Because fans should be critical, too

Retrospective: Chapter Fourteen: “The Fortuneteller”

I have to wonder if any of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s young audience were converted into hard-nosed skeptics after watching “The Fortuneteller.” The main conflict involves a village that puts all its trust in the local fortuneteller, Aunt Wu; if Aunt Wu says the village will not be destroyed by the nearby volcano, everyone believes it. So when said volcano shows signs of an impending eruption, the villagers smugly refuse to accept  that they’re in any danger, despite the evidence presented by our heroes. One could almost call the episode subversive if it hadn’t handled its faith vs. science theme so gingerly.

For one thing, the episode never makes it clear whether Aunt Wu is a sham or not. She certainly seems to believe in what she’s doing, and her prediction about the volcano was technically correct since our heroes saved the day. (She even accurately predicts Aang’s trials as the Avatar.) Then again, her cloud readings—which are interpreted with a special book—seem pretty arbitrary, and apparently take place at the same time every day, despite the fact that clouds are constantly moving and making new shapes. Even if the cloud of death had formed on its own—and without the clever Bending of Aang and Katara—Aunt Wu would have missed it had Sokka not pointed it out to her.

Speaking of Sokka, he plays the role of skeptical man of science, chastising the villagers for blindly putting their fate in the hands of Aunt Wu. And yet, Aunt Wu’s prediction that Sokka’s pain would mostly be self-inflicted is not only true, it undermines Sokka’s endorsement of facts and logic by reminding us that he’s the Comic Relief, and thus doomed not to be taken seriously, by the villagers or the audience.

The villagers themselves aren’t treated any better. Their extreme devotion to Aunt Wu is mostly a setup for Sokka’s mockery and a source of tension for the plot. Most of their predictions revolve around petty personal matters with no real significance (i.e. the man you marry will have large ears). There’s not a single substantial testimony that would give their trust in Aunt Wu’s wisdom some legitimacy. It’s one thing to ignore the crazed ranting of Sokka. But to ignore the physical evidence of an incoming volcano eruption is straying too close into Darwin territory.

So is the “The Fortuneteller” pro-faith or pro-science? It’s hard to tell, and that’s one of the problems with this episode. The fact that this conversation takes place at all is an unusual achievement for a children’s show, but the writers’ refusal to take a stance and instead use the potential dialogue as a platform for silly comedy is all too typical. It’s rather telling that the one person whose reaction we don’t see to the volcano’s pre-eruption activity is Aunt Wu. Her reaction probably would have determined once and for all whether her abilities could be called into question. But alas, she’s conveniently away when the plot doesn’t need her and conveniently back when it does (we have no idea where she was when the volcano was starting to act up, but Sokka comes across her immediately when its time to point out the doom cloud).

Tangled into this fortunetelling business is the subject of love. Aang’s feelings for Katara have finally started to manifest, but for most people, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that the two will end up together, so there’s not much of interest there. At this point, Aang is waist deep in the Friend Zone, so his feelings aren’t reciprocated. But, while eavesdropping on Aunt Wu’s prediction of Katara’s love life, he learns that she’ll eventually marry a powerful Bender, which puts the odds in his favor.

Of course, putting your love life in a fortuneteller’s hands turns out to be a bad idea. Aunt Wu’s assistant, a little girl named Meng, was told that she’d eventually marry a man with large ears. Upon meeting Aang, she just knows he’s the one (although any five-year-old can tell you that you can’t marry someone you just met). Naturally, her feelings aren’t returned, which should provide a lesson about moving on, but considering how predictably Aang and Katara’s story turns out, it’s a lesson for us normal people and not the main characters in fantasy tales.

The only real point of interest with Meng is that she’s voiced by Jessie Flower, who would return in the next season as Toph Bei Fong, one of the most beloved characters in the series. Otherwise, she’s a pretty indistinct character, which may or may not have been the point, but I’m not sure. In any case, she stalks Aang throughout the village, and ends up helping him find Aunt Wu’s cloud book to save the village. The stalking aspect of that sequence is played for laughs, but considering that it conveniently worked to Aang’s (and the village’s) advantage, Aang should consider himself lucky for having those big ears.

At the end of the episode, Meng initially appears to have pushed her feelings for Aang aside for the greater good. But after waving goodbye to our heroes, she calls Katara a naughty word. Again, it’s played for laughs, but the implication that Meng will never let it go and harbor some lingering  jealousy is a little much. Isn’t this girl, like, eight-years-old? (Admittedly, we’re never told Meng’s age, but considering Flower must have been ten when they recorded this episode, that’s probably the range they were aiming for.)

So “The Fortuneteller” is not of the series’ strongest episodes—in fact, it’s borderline filler—but it’s entertaining enough. The humor generally works, which is always a good thing. Katara’s obsession with Aunt Wu’s predictions is funny thanks to Mae Whitman. And who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing Sokka being tormented by the universe? Having said that, the writers missed a big opportunity for a laugh by not having the doom cloud be a cute fluffy bunny (especially since the episode establishes that fluffy bunny clouds are signs of doom and destruction) instead of the obvious skull of death.

Perhaps the lack of a Zuko/Iroh subplot keeps this episode from being better, but that will be somewhat rectified in the next episode.

On a side note, this episode may just be the first appearance of a Hybrid Animal. Not the concept itself (which goes back as far as the first episode), but the explicit nature of naming them after the animals being fused (in this case, it’s a platypus-bear). Apparently, during production, the writers were so taken with co-creator Bryan Konietzko’s initial Hybrid Animals (i.e. Momo the lemur-bat) that they took it upon themselves to up the ante with the weirdest possible combinations in future episodes. I won’t go so far as to say Hybrid Animals ruin the series—it’s a harmless running gag—but it does reek of typical children’s show cheekiness in that the cleverness of the joke stifles our engagement with the story and its characters. This type of humor always feels like it’s more for the writers’ amusement than ours. (This kind of meta-humor pops up sporadically throughout the series, and would eventually reach its nadir with the awful “The Ember Island Players.”)

Additionally, the piecemeal nature of the Hybrid Animals calls into question the series’ own imperfect synthesis of different parts and sensibilities (mostly those of anime, Western cartoons, young adult fantasy, and of course, Star Wars). Avatar may be a fantasy, but even fantasy requires a cohesive tone and consistent worldbuilding in order for the story to resonate. Hybrid Animals have no true connection to the reality of the world of Avatar and continually shatter the suspension of disbelief. Might it have been better if the combinations didn’t breach good taste (ex. bison-manitee, yes; pig-rooster, no) and if they hadn’t lazily named them after the animals they were created from?

If you ask me, things like the Hybrid Animals—and all the silliness they exude—are why Avatar ranks fairly low in the pop cultural conversation.

P.S. Great Scott, the responses to this post were lengthy, passionate, and well-thought out. Once I have a chance to sit still for a good hour or so, I’ll contribute to the conversation. Thank you so much, guys! This is what I’ve missed the most in my time away from this blog!

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9 responses

  1. JMR

    If you ask me, things like the Hybrid Animals—and all the silliness they exude—are why Avatar ranks fairly low in the pop cultural conversation.

    Gotta disagree here. Harry Potter is filled to the brim with silliness and bizarre creatures, but is a pop culture Titan that refuses to die to this day. I’d say in both cases, a big part of their charm is their ability to balance silliness and seriousness. I’m not just saying this to fanboy, but I really don’t think Avatar’s lack of pop culture influence is tied too strongly to its quality.

    I do think it’s a very interesting question though. Why, despite the numerous awards it won and the acclaim it received from critics and audiences, was Avatar’s pop culture footprint so small?

    Honestly, I think it simply had a lot to do with timing. Avatar was the right show at the wrong time, with the mid to late 2000s being an era where traditional animation, and especially television animation, was really struggling. It was in 2009, after all, just one year after Avatar’s run ended, that the Cartoon Network was experimenting with a live action programming block. People just weren’t paying TV animation much mind in general.

    And the network definitely didn’t help matters. Their bizarre scheduling and poor advertising coverage for both Avatar and Korra is rather legendary.

    Throw in people’s general prejudices against animation in total, and I think that you end up with a more complete picture of what exactly happened. I would figure that silly hybrid animals are probably pretty far down the list as far as reasons for this issue go.

    December 14, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    • Ian

      To further the point, in my experience with the fan base and those who casually watched it as a kid (to which many of my friends in school surprisingly did) any time you mention avatar, if you go with the conversation for to long you end up talking about Basco the bear, the one non hybrid animal and how much that makes people laugh to this day by the characters reaction. Just my experiences though.

      I think avatars popularity and success is a miracle in a half because despite the show having awful scheduling, a bad time to be made, and with Nickelodeon always, always, ALWAYS showing THE GREAT DIVIDE of all episodes every time you turned on avatar reruns, the show never dropped below 2 million viewers with each episode (aside from The northern air temple for some reason). I think Avatar has this weird aura around in that its kinda begrudgingly respected in the pop culture world while at the same is beloved by all, if that makes ANY sense.

      Like if the average person sees anything star wars related they will immediately give the standard response in that it is a great series and they really enjoy it. But its live action.

      If you bring up Harry potter people will talk about how its a great book series and a great movie franchise. But its live action and a novel series.

      If you bring up Looney tunes, people will start talking about how much they adore the characters and start bringing up their favorites. But its a cartoon from their childhood by the legendary and respected Tex Avery.

      Now look at avatar. It’s a cartoon on nickelodeon that everyone knows is very well crafted, entertaining for adults and children and, most importantly, is VERY Good. But at the end of the day, its still a cartoon from a network that is pumping out Spongebob and (at the time) Icarly. You just cant escape that stench. So its not really brought up outside of the fanbase or if someone is talking about The Last Airbender Movie.

      For an example. My grandmother who adores star wars, pirates of the Caribbean, and Pride and Prejudice. My uncle who never watches TV but is into physical labor. And my friend who loves serious movies, breaking bad, and loathes cartoons in general, all love avatar. LOVE IT. they borrow the show from me to marathon it when they are bored. But they would NEVER bring it up unless i did. They would easily bring up all the things ive mentioned above that they like in pop culture waaaay before Avatar. And if you do bring it up in public around other people they are usually hesitant to continue a discussion about a Nickelodeon cartoon.

      Final point. Imagine if Gravity falls came out during the time as Hannah Montana, Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and Jonas. I can almost guarantee the same thing would happen to it as has happened to Avatar. It just wouldnt be able to escape that stench despite it being one of the best cartoons in a decade.

      Its a surprise by how little normal people talk about Avatar the Last Airbender that it remains in the Top 10 highest rated shows on IMDB, standing proudly in the ranks of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Sherlock.

      Please reply

      December 14, 2015 at 8:10 pm

      • JMR

        Right, there’s that very potent “I’m an adult, I can’t be seen caring about some kid’s cartoon in public, even if it is a great show” thing going on.

        It has a real chilling effect on the kind of discussion and hype that you need to get pop culture momentum going. What we’ve ended up with as a result is a bizarrely large “cult fandom”, loads of people love the show, like you said you can find that if you bring it up first, but they’re unwilling to talk about it if the subject isn’t breached already.

        December 21, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    • PsychoPass

      I wonder what Avatar’s potential would have been if it was owned by a company that could have handled its actual demographic and the transition to online/Netflix.

      We got Korra, and Mike and Bryan seemed gungho about it, but it seems that Bryke and Nickelodeon are not willing to create anymore animated content. We have the comics, but there is no reason why they could not have been animated based on how popular Avatar was at the end of 2008. How long would Bryke have stayed on before getting exhausted with the franchise, creatively? How much of Nickelodeon’s incompetence has pushed them away from working on it?

      Your points are sobering; if any great creative work only has “one shot” at success, and it comes out at the wrong time, the potential may never be realized.

      Out of curiosity, do you think Avatar could be rebooted one day?

      December 20, 2015 at 7:07 pm

      • JMR

        It’s possible, but I think we’ll have a ways to go until we get there. My guess would be that in about 5-15 years, two things are going to happen that could make Avatar reboots/movies/etc a thing:

        1) 2000s nostalgia will come roaring in. 80’s nostalgia brought us no less than four Transformers movies, despite the fact that they were all mediocre at best. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and what we’ll likely need to get people openly talking about shows like Avatar without feeling like they’re going to be judged for it.

        2) The people who grew up with the show are going to be adults and starting to get into positions where they have the chance to start making their own shows, telling their own stories. Here, I’m just as excited for shows and stories inspired by Avatar as I am for the possibility of direct reboots.

        There is a third thing that I’m not quite as sure on, which is that animation in general seems to be slowly being destigmatized as “silly garbage for children”, an attitude shift that personally I don’t think can come quickly enough. For that, though, I think we’ll really have to wait and see.

        December 21, 2015 at 9:00 pm

  2. Ian

    This was quite an interesting view on the episode and is a view that I have the exact opposite opinion of… man I’m glad your back!

    (Just to clarify. I’m not saying this episode is amazing. I just think it is a fine, good, and funny episode of avatar. To put it simply, I understand why is doesn’t make top 10 lists)

    Faith Vs. Science

    I always loved that the creators were (in how I read it) respectable to both sides of the argument with this episode. I think both sides of the argument can get enjoyment from the episode because both sides are taken to the extreme thanks to Sokka and the villagers. And are given a semi middle ground with Katara.

    Sokka is super blunt and thanks to living in a war torn world probably doesn’t care to much for faith, so it makes sense he would be into scientific explanations and this has already been established with his character. “Past lives? Katara, you actually believe in that stuff?

    The villagers are just dumb followers of faith and don’t think they need to contribute anything to the process. That things will just work themselves out for them, which makes it even funnier when it does.

    Katara is super passionate and ideological in nature so she would obviously want to cling to the idea that some things can be claimed by faith in them (like a man and 4 great grand children) But she is not dimwitted about it, and i always admired that her doubt with Sokka and Aang with the volcano literally lasts about 5 seconds until the volcano explodes.

    This is good, because while the villagers are some of my favorite in the series (next to the avatar day citizens) they are not characters. Sokka and Katara are, so either way I’m invested, in a way, in how they will react to this fortuneteller, and I’m surprised how well they were able to not be preachy about their positions by just keeping the characters in character. I don’t want Mike and Bryan to take a stance because I HATE when creators talk through their characters and make that character their mouth piece. But does the episode itself take a stance? I think so.

    Both views are played to the extreme and both sides can get a good laugh at the others expense. Katara and Sokka are also presented with the others viewpoint and are forced to realize that maybe their views could be in question. Katara hears the volcano and sees it erupt, Sokka sees that Aunt Wu was technically right because they stepped into save the town.

    And here’s where the episode title and character herself comes to glue the two sides together. Aunt Wu believes in her craft, but she also is aware of free will and the power of others to shape our own destiny. Both can go hand in hand in this episodes view, “just as you [Aang] shaped the clouds, you have the power to shape your own destiny.”

    That message was always so great to me, and has stuck with me since I was a kid.

    I am a faith believer, I believe in God, I believe in predestination (or in this episodes phrasing of that concept, Fortunetelling), but I also believe in free will and that both of those things go hand in hand. We are predestined by our free will. And while Aunt Wu (or God) can predict it, how we come to that set conclusion is because of our choice to pave the path towards it.

    Aang and Katara:

    While I mostly agree that there really isn’t any reason to drag out the relationship when its pretty clear that they are going to get together, I’m at least appreciative that they are willing to take time to have these episodes in each season to build on their relationship with a three episode arc. And each one is entertaining in my opinion and in many spots, “cute”

    (Their little arc being: The Fortuneteller establishes the idea of a relationship in both their heads. The Cave of Two Lovers has them confront the idea and even partake in a bit of it (with semi flirtatious comments and in the dark kissing). And finally The Headband basically has them embrace the idea and solidifies its inevitability with their dance scene.)

    AND THEN THEY ALMOST RUIN IT WITH THAT DUMB STUPID FREAKING SCENE IN THE EMBER ISLAND PLAYERS!! MIKE AND BRYAN WHY!!!

    but i digress

    Hybrid Animals:

    I know the concept itself is silly but in practice i think it gives Avatar: The Last Airbender this amazing distinction from other fantasy worlds. Instead of creating their own creatures (which they do with spirits) they combined actual creatures into one. Its such a simple, and easy, concept but I haven’t found a show that has done this and so closely sticks with the joke, that I could never imagine the avatar world without them! I know you hate them (if your old reviews are anything to go by) and that’s fine. I just think they are a harmless and very entertaining idea. I never felt alienated or like the writers were putting dumb inside jokes into the show like I did with the Ember Island Players. The hybrid animals just remind me another reason I love Avatar, in that it is shameless about the fact that sometimes it just wants to be a little bit silly.

    “Kangaroo island eh? I hear that place is really HOPPIN!”

    This is something I think Korra tried to hard not to be but then fell flat. When it did try silly things it seemed like the show was doing them despite itself and then shuffling back into a corner awkwardly, ashamed its spoke up.

    Glad to have you back Marshall! Great read as ALWAYS.

    Please Reply

    December 14, 2015 at 7:42 pm

  3. drew

    This is good! You could write for the AV club!

    December 14, 2015 at 8:34 pm

  4. Ian

    Hey marshall, been a while since last you posted. Hope things are going well. Just wondering, are you in college? Thats the only thing I could think that would take up all your time. But if it’s something more don’t worry about explaining. Just waiting for the next great retrospective post

    January 8, 2016 at 11:43 pm

  5. Rosemont

    I found a really good video on Korra’s shortcomings on intertextuality by the way:

    October 1, 2016 at 6:37 pm

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