To call Avatar: the Last Airbender an ambitious show would be an understatement.
Typically, most American animated children’s programs were designed as caricatures of sitcoms and action serials—which hasn’t changed much over the years except now the cartoons are more sophisticated and self-aware. Avatar, being inspired by anime and young adult fantasy novels (especially the Harry Potter series), was conceived from the start as a sprawling epic that would stretch for three seasons, complete with elaborate world-building, intricate and overlapping plotlines, and an episode-to-episode continuity that most kids’ show wouldn’t even attempt. How could you not marvel at the sheer audacity of it all?
Was Avatar’s narrative ingenuity merely novelty, or did it consistently sharpen our understanding of the Avatar universe and how it affected Aang’s journey?
Mostly the latter. Except for a few lapses into egregiously self-reflexive humor (“The Ember Island Players”), the Avatar universe unfolds and expands gracefully alongside the main narrative, sprinkling new information about the story world that perfectly compliments the dramatic needs of the given episode. The closer the worldbuilding ties into the plot, the better the episode. That’s a difficult balance to maintain even in a live-action series.
“Bato of the Water Tribe,” while not the best display of this balance, nonetheless provides a quintessential example.
The big dramatic question mark of the episode: will the gang (Aang, Katara, Sokka) split up? Will the bond they forged over the course of fourteen episodes be broken by a set of unfortunate circumstances? How could the story possibly proceed from there?
In hindsight, perhaps it was a little naïve to believe that DiMartino, Konietzko and company ever seriously considered splitting up our heroes before the first season had even ended. Still, they did their best to make the audience believe that such a split could happen under the right circumstances.
In this case, Katara and Sokka are offered the chance to see their father again.
If you recall from the very first episode, their father, along with all the other men in the Southern Water Tribe, left their home to help defeat the Fire Nation. The war rages on, and Katara and Sokka haven’t seen their father in years. They have no idea whether he’s dead or alive.
And then suddenly, out of the blue, enters Bato of the Water Tribe, and one of those very men who left to fight the war. It’s not enough that this is the first member of the Southern Water Tribe that our heroes have encountered (and the first one we’ve seen in the series): he’s also a friend of their father. AND he’s expecting a message with the map to his location.
In the course of one evening, Katara and Sokka not only find out that their father is still alive and still fighting, they’re also presented with the opportunity to be physically reunited with him! Too good to be true? There must be a catch…
Ah, yes. They’re still tagging along with that twelve-year-old Airbender who needs THEIR help to fulfill HIS destiny. Thanks to some choice words from their grandmother, Katara and Sokka have unwittingly found themselves on Aang’s cosmic payroll with the unenviable task of making sure that he’ll be in prime shape when it comes time to face the Firelord. Essentially functioning as Aang’s de facto parents, the two siblings handle their daunting responsibility astonishingly well.
It must get exhausting, though, having to take care of Rip Van Twinkle Toes and his archaic behavior. Not to mention that his adventures thus far have gotten them in numerous life threatening situations. Why wouldn’t they be tempted to ditch him and spend some time with their native people, if for only a little while?
And yet, they refuse the offer, for Aang’s destiny supersedes their homesickness. They know that to help Aang is to help put an end to the war, which is the true source of theirs and the rest of the world’s suffering. Just imagine how many more families would be reunited after the war’s end.
Not that Aang had enough faith in his friends to draw such an altruistic conclusion. Ever since Bato arrived, Aang has been left out of just about every conversation. The history between Bato and the two siblings runs too deep for outsiders, let alone a twelve-year-old monk that missed one-hundred years of historical and cultural developments in light of the war. Under such alienating circumstances, it’s only natural that Aang would presume that his friends would suddenly leave him.
Thus, when Aang finds himself in possesses of the map to Sokka and Katara’s father, he disposes of it by hiding it uncomfortably in his robes.
Why not just burn it, or toss it in ocean? It’s not as if he needed to keep it for future reference. Frankly, he only keeps it so he can give it to Katara and Sokka later on when he confesses his treachery. With the map in their possession, the offer is once again proposed to them, and out of anger towards Aang, they take it. Can you imagine if Aang had to tell Katara and Sokka that not only did he withhold this valuable information from them, but he destroyed it as well? Their differences would be irreconcilable, and the plot would stop dead.
This plot contrivance dampens the effective of the Aesop, the moral of which is that families, biological or otherwise, stick together no matter what. Would Sokka have been just as empathetic to Aang’s anguished abandonment if the map had been destroyed or lost forever? This isn’t just an inconvenience to Katara and Sokka (and their emotions): without that map, Bato would have no way to reunite with his brothers in arms. The fear and consequences of abandonment—intentional or otherwise—are a very real concern in the Avatar narrative.
Still, the strength of the moral falters under the clumsy contrivances needed to move the episode’s plot. One of them is, interestingly enough, Bato himself, who never truly emerges as a character of any intrigue or discernable personality. Whether the writing or the insipid voice acting is at fault, Bato’s inherent lack of appeal forces you to begrudgingly come to terms with his necessity to the plot: his purpose is to coax Katara and Sokka into leaving Aang. Perhaps he can defeat the Firelord on his own, perhaps not, but at least they’ll get to be with their kin before Judgment Day. On paper, this is a tempting offer. On screen, it barely registers as a dramatic possibility. “Bato of the Water Tribe,” as a result, is a noble effort that falls just short of greatness.
Luckily, no one remembers “Bato” for its complex moral dilemmas. Most likely, they remember it for June, a one-off character and bounty hunter who helps Zuko and Iroh track down the Avatar. June, a tough young woman who’s all business, became a popular enough character that she received another appearance in one of the four series finale episodes. Using her pet shirshu—a giant mammal with an incredible nose and a paralyzing tongue—she is able to follow Katara’s scent from the necklace Zuko retrieved in “Imprisoned.” (While the necklace disappeared under questionable circumstances in “Imprisoned,” it’s since gone on to be one of the most effective plot devices in the series.)
At this point, any episode that heavily involves both Aang and Zuko guarantees an exciting action sequence between the two sides, and the climax of “Bato” does not disappoint. Aang and Zuko fight for ownership of the necklace; Appa fights the shirshu; Iroh continually flirts with June (which, thanks to Mako, is not as creepy as it sounds, and is in fact the episode’s comic highlight); Katara and Sokka recover from the shirshu’s paralyzing tongue; and the perfume-making nuns save the day by using their strong scents to overload the shirshu’s senses and make it go “blind.” It’s a fun sequence that just about makes up for the sloppiness of the main plotline.
The episode manages to connect with previous episodes in other clever ways. When June, Zuko, and Iroh travel on the shirshu to trail Katara’s scent, they encounter two different one-off characters: the crazy old herbalist and her cat from “The Blue Spirit,” and Aunt Wu from “The Fortuneteller.” Neither character ever makes another appearance, but that’s all right.
We even get an inside look at the some of the rituals and traditions of the different cultures in the Avatar universe. One of them is ice dodging, a rite of passage for Southern Water Tribe men. Sokka never got his chance to prove himself in the traditional manners—thanks to the war—but Bato makes up for it by having our heroes perform the task with rocks instead of ice. Because this sequence works neatly with the main plot—for example, Aang’s position in this task is defined as one of “trust,” which only makes the poor kid feel more guilty—it’s a nice glimpse into life in the Avatar universe and a good plot mechanism.
These moments do a convincing job of illustrating how vast and diverse the Avatar universe can be. Such moments would pop up more frequently as the series continued, as the show built and expanded on its fantastic narrative foundation with each episode. The very next episode will focus almost exclusively on Bending, providing a new perspective on what was previously just an excuse for awesome, violence-free action sequences.