Sunday, April 25, 2010

AtlA Monday: A Not-So-Crazy Old King

"What's the point of tests if you don't learn anything?"
-The King of Omashu

Book One: Water
Chapter Five: The King of Omashu


Aang leads Katara and Sokka to the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, which impresses them immensely with its scale and population. Not wanting a repeat of what happened in Kyoshi, they disguise Aang as an old man. He reminisces about his friend Bumi, who lived here before Aang was frozen; Bumi was energetic, fun-loving, and "a mad genius," who came up with the idea of riding the city's cargo-delivery system. The Gaang tries it, and much screaming and property damage later, they are arrested.

They are led before the ancient, apparently senile titular King of Omashu, who tells terrible jokes, invites them to dinner, and then tricks Aang into revealing he's the Avatar. He has the Gaang taken prisoner, and challenges Aang to complete three tasks.
The next morning, Aang begins his challenges. The King has Sokka and Katara subjected to "creeping crystal", a steadily growing crystal that will engulf and suffocate them in about a day. He promises to free them if Aang completes the challenges.

In the first test, Aang must retrieve the King's "lunchbox key" from a cave. He tries repeatedly to go up or through the waterfall that blocks the way, but is knocked back each time. Finally, he uses airbending to create a momentary break in the water, and throws a stalactite through, pinning the key to the wall near the King.

In the second test, Aang has to retrieve the king's pet, Flopsy. He sees a lop-eared white rabbit and tries to catch it, but it runs when he's attacked by a giant goat-rabbit-monster thing. Aang runs after the rabbit, but then realizes the monster chasing him is Flopsy. As soon as he greets it by name, it starts licking him, and then goes to the King for a belly rub.

The third test is a trial by combat. Aang must choose his opponent from the warriors flanking the King, but -- starting to catch on to how these tests work -- he exploits a loophole to choose the King as his opponent. Unfortunately, the King reveals himself to be a hugely muscular, tremendously powerful earthbender, and gives Aang the toughest fight he's had in the series so far. Eventually, however, Aang is able to fight him to a stalemate, and the King concedes.

He announces that he will free Katara and Sokka once Aang answers a question. Aang is angry, as he's passed all the tests, but the King wants to be sure Aang learned something. His question: "What is my name?"

After pondering whether the tests contain a clue, Aang realizes who the King is: Bumi, the mad genius. The old friends are happily reunited. Bumi frees Katara and Sokka and reveals that creeping crystal is made of sugar. Finally, he explains why he did all this: first, because he thought it was funny, and second to prepare Aang for the dangers ahead by requiring him to think in new ways.

Aang and Bumi go for a ride on the delivery system, and the episode ends with laughter and carnage.


This is a difficult episode to write about. It's a lot of fun, but significantly less "meaty" than the first four episodes. Most of what it has to offer is a couple of great action sequences and jokes so bad they eventually wrap right back around into being funny again. Still, the episode does touch on some themes we've been following since the beginning.

For starters, there's the fairly subtle way Aang's been dealing with the events of "The Southern Air Temple." The world he knew has been destroyed, and his response is to pretty much take a vacation. The last two episodes have been all about him ignoring the trip to the North Pole in favor of seeking out theme park rides -- first the elephant koi in "The Warriors of Kyoshi" and then the Omashu delivery system in this episode. But it is very telling, and a little heartbreaking, that his response to discovering Bumi is still alive is to bury himself in a hug. Bumi, with surprising gentleness, reminds Aang of his quest, and for the rest of the series Aang seems to be done with the siteseeing -- future stops at towns along the way are justified by the group needing supplies or to weather out a storm or to lay low for a while to throw off pursuit. It will be several episodes yet before he's willing to open up about how he feels about all the people he left behind, but his period of denial ends here.

There's also the effects of the war. For all the fun and humor of this episode, there's a good bit of world-building going on in the form of Omashu's readiness for siege. The delivery system appears to be used mostly for food and weapons; the walls are meters thick and have no gates, being opened as needed by earthbending. In the midst of the joyride sequence, we are treated to a scene of a drill sergeant speaking to a trio of troops. Even the challenges reveal the city's preparedness: the waterfall in the first challenge shows that the palace was built on a steady supply of fresh water.

Bumi makes for an interesting character. At first he seems like a classic example of the competence zone, the principle that, the farther a character is from the age of the target audience, the less competent they will be. Bumi appears to be senile to the point of outright insanity, not to mention bent and frail. But by the end of the episode he is revealed to be none of these things. Throwing the Gaang a feast was not the random act of a crazy old man; Bumi recognized Aang immediately, and the feast was a ruse to confirm his identity, first by testing his vegetarianism, then his airbending skills.

The challenges are likewise not random or silly; as Bumi himself says, the purpose is to teach Aang something. He tries to solve the first with speed and energy, but only succeeds when he tries moving the water out of his way. He tries to solve the second by being similarly straightforward, but is only successful when he finds a way to redirect his attacker. In the third challenge, Aang dodges in an obvious direction by picking Bumi to be his opponent, and then throughout the battle he keeps dodging in the obvious direction (for example, trying to jump over the wave of earth Bumi throws at him), but Bumi (who has obviously studied airbender tactics, unlike Zuko) is ready and smacks him down. It is only when Aang stops dodging and redirects Bumi's attacks back at him that Aang is able to fight to a draw.

Redirecting one's attacker? Reflecting attacks back on their source? Iroh describes which bending style has these behaviors at its core later in the series, and together with the need to move the water in the first challenge, it's clear what Bumi is doing here: He's teaching Aang the basics of waterbending.

Even Bumi's weird sense of humor is not, as it first appears, a sign of senility. For starters, Aang's flashback reveals that Bumi has been pretty weird since he was a kid. More importantly, this is Avatar: As Iroh and Aang know from the start of the series, and as Sokka and Zuko both learn in their respective character arcs, humor and joy are essential to wisdom. Bumi is ridiculous, but the advice he gives is solid and his city is prospering.

Random observations:
  • This is the first episode in which Zuko does not appear. There will be a couple more over the course of the series.
  • The cabbage merchant makes his first appearance in this episode. His cabbage cart is destroyed three times, possibly the most of any episode. Also, the first time it's destroyed the Gaang are merely bystanders, where usually they will be the cause.
  • When asked for a name while disguised, Aang calls himself "Bonzu Pipenpadelopsekopolis the Third." This sets off an actually pretty funny minor running gag, where no one ever bats an eye at or has any trouble pronouncing the name.
  • "Malicious destruction of cabbages" is apparently a crime in Omashu. It probably isn't one anywhere else, or the Gaang is in a lot of trouble by the end of the series.
  • Sokka laughs at Bumi's terrible jokes. Later in the series, Sokka will be a font of such jokes, which acquaintances of his father will point out is an inherited trait. Is this the first sign of him letting go of his Serious Macho War Leader facade? Suki was good for him!
  • There's something Monty Python-esque about some exchanges in this episode. The way Bumi says "WHAT... is my name?" evokes the old man in Holy Grail. And then there's this touch of farce (transcript from
King Bumi: Tomorrow the Avatar will face three deadly challenges. But for now, the guards will show you to your chamber.
Guard: My liege, do you mean the good chamber, or the bad chamber?
King Bumi: The newly refurbished chamber.
Guard: Wait, which one are we talking about?
King Bumi: The one that used to be the bad chamber, until the recent refurbishing that is. Of course, we've been calling it the new chamber, but we really should number them. Uh, take them to the refurbished chamber that was once bad!
  • The Gaang, in classic adventure story fashion, try to escape their prison cell through the air vents! But in a cute subversion, not even Momo can fit.
  • Instead of torches, the windowless chamber has green, glowing crystals. Just a neat little background detail, but later we'll see caverns full of them under Ba Sing Se. Given how incredibly useful they'd be in a world without electricity, they're probably a major export.
  • Like the city walls, the prison cells in Omashu have no doors. The guard just earthbends a hole in the wall when needed.
  • Sokka and Katara are already gone when the guard tears a hole in the prison cell wall. How the heck did Aang sleep through that?
  • Bumi calls himself "the most powerful earthbender you'll ever see," and he is pretty darn powerful. But we'll meet one next season who's even better.
  • Omashu has a king, but is not the capital of the Earth Kingdom; that's Ba Sing Se. That one relatively small city has its own king is a sign of how little authority the Earth King has, forshadowing the end of the second season.
  • One question the series never answers is whether Bumi was royalty in Aang's time. Did Aang know he would be king some day? Did Omashu even have its own kings back then, or was the Earth Kingdom more centralized before the war tore it apart?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

South Park vs. Radical Islam

Cross-posted to Fluffy Iguana Cookies.

The South Park creators have received a death threat over last week's episode, "200". I was going to do an in-depth review of the episode, but that's unlikely now, because this news is far, far more interesting.

The episode in question was, as I mentioned in this post, an enormous pile of references to old episodes, gags, and plots. One of these references was to two past episodes dealing with the Prophet Muhammed.

Way back in the fifth season, in the episode "Super Best Friends," Muhammed was portrayed as an otherwise stereotypical Bedouin man with fire powers, a member of the titular superhero team of religious icons (the other members were Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and Sea Man (an Aquaman parody), and Moses was their computer). The primary focus of the episode was making fun of Scientology (a recurring theme in the series), and it ended with the Super Best Friends teaming up to defeat the "Blaintology" cult. This was before I started paying attention to the series, so I'm not sure if there was any backlash; if there was, I suspect it was from Scientologists, not Muslims.

Five years later came the Danish cartoon controversy, in which the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons, most of which depicted the prophet Muhammed, and at least some of which did so quite negatively. (I cannot read Danish, but one of the cartoons has no text and is obviously negative, while others have no text and appear neutral or positive). A few Danish-Muslim organizations held protests in response, which resulted in the cartoons being reprinted around the world, sparking more protests and even violence, including setting fire to the Danish embassies Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Notably, most American media did not reprint the cartoons, even when reporting on the controversy surrounding them.

With this controversy only a few months old, the two-part South Park episode "Cartoon Wars" used the refusal of American media to print the cartoons as a jumping-off point to mock Family Guy and The Simpsons. The plot of "Cartoon Wars" is that Muhammed is going to shortly appear in an episode of Family Guy, but the Fox network is considering self-censoring and either not airing the episode, or cutting Muhammed. Kyle and Cartman travel to the Fox network, Kyle to help make sure the episode is broadcast, and Cartman to support the censorship.

In real life, Comedy Central stepped in at this point, and banned South Park from displaying Muhammed in the episode, even though he had been in the opening credits since the fifth season. As a result, even though the dialogue in "Cartoon Wars" says that the Family Guy episode aired uncensored, the scene in the South Park episode is replaced by a black screen and text explaining that Comedy Central would not allow an image of Muhammed to be broadcast.

And that brings us to last week. In "200", every celebrity South Park has made fun of teams up to sue South Park. However, this is actually a complicated gambit for them to get ahold of Muhammed, whom no one can make fun of. The celebrities (and other forces, revealed later in the episode) seek to steal this power, so they can never be mocked again. Stan is thus forced to seek out the Super Best Friends so he can trade Muhammed to the celebrities in exchange for the safety of South Park. Unfortunately, as Jesus explains, times have changed and it is no longer permissible for Muhammed to be seen. Thus, he is dressed in a bear costume, so no one can see him.

The poster at (Fox News has his name as "Abu Talhah al Amrikee", but it's Fox News, so who knows) seems to have missed the point completely. The episode isn't about making fun of Muhammed; South Park has never made fun of Muhammed. It's about making fun of American media, who cravenly bow to the fear of "controversy" and terrorist attacks, creating a culture in which the biggest bully wins. And it is, of course, about making fun of those bullies -- that'd be you, al-Amrikee.

I hope very much that tonight's South Park depicts Muhammed by the end -- and that it mocks al-Amrikee. South Park uses a frankly ridiculous level of technology to produce such crude results, and thus is able to make or alter episodes ridiculously quickly -- so it should be completely possible for them to make the change. Stone and Parker are among the few people working in television today who understand that blasphemy is one of the most important social functions of humor. By mocking the sacred -- whether it is a religious icon such as Muhammed or Jesus, or a secular sacred cow such as the innocence of children -- humor forces us to think, and reduces the ability of such images to manipulate us, while leaving us free to continue believing in them if we so choose.

Blaspheme away, Messrs. Stone and Parker. I know you know it's the right thing to do.

Monday, April 19, 2010

AtLA Monday: Sokka's Sexism and Aang's Ego

Sokka: I treated you like a girl when I should have treated you like a warrior.
Suki: I am a warrior. But I'm a girl, too.

First, some huge news, via Toonzone: Nickelodeon Animation Studios is hiring artists for a new Avatar-related project!

Or at least they said they were, until about five seconds after the job posting hit the animation-news blogotrons, at which point they announced they'd made a "mistake". I take that as pretty much confirmation.

Book One: Water
Chapter Four: The Warriors of Kyoshi


Open with Zuko meditating. Iroh enters and tells him there is bad news: They have lost the Avatar's trail. Zuko examines Iroh's map, which shows Aang's random path across the islands of the south. Zuko concludes Aang is a master of evasive maneuvering.

Meanwhile, high above the ocean on Appa, the Gaang is completely lost. Aang knows what he's trying to find, and that it's near water, but otherwise he has no idea where he's going. Aang tries to impress Katara by using airbending to spin marbles, but she is engrossed in repairing Sokka's pants and ignores him. Sokka tells Aang not to bother Katara, and demonstrates himself once again to be a sexist ass with his claim that women are better than men at domestic tasks, while men are better at hunting and fighting. Katara tells him off and refuses to finish his pants.

The group lands on the beach at a small island, and Aang finds what he's been looking for: the giant koi fish he said he wanted to ride at the end of "The Avatar Returns." He goes riding, but when he looks back to see if Katara is impressed, she's distracted. Then an eel-like monster, the Unagi, tries to eat him. Aang narrowly escapes. The Gaang is about to leave the island when a group of young women in elaborate, kabuki-like armor and makeup ambush and subdue them in a matter of seconds.

After the commercial, we find the Gaang blindfolded and tied to a pillar as one of the young women and an old man interrogate them. Sokka demands they show themselves, and they remove the group's blindfolds. He sees the armored women, and demands to see the men who captured him. The women's leader, Suki, informs him that there were no men: her warriors did it. Sokka responds with more sexist idiocy, and Suki threatens to feed him to the Unagi. Katara intervenes, pleading mercy on the grounds that Sokka is an idiot.

Aang tries to apologize for trespassing, but the old man accuses them of being Fire Nation spies. In the process, he reveals the island is named "Kyoshi", which Aang recognizes as the name of a past Avatar. Aang proves he is the Avatar, and the islanders free the Gaang and celebrate.

The news that the Avatar is on Kyoshi spreads, and soon reaches Zuko. The next morning, Aang and Katara enjoy breakfast, while Sokka sulks. Katara taunts him about getting his butt kicked, and Sokka storms off. Aang is enjoying being the center of attention, but Katara warns him against letting it go to his head.

After a montage of the village's tween girls going nuts as Aang shows off for them and Katara works to prepare for their journey, we see Sokka entering the Kyoshi Warriors' dojo. Suki tries to apologize for ambushing friends of the Avatar, and Sokka makes sexist jokes. Suki plays on his macho idiocy to convince him to fight her, and proceeds to mop the floor with him as the other warriors look on and laugh.

Aang invites Katara to come play with him and "the girls", but Katara wants him to help her prepare for their journey. She warns that they can't stay long in one place, but Aang is enjoying himself and wants to stay longer. Aang accuses Katara of jealousy, and she leaves in a huff.

Later that day, Sokka returns to the dojo, apologizes, and begs for them to teach him. Suki agrees, but only if he wears their uniform. Once in the uniform, Sokka is embarrassed until Suki tells him that its elements symbolize bravery and honor. Then Aang pokes in his head ("Hey, Sokka! Nice dress!") and Sokka is again embarrassed, to Suki's evident pleasure.

Aang enters Katara's room, where she is practicing "pulling" a stream of water out of a bowl. Aang invites her to see him ride the Unagi, and Katara is neither impressed nor interested in trying to stop Aang from this obviously idiotic stunt. The two argue, and Aang storms out.

Suki and Sokka train. He is having trouble with control, and Suki explains that their techniques are not about strength, but rather about using the opponents' force against them. Sokka is able to throw Suki, and after some mutual teasing, they return to sparring.

Meanwhile, Aang sits in the water, waiting for the Unagi, but it doesn't show, and the bored tween girls wander off. Aang is depressed, but then sees Katara coming. Katara admits she was worried about him, and Aang apologizes for his behavior. As he's about to get out of the water, the Unagi attacks. Aang is knocked out, and Katara grabs him and uses some hastily improvised waterbending to get them out of the water and into the nearby rocks. The Unagi sprays jets of water at them a few times, then abruptly leaves as Zuko's ship arrives and released a party of riders on triceratops-rhino-things, led by Zuko. Katara uses the "pulling" move she was practicing earlier to get the water out of Aang's lungs.

Meanwhile, Suki and Sokka are still training when the village elder runs in to tell them firebenders have come. Zuko's riders begin searching the village for Aang, when the Kyoshi Warriors and Sokka attack. Suki attacks Zuko head on, but his rhino knocks her aside, and Sokka saves her from a fireblast while one of the other Kyoshi Warriors knocks Zuko to the ground. Sokka, Suki, and the unnamed Kyoshi Warrior attack Zuko, but he fights them off. He and Aang fight, and Aang again mops the floor with him and flies off, looking down sadly at the fire spreading through the village.

He finds Katara, leading the tween girls to safety, and she says they have to run, so that Zuko and the firebenders will follow them and leave the village alone. Sokka apologizes again to Suki, and she kisses him, then leads the Kyoshi Warriors in holding off the firebenders while the Gaang escapes on Appa.

Zuko orders his men back to the ship, and Katara assures Aang the village will be okay. Aang then jumps off Appa into the lagoon, and rides the Unagi, using its water-spraying attack to put out the fires in the village. Then he jumps into the air and Appa catches him. Aang tells Katara he knows it was stupid and dangerous, and Katara agrees, then hugs him.


Obviously, this is the "girl power" episode. A staple of children's shows since at least the late '80s, "girl power" episodes exist to teach the characters, and hopefully the audience, that girls are people, and therefore capable of the same range of skills and behaviors as "normal" people, i.e. white males.

Unlike most girl power episodes, however, both the characters and the series take the lessons of this episode to heart. This is really the beginning of Sokka's character arc: by episode six, he will be willing to let Katara plan and execute a dangerous scheme to infiltrate an enemy prison. Over the rest of the season and into the next, he will also drop the serious, macho warrior act and loosen up enormously, becoming much more fun and funny. It's a fairly subtle reminder that sexism hurts men, too.

Aang's "nice dress" is another reminder of the way sexism hurts men, by forcing them into rigid gender roles to avoid the appearance of femininity. As well, it's a reminder of the men, especially young men, use mockery to force one another and women into said gender roles.

Over the course of this episode, Sokka follows a pretty standard arc for pop-culture acceptance of "deviant" behavior. At first, the behavior doesn't exist in pop culture (Sokka denies that women are capable of being warriors). Then, the behavior is regarded as aberrant and evil or comedically misguided (Sokka is angry at the "girls" for beating him, then mocks their "dance class"). Then the behavior is regarded as aberrant and comedic, but harmless (Sokka dresses up in a "dress" and Suki teases). Next the behavior is aberrant but admirable, which is where the episode leaves us. Later episodes of the series will often have female warriors, both in the spotlight and as background elements, the final stage of development: the behavior is accepted as normal.

It's also notable that Sokka is a particularly modern sort of sexist; much of what he says at the beginning of the episode could come straight out of an article on evo-psych. "Women aren't inferior, they're just differently specialized!" And of course, it's just a coincidence that the things women are "specialized" to do all take place at home, for no pay, honor, or glory? Right, Sokka?

This all adds up to a pretty clear indictment of the sexism of our society. As we will see later in the series, the world of Avatar is a lot less sexist than ours. Sokka is very much a stand-in for our-world attitudes, while societies such as Kyoshi are presented as a superior state of living -- so obviously superior that even the villains have women on the front lines.

As long as we're talking about Kyoshi Island society, there's something interesting going on here with the costumes. This is the first culture we've seen other than the Southern Water Tribe, and they're somewhat hard to place. In most episodes, we have four clear ethnicities: each of the four nations has a consistent dominant hair color, eye color, and skin color, a consistent architectural style, and a distinctive style of clothing in a consistent color. Kyoshi Island doesn't fit. They have Earth Kingdom physical appearances and architecture, but Water Tribe clothing, except the Warriors of Kyoshi, who look more typical Earth Kingdom. But then the way Suki describes the Kyoshi Warriors' fighting style sounds rather a lot like the way Iroh describes the philosophy of waterbending later. Kyoshi Island thus serves as the first of many, many hints that Katara's opening narration is oversimplified: there's a lot more complexity to this world than four nation-states.

On the character front, this episode confirms and fleshes out the Freudian trio roles introduced last episode. Katara continues to be focused on consequences, cautious, and a little judgmental -- the perfect superego. Sokka is emotional, angry, and romantically entangled, a classic id.

As for Aang, well, reread that synopsis. Any time this episode isn't about Sokka's machismo, it's about Aang's ego. He serves as a point of balance between Sokka-style impulsiveness and Katara-style guilt, and by combining the two he is able to do something stupid, crazy, and absolutely right to put out the village's fires.

And now that we have the characters slotted into their roles, we can start shifting them: two episodes from now, we'll have a complete reshuffling of roles to put Katara into the ego spot. As I said last week, the Gaang are not three parts to a single main character; they are each a fully rounded character in their own rights.

Random observations:
  • The Unagi's eye is vaguely reminiscent of Eva-01 in the second episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Not close enough to be definitely a reference, but the color scheme, the way it moves, and the way the extreme close-up on it is framed, all strongly suggest NGE. And there's simply no way the obvious anime fans behind Avatar don't remember that iconic moment.
  • Sokka picks up the Kyoshi Warriors' fighting styles very fast. It's the beginning of a pattern for him: Sokka is extremely intelligent, and learns very quickly, especially where fighting is concerned.
  • Each of the Gaang storms off angrily at some point in this episode: Sokka at breakfast, Katara after Aang accuses her of jealousy, and Aang after Katara refuses to watch him ride the Unagi.
  • Later in the series, Sokka will prove the handiest of the Gaang at making things, while Katara significantly surpasses him in combat ability.
  • Update: I nearly forgot one of the observations I wanted to make! Kyoshi founded the island 400 years ago? Really? "The Avatar and the Firelord" makes it pretty clear that Roku was born 150, maybe 200 years before Aang the first episode at the earliest. Kyoshi lived for over 200 years? I find that hard to believe. On the other hand, the "worst village ever" seems to have the same dates for Kyoshi, so I'm not sure how much room there is to argue.

Updated 4/19/10 to add random observation.
Updated 4/22/10 to correct Roku's birth date.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

South Park 200

Wow. Just... wow.

I am, I freely admit, a complete sucker for continuity porn. And yeah, that's all tonight's South Park was. But it was really, really good continuity porn. I'll review it more in-depth once they have it up on the web site in about a month. (This is the first time I've ever wished I had DVR).

Monday, April 12, 2010

AtLA Monday: Birth of a Family

First, a mea culpa: I said in the comments on the last AtLA Monday that Aang did not seriously damage Zuko's ship. This episode makes it clear that I was quite wrong. However, as Zuko and Iroh discuss repairs only, and not hospitals, funeral arrangements, or new recruits, I stand by my claim that there is no evidence of Aang seriously injuring or killing anyone.

I really am the last airbender.

Book One: Water

Chapter Three: The Southern Air Temple


Open on the early morning, at the Gaang's camp. Katara and Aang are up and preparing while Sokka sleeps. They are getting ready to go to the Southern Air Temple, the closest to the South Pole of the four Air Nomad temples. A century ago, it was Aang's home. Aang is excited to return, but Katara cautions him not to get his hopes up. Aang blows off her cautions and wakes Sokka with a prank.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh disembark from Zuko's ship at what appears to be a Fire Nation naval base, seeking repairs for the damage Aang did. Zuko warns Iroh not to mention the Avatar, because Zuko doesn't want anyone else to capture him. A new Fire Nation character, Commander Zhao, apparently overhears the end of Zuko's comment and is suspicious. Zhao welcomes them; he is apparently commander of the base. He asks them how the damage occurred, and they lie badly and transparently. Zhao invites them to join him for tea and tell him the story in more detail, clearly not believing a word of it. Zuko refuses, but Iroh berates him for his disrespect and inists they join Zhao.

As they approach the mountain range, Katara tries to explain to Aang that the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads, but Aang cheerfully refuses to believe it, explaining that the Air Temples are completely inaccessible except by flying bison.

Zhao updates Zuko and Iroh on the status of the war, then asks about the hunt for the Avatar. Zhao presses Zuko for information, questioning his loyalty, but Zuko insists he knows nothing and starts to leave. Zhao's soldiers block his path, and one reports they've interrogated Zuko's crew and learned about the encounter with the Avatar. Zhao repeats his demand for information.

The Gaang explores the ruins of the Temple. Aang points out the landmarks, but is disappointed at how quiet it is -- no one is here, but he remembers it bustling with monks, bison, and lemurs just a few days (a hundred years) ago.

Sokka and Katara come across a Fire Nation helmet. Katara calls Aang over, but then has second thoughts and hides the helmet. Sokka warns that she can't protect Aang forever. Aang finds a statue of his teacher and caretaker, Gyatso. Aang flashes back to Gyatso teaching him to bake cakes, but Aang is uninterested. He is brooding over being named as the Avatar, and hoping that the senior monks made a mistake. Gyatso says that their only mistake was telling Aang too young, instead of the traditional age of sixteen. Gyatso tells Aang his questions about being the Avatar will be answered when he enters the sealed Air Sanctuary inside temple, where he'll meet a new teacher. Aang agrees to help Gyatso with his cake project, which consists of launching the cakes at the senior monks, drawing lemurs to clamber over them after the cake.

Aang leads the others to the Air Sanctuary. Katara warns that no one could survive there so long, but Aang counters that he lived in the ice that long. They open the door and enter.

Meanwhile, Zhao questions Zuko. Zhao announces that he will be the one to pursue the Avatar from now on, enraging Zuko. Iroh is unperturbed.

Inside the Air Sanctuary are an enormous number of statues of past Avatars, arranged in a spiral with Roku, the last Avatar before Aang, at the center. Sokka is skeptical about reincarnation, but Katara insists it is true. Aang sees to enter a trance as he looks at Roku, and Roku's eyes flash, but Katara interrupts whatever is happening when she asks Aang who it is. Aang is unable to explain how he knows Roku's name. A shadow falls across them, and Sokka prepares to attack what he assumes is a firebender, but it's just a flying lemur. Aang wants to claim the lemur as a pet, but Sokka wants to eat it, and a chase ensues.

Zhao enters the tent where Zuko and Iroh are being held. He informs them that his search party is ready; as soon as his group leaves, his men will escort Zuko and Iroh back to their repaired ship and they may leave. Zuko insists he will find the Avatar, and Zhao points out Zuko has no fleet, no home, no allies, and even his father has rejected him. They argue, and Zuko challenges Zhao to an agni kai.

Aang chases the lemur to a secluded chamber containing the dessicated corpses of dozens of Fire Nation soldiers -- and Gyatso. Aang begins to cry, and Sokka enters and tries to comfort him, but Aang enters the Avatar State. Still examining the statues in the Sanctuary, Katara sees their eyes glow and realizes something is wrong with Aang.

Far away, in the Earth Sanctuary (which we'll visit early in the next season), paintings of the past Avatars begin to glow, startling a monk. Light shines from the Water Sanctuary (presumably at the North Pole?) and Fire Sanctuary (we'll see more later this season), too. A Fire Sage tells his startled comrade to send word to the Fire Lord: the Avatar has returned.

Back at the Air Temple, Aang ignores Sokka's pleas to snap out of his trance and summons an enormous whirlwind, which threatens to throw Katara and Sokka off the mountainside. Katara staggers forward through the wind in an attempt to reach Aang.

In the arena, Zhao and Zuko face off. Zuko is utterly overmatched in actual firebending, but he is able to unbalance Zhao with a mundane kick, and then able to use low-to-the-ground fire attacks to keep Zhao off balance until he falls. Zuko closes in for the finish, and Zhao tells him to do it, but Zuko intentionally misses with the killing blow. Zhao accuses him of cowardice, but Zuko walks away. Zhao attempts to blast Zuko in the back, but Iroh blocks the attack and throws Zhao halfway across the arena with a gentle push.

Iroh: So this is how the great Commander Zhao acts in defeat? Disgraceful. Even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.

Back at the Air Temple, Katara pleads with Aang, saying that she knows how it feels to lose her family to the Fire Nation. She offers herself and Sokka to be a new family for Aang, and he descends from his rage. Back to normal, Aang finally understands that he really is the last airbender. Katara hugs him tightly.

In the Sanctuary, Aang wonders how Roku can help him, and Katara says he'll find a way. The lemur appears and gives Sokka an armful of fruit, which Sokka eats greedily. Aang adopts the lemur, saying that he, the lemur, and Appa are the last survivors of the Southern Air Temple, so they have to stick together. He names the lemur Momo after it steals Sokka's peach. ("Momo" is Japanese for "peach.")
That night, Aang and Momo watch quietly as the Southern Air Temple vanishes behind them into the distance.

"The Southern Air Temple" is one of the more melancholy episodes of Avatar, and probably the saddest in the first season. It is also the first to use an A-B plot structure, and the only episode to not have a white background to the title card, using a rising sun instead.

The last is easiest to explain: This is the morning of the series, the beginning of Aang's journey. The previous two episodes served to set the stage; from here out we're on the road. The sun is an important symbol in Avatar, connected to several pivotal events: the winter solstice and lunar eclipse in the first season, the desert in the second season, and the solar eclipse and Sun Warriors in the third season. The sunrise is, of course, the beginning of one solar cycle: the day. This episode, notably, takes place in precisely one day: it begins at dawn and ends in evening twilight. Sunrise is also symbolic of birth, and this episode is thus bookended by metaphorical births: the sun is born at the beginning, and the Gaang are born as a new family at the end.

Just as the daily solar cycle is embedded in a larger solar cycle, the year, this episode is embedded in the one-year (actually, about nine months -- there's that birth symbolism again) span of the series. Each season, though broadcast over a real-world year, is one season in-story: Water/Winter, Earth/Spring, and Fire/Summer. This annual cycle is, in the Avatar world, embedded in the still longer Avatar cycle: Water/Winter, Earth/Spring, Fire/Summer, Air/Autumn, and back to Water/Winter. This cycle appears in the statues of the Air Sanctuary, forming a spiral, a classic symbol of the way history cycles, constantly repeating itself, but with each loop nonetheless unique, just as each year is unique even though the order of seasons stays the same. Just as Aang is unique, even though he is the Avatar.

The A-B plot structure is an interesting device, and one used heavily throughout Avatar. It is quite common in prime-time dramas, but rare in children's shows; the basic structure is to cut between two groups of characters, each engaged in separate storylines that have no impact upon one another (at least within the particular episode). There is no immediate plot connection between the stories, but usually they serve as thematic counterpoints to one another.

What, then, do the two stories tell us about each other? Both are, in a sense, the same: A lost child trying to return home is informed that he can never return home, and responds violently. Both are particularly upset by mentions of their (in Aang's case, metaphorical or adoptive) father. Both are reminded of the family ties they still possess after they return from the brink.

Of course, there are enormous differences. Aang's violence takes the form of elemental rage, and he needs an outside force, Katara, to pull him back. Zuko, on the other hand, is able to pull himself back, and resist the urge to kill Zhao. Later in the series, while the two will be paralleled often, their positions will generally be reversed: Aang will be the one with greater self-control, while Zuko is the one who needs to be pulled back from the brink.

As we will learn later, Zuko's and Aang's lost father figures could not be more opposite: Firelord Ozai is proud, demanding, vengeful, abusive, and violent, where Gyatso was humble, gentle, wise, playful, and loving. However, there is someone in Zuko's life very similar to Gyatso: Iroh. Like Gyatso, Iroh is a font of wisdom, both wise old man and trickster -- a mentor in the vein of Yoda or T.H. White's Merlin. And, like Iroh, Gyatso's gentle exterior hides an incredibly lethal warrior: just look at how many Fire Nation corpses surround his one!

Both Zuko and Aang live in massive denial. Aang refuses to believe that his people are gone, while Zuko refuses to believe that his father has rejected him. Aang believes that if he looks hard enough, he can find where the Air Nomads are hiding; Zuko believes that he can earn back his father's love by completing his quest. The difference is that, by episode's end, Aang is beginning to accept that his people are gone, and thus is able to begin forging new bonds with the Gaang. Zuko, however, still searches for the Avatar, and thus still cannot fully accept Iroh's obvious love for and pride in him. (Note that Iroh seems perfectly content to have Zhao take over the quest for the Avatar; he realizes that the sooner Zuko gives up on his father, the sooner Zuko can move on to healthier relationships.)

We get a few hints of things to come and a touch of world-building in this episode, some of it a little dubious. For example, Zhao claims to have "hundreds" of warships under his command. Even allowing for exaggeration, he isn't an admiral yet. How big is the Fire Nation navy? Although Zhao does predict total global conquest by the end of the year -- maybe the navy really is that big.

Then there's the Air Temples, all of which seem pretty stationary. If the Air Nomads lived in the temples, in what sense were they nomadic? If they were nomadic, how was the Fire Nation able to find them all so easily? (Later, we'll learn that the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads in a single day!) Of course, Aang is outright wrong about flying bison being the only method of entering an Air Temple. As we'll see later in the season, first Teo's people and later a number of Fire Nation tanks will be able to enter one of the other Air Temples, and, as we'll see much, much later, under rare circumstances powerful firebenders can fly or hover. Still, that wouldn't help much in tracking down nomads, who could naturally be anywhere. (And in the second season, there's a group of people who might possibly (but it's not likely) be related to the Air Nomads: the Sandbenders.

The most important world-building and backstory elements come in Zuko's half of the plot, however, with the agni kai. This is, apparently, a traditional Fire Nation duel used to settle disputes between firebenders; the name contains "Agni," the name of a Hindu fire god, which shares a common origin with the English words "agony" and "ignite." It is a fitting name: Zuko has a history of ill-advised agni kai, as Iroh hints. We'll see what happened in a flashback later in the season, and it will explain much about not only Zuko but the Fire Nation as a whole. Zhao also teases the audience about Zuko's scar: its origin is connected with his shame and his reason for exile, and common knowledge among at least the social elite of the Fire Nation.

The Gaang also get some development. This episode marks the first of many times they are represented as a classic Freudian trio: Sokka, with his complaints about hunger and demand for food, is the classic Id character; Katara, by berating him for his lack of respect for the unique honor of being the first outsiders in an Air Temple in a century, is the classic Superego; and Aang, more or less by elimination (in this episode, at least) is the Ego. (McCoy, Spock, and Kirk are one of the best-known trios of Id, Superego, and Ego; Ron, Hermione, and Harry form another.)

However, the Gaang do not fit completely neatly into these roles. Each is a bit more complex, even at this early stage: Sokka's skepticism and Katara's openness to believing in reincarnation, for example, are a reversal of the usual Id and Superego roles. Aang's descent into the Avatar State is pure Id, and he really doesn't do much of anything to put him in the Ego role in this episode (the next episode, on the other hand, is all about Aang the Ego).

In the end, the Gaang are not (as the Freudian trio generally is) a single main character split in three in order to externalize what would otherwise be purely internal processes. They are, as Katara says, a family: complementary but complex, each one a complete person capable of being a fully independent character, but becoming something more when brought together. How much more, we'll discover as the series progresses; for now suffice to say that Aang is a hero, not the hero, of Avatar.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Anime Boston Con Report

Scroll down for my thoughts on Dreamworks in light of having just seen How to Train Your Dragon. I don't want it to get buried due to posting this right after.

Anyway, I guest-starred on Viga the Otagal's podcast for her Anime Boston episode. You can find it here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

How to Train Your Dreamworks

I saw How to Train Your Dragon last night. I originally wasn't going to, as the trailers made it look like a bog-standard kiddie action-comedy of the sort Dreamworks churns out by the bucketful. But word of mouth was good, so I decided to give the movie a shot.

I'm very glad I did. It was definitely worth $15 and a couple of hours: good story, great visuals, decent voice acting, good soundtrack, and solid use of 3D. By my count, this is Dreamworks Animation's 15th movie (not counting Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit, or Flushed Away, because those were more Aardman than Dreamworks) and their second or third good movie (Kung Fu Panda is the other good one; Antz is borderline).

Dreamworks is a weirdly schizophrenic studio. When they're good, they're really, really good -- Kung Fu Panda is better than most of the Pixar catalogue -- but most of the time, they're terrible. What is it that drags down the bad ones? Here's a partial list:
  • Pop culture references: Satirizing pop culture can be funny, though it can date a movie badly. Randomly referencing bits of pop culture and repeating memes blindly? Not funny, just stupid.
  • Toilet humor: In the context of something either really dark or really beautiful, it can still be surprising enough to be funny. In general, though, it's just obnoxious jokes I got my fill of when I was 10.
  • Eddie Murphy: Has he done anything worth seeing in the last 20 years? We all know the answer: No, because he sucks.
  • Aping Pixar: Pixar makes a great movie set in the ocean, so Dreamworks makes a terrible movie set in the ocean. Pixar makes a movie about living mechanical devices (caveat: I have not seen Cars), Dreamworks makes a terrible movie about living mechanical devices. Noticing a bit of a pattern?
  • Postmodern detachment: Badly hurts the Shrek franchise in particular. The characters are all snidely aware of fairy tales and mocking their tropes, which in the hands of better writers like Patricia Wrede or Terry Pratchett could be great. Dreamworks does not have writers that good. Instead, the viewer ends up unable to really care about the characters, because the characters don't seem to really care about much of anything; they're just going through the motions to put on the big show.
What marks the good movies, on the other hand? Dreamworks has plenty of strong points. Here's a partial list:
  • Tense father-son relationships: In particular, the internal conflict in sons desperate for the approval of their single fathers, but unwilling to follow the careers said fathers have picked out for them. This conflict was a minor but important point in Kung Fu Panda and a major driving force in the plot of How to Train Your Dragon, and it was well-done in both. (Between those two Dreamworks movies and Sony's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I'm starting to get the impression that a lot of animators have fathers who disapprove of their career choices.)
  • Scenery Porn: Kung Fu Panda portrayed a China so beautiful that the Chinese started wondering why they can't make movies this good. How to Train Your Dragon is loaded with breathtaking flying sequences, from gorgeous aerial views of the Viking village at night, to stunning runs through seaside cliffs, to majestic vistas of cloud.
  • Strong Women: Tigress in Kung Fu Panda especially. She is tough as nails, a great fighter, proud -- and never once is the fact that she's a woman made a big deal. Astrid is less awesome than Tigress, but that's largely because Tigress is more or less mature, while Astrid still has a lot of growing up to do. Especially cool, however, is the existence of background female warriors. Completely ahistoric, of course*, but awesome that there's big burly women fighting side by side with the big burly men against the dragons -- and it's again portrayed as not at all remarkable. Dreamworks is probably the strongest major Western animation studio on this front -- Pixar movies in particular are near-total sausage-fests.
  • Fight Sequences: How to Train Your Dragon, like Kung Fu Panda before it, has absolutely jaw-dropping action sequences. Like Panda, Dragon has brilliantly choreographed, fluidly animated, surprisingly intimate scenes of combat between single-digit numbers of characters; unlike Panda, it also has big-canvas fantasy war battle scenes, like something out of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.
  • Enthusiastic Protagonists: Part of what makes both Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon so much fun is the complete lack of ironic distance. The main characters of both movies are completely invested in how utterly awesome the events occurring to them actually are. After all, who wouldn't be excited and happy at the prospect of training with kung fu masters or riding a dragon? An enthusiastic main character gives the audience permission to enjoy the ride and suspend disbelief, where a sarcastic or snide character just serves to remind the audience that this is silly make-believe.
Now, admittedly, Dreamworks could easily churn out a bunch of formulaic crap that follows exactly the patterns I describe above, but on the other hand they could produce a lot of varied and interesting movies that incorporate some of the elements they're best at. It would be better than the formulaic crap they shovel out under the Shrek and Madagascar franchises, anyway. The point really isn't that Dreamworks should keep making movies with these elements; the point is that Dreamworks does do some things well, when they're not squeezing a franchise dry, and hopefully they can drop the stupid franchises and focus on creating original films that play to their strengths.

It's not likely, but we can always hope, right?

*Yes, I am aware of the Valkyrie myth. It's just a myth -- the Viking warriors were still an all-male club in real life.

Update: Based on Dreamworks' patterns and the people involved, here's some predictions:
  • Shrek Forever After, MegaMind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Madagascar 3, and The Guardians of Childhood will suck.
  • The Croods might be good.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

AtLA Monday: Hope Returns

Water, Earth, Fire, Air...

Long ago, the four nations live together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished.

A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an Airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone.

But I believe Aang can save the world...

-Katara's opening narration in every episode except the first

Book One: Water

Chapter Two: The Avatar Returns


The episode begins with Katara and Aang returning to her village. The entire village has seen the Fire Nation signal flare and is waiting to meet them just outside. Most of the children run happily to Aang, but the adults are angry and suspicious. Sokka again accuses Aang of being a Fire Nation spy, and Katara defends him. Sokka banishes Aang; Katara appeals to Gran-Gran, but she supports Sokka's decision.

Katara declares that she is banished as well. She intends to go with Aang to the North Pole to find the other Water Tribe and a waterbending teacher. Sokka is angry, and Aang says he doesn't want to break up her family. He and Appa leave.

Sokka tries to organize the village boys for the coming Fire Nation attack, while Aang rests some distance from the village and admits to Appa he liked Katara. Aang sees Zuko's ship through the fog, and tells Appa to stay behind while he goes back to help the villagers. Sokka and Zuko both arm themselves for battle.

Later, Sokka stands atop the village wall. Ice cracks, destroying the guard tower Sokka built, as the Fire Navy ship forces its way through the ice. The ship emerges from the fog, towering over the village, as Sokka stands alone to face it. Katara rescues a child from falling into a crack in the ice, and Sokka falls back as Zuko's ship smashes through the wall.

The ship's gangplank descends, nearly crushing Sokka, and Zuko marches down, flanked by firebenders and followed by spearmen. Sokka charges Zuko, who disarms him with one kick and knocks him off the gangplank with a second. Zuko demands information about the Avatar, mystifying the villagers. Sokka charges again, and Zuko again sends him flying. Sokka throws his boomerang at Zuko and misses. Sokka attacks Zuko with a spear, and Zuko destroys the spear barehanded and hits Sokka repeatedly with the haft, dazing him. Then the boomerang returns and hits Zuko in the back of the head, dazing him.

Zuko glares at Sokka, and little jets of flame emerge from his clenched fists. Before he can attack, however, Aang penguin-sleds in, knocking Zuko off his feet. Zuko has his men flank Aang, but Aang uses his staff and airbending to kick up waves of snow that temporarily blind or knock over all but Zuko.

Zuko incredulously asks whether Aang is the Avatar, shocking the villagers, especially Katara. Zuko attacks Aang, and Aang dissipates his flames, but is soon showing strain. Some of the flames get past Aang and frighten the villagers. Aang immediately stops defending, and offers himself as a prisoner if Zuko agrees to leave the village alone. Zuko agrees, and his men take Aang prisoner and return to the ship, which departs.

Later, as the villagers work to repair the damage to their homes, Katara passionately argues to Sokka that they have to go rescue Aang. Sokka, however, has already provisioned a canoe for them to do exactly that. After they say their good-byes to Gran-Gran, Katara realizes that they will not be able to catch Zuko's ship with a canoe. Appa, presumably following Aang, appears over the horizon.

Zuko orders Aang's staff taken to his quarters and Aang taken to the brig. Aang takes out both guards with his hands literally tied behind his back, and runs after Zuko. Meanwhile, Katara pleadingly and Sokka sarcastically try to get Appa to fly. Sokka accidentally stumbles onto the correct command, and Appa flies.

Aang is attacked by a trio of swordsmen and then a firebender. He dodges past them, and uses the horns on the firebender's helmet to cut the ropes on his hands. Aang finds his staff in Zuko's quarters, but it's a trap. Zuko attacks Aang, and Aang dodges for a while. Eventually Aang is able to get Zuko enough off-balance that he can recover his staff, and then the fight ends in seconds as Aang throws a mattress at Zuko and runs.

Aang runs to the conn tower and jumps out the window to fly off on his glider, but Zuko leaps after him and manages to grab his ankle. They fall to the deck, and Zuko is about to attack Aang, but then Appa appears, distracting Aang. He barely parries Zuko's flames, and falls overboard. Katara calls out, and Aang's eyes and tattoos begin to glow. He creates an enormous waterspout and uses it to knock down a number of fire nation soldiers and send Zuko overboard.

Aang collapses as the glow fades, and Katara and Sokka swoop in on Appa to pick him up. Sokka goes to collect Aang's staff, and Zuko grabs the other end as he pulls himself out of the water. Sokka hits him repeatedly with the haft until Zuko lets go and falls back into the water. Some Fire Nation spearmen try to attack Katara and Appa, and she tries to waterbend the puddle Aang left on the deck; however, she succeeds only in freezing Sokka's boots to the floor. As the men advance, Katara turns around and does the same motion again, freezing them. Sokka chips himself free with his boomerang

Iroh arrives on deck and helps Zuko up. Zuko and Iroh together create an enormous blast of fire, but Aang is able to airbend it into a nearby iceberg, which collapses across the front of the ship and blocks it from following them. Zuko orders his firebenders to free the ship so they can follow the Avatar, but they are busy freeing the men Katara froze.

Later, on Appa, Aang admits he has no idea how he made the waterspout. The conversation that follows sets up the premise of the next season-and-a-half or so (all transcripts from

Katara: Why didn't you tell us you were the Avatar?
Aang: Because... I never wanted to be.
(Overhead, a cloud passes over them, momentarily blocking the fading sunlight. After it passes, they enter a shaft of sunlight.)
Katara: But Aang, the world's been waiting for the Avatar to return and finally put an end to this war.
Aang (looking down sadly): And how am I going to do that?
Katara: According to legend, you need to first master water, then earth, then fire, right?
Aang: That's what the monks told me.
Katara: Well, if we go to the North Pole you can master waterbending.
Aang (now smiling): We can learn it together!
Katara: And Sokka, I'm sure you'll get to knock some firebender heads on the way.
Sokka (somewhat dreamily): I'd like that. I'd really like that.
Katara: Then we're in this together.

The episode ends on a lighter note, with Aang outlining all his sightseeing plans en route to the North Pole.

With most of the critical world-building out of the way in the last episode (though there is definitely more to come), this episode is free to focus on character and action, and it does an excellent job of balancing both. In particular, Sokka gets some good moments that make him come across as far less of a jerk, and sow the seeds of the first stage of his character development.

Early in the episode, Sokka is still the serious, angry jerk of the previous episode. He is also nearly completely ineffective in his fight with Zuko. Sokka soon shows another side. He requires no convincing to help Katara rescue Aang; the willingness of the stranger to help Sokka's people has apparently cracked his cynicism a little bit. The facade falls completely, even if only for a moment, when Sokka's sarcastic attempts to get Appa to fly actually work, and Sokka responds like a gleeful little boy -- until a knowing look from Katara switches him back into apathy mode. But the little smile he has when she's not looking is utterly delightful. The boy Sokka ought to be isn't completely dead, and we'll be seeing a lot more of him soon.

We get another glimpse of Sokka's real character near the end of the episode. Sokka's dreamy "I'd like that," suggests he isn't really listening, since it's not the tone of voice one uses to contemplate violence. What is it Sokka is thinking about that he'd like? Traveling with the Avatar opens so many possibilities for him -- he may be beginning to allow hope to replace anger, or he may be thinking about the opportunity to meet girls his own age that aren't related to him.

However, I think he's dreaming of something else. Early in the episode, in the "arming for battle" montage, we are invited to compare Sokka and Zuko -- an unusual moment in the series, as most of the time we are invited to compare Zuko to Aang. Zuko obsesses over his rejection by his father through most of the series, and that rejection is what has forced him to take on the responsibility of hunting for the Avatar. Sokka has also been abandoned by his father, though the circumstances are entirely different, and been forced to take on overwhelming responsibility as a consequence.

After finding and capturing the Avatar, we see an interesting moment with Zuko: He barks "Head a course for the Fire Nation," in the same tone as every order he's given in the past two episodes. Then, in a much softer, dreamier tone, he says, "I'm going home." Just like Sokka and Katara, Zuko is seeking to escape the life of adult responsibility that has been thrust on him far too soon. He wants to return home, to be a child again, to receive praise and love and comfort from his father.

It's no accident that Sokka takes on the same dreamy tone later in the episode, after he and Katara take the Avatar. Sokka is also dreaming of returning to a childlike state, unburdened by his current responsibilities. He's dreaming of finding his father.

Speaking of fathers, there's an odd moment in this episode when Zuko takes Aang's staff:
Zuko: This staff will make an excellent gift for my father. I suppose you wouldn't know of fathers, being raised by monks.

The look Aang gives him is pure venom. As we'll see in the next episode, and even more so in "The Storm" later this season, Aang may not have a biological or legal father, but he had a definite father figure, and the threat of losing that father figure is what ultimately led to him being frozen. Aang is clearly furious at this dismissal of the most important relationship in his life so far, and it makes his coming fight with Zuko all the more impressive.

Aang, you see, doesn't hurt anyone during his escape. He smacks some people around, sure, but never does any injury worse than stunning them momentarily. Even against Zuko, he is clearly trying to reach his staff without having to actually attack Zuko, at least at the beginning of the fight. As Zuko finally manages to get close to hitting Aang, Aang's face shows near-panic. Given that it's quite likely Aang has only been in training- and play-fights before, and that he is realizing for perhaps the first time that his opponent is prepared to seriously injure or even kill him, his fear is utterly unsurprising. What is surprising is that, even though we are shown that Zuko angers and frightens him, Aang does him no real injury in this episode, just knocks him aside long enough to escape with the staff.

One of the core elements of Aang's character is his gentleness. A vegetarian and technical pacifist [ed link to TVTropes], he does not kill people or animals, and he avoids hurting them as much as possible. It makes the few moments in which Aang is enraged genuinely frightening, and lends credence to Aang's fear of his own destructive potential, which is addressed several times throughout the series. In the Avatar State Aang's face hovers between impassive and quietly furious, neither of which is a typical expression for the hyperactive, gentle-hearted boy. Especially early in the series, the Avatar State plays almost like demonic possession.

Aang seems not to be fully in control of the Avatar State. When he enters it near the end of the episode, the wrath he unleashes on the ship's crew is impressive, and they are lucky that no one is killed. Two interesting things about Aang's Avatar State in this episode: First, he waterbends like an airbender, using circular motion to create a waterspout, rather than the pushing and pulling to create waves and whips we will see waterbenders use throughout the series. It helps to explain why it is necessary for Aang to train: even in the Avatar State, he is at least somewhat limited by Aang's (as opposed to the Avatar's) accumulated skills. The other interesting element of the Avatar State is the glow. The same phenomenon occurred, on a grander scale, when Aang was released from the ice in the first episode. It occurs every time Aang enters the Avatar State, and thus foreshadows a pretty important point that we'll come back to later: The Avatar is not limited to the four elemental bending skills. There are other powers that come with being the Avatar, one of which is generating light as a side effect of entering the Avatar State and other major events.

As for the series' most interesting relationship, Zuko and Iroh, we get only subtle touches in this episode. There's the neat little detail that, despite his claim to have spent years training, Zuko clearly has no idea how to fight an opponent as agile as Aang -- not surprising, given that Zuko would be unable to find a teacher who'd ever actually fought an airbender. There's also a nice Zuko moment at the end of the episode, when he orders his men to dig the ship out and pursue Aang. When he sees that they are busy freeing their frozen comrades, he relents and allows them to finish. His kneejerk response is to pursue his quarry no matter what, but there's the seed of a good leader in there, who cares about the well-being of his troops.

And, of course, when Iroh comes on deck to see a flying monster leaving and the crew frozen or knocked over, his first instinct is to run over and help Zuko climb back up. It's a sweet and subtle moment. Shortly after, we get an exchange with a lot of subtext packed into it:
Iroh: Good news for the Fire Lord. The nation's greatest threat is just a little kid.
Zuko: That kid, Uncle, just did this. (Shot widens to show the prow buried in ice) I won't underestimate him again.

Iroh, remember, has been abroad before. He fought in the war and saw with his own eyes what the Fire Nation's enemies truly are: A balkanized Earth Kingdom that lacks the organization to threaten the Fire Nation; an Earth Kingdom city that lacks the will; two Water Tribes that lack the willpower. Now the last great threat, the Avatar, has been found, and he's no threat at all. Though Zuko does not pick up on it, Iroh is almost certainly being sarcastic, or at least ironic; he knows that it isn't good news at all. The Fire Lord needs the Avatar to be shadowy and dangerous, not real and mostly harmless; maintaining a war footing for a hundred years would be impossible without some form of propaganda machine.

Zuko, meanwhile, takes everything personally. He cannot even consider the possibility that his quest is misguided; catching the Avatar is success and proves his quest was not in vain, and losing the Avatar proves that the Avatar is a threat and his quest is necessary. There is no conceivable event which does not somehow justify Zuko's quest, at least in his eyes.

Zuko's determination brings us to the end of the episode, and Aang's "I never wanted to be." These first couple of episodes are nothing but characters who don't want to be who they find themselves being: Sokka doesn't want to be a lone warrior, Katara doesn't want to be her brother's mother, Aang doesn't want to be the Avatar, and Zuko doesn't want to be an exile. Aang's sudden appearance has started the gears of story turning, however, and all of these characters are going to be transformed in the months to come. The ice has cracked and light is spilling out; spring is a long way away, but it is coming.

Monday, April 5, 2010

AtLA Monday will be on a Tuesday this week...

Sorry, all, but AtLA Monday will be delayed this week. Anime Boston just took too much out of me, and I couldn't finish it before bedtime. I'll have it up tomorrow evening. Possibly earlier, but that's unlikely.

Also, Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake is easily the best show on television right now. I can confidently say that after one episode; it lived up to my hopes and then some. If you are not watching this show, you are leading a joyless shadow-existence.

Also also, saw a preview for the new Scooby-Doo. It looks like it might actually not completely suck, which has utterly blown my mind. Scooby-Doo being inevitably, inexpressibly terrible is one of the cornerstones of my existence.