Because fans should be critical, too

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.

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3 responses

  1. edbva

    It is interesting to observe that just as the first and second acts lay out the beginning of our main characters’ journeys, the third act symbolically reveals the end of it. Aang leaving the cave for the storm to save Sokka signifies the realization that to run away from the world’s problems is to be further consumed by them. It is akin to the biblical words of Jesus: if Aang merely aims to preserve his own life he will lose it, but if he gives it in service to the world he will save both. As he fully embraces his destiny, so too will destiny (in the guise of the Avatar State) embrace him – just as it saves him from being drowned here, so it will arise in his final showdown with Ozai – and bring him peace.

    On the other hand, Zuko willingly embraced the storm from the start in pursuit of the Avatar. But he endangers himself and the entire crew in the process, and eventually gives up the chase for their sake. Similarly, he must one day realize that he’s been doing this wrong the whole time. Zuko’s lesson is actually similar to Aang’s: if he persists in hunting the Avatar in order to regain his previous life, he will lose both the Avatar and himself. But if he gives all up for the sake of others – in this case, his crew, and later on, the Earth Kingdom – then he will gain his crown, his country and even the Avatar. Speaking of which – just as they found each other in the eye of the storm, so too will they find each other when they find peace in their proper places in this world.

    Could this be a coincidence? Herein lies the true quality of ATLA. This episode demonstrates a key endearing and progressive characteristic, a key reason why this show transcended the original demographic. As it turns out, the titular ‘storm’ isn’t really about a storm at all. Nor are the other aspects of this universe (including the magical ones like bending, the Avatar State, etc) simply about themselves. By consistently subordinating the fantastical aspects of this universe to the real issues of the real world, ATLA ensures that it is emotionally defined by the latter and not the former. And in doing so, ATLA shows itself to be fundamentally real.

    P.S. this is where the sequel LoK is a surprising failure. In fact it is largely inverted in that the fantastical elements often do not support the more complex themes (especially in the first two Books) but seem to exist for their own sake. This makes LoK frustratingly incoherent, and at the worst – since bending, giant mechas and spirit portals don’t actually exist – a puerile story about nothing.

    July 24, 2015 at 11:48 am

  2. Honestly, I’m enjoying your new content so much, the long break you took was disheartening as I always read and enjoy your work.

    July 25, 2015 at 10:12 am

  3. Alan

    Can’t wait to see what you think of Blue Spirit.

    July 31, 2015 at 1:27 pm

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