Promises, promises. I’m honestly thinking of abandoning the idea of these self-imposed, frequently missed deadlines altogether. On second, I won’t do that, because how else will I learn to discipline myself?
In any case, I want the “Winter Solstice” retrospective up by Wednesday, followed by “And the Winner Is…” on Saturday. Then after that, the next Avatar reviews–which will encompass four episodes–will take two weeks to do a write-up on. (From now on, the general aim will be one week for one to two episodes, two weeks for three to four.)
So I haven’t given up, even if “And the Winner Is…” was, admittedly, a bit demoralizing. Suffice it to say, it’s no longer the shining beacon of competence within the ruins of Korra that I once felt it was. Aw well.
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.
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”
Aang returns to his home in the Southern Air Temple only to discover that the Fire Nation really did wipe out his entire race. Meanwhile, Zuko must capture the Avatar before his rival, Commander Zhao, does.
- Just in case the title of the show didn’t make it clear, Aang is most definitely the last Airbender on the planet. Knowing that the next Avatar in the cycle would be reincarnated as an Airbender, the Fire Nation made sure to eradicate every single one of them in the hopes of stopping the Avatar from foiling their plans for world domination. Ruthless is an understatement.
- It would be one thing if Aang, having returned to his home after a hundred years of being frozen in an iceberg, discovered that the Southern Air Temple was still brimming with life and activity, let alone with Airbenders. What he, Katara, Sokka, and Appa find instead is a decrepit ghost town, and the only initial signs of life are the tall weeds growing from the cracks of the crumbling structures.
- For their part, Katara and Sokka expected as much from the evil Fire Nation, and do their best to brace Aang for the brutal truth of what happened to his home and his people. Aang, the eternal optimistic, refuses to give up hope that there’s someone still around after all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary.
- They do find one living creature: a flying lemur that the nature-loving Aang vows to make his pet and that a starving Sokka vows to make his dinner. In the end, there’s a nice compromise: the lemur, which they name Momo, brings the hungry kids an assortment of fruits from God knows where, and is graciously made a part of their oddball family before they leave the Southern Air Temple.
- Other than Momo, there’s not a single soul left in the temple. Who is Aang looking for specifically? According to a flashback, Aang’s old mentor and best friend, Monk Gyatso, informed the newly anointed Avatar that when he was old enough, he’d be able to enter the Air Temple sanctuary and meet someone who would guide Aang through his Avatar training.
- Aang and his friends do find the sanctuary and go inside, discovering over a hundred statues that represent all of the Avatar’s past lives. It is here that we learn about the Avatar cycle, which goes Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and repeats. Aang’s predecessor was a Firebender named Avatar Roku (a fact Aang just knows by looking at the statue, since there’s no writing of any kind on the statue), which explains why the Fire Nation knew the next Avatar would be an Airbender and killed all of them. Including, much to Aang’s horror, good old Monk Gyatso.
- It’s not that Gyatso is dead that sends Aang over the edge (it’s been a hundred years since Aang last him, and he was pretty old then); it’s that his skeletal remains are surrouned by the armor and corpses of dozens of Fire Nation soldiers, leaving no mystery as to how Gyatso must have died.
- It’s all too much for the poor little Airbender, and for the second time in the series, he goes into the Avatar State to unleash his fury. Had Katara and Sokka not been there to calm him down, he probably would have destroyed the entire temple. Luckily, they bring him back to his senses by reassuring him that while he may have lost his original family, he’ll always be a part of theirs. With that, they continue on their journey.
- Meanwhile, Aang’s Avatar State sets off a chain reaction around the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has finally returned. This worldwide phenomenon is a major blow to Zuko’s plan to keep the Avatar’s return a secret. Or, at least, it would be if his secret hadn’t already been figured out by one Commander Zhao.
- Commander Zhao is a snaky, condescending man who lives to inflate his own ego and humiliate those he sees as beneath him. Zuko is an easy target, having been banished from the Fire Nation and only allowed to return when he captures the Avatar. If Zhao catches him first, then that’s just one more insult he can shove in Zuko’s face. How proud these Fire Nation folks must be that a grown man gets off on putting down a teenager with enough of a burden on his shoulder.
- And so this strong-headed prince and this overconfident commander engage in a Firebending duel known as an Ag Ni Kai. Zuko barely manages to emerge victorious, thanks in part to Uncle Iroh, who yells fundamental advice from the sidelines.
- What matters most, however, is that Zuko decides against delivering the finishing move on his fallen opponent. It’s Zhao, who in a fit of sore loserdom, tries to attack Zuko when his back is turned. Again, Iroh saves his nephew, and delivers some choice words to Zhao before he and Zuko depart to their ship.
- The tense encounter between Zuko and Zhao (and Uncle Iroh) are easily the best and most intriguing scenes in the episode. At this point, it’s pretty clear that Aang and friends are the “heroes” and the Fire Nation is the “villain.” But this episode throws some ambiguity our way by presenting us three different variants of “bad guy.”
- Zhao is the most traditional (and least interesting) villain of the three, and would likely have been the main baddie along with the Firelord in a lesser children’s show. But Zuko and Iroh? Iroh doesn’t seem all that villainous at all, with his love for tea and his nephew. Zuko, of course, wants to capture our hero Aang, but he’s hopelessly outmatched by Zhao in terms of resources and connections. Yet, as Iroh puts it, he’s a much more noble and honorable person than Zhao, even as an exiled prince. (And can a person who’s been exiled from the bad guys’ homeland really be all that bad?)
- One really has to give props to DiMartino, Konietzko, and company for further developing and humanizing the main bad guys. How many children’s shows even attempt to do that as early as episode three of any series?
- The Ag Ni Kai is also a fantastic demonstration of Firebending. This is one of the many ways in which the series makes concept of Bending more grounded and palpable by connecting it to actual martial arts principles and techniques. Scenes like this really benefit from the consultation of Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, hired to provide insight on the real life forms which inspire each element of Bending.
- As for our heroes, there are two moments in this episode that rank among the most emotionally resonant in the entire series, both of which take place just before the end credits, and both of which have to do with Aang coming to terms with the loss of his people and culture.
- The first, in which Aang says to Momo, “You, me, and Appa. We’re all that’s left of this place. We have to stick together.” So simple. So poignant. What more is there to say?
- The second, which closes the episode, shows our heroes flying away from the Southern Air Temple. Aang and Momo watch silently as the abandoned temple disappears behind the clouds.
- Both moments are underpinned by an amazing music cue from the Track Team, Avatar’s resident music composers (and sound designers) Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman. These two have always been an integral part of Avatar’s success (and would later work on Korra), and this is just one of many standout moments. It’s little wonder fans used to beg year after year for a CD release of the Avatar soundtrack.
- Thank God the episode ends on such a soaring high note because, except for the scenes with Zuko and Iroh and Zhao, the rest of the episode SUCKS. The animation? SUCKS. The voice acting? SUCKS. The dialogue? The humor? The drama? SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS!
- That’s a bit hyperbolic (not to mention juvenile), but it’s honestly shocking how bad this episode is. I know, it’s the first season and they haven’t worked out all the bugs yet. That doesn’t quite explain how this episode came out so terribly, especially since the first two episodes weren’t that bad at all.
- Then again, those episodes were animated by an entirely different animation studio. For the entirely of Avatar’s production, the only way that Nickelodeon and the Avatar crew could fulfill their huge workload and episode order each season was to delegate the animation production to two separate studios (all stationed in South Korea). During Book One, those studios were JM Animation Co., Ltd and DR Movie. JM Animation animated the first two episodes, while DR Movie animated this one.
- The odd thing is, if you look at the two studios’ track records, DR Movie would appear to have the more impressive resume. According to their Wikipedia page, DR Movie is the only Korean studio to have a contract with Studio Ghibli. (Hell, as of this writing, DR Movie is the only one of the three animation studios that worked on Avatar to even have a Wikipedia page.) But as Avatar went on, it was JM Animation that consistently produced the best-looking episodes of the series. DR Movie even quit Avatar after Book Two and handed its animation duties to its sister studio, MOI Animation.
- So maybe DR Movie wasn’t quite sure yet what to do with Avatar, or maybe the directions they received from DiMartino, Konietzko, and company weren’t entirely clear. Whatever the case, the first few episodes they animated for Avatar are pretty bad.
- Every time Aang has to express an emotion like disappointment, reminiscing, or sorrow, he just looks sleepy. The voice performance by Zack Tyler Eisen is on-point (as it usually is), but sleepy Aang just makes me laugh.
- You know what doesn’t make me laugh? Sokka. At least not in this episode. In the past, I used to think my hatred of Sokka was entirely due to Jack De Sena’s voice acting. He can certainly go overboard sometimes, but at the end of the day, he’s just an actor doing his best to make something out of a terrible script. (Not even P.J. Byrne, the voice of Bolin and one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood today, is immune to the horrid lines this franchise can occasionally pump out.)
- The animation doesn’t do Sokka any favors either. Because he’s the comic relief, we’re supposed to believe that whatever violence is inflicted upon him is automatically funny. But flipping him in the air with an Airbending blast seems intolerably cruel coming from someone like Aang. Later, when Aang enters his Avatar state, we see Sokka get blown about twenty feet into a stone wall. He’s not knocked unconscious, and he doesn’t experience any broken bones. So why should I care if he and Katara get blown off the mountain by Aang’s windy rage?
- That entire sequence is particularly awful. These kids are hundreds of feet in the air and in danger of being blown away to their deaths by the merciless winds of Aang’s despair. Yet Katara and Sokka speak to each other about the situation like people reciting their lines for an Advil commercial. Katara immediately volunteers to attempt to calm Aang down (with absolutely no precedence of how she could possibly do that), and Sokka callously tells her that she better hurry up before they both get blown off the mountain. Is Sokka’s sudden lack of brotherly concern for his sister’s safety supposed to be funny?
- To make matters worse, the scenes of Aang and friends at the Air Temple are clumsily intercut with the scenes of Zuko, Iroh, and Zhao. It’s particularly jarring towards the end, when Aang’s Avatar state havoc is edited around Zuko and Zhao’s Ag Ni Kai. I think they should have saved the Avatar state business for after the Ag Ni Kai, that way the worldwide reveal of the Avatar’s return doesn’t undercut the tension between Zuko and Zhao (who, aside from pride, are basically fighting for the right to capture the Avatar).
- All this confusion really does undermine the main emotional point of the episode, in which Aang discovers that he really is the last Airbender left on this planet. As harrowing as this concept is in theory, within the context of this episode’s messy script and clunky humor, it rings pretty hollow (at least until the final two moments discussed in the High Points). As time goes on, the episodes will strike a firmer balance between its pathos and its humor, making for some wonderful episodes. This is just one misstep (but unfortunately not the last).
- I always wondered about that scene when Aang goes into the Avatar State, which transmits a signal to different places in the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has returned. Does this happen every time an Avatar goes into the Avatar State? Or did it only happen this time because Aang was in the proximity of the Air Temple sanctuary containing all the statues of the past Avatars? If it’s the former, why wasn’t the world alerted to the Avatar’s return back in episode two, which was the first time we’d ever seen the Avatar State activated? If it’s the latter, then I suppose it makes sense. The episode doesn’t clarify this one way or the other, which is why it still puzzles me after all these years.
- Did you know that DiMartino and Konietzko hired Jason Isaacs to play Zhao based on his performance in The Patriot starring Mel Gibson? That said, am I the only one who think that Zhao’s character design and voice performance resembles Gibson more so than Isaacs?
As we can see, Avatar has a few production hurdles to clear before it can even qualify for the title of “best American animated children’s series ever made.” The ambitious and the potential is there, at least. As Konietzko put once it, “the first season of anything is Hell.” He was referring to the production side of things, but it can be true for the audience as well. It’s a good thing children are way more forgiving of sloppy execution, so long as whatever is on screen provides enough sustenance for their imagination, and even the worst episode of Avatar has more creativity and interest than most kid’s show.
Next week: Korra: “The Revelation” & “The Voice in the Night”
Two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, discover Aang, the last Airbender and the Avatar, and decide to help him learn the elements and end the 100-year war with the Fire Nation. All the while, they’ll be chased by Prince Zuko, an ill-tempered teenage Firebender, and his loving uncle Iroh.
- Earth. Fire. Air. In the Avatar universe, Bending is the ability to manipulate one of these elements through a combination of magic and martial arts. Not everyone in this universe can Bend, and those who can are only able to Bend one element (i.e. Waterbenders, Earthbenders, Firebenders, and Airbenders). The kind of Bender you are is determined by which of the four nations you’re born in, be it the Air Nomads, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, or the Northern/Southern Water Tribe.
- There is one exception to the one element per individual rule: the Avatar is the only person on the planet capable of Bending all four elements. The Avatar is also the one in charge of maintaining order and balance between the four nations.
- There’s a problem: the Avatar has disappeared, and his absence, the Fire Nation sought complete global domination, resulting in a terrible war which has gone on for a hundred years. Where, when, and why did the Avatar vanish in this time of need? And will he ever come back to finally defeat the evil Fire Nation? All of this is relayed to us in the minute-long introduction. From then one, these first two episodes waste no time defining the main conflict of the series and setting the narrative in motion.
- We’re introduced to our three main heroes: Aang, Katara, and Sokka.
- Aang is the fun-loving twelve-year-old Airbender and the long-missing Avatar of the title (a fact he initially hides from the others for reasons that will be revealed later). When we first meet him, he’s frozen alive inside a giant iceberg that was trapped underwater in the Souther Water Tribe. Upon being freed, immediately requests to go “penguin sledding.” As Katara will remind us every episode, this kid is clearly not up to the task of saving the world, but he’s going to try with a little help from his new friends.
- Those friends would be Katara and Sokka, Southern Water Tribe sister and brother (wisely ruling out any possibility of a love triangle, a la Harry Potter). Despite being siblings, the two teenagers couldn’t be more different: she’s a Waterbender and an eternal optimist, while Sokka is a non-Bender and a skeptic (except where his manly ego is concerned). Accordingly, she warms up to Aang almost instantly while Sokka is quick to accuse him of being a Fire Nation spy.
- Aang’s sudden appearance provides a break from the monotony of Southern Water Tribe life during wartime. On the one hand, Katara and the children in her village love him for his strange foreign ways, while Sokka and the elders don’t trust him for the same reason. More importantly, for Katara, Aang is her ticket out of the Water Tribe to find a tutor who can help her reach her potential as a Waterbender (the only Waterbender in the entire Southern Water Tribe, no less). For Sokka, as long as he can do his part in stomping the Fire Nation out of existence, teaming up with Aang to help him master the elements is a sweet deal.
- Aang even has an impressive mode of transportation: Appa, the sky bison (and the most overt Miyazaki homage thus far). Imagine the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro with the utility and mobility of the Millenium Falcon and you’ll immediately understand the appeal and popularity of Appa.
- Appa is definitely as asset in the group’s efforts to reach the Northern Water Tribe, to evade the Fire Nation, and especially to escape the clutches of Prince Zuko.
- Prince Zuko has been searching for the Avatar for years, and in a stroke of luck, Zuko and his crew are exploring the Southern Water Tribe when Aang makes his entrance in the story. Zuko, along with Iroh, Zuko’s uncle and Firebending tutor, finally have a real chance of capturing the Avatar, ending their (initially hopeless) search, and being allowed to return to the Fire Nation.
- There’s a lot at stake, especially for Aang, since committing to his role as Avatar means mastering the four elements, stopping a hundred-year war, and finding the maturity to do so. All the while making time to ride the hog-monkeys.
- Like all pilot episodes, “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” have one important job: establish the characters, the world, and the drama unifying it all just enough to make us eager to see how it all plays out. And in that respect, they’re a great success, which is something of a miracle considering just how much plot and exposition is in these two episodes alone. Avatar could have easily turned into a convoluted, aimless, emotionally void mess (which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened to Korra).
- Lucky for us, these two episodes already showcase the merits of the series as a whole: good writing, a solid voice cast, and a colorful, imaginative visual style.
- There’s a good helping of humor sprinkled throughout these episodes, but it’s not of the snarky, mean-spirited variety you see in most “hipper-than-thy-parents” children’s program, or of the sitcoms-for-toddlers variety you find in those programs which mostly function to sell merchandise. This humor is good-natured and stems organically from the characters and their circumstances, which is quite refreshing.
- There are a few standout sequences. Aang and Katara’s exploration of an abandoned Fire Nation ship creates an eerie atmosphere that perfectly complements the revelation that Aang has been frozen for a hundred years (hence his ignorance of the terrible war that has all but defined Katara and Sokka’s lives).
- In “The Avatar Returns,” we get our first major action sequence, in which Aang, having been taken aboard Zuko’s ship, takes back his Airbending staff and attempts to flee Zuko’s capture. Not that the Prince makes it easy for him. Such is his obsession with capturing the Avatar that he jumps from the ship’s observation deck about twenty feet in the air, which absolutely no regard for his own safety, just to stop Aang from getting away on his glider. Determination is, in Zuko’s case, an understatement.
- This sequence also showcases the potential of Bending as a means of generating visually impressive fight scenes. In later episodes, the writers and animators will continue to top themselves with the creative ways in which the four elements can be used in a fight.
- None of this would matter, though, if we didn’t start to care for Aang and friends as they duke it out with the banished prince and his goofy uncle. Thankfully, by the end of the episodes, each character’s personality and objective is so clearly defined that we’re pretty eager to follow them on their journey to save the world from this ongoing war.
- Honestly, I can’t say there are any genuine “low points” this early in the game. One could make the argument that these episodes are a little too leisurely in their pace, and that some jokes—despite how refreshing different the humor of the show is from that of most others—are a bit too silly, and that some of the animation isn’t as good as it will be later on. Then again, how many pilot episodes—especially of the animated variety—actually compare favorably to later episodes?
- Quick: can you recall ever hearing the word “sexist” used in an American animated children’s television program before Avatar? I can’t. I can certainly recall many programs that dealt with sexism as a concept and a theme (one of the best examples being The Powerpuff Girls with the cleverly-titled episode “Equal Fights,” whose story was written by Lauren “Friendship is Magic” Faust, no less), but never one in which a character outright says the word itself.
- In the case of Avatar, it occurs in the very first episode, in the very first real scene. And it does make sense in context. Sokka, the macho warrior, instantly blames Katara for crashing their canoe, insinuating that girls ruin everything. Katara’s furious scowling of her brother—exacerbated by her Waterbending, which nearly gets them crushed by an avalanche and ends up uncovering the iceberg in which the Avatar is frozen—is certainly justified (and hilariously animated), especially she’s the one stuck doing all the Charlie Work that comes with living and surviving in an Antarctic region while all he’s off, as she puts it, “playing soldier.” She also tosses in some choice adjectives, such as “immature,” “nut-brained,” and yes, “sexist.”
- But let’s think about this moment in the context of the overall narrative. There’s been a war going on with the Firebenders for almost a hundred years, and two years prior to this scene, Sokka and Katara’s father and the other men of the village have left to fight and contribute their efforts to defeating the Fire Nation. Presumably, that left Sokka as the only “man” to look after the village and doing his share of the labor. Katara belittles his role in all this by calling it “playing soldier.” But is that all? Does Sokka not hunt? Does he not help maintain civility and order in the village? Does he not try his best to prepare the next generation of soldiers—all adorable pre-pubescent children—for the war effort against the Fire Nation?
- Or did the absence of the father and other male role models render him incompetent and unprepared for the challenge, and thus reduce him to inflating his impotent ego by making muscles whenever he sees his reflection in the water? In such harsh living conditions where survival is the name of the game, Sokka would have long been exiled to freeze in the cold if he didn’t contribute something to their well-being. (Or does his status as the absent chief’s son prevent that?)
- Do any of these questions really matter? Not really. For one thing, the scene is clearly geared in Katara’s favor, and all Sokka can do is coward in fear as her angry Waterbending nearly gets them both crushed by a nearby glacier. At no point is Sokka allowed defended his place in the village as more than “playing soldier.” He’d probably point out that he does all the hunting (by himself, no less), and Katara would even retort that he may capture the food, but she and the other women are the ones who have to actually clean it, gut it, and cook it.
- None of that matters because the point of the scene is to present Katara is a fiercely independent young woman who has the balls to call Sokka out on his sexist attitudes. That’s fine. My contention is with the use of the word itself, because its such a modern word (it didn’t exist before the 1960s) that it sticks out like a sore thumb in this Asian-influenced fantasy adventure show.
- Ultimately, my problem is that “sexist” is not something a character would say ever say in this universe—in point of fact, the word is never uttered again in either Avatar or Korra—but something that the writers wanted her to say to signal to the audience “look how progressive we are, our female character knows what sexism is and calls it out when she sees it, aren’t we so hip and clever!”
- Not hip and/or clever at all, in my opinion. Maybe in 2005 it was at least surprising, but now, it comes across more like “self-conscious” and “pandering.” Not to mention “unnecessary,” because the series as a whole handles the issue so damn well and without calling attention to itself when doing so. Here, though, not only do the writers betray their motives in such blatant, tasteless fashion, but they damn near destroy the element of timelessness that makes these kinds of stories work. (If anything, this “virtue signaling” would eventually help to destroy Korra, but it’s rather disheartening to see the seeds of destruction already planted in the first goddamn scene of the first goddamn episode of Avatar.)
Looking on the bright side, though, the show creators’ “self-conscious progressivism” didn’t apply solely to the show’s politics. Whether it was in the animation, the storytelling, the voice acting, the themes, etc., Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko fought hard to expand the limitations of what could be done in an American animated children’s television program, and for that, they should be commended, and the show they and their crew created should be praised. For better and for worse, these first two episodes are the perfect harbinger of things to come.
Next week: Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” & “A Leaf in the Wind”
(P.S. I want to apologize to everyone for not responding to their comments yet. It’s been a hectic week, and I’m still trying to find my groove with this retrospective. Thanks for sticking with me, guys, I promise the quality of these retrospectives will improve with each week.)
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.
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!