Because fans should be critical, too

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…

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4 responses

  1. JMR

    In the artbook, Bryan brings up in their segment on The Blue Spirit that the series was initially only picked up for 13 episodes, and so that was a sort of “make it or break it” moment for the series. Combined with The Storm up next being the big mythology dump episode, and I speculate that this one was allowed to slip through the cracks because they were too preoccupied with the two to follow.

    As for the ending, I’ve protected my sanity by making up the head canon that the tribes knew that Aang’s story was a lie, but choosing to go along with it because they were both looking for some sort of out that would allow them to end this stupid conflict without it looking like they were the ones that backed down. No real evidence for it in the episode, but it works for me so I’m sticking to it.

    July 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm

  2. I have not watched this episode in years (I’ve probably only seen it two or three times total), but I have these thoughts to impart.

    I’ve wondered if this was meant to show Aang’s deficiency as keeper of the peace. He’s met with an escalating conflict and his solution is the rhetorical equivalent of evasive Airbending techniques. Unfortunately, the episode treats this as a joke and his decision does not come back to bite him. Furthermore, I’m blanking on any future instances of Aang as a mediator at all, so we don’t really see him improve these skills necessary for his role in life (correct me if I’m wrong). Perhaps it was a facet of the Avatar’s duty that the show left behind in favor of other story priorities.

    July 19, 2015 at 12:01 am

    • edbva

      Actually the ending was the only part of this episode I liked. Given how obnoxiously annoying these two ‘tribes’ have been, does the truth about what happened a 100 years ago really matter at this point? Anything to get these pests out of way, (including throwing them back into the canyon – hey, them crawlers need to eat too.)

      And there’s the main issue I find with this episode: the characters we should be connecting with aren’t real. (Two constantly bickering ‘tribes ‘- snobs vs scrubs? How realistic.)The theme itself isn’t a bad choice – though it’s rather clumsily blurted out from the start with Aang settling petty squabbles between the WT siblings and even the animals. Throw in another iffy outing for Dr Movie and no Zuko B-plot and and you have almost everything that does not contribute to a good ATLA episode.

      Ironically, Aang’s made-up story at the end is fairly symbolic of what the Great Divide really is – a childish story conjured for kids. And since I’m not a kid – or for that matter, an idiotic Gan Jin of Zhang member – lets keep flying!

      July 19, 2015 at 8:36 pm

  3. Nesme

    Before Avatar reruns started playing big time on Nicktoons, it seemed like this was the only episode they showed–and they showed it all the time. It was awful.

    I guess the worst part of this episode is that shows how the Earth Kingdom is extremely diverse and fragmented, but it means absolutely nothing. The two tribes’ ‘cultures’ are explained so broadly and disgustingly that they might as well have not existed at all. And that the various ethnic and social groups in the HUGE Earth Kingdom might lead to disunity and be hard for a single figure to lead is not addressed until season 4 of Korra. It would have been interesting to see more of the cultural/governmental structures in the Avatarverse, but I wouldn’t really hold it against them if they hadn’t taken an opportunity to just that and instead produced this.

    Then again, I can’t really imagine Avatar without The Great Divide. It’s kind of like a scar, but not a cool scar; like you scraped your knee playing hopscotch and picked it off 12 times until it begrudgingly healed. Some might say that that’s a terrible analogy; but to counter that I might point out this was a terrible comment to begin with.

    July 20, 2015 at 3:41 pm

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