Monday, August 23, 2010

Temporary Hiatus

Not that the effect is at all noticeable, since massive delays and procrastination are the norm for this blog, but I'm going to have to go on temporary hiatus until I can get the headphone jack fixed on my laptop, which will hopefully be this coming weekend. My twice-daily train rides are my primary AtLA-watching-and-dissecting time, and it's, you know, illegal to go without without headphones on Metro. Not to mention nigh-impossible, given the background noise.

So, no AtLA for a while. I will try to fill in with thoughts on other shows as I can, but nothing with the depth of my AtLA reviews.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Site Business: August Schedule for AtLA Mondays, Otakon Report

A couple of site business items:

  • I will not be able to post an AtLA Monday tonight. Rather than keep on making and breaking promises, for the month of August, I'm going to have to go to AtLA every-other-Monday. So, expect "The Blue Spirit" next Monday, and "The Fortuneteller" August 30.
  • I was a guest on Viga the Otagal's podcast to talk about Otakon 2010. So if you've ever wondered if I sound as nerdy as I write (answer: I sound even nerdier), check it out.
  • If you want a shorter summary of my thoughts on Otakon: They've gotten too big to keep being a disorganized bunch of unprofessional buddy-buddies whose immediate reaction to any criticism is to circle the wagons and protect their own. They need to be more open and communicative with the attendees and less defensive when they screw up. Also, the con has a very strong focus on guests, which is fine if that's what you're into, but personally I'd much rather hear a bunch of fans debating the philosophical implications of LeLouch's powers than meet his voice actor. That goes double if it's the American voice actor. Otakon just doesn't seem to care about fan-generated programming, and it shows -- I had much, much more downtime than at Anime Boston.

Monday, August 2, 2010

AtLA Monday: Zuko Explained

Sokka: I'm too young to die!
Old Fisherman: I'm not, but I still don't wanna!

I live! Sorry about vanishing for so long. There is no explanation; I simply suck at sticking to things. But I am going to see this through to the end!

So, that said, let's dive back in!

Book One: Water
Chapter Twelve: The Storm

Synopsis: The Gaang are out of food and money, so Sokka gets a temporary job helping on an old man's fishing boat. The old man accuses Aang of abandoning the world to the Fire Nation, and Aang runs, followed by Katara.

Sheltering from a storm in a cave, Aang tells Katara his story: He found out he was the Avatar much younger than the normal 16, and was isolated from his friends, except for his teacher and guardian, Gyatso. Unfortunately, Gyatso's attempts to ensure Aang had some time for freedom and fun in among his training did not sit well with the other monks, and they decided Aang had to be separated from Gyatso. Rather than continue his training at the Eastern Air Temple, Aang ran away, was caught in a storm, and fell into the sea. Next thing he knew, he was waking up at the South Pole a hundred years later.

Meanwhile, Zuko is obsessing over finding the Avatar, and claims even the safety of the crew doesn't matter. One of the crewmembers takes exception to this, and he and Zuko nearly come to blows. Iroh separates them, and later tells a few of the crewmembers Zuko's story: Zuko snuck into one of the Fire Lord's war councils with Iroh's help, and was outraged at a proposed strategy that would sacrifice a unit of new recruits to draw out an Earth Kingdom force. His outburst was deemed disrespectful, so he had to take part in an Agni Kai against his own father. He refused to fight, and Ozai gave him his scar, then banished him until he can bring back the Avatar.

After the flashbacks, the storm gets bad enough that Aang, Katara, and Appa have to set out in it to rescue Sokka and the fisherman, while Zuko has to rescue his own helmsman. They come within a dozen feet of each other, but both are too busy saving their comrades to fight, and the Gaang escape Zuko once more.


And suddenly Zuko makes sense. The main work of "The Storm" is to unfold for us who Zuko really is, under the anger and obsession. Without this, the next episode ("The Blue Bandit") makes no sense; the season finale makes no sense; the entire second season makes no sense.

We get Aang's backstory, too, but it's less interesting than Zuko's because we know Aang will come to terms with it. He is a largely healthy and balanced child; he can handle it. Zuko, on the other hand, is constantly on the verge of breaking. He rages and obsesses; he sulks and throws tantrums -- and then he turns around and risks his life to save one of his crew. He's more complicated than Aang, more confusing, and therefore more interesting. We want to solve the Zuko puzzle, and so an episode like this is exciting, presenting us with so many pieces.

Early in the episode, Zuko insists he doesn't care about the safety of his crew -- finding the Avatar is more important. Iroh hastily tells the overhearing lieutenant that Zuko doesn't mean it, which sounds like Iroh is making excuses, but is actually the truth. The flashback shows that young Zuko was full of compassion for the common soldiers, and the end of the episode sees him foregoing the pursuit of the Avatar precisely for their safety, which previously he had only done for Iroh. Saying he doesn't care is the temporary aberration, which has lasted for a good couple of years at this point, but is finally beginning to change.

We see Iroh's point of view, but think about the whole incident from Zuko's point of view. He was mostly raised by first his mother, and then his uncle. He doesn't actually know his father very well, but is desperate to win his approval, praise, and love (the same approval that Azula seems to earn effortlessly). Ozai and Azula consistently present Ozai's love as a prize to be won or earned, and so Zuko absorbs that it is his failure that he does not receive praise or acknowledgment from his father.

Zuko is eager to take on an adult role, partially because he's thirteen and partially because he wants an opportunity to prove himself to his father. He tries, but an outburst of his natural compassion, in defiance of the hierarchy and social rules, earns him a brutal, painful rebuke. He is terrified to face his father, in part because he knows his father is a powerful and deadly opponent, yes, but mostly because he knows there is no way to win what he really wants, approval: if he fights back and injures his father, he is a traitor, but if he is defeated easily he is a weakling. Ozai wounds Zuko terribly, scarring him for life not just physically but mentally. The one person who should love and protect Zuko most brutally and disproportionately punishes him. It is monstrous and evil and cruel, and it turns Zuko's world upside down.

From all this, thirteen-year-old Zuko learns that compassion is weakness. He assumes, because he has always assumed, has been trained to assume, that the abuse is his fault for being weak. He cannot admit the real reason for it, that his father is a sick, cruel tyrant. What child wants to believe that? He desperately wants his father's love back, but cannot phrase it to himself that way, because the thought of being abandoned by his father, especially after losing his mother, is too much to bear. So, Zuko lies to himself, pretending that what he is seeking is his honor (which he never lost; we will eventually see, in "Zuko Alone," why he makes that particular jump). Nonetheless, what he really wants is clear: we see a single flash of it, as Zuko remembers Ozai standing beside him, one hand on his shoulder.

Zuko sees capturing the Avatar as his only chance to regain his father's love, and so he is willing to sacrifice anything -- including his honor, as the next episode will show -- to accomplish it. Zuko sees compassion as a weakness which cost him his father's love, and so he tries to be cruel to his enemies and demanding of his men -- yet his essential goodness occasionally shines through, as when he spares Zhao after their duel in "The Southern Air Temple." Zuko is unable to confront his own real need for love, and so he is unable to accept Iroh's love, kindness, and excellent advice.

Zuko's efforts, of course, cannot succeed. The abuse is entirely Ozai's choice and Ozai's false. Unfortunately, it won't be for two more seasons until Zuko finally -- and awesomely -- admits this.

Random observations:
  • Aang's dream is in order of closeness: Aang rides Appa, his oldest and closest companion. Sokka is alone on the glider, as the one Aang is least close to. Katara rides Momo, Aang's pet and in some ways his id and libido. Katara is the first to say "We need you, Aang." As we see much, much later in "The Guru," Katara is Aang's primary attachment to the world, and represents it in his dream. Additionally, he fears that she will be hurt because of him -- he is, after all, the reason she left her home. This fear comes to the fore in "The Deserter." Next we see Gyatso, who represents Aang's attachment to and abandonment of his old life. The storm is Aang's guilt over abandoning them, as well as a memory of how that abandonment came about. In a chorus of voices, the entire world begs for Aang's help as he drifts away, and then we get a quick flash of the Fire Lord as Aang wakes.
  • Katara says Aang has been having "a lot" of nightmares lately, meaning more so than when they first started traveling together. So what was the trigger? Something has upped his guilt level or brought it closer to the surface -- knowledge of the comet, perhaps? Or maybe the waterbending training with Katara in "The Waterbending Scroll" reminded him of his airbending training?
  • Sokka's dream about food eating people, of course, never comes true (unless it presages the coming of the ultimate evil of the Avatar world, against whom the true hero, Wang Fire, struggles epically -- the foul, demonic entity known only as Melon Lord). But it raises an interesting point: for all the talk of "destiny", there doesn't appear to be any way of predicting the future in Avatar (with the exception of known cyclical events like comets and eclipses) -- but that's more a discussion for "The Fortuneteller" a couple of episodes from now.
  • In Aang's flashback, none of the other children have airbender tattoos, but all of the adult monks do. The distinction cannot be simply age-based, however, because some of Aang's friends appear to be close to his age, maybe even older. Nor can it be a born distinction, such as caste or nobility; in "The Avatar and the Firelord," young Gyatso doesn't have the mark. Aang's gifts and the subconscious aid of his past selves have probably accelerated his airbending studies just as they do for the bending styles we actually see him learn. The tattoos also cannot indicate total mastery of airbending, because Aang clearly still has airbending to learn in this flashback; otherwise, they'd be sending him away to the North or South Pole, not another Air Temple. My best guess is that the tattoos are the airbender equivalent of a black belt: Aang has demonstrated the ability to use all the techniques of airbending, but not necessarily mastery of when and how to use them.
  • The way the monks find the new Avatar -- looking for a child born as close as possible to the moment of the Avatar's death, and then letting him choose from toys that include relics of previous Avatars -- is very reminiscent of the methods used to select a new Dalai Lama, who is also held to be the reincarnation of the prior Dalai Lama.
  • Is Jinju supposed to be, er, developmentally disabled or something? Or is he just a not-very-skilled airbender with a goofy laugh and hygiene problems? Anyway, his addition, apparently for a joke, is unfunny and a little bit distressing. Avatar's usually better than that.
  • Is Gyatso specifically assigned as Aang's guardian because he's the Avatar, or does every kid get one? Or is it an apprenticeship thing? Maybe the tattoo indicates that Aang is done with general training and ready to train with a specific master, sort of like the difference between undergraduate and graduate instruction. Regardless, the relationship between Gyatso and Aang is clearly a paternal one: play and love and instruction and the passing on of life lessons. Gyatso is not very serious, much like Iroh, but much liike Iroh (as we saw in "The Southern Air Temple," when his skeleton lay on top of a pile of soldier skeletons), Gyatso's playful demeanor conceals a powerful and deadly combatant.
  • Gyatso is presented in opposition to an unnamed, sour-faced monk who is clearly well-meaning, but more concerned about the well-being of the world than whether Aang gets to have a childhood. His attitude is understandable, but as Avatar emphasizes again and again, joy is a necessary part of wisdom. Iroh knows it; Gyatso knows it; Aang knows it intuitively. Zuko will eventually learn it. Those who don't understand how important joy, love, and play are (Zhao, Azula, Ozai) will inevitably be defeated by those who do.
  • Gyatso is right, of course, about Aang's reputation. No matter the threat to the world, it's hard to imagine it being more dangerous than an Avatar unable to appreciate freedom and fun. Think about it: a child with prodigal, but potentially very dangerous, talents is taught by all the adults around her that her talents are the only thing about her that anyone else values. Everything else must be sacrificed to honing her abilities, or else she is worthless. She is also led to believe that she is the most important person in the world, destined for greatness. How long could the world survive Avatar Azula?
  • Aang was not there when (if) Gyatso found his note. That entire scene appears to be made up by Aang. He imagines that Gyatso would have fought to keep him if he hadn't run away, and uses that to enhance his own guilt.
  • Just as 100 years ago, Aang is in a storm, goes underwater, and enters avatar state -- but before, he saw the world's needs as abstract and in opposition to his needs. This time, actual people depend on him, so he saves them. There's a parallel to Zuko here, as well: he was unable to save the soldiers described abstractly in the war council, but he can save his own crew.
  • Let's say Aang didn't run away. Katara's right -- he almost certainly would have been killed with the rest of his people. Now, presumably the Avatar Cycle wouldn't have ended right away -- the Water Tribe would still be there, and so there could be a next step in the cycle -- so the question then becomes, is there someone in the series who would have been the Avatar if it wasn't Aang? We'll get some hints much, MUCH later of who that might be.
  • I've mentioned before the solar symbolism that surrounds the Avatar. The shafts of sunlight after the storm? They're all about Aang's return, and his growing acceptance of who he is.
  • The fishing boat captain and the fishhauler at first bicker like an old married couple. But then the old man says he'll hire a new fishhauler at double what the old woman gets, implying she's his employee. This is further confirmed by him taking back the offer to pay double as soon as Sokka volunteers for the job -- clearly, double is more than the normal pay, so the normal pay can't be zero. But then at the end, she refers to him as her husband when she asks Aang to help him! I am confused by these people's relationship.
  • Telling Zuko he needs to learn respect, this episode shows, is a major trigger for his temper. And it's understandable why, given what happened with his father! But the final straw seems to be the suggestion that he's spoiled. Later episodes show how far that is from the truth; Zuko was far from the favored child, and held to a brutal standard he could not live up to.
  • The Lieutenant Zuko nearly fights seems kind of old to still be a lieutenant. Of course, given that Zuko's been banished, his crew is likely not made up of the Fire Nation's best and brightest.
  • In Iroh's flashback, he's about the same height as Zuko. In the present day, Zuko is at least half a head taller. Nice reminder from the animators that Zuko is still growing -- and has some growing to do yet.
  • Unlike his dour present self, young Zuko is bright, ambitious, optimistic, idealistic, and compassionate. Except maybe for the ambition, he's a lot like Aang.
  • So much said without any words at all! Zuko catches the falling helmsman and passes him to the lieutenant he nearly came to blows with earlier. They smile at each other; all is forgiven. The lieutenant understands Zuko better now, and Zuko is starting to re-manifest the essential goodness that his father tried to (literally!) burn out of him.
  • In "The Spirit World," Zuko gave up on a chance to chase Appa in order to rescue Iroh. Now he does so for his entire crew. He doesn't need to catch the Avatar to get his honor back; it never left him.
  • When Zuko apologizes to Iroh, is it for the way he acted earlier in this episode, or for bringing Iroh into exile with him?
  • In the crowd of people watching Zuko get burned, we see generals from the war council, Iroh, and Zhao. Zhao's presence is interesting, since at the time of this episode he's only a commander. Three years prior he may have been an even lower rank; regardless, based on military rank he's not important enough to be standing next to the Fire Lord's brother. Perhaps he's a member of the nobility; it would explain his high rank despite his arrogant incompetence.
  • Also next to Iroh, clearly revelling in Zuko's pain, is some girl. She's also the firebender in the opening credits. But I'm sure her appearance and behavior here aren't foreshadowing her appearance as a prominent character later in the series. Nope, nope, not here.
  • Irony alert: the Avatar gives Zuko hope, just as he does Katara.
  • As an adult, it is at least accepted, and maybe expected, for the heir to the Fire Nation to serve as a military leader. And in the war room, Zuko is not only right, but shows an attitude that could some day make him very popular with the troops. And Zuko is close to Iroh, who was at one time the rightful heir to the throne. All of this adds up to make Zuko a potential threat to the Fire Lord; in a few years, an impatient Zuko -- who Ozai doubtless knows has every reason to resent him -- could well try to seize the throne early. Ozai is afraid of Zuko, and burns and banishes him as a way of reasserting power.
  • Ozai's throne is concealed behind a wall of flames -- it is both a concealment and a defense. It seems that not even top military officials can see the Fire Lord directly. Such a taboo suggests an almost religious deference; Ozai is not just the Fire Nation's ruler but their epic hero (as we see in "The Deserter") and practically a god. He is a tyrant, used to obedience, and the way he treats his own son (disfiguring him for life, just for being "disrespectful") is an indicator of how he treats everyone weaker than him: cruelly and abusively. The entire Fire Nation is an abused child lashing out in hopes of earning its father's approval.
  • I believe this episode is the first time Ozai speaks. He's voiced by the incredibly talented Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker in the DCAU. Oh, and also he played Luke Skywalker, but we don't care about that.
  • Given that one of the episode's major themes is characters blaming themselves for things that aren't their fault, it's possible that Iroh feels guilty for letting Zuko into the war council. That may be a factor in why he travels with Zuko, though undoubtedly it's primarily out of a paternal desire to protect and guide Zuko.
  • It's interesting that Iroh agrees with Zuko in the war room. Sacrificing a not-very-valuable unit to draw out a well-entrenched enemy is a pretty good strategy, but like Zuko, Iroh doesn't see that unit or those troops as being of low value. He values them for something other than their military effectiveness. Still, it's interesting that Zuko is outraged, not at the sacrifice of lives or of human beings, but of loyal citizens of the Fire Nation. Even he is not immune to the Fire Nation's nationalism.
  • During the storm, while Zuko is risking his life to save the helmsman, Iroh catches a lightning bolt headed for the ship and redirects it harmlessly into the water. After, he looks slightly singed and very surprised -- was this the first time he ever used the move? Entirely possible; he says later he developed it himself by watching waterbenders, so presumably it was during his hinted-at-but-never-described travels after his son died (during which, apparently, he had some kind of an adventure involving the spirit world). It seems unlikely he engaged in Agni Kai with anyone who can throw lightning (as far as we know, only Azula and Ozai), so he really probably never did try it before.
  • Iroh gives this great sideways glance after Zuko chooses not to go after Aang -- he's proud of Zuko's choice, and I think he really doesn't want the Avatar caught. He has to have already realized that the Avatar is the only good way to end the war.
  • Both Zuko and Aang have serious issues tied to events before the series began, which led directly to their first appearance. Both have those issues brought out by an older, bearded man who says things in anger, not realizing how they will resonate with Zuko/Aang's own issues. The whole episode is, in addition to filling in back story and developing characters, working to show us that Zuko and Aang are fundamentally alike. Neither can return home. Both blame themselves, even though it isn't really their fault.
  • The Avatar is normally told of his nature on his sixteenth birthday (four squared). Zuko is sixteen for the duration of the series. Coincidence?
  • Gyatso's similarity to Iroh is, of course, yet another way of playing up the parallels between Aang and Zuko.
  • Both Zuko and Aang face banishment in their respective stories.
  • That moment of Zuko and Aang staring at each other both plays up their parallel and foreshadows "The Blue Spirit," which in many ways has the opposite ending.
  • Aang gets over his past. Zuko won't for a long long time. But then, Zuko was abused. That's often harder to get over than survivor guilt in an otherwise healthy psyche.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thoughts on New Futurama

Avatar: The Last Airbender Monday may be late this week due to the holiday weekend. If I'm able to finish today, it will go up today; if I'm not able to finish it today, however, I may not be able to get it done for a couple of days. Sorry for the last-minute notice. As an apology, here's some proof that I do occasionally think about things other than Avatar:

The first two episodes of new Futurama, I was too excited by the new-ness and Futurama-ness of it all to form a reliable opinion. In particular, the fact that they didn't push the reset button on the Fry-Leela relationship, despite having memory loss as a plot element in the first episode and potential cheating in the second, was deeply impressive.

Last night's episode... not so much. Most of it was pretty good. Nothing on par with the best episodes of Futurama past, neither as heartwarming and -wrenching as "The Sting" or "Luck of the Fry-rish," nor as deliciously plot-tastic as "The Why of Fry," nor even as simply and happily entertaining as "The Deep South" or "Where No Fan Has Gone Before," it was for the large part entertaining enough, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments.

But then there was Mr. Chunks. Though he did give rise to one obscure-but-hilarious-if-you-get-it joke ("Pukeme-Pooyou"), which Futurama has always done well, mostly he was the kind of moronic gross-out "humor" that all too often mars even the best episodes of Comedy Central's other big animated shows, South Park.

This worries me, to say the least. The move to cable allows Futurama more freedom than they had on network television, true, and that opens up new artistic tools for both the comedy and drama of Futurama. But the greatness of Futurama has always lain in the fact that it is capable of being smart, subtle, and (despite and sometimes because of the inherent cynicism Matt Groening brings to everything) surprisingly uplifting. That's not really possible when you have a poo-eating, perpetually vomiting goat as a major plot point.

The other thing that deeply distresses me about the episode is that there's no hint in Fry's and Leela's interactions that anything has changed between them since the original Fox run. They don't act at all like a couple, and Leela even refers to Fry as "a good friend." What happened? Did they break up over "In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela" after all, and the writers just forgot to tell us?

The reason I thought it was daring of the writers not to reboot the Fry-Leela relationship was that unresolved sexual tension -- the classic "Will they or won't they?" -- is one of the driving sources of conflict, drama, and humor in many long-running serials, from comic strips to sitcoms. While it is impossible to move the characters forward without answering the question eventually, it can be very difficult to sustain a series after one of its major conflicts is resolved. Bringing Fry and Leela closes that arc, and it also reflects how far those characters have come: the Fry of first season and the Leela of first season could have never worked, mostly because he was a thoughtless, insensitive, lazy buffoon, but also because Leela could not permit herself to have a functional relationship.

Over the course of the series, both matured. Leela discovered her homeworld and even a family, and Fry's experiences slowly made him capable of caring. Compare the Fry of the real-world portion of "The Sting" to the Fry of the first season: he's still lazy and stupid, but he is genuinely loving toward Leela, without ulterior motive; he just wants her to be well. And then, of course, there's Fry's future self, Lars. The path from first-season Fry to Lars is clear, and it leads right through the Fry of "The Sting" -- his feelings for Leela make him want to be a better person, so he becomes one. It is perhaps not the healthiest relationship in the world, but it seems to work for them in the end.

Or it would, if the writers let it. The Fry of "Attack of the Killer App" is not the Fry of "Into the Wild Green Yonder." It's the inconsiderate jerkass of "I, Roommate," the third episode of the first season. Fry doesn't act like that anymore! Not toward Leela. For Leela, he would sit by a hospital bed for days, drive out his own mind-expanding parasites, or make a deal with the Robot Devil! Of course he would swim through puke for her. That shouldn't even be in question!

I hope, very much, that this episode is a fluke. Even the best show can have the occasional terrible episode, where everyone is out of character and the writing doesn't quite fit the show. Heck, my last AtLA Monday was one. So, I remain on the fence about new Futurama, but they still have plenty of time to win me over.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Why "The Last Airbender" Had to Fail

Of course we all know why, morally, The Last Airbender (the live-action movie remake of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender) had to fail. If you don't, look up "racebending"; the controversy has been covered well enough by others. (Remember, morality is always entirely about action; beliefs only matter insofar as they (poorly) predict action. It doesn't matter whether Shyamalan and the rest of his crew had racist intent; the casting choices were immoral.)

But even if Shyamalan had cast actors of the right ethnicities, I still skip watching The Last Airbender, and the reviews are proving me right. Here's why it was always doomed to suck:

1) Avatar is complex: A movie adaptation of a long, complex work, such as a novel or TV series, has to boil it down to its core elements. The problem is that the core elements of Avatar are hoary old cliches and the possibly the most formulaic of all stories, the monomyth: As prophesied, a child sets forth on a journey to master his power and become a man. The forces of evil try to stop him while he is still young and weak. Eventually he masters his powers and stomps out evil, ushering in a new age. Exciting the first time you encounter it, but it gets old fast, unless you have something other than plot to chew on -- which nine times out of ten, means characterization.

There's a lot of ways to make that twist. Avatar did it by making the hero NOT the sole focus of the story. Ultimately, it's an ensemble piece, and as much or more attention is paid to developing the characters of Sokka, Katara, and especially Zuko as to developing Aang. But pretty much all of that happens in side stories. Characters aren't solely or even primarily defined by how they interact with Aang, the way they would be in a typical monomyth (see Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann for example, where every character is defined by the role they play in Simon's story). Much of the character development happens while Aang isn't around, especially for Zuko. This presents a major problem if you're trying to boil nine hours of television down to 100 minutes of movie, because you either have to cut those side stories, losing all that characterization, or compress the side stories until they're so short that you lose the characterization anyway.

Of course, there's the third option of heavily rewriting the story so that the characterization is merged into the main plotline, but the level of changes needed to that to Avatar crosses the line from "adaption of" to "loosely inspired by."

2) Hollywood: Hollywood loves the monomyth. Hollywood is obsessed with the monomyth. Producers who have never studied literature outside of one required course in college will, upon hearing a pitch, ask about the Call to Action, the Road of Trials, the Temptress. The problem is that they don't understand that the monomyth is an analytical tool, not a formula for writing stories. Hollywood will always pull a story closer to the monomyth if they can -- and Avatar is pretty close to the monomyth already.

Even the most well-meaning director, who understands the craft storytelling deeply enough to know better, will still face pressure from his financial backers to follow the formula. And if the story is already almost at the formula, pulling it closer still, coupled with paring it down to series length, is going to produce an insufferably formulaic movie.

3) Shyamalan: Seriously, how does this guy keep getting backing? Every movie he's made is worse than the last -- Sixth Sense was good, albeit shallower than it thought it was; Unbreakable was decent; Signs was unmitigated crap. I haven't watched his movies after that, but broad consensus is that they're terrible.

I've seen reviews of The Last Airbender comparing him to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll. That level of awful is practically an achievement in itself.

4) Live Action, Realism, and Grit: Avatar was heavily inspired by the works of the greatest animator of all time, Hayao Miyazaki. The series is heavy on gorgeous, highly detailed scenes of natural beauty, with just a touch of the surreal and the impressionistic. Often times these aren't tracking or establishing shots, but backdrops on which the action unfolds, noticeable only on repeat viewings. Certainly a live action movie is capable of such beauty -- the Lord of the Rings movies pulled it off, for example -- but the tendency when adapting animation is to make it more "realistic", and as we all know, reality is brown and gray, filthy, and poorly lit. Or at least that's what "realistic" movies claim.

Add the last-minute decision to go 3-D (which halves the apparent brightness of the movie because each eye only sees half the light), and you have a recipe for a dark, drab, visually dull film that no amount of martial arts can save.

Not to mention, let's face it, punching and having a fireball erupt from your fist looks awesome in animation, but in live action it comes across as... kind of silly.

5) There was no need for a movie: More accurately, we already had a movie, and it was awesome. "Sozin's Comet," the finale of the TV series, was 90 minutes long (not counting commercials and opening/closing credits, which bumped it up to two hours), upped the animation quality to film caliber, took the already good music up to eleven with live strings, and told an epic, world-shattering, continent-spanning tale with multiple intersecting storylines that ultimately culminated in two simultaneous final showdowns happening hundreds of miles apart.

I'd rather have a remastered theatric release of "Sozin's Comet" than a generic live-action blockbuster any day. And don't tell me you'd need to introduce audiences to the characters -- it'd be cheap enough to make (considering that it's already made)that nobody but fans could show up, and it'd still make a huge profit.


I made the decision months ago to boycott "The Last Airbender" for its racist casting choices. But I've never regretted that decision, because I always strongly suspected the movie was going to suck, and now the reviews are confirming that suspicion. Avoid this movie like the plague! If you feel the need for some epic, movie-quality Avatar action, pop in "Sozin's Comet" instead. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, June 28, 2010

AtLA Monday: Hidden Depths

Actress Aang: (enthusiastically) Look, (points down) it’s The Great Divide. (Actress Katara looks down) The biggest canyon in the Earth Kingdom.
Actor Sokka: (looks down and throws his arm to the side dismissively) Meh. Let’s keep flying.

I've been looking forward to this review since the start, so let's jump right in:

Book One: Water
Chapter Eleven: The Great Divide


The Gaang camp near the edge of the Great Divide, the largest canyon in the world, and Katara and Sokka squabble over setting up the tents. After Aang settles the squabble, they encounter two tribes of refugees seeking to cross the divide: the slovenly Gan Jin and the fastidious Zhang. The two tribes have a longstanding enmity and wounded. Appa ferries the wounded across while the rest of the Gaang go with the refugees on foot. They find the guide, and he warns them not to bring any food with them as it attracts predators.

Of course, said predators (giant insects) attack the refugees on their way across, and the guide's arm is broken, meaning he can't earthbend the paths open. The two groups resume their squabbling, and Aang splits them up. Sokka spends the night with the Gan Jin and Katara with the Zhang, and both bond quickly with their companions as they learn the story behind the conflict: an orb had to be delivered according to a sacred ritual by one of the Zhang, but one of the Gan Jin either mugged him or took up the task after the original carrier was injured, depending on who's telling the story. The Zhang, justly or unjustly, imprisoned the Gan Jin. Both groups also reveal that they brought food, because they assumed the other would break the rule.

The next day, the giant insects return in force, but Aang gets the two tribes to work together to use their attack to get out of the canyon. He then makes up the "true story" of the incident on the fly: the "sacred ritual" was a ball game, and the two years of imprisonment were really two minutes in the penalty box over a disputed foul. The two tribes agree to work in the future, and move on to the next phase of their flight to safety, while the Gaang resume their trip to the North Pole.


"The Great Divide" is, among Avatar fans, the most reviled episode. Even the creators seem to hate it: in the recap episode "The Ember Island Players" the Great Divide is dismissed as a pointless detour. But fans only believe this because they are blinded by their own absorption of the bourgeouis ideology to see its true brilliance. Even the creators, seduced by three seasons of success, have by the end of the series abandoned the revolutionary impulse which gave rise to this scathing satire and brilliant allegory.

The key to "The Great Divide" is to understand who the two tribes represent. The Zhang are wealthy, polite well-dressed, and concerned with maintaining tradition, following empty rules while fully aware that they serve no purpose. They are contrasted with the rude, crude Gan Jin, who clearly have far less wealth, if their clothing is anything to go by. What is this but the age-old conflict of the haves and the have-nots, the patricians and the proletariat, the capitalists and the workers?

Nowhere is this so clear as in the food incident. The capitalists see the workers as hardly better than criminals, and so assume that they will break the food rule. This allows the capitalists to justify breaking the rule themselves. Just as in reality: A capitalist who cheats hundreds customers out of what little wealth they have, or calculatedly kills unknown hundreds by poisoning the environment, gets a slap on the wrist, even while crusading loudly against the lower-class criminals who steal a fraction of the wealth of one rich man, or murder one person in a moment of passion. And of course, the Gan Jin, aware of the opinion of the Zhang, break the rule as well, just as a poor man who knows the system is against him will turn to crime as the only available path.

The Zhang are almost infinitely contemptuous of the Gan Jin's way of life, while the Gan Jin complain mostly about their mistreatment by the Zhang. This again is characteristic of the class struggle: The wealthy are offended by the lack of such luxuries as manners, hygiene, and fancy dress among the poor, and use that as an excuse to deny them access to the same luxuries. The poor chafe against these injustices, but can rarely do anything about them.

The story changes, of course, when there is work to be done or an enemy to fight. Then all of a sudden there is room for cooperation and comradeship, and the bourgeousie magnanimously pretend to see the proletariat as equals, in exchange for which the proletariat are expected to fight and die for the good of the bourgeousie, who may or may not even participate in the battle. This, of course, occurs in the final fight with the giant insects.

Throughout, Katara and Sokka play the role of outsiders, children newcome to the class struggle. Katara opens the episode by insisting on tradition and adherence to the rules; women often serve as the transmitters of culture to the next generation, and thus often hold a traditionalist view even when it is harmful to them. Like many in the proletariat, Katara instinctively sides with the beorgousie because she fantasizes about becoming one of them, unaware that this very dream is what traps her. Sokka, young revolutionary that he is, instead sides instinctively with the struggle of the underclass, sympathizing with their mistreatment by the Zhang.

At the end of the episode, Aang steps in as a peacemaker, but his attempt to make peace is predicated on lies. It is important to remember that he is a religious figure, a monk described as "the bridge between our world and the spirit world." What is the role of religion in the class struggle? To mollify and tranquilize the proletariat with sweet lies, to soothe them and dupe them into cooperating with the system that abuses them. The effete Zhang need the Gan Jin's strength and pragmatism, especially now that all are refugees, but what do the Gan Jin need their oppressors for? Nothing, except they are convinced by Aang's patronizing little myth that they should be friends.

Soon after this episode, Avatar's revolutionary bent reversed itself. This is perhaps inevitable given the romantic (and thus authoritarian) philosophy that dominates visual media, and the presence of a religious icon as the main character. Still, given the powerful way "The Great Divide" captured the essence of the class struggle, it is disappointing that later episodes did not further explore the historical/politico-economic narrative.

(Next week, actually serious reviews begin. I wouldn't feel the need to say this, except that Poe's Law implies a satire of Marxist criticism is indistinguishable from the genuine article.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

AtLA Monday: The fangirls will not be pleased with me...

Jet: Sokka, you fool! We could have freed this valley!
Sokka: Who would be free? Everyone would be dead!
Jet: You traitor!
Sokka: No, Jet. You became the traitor when you stopped protecting innocent people.

At long last, AtLA Monday makes its (hopefully) triumphant return! Let's dive right in:

Book 1: Water
Chapter 10: Jet


When the Gaang stumble onto a camp of Fire Nation soldiers, they are saved by teen "freedom fighter" Jet and his band of war orphans. Jet is a gifted fighter and charismatic leader, and Aang and Katara are immediately taken with him, while Sokka is skeptical.

Jet takes Sokka on a raid, which turns out to be ambushing and robbing a single elderly civilian. After, Sokka tries to convince Katara and Aang to leave, but Jet convinces them to stay and claims the old man was an assassin.

Sokka overhears Jet and his fighters planning to blow up a damn and flood the valley, destroying the Fire Nation soldiers and the civilian town alike, but is taken prisoner before he can tell anyone. Sokka soon escapes, but not before Jet tricks Katara and Aang into using their bending abilities to fill the reservoir. Katara and Aang realize what Jet is up to, but he fights Aang to a standstill. Katara gets the drop on Jet and freezes him, but he is still able to whistle the signal to blow the dam.

The dam explodes, but Sokka arrives on Appa and reveals that he convinced the town and Fire Nation soldiers to evacuate. Jet accuses him of being a traitor, but Sokka tells him off and the Gaang goes on their way.


From one perspective, "Jet" is a completely unnecessary episode. It doesn't advance the larger plot of Avatar or really develop any of the characters. It showcases how far they've come, but doesn't really advance them.

But from another perspective, "Jet" is a vitally important episode, because it shows the flipside of Iroh and Zuko. This is probably why they don't appear (well, other than the obvious reason that there's no room for them in 22 minutes): Jet is their polar opposite. Zuko and Iroh prove that the Fire Nation are human beings, with human capacity to do good. Jet proves that the "good guy" nations are human beings, too, with human capacity to do evil.

Before we get into that, though, it's important to note what this episode isn't. This is not the episode where the silly girl character (who has GIRL PARTS!) falls for a charismatic apparent good guy who, because she is a silly girl who lacks a penis, turns out to be a villain. It could easily have been that episode, if it focused on Katara and her feelings of first attraction to Jet and then betrayal, but it avoided that trap neatly: first, by having Aang as much taken in as Katara, and second by focusing on Sokka and his jealousy of Jet.

Because make no mistake, Sokka's mistrust of Jet is initially based entirely on jealousy. He has no basis to mistrust Jet other than the fact that Jet showed him up and was more interested in Katara's and Aang's bending abilities than Sokka's (lackluster by comparison) fighting. Sokka does turn out to be right, but that's because Sokka had to be right eventually. Sure, there's the running gag about instinct, but Sokka's instincts are repeatedly shown to be useless. He's an extremely clever boy, and later in the series, when he relies more on wit, observation, and fast thinking, he's much more effective. Intuition, after all, has to be trained; Sokka simply doesn't have enough experience in anything to intuit his way through it.

Of course, Sokka has good reason to be jealous of Jet. Jet is everything Sokka puffs his fragile teen-boy ego up to be: a charismatic leader, a brilliant fighter, and almost impossibly cool. His response to learning that his newest guest is Kung Fu Action Jesus: "Avatar, huh? Very nice."

Unfortunately, Jet is also dangerously paranoid, violent, ruthless, and racist. The party his gang throws after defeating the Fire Nation soldiers is deeply unsettling. There's a strong "Lord of the Flies" vibe to it, a sense that these kids have, in the absence of any parents to give them a culture, invented rituals of their own. Jet's speech is the most disturbing part: he casts himself (and, to a lesser extent, his band) as a lone and sacred warrior standing against the forces of darkness, feared and hated by them. It may be so unsettling because it is how, in a lesser show, Aang would be portrayed.

But Jet shows his true colors when he attacks and robs a helpless old man. Sokka shows his true colors there, as well. For all his talk about hating the Fire Nation (as a vast, abstract, faceless army), when presented with an actual, frightened human being, Sokka sees only their common humanity, and tries to talk Jet out of it. Jet's later claims that the old man was an assassin are obvious lies: if he were, Jet would never let him leave alive, but the old man is in the village later.

Jet is (at least in this episode; later we will see his attempts to redeem himself) as close to pure evil as Avatar characters come. While Azula or Long Feng may be more frightening, they simply don't care about questions of right and wrong. Jet thinks he's not only a hero, but the Hero. He sees the world in stark terms of good and evil, and thinks that they're a matter of what team you're on. Anything which hurts Team Evil is good, in his eyes. He is the Good Guy, and therefore anything he does, no matter how evil, is by definition Good. It's a sadly common view in real life, spouted by everyone from terrorists in caves to pundits on TV to Presidents in the Oval Office.

Later in the series, we have many more examples that evil can appear in any nation, it just happens to be running the Fire Nation at the moment. But this first major instance of that theme is particularly noticeable. Previously the Fire Nation has been by and large a bunch of thugs who burn down forests just for the laughs. Now we are presented with them as ordinary villagers just trying to live their lives, and the people plotting to destroy a forest and murder innocents are a group of Earth Kingdom children (children!)

Jet is really the first case of evil in an apparent good guy -- someone who befriends the Gaang and shares common cause with them. But Jet is not portrayed unsympathetically, either. His actions are unjustifiable, and no attempt to justify them is made, but we can understand the reasons for them. Jet and his band have suffered terribly at the hands of the Fire Nation, losing their parents and their homes. They are children, lashing out in rage. Unfortunately, they choose to do so in a horrifically adult way.

Perhaps nowhere is the difference between Jet and Sokka so clear as in Jet's attempt to convince Sokka that destroying the valley is necessary, pragmatic, and right. Jet sees himself as a pragmatist and Sokka as an idealist, but where Jet sees only the categories Jet himself created of "enemy" and "ally", Sokka sees the reality: living, breathing people, "mothers and fathers and children." Jet is not a pragmatist, he is a madman; Sokka is the realist here. The death of Jet's parents taught him to hate the Fire Nation and destroy them before they hurt him more. Sokka, on the other hand, learned the right lesson from his pain: It sucks when people you love die, so you shouldn't kill people other people might love (which is everyone).

At the beginning of the episode, Aang and Katara see Sokka as something of a joke, and to a degree they are justified. His judgment has not been very reliable for most of the series to this point. Sokka is sarcastic, cynical, and a complainer; he's difficult to get along with, where Jet is charismatic and winning. But Sokka doesn't try to kick cowering old men in the head, and eventually Aang and Katara learn their lesson: It doesn't matter what team you're on or how much charisma you have; the people to trust are the people who do what's right.

Random Observations:
  • By focusing on Sokka instead of Katara, the episode becomes "skeptic saves the day with the power of doubt." "The Fortuneteller" uses the same plot structure, and it's a nice reminder that, no matter how fantastic the Avatar world may seem by our standards, healthy skepticism is still a vitally important skill.
  • Jet is one of the few cases of a Character of the Week who is sufficiently interesting in his own right to carry the episode.
  • The forest seems to think it's fall, judging by the amount of red and brown foliage. Weird, considering that it's at most a couple of weeks past the winter solstice. Unless they're somewhere where the first snow is really late? Avatar seasons are messed up to begin with, considering that they appear to have the same seasons in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It's possible, given a planet with no axial tilt and a fairly eccentric orbit, but it's bloody unlikely.
  • Sokka talks a great deal of sense when he complains that Appa sticks out to much. The Gaang in general does a TERRIBLE job of keeping a low profile.
  • "Why do boys always think someone has to be the leader?" Hearing Katara say that is hilarious, considering how much of a power struggle there's going to be between her and Toph later in the series.
  • Katara is just a bitch early in this episode, with her snarking on Sokka's youth (even though she's younger), lack of sexual experience (like she has any more!), and claims about his instincts (okay, that one's fair).
  • Without making a big deal about it, this episode really shows how much Katara has improved in the last few weeks. For example, she puts out the fire on Sokka's shirt with a gentler version of the water whip. In the time between last episode and this one, she's practiced it enough to modify it. The fight against the Fire Nation soldiers even suggests that Katara has actually surpassed Sokka in combat. That scroll was good stuff! Also, I think this may be the first time she uses the trick of keeping a bottle of water at her belt. Later in the episode, she quickly takes down Jet, an opponent Aang was having trouble with! Admittedly, he was probably at least somewhat tired from his fight with Aang, and she had the advantage of surprise, but still impressive on her part.
  • Why would soldiers be carrying around large boxes full of candy? Sure, a little candy in each package of field rations, so they have a quick way to raise blood sugar without having to sit down to a full meal, but a big box full of nothing but candy? A possibility: They really are trying to kill Jet, and it's either bait to trap one of his younger followers or a bribe to turn them on him.
  • That twig in Jet's mouth serves double duty. It's an Asian culture reference, showing up in a lot of Japanese films as visual shorthand for a ronin, a masterless samurai -- the rough samurai movie equivalent of the lone gun in a Western -- and it's also a stand-in for the cigarette Jet would doubtless be sporting in a show aimed at adults. The ronin parallels are particularly strong: Jet is fighting to continue a war his lord (if, as seems likely, the Earth Kingdom is feudal) has already lost. He's also entirely without honor.
  • In the first few minutes after Jet appears, he seems to be set up as Katara's equivalent to Suki: a non-bending, highly skilled Earth Kingdom warrior and war leader, wielding a non-conventional weapon (hook-swords, a fan). The biggest difference is that Suki is subject to civilian, adult authority, and Jet is not. Oh yeah, and Suki is sane.
  • The Fire Nation killed Jet's parents when he was eight years old, prompting him to become paranoid, violent, and obsessive. He then trained himself to become an incredible fighter, able to take on people with superpowers even though he has none. Jet is Batman!
  • Sokka's trick with the knife and the tree is very cool, and by praising it, Jet scores more points with Sokka. Also, I love that knife; it's clearly made from the jawbone of some animal -- it even still has some of the teeth. That's a great little worldbuilding detail -- it implies that the Southern Water Tribe neither has much access to metal, nor much opportunity to trade for it.
  • If Sokka had not intervened, Jet would have kicked a cowering old man in the head. Just thought I'd repeat that, in case any of his fangirls are reading.
  • The old man in this episode is the opposite of the old man from "Imprisoned." The old man from the earlier episode was Earth Kingdom, and repaid kindness by turning Haru in to the Fire Nation. This old man is Fire Nation, and repays Sokka's attempted kindness by helping him save the village.
  • This episode is another rare case of the cabbage cart being destroyed by someone other than the Gaang; in this case, we don't even see Cabbage Man, but a display of cabbages is prominently shown as the wave bears down on the village.
  • As I mentioned, if the old man had really been an assassin, Jet would never have let him go. In fact, from a purely military point of view, Jet shouldn't have let him go -- if you're going to attack civilians in the first place, you shouldn't let them go home and tell everyone where you're hiding. The only reason to do that is if you're more interested in making "enemy" civilians afraid than any military strategy -- which is a roundabout way of saying Jet's a terrorist. Who kicks old men in the head.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

State of the Animation

Sorry I've been gone so long. Work has been kicking my ass, I've been planning a wedding, and I've been just too exhausted to post. It's the worst possible time, too, because I've seen a TON of great animation lately, and there's more around the corner! So, in reverse chronological order, here's where I'm at:

New Futurama comes next week. I have always considered Futurama to be the superior Matt Groening show, and I think the makers agree with me -- I believe that's why the quality of The Simpsons plummeted when Futurama was on the air. They were giving their full attention to Futurama, and letting Simpsons slide. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Futurama is not only better than Simpsons, it's the best American animated series for adults. I'm racing to get a retrospective on it done before the new show starts.

Saw Toy Story 3 last night. It was amazing! I've always liked Toy Story, but I never felt it was Pixar's best work -- I consider Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Finding Nemo to be better than either of the first two Toy Stories. But somehow, I ended up caring about these characters more than I thought, because I actually cried at the end of Toy Story 3. This had better be the last movie in the franchise, though; it was absolutely perfect, both in its own right and as a finale, and it should not be messed with in future. I probably won't address it in more detail until it comes out on DVD, but I am going to see it again tomorrow!

Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake continues to be the best cartoon in years. It just so perfectly captures the essence of the worlds I would imagine with my toys, and slyly winks at the audience while it's doing it. Weirdly, it manages to do so without being the least bit cynical. Quite the opposite: It bursts with joy from every seam.

I also saw Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22 recently, and was completely blown away. To explain as spoiler-free, throughout the first half of the movie the differences (frankly, improvements) in characterization from the first movie pile up, so that in the second half it can go completely off the rails. The second half of the movie takes my favorite four episodes of the TV series and subverts them entirely, so that their outcome and meaning is utterly different even while the actual events are similar. It's pure genius, and the best anime I've seen in years. I am planning to do an in-depth analysis, something like I do for AtLA, but I'm not entirely sure when.

Speaking of AtLA, my review of "Jet" should be (finally) done this weekend. It's one of my favorite episodes, and I've been itching to it. Stupid work. Also, I want to get a post about the Racebending controversy up before the movie comes out, so expect that soon.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Apologies for flaking out lately...

I got sick, and work has been a giant pile of insanity. I have a half-written post about "Jet" left over from last week, notes about the racebending controversy, and vague notions about Rebuild of Evangelion, but nothing complete enough to post. Much apologies.

Monday, June 7, 2010

AtLA Monday delayed

Sorry, all, but I had to work crazy late today, and there is just no way I could get the next post finished in time (it's still in chronologically-ordered-notes form). I'll try to get it up tomorrow evening.

Monday, May 31, 2010

AtLA Monday: The moral of the story is that stories with morals are dumb...

"Stealing is wrong -- except when it's from pirates."

Book One: Water
Chapter Nine: The Waterbending Scroll


Aang is worried about having to master all the elements by the end of summer, so the Gaang stops at a lake so Katara can teach him basic waterbending. Aang masters every move Katara tries to teach him almost immediately, even one she still doesn't quite have down herself, much to her annoyance. Aang also accidentally washes away their supplies, so they have to go into town to buy replacements.

After spending nearly all their money on supplies, the Gaang browses the wares on board a pirate junk. They find a rare scroll describing several waterbending moves, but cannot come close to affording it. As they're leaving, the pirates attack them, but they escape. Back at camp, Katara reveals she stole the scroll.

She insists she took it to help Aang, but of course she wants to practice the moves herself. She struggles with a move called "the single water whip," and when Aang is able to do it on the first try, she yells at him. After she apologizes, she gives him the scroll and tells him she wants nothing more to do with it.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh are looking for a replacement white lotus tile for Iroh's Pai Sho set in the same pirates' shop, and overhear one of them describing Aang. Zuko makes a deal with the pirates to work together; they get the scroll, he gets Aang.

That night, Katara sneaks out to practice the moves from the scroll. Zuko and the pirates hear her and capture her, and soon after catch Aang and Sokka as well. Sokka convinces the pirates that they can get much more money for the Avatar than the scroll, leading to a fight between the pirates and Zuko's crew. During the battle, the Gaang escapes on the pirates' boat, and Aang and Katara have to waterbend together to avoid a waterfall.

Later, on Appa, Katara apologizes, and Sokka reveals he grabbed the scroll in the confusion. Iroh finds his white lotus tile, and Zuko fumes.


The previous episode, in many ways, was the start of the real story of Avatar. It marks the beginning of the race against time that serves as the backdrop for the rest of the series. It is fitting, then, that "The Waterbending Scroll" is the first episode that really feels like later Avatar. There is little of depth here, but there is plenty of fun, some humor, scenery porn, some great action sequences, a dollop of character development, and a thorough subversion of a standard kids' show plot.

The plot to which I refer is, of course, the tired old story in which a kid wants something he can't afford, steals it, and then gets into trouble, ultimately learning that the theft wasn't worth it. In this episodze, Katara wants the scroll, steals it, and then she and her friends all get in trouble for it. However, in the end, the move she learned from the scroll is vital in fighting the pirates, and when asked what she's learned she makes clear she doesn't regret it in the slightest.

One of my pet peeves is the insistence by many, both creators and commentators, that every work of art has to be a fable with a moral, and that the value of a work is somehow connected to its moral. This view is most pernicious in children's television. Many shows can barely go an episode without trying to cram some kind of moral down the throats of the watching kids, nearly always to the detriment of consistent characterization or realistic interaction.

So I'm always happy to see a show aimed at children reject this approach (one of many reasons I'm loving Adventure Time! so much is its tendency to subvert the end-of-episode moral). Overall, Avatar is pretty good about it. There's plenty a kid can learn by watching these characters grow up and struggle with adversity, but it's all integral to and follows from the story. Rarely does an episode feel like the writers started with a moral and wrote the episode to teach it. There's no episode where the Gaang meets a disabled kid and have to learn that he fully capable of leading a normal life; they meet a disabled kid and it is simply assumed from the start that he's a regular kid. There's no episode in which they learn about child abuse; instead it remains as a constant element, never outright stated but always lurking just off-screen, in Zuko's character arc. And, most thankfully, blessedly of all, there is never an Extra Special Episode in which they learn about (dum dum DUM) drugs.

And so we have this episode, in which Katara learns that stealing is wrong. Except that she doesn't, because those guys were pirates, and the Gaang is trying to save the world, so property rights can suck it. What the episode is really about is Katara's jealousy and insecurity. For most of her life she was the only bender in her village. Waterbending was what she did; it is what made her special. Now Aang suddenly, effortlessly, can do what she struggled all her life to accomplish. In minutes of training, he is passing her.

Is it any wonder she snaps at him? Without meaning to, he makes her feel completely inadequate. Not only is she being surpassed at her greatest skill; the ease with which Aang picks up waterbending, compared with how hard it was for Katara, doubtless makes her wonder if there's something wrong with her. It won't be until near the end of the season that we see the real difference: Aang picks up waterbending faster and has more raw power, but Katara works harder, with the result that Katara has greater finesse, greater control, and greater ingenuity.

Katara's repeated awesomeness and genuine desire to help everyone she meets put her dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. This episode, along with a few others later on, helps humanize her with genuine flaws: she has a vicious temper, she can be very insecure at times, and it's easy for her to rationalize her actions by pretending that she's doing it for someone else's benefit. This is hardly the first time these flaws will create trouble.

With Katara busy being an insecure jerk for an episode, Sokka is free to show another side of his character, too. This episode reminds us that he grew up with Katara, and in some ways knows her better than she knows herself. He teases, and pretends not to understand the importance of waterbending, but the fact that he retrieves the waterbending scroll at the end of the episode makes clear that he really does understand how important it is. He just wanted Katara to be honest about her real reasons, and maybe get over her insecurity a little.

Random Observations:
  • Given the number of times Iroh says "white lotus" in this episode, I really, really want to see some connection to the Order of the White Lotus, but I can't find any. His description of the lotus tile bears no resemblance to the Order; far from appearing weak, its members are acknowledged masters of their respective disciplines (Piandao is a much sought-after teacher, Iroh a famous general, and so on). It is still foreshadowing of a sort, but appears to be extremely indirect.
  • The voice of the thin pirate in green -- the one who doesn't know what curios are -- bugged me for ages. I could not figure out who he sounded like. Then I got it -- Beedle, the shopkeeper from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, uses the same wheedling tone.
  • Another way in which Avatar quietly does its bit to take down the patriarchy: men who enjoy typically "feminine" pastimes. In this case, Iroh loves to shop.
  • The pirates are actually pretty impressive fighters. They take down the Gaang without difficulty, albeit by surprise, and prove a pretty good match for Zuko's crew.
  • That "reptile-bird" is totally an Archaeopteryx. And that's awesome.
  • Speaking of the reptile-bird, I love the aerial battle between it and Momo. Momo doesn't actually take part in combat very often, but when he does, he always proves himself to be quite capable and extremely clever.
  • The Gaang's money supply will be an issue again in "The Storm" a couple of episodes from now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

No AtLA Monday this week...

Sorry all. Work is kicking my butt, and I've been getting a little burned out on this series, anyway. (And that's on a series I like! How does Fred do it?) I think a week off will recharge me, and I'll be back on schedule next week with The Waterbending Scroll, which is a great episode that deserves a much stronger treatment than I could give it this week.

Monday, May 17, 2010

AtLA Monday: Racing the Sun

"It's good to see you, Aang. What took you so long?"
-Roku, 112 years after his death and Aang's birth.

Book One: Water
Chapter Eight: Avatar Roku (The Winter Solstice, Part Two)


Aang tries to leave for Crescent Island without Sokka and Katara, but Appa won't budge. Sokka and Katara convince him to let them go, and the Gaang sets off, with less then a day to breach Fire Nation territory and reach Roku's statue. Soon after they leave, Zuko and Iroh arrive in the village to question the townsfolk.

Later that morning, Zuko and Iroh argue as their ship races back to the Fire Nation, violating Zuko's banishment. They catch up to Appa and try to shoot him down with flaming catapult shot, but Appa dodges. Then Aang spots a flotilla of Fire Navy ships in their path.

On board his ship, Commander Zhao gloats at the opportunity to catch Aang and Zuko in the same day. He gives the order to open fire. Appa weaves through the field of fire with only minor injuries, but Zuko's ship takes damage to the engines.

After two more volleys, the Gaang makes it through the blockade. Zhao's forces cannot follow them, but he surmises that Zuko knows where they're going, and gives orders to let him through.

The Gaang arrives at the island and sneaks into the apparently abandoned shrine. Once inside, they are ambushed by the Fire Sages, but one Fire Sage is still more loyal to the Avatar than the Fire Lord, and he helps them.

On Zuko's ship, Iroh explains Zhao's plan, and Zuko begins planning a counter-strategy. Meanwhile, the Fire Sage leads the Gaang through a network of tunnels carved by Roku out of magma. As they travel, the old man explains to Aang why he turned against the other Sages. He leads them to the sanctuary, but it is sealed. Only a firebending Avatar, or a team of firebenders, can open the door. Sokka, however, has a plan.

At the same time as Sokka is hatching his plan, Zuko puts his own into action, setting out for Crescent Island alone on his boat while Iroh takes the damaged ship on a different path, to create a false smoke trail. Unfortunately for them, Zhao is watching through his telescope.

Sokka uses a technique his father taught him to make small bombs, but they fail to open the door. Katara notes the soot they left behind, and comes up with a plan of her own. The Fire Sage on the Gaang's side, Momo, and the scorch marks left by Sokka's plan combine to fool the other Fire Sages that the Gaang has already gotten in, and they open the doors to go after them.

As soon as the doors open, the Gaang ambush the Fire Sages, but Aang is captured by the newly arrived Zuko. As the doors are closing, Aang manages to break free and runs to help Sokka and Katara, but Katara tells him to go into the chamber instead, and he makes it in just before the doors shut. The Avatar-light flares, and now even the firebenders can't open the door.

The last rays of the setting sun illuminate the statue, and Roku appears to speak to Aang. Outside, Zuko questions the renegade Fire Sage, and Zhao arrives to take everyone prisoner. Zuko tells Zhao he's too late to stop the Avatar from entering the chamber, but Zhao doesn't care; he'll get Aang when he comes out.

Roku explains the meaning of the comet to Aang: A hundred years ago, it appeared, giving the firebenders enormous power. Fire Lord Sozin used that opportunity to wipe out the Air Nomads in a surprise attack. Now, it is returning, as comets tend to do. By the end of summer, the comet will return and empower the firebenders to crush everything in their path, permanently ending the balance of the world. Normally, it takes years for the Avatar to master all four elements. Aang will have to do it by the end of summer, or he will have no hope of ending the war before the comet. There is hope, however: Aang isn't learning the elements from scratch -- the Avatar has mastered them all before, many times.

Outside, Zhao's soldiers prepare to blast Aang with everything they have the moment the doors open. Roku says that he is a part of Aang, and if Aang needs him again, he'll find a way to talk to him. He senses the threat of Zhao's soldiers, and Aang enters the Avatar State, channeling Roku to block the fireblasts and free Sokka, Katara, and the renegade Fire Sage. A volcanic eruption begins, and the temple begins to crumble. The Fire Nation people escape, but the Gaang is trapped, until Appa swoops in to save them.

On Zhao's ship, we see that he has taken all the Fire Sages prisoner as traitors, not just the one that helped the Gaang, and he intends to take them to the Fire Lord. The episode ends as the Gaang flies back to the Earth Kingdom to resume their quest.


The plot begins! The main plot of the series is revealed at the end of this episode: Sozin's Comet will give the Fire Nation the power to ruin the world beyond the Avatar's ability to fix it. Before it arrives at the end of the summer, Aang must master all four elements, defeat the Fire Lord, and end the war. Bit of a tall order, given that he hasn't even started on water yet!

Racing against time is, of course, the main theme of this episode. The Gaang spends the episode racing against the sun's daily cycle to reach Roku's statue by nightfall; they will spend the rest of the series racing against its annual cycle to win the war before Fall.

The main plot of the episode doesn't actually give us much more than that to work with; it's really all about setting up future events. To that end, it gives a lot of foreshadowing. In particular, the final tableau of the Gaang flying into the moon is heavily foreshadowing the season finale.

This is the first episode since "The Warriors of Kyoshi" in which Zuko and the Gaang interact directly, and once again the episode takes pains to note parallels between Sokka and Zuko, especially when it cuts between the two of them, miles apart, hatching and executing doomed plans simultaneously. I can't stress enough how odd this is; most of the series really does draw its parallels between Aang and Zuko, especially beginning with "The Storm."

Nonetheless, the similarities between Zuko and Sokka are clear. Both are angry young men trying to win back their fathers. The main difference is that Sokka has received care, love, and bomb-making lessons from his father; all the Fire Lord has given Zuko is pressure, rejection, and pain. Of course, I suspect we'd be a lot less sympathetic to Zuko if we saw any more of how he "persuaded" the villagers to tell him where Aang went at the beginning of the episode. Between Zuko and Heibai, I doubt much of their village is left. It was a wise decision on the part of the creators to cut away when they did.

Sokka's anger is interesting, because it's a subtle repeat of something we saw more blatantly earlier on. In the first few episodes, Sokka is a misogynist, and in "The Warriors of Kyoshi" he encounters a woman who proves him wrong. To his credit, by two episodes later, in "Imprisoned," he appears completely open to letting Katara run the show, put herself in danger, even take part in combat. In this episode, he reiterates his hatred of the Fire Nation and firebenders, only to be proven wrong by the renegade Fire Sage. What happens two episodes later? We'll see in two weeks, when I discuss "Jet."

Random observations:
  • As mentioned last post, Sokka and Katara have strong motivation to insist on accompanying Aang after what happened last episode. Sokka is embarrassed, and Katara nearly lost the last people she has left.
  • Continuity touch: Iroh is still half-naked when he and Zuko reach the village. They have not returned to the ship yet.
  • Iroh wins the understatement award: "My brother is not the understanding type." This argument becomes much more interesting after watching later episodes, especially "The Storm"; Zuko is completely unreasonable when it comes to his father, because he cannot bear to admit the truth to himself. It'll be another two seasons until he does.
  • Why is there a blockade? It's unlikely that it's permanent, since Zuko is surprised to see it. Given that Aang only announced his intention to enter the Fire Nation a few hours ago, they can't be there for him unless they've been there for weeks, and then how would they know to be in that one particular spot? No, I think they're there to stop someone else entirely from entering the Fire Nation. Who? Well, by now they've doubtless heard that an entire prisonful of earthbenders busted out and took Fire Navy ships with them... Sure, one of the crew seems to assume that all Fire Navy ships are on their side, but then again, would the Fire Nation want the rank and file to know about such an embarrassing incident?
  • "That's exactly why I didn't want you here!" says Aang. "It's too dangerous!" Katara answers: "And that's exactly why we're here." To be completely useless? To be fair, Sokka and Katara both contribute to opening the door to Roku's chamber, but really, there's no excuse for them to believe they could be any help. It will take many episodes of skill-building and character growth before they're anything like credible allies in a fight.
  • Appa seems more angered than frightened or hurt by his burning fur. Later in the series he'll develop a pretty serious phobia of fire, but none of those events have happened yet.
  • Appa is somehow able to fall faster than Sokka and thus catch him. This doesn't bother me, because Appa is a six-legged magic flying bison with a beaver tail. Six-legged magic flying bison with beaver tails fall as fast as they want to.
  • Why don't the ships keep firing after the Gaang makes it through? Possible answers, by decreasing likelihood: They had all their catapults pointed "out", and it takes a while to turn them around (presumably a ship would normally have them pointed in every direction, and this is special blockade procedure), or they only had enough ammo prepared for three volleys and not enough time to bring more out on deck, or there's some rule against them firing into the Fire Nation.
  • Beautiful moment of Zuko and Zhao staring at each other from the decks of their ships, Zuko low down and defiant, Zhao high up and smug. Both are clearly thinking the same thing: "What are you up to?" And then a moment later Iroh, the great general, rubbing his beard and pondering why Zhao let them through.
  • The Fire Sages were mentioned earlier, as the ones who told Zuko that the Avatar would be a hundred-year-old airbender. This is their first (only?) appearance onscreen.
  • The flowing lava is, of course, not at all hot unless you're actually touching it. There's no such thing as convection in cartoons. Sigh.
  • The ancestors of the Fire Sages were forced to fight for the Fire Nation when the war began. Most of their descendents now appear to serve willingly, but at least one rebels. This gives something of an explanation both for the size of the Fire Nation military and for the widely varying degree of competence they show (to put it charitably): most of the military is conscripts, who of course are not very motivated or skilled. The career military like Zhao, on the other hand, are more focused and skilled and probably better equipped -- it's hinted at that nobles are both expected to serve in the military, and given special status within it.
  • This is one of the few times we see Aang in a rage without entering the Avatar State, as he attacks the unopened door with wind. It's not as scary as the State, but still pretty unsettling; a reminder not only that he's a little kid, but a little kid with no parents and powerful weapons.
  • On what basis does Zhao consider Zuko a traitor? The circumstances of his banishment didn't imply treason. Is it simply that Zuko concealed his knowledge of the Avatar? Zhao does seem the type to equate his own career advancement with the good of the Fire Nation, and thus regard anyone who stands in his way as a traitor.
  • Roku's attack at the end of the episode is the first we get to see of what a fully realized Avatar can do: raw power enough to unleash a volcano to destroy the temple, and control enough to melt steel chains without hurting the people wrapped in them. (Then again, he's probably helped by the fact that there's no such thing as convection.)
  • Why is Momo wearing a Fire Sage hat when he and Appa swoop in to save the Gaang? We'll never know, but I assume, given that it involves Momo and Appa having adventures together, that the answer is both awesome and hilarious.
  • What happens to the Fire Sages, especially the "good" one, after they're handed off to the Fire Lord? Normally I'd assume they were killed, or worse. But there's one scene with four Fire Sages near the end of the last episode, and one of them, albeit in the background and fuzzy, looks a lot like the "good" Sage from this episode. I choose to believe that's who it is.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Insanely Late AtLA Monday on a Thursday: Setting Up the Pins

Aang: Maybe whatever I have to do will just... come to me.

Katara: I think you can do it, Aang.

Sokka: Yeah... we're all going to get eaten by a spirit monster.

Book One: Water

Chapter Seven: The Spirit World (The Winter Solstice, Part One)


The Gaang is hanging out on Appa, flying along, when they see a blight across the landscape. They land to investigate, and discover it's the remnants of a recent forest fire set by the Fire Nation. Aang is depressed, and blames himself; stopping this sort of devestation is part of the Avatar's job.

Katara tries to cheer him up by throwing an acorn at him. She explains that the acorn is a symbol of the forest's eventual return from this destruction. An old man approaches, recognizing Aang as the Avatar, and asks for help.

The Gaang travels with him to his village, where many of the buildings are half-collapsed. He explains that the spirit Heibai has been attacking for the last several nights. As soon as the sun sets, it attacks the village, smashes buildings, and kidnaps one of the people. And as the winter solstice approaches, the spirit world draws closer to the human world, allowing Heibai to manifest more powerfully and for longer. The old man fears what Haibei might do if he isn't stopped before the solstice.

Dealing with spirits is a traditional part of the Avatar's job, but Aang doesn't know how to do it. He has no teacher, and the only people who have any experience being the Avatar are dead. Still, he tries to help. That night, he attempts to appease Heibai, but cannot communicate with him, and the angry spirit kidnaps Sokka. Aang chases after him to the burnt-out forest, and crashes into a wooden statue of a bear in the middle of the blight.

Aang comes to the next morning and returns to the village, but he is now invisible, having crossed over into the spirit world without realizing it. He cries out to Roku for help, and a ghostly dragon appears, the spirit of Roku's "animal guide." The dragon is able to telepathically transmit images, but not words, when it touches Aang's forehead, and it shows him an image of a comet and a distant island. Aang mounts it and flies to the island, where there is a shrine to Avatar Roku. From the images the dragon transmits, Aang figures out that the shrine is set up as a calendar, such that, on the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun will shine on the jewel in the forehead of a statue of Roku. At that time, it will be possible for Aang to speak to his spirit.

The dragon returns Aang to his body, and he reaches the village just as the sun is setting. Heibai returns, but this time Aang touches his forehead and learns that he is the spirit of the forest the Fire Nation burned down. Aang gives the Heibai the acorn Katara gave him earlier, and explains its significance. Heibai takes it and departs, transforming into a panda as he goes. As he vanishes, Sokka and the missing villagers return, unsure where they've been.

Meanwhile, we cut regularly to the B plot, in which Iroh is ambushed and captured by earthbenders. They mention some of his past exploits, and he rather cleverly manages to leave a trail for Zuko as they haul him off to the capital. Zuko follows them alone, and along the way sees Katara riding on Appa. He nearly turns to follow, but then chooses to go after Iroh instead, just in time to save him from having his hands smashed by the earthbenders to prevent further escape attempts. Zuko and Iroh make short work of the earthbenders, and return to the ship.

At the end of the episode, Aang tells the others about the shrine, but they have only one day to reach it before the solstice. Worse still: it's in the Fire Nation.


The most important work of this episode and the next is to set up future events. We learn more about the Avatar and his world than any episode since the premiere, and we hardly notice we're doing it!

This episode actually reveals the last of the Avatar's powers. There will be no more reveals of new powers; everything else is a logical application of the powers we're shown here, though it does require a bit of reading between the lines. The powers of the Avatar, assuming he learns to use them, are:
  • Consummate martial arts skills.
  • Access to the accumulated knowledge, skill, and experience of all past Avatars.
  • The ability to bend all four elements.
  • The Avatar State, in which he lets the spirits of past Avatars basically possess him, multiplying his power and making him float and glow.
  • The ability to see and communicate with spirits.
  • The ability to separate his spirit from his body and wander the spirit world.
As we go on in the series, I'll explain how each of the powers he "develops" later are logical extensions of these powers, given the rules of the universe. The important thing at this stage is to understand that Aang is more than four benders in one person; he is also a bridge between the human and spirit worlds. He can act equally in both.

What exactly is the spirit world? Based on the way its portrayed, it appears to be a sort of shadow of the human world (though its denizens might argue that it's the other way around). The Avatar universe is pantheist; everything has a spirit, in both senses (there is a Spirit of Everything, and there are lesser spirits for each individual thing). Places, people, objects, animals, all have an animating spirit. The spirits are not good or evil, by and large; they obey their own, often seemingly arbitrary, rules. Some spirits are quite minor, being the spirit of, say, a forest or a lake. Others represent abstractions, such as wisdom, or major natural forces, such as the ocean or the moon. And some are downright terrifying, even if it's not clear what exactly they're the spirit of. Spirits usually dwell in the spirit world, but sometimes they can cross over into the human world, as Heibai does in this episode. This is easiest near the solstice. Some spirits, as we'll see later, can incarnate in the human world more or less permanently.

The two worlds are closely connected. If you destroy something in the human world, as we see in this episode, its spirit may rampage. This can be a problem if you happen to find yourself in that spirit's path. On the other hand, if you harm a spirit, it can have disastrous consequences in the human world.

Notably, a spirit without a body cannot use bending. This makes sense, as bending is a very physical kind of magic. The spirit world is not material, and thus not made of the elements; even if it were, without a body, how could Aang do the physical motions required to bend? Also, this makes it very clear that Aang's ability to walk the spirit world and communicate with spirits is separate from any of the four bending styles. It is an additional power in its own right, not some kind of synergistic effect of having access to four elements.

Also, Fang (Roku's dragon) appears when Aang asks for help from Roku. Why is the dragon free to act when Roku is not? Because Roku is already there, inside Aang. Aang hasn't yet figured out how to talk to Roku, but since Aang is Roku, when he is in trouble the spirit of Roku's closest companion comes to aid him. Unfortunately, Roku's experience and skill are buried deep inside Aang, and accessing them will require something special -- at least until Aang improves in the use of his spiritual powers, and learns to tap his own depths.

There's some interesting foreshadowing at work here, too. The comet is obvious, but there are subtler touches, as well. Literal touches, in fact -- first Fang, and then Aang touches a spirit in the forehead in order to link with it and communicate. This figures in the way Aang resolves the conflict with Heibai. He does not defeat him; in fact, he never even lands a blow on Heibai. He touches Heibai's forehead, uses his spiritual power (with accompanying glow), and then renders Heibai harmless.

We also get some foreshadowing in the B story, particularly in the moment where Zuko has to choose between rescuing his uncle and pursuing the Avatar. He hesitates a moment, even turns to start following Appa, and then turns back to save his uncle. That sequence, spread over rather a lot more time, will happen again.

The B story also teaches us a lot about Iroh. We learn that, despite his belly, he is actually quite buff. More seriously, we learn that he was once a great general, and led the siege of the city of Ba Sing Se for 600 days, which is a ridiculously long siege. It says volumes about the determination of both attacker and defender to have a siege last that long -- almost two years! He was defeated at Ba Sing Se, because he and his men were tired. (And, in hindsight, knowing the real reason Iroh ended the siege that he hides behind the claim to be "tired", it is heartbreaking when he says, "And I'm still tired." I immediately flashed to "The Tale of Iroh," and I am not ashamed to say I got a little misty.) Iroh then proceeds to top his effortless takedown of Zhao in "The Southern Air Temple" with one of the all-time great escape attempts. We thus learn that he is completely awesome -- or think that we do. The truth is, at this point in the series we've barely even begun to scratch the surface of Iroh's pure awesomeness.

The B story is actually quite brilliant. Think about it from the point of view from someone who's never seen this show before. An old man is taking a bath. His nephew tells him to hurry up so they can get moving. The old man doesn't listen, falls asleep in the bath, and is ambushed and captured by soldiers. The soldiers leave him almost naked, chain him up, mock him, and drag him off. He makes a couple of escape attempts, both quite clever, and the soldiers respond by preparing to crush his hands. At the last moment, his nephew arrives, releases him, and they non-lethally kick the asses of the soldiers, who outnumber them three to one. A first-time viewer would be completely justified in concluding that Zuko and Iroh are a second team of heroic characters, and the Earth Kingdom are villains.

How many kids' shows are willing to delve this deep into shades of gray? Heck, how many "adult" shows? The evening news is usually more black and white! And this episode is barely the beginning of the process of deepening Zuko, Iroh, and the Fire Nation.

Random Observations:
  • "Turns out clouds are made of water." Even that bit of silliness is minor foreshadowing for a few episodes from now. The fact that clouds are made of water will be critical to the plot of "The Fortuneteller."
  • The Gaang must be pretty near the equator by now, if it's this green two days before the winter solstice.
  • Sokka finds proof that the Fire Nation was at the site of the forest fire, not that they set it. It makes more sense for the villagers to have done it, possibly in an attempt to destroy a Fire Nation encampment -- it would explain why Heibai's attacking them, and not the Fire Nation.
  • Is Aang going to blame himself for everything the Fire Nation does? He's really not at all over the events of "The Southern Air Temple," as we'll see again in "The Storm." He feels guilty about running away, and believes that because he ran away and vanished for a century, he is responsible for everything the Fire Nation did in the meantime, from burning this forest to wiping out the Air Nomads.
  • Zuko really, really, REALLY does not want reminders that his uncle is a sexual being. This becomes something of a running gag: Zuko is easily grossed out by old people.
  • Katara throws those acorns HARD. She's really quite strong.
  • Iroh falling asleep in the hot spring is incredibly stupid and irresponsible of him. Sleeping in a hot spring is dangerous; it can lead to severe dehydration, overheating, coma, even death. Presumably powerful firebenders have at least some resistance to extreme temperatures, but even so, dumb move on his part.
  • Iroh's nickname, "The Dragon of the West," will turn out to have several layers of meaning. The most obvious is his ability to breathe fire or very hot air, which he uses in this episode to heat the spring water and, later, his manacle.
  • Sokka complains about having to "sit and cower" while Aang deals with Heibai. That may explain his insistence on coming with Aang at the beginning of the next episode.
  • I love Heibai's design in his "monster" form! I love all the monster design in Avatar. It's a pity they don't get to do more of it; there are only three real monsters in the series, four if you count the big, man-made, shambling plant-thing from "The Swamp."
  • Are we supposed to believe that the sandal Zuko finds in this episode is the one he uses in the finale? That's sweet and all, but what was he doing carrying a smelly sandal for months on end? Especially given that for a lot of that time, Iroh was right there next to him, hobbling around on one sandal? For that matter, how did Iroh even have his sandal to drop? Wasn't he naked when the soldiers caught him?
  • Heartbreaking Katara Moment #65,849: Clutching Sokka's boomerang after he and Aang leave. This episode must be completely awful for her. Her mother is dead, her father is gone, now her brother has been captured by a monster. On top of that, Katara is constantly acting as caretaker for the people around her, so she doubtless blames herself for Sokka's capture, especially when you consider that she persuaded Sokka to come on the journey in the first place, and did nothing throughout Heibai's attack. Doubtless, her misery and guilt in this episode are factors in her insistence on coming with Aang at the beginning of the next episode.
  • The Avatar solar motif rears its head again: as Aang approaches the village in spirit form, the sun rises. The whole plot of this episode is a variant of the Dying God trope: The sun "dies" at the solstice, the longest night of the year, just as Aang "dies" and become a Force ghost, I mean spirit. The offering is made, and the spirit appeased, and the sun returns, just as Aang returns to life. And of course, this is foreshadowing, too -- it is neither the first time (that would be the hundred years he spent frozen) nor the last that Aang symbolically dies and is reborn. Makes sense, given the solar motif; in addition to its annual cycle, the sun dies with every sunset and is reborn with every sunrise.
  • The dragons in Avatar are an interesting combination of eastern and western influences. The body shape, limbs, and heads are clearly eastern, but the wings and firebreath are pure western (eastern dragons are generally associated with water, not fire).
  • Do all Avatars have an animal guide? It's interesting that Aang has an air bison, later identified as the animal from which the first airbenders learned their art, while Roku had a dragon, the animal that did the same for firebenders. Is this a coincidence, or a tradition? Does it mean Kyoshi had a giant badger-mole for a companion? Waterbending was learned from the moon, not an animal, so what would a Water Tribe Avatar have for a guide?
  • Iroh sees Aang fly past on Fang. How? Has he always been able to see spirits, or did he learn this ability at some point? Regardless of the backstory, it makes thematic sense. Iroh is good at seeing things other people don't. Particularly, he sees Zuko's worth, something Zuko himself cannot until much later in the series.
  • What did Sokka experience during his night and day in the spirit world. Did he experience anything, or was it lost time?
  • This is the last episode of setting up. In the next episode, the main plot kicks into high gear, and we start the long, strange trip to the series finale. This is also the first episode we can more-or-less definitively date. It's not clear how much time the previous episodes cover, though it's probably about six weeks. We do know for certain, however, that this episode takes place roughly halfway through winter, and that from here to the end of the series covers about six to eight months.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Not going to make it on AtLA Monday...

Sorry, all. Other obligations came up. It got right down to the wire, but I am simply too tired to finish. I will try to get it up after I get home tomorrow, but I may not have time, so AtLA Monday may be as late as Wednesday this week.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

AtLA Monday: Heroism, Abuse, and Scenery Porn

Sorry this is up so late. I had planned to proofread and post when I got home from work, and I did do that. It's just that "when I got home from work" was a lot later than I had hoped.

Anyway, you're not here to hear about my job, so let's jump right in.

Book One: Water
Chapter Six: Imprisoned


The Gaang are facing a night in the woods with almost no food when they see an earthbender practicing. Katara calls out to him, and he runs. Hoping to buy some food, they follow him to a nearby town, which they learn is occupied by the Fire Nation. Earthbending is banned, which is why the boy, Haru, snuck out to the woods to practice. His father was taken prisoner by the Fire Nation years ago, and Haru's mother is afraid the same could happen to him.

Katara and Haru hit it off, and she tries to convince him to continue practicing earthbending. A nearby coal mine has a cave-in and an old man is trapped. No one else is around, and Katara convinces Haru to save him with earthbending. That night, the old man leads Fire Nation soldiers to Haru's house and he is taken prisoner.

The next morning, after Katara learns what happened to Haru, she hatches a plan. She fakes earthbending in front of some soldiers and is taken prisoner, with the rest of the Gaang to follow after her and break her and Haru out of prison in twelve hours.

At the prison, Katara meets up with Haru and his father. She tries to rally the earthbenders, but the all-metal prison has nothing to bend and their spirits are broken. That night, Aang and Sokka come for her but Katara refuses to leave until the earthbenders are free. Aang realizes that the prison's smokestacks are coal-powered, and Sokka comes up with a plan to get the coal to the benders.

The next morning, they put their plan into action, and it works: a large pile of coal is deposited on the deck of the prison platform. However, the earthbenders still won't do anything, and the warden mocks Katara. As he is leaving, Haru hits him with a piece of coal, and he counterattacks, but his flames are blocked by a wall of coal created by Haru's father. A battle erupts, and the earthbenders win. They steal the Fire Navy ships docked at the platform and flee before the Fire Nation catches on to what's happened.

As the Gaang is leaving, Katara realizes she lost her necklace in the melee. That evening, on the prison platform, Zuko finds it...


The first time I watched this episode, I didn't think much of it. It was a good episode, but not a great one. Rewatching it while paying close attention, however, I've realized that this episode is a huge jump in quality for the series. There's a major improvement in both the animation quality and the backgrounds compared to the first five episodes, which leads me to suspect this is the first episode made after the series' ratings came in. There's also the beginning of a real effort to deepen the characters here. And, finally, this is where the series passes to the next stage of feminist media, from acknowledging and celebrating female characters who transcend gender roles, to treating that transcendence as normal.

This is the first episode to really convey how heartbreakingly beautiful the Earth Nation can be. Haru's village is all hills and pines and soft sunlight, depicted in a much more impressionistic style than previous episodes. In particular, the shot of the hillside after the scene where the Gaang meet Haru's mother could easily be framed and hung on a wall. The characters continue to use the same art style as before, however, and look a little odd compared to the backgrounds in some scenes.

The animation is also top-notch. The characters' faces are incredibly expressive; I replayed the scene of Katara walking and talking with Haru about bending and their parents just so that I could watch their eyebrows dance. And the overacting when Katara and Sokka stage their fight for the Fire Nation soldiers is a thing of beauty, from the slightly jerky, exaggerated gestures to the ridiculous facial expressions. It perfectly captured every student play I've ever seen.

And speaking of Katara's plan, isn't it interesting that Sokka not only participates in it, he praises it? Just two episodes ago he was implying that Katara is good for nothing but sewing -- a mistake he will never make again. Sokka is still a typically insecure teenage boy, as witness his response to Katara's ear cracks (and especially the way he immediately starts mocking Momo's ears), but he's letting go of the macho-man protector of all.

Aang is barely in this episode, which is interesting in and of itself. The Gaang has learned not to mention his name in every town they come across, so there is no one hunting or celebrating him. He is effectively free to not be the Avatar for an episode, and he spends most of it lazing about, barely paying attention, playing with Momo and passing butterflies. Notably, he's not bothered by the plight of the prisoners; without a clear threat to himself, his loved ones, or the world, Aang reverts to being a carefree little boy.

But not Katara, and that is why this is Katara's episode. Aang and Sokka both are essentially reactive: Aang fights threats to his friends or the world, but is otherwise content to go with the flow. Sokka, especially early on, seems more motivated by anger at the Fire Nation then any desire to better the world. Katara, on the other hand, works constantly to better the world around her, in any way she can. This episode casts a new light on her "superego" role in the previous two: She is the caretaker, the mother of the group, who tries to make things better for everyone. When confronted with people suffering, she cannot ignore it like Sokka or Aang; she must do something to help them. Even if it means a delay in the group's mission, Katara alone understands that saving "the world" is meaningless if you don't save the people in it, too.

Katara began the series as a typical female character for a children's story: she's studious, serious, full of hope for the future, a bit self-righteous, and constantly taking care of the male characters; Hermione Granger is probably the best-known contemporary example of this type. But beginning with this episode, Katara is transformed into a far more interesting character, and the most heroic in the show.

Note that I said "most heroic", not "the hero." The hero of Avatar is unquestionably Aang; he is the one with the heroic destiny and the magical powers, aided by the gods in his quest to face the world's greatest evil. But all of this destiny and divine assistance makes Aang less heroic, even as it marks him as The Hero: the odds are stacked unfairly in Aang's favor by the narrative structure itself. He is a Special Person, and therefore anything Special he accomplishes is a little less impressive than if somebody else does it.

Katara, meanwhile, works her butt off. While Aang is goofing around, relying on innate talent, Katara struggles to master waterbending, and ends up far more skilled and creative in its use than Aang, even while she is unable to match him in raw power. Aang's goofing off is consistent with his repeated attempts to run away from the destiny that is forced on him; Aang does not want to save the world, he has to save the world. Katara, meanwhile, wants to save the world. She is motivated by empathy and compassion, not duty, to help people she sees in need. When she sees an injury she wants to heal it. When she sees injustice, she wants to right it. When she sees a victim, she tries to teach them to stand up for themselves. Katara never stops trying to make the world a better place.

And she neither asks nor receives a reward for it, as we'll see at the end. By the end of the series, the other Gaang members have achieved greatness: Sokka led the strike force that stopped the [spoiler], [spoiler] and Aang are hailed by cheering crowds, and [spoiler] is the Greatest [spoiler] in the World; but Katara just fades into the background. Everyone else is rewarded because everyone else has completed their quest, because everyone else's quest is to defeat the Fire Nation. Katara, however, has only begun her quest, because her quest is never-ending. There is always something you can do to make the world better than it is.

In almost any other series, Katara would be denied the cheering crowds and the global fame because she's the girl, and it's her job to support the men and fade into the background when not needed. Why dig into her character looking for reasons? Because Avatar reminds us, again and again, that that's not what "the girl" does. That was the whole point of "The Warriors of Kyoshi," but this episode takes it a step further by simply having several of the prisoners fighting to free themselves at the end be women, including making one the main focus of one shot. This is never commented on or made a big deal of; it's simply presented as a fact: women are fully capable of kicking ass, and there's nothing unusual about them doing it. The "generic person" of the Avatar world is not always male; when there's no reason for the character to be a particular gender, the character is quite likely to be female, and that likelihood increases as the series goes on.

Avatar, in other words, portrays women as people. Katara isn't portrayed as an instance of Woman any more than Aang or Sokka is an instance of Man; she's Katara, and her possession of a vagina is just one (fairly minor) aspect of her character. More than one episode could have been played as "silly Katara gets the Gaang in trouble because of her silly girl parts," but isn't, usually by dint of having Aang be suckered as easily as Katara is ("Jet" and "The Fortuneteller" in the first season, for example).

But for all that Katara is the hero, in a sense she fails in this episode. She is not able to save the prisoners; they have to save themselves. The reason is that this episode is the beginning of one of Avatar's most important themes: abuse, and what it does to its victims. We've already met one abuse victim, Zuko, but it will take much of the series to explore the nature of that abuse and his response.

The prisoners here respond differently. Years of abuse at the hands of a sadistic warden have created such deep feelings of helplessness in them that, even handed the weapons they need to overwhelm his tiny handful of guards, they cower in fear. This is learned helplessness; it's real, and one of the most insidious effects of abuse. The warden's pseudo-friendly speech "welcoming" Katara to the prison isn't just posturing; it's all part of the game of beating the prisoners down and making them depend on him, making them afraid and convincing them that he is protecting them from much worse. Years of that could break anyone, and so it is no surprise that, when confronted with an opportunity at freedom, most of the prisoners draw back in fear.

But learned helplessness is a two-edged sword. All it takes is to be pushed a little to far, to taste power just once, and all that fear transforms into rage. This is part of why abuse victims so often become abusers themselves, if they get power over someone. (And we'll see exactly that happen with another former Fire Nation prisoner in a couple of seasons.) In this case, the breaking point is when the warden attacks Haru. Haru's father's paternal instincts break through his learned helplessness for just long enough for him to block the attack, and the earthbenders suddenly realize their power.

In this first attempt to broach the topic, the writers of Avatar allow the abuse victims to stand up to their abusers and begin to pursue justice as a road to healing. Other abuse victims will do the same later in the series. Still others will not.

Heavy stuff for what I originally dismissed as an unimportant episode.

Random Observations:
  • The running gag of Momo being an earthbender (first ground shaking as he tries to crack the "rock-shaped nut", and then the soldiers mistaking him for one) is hilarious. This episode in general manages quite a bit of humor while still being a generally serious story.
  • Another running gag, this time series-wide: the Gaang tries to come up with a solution to the crisis du jour, and one of the characters suggests an absolutely terrible plan. Last episode it was Sokka's "Rocky" suggestion for the King's name; this episode it's Aang's hurricane idea. There will be plenty more examples.
  • Just about everyone in Haru's village (and Omashu before it) wears green, which is the main color of the Earth Kingdom. However, unlike the other three nations, the Earth Kingdom's color is far from universal in its people's clothing. Haru wears mostly yellow with green accents, and browns, purples, and blues are common as well. Over the course of the series, we'll see that the Earth Kingdom is in many ways the most diverse of the nations; this is just one example of that diversity.
  • Katara's mother's necklace will be important a couple more times this season.
  • No explanation is given for the old man betraying Haru to the Fire Nation. It's entirely possible he's just a dick looking to curry favor or get some reward money. I prefer to imagine, however, that either he desperately needed the money, they threatened him or his family, or he was afraid of the consequences for the entire town if the Fire Nation discovered they were hiding an earthbender.
  • Katara bends water out of a pump, using the move she was practicing in "The Warriors of Kyoshi." It's a nice touch of continuity; she's clearly been working hard at her bending while they travel, and she's gotten a lot better.
  • George Takei as the warden very nearly steals this episode. He hams it up beautifully, clearly relishing every word, and transforms a character who is, going by the script alone, a generic, prisoner-abusing, minion-killing bad guy into an unnervingly polite, superficially cultured sadist whose inner thug keeps breaking through the veneer.
  • It is common knowledge in the Avatar world that metalbending is impossible. Remember that next season.
  • Earthbending apparently works only on unworked, unrefined minerals. Interestingly, it works on coal, even though coal is organic.
  • Katara has actually struck a pretty major blow for the resistance against the Fire Nation. She's just released hundreds of armed POWs, with three captured Fire Navy ships, into occupied territory.
  • One odd question worth asking: Why does the Fire Nation kill all the airbenders, but take water- and earthbenders prisoner? One possibility is that they were trying to take out the Avatar in the assault on the airbenders, and now believe the Avatar cycle is over. However, that doesn't really give them a reason to spare the water- and earthbenders. More likely is that they are following some sort of rules of war; possibly they don't kill people who surrender. The Air Nomads, struck rapidly in a surprise attack, never had a chance to surrender.
  • Why are so many of the prisoners old? Almost all of them have gray or white hair. It can't be that younger prisoners are kept elsewhere or killed, because then that would have happened to Haru and Katara. The likeliest possibility is that this prison is specifically for non-combatant earthbenders, and there is another prison for earthbenders captured in battle. It would not surprise me if nearly all earthbenders in the 15-40 range were in the military.
  • The warden hears Katara's speech to the earthbenders, so he knows she's from the Water Tribe. Why doesn't he take any precautions or send her to the prison for waterbenders (which we see in the third season, though only in flashback, so it's possible it no longer exists)? This is probably just a plot hole, though it may be a mark of the warden's arrogance.
  • Katara still has her necklace when loading coal into Aang's wind-gun-thing. She therefore lost it, not during the actual fighting, but during the off-screen run to the ships.