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Guess Who’s Back? (Back Again…)

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!

Deconstructing Korra: An Interesting Perspective

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.

Here is the post.

Retrospective: Chapter Thirteen: “The Blue Spirit”

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.

Retrospective: Chapter Twelve: “The Storm”

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.

Retrospective: Chapter Eleven: “The Great Divide”

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…

Retrospective: Chapten Ten: “Jet”

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.

Retrospective: Chapter Nine: “The Waterbending Scroll”

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.