Because fans should be critical, too

Retrospective: Chapter Thirteen: “The Blue Spirit”

By the end of “The Blue Spirit,” Aang has risked the fate of the world to keep his only friends from dying, Zuko has risked his life to make sure the Fire Nation didn’t capture Aang before he did, Zhao has been promoted to Admiral, Sokka and Katara have awaken from their terrible illness with frogs in their mouths, Iroh has hosted a successful music night with the ship crew, Momo has no better understanding of the English language, and Appa hasn’t moved at all.

“The Blue Spirit” would have made a great cliffhanger had the Nickelodeon executive decided not to order more episodes, but thanks to good ratings and high praise from its broadening audience, Avatar remained on the air and got to see its entire story to the end. Can you imagine a world without the complete series of Avatar? No awful live-action adaptation from M. Night Shyamalan; no disappointing spinoffs like The Legend of Korra; no thriving fan communities for geeks, cosplayers, and rule 34 artists; no amateur, pretentious, overly critical blogs dedicated solely to explaining its greatness; and, most crucially, no hope that an animated series for children could be meaningful, be heartfelt, and resonate in a way most people never before thought possible within such a limited format. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the true legacy of Avatar, and why it holds such a special place in my life.

“The Blue Spirit” was designed to work “on the level of a series finale,” and while it doesn’t quite reach those heights—at least, compared to the actual season finales we’ll get later—it’s a great mid-point for the story that puts a lot of things into perspective.

For example, thanks to a paralyzing illness—no doubt brought on after their near-fatal plunge into the sea in “The Storm”—Katara and Sokka are largely MIA; they’re left to rest with Momo and Appa while Aang goes off to find a cure. Aang’s mini-adventure is a lot of fun and very thrilling, but the absence of Katara and Sokka very noticeably has an effect on the episode. Not just thematically—even the savior of the world needs friends and allies—but on a basic level of entertainment: Aang does not have the temperament to carry the entire series on his own, no matter how many interesting characters he encounters (like the crazy medicine lady and her cat). Without the grounded sensibilities of the Water Tribe siblings, the adventures of the last Airbender are pretty lightweight. The basic thread of Aang’s story is fairly standard and predictable—yet another Chosen One saves the world yarn—and Katara and Sokka help give it an edge and humanity that would be missing if he just had to do things on his own. (Imagine a Star Wars without Han Solo and Princess Leia, and you’ve got a similar situation; conversely, Indiana Jones is his own agent.)

All that said, it’s very likely that without Aang’s more conventional story, Zuko’s story wouldn’t see the light of day. His entire character arc is his attempt to redeem himself and validate his existence in a world that has moved on without and around him. He’s the ultimate underdog, neither villain nor hero, and thus able to fill either role given the circumstances and when it most benefits his survival. That alone makes him the most human and relatable character in the series.

Zuko’s story only makes sense in contrast to the more typical power struggles between Aang and someone like Admiral Zhao. Aang’s story becomes more meaningful in contrast to the turbulence of Zuko’s emotional journey. The two characters absolutely depend on each other for Avatar to work.

“The Blue Spirit” puts that dichotomy on full display, and it may just be the best episode in the season because of it. Without Zuko’s interference, Zhao would have captured Aang, Katara and Sokka would have succumb to their illness, Zuko would have no hope of regaining his honor, and the story would be over.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Blue Spirit” is that all these heavy thematic implications are perfectly balanced by the show’s improving sense of humor.

Katara spends most of her screen time trying to get Momo to bring her and Sokka water, but Momo—not being able to understand English—returns with just about everything he can find except for water. It’s a silly joke that makes light of their grim predicament.

The cure for their sickness is even better: according to the crazy medicine lady, they must suck on frozen frogs found in a nearby bog. And they must be frozen: once they thaw out, they’re useless. Aang does find the frozen frogs, but is captured before he can return to his friends. Eventually, they thaw out while Aang is still changed up in a prison cell. Again, the silliness of the gag counters the fact that, if Zuko hadn’t shown up, Aang would not have been able to escape on his own.

And then there’s Admiral Zhao, who wants his victory speech transcribed and sent to the Firelord, only to have this immediately undermined by his escape with the Blue Spirit. Zhao is a pretty standard villain, which is perfectly fine for the first season. Besides, the vocal performance by Jason Isaacs is rock solid, and the character’s egomania is at least part of the joke, as he’s constantly being foiled by not one, but two meddling kids, one of which is supposed to be on his side anyway.

For the first-time viewer, the reveal that Zuko is the Blue Spirit may be extremely shocking. The more saavy first-time viewer may have figured out it by the time Aang takes his mask off. Who else could it have been? It couldn’t have been a new character we’d never seen before. And if it was, why would they have to wear a mask and not speak? In this universe, to oppose the Fire Nation is a badge of honor and to help the Avatar escape would be considered heroic.

That is, unless you’re Prince Zuko, and helping your country requires you to betray them, and capturing the Avatar requires you to help him, and to do either requires you to hide your true identity because your country doesn’t want your help and the Avatar is specifically trying to avoid you.

I don’t know what’s worse: the loneliness of having your entire race and culture destroyed, or the loneliness of having your entire race and culture hate you. Aang and Zuko are probably the only characters that truly understand each other, and circumstances have made them mortal enemies. What a sad existence. What an illuminating episode. Definitely one of the series’ best.


2 responses

  1. Ian

    Hey Marshall! Sorry for the lack of responses lately! I know that can probably be frustrating to write all this and get no response. Anyway! As for this episode!

    I think this episode is a very good indicator episode. If someone doesn’t like avatar by this point then i think the show is just not for them. This episode does everything people like about avatar super well. The characters are enjoyable. Aang displays his determination for his friends and his compassion when saving Zuko. And Zuko shows the lengths he is willing to go to regain his honor.

    The Action is superb! A giant escape scene that is not only fun but creative!

    And the comedy is pretty good if a bit simple, but what avatar does well with its humor is that its very sincere about it so even if you don’t find a joke super funny you can at least see what they were trying to do and not be bugged by it. One may not find Momo bringing random objects to Katara or Sokka being sick funny, but you can see what they were doing and if you like the characters you may laugh regardless because the cast is just so likeable.

    A few things.

    Aang’s running at the speed of the wind is AWESOME, my only problem is that they forget about it in book 3 when chasing Azula, something that bugged me even as a kid. I like that the show always has new things to show us about Aang, whether it be his natural ability to water bend or some neat air trick, the character is always fun to watch.

    The Yu Yan archers are a cool concept they introduce. I like it when this show introduces nameless and silent bad guys whose only purpose is to be cool. If they succeed in that area (which they normally do, Combustion man being a good example) then you are left with an intimidating and memorable force of nature that you look forward to when you rewatch the series. When i watch the episode, I always think, “Oh hey! This is the one with the Yu Yan Archers! I cant wait!”

    But yeah, overall, a great episode, I hope i could add something to this discussion… I dont really have many memories with this one when i was a kid.

    Keep up the great work Marshall!

    August 10, 2015 at 1:56 am

  2. JMR

    So I was reading this really interesting post someone wrote about LoK, and I figured here was as good a place as any to put it and see what people here think.

    To summarize, its a reading of LoK that takes the latter three seasons as intentional deconstructions of the, erm, less intentional rocky ending of the first. It’s very long (>10,000 words) but I thought it was a worthwhile read:

    August 20, 2015 at 8:51 pm

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