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.
One does not simply disappear for fifteen weeks–precisely one-hundred and five days–without offering a grueling, detailed explanation as to why. That explanation will come, but not now. In the meantime, it’ll take nothing short of a miracle to get this blog back into shape again. Looks like I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.
Here we go again!
Long-time commenter JMR linked me a tumblr post in which the author (whose name I can’t find anywhere on her tumblr entitled KABOOM) proposes that the last three seasons of The Legend of Korra were a deliberate attempt to deconstruct not just Book One, but the entirety of the Avatar story up to that point. I’m still trying to gather my own thoughts on the essay–I’m not even sure how well I articulated the premise–but rest assured, it’s definitely a worthwhile read.
I’d like to discuss this post with the rest of you, because it brings up a lot of interesting points. Some I agree with wholeheartedly; some, not so much; and some I’m a bit ambivalent about and need some clarification. This may just be the boost I need to get back to my retrospective reviews (I’ll do a post regarding my absence over the last three weeks in a few days), as well as provide some much needed discussion about Korra after only talking about Avatar for the last few months.
By the end of “The Blue Spirit,” Aang has risked the fate of the world to keep his only friends from dying, Zuko has risked his life to make sure the Fire Nation didn’t capture Aang before he did, Zhao has been promoted to Admiral, Sokka and Katara have awaken from their terrible illness with frogs in their mouths, Iroh has hosted a successful music night with the ship crew, Momo has no better understanding of the English language, and Appa hasn’t moved at all.
“The Blue Spirit” would have made a great cliffhanger had the Nickelodeon executive decided not to order more episodes, but thanks to good ratings and high praise from its broadening audience, Avatar remained on the air and got to see its entire story to the end. Can you imagine a world without the complete series of Avatar? No awful live-action adaptation from M. Night Shyamalan; no disappointing spinoffs like The Legend of Korra; no thriving fan communities for geeks, cosplayers, and rule 34 artists; no amateur, pretentious, overly critical blogs dedicated solely to explaining its greatness; and, most crucially, no hope that an animated series for children could be meaningful, be heartfelt, and resonate in a way most people never before thought possible within such a limited format. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the true legacy of Avatar, and why it holds such a special place in my life.
“The Blue Spirit” was designed to work “on the level of a series finale,” and while it doesn’t quite reach those heights—at least, compared to the actual season finales we’ll get later—it’s a great mid-point for the story that puts a lot of things into perspective.
For example, thanks to a paralyzing illness—no doubt brought on after their near-fatal plunge into the sea in “The Storm”—Katara and Sokka are largely MIA; they’re left to rest with Momo and Appa while Aang goes off to find a cure. Aang’s mini-adventure is a lot of fun and very thrilling, but the absence of Katara and Sokka very noticeably has an effect on the episode. Not just thematically—even the savior of the world needs friends and allies—but on a basic level of entertainment: Aang does not have the temperament to carry the entire series on his own, no matter how many interesting characters he encounters (like the crazy medicine lady and her cat). Without the grounded sensibilities of the Water Tribe siblings, the adventures of the last Airbender are pretty lightweight. The basic thread of Aang’s story is fairly standard and predictable—yet another Chosen One saves the world yarn—and Katara and Sokka help give it an edge and humanity that would be missing if he just had to do things on his own. (Imagine a Star Wars without Han Solo and Princess Leia, and you’ve got a similar situation; conversely, Indiana Jones is his own agent.)
All that said, it’s very likely that without Aang’s more conventional story, Zuko’s story wouldn’t see the light of day. His entire character arc is his attempt to redeem himself and validate his existence in a world that has moved on without and around him. He’s the ultimate underdog, neither villain nor hero, and thus able to fill either role given the circumstances and when it most benefits his survival. That alone makes him the most human and relatable character in the series.
Zuko’s story only makes sense in contrast to the more typical power struggles between Aang and someone like Admiral Zhao. Aang’s story becomes more meaningful in contrast to the turbulence of Zuko’s emotional journey. The two characters absolutely depend on each other for Avatar to work.
“The Blue Spirit” puts that dichotomy on full display, and it may just be the best episode in the season because of it. Without Zuko’s interference, Zhao would have captured Aang, Katara and Sokka would have succumb to their illness, Zuko would have no hope of regaining his honor, and the story would be over.
One of the most remarkable things about “The Blue Spirit” is that all these heavy thematic implications are perfectly balanced by the show’s improving sense of humor.
Katara spends most of her screen time trying to get Momo to bring her and Sokka water, but Momo—not being able to understand English—returns with just about everything he can find except for water. It’s a silly joke that makes light of their grim predicament.
The cure for their sickness is even better: according to the crazy medicine lady, they must suck on frozen frogs found in a nearby bog. And they must be frozen: once they thaw out, they’re useless. Aang does find the frozen frogs, but is captured before he can return to his friends. Eventually, they thaw out while Aang is still changed up in a prison cell. Again, the silliness of the gag counters the fact that, if Zuko hadn’t shown up, Aang would not have been able to escape on his own.
And then there’s Admiral Zhao, who wants his victory speech transcribed and sent to the Firelord, only to have this immediately undermined by his escape with the Blue Spirit. Zhao is a pretty standard villain, which is perfectly fine for the first season. Besides, the vocal performance by Jason Isaacs is rock solid, and the character’s egomania is at least part of the joke, as he’s constantly being foiled by not one, but two meddling kids, one of which is supposed to be on his side anyway.
For the first-time viewer, the reveal that Zuko is the Blue Spirit may be extremely shocking. The more saavy first-time viewer may have figured out it by the time Aang takes his mask off. Who else could it have been? It couldn’t have been a new character we’d never seen before. And if it was, why would they have to wear a mask and not speak? In this universe, to oppose the Fire Nation is a badge of honor and to help the Avatar escape would be considered heroic.
That is, unless you’re Prince Zuko, and helping your country requires you to betray them, and capturing the Avatar requires you to help him, and to do either requires you to hide your true identity because your country doesn’t want your help and the Avatar is specifically trying to avoid you.
I don’t know what’s worse: the loneliness of having your entire race and culture destroyed, or the loneliness of having your entire race and culture hate you. Aang and Zuko are probably the only characters that truly understand each other, and circumstances have made them mortal enemies. What a sad existence. What an illuminating episode. Definitely one of the series’ best.
This has been one hectic weekend for me, and as such, I haven’t even gotten to start writing the review for the two-parter “Winter Solstice.” As a result, the review won’t be up for another five days. In the mean time, I finally have time to check on what’s been going on in my absence. Lots of comments this time around! That makes me very happy.
– Marshall Turner
If you’re wondering why there has yet to be a single new review yet, just know that it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve actually been having a difficult time just writing a review for the first two episodes (“The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns”). Perhaps I’m just adjusting to working on the blog again after so long, or–most likely–I’m attempting to say too much too soon. These two episodes alone brought back so many memories as well as a million new insights that this retrospective is in danger of crashing before it even takes off.
Once the first few reviews do show up, they’ll be due for some heavy revision as the retrospective goes on. In fact, depending on the discussion generated by each episode, each review may garnish a revision or two in light of new perspectives from all those who comment. So this is going to be an interesting little experiment, and I hope you’ll all give me the patience and support needed to see it through all sixty-one episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender (and MAYBE The Legend of Korra).
Thanks again to all of you who have stuck around. We’ll make this work!
– Marshall Turner
Which means the long-await Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra retrospective will begin, the general animation blog will begin (starting with a quick review of the new Spongebob Squarepants movie), and I can even finish my video review for Frozen (Or: How I Learned to Stop Bitching and Love Hollywood Animation). The possibilities are wide open, but don’t worry: I won’t get ahead of myself this time. We’ll see what happens.
– Marshall Turner