Because fans should be critical, too

Archive for July, 2015

Retrospective: Chapter Twelve: “The Storm”

How did Aang end up frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years? Why is Zuko so obsessed with capturing the Avatar, and why does he get absolutely no support from the Fire Nation? Where did Zuko get his scar?

All these questions are answered in “The Storm,” one of the most important episodes in the Avatar storyline. We’ve had eleven episodes to warm up to the cat-and-mouse game between Aang and Zuko, and now we finally get to know their individual backstories. These days, most cartoon characters are lucky to get a personality, let alone a backstory. When they do, it’s usually a cynical attempt to manipulate us into caring about poorly animated toy commercials. Here, however, the backstories actually deepen our understanding of the characters and gets us more invested in their emotional journey. It’s almost like what happens in a real story!

Among other things, we learn that Aang found out that he was the Avatar at too early an age: typically, the new Avatar doesn’t find out until they’re at least sixteen years old, when they’re emotionally mature enough to handle the news and the responsibility. Aang had to be told at the age of twelve because, as the Airbender monks observed, the Fire Nation was in the early stages of declaring war on the rest of the world, and they needed Aang to get a head start on his Avatar training.

Aang is reasonably flustered by this news, but the worse is yet to come: suddenly, his friends no longer want to play with him (they coldly reason being the Avatar gives him an unfair advantage), and the monks decide to separate him from Monk Gyatso, his mentor and only friend. And so, Aang flies away into the night on Appa. They get caught in a terrible storm, but thankfully, Aang’s Avatar State kicks in and safely freezes them both in a giant iceberg. (Why it didn’t rush them to the surface, as we’ve seen it do twice so far, is never explained, but it’s just as well: clearly the Avatar State knew something Aang didn’t.) And frozen they remained until “The Boy in the Iceberg,” which is where we came in.

Meanwhile, in Zuko’s lifetime, he was the prince and thus destined to be the new Firelord. Unlike Aang, his eagerness to fulfill this great responsibility becomes his downfall. While sitting-in during a war meeting, he speaks out against a dreadful plan to coldly sacrifice the lives of young soldiers  so that the older soldiers could gain the upper hand. While Iroh agrees that Zuko was in the right, it was the wrong time and place for him to voice his opinion, and his punishment is an Agni Kai with the Firelord. His father, that is.

Zuko’s pleas for forgiveness fall on deaf ears, and not only does his refusal to fight earn him his distinctive scar–Zuko’s harrowing scream remains one of the most chilling moments in the series–it gets him banished from the Fire Nation. His father will only take him back and restore his honor if he finds the Avatar. This is, of course, intended as a fool’s errand designed to shut Zuko out permanently. But the ever-literal-minded Zuko is just foolish enough (or rather, optimistic enough) to take his word, and has been searching for the Avatar ever since. “The Boy in the Iceberg” was a drastic turning point in both his life and Aang’s.

Aang and Zuko’s back stories are expertly told in flashback by Aang and Iroh respectively. In Aang’s case, he has to explain to Katara why he’s so filled with shame for running away in the first place. In Iroh’s case, he has to articulate to Zuko’s poor crew why the boy is so stubborn and seemingly heartless. Katara and Iroh essentially provide an outside, but sympathetic perspective on their tales. Katara reasons that, if Aang hadn’t run away, he would have been killed during Sozin’s Comet, and how could he have saved the world then? Iroh reasons that even though Zuko is so narrow-minded, he ultimately means well. Besides, given the circumstances, the Avatar’s return is the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time. It gives him hope.

The rest of the episode is pretty typical by Avatar standards—Aang saves Sokka and an old fisherman during a terrible storm, and Zuko chooses the safety of his crew over recklessly pursuing the Avatar—but given extra heft thanks to our new understanding of Aang and Zuko’s motivations. In the end, the past is the past. What matters is what they choose to do now. For Aang, that means saving the world. For Zuko, that means capturing Aang and thus stopping his from saving the world—as you can see, despite our new sympathy for Zuko, he’s still technically a villain; Aang may have found his direction in life, but Zuko is still a drifter, doomed to wander between the winds.

“The Storm” is a frequently found on most Avatar fans’ Top Ten best episodes, and it’s not hard to see why. Of course, any episode could have followed “The Great Divide” and would have seemed like genius in comparison. If that episode shook your faith in Avatar, “The Storm” will completely restore it. It’s that good.


Retrospective: Chapter Eleven: “The Great Divide”

There is a line of dialogue that no one ever brings us when talking about “The Great Divide,” but that pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with this episode. When the entire group—consists of our heroes, the Gan Jin, the Zhang, and canyon guide—finally reaches the end of the Great Divide, Aang says the following:

As soon as we get out of here we can eat…

The crux of this line is the “we can eat” part. Eat what? The canyon guide specifically told them to dump all their food before going into the Divide, and as far as Aang knows, that’s exactly what they did. Or did Aang miss that crucial piece of information? Or did he simply forget?

He couldn’t have, because when it’s reveal that the Gan Jin and the Zhang did bring food, he is absolutely furious. But if they weren’t going to eat the food they brought, then what convinced Aang that once they got out of the Divide, they could eat (and immediately, at that)? Was there a restaurant just on—or even nearby—the other side of the Divide that Aang knows about? If that were the case, wouldn’t it have benefitted everyone if he just told them about it in the first place? That at least would have provided extra incentive for them not to bring food. As far as I know, no such place exists. So what the fuck is Aang talking about? Aang either wasn’t listening or he’s full of shit, and neither speaks well for him as a person. And this is the guy who’s supposed to save the world!

This single line of dialogue has thoroughly convinced me that DiMartino and Konietzko and company knew just how bad “The Great Divide” was. And I don’t mean after the fact—after all, they give it a harsh shout-out in “The Ember Island Players”—I mean during production. Wouldn’t you suspect that after writing all the scripts, they realized that “The Great Divide” was just not up to snuff (but had to produce it anyway)? Don’t all the bizarre and idiotic choices made in this episode seem like an attempt to alleviate their own boredom? Maybe they realized that their initial premise had little-to-no promise, and that nothing would save this episode. They probably knew that “The Great Divide” would be a noose around they neck for the entire rest of Avatar’s run on television. That little joke in “The Ember Island Player” was their way of assuring us that they were embarrassed by the episode, too.

“The Great Divide” is widely considered the single worst episode of Avatar, and I mostly agree (though I find “The Ember Island Players” to be worse for less obvious reasons). In a rather perverse way, I’m glad that “The Great Divide” exists. Strange as it may sound, “The Great Divide” serves as a better yardstick from which to measure Avatar’s greatness than another cartoon, even a contemporary one, would have.

On one hand, this is a true testament of Avatar’s singularity, since what makes a good episode of Avatar is vastly different from what makes a good episode of, say, Star vs. The Forces of Evil (a fine show, just less ambitious and more sitcomical). On the other hand, a terrible episode of Avatar is virtually indistinguishable from a terrible episode of most other kids’ shows. When a show as original and intelligent as Avatar somehow manages to produce an episode as stupid and careless as “The Great Divide,” you immediately take notice.

How could this have happened? The answer may be implicit in the episode itself.

The opening establishes the overall “message”: Sokka and Katara disagree on something (it doesn’t matter what), and Aang forces them to reach a compromise for the greater good (it doesn’t matter how). The rest of the episode is a failed attempt to make this textbook morality less hollow than it already is.

Then we’re introduced to the Great Divide itself, which is clearly modeled on the Grand Canyon, right down to the typical American boredom with it. Before our heroes simply fly right over it on Appa, the two tribes of refugees show up. Both of them need to get across the Divide, but they hate each other (it doesn’t matter why) so much that they refuse to share the canyon guide. Aang forces them to compromise for the single day that it will take them to cross the Divide.

The two tribes are the “civilized” Gan Jin, who are clean, proper and dressed in white, and the “barbaric” Zhang, who are dirty, crude and dressed in brown. Beyond that, there is no attempt to give them any discernible personality. They exist collectively as a plot device, and not a single member of either tribe emerges as a human being. Then again, giving the warring tribes some humanity would probably take too much time and effort than could be accomplished in a single twenty-two-minute-long episode. Why waste such effort on an episode nobody wanted to work on in the first place?

If anyone had to be written with some humanity, it should have been the canyon guide. He’s an old Earthbender who takes people through the Divide, apparently for no pay. He should be the most interesting character in the episode, but instead he’s a total bore. When the Canyon Crawlers break his arms, he turns into a paranoid lunatic. Not without reason, though: with his Earthbending gone, there’s little to no chance of the group getting out of the Divide. This should create suspense, but since we don’t care about the fates of these two tribes, it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t help that the only reason the guide’s arms were broken in the first place was because of the tribes’ idiocy.

The canyon guide’s only rule for going through the Great Divide was that they cannot bring any food with them. Food attracts Canyon Crawlers (a hybrid animal that’s a cross between a spider and a crocodile), so they have to eat as much food as they can and then dump the rest. Both the Gan Jin and the Zhang bring food anyway. What’s the point of relying on the canyon guide if you’re not even going to listen to him? No one even brings up the fact that their selfishness and stupidity cost the canyon guide his arms and nearly got them all killed. (The Gan Jin don’t even think to offer him compensation for the damages. And you know they’re loaded!)

Since the tribes can’t along even for the greater good of their own survival, Aang splits them up and tasks Katara and Sokka with watching over the Gan Jin and the Zhang respectively. You’d think splitting up the group would be a terrible idea, but given the circumstances, it’s still a terrible idea. Not that anyone seems capable of rational thought in this episode. For example, when Katara and Sokka find out that the two tribes did bring food after all, you’d think they chastise them for putting their lives in danger.

Oh wait: it turns out that Katara and Sokka have a lot in common with their respective tribes (it doesn’t matter what), so the food problem is no longer a big deal. Katara even says, without the slightest hint of irony, “I guess it’s OK if everyone’s doing it.” (Mae Whitman’s straight-faced delivery of this childish dialogue is probably what got her the Tinker Bell gig after Brittany Murphy died.)

Each tribe explains their hatred of the other tribe to Katara and Sokka (and the audience). By this point in the episode, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have become so bored with their own episode that each explanation is done in an animation style radically different from the style we’re used to with Avatar. Do they benefit the story in anyway? No, but they’re a nice bit of relief after the utter predictability of the rest of the episode (the music is especially peculiar, as if the Dust Brothers temporarily took over for the Track Team).

The third-act action sequence is entirely perfunctory, except for one thing. Aang’s idea to use the food bags to both tame the Canyon Crawlers and get them out of the Great Divide is actually very clever and deserving of a better episode.

Otherwise, there are two points in this last act—both involving Aang—that finally tip the episode from lazy and lousy to downright insulting.

The first is when Aang reveals that the feud between the two tribes is based on a misunderstanding. He explains that the feud was based on a technical foul in a children’s game. Somehow, this explanation is acceptable to these silly tribes, and they immediately forgive each other. And you know what? We immediately forgive the episode for everything that came before because, as silly as this explanation is, it means the episode is almost over.

All could be forgiven and forgotten if it weren’t for the second point, when Aang reveals that all the above was a lie, and that he’d only made it up to finally get the tribes to stop fighting. It’s difficult to say what the moral is supposed to be anymore. It’s even more difficult to say whether this final twist is supposed to be funny or not (Katara’s reaction to this, on the other hand, is kinda funny). Most likely DiMartino and Konietzko and company were so fed up with how the episode turned out that they simply gave up trying to make any literal or emotional sense of the main conflict. That’s quite a way to treat an audience who’ve stuck with you for ten episodes. No wonder no one likes this episode.

P.S. In a way, one can view Aang’s lie as an ironic reflection of the Gan Jin’s and the Zhang’s lie that they didn’t bring food. It is possible to be too clever.

And since we brought up Brittany Murphy…

Retrospective: Chapten Ten: “Jet”

Among other things, Avatar is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Every new episode adds something new and usually integral to our perception and understanding of the Avatar universe, and subsequently our understanding of the overall story. This can range from a tiny plot device (e.g. the bison whistle) to a complex moral dilemma that stems from the characters’ behavior and sense of purpose. These narrative devices, when successful, deepen our understanding of our heroes’ journey by showing us precisely what they’re fighting for and not just who they’re fighting against.

“Jet,” for example, adds a touch of grayness to the story’s spectrum of morality. Jet and his merry band of hoodlums aren’t the first “friendlies” that we meet, but they may be the coolest: a gang of young, charming, reckless outcasts who live apart from society, sustaining themselves on nothing but their wits and their hatred of the Fire Nation. When you’re living through a hundred-year-war with no end in sight, people like Jet are a cancer to their enemies and rock stars to their supporters. Jet is the perfect symbol of hope, the underdog who does everything he can to change the world.

But there’s a problem. The same passion that makes Jet such a romantic figure—Katara is immediately smittened after his amazing entrance into the series—fuels a bitter racism: in Jet’s eyes, every single person from the Fire Nation is responsible for the death of his parents and thus deserves no mercy and no remorse. Even a harmless old man is just a pawn that can be taken out of the game, if necessary.

We witness this vicious attack on the old man along with Sokka, and naturally he tries to warn Aang and especially Katara about Jet’s dark side. Unfortunately, he’d already been openly critical of Jet from the start, so when he comes to them with a legitimate concern, they continue to dismiss it as jealousy. It doesn’t help that Jet, the expect manipulator, makes Aang and Katara believe that the old man was actually an assassin sent to get him (which, in Jet’s paranoid delusions, is probably true).

If things weren’t bad enough, Jet plans to flood an entire village in order to drive the Fire Nation out of the area. That the civilians will also die is nothing but an necessary evil to Jet. It is upon discovering this plan that Katara finally sees Jet for the monster he is. By that point, however, she and Aang inadvertently helped put his plan in motion with their Waterbending. Aang attempts to fly away and warn the village, but Jet manages to stop him by stealing and damaging his glider. (Aang’s fight with Jet is pretty revealing: if the Avatar can’t handle a fight with one sword-wielding teenager, how is he going to be ready for the Firelord? How many upgrades will he need before that fight?)

Luckily for the village, this episode belongs not to Aang, but to Sokka, and he manages to evacuate the village. (He gets a lot of help from the old man that Jet attacked.) Sokka started out as the butt of the joke in the first half of the episode, but once Jet reveals his true colors, he’s the hero in the second half. Voice actor Jack DeSena plays both sides very effectively, finding the perfect balance between stoicism and idiocy.

Voice actor Crawford Wilson, on the other hand, doesn’t quite bring the charm and menace necessity to bridge the two extremes of Jet’s personality. The episode suffers as a result, since the evil, murderous Jet is feels emotionally disconnected from the charming rouge we first met (during Jet’s more sinister motions, Wilson’s delivery is too contained and self-conscious to convey genuine rage). This disconnection makes Jet less of a character and more of a plot device designed to demonstrate the innate virtues of our main heroes by comparison.

Voice acting not withstanding, Jet is an intriguing character, and thankfully he returns in Book Two, adding a bit more depth and given him a satisfying character arc. “Jet” demonstrates the show’s willingness to explore moral dilemmas that most kids’ shows probably wouldn’t touch, especially on an episode-by-episode basis. “Jet” brings an element of darkness to the series that stays with it to the bitter end.

Retrospective: Chapter Nine: “The Waterbending Scroll”

Avatar continues its winning streak with “The Waterbending Scroll,” the most blatantly comic episode in the series since “The King of Omashu.” But whereas that episode was marred by its own pointlessness, “The Waterbending Scroll” never loses sight of the overall story or its characters, even as they swashbuckle with a crew of silly pirates. This is easily the funniest and most entertaining episode of the series thus far. It’s also one of the most accessible episodes; you don’t need to be an expert in Avatar lore to enjoy this one, and that’s because the relationships of all the main characters are so perfectly clear and utilized. You don’t have to know how Waterbending works to find amusement in Katara’s escalating jealousy of Aang’s innate talent for it, especially since she’s supposed to be the one teaching him. (She finally blows up at him mid-way through the episode, and even with Aang’s reaction—or because it—it’s one of the biggest laughs in the series.)

The way that Zuko and Iroh factor into the plot is borderline sitcom. Iroh loses an important game piece and forces Zuko to make a pit stop at a marketplace by the water. The punchline: the piece was in Iroh’s sleeve the entire time. Had the rest of the episode not been up to snuff, Iroh’s and Zuko’s individual reactions to this news—Iroh with a sense of humor, Zuko with furious anger—would have easily made it all worth it.

As fun and as funny as “The Waterbending Scroll” is, it feels a little too lightweight for its own good. So while certain things do carry over into later episodes (including the titular scroll, Aang’s bison whistle, Katara’s necklace, etc.), the episode as a whole feels very inconsequential. This may be because the episode contributes little to our gradual understanding of the Avatar universe, and also because “The Waterbending Scroll,” more than most episodes, calls back to DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s background in sitcoms and more typical kids’ show fare. If the “Winter Solstice” felt like a step towards something new and exciting, “The Waterbending Scroll” feels more like a regression into sitcom territory, albeit high quality sitcom. The result is a genuinely funny episode, but nothing more.

Announcement: Another Late Review, Konietzko’s Upcoming Graphic Novel

I had a minor incident occur during the holiday weekend, so I’m a bit behind schedule. The next retrospective review (“The Waterbending Scroll”) won’t be ready until Wednesday, July 8th.

In the mean time, Avatar and Korra co-creator Bryan Konietzko is working on a graphic novel called Threadworlds that won’t be released until 2017. He gave Entertainment Weekly a little interview about it. The one interesting fact in this piece (I say one because, frankly, Konietzko has never been the most interest interviewee) is that, at the peak of Korra‘s production, they were producing thirty episodes at a time. That certainly explains a lot about the waning quality of that series since Book Two, and much of the blame has to go to Nickelodeon for burdening them with such a heavy workload. I’m very interested to see how Threadworlds turns out, especially since this time it’s the result of a singular vision. Good luck, Mr. Konietzko!

– Marshall Turner

Retrospective: Chapter Seven and Eight: “Spirit World: Winter Solstice, Part One” and “Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice, Part Two”

Avatar: the Last Airbender is a show that requires a lot of faith, patience, and understanding from its audience. While Avatar is hardly an inaccessible show, its accessibility is largely dependent on the acceptance of certain stylistic choices and tendencies that might be off-putting to the average viewer.

The most obvious example would be the undeniable anime influence on the story and the visual design. While not necessarily “mainstream,” American viewers have certainly warmed up to anime quite a bit over the last few years (e.g. thanks largely to John Lasseter of Pixar fame, most of the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli share the same retail space as Frozen, The Lion King, and the Tinker Bell movies; whether they’re actually selling is another question). Back then, though, anime was still very much a niche culture and usually only held in high regard by nerds, freaks, connoisseurs, or other animators. The latter made sporadic attempts to adapt anime sensibilities into a few different series, some of which (e.g. The Powerpuff Girls) were more successful than others (e.g. Teen Titans). Avatar was the latest and most successful merging of anime and American cartoon sensibilities, if not entirely seamless.

Still, even those who embraced the overall style would have to come the terms with the mythos and continuity of the overall Avatar story, which all but requires you to watch it from the very beginning. That’s asking a lot, especially coming from an American television animation children’s program. The few instances of continuity that do occur in such programs were typically quite trivial (a la recurring characters, running gags, themes, etc.), and rarely played any part in a greater narrative. With its ambitious narrative structure and commitment to a story universe grounded by certain rules and customs, Avatar definitely distinguished itself from other kids’ shows (although even this is a nod towards the comparatively denser and more complex narratives found in most anime).

And yet, having embraced both the style and the narrative, the viewer has to overcome the last and potentially deal-breaking obstacle to enjoying Avatar: the sporadic shifts in quality from episode-to-episode. Surely every series has one or two bad episodes, but since most children’s programming rarely bothered with continuity, it could never affect the overall quality of the show. With Avatar, however, almost every episode adds to our understanding of the story’s narrative and universe. To get the most out of Avatar means willingly suffering through a few toxic episodes, phases of grotesque animation, lazy writing, and lapses into the clichés and formulas of the kind of kid’s shows that Avatar purports to be better than.

(Most children can look right past these all of these technical flaws, making them the ideal, if not the only, audience for much of Avatar since the show never had the broad, all-encompassing appeal and Zeitgeist timing of, say, Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings films.)

As always, though, it’s important to note that Book One largely consists of DiMartino and Konietzko and company figuring out the right tone for the show, striking the perfect balance between the thrills, the laughs, the mystery, and—above all else—the emotions of the adventure at hand. Having found that balance with “Imprisoned,” they push it even further with the two-part “Winter Solstice,” giving us the best and most exciting episodes of the series thus far. It may have taken more than six episodes, but the dramatic potential inherent to the show’s premise is finally being properly realized.

As one of the quintessential set of episodes, “Winter Solstice” lays bare the primary narrative strategies of much of the series.

On the one hand, we have Aang, who as the Avatar—aka “The Chosen One”—is immediately expected to handle certain tasks and responsibilities in order to keep the world in balance (in this case, it’s stopping an angry spirit from destroying a village). While those tasks and responsibilities appear to be self-evident to most of the folks we meet in the Avatar universe, they are a constant mystery to both Aang and the audience. Since the audience rarely knows any more about the Avatar’s duty than Aang does, we can relate to him on at least some level as he navigates the trials and dangers of his learning curve. (This relatability isn’t necessarily deep or emotional, but it’s enough to make Aang’s adventures effective.)

On the other hand, we have Zuko, who knows even less about the Avatar, except that he must be captured and brought to the Firelord (his father) at all costs. Zuko’s narrow-minded obsession with capturing the Avatar—and regaining his honor—could have easily resulted in a one-dimensional villain who only existed to give Aang and friends an obstacle to overcome each episode. What makes Zuko’s side of the story so compelling this early on are the complications and setbacks he must face just to be recognized as a formidable threat. Just how interesting would Zuko’s journey be if he didn’t have to compete with his fellow Fire Nation native Commander Zhao (the kind of smug, heavily-armed opponent who would be the sole villain in a lesser cartoon)? Or what if he didn’t have the companionship and guidance of his immensely likable uncle (whose playful worldliness provides a much needed contrast to Zuko’s prideful tunnel vision)?

The plights of these two older men allow us to put Zuko’s emotional journey into perspective. Zuko may be ruthless, but he’s not a monster. He may threaten to leave his uncle behind to stay on the Avatar’s course, but when Iroh is kidnapped by Earthbenders—technically the “good guys”—he immediately goes searching for him. It’s surprisingly heartwarming to witness Zuko conscientiously put off his hunt for the Avatar in order to rescue his uncle. Commander Zhao would have just left, and that alone makes it impossible to sympathize with him. In this narrative, Zhao is allowed to go to the villainous extremes that Zuko—due to his recklessness, his lack of resources, and his loving uncle—cannot. That Zuko carries on anyway makes him the more interesting character, and his conflict with Zhao underpins just how much of an underdog he is even among his own people.

Comparatively, Aang’s story is much more conventional, and more prone to careless and predictable writing. As the protagonist of a fantasy action/adventure series for children, Aang is essentially doomed to succeed and save the world from annihilation. The best Aang-centric episodes deal with how this twelve-year-old boy must quickly grow up and take on the heavy burden of keeping the world in order, which means figuring out exactly what the Avatar is supposed to do. Episodes that don’t have this drama at its center are usually saved by the trials faced by other characters (mainly Zuko, Katara, or Sokka), clever plotting, humorous character interactions, and fun action sequences. (In the absence of any of those things, you get “The Great Divide.”)

“Winter Solstice” is the first true Aang-centric episode and one of the best. He continues to feel guilt for disappearing a hundred years ago, and thus allowing the Fire Nation to wreck havoc on the world. In this episode, the Fire Nation has burned down a significant chunk of a once-majestic forest. This desecration of nature sends Aang into a depressive stupor, although Katara pulls him out of it when she shows him the seeds left unharmed by the fire. The original trees are dead and gone, but the forest inside lives on.

Why the Fire Nation specifically burned this forest is immaterial; what matters is that it is the home of the angry spirit that is destroying the nearby village and kidnapping the locals. Aang is tasked with dealing with the beast, and only after clearly assessing the situation–and a detour that temporarily traps him in the Spirit World and get in touch with Avatar Roku’s spirit animal–is he able to appease the spirit, and in the same way Katara cheered him up earlier in the episode: by showing it the unharmed seeds from the forest and promising that it will grow back in time. Out of gratitude, the spirit leaves in peace and even returns all of the kidnapped villagers (including Sokka) in a manner surely inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Spirit World is one of the new concepts introduced in these episodes. Somehow, the Avatar is able to navigate both the Spirit World and the real world in order each one in check: what goes on in either world affects the other. In this case, the Winter Solstice occurs, temporarily allowing the Spirit World and the real world to function on the same plane of existence (this is how the forest spirit was able to physically destroy the village from time-to-time).

This is great news for Aang: as Avatar Roku’s dragon had show him, the Winter Solstice may present his only opportunity to get in contact with Roku and figure out what to do next as the Avatar. Unfortunately, the Solstice is fast approaching, and the Fire Sage’s temple—the only place where Aang can talk to Roku—is not only far away, but its within Fire Nation territory; going in there is basically a suicide mission for Aang and Zuko (as a banished prince, Zuko can’t stop his people from attacking him even as he’s on the Avatar’s trail).

The trip to the Fire Sage’s temple and the chase that ensues between our heroes, Zuko, and Zhao constitutes nearly the entire second episode of “Winter Solstice.” Whether our heroes are being shot out of the sky by flaming projectiles or being chased by elder Firebenders, there’s not a single dull moment, which is an impressive feat for an episode that’s essentially one long action sequence (a feat that would be repeated in Book Two with the perfectly titled “The Chase”). It certainly helps that this time around, the animation of DR Movie has bounced back significantly after the abysmal work in their last episode “The King of Omashu.” The aerials scenes are especially wonderful, as Appa dodges fireballs that fly at them over the clouds.

The action is made all the more suspenseful by the limited amount of time the kids have to reach the temple and get inside the alter so can meet Avatar Roku just as the Solstice happens. The strict time restraint brings out the best in everyone. One of the Fire Sages turns out to still be loyal to the Avatar, and takes our heroes straight to Roku’s chamber. When the chamber door requires five blasts of Firebending, Sokka gets to demonstrate his technical ingenuity with makeshift Firebending bombs. The bombs don’t work, but Katara intuits that, since it looks like it worked, the other Fire Sages will think Aang somehow got inside the chamber and will open it themselves.

With one thing or another—including the appearance of both Zuko and Zhao that nearly derails their quick thinking—Aang does get into the chamber and manages to speak directly to Avatar Roku, who informs him that, at the end of the summer, Sozin’s Comet will return. Upon passing the planet, this comet made the Firebenders of the world more powerful, and the Fire Nation used that power to kill all the Airbenders and declare war. A hundred years later, Firelord Ozai plans to use that power again to finally win the war. Can Aang master all four elements well enough to be able to defeat the Firelord before the comet returns? Or will Zuko and/or Zhao capture him first?

And with this plot point, the show finally kicks into gear. While the story up to this point was rather vague and meandering—”stop the Fire Nation and bring balance to the world” is hardly specific enough to be that engaging—the deadline and the possible consequences imposed by Sozin’s Comet finally gives the series a clear narrative drive and focus. What began as a slightly above-average kids’ show might just prove to be something more. Something special. Something worth sticking with to the bitter end.