Retrospective: Avatar: “Winter Solstice”
The ones where Avatar goes from a curious novelty to an exciting show.
- Up until now, Avatar could easily be described as original, humorous, action-packed, colorful, and a lot of fun, if not tremendously outstanding. From the two-part “Winter Solstice” on, however, Avatar proved it could be something that the vast majority of its contemporaries were not: emotionally engaging.
- I don’t want to sell the first six episodes short, though: they served their purpose, and did a commendable job of establishing our main characters and giving us a general idea of the world they inhabit. Had Avatar continued down this fun, meandering road, it still would have been a good show, albeit a trivial one, little more than a curiosity. What “Winter Solstice” does—and does in such an unexpected and effective way—is finally give us a reason to care about the outcome of this ongoing drama.
- This is largely thanks to the further development of the character of Aang. We know that he’s essentially a good kid, if a goofy and fun-loving one. More importantly, we know he’s the Avatar, destined to save the day and bring balance back to the world. But how exactly? Aside from mastering the elements, we don’t know yet. And neither does Aang, but until he figures it out, the Fire Nation will continue to destroy forests and terrorize innocent people to win the war. This is a great source of guilt and anxiety for Aang, as he blames himself and his lack of Avatar-know-how for the world’s problems. He wants to make things better, and he wants to fulfill his duty as the Avatar anyway he knows how; his resolve is so strong that we, the audience, want to see him succeed. And just like that, Aang goes from a fun kid character to a relatable hero whose journey we’re willing to follow to the bitter end.
- And that’s just in the first three minutes of Part One! The rest of the episodes follow through on Aang’s determination, from pacifying an angry, village-destroying Spirit to flying straight into Fire Nation territory to make contact with Roku, the previous reincarnation of the Avatar.
- Upon making said contact, the true conflict of the series is finally made clear: Aang must master the elements and defeat the Firelord before summer, when Sozin’s Comet returns.
- As Sozin’s Comet briefly passes through the planet’s atmosphere, a Firebender’s power increases tenfold. A single Firebender powered up by Sozin’s Comet could probably wipe out a small village all by himself. An army of Firebenders, however, could wipe out an entire race of people. That’s precisely how the Fire Nation were able to slaughter all the Air Nomads, and then declare war on the remainder of the world. That was a hundred years ago. Now that Sozin’s Comet coming back, the Fire Nation plans to once again use its devastating power to end the war once and for all. Once they do that, the world will be so damaged that the delicate balance would be lost forever. In other words, Sozin’s Comet does for the Fire Nation what the Ark of the Covenant would have done for the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (more likely known as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to younger viewers).
- In summary, Aang has less than a year to master the elements—something that normally takes years of practice—and stop the Fire Nation before they destroy the world. Can he do it? He has to! In narrative speak, we’ve reached the point of no return, and Aang’s journey has finally attained a sense of urgency and excitement that gives weight and meaning to every event and episode that follows—well, almost every episode—but without totally sacrificing the light-hearted charm of the first six episodes. How’s that for balance?
- Aang’s story isn’t the only one that garnishes a new layer of meaning. In the meantime, we’re still following Prince Zuko on his single-minded crusade to capture the Avatar and restore his rightful place on the throne. In Part One, however, there’s a major setback: Zuko’s wonderful uncle, Iroh, is captured by Earthbending soldiers and being transported to Ba Sing Se—the great Earthbending capital that Iroh failed to seize back in his military days—most likely to be executed. At a crucial juncture, Zuko has a choice: follow the Avatar’s trail to the nearby village he’s likely in, or rescue his uncle from certain death.
- It’s a bit uncertain whether Zuko would have actually caught Aang had he chosen the former, but Iroh would have definitely lost his limbs had Zuko not saved him in the nick of time. This is a relief to the audience, because at this point, Uncle Iroh is the most lovable and badass character in the series. And he’s technically a villain, but thanks to his easy-going personality (and the disarming voice performance by the late great Mako), we love him all the same. And the fact that Zuko chose to risk losing the Avatar’s trail to save him? Well, I’ll be damned, maybe he’s not such a one-note villain after all. Underneath all that bitter teenaged angst, the kid actually has a heart! (Very much unlike Commander Zhao, who never evokes much sympathy because he has none for others).
- All the same, though, Zuko may not be heartless enough to sacrifice his uncle to gain back his royalty, but he is still the “bad guy” since, at this point, he’s trying to stop Aang from saving the world. It’s this ambivalence that gives Zuko the most complex and interesting character arc in the series, to the point where it’s debatable whether he is the real protagonist of the show.
- Well, gosh… I mean, the entirety of both episodes are high points within the series itself. Neither episode has much in the way of filler: every single narrative thread has a neat little payoff, each scene segues seamlessly into the next, and every plot development engages us further into the weird and mystical world of the Avatar universe. With such effortless storytelling on display, perhaps it’s no coincidence that part one is the first episode of the series credited solely to head writer Aaron Ehasz. (Co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino takes the reigns in part two, and while that particular episode lacks the emotional development of part one, it’s not one iota less entertaining.)
- I’ve already mentioned Aang’s subtle yet effective transformation into rebel with a cause in the first three minutes of Part One. Within those moments, however, the seed of the episode’s resolution is planted as well (no pun intended): while Aang pouts in the middle of the burned-out forest, Katara cheers him up with an acorn, symbolic of the fact that eventually the forest will grow back. Aang uses the exact same lesson to pacify Hai Bai, the spirit who is destroying nearby villages and who just happens to be the spirit of that same burned-out forest. Content with this symbol of hope, Hai Bai stops destroying the village, and also releases all of the people he kidnapped (including Sokka). Clever!
- Before that, Aang’s attempts to calm Hai Bai are hilariously ineffective, resulting in Sokka getting kidnapped and Aang getting trapped in the Spirt World, where no one in the mortal realm can see or hear him. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because he gets in touch with Roku’s spirit animal—a dragon—who takes him to the Fire Temple in the Fire Nation, the one place where he can talk to Roku during the Winter Solstice (the time where the boundary between the Spirit World and the mortal realm temporarily disappears). Through lovely time lapse visuals, the dragon reveals us that Aang has less than a day to get to the temple, or else miss his one and only sure-fire chance to see Roku.
- This is all perfectly ample set-up for Part Two, which is essentially one long and elaborate chase sequence between Aang and his friends, Zuko and his crew, and Zhao and the Fire Nation navy. Highlights include Appa avoiding fireballs above the clouds, rescuing Sokka after he falls off of Appa, and—in his most defining moment of awesomeness to date—Aang decimates an incoming fireball with a single air kick!
- Speaking of awesome, can we talk about Uncle Iroh? At the start of the episode, he’s relaxing in his makeshift hot bath before he gets captured by Earthbending soldiers. In captivity, however, he still leaves enough clues of his whereabouts to keep Zuko on his trail, and he causes enough mischief—while still bound in chains–to slow the soldiers down so Zuko can catch up with them. As a grand finale, he and his nephew tag team all the soldiers and take every single one out in less than a minute. Badass!
- Another character who gets to shine is Sokka (in Part Two, anyway; remember he gets kidnapped in Part One): at a crucial moment, he uses his technical genius to create fake Firebending to try and open the sanctuary door in the Fire Temple. And even when that doesn’t work, the evidence of the blast is still proof enough to convince the Fire Sages that they did open the door, prompting them to use their own Firebending to actually open the door for Aang. Clever!
- Those Fire Sages provide yet another obstacle for our heroes. Having abandoned all hope of the Avatar returning to restore balance, they’re quick to attack Aang and friends the moment they enter the Fire Temple. Thankfully, one of them is a turncoat who still has faith, and he helps the gang get to Roku’s sanctuary. This entire subplot is just another one of the neat little touches that gives the Avatar universe some lived-in believability. (In the end, after Aang and friends escape once again, Zhao has all of the Sages arrested for treason, despite only one of them consciously betraying the Fire Nation.)
- The entire climax is incredible, with Roku saving the day—by protecting Aang from a concentrated attack by Zhao and his army once the sanctuary doors reopen, and by destroying the Fire Temple—allowing everyone to escape with their lives. Even Zuko gets away (which I only note because, even way back before we knew he’d eventually turn good, knowing he was allowed to live was, shockingly enough, a relief)!
- Uh, not many this time around. Granted, Part Two is clearly animated by DR Movie, who will always be a step below JM Animation in terms of overall quality (but the animation in Part Two is still very, very good).
- I guess Katara doesn’t have a whole lot to do in either episode. Well, that’s not entirely true. She helps Aang out of his stupor at the beginning of Part One, and she flies out on Appa to search for Aang and Sokka when they’re missing. She even turns Sokka’s failed Firebending in Part Two into a positive. Then again, she also has the worst line in either episode: “Please don’t go, Aang. The world can’t afford to lose you to the Fire Nation. Neither can I.” Ugh…
- Speaking of Katara, there’s a small moment in Part One that I’d never noticed before. While Aang is attempting to get Hai Bai’s attention (and failing), Sokka wants to go out and help, but Katara assures him—without much conviction—that Aang will figure out what to do. She then closes her eyes and a weak smile appears on her face.
- It’s a tiny detail that perfectly falls in line with Katara’s feeble, unfounded optimism that Aang will somehow defuse the situation despite not having any idea what he’s doing. Once Sokka gets kidnapped and neither her nor Aang returns the next day, her optimism is all but gone, and she’s left sitting in the village gateway waiting for them to come back.
- Katara’s arc in Part One—and the whole series, I suppose—amounts to a test of her faith in Aang’s abilities and the positive outcome of things. On the one hand, that’s admirable, and to her credit, she doesn’t completely lose hope and simply mope around until Aang gets back—she does go out on Appa to look for them. On the other hand, what if Aang fails? That would mean losing yet another family member—and this time, not even because of the Fire Nation—and that probably would plunge her into utter despair.
- Thankfully, things do turn out alright, largely thanks to her innate positivity (remember her acorn pep talk to Aang is ultimately what Aang uses in return on Hai Bai); combine that with her brother’s innate skepticism, and they’re pretty much the perfect allies for the Avatar, aren’t they? (Maybe that’s another problem with Korra: none of those characters have complimentary traits that combined into something greater than the sum of their parts.)
The “Winter Solstice” episodes really were the game changer, the ones that really made you sit up and take notice that Avatar was going to be a different kind of animated series, and one worth keeping up with each week. These episodes are to Avatar what “She Loves You” was for the Beatles’ entire career: everything up to this point was good, I guess, but now it’s like, “Wait a minute! These guys are GOOD! Really good!” And except for a few sporadic low points (“The Ember Island Players” is pretty much Avatar’s “Revolution 9”), it would just keep getting better and better. Leaving just one question: which Beatles’ subsequent solo career does Korra sync up to the best (and don’t you DARE say Ringo’s)?
This Saturday: Korra: “And the Winner Is…”