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!
How did Aang end up frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years? Why is Zuko so obsessed with capturing the Avatar, and why does he get absolutely no support from the Fire Nation? Where did Zuko get his scar?
All these questions are answered in “The Storm,” one of the most important episodes in the Avatar storyline. We’ve had eleven episodes to warm up to the cat-and-mouse game between Aang and Zuko, and now we finally get to know their individual backstories. These days, most cartoon characters are lucky to get a personality, let alone a backstory. When they do, it’s usually a cynical attempt to manipulate us into caring about poorly animated toy commercials. Here, however, the backstories actually deepen our understanding of the characters and gets us more invested in their emotional journey. It’s almost like what happens in a real story!
Among other things, we learn that Aang found out that he was the Avatar at too early an age: typically, the new Avatar doesn’t find out until they’re at least sixteen years old, when they’re emotionally mature enough to handle the news and the responsibility. Aang had to be told at the age of twelve because, as the Airbender monks observed, the Fire Nation was in the early stages of declaring war on the rest of the world, and they needed Aang to get a head start on his Avatar training.
Aang is reasonably flustered by this news, but the worse is yet to come: suddenly, his friends no longer want to play with him (they coldly reason being the Avatar gives him an unfair advantage), and the monks decide to separate him from Monk Gyatso, his mentor and only friend. And so, Aang flies away into the night on Appa. They get caught in a terrible storm, but thankfully, Aang’s Avatar State kicks in and safely freezes them both in a giant iceberg. (Why it didn’t rush them to the surface, as we’ve seen it do twice so far, is never explained, but it’s just as well: clearly the Avatar State knew something Aang didn’t.) And frozen they remained until “The Boy in the Iceberg,” which is where we came in.
Meanwhile, in Zuko’s lifetime, he was the prince and thus destined to be the new Firelord. Unlike Aang, his eagerness to fulfill this great responsibility becomes his downfall. While sitting-in during a war meeting, he speaks out against a dreadful plan to coldly sacrifice the lives of young soldiers so that the older soldiers could gain the upper hand. While Iroh agrees that Zuko was in the right, it was the wrong time and place for him to voice his opinion, and his punishment is an Agni Kai with the Firelord. His father, that is.
Zuko’s pleas for forgiveness fall on deaf ears, and not only does his refusal to fight earn him his distinctive scar–Zuko’s harrowing scream remains one of the most chilling moments in the series–it gets him banished from the Fire Nation. His father will only take him back and restore his honor if he finds the Avatar. This is, of course, intended as a fool’s errand designed to shut Zuko out permanently. But the ever-literal-minded Zuko is just foolish enough (or rather, optimistic enough) to take his word, and has been searching for the Avatar ever since. “The Boy in the Iceberg” was a drastic turning point in both his life and Aang’s.
Aang and Zuko’s back stories are expertly told in flashback by Aang and Iroh respectively. In Aang’s case, he has to explain to Katara why he’s so filled with shame for running away in the first place. In Iroh’s case, he has to articulate to Zuko’s poor crew why the boy is so stubborn and seemingly heartless. Katara and Iroh essentially provide an outside, but sympathetic perspective on their tales. Katara reasons that, if Aang hadn’t run away, he would have been killed during Sozin’s Comet, and how could he have saved the world then? Iroh reasons that even though Zuko is so narrow-minded, he ultimately means well. Besides, given the circumstances, the Avatar’s return is the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time. It gives him hope.
The rest of the episode is pretty typical by Avatar standards—Aang saves Sokka and an old fisherman during a terrible storm, and Zuko chooses the safety of his crew over recklessly pursuing the Avatar—but given extra heft thanks to our new understanding of Aang and Zuko’s motivations. In the end, the past is the past. What matters is what they choose to do now. For Aang, that means saving the world. For Zuko, that means capturing Aang and thus stopping his from saving the world—as you can see, despite our new sympathy for Zuko, he’s still technically a villain; Aang may have found his direction in life, but Zuko is still a drifter, doomed to wander between the winds.
“The Storm” is a frequently found on most Avatar fans’ Top Ten best episodes, and it’s not hard to see why. Of course, any episode could have followed “The Great Divide” and would have seemed like genius in comparison. If that episode shook your faith in Avatar, “The Storm” will completely restore it. It’s that good.
There is a line of dialogue that no one ever brings us when talking about “The Great Divide,” but that pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with this episode. When the entire group—consists of our heroes, the Gan Jin, the Zhang, and canyon guide—finally reaches the end of the Great Divide, Aang says the following:
As soon as we get out of here we can eat…
The crux of this line is the “we can eat” part. Eat what? The canyon guide specifically told them to dump all their food before going into the Divide, and as far as Aang knows, that’s exactly what they did. Or did Aang miss that crucial piece of information? Or did he simply forget?
He couldn’t have, because when it’s reveal that the Gan Jin and the Zhang did bring food, he is absolutely furious. But if they weren’t going to eat the food they brought, then what convinced Aang that once they got out of the Divide, they could eat (and immediately, at that)? Was there a restaurant just on—or even nearby—the other side of the Divide that Aang knows about? If that were the case, wouldn’t it have benefitted everyone if he just told them about it in the first place? That at least would have provided extra incentive for them not to bring food. As far as I know, no such place exists. So what the fuck is Aang talking about? Aang either wasn’t listening or he’s full of shit, and neither speaks well for him as a person. And this is the guy who’s supposed to save the world!
This single line of dialogue has thoroughly convinced me that DiMartino and Konietzko and company knew just how bad “The Great Divide” was. And I don’t mean after the fact—after all, they give it a harsh shout-out in “The Ember Island Players”—I mean during production. Wouldn’t you suspect that after writing all the scripts, they realized that “The Great Divide” was just not up to snuff (but had to produce it anyway)? Don’t all the bizarre and idiotic choices made in this episode seem like an attempt to alleviate their own boredom? Maybe they realized that their initial premise had little-to-no promise, and that nothing would save this episode. They probably knew that “The Great Divide” would be a noose around they neck for the entire rest of Avatar’s run on television. That little joke in “The Ember Island Player” was their way of assuring us that they were embarrassed by the episode, too.
“The Great Divide” is widely considered the single worst episode of Avatar, and I mostly agree (though I find “The Ember Island Players” to be worse for less obvious reasons). In a rather perverse way, I’m glad that “The Great Divide” exists. Strange as it may sound, “The Great Divide” serves as a better yardstick from which to measure Avatar’s greatness than another cartoon, even a contemporary one, would have.
On one hand, this is a true testament of Avatar’s singularity, since what makes a good episode of Avatar is vastly different from what makes a good episode of, say, Star vs. The Forces of Evil (a fine show, just less ambitious and more sitcomical). On the other hand, a terrible episode of Avatar is virtually indistinguishable from a terrible episode of most other kids’ shows. When a show as original and intelligent as Avatar somehow manages to produce an episode as stupid and careless as “The Great Divide,” you immediately take notice.
How could this have happened? The answer may be implicit in the episode itself.
The opening establishes the overall “message”: Sokka and Katara disagree on something (it doesn’t matter what), and Aang forces them to reach a compromise for the greater good (it doesn’t matter how). The rest of the episode is a failed attempt to make this textbook morality less hollow than it already is.
Then we’re introduced to the Great Divide itself, which is clearly modeled on the Grand Canyon, right down to the typical American boredom with it. Before our heroes simply fly right over it on Appa, the two tribes of refugees show up. Both of them need to get across the Divide, but they hate each other (it doesn’t matter why) so much that they refuse to share the canyon guide. Aang forces them to compromise for the single day that it will take them to cross the Divide.
The two tribes are the “civilized” Gan Jin, who are clean, proper and dressed in white, and the “barbaric” Zhang, who are dirty, crude and dressed in brown. Beyond that, there is no attempt to give them any discernible personality. They exist collectively as a plot device, and not a single member of either tribe emerges as a human being. Then again, giving the warring tribes some humanity would probably take too much time and effort than could be accomplished in a single twenty-two-minute-long episode. Why waste such effort on an episode nobody wanted to work on in the first place?
If anyone had to be written with some humanity, it should have been the canyon guide. He’s an old Earthbender who takes people through the Divide, apparently for no pay. He should be the most interesting character in the episode, but instead he’s a total bore. When the Canyon Crawlers break his arms, he turns into a paranoid lunatic. Not without reason, though: with his Earthbending gone, there’s little to no chance of the group getting out of the Divide. This should create suspense, but since we don’t care about the fates of these two tribes, it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t help that the only reason the guide’s arms were broken in the first place was because of the tribes’ idiocy.
The canyon guide’s only rule for going through the Great Divide was that they cannot bring any food with them. Food attracts Canyon Crawlers (a hybrid animal that’s a cross between a spider and a crocodile), so they have to eat as much food as they can and then dump the rest. Both the Gan Jin and the Zhang bring food anyway. What’s the point of relying on the canyon guide if you’re not even going to listen to him? No one even brings up the fact that their selfishness and stupidity cost the canyon guide his arms and nearly got them all killed. (The Gan Jin don’t even think to offer him compensation for the damages. And you know they’re loaded!)
Since the tribes can’t along even for the greater good of their own survival, Aang splits them up and tasks Katara and Sokka with watching over the Gan Jin and the Zhang respectively. You’d think splitting up the group would be a terrible idea, but given the circumstances, it’s still a terrible idea. Not that anyone seems capable of rational thought in this episode. For example, when Katara and Sokka find out that the two tribes did bring food after all, you’d think they chastise them for putting their lives in danger.
Oh wait: it turns out that Katara and Sokka have a lot in common with their respective tribes (it doesn’t matter what), so the food problem is no longer a big deal. Katara even says, without the slightest hint of irony, “I guess it’s OK if everyone’s doing it.” (Mae Whitman’s straight-faced delivery of this childish dialogue is probably what got her the Tinker Bell gig after Brittany Murphy died.)
Each tribe explains their hatred of the other tribe to Katara and Sokka (and the audience). By this point in the episode, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have become so bored with their own episode that each explanation is done in an animation style radically different from the style we’re used to with Avatar. Do they benefit the story in anyway? No, but they’re a nice bit of relief after the utter predictability of the rest of the episode (the music is especially peculiar, as if the Dust Brothers temporarily took over for the Track Team).
The third-act action sequence is entirely perfunctory, except for one thing. Aang’s idea to use the food bags to both tame the Canyon Crawlers and get them out of the Great Divide is actually very clever and deserving of a better episode.
Otherwise, there are two points in this last act—both involving Aang—that finally tip the episode from lazy and lousy to downright insulting.
The first is when Aang reveals that the feud between the two tribes is based on a misunderstanding. He explains that the feud was based on a technical foul in a children’s game. Somehow, this explanation is acceptable to these silly tribes, and they immediately forgive each other. And you know what? We immediately forgive the episode for everything that came before because, as silly as this explanation is, it means the episode is almost over.
All could be forgiven and forgotten if it weren’t for the second point, when Aang reveals that all the above was a lie, and that he’d only made it up to finally get the tribes to stop fighting. It’s difficult to say what the moral is supposed to be anymore. It’s even more difficult to say whether this final twist is supposed to be funny or not (Katara’s reaction to this, on the other hand, is kinda funny). Most likely DiMartino and Konietzko and company were so fed up with how the episode turned out that they simply gave up trying to make any literal or emotional sense of the main conflict. That’s quite a way to treat an audience who’ve stuck with you for ten episodes. No wonder no one likes this episode.
P.S. In a way, one can view Aang’s lie as an ironic reflection of the Gan Jin’s and the Zhang’s lie that they didn’t bring food. It is possible to be too clever.
And since we brought up Brittany Murphy…
Among other things, Avatar is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Every new episode adds something new and usually integral to our perception and understanding of the Avatar universe, and subsequently our understanding of the overall story. This can range from a tiny plot device (e.g. the bison whistle) to a complex moral dilemma that stems from the characters’ behavior and sense of purpose. These narrative devices, when successful, deepen our understanding of our heroes’ journey by showing us precisely what they’re fighting for and not just who they’re fighting against.
“Jet,” for example, adds a touch of grayness to the story’s spectrum of morality. Jet and his merry band of hoodlums aren’t the first “friendlies” that we meet, but they may be the coolest: a gang of young, charming, reckless outcasts who live apart from society, sustaining themselves on nothing but their wits and their hatred of the Fire Nation. When you’re living through a hundred-year-war with no end in sight, people like Jet are a cancer to their enemies and rock stars to their supporters. Jet is the perfect symbol of hope, the underdog who does everything he can to change the world.
But there’s a problem. The same passion that makes Jet such a romantic figure—Katara is immediately smittened after his amazing entrance into the series—fuels a bitter racism: in Jet’s eyes, every single person from the Fire Nation is responsible for the death of his parents and thus deserves no mercy and no remorse. Even a harmless old man is just a pawn that can be taken out of the game, if necessary.
We witness this vicious attack on the old man along with Sokka, and naturally he tries to warn Aang and especially Katara about Jet’s dark side. Unfortunately, he’d already been openly critical of Jet from the start, so when he comes to them with a legitimate concern, they continue to dismiss it as jealousy. It doesn’t help that Jet, the expect manipulator, makes Aang and Katara believe that the old man was actually an assassin sent to get him (which, in Jet’s paranoid delusions, is probably true).
If things weren’t bad enough, Jet plans to flood an entire village in order to drive the Fire Nation out of the area. That the civilians will also die is nothing but an necessary evil to Jet. It is upon discovering this plan that Katara finally sees Jet for the monster he is. By that point, however, she and Aang inadvertently helped put his plan in motion with their Waterbending. Aang attempts to fly away and warn the village, but Jet manages to stop him by stealing and damaging his glider. (Aang’s fight with Jet is pretty revealing: if the Avatar can’t handle a fight with one sword-wielding teenager, how is he going to be ready for the Firelord? How many upgrades will he need before that fight?)
Luckily for the village, this episode belongs not to Aang, but to Sokka, and he manages to evacuate the village. (He gets a lot of help from the old man that Jet attacked.) Sokka started out as the butt of the joke in the first half of the episode, but once Jet reveals his true colors, he’s the hero in the second half. Voice actor Jack DeSena plays both sides very effectively, finding the perfect balance between stoicism and idiocy.
Voice actor Crawford Wilson, on the other hand, doesn’t quite bring the charm and menace necessity to bridge the two extremes of Jet’s personality. The episode suffers as a result, since the evil, murderous Jet is feels emotionally disconnected from the charming rouge we first met (during Jet’s more sinister motions, Wilson’s delivery is too contained and self-conscious to convey genuine rage). This disconnection makes Jet less of a character and more of a plot device designed to demonstrate the innate virtues of our main heroes by comparison.
Voice acting not withstanding, Jet is an intriguing character, and thankfully he returns in Book Two, adding a bit more depth and given him a satisfying character arc. “Jet” demonstrates the show’s willingness to explore moral dilemmas that most kids’ shows probably wouldn’t touch, especially on an episode-by-episode basis. “Jet” brings an element of darkness to the series that stays with it to the bitter end.
Avatar continues its winning streak with “The Waterbending Scroll,” the most blatantly comic episode in the series since “The King of Omashu.” But whereas that episode was marred by its own pointlessness, “The Waterbending Scroll” never loses sight of the overall story or its characters, even as they swashbuckle with a crew of silly pirates. This is easily the funniest and most entertaining episode of the series thus far. It’s also one of the most accessible episodes; you don’t need to be an expert in Avatar lore to enjoy this one, and that’s because the relationships of all the main characters are so perfectly clear and utilized. You don’t have to know how Waterbending works to find amusement in Katara’s escalating jealousy of Aang’s innate talent for it, especially since she’s supposed to be the one teaching him. (She finally blows up at him mid-way through the episode, and even with Aang’s reaction—or because it—it’s one of the biggest laughs in the series.)
The way that Zuko and Iroh factor into the plot is borderline sitcom. Iroh loses an important game piece and forces Zuko to make a pit stop at a marketplace by the water. The punchline: the piece was in Iroh’s sleeve the entire time. Had the rest of the episode not been up to snuff, Iroh’s and Zuko’s individual reactions to this news—Iroh with a sense of humor, Zuko with furious anger—would have easily made it all worth it.
As fun and as funny as “The Waterbending Scroll” is, it feels a little too lightweight for its own good. So while certain things do carry over into later episodes (including the titular scroll, Aang’s bison whistle, Katara’s necklace, etc.), the episode as a whole feels very inconsequential. This may be because the episode contributes little to our gradual understanding of the Avatar universe, and also because “The Waterbending Scroll,” more than most episodes, calls back to DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s background in sitcoms and more typical kids’ show fare. If the “Winter Solstice” felt like a step towards something new and exciting, “The Waterbending Scroll” feels more like a regression into sitcom territory, albeit high quality sitcom. The result is a genuinely funny episode, but nothing more.
Retrospective: Chapter Seven and Eight: “Spirit World: Winter Solstice, Part One” and “Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice, Part Two”
Avatar: the Last Airbender is a show that requires a lot of faith, patience, and understanding from its audience. While Avatar is hardly an inaccessible show, its accessibility is largely dependent on the acceptance of certain stylistic choices and tendencies that might be off-putting to the average viewer.
The most obvious example would be the undeniable anime influence on the story and the visual design. While not necessarily “mainstream,” American viewers have certainly warmed up to anime quite a bit over the last few years (e.g. thanks largely to John Lasseter of Pixar fame, most of the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli share the same retail space as Frozen, The Lion King, and the Tinker Bell movies; whether they’re actually selling is another question). Back then, though, anime was still very much a niche culture and usually only held in high regard by nerds, freaks, connoisseurs, or other animators. The latter made sporadic attempts to adapt anime sensibilities into a few different series, some of which (e.g. The Powerpuff Girls) were more successful than others (e.g. Teen Titans). Avatar was the latest and most successful merging of anime and American cartoon sensibilities, if not entirely seamless.
Still, even those who embraced the overall style would have to come the terms with the mythos and continuity of the overall Avatar story, which all but requires you to watch it from the very beginning. That’s asking a lot, especially coming from an American television animation children’s program. The few instances of continuity that do occur in such programs were typically quite trivial (a la recurring characters, running gags, themes, etc.), and rarely played any part in a greater narrative. With its ambitious narrative structure and commitment to a story universe grounded by certain rules and customs, Avatar definitely distinguished itself from other kids’ shows (although even this is a nod towards the comparatively denser and more complex narratives found in most anime).
And yet, having embraced both the style and the narrative, the viewer has to overcome the last and potentially deal-breaking obstacle to enjoying Avatar: the sporadic shifts in quality from episode-to-episode. Surely every series has one or two bad episodes, but since most children’s programming rarely bothered with continuity, it could never affect the overall quality of the show. With Avatar, however, almost every episode adds to our understanding of the story’s narrative and universe. To get the most out of Avatar means willingly suffering through a few toxic episodes, phases of grotesque animation, lazy writing, and lapses into the clichés and formulas of the kind of kid’s shows that Avatar purports to be better than.
(Most children can look right past these all of these technical flaws, making them the ideal, if not the only, audience for much of Avatar since the show never had the broad, all-encompassing appeal and Zeitgeist timing of, say, Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings films.)
As always, though, it’s important to note that Book One largely consists of DiMartino and Konietzko and company figuring out the right tone for the show, striking the perfect balance between the thrills, the laughs, the mystery, and—above all else—the emotions of the adventure at hand. Having found that balance with “Imprisoned,” they push it even further with the two-part “Winter Solstice,” giving us the best and most exciting episodes of the series thus far. It may have taken more than six episodes, but the dramatic potential inherent to the show’s premise is finally being properly realized.
As one of the quintessential set of episodes, “Winter Solstice” lays bare the primary narrative strategies of much of the series.
On the one hand, we have Aang, who as the Avatar—aka “The Chosen One”—is immediately expected to handle certain tasks and responsibilities in order to keep the world in balance (in this case, it’s stopping an angry spirit from destroying a village). While those tasks and responsibilities appear to be self-evident to most of the folks we meet in the Avatar universe, they are a constant mystery to both Aang and the audience. Since the audience rarely knows any more about the Avatar’s duty than Aang does, we can relate to him on at least some level as he navigates the trials and dangers of his learning curve. (This relatability isn’t necessarily deep or emotional, but it’s enough to make Aang’s adventures effective.)
On the other hand, we have Zuko, who knows even less about the Avatar, except that he must be captured and brought to the Firelord (his father) at all costs. Zuko’s narrow-minded obsession with capturing the Avatar—and regaining his honor—could have easily resulted in a one-dimensional villain who only existed to give Aang and friends an obstacle to overcome each episode. What makes Zuko’s side of the story so compelling this early on are the complications and setbacks he must face just to be recognized as a formidable threat. Just how interesting would Zuko’s journey be if he didn’t have to compete with his fellow Fire Nation native Commander Zhao (the kind of smug, heavily-armed opponent who would be the sole villain in a lesser cartoon)? Or what if he didn’t have the companionship and guidance of his immensely likable uncle (whose playful worldliness provides a much needed contrast to Zuko’s prideful tunnel vision)?
The plights of these two older men allow us to put Zuko’s emotional journey into perspective. Zuko may be ruthless, but he’s not a monster. He may threaten to leave his uncle behind to stay on the Avatar’s course, but when Iroh is kidnapped by Earthbenders—technically the “good guys”—he immediately goes searching for him. It’s surprisingly heartwarming to witness Zuko conscientiously put off his hunt for the Avatar in order to rescue his uncle. Commander Zhao would have just left, and that alone makes it impossible to sympathize with him. In this narrative, Zhao is allowed to go to the villainous extremes that Zuko—due to his recklessness, his lack of resources, and his loving uncle—cannot. That Zuko carries on anyway makes him the more interesting character, and his conflict with Zhao underpins just how much of an underdog he is even among his own people.
Comparatively, Aang’s story is much more conventional, and more prone to careless and predictable writing. As the protagonist of a fantasy action/adventure series for children, Aang is essentially doomed to succeed and save the world from annihilation. The best Aang-centric episodes deal with how this twelve-year-old boy must quickly grow up and take on the heavy burden of keeping the world in order, which means figuring out exactly what the Avatar is supposed to do. Episodes that don’t have this drama at its center are usually saved by the trials faced by other characters (mainly Zuko, Katara, or Sokka), clever plotting, humorous character interactions, and fun action sequences. (In the absence of any of those things, you get “The Great Divide.”)
“Winter Solstice” is the first true Aang-centric episode and one of the best. He continues to feel guilt for disappearing a hundred years ago, and thus allowing the Fire Nation to wreck havoc on the world. In this episode, the Fire Nation has burned down a significant chunk of a once-majestic forest. This desecration of nature sends Aang into a depressive stupor, although Katara pulls him out of it when she shows him the seeds left unharmed by the fire. The original trees are dead and gone, but the forest inside lives on.
Why the Fire Nation specifically burned this forest is immaterial; what matters is that it is the home of the angry spirit that is destroying the nearby village and kidnapping the locals. Aang is tasked with dealing with the beast, and only after clearly assessing the situation–and a detour that temporarily traps him in the Spirit World and get in touch with Avatar Roku’s spirit animal–is he able to appease the spirit, and in the same way Katara cheered him up earlier in the episode: by showing it the unharmed seeds from the forest and promising that it will grow back in time. Out of gratitude, the spirit leaves in peace and even returns all of the kidnapped villagers (including Sokka) in a manner surely inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The Spirit World is one of the new concepts introduced in these episodes. Somehow, the Avatar is able to navigate both the Spirit World and the real world in order each one in check: what goes on in either world affects the other. In this case, the Winter Solstice occurs, temporarily allowing the Spirit World and the real world to function on the same plane of existence (this is how the forest spirit was able to physically destroy the village from time-to-time).
This is great news for Aang: as Avatar Roku’s dragon had show him, the Winter Solstice may present his only opportunity to get in contact with Roku and figure out what to do next as the Avatar. Unfortunately, the Solstice is fast approaching, and the Fire Sage’s temple—the only place where Aang can talk to Roku—is not only far away, but its within Fire Nation territory; going in there is basically a suicide mission for Aang and Zuko (as a banished prince, Zuko can’t stop his people from attacking him even as he’s on the Avatar’s trail).
The trip to the Fire Sage’s temple and the chase that ensues between our heroes, Zuko, and Zhao constitutes nearly the entire second episode of “Winter Solstice.” Whether our heroes are being shot out of the sky by flaming projectiles or being chased by elder Firebenders, there’s not a single dull moment, which is an impressive feat for an episode that’s essentially one long action sequence (a feat that would be repeated in Book Two with the perfectly titled “The Chase”). It certainly helps that this time around, the animation of DR Movie has bounced back significantly after the abysmal work in their last episode “The King of Omashu.” The aerials scenes are especially wonderful, as Appa dodges fireballs that fly at them over the clouds.
The action is made all the more suspenseful by the limited amount of time the kids have to reach the temple and get inside the alter so can meet Avatar Roku just as the Solstice happens. The strict time restraint brings out the best in everyone. One of the Fire Sages turns out to still be loyal to the Avatar, and takes our heroes straight to Roku’s chamber. When the chamber door requires five blasts of Firebending, Sokka gets to demonstrate his technical ingenuity with makeshift Firebending bombs. The bombs don’t work, but Katara intuits that, since it looks like it worked, the other Fire Sages will think Aang somehow got inside the chamber and will open it themselves.
With one thing or another—including the appearance of both Zuko and Zhao that nearly derails their quick thinking—Aang does get into the chamber and manages to speak directly to Avatar Roku, who informs him that, at the end of the summer, Sozin’s Comet will return. Upon passing the planet, this comet made the Firebenders of the world more powerful, and the Fire Nation used that power to kill all the Airbenders and declare war. A hundred years later, Firelord Ozai plans to use that power again to finally win the war. Can Aang master all four elements well enough to be able to defeat the Firelord before the comet returns? Or will Zuko and/or Zhao capture him first?
And with this plot point, the show finally kicks into gear. While the story up to this point was rather vague and meandering—”stop the Fire Nation and bring balance to the world” is hardly specific enough to be that engaging—the deadline and the possible consequences imposed by Sozin’s Comet finally gives the series a clear narrative drive and focus. What began as a slightly above-average kids’ show might just prove to be something more. Something special. Something worth sticking with to the bitter end.