Well, I just finished it today. Consider it an unofficial response to Doug Walker’s vlog on the episode (which I haven’t seen yet) as well as a long overdue tribute to one of the masterpieces of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
– Marshall Turner
(Rating Out of 15)
(Note: if certain images are not visible, it is due to an error at piandao.org. They should be visible soon.)
As far as I’m concerned, there are three major instances in the entire finale that reach the level of brilliance and emotionality of the best episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender. And I finally get to discuss them in detail!
The Reunion of Zuko and Iroh
Of the three best moments of the finale, this is probably the one that needs the least explanation. We all know that Zuko is undoubtedly the best character in the series, with Iroh arguably in a close second, and that the relationship between the two was always the most consistently realistic, entertaining, and heartfelt. It goes without saying that their reunion after so much turbulence and inconsideration on Zuko’s part would be a joy to behold.
Zuko is painfully sincere in how sorry he is about his mistakes, but Iroh will hear none of it, as he’s merely thankful that his nephew—virtually his son—finally saw the light and returned safe and sound. It’s a beautiful Prodigal Son moment.
There are two things here that really hit me personally.
First, when Zuko initially finds Iroh, he’s sound asleep. Here is this kid, finally prepared to see his uncle again, apologize for his wrongdoings, and absolutely certain that he is unworthy of forgiveness. There’s so much suspense already, and he hasn’t even entered the tent. When he finally does, Iroh isn’t even awake to acknowledge this minute act of bravery. There’s just something so remarkably real about that.
Second, this shot.
It’s gorgeous, and it perfectly conveys the tension of this scene. We can only assume that this is Zuko’s point of view, and whether Iroh will turn around to forgive him or spit on him (hell, if he’ll even turn around at all) is unclear, even to the audience. The expression on Iroh’s face is also too ambiguous. So when he finally turns around to embrace Zuko in a hug, it’s a relief for everyone. Simply perfect. (It even ends on a nice little joke. Great touch.)
Firelord Ozai vs. the Avatar State
You know, I really do love Avatar despite its flaws–it definitely filled a void that need filling–but I often believe it’s a great show in spite of creators DiMartino and Konietzko, not because of them. It’s the same way I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas, or The Dark Side of the Moon and any given band member of Pink Floyd. Sure, they got the ball rolling, but there were just so many forces that shaped their final products that attributing their success to just one or two major players is a crime. In the case of Avatar, especially in light of Korra, I’m very reluctant to call DiMartino and Konietzko “geniuses,” as they are so haphazardly called from time to time.
That said, there is one attribute of theirs which I am willing to admit comes anywhere near the title, and that’s in their ability to generate sympathetic for the villains of their stories.
I’m not really talking about Zuko, who was always in a sort of literary limbo as far as good and evil goes. I’m talking about Firelord Ozai, Azula, and even Tarrlok and Amon/Noatak in Korra. Somehow, at the very last minute, these guys are able to prove to us that these villains are worth some emotional investment.
While I consider Azula’s breakdown the stronger example, DiMartino and Konietzko really pulled off a miracle when they made me care about Ozai, who up until this point was just a one-dimensional evildoer.
You know me: I barely care about Aang, so his final battle with a cardboard cutout of a villain was never going to move me, no matter how wonderfully the final fight is animated and executed. After a while, it gets boring seeing Aang run away or deflect a blast and then hear Ozai recite some borderline cliché proclamations of victory.
But then something happens. Aang accidentally unlocks his Avatar State and completely overpowers Ozai, to the point that it’s Ozai who must run away and Aang who chases him.
Now, there are a few reasons why this turn of events truly crosses into genius territory for me.
First, it’s just a neat reversal of fortune; second, this is no longer even a fight between equals. The Avatar clearly has more power than a Firelord, even if he is powered by Sozin’s Comet; finally, and most importantly, our sympathy is completely with Ozai for the duration of this chase.
Previously, DiMartino and Konietzko tried to hammer it in our heads that Ozai was a human being worth sparing in Parts One and Two of the finale. They expressed this through Aang, who could not accept that killing was the only answer. Intellectually, the argument could go both ways. Killing Ozai would be good for humanity, but then it would also go against Aang’s upbringing as a humanitarian and a monk.
Now consider this bit of wisdom from film critic Roger Ebert on what cinema can do:
The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best…Cinema is not very good, on the other hand, at intellectual, philosophical or political argument…If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason…
This is precisely how DiMartino and Konietzko get us to care about Ozai.
Consider what happens to Aang after he goes into the Avatar State. It’s like he’s no longer even human. He may still occupy Aang’s body, but the spirit is gone and replaced with an unstoppable*** force of destruction. Honestly, every time Aang’s Avatar State arises, it scares the shit out of me.
Clearly Ozai feels the same way, and after a failed attack, he does the sensible thing and runs away. And as he does, he exhibits an emotion we have never seem Ozai exhibit before, but is completely understandable given the circumstances: fear. It is that very fear that finally gets you to realize, “Wow, he is human after all!” And then right before Avatar Aang is about to destroy him, and you see the total helplessness and terror on his face do you think, “Sweet Jesus, no one deserves to die like that!”
Of course, they ruin it by having Aang not kill him—or rather, Ozai ruins it by reverting back to his usual boring self—but that’s just fine. Through the purest use of the power of cinema, even if for a few minutes, DiMartino and Konietzko trick us into feeling sorry for the main villain, thus driving their point home. It would probably be the most incredible thing they ever did in the entire show if they didn’t manage to even outdo that.
The Fall of Azula
Perhaps the most brilliant thing about Azula’s downfall is just how furtively it crept up on us. Of all the villains in Avatar, she was the most cunning, confident, and frightening. Her victory in “Crossroads of Destiny” seemed to imply that she was unstoppable. Sure, this being a kids’ show, we knew she had to go down somewhere. But how were we to know that her defeat involved a complete mental collapse? How could we even comprehend it would be so moving?
Frankly, I believe this is the greatest moment in the entire series, even better than the whole of “The Southern Raiders.” Great as that episode is, its impact is slightly marred by the fact that Katara’s decision not to kill the man who murdered her mother could rightfully be called “predictable” given the kids’ show principle. Additionally, the whole episode rather uplifting in its own gloomy way. This is not the case with Azula: not only was this demise unforeseeable, but its implications are much more grim. Given the fact that we never see she for for the rest of the episode afterwards, the show seems to imply that there is no hope for her. She’s beyond help, a tragic case of getting imprisoned within her own head.
To top it all off, the demise is masterfully told. Literally everything works, and everything aids in humanizing Azula. Her voice acting—courtesy of Grey DeLisle—is fantastic, her character animation is the best in the entire series*, the humor is funny, the drama is tear-inducing, the music is great, etc. There’s not a single wasted or boring part. It’s perfect, and that’s definitely something I say a lot about anything in Avatar.
I remember lot of people found Azula’s downfall unconvincing and a little too convenient. Those people are wrong. It is most convincing for a reason proposed by animation historian Michael Barrier as it relates to Dumbo:
A character’s abrupt turnabout need not be in the least unconvincing, if that character’s reality has been established before the change occurs…People…are highly complex beings who are capable of a lot of things, good and bad. If a film makes that complexity real, an abrupt change can be far more convincing than a change that occurs as the result of planting some prop…Let me point to an abrupt change in a character’s behavior at the end of a film, a change that bothers no one—a change that seems perfectly natural, in fact, because we have gotten to know the character. At the climax of Dumbo, when Dumbo is falling from that great height with the magic feather in his trunk, and Timothy is begging him to fly, we have no reason to believe—from the plot mechanics alone—that Dumbo will respond.
The entire third season had been slowly shedding the facade that Azula put up to control people until it reveals what she was all along: a spoiled, snobbish, paranoid, control freak and Daddy’s girl. Or to be more precise, as Plato would put it: a spoiled, snobbish, paranoid, control freak and Daddy’s girl with a soul.
Azula’s demise takes up about eight scenes in the entire finale**, and they’re all fantastic. Since this is technically the final review and the best part of the show, I’ll indulge in examining all of them.
The One Where Azula Gets Left Behind And Promoted to Firelord
Did Firelord Ozai know that Azula’s sanity was slipping, or did he just plan on leaving Azula behind from the getgo? Most likely the latter, because it’s not like that silly-looking armor and those Phoenix King banners were made overnight. (That little unscheduled attack on the Western Air Temple in “The Southern Raiders” probably didn’t help Azula’s case either.)
Needless to say, Azula takes it about as well as a teenage girl who was just told she couldn’t go to senior prom. This is probably the first time we ever see her argue with her father (is this the first time we see them interacting at all?!), and it would seem almost normal except for the fact that Ozai, as far as can be told, only sees his children as pawns in his path to glory. If we’ve learned anything from Zuko, it’s that Ozai’s children never really saw it that way. Luckily, Zuko saw the light and bailed. Azula was not so lucky, but continues to believe she has her father’s love.
This is most apparent after Ozai tells her that he is making her the new Firelord. Azula responds with the most innocent and grateful tone as she says, “Really?” I have no idea what it is about the way voice actress Grey DeLisle delivers that line that sends me over the edge. Is it that there’s so much sincerity and love in that word being directed towards someone who does not reciprocate at all? I’m not sure, but whatever it is, it makes me want to vomit every time I hear it; it’s one of the most subtly depressing moments in the series. Long before the actual mental collapse, Azula is already long gone.
There two more notable aspects of this scene.
First, this is the last time the old, confident and totally-in-control Azula shows up before disappearing forever. It’s when she asks her father if things are ready for their departure. This is, of course, undermined by Ozai’s change of mind, but it’s an extremely important moment that makes reminds us of just how the mighty has fallen.
Second, we never see Azula’s reaction to Ozai’s proclamation of himself as the Phoenix King. I’d like to think that she immediately realized that she was being given the short end of the stick by her promotion to Firelord, which only contributed to her downward spiral, especially her mistrust in every single human being. One can only wonder…
Azula Damn Near Turns Into Joe Pesci
Now officially begins the descent into paranoid madness. They couldn’t have started off in a more terrifying fashion.
Azula accidentally bites into a cherry bit, which is humiliating enough for anyone who’s done the same. But then she accuses the servant holding the bowl of cherry for trying to kill her before her coronation as Firelord.
There’s only one thing about this scene that confused me. Are the servants supposed to pick all the pits out of the cherries before they’re giving to royal for eating? Because that would make sense, and it would explain why the servant acknowledges it as a “mistake.” Or is this just Azula’s paranoia overriding logic? Can someone explain this one to me?
In any case, the scene is downright terrifying. This one little “mistake” appears to have damn near cost the servant her life; she’s powerless to argue with Azula’s reasoning for as to how the cherry bit got there and why, and the mixture of confusion and fright on her face is marvelously drawn. But the most telling shot in the scene is of the other servants, who know exactly what’s happening, but are just as confused and powerless to stop it.
Of course, the servants gets banished instead of killed, but holy shit! This is actually more suspenseful than Katara’s decision not to kill (name?) in “The Southern Raiders.” We know Katara can’t kill anyone (due to contractual obligations related to her “hero” status), but Azula? She killed the fucking Avatar. Why wouldn’t she kill a servant over a silly cherry bit?
I honestly don’t know if I’ve explained the emotional power of this scene well enough, so here’s this: this scene is comparable to the infamous “What do you mean I’m funny” scene from Goodfellas. You cannot watch either scene without fearing for the accused character’s life.
Azula Banishes the Dai Li
If the previous scene was scary, the next two (and-a-half) are mercifully funny.
Azula orders the Dai Li to come to the throne room simply so she can banish them like she banished the cherry pit servant. Her reasoning? It took them too long (five minutes) to respond to come to her rescue, if such were the case. You’ve got to love how cruelly logical her justification is for getting rid of them: they betrayed Long Feng even after pledging loyalty to him, so why wouldn’t they betray Azula the same way?
The punchline occurs at the tail end of the scene, when as the group of Dai Li agents leave, Azula immediately tells them to send the next group of agents to the throne room. One really has to wonder if she is just giving each group of agents the exact same speech before banishing them.
Azula Nearly Banishes the Twins
This next humorous scene has the Twins, Li and Lo entering to query about why Azula has banished practically all her servants and guards. The answer is, of course, so they can’t betray her like Mai and Ty Lee did. Naturally, Azula takes offend when the two suggest she postpone her coronation as Firelord to regain her senses. So much so that, if it weren’t for the typical twin mistaken identity, the two of them would be banished.
It’s interesting that Azula even begins to distrust her own father, believing he sent the twins because he thought she couldn’t handle the role of Firelord on her own. Remember that this is the one person who ever looked up to, idolized, and pledged total loyalty to. The fact that she’s even remotely come to doubt him really suggests just how far gone Azula is. (Even worse: considering Zuko’s escape from his father’s influence, Azula’s doubt at this point is too little too late.)
It’s also telling that Azula connects her mistrust for everyone around her with the betrayal of her two closest friends. How “close” they were is obviously debatable, but you could say that, in her own special way, Azula did kind of love them. In that sense, she made the same fatal mistake that Charles Foster Kane did: she could only accept love on her terms, and under Azula’s terms, that meant fear played a part in all her relationships. But you can win love with fear, just as you can win love with power.
Speaking of Citizen Kane, isn’t it interesting that Azula and Kane’s problems ultimately begin with their relationships with their mothers? Maybe this isn’t exactly special to either character—the mother is usually the most important figure in our lives—but as their tragedies are concerned, it’s still pretty intriguing.
Speaking of mothers…
Azula Cuts Her Hair, and It’s Very Depressing
This is where it stops being funny and just becomes sad. Granted, it’s funny that Azula blames her hair for another screw up and punishes it by cutting it off, but then it’s…not. Maybe it just hits to close to home for me. I mean, Azula really fucks up her hair, and how is she going to explain that to people? Tell them that her hair “betrayed her?” That’s just as bad as John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, during his crack addiction, carving holes into his skin, convinced that there were bugs crawling in his veins. He even tried to show Keith Richards one of them, but then exclaimed that it got away…
Anyway, it that weren’t bad enough, Azula imagines that her mother Ursa is actually there with her. But the thing is, even within Azula’s imagination, no matter how much she berates her mother, Ursa continues to express just how much she truly loves Azula.
Before I even begin to analyze this scene, I just want to praise DiMartino and Konietzko and company for the sheer audacity of this scene, and how in spite of everything, it works beautifully. This isn’t the first time a character has hallucinated or even talk to themselves, but it is the first time it’s been taken to almost Shakespearian heights. This is a total head trip moment, and one of the most purely cinematic moment in the entire series.
But all of the scenes, this is the one that finally reveals the ultimate truth about the poor girl. Her conversation with “her mother” reveals that no matter how much Azula wanted to believe that her mother thought she was a monster, deep down in her soul she knew that her mother honestly loved her, unconditionally. It’s the “unconditionally” part that Azula cannot accept. Azula always used fear to influence people and pure logic to fulfill her desires. So the fact that her mother loved her for no rational reason at all—quite unlike her father, who saw her as a means to an end—goes against everything she thought to be true. How could anyone love a self-admitted horrible person such as Azula?
And that’s the fatal flaw of Azula: she hates herself. She has no reason to love herself: she’s not a perfect Firebender, despite her immense talent and technique; she needs to scare people so they can even acknowledge her; everyone she interacts with is merely a pawn in her ascension to glory; and, as far as we know, since she can’t love her brother that way, she’d rather kill him instead.
In essence, Azula’s personal world is built solely on logic, and something as irrational as love has no real place in it.
Also, Ursa only appears in a mirror. Azula shatters the mirror with a brush to get of her, but she also gets rid of her own reflection. How symbolic…
The Incestual Ag Ni Kai Begins
So did Azula just banish all of the citizens in the area, or just her officers? I ask because this entire crater town is empty. Convenient for the following fight between Azula and Zuko, and I suppose you could say it’s just more symbolic of the loneliness that Azula’s path in life has lead her to. Even Zuko gets an audience for his eventual coronation.
This is kind of a pet peeve, but I wish Zuko didn’t spell out to Katara why exactly he knew he could take on Azula alone. (Then again, maybe the fact that it was spelled out, but then Katara still came back anyway was the point.) These two are brother and sister, they know each other well enough to know intuitively if something is wrong with the other. Zuko could quickly tell that the usually cool, calm, collected Azula is trying way too hard to intimidate him.
Admittedly, there’s not really that of note in this segment than the plot point of the two siblings fighting to the death. That’s fine. It’s still done very effectively. I cannot overemphasize just how brilliant the animation of Azula is in her final moments.
Zuko Nearly Dies
Speaking of animation, one of my friends shared a quote from philosopher Jeremy Bentham that I believe to be invaluable to anyone who wants to be an animator (or wants to create a great character):
…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
As far as character animation goes, this is one of the key questions that determines whether a character will be endearing or not. After all, the ability to suffer—and, by extension, to die—is one of the few things everyone has in common. If you can somehow fool an audience into believe that these moving lines on paper can feel and suffer, then their desires, failures and triumphs become our own; we don’t just witness their journey, we feel it.
They did it most successfully with Zuko, Iroh, sometimes Katara, and, for a brief moment, Ozai, and now they’ve done it with Azula. Her fight with Zuko—up until his sacrifice—generates rather conflicting feelings. We know she’s the villain, we know she has to lose, and we kinda know that we should be happy about her defeat. And yet…it’s sad to see her lose. I think part of this has to do with the fact that she clearly does not have the upper hand here. Unlike their last fight in “The Southern Raiders,” which was more or less a fight between equals, Zuko is the one in control. Azula is just barely able to keep up, and when she get injured, it’s painful to witness. I guarantee that if Katara hadn’t shown up to give Azula an easy target for her lightning, Zuko would have redirected it and killed his sister.
But I suppose it reflects well on Zuko that he sacrifices his own life to save someone else’s rather than take a life. It reflects well on the writers, too, that Katara’s re-appearance was subtle and wasn’t telegraphed. She just re-appears, and only Azula picks up on it and thus uses it to her advantage. In that sense, we can attribute Katara’s mistake to human error rather than lousy writing.
Azula Is Finally Brought Down, and It’s Very, Very Depressing
I suppose Katara was the only one between herself and Zuko who could bring down Azula without resorting to killing (since “The Southern Raiders” proved she was clearly incapable of it), and it’s admittedly quite thrilling to witness.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, upon first watching this confrontation, thought Katara actually froze herself and Azula in some sort of nobel sacrifice. But no, Katara just immobilized Azula long enough to simply chain her down so she couldn’t Bend, move, or destroy things anymore. It would be anti-climatic if it wasn’t so cool.
I suppose the Marxists in the audience can make some meaningful connection between Azula’s “peasant” comment and the fact that a proletariat like Katara could defeat a bourgeoisie like Azula and yada yada, oh well, whatever, never mind. As for me, I’m more concerned with what happens afterwards. After Azula is chained, after Katara heals Zuko in a teary-eyed fashion, and even after Azula attempts to assert her ferosity and dominance one last time.
It’s the moment when Azula breaks down and cries.
As with “The Southern Raiders,” I know a lot of it has to do with my personality. For example, one of my biggest fears in the world is insanity. I simply cannot bear to witness someone—not even a fictional character—lose their grip on reality so completely that they can no longer function mentally. It’s too horrifying.
But I think it goes a little deeper than that. This is a character who has finally lost everything with little-to-no hope of ever recovering: her “friends,” her royalty, her family, her certainty, her sanity, and, most devastatingly, her self-worth. Her attempts to keep from falling through her usual methods only make things worse. And now she’s been brought down by a Waterbender who didn’t even have the courtesy to kill her. How humiliating.
And so she cries. As with Ozai, this is something we’d never seen from her, and yet given the circumstances, what else could she do? I think what finally makes this even more powerful for me is that when she starts crying, she still tries to hold back and maintain some remnant of dignity. It’s a wasted effort. She’s already too far gone.
This is the greatest moment in the entire series for me. I wasn’t expecting to feel this sorry for a villain, nor was I expecting such a depressing sense of inescapable despair from an American animated kids’ show. I honestly can never watch this moment without crying. Hell, I can barely think about this moment without being on the verge of crying. The only other thing that’s ever been able to do that to me is John Lennon’s song “Mother.”****
There. I just positively compared a product of DiMartino and Konietzko with that of my favorite Beatle this side of George Harrison. That’s about the highest compliment I can give.
*I’m almost certain that the animation was great because the storyboards of Azula in the finale were all done by one woman whose name escapes me. The feminine charm, I’ll call it, really helps bring the character to life.
**Well, technically it’s nine scenes, but I’m not counting Zuko’s flashback.
***Yeah, Azula proved otherwise, but she got very lucky.
****Listen at your own risk.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.
(Rating Out of 15)
Remember when I said much of the finale doesn’t have good re-watch value? That’s part of the cause for my procrastination with the rest of this review (the other part involves school and depression, but I digress). I didn’t want to continue writing without having seen all four episodes again, and having finally done so, it only reaffirms my stance on the matter: the finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender is a mostly boring (relatively speaking) enterprise that nonetheless manages to sometimes exhibit the hard-hitting emotional power that the best episodes always had. In that respect, I’m glad I re-watched it for those moments, even if everything else did little for me.
Having discussed the action sequences, it’s only natural for me to now discuss the surrounding dramatic and humorous moments that are allegedly creators DiMartino and Konietzko’s favorite things in the series. Let’s do this.
I’ve also mentioned before that a great deal of the finale feels much like Book One in terms of tone: for being on the verge of a world-ending massacre, it’s kind of weird how much silliness sneaks its way into a lot of scenes. And I’m not talking about the beach party that precedes Zuko’s revealing of his father’s master plan (by the way, I found the beach party rather amusing, even Sokka’s stupid sand sculpture). No, I’m specifically thinking about moments much later on, like how Sokka tricks the crew of the airship into getting themselves dropped out of the ship.
This scene practically epitomizes exactly what I’m talking about. After incapaciting the cockpit crew, Sokka commandeers the PA system and commands every single person onboard to do to the bomb bay area to celebrate someone’s birthday. Everyone does so. So far this seems pretty dumb, doesn’t it? Well, the joke is almost saved by this casual exchange between two of the crew members:
Elite Firebender #1: Hey. I’m Quin Lee, I work up in communications.
Engineer: Oh hi, I work down in the engine room. It’s probably why we’ve never met before. Big airship, you know?
Elite Firebender #1: Huh.
Elite Firebender #1: So, do you know whose birthday it is?
The fact that these two grown men are rightfully baffled by this command from the cockpit and yet are trying to make the best of it is actually pretty funny. Their maturity just about completely compensates for how essentially idiotic their reason for being there is. But then the writers ruin it by having another crew member chime in with this:
Elite Firebender #2: I can’t believe the Captain remembered my birthday! He really does care.
BAM! Suddenly, the joke that seemed to be poking fun at its own childishness becomes simply another childish joke. Granted, it’s still pretty funny, especially the final punchline after they all get dumped into the ocean (to drown), but that one line sends it over-the-top and into “undoubtably a kids’ show” territory. It’s not that this brand of humor is inheritently bad—I have personally admitted to really liking “Avatar Day,” one of the most prominent offenders—but do we really need it during the final epic battle of good and evil? Dramatic tension and the gravity of the situation just seem to fly out the window at that point.
Contrast that with, say, Dr. Strangelove, a straight up satire about the end of the world. Originally, it was supposed to end in a giant pie fight that further symbolized the destruction of all life and civilization on the planet. The problem was that the actors seemed to be having a grand old time, which was detrimental to director Stanley Kubrick’s point of the entire film: that even when the world ends, humans will remain paranoid, petty, and power-hungry creatures. The new ending wonderfully kept that message intact.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that DiMartino and Konietzko should have taken their own advice and been more “decisive” about what made the cut in these closing chapters. That’s how I feel about the majority of the humor in the show anyway: it doesn’t relieve us from tension, it destroys it.
Here’s another example: after Aang has defeated Firelord Ozai and reunited with Sokka, Suki, and Toph, the three kids attempt to insult Ozai* with the lamest namecalling since “The Great Divide.” However, it’s when Suki tries to be one with the cool kids that she’s told not to bother even trying. Are the writers trying to upset me?
Not all of the humor is like that, thankfully; occasionally a smart joke will surface. For example, when the kids split up to find Aang after he disappears, Toph immediately partners up with Zuko. She wants to have a life-changing adventure with Zuko like the others did, but her enthusiasm is not shared by Zuko. It’s great to see her opening her heart up so forcefully only to be shut down for it. Consider how few times Toph is willing to make herself vulnerable, and it’s even funnier.
I also loved King Bumi’s recollection of how he took back Omashu during the eclipse. After hearing about this splendid dose of typical Bumi lunacy, neither Zuko nor Sokka feel compelled to talk about what they did during the eclipse. Sure, Zuko faced his father and redirected lightning, but did he knock down a giant statue and take back a city? Nope. Bumi’s antics could be contained in one win/fail compilation of seven minutes, while Zuko’s story would take the length of Crime and Punishment to fully appreciate.
But I’m not just going to sit here and list all my favorite and not-favorite jokes and moments. The truth of the matter is, I don’t remember a great deal of the finale at all. No, not even after having just watched it for perhaps the sixth time in my life. Excluding the really, really good stuff—which I’m holding off discussing until Part Four—nothing is particularly memorable. Or, at the very least, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, for better or worse. As such, there’s really nothing I can say that I haven’t written before.
So, before moving on to those really, really good scenes, I must comment on two points of interest: Energybending and romance.
As far as the resolution to Aang’s main conflict (how to defeat the Firelord without killing him) and Energybending goes, I’ve completely come to terms with it. I was never really angered by and torn up about it like I was with the resolution of Korra. Far from it: Energybending as a concept actually made sense, and while we were understandably not prepared for it as well as we could have been—for example, we’re told literally seconds before it matters and before we can properly understand the gravity of it, that many Avatars actually failed and died trying to Energybend because they were not pure at heart—it still worked on an intellectual level.
Whether it worked on an emotional level was a different story, and for the longest time, it just felt like a cop-out. How convenient is it that, right after the kid decided that killing Ozai was the only option, suddenly a mythical creature appears with another way? Doesn’t this stunt Aang’s maturation? Shouldn’t having him disregard everything he thought was right for the greater good be the most challenging ending?
But after watching the finale again, it all makes sense. The way I see it now, the conflict was always whether he should change himself for the greater good or whether he should stick to his principles. Which choice is the right choice? Generally speaking, they’re both right depending on the circumstances.
That sounds like even more of a cop-out, I know, but consider this: how emotionally redundant would it have been to have one character learn the virtues of change and then be followed by another character who learns the exact same lesson? Through the turbulent arc of Zuko, we already know how important change is, not just for achieving balance within ourselves, but for the world as well. Now comes Aang to show us why standing our ground and holding true to what we believe is just as important. In this way, Aang and Zuko’s stories truly complement each other. Now that’s what I call great storytelling.
Now, about Aang, Katara, and the final shots. One of the commentators on this blog named Eugene posted a very lengthy but very clear reply and analysis on the issues with the Aang and Katara romance—particularly how it relates to “The Ember Island Players”—and frankly, I feel little need to elaborate on it. All I’ll say is that, as far as potential life partners go, Katara could do a Hell of a lot worse than the fucking Avatar. So good for her.
Also, because the final shots are so blatantly typical and fairy tale-esque (not to mention shipper service), the only way I can stand to ever watch them nowadays is if I put this tune on over them**:
Finally, I get to move onto Part Four, where I get to talk about the greatest moments of the finale! Oh, joy!
*I almost typed “loser-lord.” I almost fucking typed “loser-lord.”
**On a completely unrelated note, apparently director Joaquim Dos Santos is a Yes fan. Maybe his name is just more common than I can possible know, but if that’s his comment on John McFerrin’s music review site, than that’s a neat little factoid, wouldn’t you say? (Ctrl + F his name, but know that that e-mail address doesn’t work. I tried it.)
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.
(Rating Out of 15)
Practically all of the action sequences in “Sozin’s Comet” take place in Part Three and Part Four, once the titular comet arrives. You could not find a more varied collection of such sequences in terms of quality. This is even more astonishing when you realize that the episodes are still good; the mediocre-to-awful sequences kinda bring down the good-to-great sequences, thus more or less balancing everything out. What better way to get into these sequences than by examining them from the very worst to the very best? As a great Waterbender once said, “Let’s fly!”
By far the worst action sequences in these episodes are those involving the members of the White Lotus in Ba Sing Se. I don’t understand how DiMartino and Konietzko and company could possibly take Uncle Iroh and four of the most beloved minor characters in all of Avatar and then have their final moments to shine be completely and utterly boring.
Where’s the tension? Where’s the suspense? Where’s even the slightest hint of danger for these guys? Were they really expecting me to think that anything bad was going to happen to crazy ol’ Bumi? Hell, I would expect a swordsman and a Waterbender to at least have some difficulty fending off Firebenders with ten times their usual power.
Maybe the point of these scenes was to show that these old geezers are still at the top of their game, as we bear witness to master Benders—and a master swordsman—strut their stuff over swarms of Fire Nation grunts. That’s an entirely valid reason for the existence of these scenes, but it still doesn’t make up for the lack of excitement and interest, not to mention memorability. I can only recall two distinct moments from these scenes: 1) Bumi knocking the tanks into a high stack; and 2) Iroh burning the Fire Nation banners that hang on the palace. The former is typical Bumi madness, and the latter is actually a neat story point (I’ll discuss that much later).
These old masters deserved a much better final hoorah than the one they got here. Maybe there just wasn’t enough setup for one. I mean, the real final bosses Firelord Ozai and Azula are being handled by our young heroes, leaving the old masters without a truly formidable opponent. What a pity.
If there’s one consolation about the scenes with the old masters, it’s that they are all pretty short. That’s not the case with the scenes of Sokka, Suki, and Toph on the warships; those scenes drag and drag and drag. Thankfully, they’re not as boring and there’s at least some suspense—not to mention some really neat action—but once is enough for these sequences.
Now I just said there is some suspense in these sequences. Truth be told, the whole thing is handled rather clumsily, and more often than not the smaller moments that are cool and entertaining in themselves end up, on the long run, canceling out the tension and making for a mostly boring watch. (I just completely contradicted my original complement, didn’t I?)
For instance, near the end, Sokka tells Toph to Metalbend the warship’s tail so that it crashes into the other ships. Toph does exactly that, and during this extremely dangerous endeavor, you’d think the kids would be kind of concerned about being knocked off of the top of the ship by the force of the crash. No, instead we get some witty banter:
Sokka: Have I ever mentioned how sweet it is that you invented metalbending?
Toph: You could stand to mention it more.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that, as the wisecrackers of Team Avatar, Sokka and Toph are guaranteed at least one comic relief moment per scene so things don’t become too serious. This moment in particular, however (along with another one I’ll have to wait to discuss in Part Three), I have a slight problem with because: 1) the banter, while amusing, isn’t nearly funny enough to warrant its existence; and because of that 2) it really highlights just how little suspense there is. See, comic relief is usually just that: temporary relief from the tension. So when you inject comic relief in a situation that wasn’t all that suspenseful to begin with…well, it kinda defeats the purpose, wouldn’t you say?
This is especially a problem since, as mentioned before, no one seems capable of the D-word. It really makes me wonder if DiMartino and Konietzko and company should have even bothered with presenting death as something possible in the Avatar universe if they were just going to pussyfoot around the subject every time an instance where death seems pretty much inevitable comes around. But hey, that’s just the bizarre compromise that comes with being a kids’ show, I guess. Sometimes they make it work (like in “The Puppetmaster”), but sometimes it’s just awkward and ridiculous.
I guess it goes without saying that my absolute favorite moment in this sequence is when Sokka and Toph appear to be doomed.
It’s a great moment because all the while I’m wondering, “Is Toph going to die?” Naturally, I could care less about Sokka, but I really must give DiMartino and Konietzko and company credit here: they can be really clever bastards when they want to be. It’s like they somehow knew I wouldn’t give a shit about Sokka’s well-being, so they literally put Toph’s life in his hands. Either they both die, or they both live. You can’t have one without the other. So my pleasure in seeing Sokka this close to death conflicts with my concern for Toph’s safety. That’s just diabolical genius!
Of course, Suki saves the day in a fashion just as ridiculous as anything else in these sequences. I’m not going to complain, though. This is the closest the writers ever came to killing Sokka, and that’s satisfying enough for me.
Before moving on, I should mention that Toph’s impromptu metal-armor fight scene is really neat, but I have to ask (because I’m sure there’s an answer): with all that fire hitting the metal that was protecting her, shouldn’t she have gotten cooked in that armor, brazen bull-style? (Without the morbidly amusing “bull bellowing,” of course.)
Aang’s fight with Firelord Ozai is, amazingly enough, pretty damn exciting, and definitely one of the few genuine highlights of the finale.
Of course, the main question during this very long fight is whether Aang will actually kill Ozai to defeat him. I’ll deal with that particular tidbit much later, so let’s just say that it neither enhances nor detracts from these magnificent sequences. See, unlike those scenes with the White Lotus members or with Sokka, Suki, and Toph, these scenes work regardless of whether you’re emotionally invested in the situation or not. So even though I still don’t care at all about Aang, I’m still blown away by the way these fights are put together. Watching Aang do his best to evade Ozai’s blasts is fun, but it does get a bit tiresome overtime: even with the masterful animation of the ever-reliable JM Animation Co. Ltd., these sequences become as repetitive and predictable as a Nirvana album.
But then Aang accidentally recovers the Avatar State and…I want to save discussing this scene for later, too.
All right. Combine the brilliant JM animation with the fantastic and sorrowful score of the Track Team—even as a non-fan, I have to admit that they really outdid themselves this time—and the fact that I absolutely do care about both Zuko and Azula, and you’ve got one of the greatest action sequences in the entire series.
Should I even really have to explain this one? That Zuko having to fight his own sister to the death is equally inevitable and heartbreaking? That Azula’s nearly final slip into insanity makes her defeat that much more difficult to witness? That Zuko saving Katara so that she could save him finally provides her with the closure she needed all along? She may not have gotten to save her mother, but at least she could save Zuko (at least, that’s why I think she’s the one thanking him afterwards). And let’s not forget this haunting image.
Again, these wonderful moments stick out like a sore thumb amongst everything else, which comes across as business as usual. And that’s just the action sequences. We haven’t even gotten to the drama and comedy stuff yet. Not that I’m in hurry to review much of it…
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.
(Rating Out of 15)
“Sozin’s Comet,” the four-part finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender, is a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the adventures of Aang, Zuko, and friends in their quest to defeat the Firelord. Unfortunately, the key word is “satisfactory.” While there are certainly fantastic moments scattered throughout, the finale as a whole never rises above its functionality; it does it’s job of wrapping up the story with just enough of a hint of what the future will hold, and that’s about it.
Could I have just been in a pretty sour mood both times I watched this? I mean, I wasn’t enthusiastic to watch the finale again anyway, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be bored throughout most of it. Hell, the first time I watched it, I turned the sound off and attempted to [unsuccessfully] sync it to Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans. Just to make it interesting for myself. I could have written a review based off that failed screening, but decided it wouldn’t be fair, to the show or to anyone else. Still, that should give you an idea of how much I was not looking forward to re-watching these episodes. Hell, if I didn’t have to review the entire series, I probably wouldn’t have watched them at all.
Can you really blame me, you readers who know me well? The best episode of the series (“The Southern Raiders,” as far as I’m concerned) has just come and gone; the worst episode (“The Ember Island Players”) has destroyed whatever emotional credibility the series used to have; none of the finale episodes have good re-watch value; there’s not much real tension, probably because most of the stakes are mostly physical rather than emotional, and it’s not like any of the characters could die (that would explain why I can watch “The Puppetmaster” repeatedly and still be on the edge of my seat); and, most importantly at all, the series never ever succeeded in giving me a reason to care much about Aang, so his fight with Ozai and the issue of killing versus not killing is merely stimulating on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one.
There’s another, probably more significant problem with the finale, though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was well into Part Three, the best of the four episodes and where the contrast between the stuff that works marvelously and the stuff that works marginally is most apparent.
See, the really, really wonderful parts of the finale continue the tradition of emotional intensity and character introspection that the very best episodes (ex. “The Southern Raiders,” “Zuko Alone,” “The Crossroads of Destiny”) always relied upon. Because those episodes depended solely on who the characters were and how that effected the outcome of the story, they not only had the most humanity, but they were also the most uniquely Avatar episodes of the series. In the finale, a few of those moments include Zuko’s reunion with Iroh and Azula’s mental breakdown.
The rest of the finale is almost like a regression to the simplistic carefree days of Book One; just about everything that happens, sans the formal Avatar details–like Bending–could have come from virtually any show. For example, the moment we learn that Firelord Ozai plans to essentially destroy the world, whatever tension there may have been is immediately ruined. How many kids’ shows have you seen with this conflict where the villain actually succeeds in destroying the world?
In addition, the issue of whether Aang should kill Ozai or not becomes laughable when you realize that not a single character in the finale seems even remotely capable of dying. There are injuries—mostly endured by main male characters Aang, Zuko, and Sokka—but that’s not nearly enough to compensate for the fact that, with all this fire and destruction, not a single person dies or is even implied to have died. This is so clearly a symptom of being a kids’ show that it’s annoying. DiMartino and Konietzko and company are really doing their mostly teenage demographic a major disservice by implying that it’s more likely to die at a Radiohead concert than during wartime in a fantasy world where people can shoot fire from their fucking hands.
All-in-all—I really hate to say this—the finale as a whole is very, very perfunctory. After displaying emotional complexity and moral grey areas throughout the course of the series, the big final battle is reduced to a simple fight between good and evil where characters actually say things like, “If you don’t stop him now, there won’t be a world left to save.” How disappointing.
THAT SAID, I don’t want to give the impression that the finale is completely horrible. Sure, none of these episodes will be going on my Top Ten Episodes List anytime soon, but all things considered, they are all at least good episodes. Boring, but never offensive. I may not care all that much, but there’s still enough merit to keep my interest. Let’s just all agree that DiMartino and Konietzko simply suck at endings; keeping that in mind makes watching this finale a little bit easier.
Instead of judging each episode individually on it’s own merits—an all but impossible task considering they were all essentially designed as quarters of a feature-length film—I’ll just go examine the entire finale in four parts. That’s fair, right? I”ll start with the basic concepts that drive the whole thing…
If there are a few themes running through the finale, one of them surely has to be poor communication. A great deal of what happens in these episodes happens because everyone seems to be withholding very important information. For example, no one tells Zuko that Aang plans to wait until after Sozin’s Comet to face the Firelord. This is pretty crucial to know, don’t you think? Of course, Zuko doesn’t tell the others that his father plans to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom on that fateful day. Gee, that’s kind of important, too, regardless of if you knew Aang was going to wait or not. But wait: Aang forgets to tell everyone that he’s a pacifist, and that literally taking out the Firelord is not an option. As you can see, our heroes have the communication prowess of your average teenager. (And technically they are all teenagers at this point, so I guess it makes some sense.)
Apparently, the past Avatars aren’t very good at communicating either. When Aang finds himself on the back of the Lion Turtle and asking his past lives whether he should kill Ozai or not, not a single one of them gives him a straight answer. Their vague pseudo-wisdom essentially amounts to telling him that he must make up his own mind. You don’t say! Only the Air nomad gives anything resembling practical advice, and it’s basically the classic Spock line: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Not even the Lion Turtle gives a straight answer. I’ll admit that my frustration with the Lion Turtle’s jibberish is as much my fault as it is his. I mean, should I really have expected fucking sense from a giant Lion Turtle that knows English? I was very thankful when the giant hybrid animal stopped talking and just said all he needed to say by extending two fingers onto Aang’s head and chest.
And it doesn’t just stop at giving information: everyone seems suck at listening, too. Near the end, Zuko tells Katara to clear out so that he can take on Azula by himself. Later, we see her inexplicably show up behind Zuko for no reason at all, which damn near results in Zuko getting killed by Azula’s lightning. At this point, I’m starting to think Katara is the unfortunate victim of a cosmic joke: so many of her attempts to “help out” results in things ending up worse than they were before and requiring others to fix it. Hell, she was as indirectly responsible for Aang’s death in “Crossroads of Destiny” as Zuko was. Why so cruel, unseen makers of the universe? (On top of that, just how useful did Katara think she would be against a Firebender with about ten times more power?)
Granted, she does usually makes things right by herself sometimes. Even here, she does manage to defeat Azula without killing her, and she does heal Zuko after he was struck by lightning. Still, if this is the kind of suffering that being acquainted with Katara involves, I’d rather not be.
Still, the worst communicators throughout this finale are the writers themselves (come on, you knew that was coming). For knowing how their show was going to end, DiMartino and Konietzko and company sure make it seem like they pulled a lot of the plot elements of the finale out of their ass at the last minute. I get that they were trying to keep Energybending a secret and a twist, but couldn’t it have been handled better? The way it’s suddenly dropped into the show the moment Aang starts to do it feels like an abrupt “Oh, by the way, this is Energybending, it does this.”
These abrupt explanations are only appropriate when it’s one audience member explaining something to another audience member, because at least one member gets to feel smart. (i.e. explaining the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) In the case of the finale, the entire audience feels dumb, and that’s a big filmmaking 101 no-no: never make the audience feel dumb.
I’ve already harped on this way too much, so I’ll finish by examining the only good communicating in the episode. Wouldn’t you know it makes just about as little sense?
Sokka, Suki, and Toph arrive just as the Fire Nation airships are taking off. Without hesitation, Toph asks Sokka where the nearest airship is, and just as Sokka points to it, Toph launches Sokka, Suki and herself right onto the ship.
Dear reader, please, please, please explain to me how she was able to do that. How did she know that those airships had a spot for them to even land on? How could she calculate the projectory force needed for them to land in that exact spot? How could she calculate all of that from Sokka simply pointing at the airship? And, considering how swiftly she launched them all into the air, how sure was she that Sokka was going to point at the airship, instead of saying something like, “It’s right in front of us”?
Honestly, I want to know, because it was pretty damn impressive. That feat would make a great question on a physics test.
I’d like to conclude Part One of this review by addressing Ozai’s plan to scorch the entire Earth Kingdom so that the new Fire Nation could rise from the ashes (thus justifying his title of Phoenix King). I am not very knowledgeable about military strategies or historical takeovers, but Ozai’s plan just seems awful. Why would you want to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom? The Fire Nation may be fruitful in its own way, but certainly the land and resources of the Earth Kingdom are worth preserving for your new regime.
Also, just how effectively would you be able to burn down the Earth Kingdom with a single fleet of airship? Granted, all that fire power is a wonder to behold, but from just one fleet? Taking out the Air Temples was one thing, but this is completely different. Maybe if you somehow spread airships around the entire Earth Kingdom coastline, but even that seems impossible. Unless this Avatar world is just smaller than Earth. (Also, just how long do the effects of Sozin’s Comet last? From what I gathered, about an hour, tops?)
I realize that Aang and friends had no way of knowing just what evil Ozai had in store for the world on the day of the Comet—again, thanks to everyone’s poor communication skills—but what exactly did they think he was going to do on that day? Nothing? Break the world record for largest bonfire? Burn all the world’s opium and marijuana so that everyone on the planet becomes high and incapacitated so they can’t defend themselves as the Fire Nation finally takes over the world?
The bottom line is that I don’t think DiMartino and Konietzko and company really thought this plan through. It feels like they were desperately searching for some world ending plot device that would raise the stakes and tension. Unfortunately, they went a bit too far and virtually destroyed all the tension. Too bad.
Sorry if this review seems more rambling than usual. In Part Two, I’ll focus more on a specific aspect of the finale. Namely, the action sequences.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.
The really in-depth discussions will have to be saved for–and written–tomorrow, but for now, some quick impressions:
- I hate to say it, but I was pretty much bored throughout much of this four-part finale. None of these episodes have very good re-watch value, least of all in and of themselves.
- It’s quite amazing how the issue of killing Firelord Ozai or not didn’t come up until now (and technically “The Southern Raiders”).
- Oazi’s plan to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom is actually a pretty lousy idea. I feel like the writers were trying way too hard to make him pure evil.
- This finale is completely stolen by the following characters: Zuko (naturally), Bumi, Iroh, Aang in his Avatar State, and, most of all, Azula. Everyone else barely makes a reasonable impact.
- With a few exceptions, the action sequences are pretty lame. The exceptions are Zuko and Azula’s Ag Ni Kai [sp?], and bits and pieces of Aang’s fight with Ozai, especially in Avatar State.
- All of the scenes involving Azula were the best and most effective in the entire finale. Her defeat and meltdown is, in my opinion, the greatest moment in the entire series. Ever.
- Zuko and Iroh’s reunion was fantastic. But you knew that.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly of all:
- Energybending did not ruin the finale. It’s clumsy entry into the plot makes it a Deus ex Machina, yes, but it actually makes sense. (Unlike the Deus ex Machina of that other show.)
Expect a much deeper analysis tomorrow, starting, naturally with Part One.
(Rating Out of 15)
I’ve been dreading it since the very beginning. This is where the Avatar: the Last Airbender fandom and I officially part ways, never to look back. I mean, this episode is practically on every fan’s Top Ten Episodes List! Aw, well. I promised I’d be honest about these things, and if that means ripping this episode apart, so be it. Here’s my verdict: I wish that “The Ember Island Players” had never been made.
Notice that I didn’t say that I hated “The Ember Island Players,” or that I even disliked it. Truth is, I actually enjoyed it much more this time around than I did two years ago, back when I labeled the episode as “pure evil.” That’s a silly accusation, of course, because that would imply that DiMartino and Konietzko had any sort of ambition here whatsoever. (All their true ambitions were being saved for the failure of Korra.) “The Ember Island Players” was just meant to be a playful jab at themselves and some of the absurdities and many of the failures of Avatar. For serious artists, self-deprecation can be an admirable trait sometimes. This was not that sometimes.
It’s all but impossible for me to review this episode in a conventional manner because, on the surface, it sorta kinda accomplishes all it set out to do. I can’t say it just doesn’t work because, frankly, most of the time it does. I can’t say it isn’t funny because I laughed at more than half of the jokes, and three of them were very big laughs. I can’t say that the characters are ignored because part of the joke is their individual reactions to the play. Hell, I can’t even say I wasn’t moved because the ending is pretty damn disturbing. (And depending on how you feel about recap episodes, it kind of works in that regard as well.)
But there is a great looming and fundamental problem with the episode that goes beyond whether it’s “good” or “bad.” It’s neither. The problem with “The Ember Island Players” is that it’s wrong. This episode is the biggest mistake ever inflected upon the good name of Avatar. Yes, even bigger than “The Great Divide.”*
Wot’s…uh the Deal
Sokka finds out that there is a play being put by the eponymous players that’s all about Aang and friends’ adventures. Intrigued, the kids watch. What they see, however, they do not like, for their portrayals onstage are either: 1) wildly inaccurate; or 2) goofy exaggerations. According to Toph, what we’re seeing is “the truth.” After twenty-minutes of slander, episode assassination, stage humor, and general meta-silliness, everyone is startled to discover that the play is actually a piece of Fire Nation propaganda. stage-Zuko is killed, as is the stage-Avatar, and the Firelord finally wins the war. No matter how I feel about the rest of the episode, this ending is always effective and horrifying. Not to mention kind of funny.
I’ll admit that my attitude towards this episode is greatly shaped by how I first became acquainted with it. My first viewing of it wasn’t on its official premiere date, but several months before, when my sister showed me a video of a Comic Con screening of it. At that point in my life, I didn’t like Avatar anyway, and this didn’t help. Still, while I didn’t find it funny, I admired how dedicated the creators were to the joke. It looked like an actual episode, with high production value and everything (considering it was animated by JM Animation, who always made the best-looking episodes).
In that sense, I could at least appreciate it the way one could appreciate an Andy Warhol film: the idea of its existence is more amusing than the film itself. (i.e. there is a 484-minute long film that consists solely of a single shot of the Empire State Building.) You can certainly imagine my surprise—and horror—upon eventually discovering that “The Ember Island Players” really was a real episode of Avatar.
And that’s essentially where the issue lies: I simply cannot accept this as a canon-official episode of Avatar. As a joke, akin to those weird chibi shorts they used to make, it’s fine. But as an integral part of the overall story and mythos of Avatar as we know it? Sorry, that’s too much for my mirror.
Also, I hate recap episodes. What exactly is the point of stopping the story dead just to remind viewers of all the events we’ve already seen? Such tactics are more informative than emotional, which is a major problem for a story. I dunno, recaps are a waste of narrative space to me.
Where’s Charlie Kaufman When You Need Him?
I suppose there are a lot less creative ways to do a recap than by having the adventures of the heroes re-enacted by a theatrical production company. But it’s a little obvious, don’t you think? More to the point: did it have to be a recap at all?
According to co-creator Bryan Konietzko, the episode was just supposed to be a light, comical episode before the big series finale. The original idea proposed by writer Tim Hedrick—that the kids meet traveling performers who re-enact their adventures—was goofy and surreal, but just plausible enough to work on its own without any of this silly recap crap. DiMartino and Konietzko and company are no Charlie Kaufman, and as such have never been able to successfully merge the sincere efforts and desires of their characters with postmodernism and meta-humor. (See Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. to see how it’s done well.)
So someone wanted to make a play about the Avatar and his adventures. OK, fine. And he got a lot of his information second-hand from witnesses, travelers and the like. Gotcha. Unfortunately, his portrayals are either completely inaccurate or exaggerations of a single trait. So far so good, and with a lot of room for comedy. And the best part is that it’s all completely plausible. I cannot emphasize enough how perfectly fine the original premise was on its own. They didn’t didn’t need to recap anything; they could have just made up stuff that never happened (or even funnier: would never have happened) and kept the comedy focused on the portrayal of the characters. That would have been a great episode!
Sadly, we got “The Ember Island Players” instead, and no matter how much I enjoy it, the fact is, within the context of the reality of the Avatar universe, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Whoever wrote this play must have had some omnipresent eye-witnesses, because how else would he be able to write about certain episodes and moments in the series that no one outside Aang and friend were present for?
Take the Mexican standout between Azula and everyone else in “The Chase.” It’s depiction in the play is probably the episode’s single funniest moment, but it makes no sense how it got there. Who witnessed this? That episode made it pretty clear that that saloon the heroes and Azula fought in was abandoned, with not another soul around for miles. What random loiterer saw this, knew it was the Avatar and the exiled prince of the Fire Nation—and somehow neglected to alert the authorities looking for him—and then just happened to meet up with this playwright who was researching the Avatar?
For that matter, how does this playwright even know the Avatar emerged from an iceberg? Or that Jet died at Lake Laogai? Or that the Avatar actually survived that lightning strike from Azula? And where’s Admiral Zhao?**
The Thin Line Between Fanservice and Pandering/Trolling
These are all rhetorical questions, of course. The reason is pretty obvious. It’s the same reason most of these other scenes are present, the same reason this episode exists at all, the same reason shipping is so prominent nowadays, and the same reason General Iroh is played by Dante Basco in Korra. It’s nothing more than a wink to the shows’ fans and the general concensus of the series. It’s the most basic form of pandering, as if congratulating the fans for having simply watched the show at all. Again, if this wasn’t an official episode of Avatar, I’d be OK with it. Unfortunately, in this context, while the jokes are funny in themselves, they’re also lazy, idiotic, and insulting.
They really should have just stuck to character-based humor, because those are always the jokes that fair the best. Going back to that “Chase” send-up, stage-Azula manages to escape using the classic “Look, what’s that” gag. Since the “that” in this case in “Zuko’s honor,” stage-Zuko stupidly darts around to see it. Now that’s a great poke at Zuko’s single-minded ambitions of Seasons’ past! The play really should have had more moments like that.
That There, That’s Not Me
The central source of drama and humor in this episodes lies in our heroes’ individual reaction to their stage portrayals. Naturally, they’re all disgusted, except for Toph. Their reactions are mostly funny, but why did the portrayals have to be so mean-spirited? Not a single one of them receives even the slightest positive attribute or characteristic. (Even Kaufman gave his ficticious self some sympathy in Adaptation.) I know that this is a Fire Nation propaganda piece, but come on! The only character with any sort of positive trait is stage-Toph, and it’s the most inaccurate portrayal of them all.
Speaking of Toph, why is she—and DiMartino and Konietzko and company, I’m assuming—so convinced that this is “the truth” they’re seeing? Are we honestly supposed to agree with her that these silly knock-offs are really like the actual characters? There’s some merit to that claim in the case of Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh—and maybe even Aang—but for Katara? Not even close. If they really wanted to make fun of the Katara we know and sometimes even like, they would have made her an insufferably stubborn and idealistic hothead whose desire to do the right thing often nearly costs everyone their lives. That’s not her full character, but it’s still closer to “the truth” than whatever the Hell that stage-Katara is supposed to be. (Her crybaby hopefulness is funny only once, and it’s in the shout-out to “The Waterbending Scroll.”)
Now it is entirely possible that Toph is simply trolling. Her enthusiasm for her inaccurate, but at least dignified portrayal is very trollish. Unless Toph is trying to tell us something about herself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The Loss of Sincerity
There are two areas in the episode that are indisputably successful: 1) the details of the theatre production; and 2) the ending.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for backstage drama, but I love everything about how the Ember Island Players put on their show. I love that the actors are trying their hardest and having a good time. I love the cheesy stage effects, especially how they do Firebending and lightning. I love how the things didn’t go completely right, but the actors just had to run with it like professionals. I love the fact that it’s apparently just one guy operating the effects, the scenery, the wires, etc. Perhaps that fact that all this normal play stuff takes place in a cartoon is the funniest thing about it.
Now I already mentioned the ending, and it’s honestly quite disturbing to watch stage-Aang and stage-Zuko get killed in front of a cheering audience. Especially when the real Aang and Zuko are there to witness it. This is a pretty grim omen, seeing as they’re about to face the Firelord. It also begs the question: if Aang and Zuko are really killed in their final battles but no one is around to see it, does it still get an applause?
Sadly, no amount of guilty pleasure can compensate for the fact that this episode’s very existence goes against everything Avatar stood for.
One of the show’s greatest qualities was that—no matter what it was trying to do, whether it failed or succeeded—it was always completely sincere about it. Avatar was one of the few kids’ shows that had the guts to take itself and its characters seriously. The show loved its characters and respected the laws and realities in established, never willing to shortchange them just for stupid gags. (Most of the time.) It was OK to actually care deeply about the characters and hope they got through, knowing a lot of their plight was up to them and not the warped sense of humor of their creator(s).
“The Ember Island Players” violently tossed that integrity out of the window. I’ve long ago said that Avatar at its worst was just another stupid kids’ show. “The Ember Island Players” stoops even lower than that by unwittingly becoming a cynical, pandering, mean-spirited gagfest with almost none of the Avatar spirit. I know DiMartino and Konietzko and company didn’t intend it that way, and it’s nice that they can recognize their failures (even if that joke on “The Great Divide” is pretty cruel). But the way they address them in this episode just reeks of almost hostile insecurity. In fact, if you take what Konietzko himself said at face value (“…it gave us a chance to poke fun at ourselves before anyone else had the opportunity!”***), that impression only strengthens.
But what can I say? This time I laughed. I guess if they were going to throw out their last valuable asset, they might as well have done it with a smile, right? Go ahead and laugh it up! It’s what they want you to do! It’s all you can do!
*Yeah, yeah, I know John O’Bryan was one of this episode’s writers. My question is how come Josh Hamilton and Tim Hedrick got invited to work on Korra and JOB didn’t. What a couple of jerks.
**Now that I think about it, Zhao’s exclusive from this play is a pretty cruel but clever joke. This was a guy who was completely obsessed with how he would be looked upon in history. And apparently no one remembers him.
***This is straight from The Art of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.