when we have to.)

This is the first episode in which the humor works consistently. Comedy has always been a major component of Avatar‘s narrative infrastructure, with varying degrees of success. Here, however, every setup is perfectly clear and every punchline hits its target. Two of the biggest laughs in the episode include the scene in which Momo is mistaken for an Earthbender, and the scene where the Warden of the Earthbender prison doesn’t take the news of a possible “flying bison” sighting very professionally (to say the least).

This is the first episode where Katara is given the spotlight, and we gain significant insight into her character. Specifically, we learn that she’s a stubborn idealist who will do anything to help those in need, even if it means putting herself (and her friends) in danger. She tries her best to infuse people with the same fire and optimism she has that the Fire Nation can be defeated as long as you never lose hope and do what you can with the tools and opportunities presented to you. (It helps that she and her brother accidentally found the long-lost Avatar, apparently the only one who can end the war.)

What could have easily been a flat and annoying caricature is given depth and nuance thanks to the well-rounded vocal performance of Mae Whitman and the delicacy of the writing, specifically in scenes where her ideology clashes directly with those of other characters. In this episode, she butts heads with her brother Sokka regarding whether they should stay and find some way to free the imprisoned Earthbenders. Unable to dissuade his sister and being the extreme pragmatist that he is, he’s given the unenviable task of figuring out just how to free the broken Earthbenders. That a clever solution presents itself among him, Katara and Aang goes to show what a great team they are: Katara is the Will, Sokka is the Way, and Aang is the Avatar.

Finally, this is the first episode that feels perfectly intertwined with the larger story. Not just because of the cliffhanger ending, but because all the elements of the plot naturally spring from the main narrative context of the series: a hundred-year war waged by the Fire Nation in the absence of the Avatar (and the rest of the Airbenders). In this episode, a coal mining village have been taken over, its locals are forced to pay ridiculously high taxes by snaky guards, and the only people who could have stood up to them and fought—the Earthbenders—were taken away and not heard from for five years.

This war has dire and lasting consequences, which makes the drama all the more interesting. Haru, an Earthbender boy that our heroes meet, is forbidden from using his gifts by his mother. If the Fire Nation were to find out he was an Earthbender, they’d take him away from her just like they did his father. While the audience is certainly meant to side with Haru and Katara—Haru wants to fight back, especially since Earthbending is the best way for him to remember his father—the mother’s concern isn’t treated lightly. The scene when she realizes her worst fear has come true—that Haru has been found out and taken away by the Fire Nation—is truly effective and heartbreaking. (This moment is the last we get with the mother in the entire series, and while it’s a bit of a shame that we never got to see a reunion between her, Haru and her husband, this lack of closure makes her final scene that much more powerful.)

So where are the Earthbenders taken? If this weren’t a children’s show, one could reasonably guess that they were simply killed off (much like the Airbenders were). Instead, they’re all held in a remote prison made entirely of metal and in the middle of the sea. The perfect prison for an Earthbender. Without a single piece of earth around to fight back and defend themselves, it’s no wonder the big “escape” plan is simply to wait out the war. And it’s no wonder that Katara’s big inspirational speech to the broken Earthbenders—the centerpiece of the episode—falls on deaf ears. Who is this crazy girl to tell them not to give up hope after they’d been there for five years? She’s not even an Earthbender. And do the Earthbenders even believe in the Avatar at this point? Do they even remember who the Avatar was? Also, many of these Earthbenders look pretty old, and without Earthbending to rejuvenate them, they must all be out of fighting shape. Maybe Haru’s father should have led them all in daily Earthbending calisthenics. Or would the Warden have outlawed that?

Speaking of the Warden, he’s one of the major highlights of the episode. Played wonderfully by George Takei, he’s an overconfident and condescendingly prim-and-proper man who refers to his prisoners as “honored guests” and perpetually berates them any chance he gets. He also has a short-temper, which doesn’t really have a payoff, but does lead to the funny business of the “flying bison” sighting. He also has a funny demise: we learn that he can’t swim moments before he’s dropped into the sea by the revolting Earthbenders (which begs the question: who would hire someone who can’t swim to be the Warden of a prison surrounded entirely by water? Shouldn’t that have been a pre-requisite for the position?).

Our heroes’ solution to freeing the Earthbenders is lovingly laid out throughout the episode. The manner in which they staged fake Earthbending—in order for Katara to be arrested and taken to the prison where Haru and others are (again, they fortunately weren’t killed off)—turns out to be the perfect way to expel coal through the prison’s ventilation system and to the Earthbenders. Of course, they don’t all fight back at once: Haru, having not endured the years of soul-crushing that his elder Earthbenders have, is naturally the first to revolt, and soon all the older folks are fighting back, too. The battle between the Earthbenders and the Fire Nation guards is pretty fun, and it’s nice to have an action sequence that’s motivated and meaningful rather than obligatory and perfunctory.

Somehow during this mutiny, Katara loses her necklace, which we learn belonged to her mother. Since her mother was killed by the Fire Nation, this is obviously something precious to her. To make matters worse, the necklace is found by, of all people, Zuko. It makes a certain amount of sense that Zuko would intuit that this random Waterbending necklace belongs to the Waterbending girl who is helping the Avatar. But how did Katara even lose the necklace in the first place? Last we saw, she was clearly still wearing it by the end of the battle. (And if you look very closely, in a wide shot where she and Haru are talking about Aang, she’s still wearing the necklace, only for it to disappear in the next shot.)

Such a slip-up is easily forgivable, though, in light of how brilliant the rest of the episode is. “Imprisoned” is the best episode the series has given us by this point, raising the bar for how good each subsequent episode should be. It’s nothing short of amazing that the next two episodes would raise the bar even further.

Announcement: Getting Back on Schedule And Moving On

As suggested, I’m going back onto a set schedule so that I can get each episode review out in a timely fashion. I’ll do my best to make sure there is a new episode review every three days (if it’s a two-parter, it will take five days). If for some reason I fall behind schedule or miss a day due to some unforeseeable complication or personal problems, I’ll let you know as soon as I can. Otherwise, this review schedule is in effect starting yesterday.

Over the past few days, I’ve been contemplating whether the Retrospective reviews should be placed on a whole new blog entirely and, on the other hand, whether I should completely get rid of the older episodes reviews. As I read through those old reviews, it’s rather painful to see how limited and hyper-subjective they were, and how little they might contribute to anyone else’s enjoyment and appreciation of Avatar. The Retrospective should rectify this, but that means the older reviews will be utterly useless except as archive material. Should I leave them be, move the new reviews to a new blog, or get rid of the old reviews entirely? Any feedback on this matter would be much appreciated.

– Marshall Turner

Retrospective: Chapter Five: “The King of Omashu”

It goes without saying that children’s programming—especially the animated variety—is a lot more lenient than it’s adult counterparts when it comes to character types and environments. Unlike the cartoons you’d see on network television—just how many primetime animated series aren’t centered around a white bumbling male surrounded by a cast that can consist of other sexes, races, and even other species?—the protagonist in a children’s cartoon can be a boy, a girl, an adult, a dog, a sponge, an alien, etc., and can take place in any setting conceivable by the creators and art directors. As long as it is colorful, kinetic, and doesn’t contain any overtly questionable content (e.g. we can see Zuko’s terrible scar, but we’ll never actually see the moment when fist and fire met his face), a show can stay on the air as long as it has a sizable audience and/or as long as its merchandise sells (shows based on toys, trading cards, and other collectibles have exploited this fact for years, a la Pokemon).

Naturally, television executives concerned more concerned with profit could care less about narrative and meaning, and thus took this leniency as an excuse for laziness and lack of imagination. For the sake of longevity (that is, prolonged advertising), the formulas for children’s programs were quickly discovered and narrowed down to: 1) Z-grade sitcoms (The Smurfs); 2) action serials (G.I. Joe); 3) edutainment (Sesame Street); or 4) commercials (cereal mascots). These formulas pretty much persist today (with varying degrees of success), though since the advent of channels like Nickelodeon, they started to be more creative about it, and at least a few original ideas do pop up once in a while.

Of course, a sizable audience is not necessarily an indicator of quality. With no filter to weed out cartoons of actual substance, even the most vapid and formulaic of cartoons could find an audience with young kids as long as it appealed to their most basic senses. These days, thanks to the commercialization of nostalgia, those same idiotic programs continue to maintain a willing audience (resulting in, among other things, the Smurfs movies).

The necessity of television programs to perpetually keep people invested and coming back for more is at once the medium’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. One the one hand, if a show does initially capture people, there’s nothing to prevent it from becoming empty and senselessly cyclical once its initial well of inspiration (assuming it had any to begin with) has run dry (e.g. Spongebob Squarepants). On the other hand, a show of genuine quality can fail to find a sizable audience if that quality goes unrecognized during its airtime, and be canceled before reaching a satisfying conclusion (e.g. Invader Zim). This can happen for various reasons, the most common being terrible marketing.

To the credit of DiMartino, Konietzko and company, Avatar is definitely a show of genuine quality, and it’s some kind of miracle that, even without any merchandising that I’m aware of, they maintained a strong audience (one that well exceeded their intended demographic) long enough to see their intended narrative through to the end. That it took them three seasons to finish was part of the plan. (This degree of narrative forethought and coherence is missing from The Legend of Korra as a whole. Perhaps this is because DiMartino and Konietzko, having never planned for more than a twelve-episode mini-series, suddenly had to scramble and piece together a new storyline once Nickelodeon ordered more seasons, all of which had to be done with considerably less time than they had to conceive Avatar‘s three-season arc and the first season of Korra. But I’m sure it’s debatable.)

Still, even Avatar wasn’t prone to the Leniency Clause of Television, and the lesser episodes of the series are almost always the ones that retreat to formula in the face of a narrative challenge. “The King of Omashu” was the first example of these lapses in quality that happen sporadically throughout Avatar; episodes such as this are largely responsibility for bringing the show down.

In the grand schemes of things, the purpose of “The King of Omashu” is to introduce us to King Bumi, the crazy king of the title and an ally to Aang (he and Aang were childhood friends before Aang got frozen in the iceberg), so that he can further establish Aang’s main objective: master all four elements so that he can stop the Firelord from winning the war and bring balance to the world once again.

The rest of the episode is essentially filler. This wouldn’t be such a big issue if it were at least entertaining or gave us some insight into the characters. It does neither. Instead, we get an unconvincing scenario in which Aang must quickly complete three challenges for Bumi, or else Katara and Sokka will be forever encased inside a magic rock that grows on your body (think the scene in The Matrix when Neo touches the mirror and it crawls over his entire body).

The magic encasing rock is supposed to function as a ticking clock for Aang, but it feels more like a sitcom antic rather than a legitimate threat. Bumi could have easily just threatened to keep Katara and Sokka imprisoned in Omashu and in the “newly-refurbished” chamber (which used to be the “bad” chamber) if Aang failed the challenges. At least then there’d be no need to pretend it’s suspenseful, especially since all three kids agree that the “newly-refurbished” chamber is pretty nice. Plus, they’re fed really well. And from the looks of it, Omashu doesn’t seem all that affected by the hundred-year war. What better reason for Aang to fail the challenges than on behalf of his friends!

In any case, it’s a shame they couldn’t find a better way to frame Aang’s challenges or the “think-outside-the-box” theme, because the challenges themselves are fairly inventive. It’s kinda fun watching Aang figure out how to retrieve a key from a waterfall, fetch Bumi’s pet Flobzy, and pick a Bending duel with Bumi himself (Bumi’s pretty ripped for being over a hundred years old). But what does it all amount to, really, aside from amusing hijinks? This entire scenario is more suited to a level in a video game than a crucial chapter in a grand narrative. Hell, it’s more suited to a show of lesser ambition and purpose than Avatar.

In addition to these severe writing woes, the episode is just plain painful to look at. When people praise Avatar for its great animation, they conveniently forget that episodes like “The King of Omashu” look like utter shit. Characters periodically go off-model in the most charmless fashion possible; nothing has a sense of scale and weight (Omashu, in its establishing shots, looks like a pile of sand rather than a huge city); and the color palette is horrendous (mostly disgusting greens and over-saturated tans). It’s true that DR Movie, one of the three animation studios that helped create Avatar, was the worst of the bunch (incidentally, they were dropped in favor of Moi Animation by season three), but their episodes are rarely this bad. I honestly wonder if DiMartino, Konietzko, and company, fully aware of the script’s terrible quality, were simply indifferent to how this episode came out. I certainly hope that’s not the case, but given the hectic workload of television animation, it doesn’t sound implausible.

If anything, “The King of Omashu” is a friendly reminder that, for all of its ambition, Avatar is a product of the same system that continues to generate new and terrible episodes of Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents, and thus, just as liable to fall back on the bad habits of most television animation for children. It’s a testament to DiMartino, Konietzko, and company’s usual standards of excellence that these episodes don’t pop up too often, but I’ll skimp on higher praise until after we’ve suffered through “The Great Divide.”

Retrospective: Chapter Four: “The Warriors of Kyoshi”

I’ll bet that the more “progressive” viewers for Avatar: the Last Airbender—the ones who might have feared that the careless sexism of Sokka, one of the two leading men (boys?), would ruin an otherwise promising children’s program—were shitting their pants with joy when “The Warriors of Kyoshi” aired. This episode introduces us to Suki, the second prominent female character we meet in the entire series (aside from Gran-Gran) and a strong and capable fighter and the leader of the all-female Kyoshi Warriors, a group created in honor of Avatar Kyoshi, who was a woman! Can someone say “Girl Power!”? (Please don’t.)

If you ask me, though, the real revelation here is not that there are so many Strong Female Characters™ like Katara and Suki; it’s the way in which their male counterparts handle them. Sokka voices his sexist opinions at the beginning of the episode, and the moment we see the Kyoshi Warriors, we just know he’s been set up for humiliation. And we’re right: unable to accept that these girls could take down a man like him, he tries to fight Suki one-on-one and promptly loses. DiMartino, Konietzko, and company could have left it at that and Avatar would still be praised as a step in the right direction.

The real praise should start with what happens next: Sokka goes back to the Warriors and apologizes for his sexist remarks and asks to learn from them so that he can become as good as them! Say what you will about Sokka—and trust me, I’ll have plenty to say about him as this goes on—this is a pretty impressive display of personal growth. Sure, we’ve seen sexist men get their royal asses handed to them by Strong Female Characters™ plenty of times before to varying degrees of catharsis, but how many of those defeated men actually become wiser and more humble because of it? This is great stuff, especially for a children’s program, and DiMartino, Konietzko, and company could have easily left it at that.

But it gets better: after learning some moves from Suki and before leaving Kyoshi Island to escape Zuko and his soldiers, Sokka and Suki have the following exchange:

Suki: There’s no time to say goodbye.
Sokka: What about, “I’m sorry”?
Suki: For what?
Sokka: I treated you like a girl when I should have treated you like a warrior.
Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.

Turns out Sokka’s growth wasn’t quite complete. Only after losing to Suki did he show her respect as a fellow warrior when he should have simply respected her as a girl. More to the point, he should have treated her as a human being deserving of kindness and respect regardless of whether she was a warrior, a girl, a princess, a peasant, whatever. (It’ll be some time before Sokka can extend that compassion to people from the Fire Nation, but there’s still so much more growth to be had.) This little bit of character development is easily the best aspect of the episode, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this convinced people to stick with the rest of the series.

The rest of the episode, on the other hand, is pretty boring. It mostly involves Aang showing off his Avatar status and abilities to an admiring group of little girls on Kyoshi Island, much to Katara’s (and the audience’s) annoyance. The moral here is so obvious and so typical of children’s programming that it’s devoid of any real interest. It’s difficult to tell whether DiMartino, Konietzko, and company actually believe this crap, or whether it was simply mandated by the Nickelodeon executives who wanted easy messages for the kids. In any case, this adherence to kiddie show formula really drags the series down whenever it pops up, and it’s very likely that it only shows up so much in Book One because the team hadn’t figured out the Avatar formula yet. (They’d abandon such banalities by Book Two.)

The only point of interest with this plotline is that word gets around pretty fast that the Avatar is on Kyoshi Island, which inadvertently sets Zuko back on Aang’s trail. After staying out of the war for a hundred years, Kyoshi Island is nearly burnt to the ground simply because Aang showed up and blew their cover. The subsequent guilt that should have played into Aang’s character development is swiftly alleviated when Aang extinguishes the village fire in a manner that feels unearned and underexplained. (Having never rode or figured out how to ride the giant sea monster that nearly ate him mere minutes ago, how would Aang know exactly how to control it so that it sprays water on the burning village? How would he know except for plot convenience?)

If the writing is still suspect at this point, so is the animation*. “The Warriors of Kyoshi” is the only episode I can recall that features the kind of cartoony and outlandish animation as when Aang first goes into the water to ride the giant fish and escape the sea monster. Who ever made the call to never ever use this style of animation again better have gotten a raise, because this style of animation is not only inappropriate for the tone and reality of the series (how am I supposed to believe Aang is in any real danger when he can just run away like a Looney Tunes character?), it’s not even good enough to justify its own existence. Certainly DiMartino and Konietzko were taking a page out of FLCL—one of their favorite anime—when they allowed this to happen, but if this episode teaches us anything (and The Legend of Korra proves again), it’s that your influences are only as good as they are appropriate to the work you’re creating.

For a good example, it’s pretty clear that one of the biggest influences on Avatar are the works of Hayao Miyazaki, whose stories are not only well-drawn and imaginative, but are almost always headed by capable and intelligent women. If Miyazaki proved anything to us aspiring American animators, it’s that a woman doesn’t have to be scantily clad or have to kick a lot of ass to carry a story; she just needs a worthy goal and well-defined personality like all the best characters. What better way to pay homage to a master and progress American animation a little further than by creating a whole universe full of autonomous and memorable female characters? It would be interesting to imagine how Avatar would have turned out if DiMartino and Konietzko hadn’t seen a single Miyazaki film. I mean, I’m sure DiMartino and Konietzko were socially aware before Miyazaki came along, but Miyazaki must taught them how to implement that awareness within an animated story without turning it into a PSA on equality. In that regard, the Miyazaki influence is appropriate and well-adapted to their own ambitions with Avatar, even within the confines of television animation.

“The Warriors of Kyoshi” is not a good episode, but it’s a solid step in the right direction. Little-by-little, as its characters and universe develop, as its storytelling improves, and as its themes become more sophisticated, Avatar seems to be rewarding the faith and good will of those viewers who saw promise in it from episode one. Who would suspect that all that faith and good will would nearly be broken in the next episode?!

*Speaking of suspect writing and animation, I have never understood the appeal of the Foaming Mouth Guy, the fan nickname for the man who has a seizure upon seeing Aang Airbend. Is this supposed to be funny? Considering it was animated by future Korra co-director Ki-Hyun Ryu (the man responsible for Fartbending, among other things), it’s hard to say. Why did DiMartino, Konietzko, and company let it stay in the show? Surely what’s funny during production isn’t necessarily funny in the finished product, right?

Retrospective: Chapter Three: “The Southern Air Temple”

As far as I know, Avatar is the only American animated children’s television program that uses war and genocide as it’s thematic starting points, so fans of either will definitely find something to enjoy in this show. After all, war and genocide did conspire to make sure that Aang, and no one else, was the last Airbender described in the name of the show. (Speaking of which, I always wondered if creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko came up with the wonderful title first and build a story around it, or if the story simply necessitated the title. Either way seems likely.)

And it’s not as if they’re in the show for shock value or easy laughs (as would be the case with the vast majority of television animation): they’re simply integral elements of the story being told. Their depiction in Avatar is never in poor taste and rarely brought up for cheap sentimentality. That degree of consistency and development is very rare in television animation, which leans mostly to irreverent surrealistic comedy with no regard for a linear and serialized story. That alone helps Avatar stand out from its contemporaries.

Three episodes in, though, DiMartino, Konietzko and company still haven’t quite figured out how to utilize the episodic format for full effect. Incidentally, the Korean animation studios still haven’t quite figured out the characters enough to make them truly come alive. The results aren’t always pretty. In some shots when Aang should be mourning the good old days, his facial expression reads drowsy instead of heartbroken. Additionally, too often the characters’ head seem disturbingly disconnected from the rest of their bodies as they twist and turn in bizarre ways. These lapses in judgment distract from the story, which suffers as a result. Once again, the ideas present in the episode are vastly more interesting than the way they’re actually presented in the show.

The one true exception are the Bending fight sequences, all of them expertly thought out and executed. In this case, the fight is between Prince Zuko and Commander Zhao, Zuko’s rival in the race to capture the Avatar. Their match doesn’t just consist of random swings and kicks that go nowhere and mean nothing: each style of Bending stems from a real class of martial arts (e.g. Waterbending comes from Tai Chi). With the martial arts consultation of Sifu Kisu, the animators had to figure out how best to depict these real moves as the character use them to the manipulation of Air, Water, Fire, or Earth. Grounding the concept of Bending in such a way that we can understand how it works, rather than bogging the action down in technicality, makes it all the more exciting to watch. If Bending seems more practical and applicable than, say, the Force, that’s because it is.

But back to that fight between Zuko and Zhao. Despite Zuko’s current villain status, his rivalry with the snaky, condescending Zhao makes him almost sympathetic to the audience. But is Zuko’s victory over Zhao actually a victory for us? Sure, the show obviously favors Zuko over Zhao, but his end game is still to capture Aang, which would assure that the war ends with the Fire Nation on top. So it really doesn’t matter which of them snags Aang because either way it means game over for balance and peace. Still, it’d be perversely more satisfying if Zuko caught him first, right?

On the heroes’ side of the show, things are much less complicated—but not necessarily less interesting.

Aang returns to the Southern Air Temple, his old home before being frozen for a hundred years. In this home, Aang’s mentor was Master Gyatso, a fun-loving man who instructed Aang to enjoy life in spite of his massive responsibilities as Avatar (and a decent human being). In a twisted reunion, Aang finds Gyatso’s skeletal remains in a secluded area where a brutal battle must have taken place. The confounding effect of seeing his mentor both dead and apparently dead at the hands of the Fire Nation sends Aang into the Avatar State, nearly blowing Katara and Sokka off the mountain.

Aang’s Avatar State ultimately alerts the world to his return when it lights up different statues and monuments all over the globe. Which raises three questions: 1) does this happen every single time an Avatar goes into the Avatar State?;2) did it happen the first time Aang went into the Avatar State in the previous episode?; and 3) since this bizarre chain reaction is widely understood to signify the Avatar’s return, doesn’t that make Zuko’s attempt to keep the Avatar a secret futile? It’s entire plausible that this piece of knowledge would slip right past Zuko, which kind of makes me wish that Zhao’s interrogation of him and Uncle Iroh had occurred after the entire rest of the world had already learned of Aang’s return. Just for the sake of irony.

Despite how intelligently each episode is put together, the execution is still too clumsy to be entirely effective. Part of the problem is that, as early as episode three, there’s still so much more plot, character development, and worldbuilding to establish that it feels like nothing but an unfinished setup. The story has started, but it hasn’t really taken off yet. It’ll take a few more episodes before we can fully immerse ourselves in the world and struggle of the characters.

Until then, “The Southern Air Temple” does still have some standout moments. The ending, in particular, is wonderful. Aang takes a moment to remind his animal companions—Appa the flying bison and Momo the flying lemur—that they’re all that remain of the eradicated Airbending temple and culture, and that they must always stick together. Later on, as they leave the abandoned Southern Air Temple, Aang watches as it disappears into the clouds. It’s a nice tender moment that says more in a single image than could have been elaborated with any kind of dialogue. The world and life that Aang knew is gone, and he needs to let go, move on, and make things right again. That’s a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old boy, even one as gifted and good-natured as Aang.

Retrospective: Chapter One and Two: “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns”

(Disclaimer: What you read here is not the final form of my thoughts or format, which will undergo more than a few changes at this retrospective goes on. As such, topic discussions may include how to best organize this entire experiment.)

Can you believe there was a time when Avatar: the Last Airbender wasn’t considered a cult classic among nerds and animation lovers? When it wasn’t heavily scrutinized and/or speculated on via the Internet? When it hadn’t become a a minor victim of its own popularity and allowed outside influences to affect it (e.g. “shipping”)? When its legacy wasn’t overshadowed by M. Night Shyamalan’s unfortunate adaptation? When something like The Legend of Korra wasn’t even a conceivable project? When no one gave a damn who creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were or what they thought, except that their names appeared in the opening sequence of every episode (and that’s just standard practice for television)?

When Avatar first premiered in February 2005, it was just another new animated program on Nickelodeon, albeit one that looked like the network’s attempt to compete with Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and anime (and Star Wars, of course, but more on that later). It was certainly different from everything Nickelodeon had produced before, with its continuous and complex storyline and obvious anime influence. Somehow, it managed to stay on the air for three seasons, which was just the amount of time needed for DiMartino and Konietzko and company to tell their story. The fact that Avatar had an overall story at all (and not simply a colorful setting and characters to build an animated sitcom around like most Nickelodeon programs) must have been a shock to Nickelodeon fundamentalists.

It all started with “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns,” which more or less provided the basic premise of the show. That basic premise was so convoluted even at this point that I’ll refrain from trying to summarize it here. Just know this: by the time the episodes are over, as long as you understand that the bald white kid and his two Indian friends have to travel the world, collect items and learn stuff so they can defeat the bald Asian kid, his uncle, his minions, and his country—and that all this involves something called “Bending” either air, water, earth, or fire—you’re off to a good start. The real question is whether you’d feel inclined to watch any further or not.

Enough kids (and eventually adults) stayed tuned after “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” that the answer is probably “yes.” Personally, this is my fourth time watching the series from beginning to end, and these episodes were not very high on my “eager-to-rewatch” list. Not because they are bad episodes, but because they are very unremarkable ones. In the grand scheme of things, they certainly do a good job of setting up the rest of the series, but at the same time, neither of them gives a single hint that Avatar would be anything more than a slightly-above average cartoon series (let alone one of the greatest of all-time).

To be fair, though, this is still just the first season, and the first season of anything (especially if it’s animated) is almost always inferior to what follows. In this case, DiMartino and Konietzko and company hadn’t yet found the balance between the scope of their vision and the limitations of television animation for American children. Scenes that should radiate with fun, intensity, and a sense of scale (e.g. penguin sledding, the first fight with Zuko) instead come across as flat, small and unexciting. The production team would rectify this stiffness in due time; for now, we just have to admire their imaginative concepts rather than fully engross ourselves in them.

Still, as boring as these episodes are, they still have merits. Having seen the series before, it’s actually fun to look through these episodes and see what plot elements were established long before they had a playoff (e.g. Iroh’s board games, Aang’s nightmare, the Avatar State, etc.) “The Avatar Returns,” the better of the two episodes, even has a cool fight/chase sequence when Aang tries to escape Zuko’s ship. It’s also nice that the most interesting and likable character thus far—Uncle Iroh—seems to be on the side of evil. Maybe it’s the nature of Iroh’s character or the vocal performance by Mako, but Iroh is so far the only character that defies easy classification (whereas, say, Sokka is clearly the comic relief).

If there’s one thing that does amaze me about these first two episodes, it’s the music by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn (aka The Track Team). I have never before noticed just how perfectly each of their musical cues compliment their respective scenes, even the quieter ones (Hell, especially the quieter ones). Additionally, the music is extremely well-crafted: no cue ever overstays its welcome, ever repeats itself, or ever overtly manipulates the audience into feelings things that aren’t supported by the actual story (as they would, maddeningly, in The Legend of Korra). If anyone on the production team deserves major props for keeping the Avatar train rolling, it’s Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Wynn.

All-in-all, what these first two episodes make clear is that Avatar: the Last Airbender is a show that requires a lot of faith, forgiveness and understanding if one is going to watch it to the end. The good news is that if you do like these first two episodes, then you’re bound to enjoy much of the rest of the series. On the other hand, if you don’t like these episodes but still want to know what all the fuss is about, just be patient and don’t give up. Avatar takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, it’s positively transcendent.