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.


  1. LOL, the Gaang. Not Team Boomeraang? XD

    I agree with you on multiple heroes (and some of them unlikely.) Hadn't considered the point about how many Fire Nation dead mooks there were around Gyatso's final resting place, nor the parallelism of this particular episode. V. interesting.

    Also, Zhao is my absolute favorite character to hate (like fire.) Worse than She Who Comes Later. Worse than that crazy waterbending puppeteer. Even worse than the annoying Everykid who shows up now and again.

    ... I really don't like Zhao.

  2. Zhao is pretty much a dick. He's one of only a couple of characters who are just plain evil -- Long Feng comes to mind, and the prison warden on that ship (not the warden of Boiling Rock). Everyone else either has some explanation of how they became evil, or some hint of the possibility of redemption. Zhao gets by far the most screen time of the just plain evil characters, and arguably commits the single most evil act in the series (though Long Feng and the Firelord are both serious contenders, too).

  3. One of the many reasons I do not think I can take the live-action movie seriously is because Zhao will be played by Asif Mandvi. Nothing personal; I just don't think I'll be able to take him seriously as a villain when the last time I saw him onscreen, he was dressed up as Batman.

    That aside, I found Zhao frightening. Never menacing, but frightening. "No control" indeed. And even Zuko, even in season one, knows the importance of keeping control. (Achieving it is a different thing entirely.) Not that we see much of that particular flaw here, I think, except for that final spiteful attack. The spite was what struck me about him this episode. "The sort of nerve-sapping hatred only the mediocre can truly bring to bear," as Terry Pratchett called it once.

    As for the Air Nomads, well. I for one don't think the Fire Nation possibly *could* have wiped them all out in one day. Actually, I suspect there are possibly some left, probably living in the Earth Kingdom, maybe totally ignorant of their heritage. Possibly they could be found- if they still exist- after the war ends. And I always thought their temples would function as "home base": somewhere to come back to whenever travelling got a bit wearing, somewhere for all those incapable or unwilling to wander to rest, somewhere they could convene in a larger group whenever it was necessary or desirable.

    This is fun. Looking forward to Kyoshi Island next week, or whenever!

  4. "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?"

    I rewatched "Siege of the North" last night. One scene did indeed show what appeared to be nearly a hundred ships (I didn't take the time to count them all). Aang also says at one point that he must have taken out "a dozen" ships, but there was no way he could stop the whole fleet - implying, of course, that a dozen ships was only a small portion of the total attack squad.

    "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."

    I assumed Sozin probably used dragons in his attacks on the Air Temples.

  5. @Ebby: I was initially interested in the movie, then I heard M. Night Shyamalan was directing it. Then the whole racebending fiasco. And I saw a trailer last week, and wow, did it look crappy.

    That Pratchett quote is PERFECT for Zhao, and makes me realize there's actually some interesting parallels between him and Zuko. I'll have to try to remember to discuss them when I get to "The Siege of the North".

    I agree that it's very difficult to believe that the Air Nomads are extinct. If we ignore the creators' statements (as we always should, because if they wanted it to be part of the show, they should have put it in the show), it's possible that all the airbenders lived permanently at the temples, but the rest of their people wandered around. Thus, Aang is the last airbender but not the last Air Nomad.

    On the other hand, if the Fire Nation was hunting them for a century, and their keepers of culture were all in the temples, it's quite likely that the few survivors have either married into Earth or Water Kingdom families and left no trace of their heritage, or they've retreated into extreme isolation like the Sun Warriors.

    @Anonymous: The Fire Nation Navy seems to have ships of about a turn-of-the-century, WWI level of technology. So I can completely believe that an admiral planning a major assault could get ahold of a couple of hundred ships -- by comparison, the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland (one of the largest naval battles in history) was 151 ships of varying sizes.

    But for a commander -- apparently, in the Fire Navy, one rank lower than admiral -- to have "hundreds" of ships available to him implies that the Fire Navy has THOUSANDS of ships. That's a little hard to swallow, given that they appear to be steam-powered ironclads. That's a LOT of iron and a LOT of coal, not to mention a LOT of crew. No, I think in this episode Zhao is just exaggerating enormously. He probably has a couple of dozen ships under his command, not hundreds.

    Dragons make a lot of sense as a way into the Air Temples. Wow, now you have me thinking about how scary dragons would be on Comet Day.

  6. I find that Aang's attitude regarding the Air Temples being inaccessible without an Air Bison, rather reminiscent of the sort of attitude you'd find in your standard issue 'hidden elf village', where the elves are so full of themselves that they simply can't contemplate the notion of those puny humans ever finding there village. Then they do, and they destroy it. In all likelihood, Aang got this attitude from the elders, who figured that the fire nation was just too spiritually dead to ever reach them.

    And as for the idea that some of the Air Nomads survived and have forgotten their heritage...Mike and Bryan have expressly stated that all the airbenders were killed, and all Airnomads are Airbenders. I'll grant you, genocide of that scale is definitely not the sort of thing that fans are really going to want to accept. But you know, Aang's the last airbender. That means there aren't any others left. Maybe in the future Aang will restore their population one way or another, but that's for another time, after the series.

    Also, I find it weird the way all the Avatar statues spiral in; you'd think it would spiral out in anticipation of however many future Avatars there will be.

  7. "Mike and Bryan have expressly stated that all the airbenders were killed, and all Airnomads are Airbenders."

    I'm with our host here: we are allowed to ignore the statements of the creators. I'm particularly inclined to do so in this case, given the sheer logistical difficulties involved in this genocide. The airbenders live on high mountaintops, where the terrain (or lack thereof) unambiguously favours them over firebenders, no matter how supercharged. And as Aang shows us again and again, airbenders are pretty mobile. The Fire Nation would also have had to hit all four Air Temples on the same day- more logistical difficulties, given how spread out they were. Odds are also pretty good that not every airbender was at a Temple on that day.

    So as much respect as I have for Mike and Bryan...I can't see the airbenders being entirely wiped out, insofar as the actual people go. Culture wiped out, including the teaching and practice of airbending, sure, that seems to have happened. And I'm pretty sure there is such a thing as "cultural genocide". We might have to agree to disagree on that, cypisman2.

    But now you mention that about the Avatar status and the spiral pattern...yeah, that IS weird.

  8. I don't get the impression that the Fire Nation was particularly spiritually dead prior to the war. "The Avatar and the Firelord" portrays a nation that, while certainly less spiritual than the monastic Air Temple life, doesn't seem particularly less spiritual than the modern Earth Kingdom. But still, I agree, the Air Nomads relied too much on geography to protect them.

    I have no trouble believing that Aang is the only airbender in the world during the show's run. However, I think the creators are just plain wrong that the Air Nomads were entirely wiped out in that one attack. The only thing that is undeniably true about the Avatar world is what we actually see happen on screen; everything else is speculation and on an exactly equal footing, no matter who is doing the speculating. And based on what we see on screen, the total genocide of the Air Nomads in one day just doesn't seem likely. The probability is extremely high that some escaped.

    However, it's also very likely that the survivors were scattered. Most or all of their books, tools, teachers -- the things you need to pass down your culture to the next generation -- were probably destroyed at the temples. Also, anyone caught airbending would almost certainly be imprisoned or killed. All trace of their culture probably died out within a couple of generations, so there really are no airbenders or Air Nomads anymore by Aang's time -- but there probably are Earth Kingdom and maybe Water Tribe members with an Air Nomad or two in their ancestry.

    As for bringing the airbenders back? Bending ability doesn't seem to be genetic -- "The Fortuneteller", IIRC, has a pair of twins where one's a bender and the other isn't. And of course Katara is a very powerful bender, while Sokka can't bend at all. So I think it's entirely possible for new airbenders to spontaneously appear, though they'd probably benefit by being taught by Aang (or Appa -- airbending originally came from the flying bison).

    As for the spiral room, I just assumed they reshuffled the statues every time a new Avatar is identified. (Or dies -- the fact that Roku's statue looks old suggests that they make the statues at the end of the Avatar's life). That's a lot of work, but they don't have to do it very often -- heck, if the fourth episode is to be believed, Avatar Kyoshi lived something like 250 years!