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.