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 AvatarSpirit.net):

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.


  1. Hooray, ATLA Monday/Tuesday! The antidote to LB Monday! I apologise in advance for the following essay!comment.

    I always found “I never wanted to be” heartbreaking. Mostly because of just how little it matters throughout the course of the series. Never wanted to be the Avatar? Tough, the world needs one. Doesn’t matter that it’s a thoroughly awful job. Doesn’t matter what Aang wanted to do with his life - or who he wanted to spend it with. (Somewhere along the line, some poor sixteen-year-old has had their dreams crushed by this news. And I can imagine the whole Avatar thing causing serious family strife.)

    And the same applies for virtually everyone else. Katara might not want to be the Team Mom, but a Team Mom is needed and she’s the only one stepping up, for whatever reason. Clothes don’t mend themselves. Food doesn’t appear on plates. Zuko doesn’t want to be cut off from his family like he is, but no amount of effort can get him back the family he lost when his cousin died, his uncle went AWOL, and his mother was forced to leave. The universe just doesn’t care what these kids want. They have to make the best of it anyway.

    Sokka I see as a slightly different case. Of the four main characters thus far, I think Sokka has the most positive, constructive conception of his own life, and in some ways the most reasonable expectations. Protect the South Pole. Protect Katara. Both concrete things to work for, and ends in themselves (as opposed to Zuko’s “capture the Avatar and then everything will magically be fine”). Unlike the other three, he can work with what he has. The responsibility might be crushing, but Sokka’s wants and reality are closer together than the wants and realities of the others.

    However, like the other three, the universe just doesn’t care about this. When he decides to leave the South Pole and when his self-appointed role as Katara’s protector becomes utterly redundant, he has to accept that. “Life happens, wherever you are, whether you make it or not,” Iroh says, sometime in season two. It seems to me the more positive spin on the idea that everyone just has to make the best of what they have. “Never wanted to be” doesn’t matter.

    Long comment is long, and quite possibly confused.

  2. Everybody *does* have to make the best of what they have. The universe really *doesn't* care what you want. It's an astonishingly mature theme for an American cartoon, given the prevalence of "Wish really, really hard and everything you want will become yours!" in American children's media.

    Aang does have a choice. But in the very next episode he will discover the consequences of refusing the call, and thereafter he will choose to accept it, though it will lay very heavily on him at times. The last episodes of the series will revisit this theme very heavily, as Aang struggles to figure out how to be a good Avatar while also staying true to his own values.

    But I think for the rest of the characters that join him, Aang is a liberating force. It's most obvious with Toph in the second season, but it happens to everyone. Katara never completely stops being Team Mom, but she is able to grow into *more* than a Team Mom: a warrior, a healer, and possibly the most naturally heroic of the characters. Sokka becomes *more* than a warrior and a protector: a comedian, a lover, a friend, and an inventor. Even Zuko, following at a distance, slowly realizes he has other options.

  3. A well thought-out and well written review is hard to find, especially for AtLA. Thanks for taking the time to write one.

    The only issue I had was with this passage - "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."

    While he may not have meant to hurt anyone, Aang almost certainly severely injured or even killed some of the members of Zuko's crew. Some of them were thrown overboard into the arctic waters, which are almost impossible for a human to survive in for any length of time. Others may have been crushed by the collapse of the ice wall onto the front of the ship. This loss of life and/or injury of his crew could be a major contribution to his drive to capture the avatar in that it proves that the avatar is extremely dangerous. Also, the crew of that ship is Zuko's responsibility, and he has a strong drive to see to their wellbeing that is shown in later episodes.

    Other than that point, it was an excellent review. I look forward to reading more.

  4. @cadetsethy: Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you more!

    You make a good point. However, we have no evidence that anyone was hurt when the ice wall collapsed. It fell across the prow of the ship, and did not appear to do any actual damage, just blocked the ship's path. There was no one on deck at that end of the ship, so I think it's unlikely that anyone was hurt.

    Second of all, rewatching the Avatar State scene closely, I see six people surrounding Aang, Zuko and five soldiers. Three of those soldiers are positioned such that they'd be thrown into the superstructure, and appear to be the same three soldiers Katara freezes later.

    Zuko is thrown overboard, and the two soldiers with him are thrown into the wall, but not overboard. There are two objects flying overboard beside Zuko, but pausing and looking closely reveals them to be empty pieces of armor (knocked off the soldiers, presumably).

    Of course, it is still possible that he killed someone in his Avatar State attack. However, it's debatable, especially at this stage in his development, whether Aang is in control of his Avatar State at all. He specifically states in this episode that he doesn't know how he waterbent; combined with the completely out-of-character facial expressions he shows in the Avatar State, this leads me to believe that his past selves are more in control of his actions than he is. (As we will see later, his past selves were much more willing to kill than Aang is.)

  5. You know, I just noticed that you didn't mention the exchange where Zuko says that Aang is just a child, to which Aang responds, 'you're just a teenager'. I always that exchange incredibly amusing.

  6. It is amusing! Also a little sad, on the whole "Aang doesn't understand that there's no such thing as teenagers anymore" front.