Because fans should be critical, too

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.


7 responses

  1. Ian

    Hey Marshall, ill leave my thoughts below in a hopefully shorter response than last time.

    But until then i would really appreciate some response to my comment on episode 1 and 2 if you have the time. I was looking forward to the discussion that would be had in the comments of that first post but so far there have been only 4 comments. If you found nothing to respond to then fair enough though 🙂

    June 14, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    • My apologies, Ian. I was so busy packing and moving and unpacking that I left the comment section completely unattended. I’m finally settled, so lay it on me!

      June 17, 2015 at 10:34 pm

  2. Ian

    So I’m gonna try to make these responses more about my experiences as a kid with these episodes and just any big things that stuck out to me that i feel need discussed.

    As a kid I remember seeing this episode and finding the Aang stuff boring through and through. The stuff that was wacky, kid friendly, and overall more upbeat had me either disinterested or just bored. I think this is because the facial expressions are pretty awful. The eyes in this episode look horrendous and pointy, and i noticed this as a kid as being a bit weird. For a specific, Aang’s face when hes flying down the mountain after Momo is disgustingly ugly, not to mention creepy. Even today as an adult any time that part comes up I brace myself and then breathe a sight of relief as we jump right back into the great parts of this episode, the Zuko stuff (which ill get to in second). That said, Sokka was still my favorite character and was still being funny, and now there was this new character in the form of Momo who is just the best and his design was so “Cool” to my kid mind! (bonus points that he reminded me of my grandmas dog who would always perk her ears up like Momo’s when she was scared or interested in something)

    I feel the reason i was bored for the Aang sections was because of the whiplash with Aang’s character from last episode. In this episode hes very out of it, and that was completely the point, his people are gone and he then finds out they are all dead? Yikes! But while i praised Aang for being a fun to watch and likable character from the first episode, I never really CARED about Aang emotionally, I just knew I was willing too. This episode jumps to the emotional scene of a dead Gyatso and expects me to care instantly, but i don’t know enough of Aang to care, let alone Gyatso! (As a side note, I was so surprised as a kid that they showed a skeleton corpse surrounded by fire nation armor. They didn’t need to say, “Monk Gyatso was killed by fire nation that’s why your sad Aang!” (though they kind of do later… dang it Sokka!) I knew instantly what happened to Gyatso and i thought it was awesome as a kid! Even today I’m impressed that they were able to do this, sure you would see skeletons or even organs on Spongebob or Ren and Stimpy, but that was ALWAYS for comedy and was very exaggerated. This was straight up the corpse of a loved one, and its a stark contrast and a great reminder that this show might be more than your average kids show.

    Finally ill just talk about Zuko and Iroh. All of their scenes feel like they had way more time and effort put into them than the Aang scenes (this is a big trend of season 1) and they are also a breed of simple genius. What i mean is that, these scenes flipped what i had mistook as a kid as a one off villain who may appear every once in a while (Zuko) and not only made me completely enamored with him but also made me care about this jerk and his Uncle beat this bigger jerk. Zhao is so interesting to me, hes one of the most simple villains in the franchise goal wise, which is literally Zuko’s goal but instead of honor its just pride and pride alone, but the actor for Zhao always, always, ALWAYS, conveys a layer of complexity to his character. He’s menacing, but not too menacing that it becomes hammy, hes smart and better than Zuko, but not too smart and sometimes hes not better than Zuko! And i think what makes it work is that this gives our villain a villain, which puts the audiences emotions in a weird dynamic. Sure we don’t want Zuko to win and capture Aang, but we like Zuko now (he shows mercy to this jerk and has a great amount of respect for his Uncle). So now we like the villain, but not fully cause we know what he wants is evil, then you throw in Zhao who also wants what Zuko wants and is antagonizing this scarred young boy who just wants to go home. Now we are on Zuko’s side and hate Zhao, so now we want Zuko to win!

    Ill end on this, as a kid this was always the main driving force for me to finish season 1 (besides it just being a great show), to see if Zuko would capture Aang, and if so, to see how i would feel about it. Because i like Aang, but i also like and sympathize with Zuko, and I want Zuko to win so he will beat Zhao (and later find out to get his fathers love), but that would mean Aang wouldn’t win, he’d probably get killed or tortured, and i still like Aang. Its the weirdest thing and I’m still not sure if i made any sense of my childhood thought process, but I’m at least happy to say that Avatar the Last Airbender was just as interested in what Zuko would do and in wanting to see him succeed, as I was.

    Please Reply

    I hope that was better Marshall!

    June 24, 2015 at 11:53 am

    • Momo is such a delightful part of Avatar and I couldn’t imagine the show without him. I think anyone who’s had a pet or loves animals will find Momo to be an endless source of cuteness and hilarity. (No doubt Pabu in The Legend of Korra was an attempt to replicate the magic of Momo.)

      That’s a very intriguing point about our undeveloped relationship with Aang this early in the series, especially as it applies to the reveal of Monk Gyatso’s skeletal remains. The shock of the image goes a long way in compensating for a lack of actual investment in Aang as a character. Even if you don’t really like Aang at this point, the sight of an old friend long gone is a harrowing one. And, as you pointed out, it wasn’t played for comedy, which is pretty rare for an animated children’s show.

      As for the bizarre emotional dynamic between Zuko and the audience, I think you hit the nail on the head. Avatar would not have worked so well if the ambiguous surrounding Zuko’s story wasn’t there. Aang’s story, while mostly compelling, is mostly typical of any post-Star Wars hero’s journey. Zuko’s story, on the other hand, has nothing comparable that I’m aware of. Genius? 100% agreed.

      June 29, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    • I’m at least happy to say that Avatar the Last Airbender was just as interested in what Zuko would do and in wanting to see him succeed, as I was

      My God. You’ve summed it up so perfectly!

      July 14, 2015 at 9:05 am

  3. edbva

    Yeah, this episode was the beginning of one of my pet peeves with ATLA: inconsistent animation quality. It’s unfortunately so distracting. No thanks Dr Movie!

    Btw, I like to think that Aang’s Avatar State (AS) reverberated around the world in this case because of Aang’s proximity to the Avatar sanctuary at the air temple. The other places that lit up (including the Fire Temple that Aang would visit later) also seem to be dedicated to previous Avatars.

    Anyways as I said b4, my first impression of the pilot episodes was that it was a pretty charming kids’ show. As annoying as the animation quality of this episode was, a few things made me sit up and take notice when I first watched this:

    1. The sympathetic development of the ‘villain’ Zuko;
    2. The revelation of Monk Gyatso’s tragic fate and Aang’s reaction to it;
    3. The ending – Aang watching his home fade into the clouds, as he departs from it, in poignant silence.

    These moments were perhaps the first real suggestion for me that this was perhaps no run-of-the-mill kids’ show; that the writers were intent on taking their story and main characters seriously. Just as the horror of Monk Gyatso’s final resting place snapped Aang out his lightheartedness with Momo into grief and otherworldly outrage, I also moved from “hmm cute kids’ show” to “ooohh dear this is no joke! This is serious biz!!” And then there was the ending, which was surprising in its sensitivity and tenderness. Backed up by appropriate, non-bombastic soundtrack, it says everything about what Aang is going though without using a single word. (And its precisely the kind of scene that is completely missing in LoK, and partially as a result many of those characters and their relationships seem relatively shallow.)

    June 24, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    • Btw, I like to think that Aang’s Avatar State (AS) reverberated around the world in this case because of Aang’s proximity to the Avatar sanctuary at the air temple. The other places that lit up (including the Fire Temple that Aang would visit later) also seem to be dedicated to previous Avatars.

      I never thought about it that way!

      To be fair, I think Korra tried to have a few of those moments (Book One may have had more than a few). Whether they were as successful is another discussion for another time.

      June 29, 2015 at 2:16 pm

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