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.