Saturday, March 27, 2010

Avatar: The Last Airbender Monday: It Begins

Note: I couldn't get the formatting to work right, and decided I hated the way the original post was structured, so this post is heavily revised from its initial appearance. This hopefully will not happen again, now that I know how much work this kind of post entails and can therefore plan it in advance so I'm not doing half the work at 2 a.m.

For years now, Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has been methodically shredding the Left Behind series, or, as he refers to them, The World’s Worst Books. His weekly posts, each one covering anywhere from a few pages to a couple of sentences, are by turns funny, insightful, enlightening, and utterly damning of the books, the authors, and the cultural elements that produced them.

A few weeks ago, I was on TV Tropes and found a link to a series of blog posts, by someone called Seraph4377, on the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. Seraph did a detailed analysis of the series, mostly from a feminist perspective; in the second of five posts, she said that she planned to dedicate one post per season, because “I don't have the stamina for a proper Fred Clarkian episode-by-episode treatment.”

To keep this introduction as short as possible: I decided I would do exactly that. This blog exists primarily as an excuse to do so, though having a link to give people at my anime con panels is certainly a plus.

Unlike Fred, and like Seraph, I am analyzing Avatar as a labor of love. It is quite possibly the best American cartoon of the last ten years, and one of my all-time favorites. I'm going to be going through each episode scene-by-scene, so expect lots of spoilers. I very, very much recommend having watched at least the episode under discussion before you read each entry. They're pretty easy to find on DVD, and less easy but possible to find on line, though I (and doubtless the creators and copyright holders, as well) would prefer you go with the former.

Without further ado, then, let us begin out very first AtLA Monday.

Book One: Water

Episode One: The Boy in the Iceberg

Water, Earth, Fire, Air...

My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days. A time of peace, when the Avatar kept balance between Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless Firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished.

A hundred years have passed, and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the war. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle was broken. But I haven’t lost hope. I still believe that, somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world...

- Katara's opening narration


Open on teenagers Sokka and Katara in a canoe, fishing amidst ice floes. Sokka is trying to use a spear, while Katara is trying to use Waterbending -- a technique (the term "magic" is explicitly rejected) to manipulate nearby water through the motions of her body. The two attempts tangle, resulting in the fish getting away and Sokka getting soaked. They argue, and don't look where they're going. The canoe is destroyed, and they're left on a floating block of ice. Sokka blames Katara for the crash in a blatant display of sexism, which Katara rightfully takes him to task for. Unfortunately, her angry gestures trigger motion in the water and ice around her, cracking open an iceberg behind her. A block of ice containing a large creature and a boy appears; Katara breaks it open to free the boy, ignoring Sokka's protestations that he may be dangerous. As soon as the boy is released, a column of light emerges from the ice.

The flare of light is seen from afar by a steamship traveling through the ice. Aboard we meet the main antagonist of the first season, the Fire Nation's Prince Zuko, and his mentor, conscience, and comedic sidekick all in one, Iroh. Zuko believes the light indicates the Avatar is near; Iroh suggests it is the aurora, and implies that they have followed many false leads to the Avatar before. He suggests Zuko relax, and Zuko snaps at him, which seems to phase Iroh not at all.

Back with Sokka and Katara, a boy emerges from the ice. He is initially somewhat frightening, with glowing eyes and symbols on his hands and forehead, but then the glow fades and he is just a bald, tattooed 12-year-old in the yellow robes of a Tibetan monk -- the same style identified in the opening as associated with Air. He faints, and Katara rushes to help him. We are soon introduced to the boy, Aang, and Appa, the large creature in the ice with him. Appa is Aang's pet, mount, and best friend, a flying bison, but he is currently unable to fly. Although Sokka is still immensely suspicious, Aang gives them a ride home on the swimming Appa.

Back on the Fire Navy ship, night is falling, and Iroh pleads with Zuko to sleep. We learn that Zuko is the fourth generation of the ruling family to hunt for the Avatar, and none have succeeded. Zuko argues that he will succeed because his honor depends on it.

Back to Aang, Katara, and Sokka. Katara asks Aang about the Avatar, and Aang says he doesn't know the Avatar, but knows people who know the Avatar. The trio riding on Appa go to sleep, and Aang dreams how he got into the ice: he and Appa were trapped in a storm, and Aang used a combination of Air- and Waterbending to freeze them both and save their lives. In case we hadn't figured it out already, the scene makes it clear: Aang is the Avatar.

Aang wakes to find he is in the village. He is introduced to the entire village by Katara: nine women ranging in age from young adults to wrinkled, bent old women, and ten children from toddlers to maybe eight or nine. Other than Katara and Sokka, there are no teenagers; there are no babies or adult men at all. The villagers are frightened of Aang, and Katara explains it's because they've never seen an Airbender.

Most of the rest of the episode is dedicated to contrasting Sokka's attempts to turn the local children into a fighting force with Aang's attempts to play with his new friends. Aang, it seems, has never heard of the war. He comes from a world where a young Airbender can have friends from every nation, a world with no hint from the war. He thinks he's been frozen for a few days, but Katara reveals it has actually been a hundred years.

The episode also has another scene showcasing a different aspect of Zuko and Iroh's relationship: Iroh is teaching Zuko Firebending. Zuko is impatient and wants to move on to more advanced sets, but Iroh wants him to master the basics. Zuko says that the Fire Sages (we'll meet them later in the series) told him the Avatar is the last Airbender, and therefore has had a hundred years to master all four elements. Zuko must be more advanced to be able to fight the Avatar, and he angrily orders Iroh to teach him the next set.

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, with Zuko watching Aang Airbending through a telescope. Still thinking he's after a hundred-plus-year-old man, Zuko prepares to attack the Water Tribe village.


This episode, being the introduction to the world, characters, and stories, has to do a lot of work. It therefore touches lightly on many of the themes that will be present throughout the series, but doesn't go very far into most of them.

Probably the most notably subversive element of the episode, and indeed of the series as a whole, is the total absence of any white, European characters. Even most fantasy settings have some form of fantasy Europe, and most American cartoons, especially those aimed at children, are dominated by white characters or stand-ins for white characters. For example, Donald Duck is pretty obviously a "white" character, in the sense of being descended from Europeans (his uncle is Scottish) and living a typical white, middle-class American lifestyle. It is unclear whether other cultures even exist in the modern Duckverse; certainly in the classic Barks comics there were (racist caricatures of) Asian and African ducks and Asian and Native American dogs.

But in the entirety of the Avatar world, there are no whites, and no culture resembling Europe. In this episode, we start with Katara and Sokka and their people, who are dark-skinned and -haired, with flat noses, and whose clothing and equipment is clearly modeled on Native American designs, especially the Inuit. True, their eyes are blue, but that's to match their water-themed color scheme. We then see the Fire Nation, with their armored uniforms clearly inspired by Mongolian and, to a lesser extent, Imperial Japanese designs, their very samurai-esque topknots, and "almond-shaped" eyes. Finally, we get Aang, the most white-looking character, but even he is shaved completely bald and dressed in the yellow robes of a Buddhist monk. (Not that he actually is Buddhist; though the teachings of the Airbenders do seem to resemble aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism, the series generally avoids giving any detail on the religious beliefs of its characters. There are hints of pantheism, polytheism, and the aforementioned Buddhism and Hinduism, but in general religion seems not to be a big part of Avatar characters' lives.)

With all of these different cultures running around, there's a lot of worldbuilding here. In this episode we see a few uses of Bending: Zuko uses it for combat, of course, but Aang uses it to fly and to help himself in little ways, such as lifting himself up after Katara first frees him. Katara isn't very good yet at Waterbending, but she tries to make practical use of it in fishing. We'll see many more variations on this theme; the Earth Kingdom in particular will prove quite imaginative in finding uses for Benders in addition to combat. We get to meet representatives of two of the major cultures, the Southern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation, and can see part of why the war has been so devestating: Not only does the Fire Nation have a massive technological advantage, with ironclad steamships to the Water Tribe's canoes and ice walls, but they are able to send at least four combat Firebenders (Zuko, his sparring partners, and Iroh) on a wild goose chase while the only Waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe barely understands her own abilities. Not to mention that, from what we see, Zuko's ship has a crew compliment comparable to the entire population of the Southern Water Tribe.

That difference of numbers throws new light on Sokka's and Katara's behavior throughout the episode. Sokka's suspicion and coldness toward Aang -- inclusing recommending that they leave him on the ice floe unconscious, presumably to die -- are actually quite understandable given the world in which he lives, in which a powerful and advanced empire has been trying to systematically eradicate his people for generations -- trying and succeeding.

Sokka has all the typical anxieties of a teenage boy, as we see when Katara catches him "making muscles" at his reflection, but he is carrying the weight of his entire world, as well. He is the sole defender of his dying people, now that the men have gone off to war, and in that light his attempts to shape a handful of easily distractable kindergarteners into a fighting force is no longer quite so funny. He is desperate, and frightened, and trying desperately to act as he thinks an adult -- a "warrior" -- should: stern, suspicious, defensive, and a bit misogynistic. He has divided the world into three camps: the warrior men who left, the protectors of the village; the villagers, who exist to be protected and to take care of all the other tasks; and outsiders to be fought. He is trying desperately to take on the role of the men who left, and to transform the male children in the village into fighting comrades so that he will no longer have to carry the burden alone. Ironically, there are several adult, healthy women in the village who could help him, not to mention his sister with the magical powers, but he has grown up in a village where only men fight, and so he ignores that solution. Ironically, we’ll see in a much later episode that sixty or seventy years ago, female Waterbenders did fight to protect the tribe.

Katara has also taken on a caretaker role, in her own way. Her instinct is to help the troubled and comfort the afflicted. She has taken on a motherly role toward Sokka, even washing his socks, and she will attempt to extend that role to pretty much everyone she meets for most of the rest of the series. In other words, like Sokka she is taking on the role (and gender role) of an adult of her people, and like Sokka she is showing the strain. Where Sokka is overwhelmed and frightened, Katara seeks to escape, to learn Waterbending. Sokka has more or less given up, and retreated into cynicism and suspicion; Katara still believes that someone will come to save her. And yet she doesn’t passively sit in her village until Aang blows into town and sweeps her away; the first rescue we see is Katara freeing Aang from his prison, empowering him to save her from hers.

Aang is enormously different from Katara and Sokka; the viewers’ first impression of him is of a fun-loving free spirit. Yet there is more to him than meets the eye: His expression when he tells Katara he doesn’t know the Avatar betrays both guilt and fear. He believes he is lying to her, because of course Aang knows that he is the Avatar; however, as we will see in the first few episodes, Aang really doesn’t know himself. He fears his own power, and neither understands nor, at this point, wishes to understand what being the Avatar entails.

Seraph points out a very important scene to understanding why Aang is initially so different from the other two:

Katara and Aang go sledding together, and Katara glees: "I haven't done this since I was a kid!" Aang's reply: "You still are a kid!" He's wrong. In his time, she would have been a kid. But the world's at war, her mother is dead, and she hasn't been a kid for a long time. If you blink, you'll miss it, and if you think about it too much it'll break your heart.

But Aang isn’t a kid anymore, either. He is the incarnation of a millennia-old spiritual being of godlike power, and he knows it. We will see later that Avatars are usually not informed of their power and destiny until their sixteenth birthday; the monks of Aang’s order told him years too early, overriding his mentor’s attempts to shield him. He also knows that it is his responsibility to be the protector and peacekeeper for the entire world: Sokka’s and Katara’s burdens both, multiplied a thousandfold.

At the same time, however, Aang has wisdom they do not. Katara tells her grandmother that she senses that wisdom in Aang, and we cut immediately to him licking his staff to freeze his tongue onto it, entertaining the children. At first glance it is simply a bit of ironic comedy, but there is actually great wisdom in Aang’s playfulness. He is bringing laughter to children who probably haven’t had much to laugh about for a long time, and he’s also keeping himself from turning into a Sokka-style cynic or a Katara-style wet hen.

This is the thematic thread that connects Aang to Iroh, even though they have virtually no interaction in the entire series. Both are aware -- Iroh consciously, Aang instinctively -- that real wisdom cannot be separated from joy; that peace, happiness, and love are both necessary to and a consequence of the pursuit of enlightenment.

Iroh struggles throughout the episode -- and indeed, throughout the first two seasons -- to help Zuko understand that honor is neither what Zuko truly desires nor what he needs, and that his pursuit of the Avatar is not going to bring him peace. His offer of tea, and Zuko’s refusal (“I don’t need calming tea! I need to capture the Avatar!”) are particularly prescient, foreshadowing the fateful choice Zuko will have to make at the end of the second season, and in a sense sums up his entire character arc.

Also of note is the incredibly patience Iroh shows. His expression reveals that Zuko manages to get under his skin once or twice, but Iroh is never angry toward his nephew. Stern, yes, but always loving and helpful. Iroh is, quite simply, the best parent in the series, always there for his surrogate son, always loving him unconditionally even when scolding him or expressing disappointment.

And Zuko… is utterly incapable of reciprocating. Zuko will not, can not, recognize the gift his uncle is constantly offering, until nearly the end of the series. Zuko has wounds much deeper than that nasty burn scar on his face.

Which brings us to the third incredibly daring move on the part of the writers. First was to air an American children’s show not only devoid of white characters, but set in a world where white people don’t exist. Second was to make that show a serial. The title card proudly proclaims “Chapter One, Episode One”. This show is going to be divisible into chapters; it is a single story spanning three seasons, divisible into three chapters and sixty episodes. Only a year after Lost created a space for the prime-time serial, Nickelodeon is daring to attempt it on Saturday morning.

But we are talking about the third incredibly daring move: the refusal of the creators to make this a story where “heroes” mass-murder (or, since this is a kid’s show, brutally beat) their way through hordes of faceless mooks to defeat a cackling self-parody or a soulless Voldemort. In Avatar, everyone is a human being. Main characters, enemy soldiers, terrorists, strange-bedfellow allies, even genocidal megalomaniacs are insistently, aggressively portrayed as human beings, with lives, loves, warts, and quirks outside the immediate conflict. Again and again, we are reminded that there are both good people and bad people on every side of ever conflict, and that good or bad, they’re still people, and still have worth as people.

Heavy stuff for kids, perhaps. But I’d rather see kids forced to stretch a little than spoon-fed pap that says fighting is awesome and any problem can be solved by finding someone to blame for it and blowing them up. Avatar makes the kids stretch, and the rewards it offers are handsome.


  1. Followed you from LB mondays. :-)
    This looks awesome, I'm bookmarking it!
    I don't really have anything to say, but I hate to see an empty comment box, so...hi.

  2. I also followed in from LB Mondays, and I'm also looking forward to how this develops. I definitely appreciate the attention paid to Aang's wisdom in this episode; all too often he is dismissed as childish or immature, so its nice when someone points out that this isn't so.

  3. Also dropping by from LB Mondays (where I lurk) and speaking up now because I also love A:TLA. I got into it when the kids I babysit (all of ten) insisted on putting on the DVD. "Oh man, another kid's show," I thought.

    And after they'd showed me three episodes, conning me into letting them stay up way past their bedtime, and their parents came home, I went and downloaded the whole first season. I liked the main characters almost instantly and was astonished that a kid's show would just up and say "yep, and there was some genocide offscreen, welcome to Saturday morning viewing!"

    "Zuko will not, can not, recognize the gift his uncle is constantly offering, until nearly the end of the series."

    That's what struck me about him, actually. Poor kid has no idea what unconditional love looks like, or works like, or even is. Certainly he doesn't seem to think that anyone could ever love him that much. But when I watched it for the first time, I know I was just shocked that Zuko was not a stock children's comedy villain.

    But hooray for the inaugural A:TLA Monday!

  4. Thanks for the kind words, all!

    @cypsiman: Aang *is* often immature compared to most of the cast, because he's several years younger than them. Especially early on, he spends a lot of time avoiding the things he needs to do, and he has a bit of a petulant streak at times. But his playfulness and sense of fun aren't immature at all, as we can see with Iroh, who's gone through Serious Warrior Man in his younger days and has now come out the other side.

    @Ebby: I randomly turned on the TV one day and they had a "Best of" marathon leading up to the finale. I saw one episode: Toph's introduction. That was enough for me to get and watch the entire series.

    Zuko and Iroh's relationship is some of the best work in the series. I find all the moments that touch me most deeply involve Iroh in some way, especially "The Tale of Iroh" in the second season, and the reunion scene in the finale.

    (On the other hand, for sheer badass awesome and total hilarity, it's Toph every time.)

  5. Hey! Linked in from Slacktivist. I think I'll come hang out in A:TLA Monday, too!

    Great breakdown of the first episode. I was really impressed with how much storytelling and worldbuilding they reliably manage to cram into a short episode.

  6. Welcome, Six! And yeah, there's a lot going on in those 22 minutes. Really, Avatar as a whole has an astounding level of attention to detail and planning -- there's a ton of foreshadowing, too, if you're looking for it. Like, you know that thing that happens in the last episode that everybody complains was a complete asspull? Yeah, that was foreshadowed in the first episode. I'm not discussing it in detail here because I don't want to spoil that brilliant, brilliant end.

  7. o.o


    Now I want to rewatch the whole thing, and I just finished s3 like.. a month ago.

  8. @Six: That's the kind of reaction I live for.

  9. Sonofabitch. Stupid, stupid blogspot, eating up my posts…

    Round 2

    You know, I'd never really thought about the "no white characters" thing--mostly because anime has already made me (and, I assume, a significant portion of Avatar's older viewers) used to seeing Asian people who are visually indistinguishable from white people. Granted, seeing it on an American show is a different kettle o' fish entirely, and, as you say, quite subversive when you think about it, but I do wonder how the show would have been received if Aang had looked more obviously Asian instead of Anime Asian.

    Question: When you refer to a “serial”, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean a show that’s conceived and planned with a concrete and specific beginning, middle, and end, or merely a show whose episodes progressively builds upon events of previous ones? Your post makes it sound like it’s the former, but your mention of Lost--which I’ve never really believed was planned from the beginning, despite what the showrunners may say—makes it seem like it’s the latter.

    As for Avatar’s really daring third thing, all I have to say is that you should really watch Gargoyles when you get the chance, as this particular point is one of the main themes of the series. Also, now that you’ve mentioned it, I think I’ll elaborate on that point a bit in my blog.

    In any case, very thought-provoking post. If future posts are like this—and I have every confidence that they will—then I’m here for the long haul.

  10. Thanks, Ian! I know I really need to watch Gargoyles; it's high on the list.

    When I talk about a serial, I mean a show in which there is an ongoing story arc across a season or the entire run of the show. This story arc might be planned out in advance, as it clearly was with Avatar, or it might be made up as the writers go along. Either way, it requires trusting your audience to follow along from episode to episode, and in general American television, especially American kid's television, rarely trusts the audience.

  11. Ah, thank you for clarifying. While I agree with you that this sort of storytelling requires a certain level of trust, I wouldn't say that Avatar was doing anything new in attempting it. Even before Lost made long-term serial dramas popular, several cartoons during the early 2000's had already been using this sort of storytelling to different extents--X-Men: Evolution, Justice League Unlimited, the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... A handful of other series--Gargoyles, Spider-Man:TAS, X-Men:TAS, Superman:TAS, the last few seasons of the first TMNT--had also used it during the early nineties, so while it wasn't the norm, it wasn't terribly revolutionary either (although I will say that Avatar made better use of it than most).

    I would argue that what made Avatar daring--at least, when dealing with this particular aspect--is that it had its entire story planned out from the start, and that it was designed to have a concrete ending at a specific point down the line. What (American) animated series can claim that? Heck, what series, period, can? The fact that the showrunners were able to tell that they had a good thing going, and were able to stop themselves from running it to the ground takes a certain sort of guts and discipline, which I'm very glad they showed.

  12. Very true, Ian. The only other American series with a pre-planned story I know of is Babylon 5, which of course was not animated (though it did make very good use of animation, being the first live-action SF show to make really extensive use of CG for spaceships and aliens). Of course there used to be a lot of miniseries, which had pre-planned stories, but those were generally filmed as one long movie and then broken up; hardly the same thing.