My retrospective review for the “Winter Solstice” episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender won’t be posted until next Saturday. By then I’ll have actually had the time and energy to work on it. This week has been crazy busy, culminating on Saturday with the wedding of a good friend of mine. It’s out of state, so I’ll be away for the entire weekend. Once I get back, I can resume my work here. I was hoping I could get this one done in the midst of all this, but it just wasn’t working out. I’d rather put it off and give it the proper due than try and rush this thing (especially for these episodes, two of the best in Book One and in the entire series).
Speaking of proper due, I haven’t been true to my word in responding to my commenters on the days I established. I swear I read all of them, and they’ve all been insightful in one way or another. For instance, latenightscribe’s last few comments taught me all about head writer Aaron Ehasz’s ideas for the Book Four that never happened because of the production of the live-action trilogy (that also never happened) , and how “shipping” created rifts in the writers’ room. The behind-the-scenes drama of Avatar and Korra is becoming just as interesting–if not more so–as the series themselves. I may write something on this in a post separate from the retrospective when I have the time.
For now, sit tight and I’ll be back next week with the retrospective on the two-part “Winter Solstice.” All I’ll say about them now is that they reminded me just how wonderful Avatar really was. This retrospective would not be nearly as tolerable if I had to watch Avatar and especially Korra straight through on their own. Even a terrible episode of Avatar is more inspiring and forward-thinking than any episode of Korra past Book One, so I’ll gladly sit through Korra every other week if it’s means watching Avatar again.
Bolin likes Korra, but Korra likes Mako, but Mako’s with Asami, but Mako actually likes Korra, and nobody likes Bolin.
- As is well known by now, Messieurs DiMartino and Konietzko have a weakness for teenage romantic melodrama, love triangles, and all that jazz. They attempted to fit it into Avatar—there would be a love triangle between Aang, Katara, and a boy named Toph—but that idea was annexed after head writer Aaron Ehasz argued that Toph should be a girl. That brilliant move saved us a lot of grief and created one of the most memorable characters of that series.
- With Korra being written solely by DiMartino and Konietzko, and with no Ehasz around to turn Bolin into Boleen or Mako into Makorina, they were free to inject all the corny romantic nonsense they wanted in their twelve-episode mini-series.
- They certainly go all out. Instead of the traditional love triangle, we get a love square, between Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami. Korra has eyes for Mako, but he’s already in a relationship with Asami. He does like Korra a bit, though, but for the sake of the Fire Ferrets, he refuses to date a teammate. This doesn’t phase Bolin, who sees no problem with trying to get Korra’s attention. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know that she’s only into his brother.
- Korra gets some “healthy” advice from Tenzin’s wife Pema on how to properly confess your love to a man who happens to be in a relationship with someone else. Here’s the catch: you have to make sure that, through no fault of your own, the relationship in question isn’t actually working out. This is bad news for Korra, since Mako and Asami seem to like each other just fine (although Mako does make an off-hand comment that suggests he’s only in it for the money).
- When Mako rejects Korra’s advances, she gravitates towards Bolin, whose own affections border on desperation. They do seem to have a great time on their “date” together, and apparently have a lot in common. Mako knows better, though: she’s just using Bolin to make him jealous (which he disguises as concern for his brother’s feelings being hurt).
- All of this comes to a head when Mako somewhat timidly admits he has some affection for Korra, so she moves in for a kiss. Unfortunately, Bolin catches this and runs away crying like a little girl.
- All of this romantic mischief nearly costs them their chance to play in the Pro-Bending finals. Before, they were a pretty darn good team, not stepping on each others’ toes, and even doubling each others’ efforts to be an unstoppable force. Once Mako and Korra start going at each other’s throats, however, the team dynamic falls apart, and Bolin, unaware of the romantic tension, steps up and wins them the next match.
- Unfortunately, after the infamous kiss, no one’s heart is in the game. Mako even seems ready to give up and try again next year (which is a great attitude to have when your girlfriend’s largesse is the reason you made it this far in the first place). Mako and Bolin get knocked out of the ring, and Korra saves the day with a miraculous three-in-one knock-out. Looks like our heroes are going to be in the championship match after all.
- That means they’ll be up against Tahno and the Wolf-bats, the reigning champs for three years straight. Tahno is a pretty boy who comes complete with a set of fan girls and cronies whenever he hits the town. If he’s a parody of someone or some character, it’s lost on me. In any case, it’s a good thing the Fire Ferrets have resolved their romantic differences, because they’ll need to stay focused to beat Tahno, who wins his Pro-Bending match off-screen and in less than a minute.
- Asami remains oblivious to all of these romantic antics going on behind her back. She’ll find out soon enough.
- The Pro-Bending sequences, as usual, are well-executed and pretty entertaining, even when the romantic antics begin to eat away at the team dynamic of the Fire Ferrets.
- It was nice to see Bolin, who usually doesn’t have anything substantial to do, step up and win the tie-breaker for the team, especially since he notices Korra and Mako just aren’t on their A-game that match.
- For as little screen time as he gets in the episodes (and the series as a whole), Tahno is an amusing character. Did you know he was voiced by Rami “Mr. Robot” Malek? I didn’t!
- Korra and Bolin’s date was short and sweet, even if it ultimately ends with Bolin being heartbroken. And while we’re on that subject, I’ll admit that Bolin’s crying fit, while mean-spirited, was pretty funny. Maybe not as funny as Charlie Kelly’s reaction when his beloved Waitress revealed she slept with Danny DeVito instead of him in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but still pretty funny.
- Funny as it is in its own right, in the context of the episode and the series as a whole, that moment is intolerably cruel. It may be the lowest point in the series, on par with the moment when Aang suddenly appears and gives Korra her Bending back, and for a similar reason: Korra is as undeserving of this act of mercy as Bolin is as undeserving of this act of cruelty.
- The comparison to the similar scene in It’s Always Sunny is no accident. Charlie wasn’t exactly innocent in that whole ordeal (which is why his tearful reaction is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious), whereas Bolin was completely innocent: he genuinely liked Korra and was totally committed to starting a relationship. Asami is also innocent in this reckless game, but for more nefarious reasons (which won’t be clear until episode seven.)
- Contrast this with Mako, who the episode implies only started dating Asami for her money. And Korra’s attraction to Mako never receives an explanation of any kind, unless DiMartino and Konietzko were fully committed to the “all girls like bad boys” train of logic.
- Also consider the scene where Korra discusses her romance problems with Jinora and Ikki (which should let you know the maturity level we’re dealing with here), and eventually Pema. While both younger girls dish out their own versions of “love conquers all” wishful thinking, and Pema relays her own anecdotal advice, at no point does anyone ever ask Korra why she’s so in love with Mako. Nor does anyone discuss the ethics of pursuing a man in a relationship. (Both of which I’d almost expect from Jinora, since she’s apparently the smart one.)
- Instead, we have Pema essentially give Korra license to confess her “love” to Mako, since it worked for her and Tenzin. Of course, for no other reason than dramatic effect, she doesn’t outright say who she stole Tenzin from (nor what her lot in life was before meeting Tenzin, but never mind), just so they can surprise us in the next episode when we find out that it was Lin Bei Fong.
- By the way, what was the point of casting someone as uniquely funny as Maria Bamford as Pema, who has absolutely nothing worthwhile to do in the entire series (let alone anything funny)? Granted, Bamford has been a Nickelodeon staple since the 90s (ex. CatDog), so it makes some sense. Then again, Bamford was funny in those shows. This is just a waste of talent. (Jill Talley, another very funny lady, was similarly short-changed in The Boondocks.)
- The worst part about all of this is just little Korra herself suffers as a consequence of her poor decisions. By all accounts, she’s the absolute worst offender and the main instigator in this romantic nonsense, from leading Bolin on with their “date” to antagonizing Mako with lines like, “…when you’re with [Asami], you’re thinking about me, aren’t you?” This is the behavior of a sociopath, not the protagonist of a children’s program.
- But Korra faces no repercussions for any of this. She does apologize to Bolin after their last Pro-Bending match, but his reaction is so nonchalant that she might as well have said nothing at all. More to the point, the time to apologize (to Bolin and Mako) was in the Pro-Bending ring, when their lack of team work damn near cost them the game. Then they could have set their differences aside and won together as a team again, which frankly would have been the much more positive message for children.
- Instead, Mako and Bolin are booted and Korra wins the match on her own, because she’s such a Strong Female Character™. I’m not opposed to this victory so much as I’m frustrated that it came with no character growth or introspection of any kind. Imagine if they’d given Korra a moment to examine how her attempt at a forced connection with one teammate at the expense of the other drove both men away from her, leaving her and her alone to fix the problem, and in her determination to face the music, would have found the inner strength and resources to knockout all three players at once!
- It wouldn’t take much extra work. Just one of those cool 360 camera shots (which they do twice in this very episodes) showing Korra all by herself facing the three other players and ending with a determined expression on her face (similar to Katara’s shining moment of maturity back in “The Desert”). But I suppose that’s a bit too simple and too sophisticated a solution for a couple of writers who allowed their fans’ obsession with character relationships to poison their own intuitions as storytellers.
- And frankly, I think that is really what this all comes down to: DiMartino and Konietzko, and their turbulent relationship with their own fandom. And a lot of that has to do with shipping, a topic I’ve tried my best to avoid, which is all but impossible when you’re dealing with Avatar and Korra.
- Long story short, back in the days of Avatar, you had fans wanted Katara and Zuko to be together instead of Katara and Aang, and you had fans who wanted the opposite. The feud apparently bled into the writers’ room, with DiMartino and Konietzko and others aiming for Katara and Aang, and Aaron Ehasz and others aiming for Katara and Zuko. The series’ finale made it clear which side won, but just in case it wasn’t clear, for the following comic convention, the crew made a special video mocking any bizarre character pairings, including Katara and Zuko.
- Does any of this really matter in the grand scheme of things? Not in the slightest, and DiMartino and Konietzko should have known better than to have taken so seriously what should have only been a fun topic of discussion among fans. Not only did they take it a little too seriously, but they allowed it to negatively influence their writing process.
- Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m willing to bet that the forced pairing of Mako and Korra was an attempt to pander to those fans who wanted Katara and Zuko to be together, and—in its negative impact on the rest of the characters like Bolin and Asami—prove once and for all what a “toxic” influence the two have on each other.
- In any case, it didn’t work. No one liked the pairing, no one tolerated either character’s terrible behavior, and frankly, no one cared whether Korra got with Mako or Bolin or Asami or Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice. All anyone wanted was a good story well-told, and the forced and unnecessary romantic antics were nothing but a drain on everyone’s time and energy, be it the audience or the animators. Unfortunately, DiMartino and Konietzko were still flying high on the good will created by Avatar, so whatever they wanted, they got.
- And let’s be absolutely clear about something: Korra was supposed to be DiMartino and Konietzko’s bid to be taken seriously as filmmakers. After the fiasco with M. Night Shyamalan and The Last Airbender, Korra was their chance to prove that they could still provide the goods and be true players in the Hollywood game. Lord knows they got major support: from major acting talent like J.K. Simmons and Steve Blum, to the often brilliant animation from Studio Mir of South Korea, to the utmost enthusiasm from the Nickelodeon executives—to the point that they got the go-ahead for four seasons right after Book One finished airing—DiMartino and Konietzko had everything going for them.
- And they blew it. All for a few low blows at the fandom that helped create their success. Such self-destruction tendencies would lead to lower ratings, and eventually to Korra being taken off the air entirely before the end of its run. And meanwhile, Shyamalan has recently managed to make something of a comeback with The Visit and Split, movies that managed to connect with audiences in a major way, thanks in large part to their sheer commitment to telling their story in the most effective and entertaining way possible. If only DiMartino and Konietzko had the same discipline.
I can remember watching this episode back when it first aired, and afterwards feelings like it was a completely pointless episode in a series with only twelve-episodes. In hindsight, maybe for DiMartino and Konietzko, this episode and all the ilk spilled from it was the point, and the vastly more interesting Amon and Equalist plot was just a means to that end. Pretty sad really. Needless to say, it’s all downhill from here. At least we get one last gasp of brilliance before the series completely derails itself.
Next week: Avatar: “Winter Solstice, Part 1 & 2”
In the span of three episodes, Aang and the gang travel to three different villages, have three different adventures, and meet at least three memorable characters. And Katara loses her mother’s necklace.
- Unlike other American animated children’s programs—most of which are just animated sitcoms for kids, or “kidcoms”—creators DiMartino and Konietzko envisioned Avatar as a true fantasy epic, using the episodic medium to tell a single, coherent narrative, complete with expansive worldbuilding and overarching character development.
- As a by-product of that ambition, Aang and the gang spend every episode travelling to a new location and meeting new characters (allies and villains alike) on their quest to help Aang master all the elements and defeat the Fire Nation. The benefits are obvious from a storytelling standpoint, but from an animated television production standpoint, this could be a nightmare: every episode demands new character designs, new locations and backgrounds, new props, new voice actors, etc.
- That Avatar holds together as well as it does is a testament to the dedication and hard work of DiMartino, Konietzko, and the rest of the Avatar crew, most of whom probably never dreamed that they’d be working on something so challenging and so rewarding of their passion and creativity, let alone something so different from the usual “kidcom” stuff. Nickelodeon deserves some praise for allowing the team enough creative freedom to develop a series so radically different from their standard fare (at the time, though, they were looking specifically for their own fantasy-adventure franchise to bank on the popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s another topic for another time).
- “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The King of Omashu,” and “Imprisoned” establish what would be the typical pattern of an episode of Avatar (at least until Book Two, when they started to get real weird with it), which goes as follows: Aang and the gang travel to a new location (perfect worldbuilding and art direction opportunities), where they meet either an ally or foe who’ll present them with a conflict to be resolved before the end of the episode—most likely with a last-act action sequence full of awesome Bending—before they leave to go somewhere else.
- In “Warriors of Kyoshi,” they go to Kyoshi Island—Aang wants to ride the elephant koi and impress Katara—where they’re ambushed by the island’s inhabitants, specifically the all-female Kyoshi Warriors. Only when Aang proves himself to be the Avatar do the island’s residents relax and welcome the gang with open arms.
- Aang loves the adoration of the islanders, and wants to stay for a while. Katara, however, wants to leave soon to keep Zuko off their trail. She also finds Aang’s behavior around the villagers to be vain and childish, which Aang interprets as jealousy. Meanwhile, Sokka—humiliated to have been defeated by “girls,” the Kyoshi Warriors—wants to learn some moves and techniques from the Warriors, if they’ll forgive his initial ignorance.
- The gang ends up overstaying their welcome, because Zuko does eventually appear, and he immediately proceeds to burn the village in order to get to Aang. Realizing that Katara was right and that he inadvertently put the villagers’ lives in danger, he and the gang fly away on Appa (but not before Aang stops the fire and saves the village by spraying it with water from the mouth of a giant, ferocious sea monster).
- In “The King of Omashu,” they travel to the city of Omashu, which has a crazy, intricate sliding mail system that our heroes ride like a roller coaster. They’re caught by security and brought before King Bumi, who’ll only let them go on the condition that Aang completes three challenges of his design. The point of the challenges is to teach the Avatar to always think outside the box, especially if he’s going to be defeating the Firelord. Did I mention that Bumi is an old, old friend of Aang’s from one-hundred years ago?
- Finally, “Imprisoned” takes our heroes to a coal mining village being ruled over by the Fire Nation, since they use coal to fuel their war ships. In this village, Earthbending is strictly forbidden (which is odd, because you’d think that would help them mine more coal, but never mind), and anyone who gets caught is shipped off to a prison built on the water far from land, guaranteed no Earthbending. However, with a little ingenuity from our heroes, the imprisoned Earthbenders revolt and free themselves, resolving to take back their village from the Fire Nation.
- Unlike the previous two episodes, this episode revolves around Katara and not Aang. She’s the one who befriends Haru, the Earthbending boy who gets imprisoned after he saves an ungrateful old man from being crushed by a collapsed coal mining tunnel. She’s the one who resolves to rescue Haru by also getting herself arrested for Earthbending, thereby getting taken to the same prison. She’s the one who attempts to inspire the down-trodden Earthbenders to stand proud and fight for their freedom (to no avail). She’s the one who refuses to leave the prison without helping these people reclaim not just their freedom, but their fighting spirit.
- And what does she get for all her troubles? In the midst of the prison chaos, she loses her mother’s necklace, the only possession she has by which to remember her deceased mother. To make matters worse, at the end of the episode, it’s found by Zuko! (In an alternative timeline, this would be definitive proof that he and Katara must be meant for each other, but let’s not even go there.)
- With the exception of “Imprisoned” (the best of the three, and a mostly good harbinger of things to come), these episodes are light as a feather, goofy and meandering, almost completely devoid of seriousness and substance. Is that a bad thing? I certainly used to think so, but the way I see it now, the seemingly aimless nature of these episodes perfectly match the temperament of our main character, Aang. And once the stakes are raised by episode eight, and our hero becomes more focused and motivated, so do the episodes. Pretty clever, eh?
- Until then, “lightweight” doesn’t automatically equal “bad” (as it will with the infamous “Great Divide”), and watching Aang bask in all that attention from the village girls is pretty amusing (as is Katara’s obvious annoyance with him). Besides, he does learn his lesson after Zuko arrives and nearly burns the village down, so it wasn’t entirely pointless either (unlike a certain divisive episode that we’ll deal with when it comes).
- Speaking of unexpected character growth, Sokka shows us a much more mature side to him than we’d been led to believe he had. He gets his butt kicked by the Kyoshi Warriors and then asks their leader Suki to forgive him and to teach him to be a better warrior through their principles. This is a much more altruistic message than the kind of “girls are better, deal with it” impression you sometimes get with The Legend of Korra, where the male characters, with few exceptions, tend to be either incompetent or evil.
- You know what else you’ll find in these episodes that’s lacking in much of Korra? Respect for the elderly. One of the few pleasures of “King of Omashu” is watching King Bumi, who’s over a hundred years old, best Aang with every single one of his challenges. The moment when Aang chooses to challenge Bumi in a fight—and the old man tosses off his robes to reveal he’s in better fighting shape than all three of our heroes combined—is the funniest gag in the episode. Don’t mess with crazy King Bumi!
- In “Imprisoned,” the show makes a point of showing just how old most of the Earthbending prisoners are, and how much their will to fight has been crushed by both their imprisonment and their age. And yet Katara still believes in them, and pushes for them to fight back even before she, Sokka and Aang bring them the coal to actually fight back with. As weak as they may be, once Haru, one of their own, instigates the riot and is nearly killed, they immediately jump to his aid, and soon every single one of them is kicking ass.
- There are lots of great little touches like that in “Imprisoned,” including a fantastic guest appearance by George Takei as the posh and smarmy prison warden. The prison itself is a clever creation, showing us just how thorough the Fire Nation is with its plans for world domination.
- I also love the elaborate gag involving Katara’s fake Earthbending, which peaks when the Fire Nation guards think it’s actually Momo that’s Earthbending. Good ol’ Momo!
- Foaming Mouth Guy. Yeah, I know, he’s one of the most iconic and most memetic characters in all of Avatar, and that he was originally supposed to just faint, and that his seizure was an animated ad-lib by Korean animator Ki Hyun Ryu (who’d go on to co-direct Book One of Korra), and I know most of the fans love, love, love Foaming Mouth Guy. I don’t get it. Why is this non sequitur of a man having a seizure supposed to be funny? It’s not acknowledged by any of the characters nor does it even get a simple reaction shot (which can save even the stupidest gags). No, it just comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere just as fast. To make matters worse, it follows a much better, much funnier gag involving Aang and a stupid marble trick he tried to impress Katara with earlier. (Hmm…maybe that’s why the seizure man’s overreact is funny.)
- Speaking of iconic characters that everyone loves but I don’t, the Cabbage Man (“My cabbages!”) is…kinda silly, but at least he’s not offensive like the Foaming Mouth Guy. I don’t understand his deal here, though. Is he a cabbage salesman? Before entering Omashu, the guy gets his cabbages thrown off a cliff because they’re rotten, but then he goes inside Omashu and has more cabbages? Did he buy them in Omashu? What?
- Also, remember how it said the meandering quality of the episodes cleverly matched that of Aang’s attitude at the moment? Yeah, it’s clever, but not much else. The episodes can still drag if they meander too much. Not “Warriors of Kyoshi,” that episode is pretty solid. “The King of Omashu,” though? Damn near filler. The premise, which is way too silly for its own good, would probably be fine in a lesser children’s show, but in Avatar you start to think, “Wasn’t this show about a kid whose entire race of people got slaughtered during a hundred-year war?”
- Don’t even get me started on the animation of “King of Omashu.” Seriously, what was DR Movie’s deal with Avatar? The show is no more and no less complicated than your average “real” anime. (I just saw their name credited in One Punch Man, so clearly they’re no slouch in the drawing department.) Did they initially just write off Avatar as another silly American project?
- Then there’s Katara’s utter determination to save the incarcerated Earthbenders, complete with a passionate, impromptu speech, which is NOT a low point in and of itself—what borders on cringe is redeemed when the speech appears to fall on deaf ears—but I want to bring it up because it sets an unfortunate precedence for Katara’s character as someone who is pathologically, neurotically, unquestionably good. It can get annoying, and the show is usually self-aware enough to call her out on her overbearing behavior. When it’s not, you get horrid episodes like “The Painted Lady,” of which “Imprisoned” is an unwittingly forebearer. (Then again, if I’m going to curse every early episode for a worse later addition it inspired, I might as well curse all of Avatar for giving way to Korra, and that just won’t do, will it?)
- While we’re on the subject of Katara’s speech, do you remember the running joke in “King of Omashu” where every horrible pun and joke was followed by the sound of some random guy coughing? If you listen closely at the end of Katara’s speech—after which she expects the Earthbenders to rise up and fight—I swear you’ll hear the exact same random guy coughing. Now that’s clever!
It took six episodes, but Avatar is finally starting to gain momentum: the concepts and the world are starting to make some sense, and we’ve gotten to really know and like our main characters. It’s the next two episodes, though, that will really kick the show into gear and transform Avatar into the amazing and engaging series we all know and love. Stay tuned!
Next week: Korra: “The Spirit of Competition”