Sunday, May 2, 2010

AtLA Monday: Heroism, Abuse, and Scenery Porn

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

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

Book One: Water
Chapter Six: Imprisoned


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Regarding the 'earthbending the organic coal' bit, this is certainly not going to be the first time that the show goes for a more...impresionistic sense of the elements over a more 'scientific' sense. See, the next couple of episodes!

  2. Given that this episode airs little more than a month after the pilot, I don't think it's possible for the visual upgrade to be ratings related; unless you're "South Park", that short a creative cycle in a cartoon is a perfect recipe for crap production values, no matter how much money you throw at it. If you're interested, this interview has a nice overview of the production cycle of an action cartoon which I think is of value to anyone interested in the medium--just skip down to the "Could you explain the process of creating an episode of the cartoon?" question:

    But anyways, back to Avatar: maybe it's because I've been replaying Dreamfall: The Longest Journey lately (where the protagonist's reasons for fighting The Empire turn out to be quite self-centered, even if she herself doesn't seem to realize it), because I find Katara's "help people" tendencies somewhat annoying in future seasons (See: "Painted Lady, The"), or because I'm a cynical git, but I do wonder if there's not another underlying motivation in addition to a genuine desire to help--or maybe I just feel that, unless you live in a world with crying mountains, trying to help everyone isn't a terribly practical life philosophy. But I'm just thinking aloud here.

    As for the Fire Nation's prisoner-keeping, something I've heard being suggested is that they're not trying to end the Avatar cycle (at least, not at the moment, since killing all Air Nomads assures it) as much as trying to control it in the short term. Capturing Water- and Earth-benders helps increase the chance that hen Aang dies, they'll have the next Avatar on hand and therefore be in a position to raise him/her in accordance to their ways.

  3. @cypsiman: "Impressionistic" is a good word for it, and of course they're pretty consistent about approaching the elements that way. I mean, the fire produced by firebending behaves nothing like real fire. And there's nothing wrong with taking that impressionistic approach; this is fantasy, not science fiction. I guess it just struck me as odd because, having never actually *seen* a piece of coal, I'm not used to thinking of them as rocks. I wonder if you could earthbend charcoal briquettes? Or does that count as man-made?

    @Ian: Hmm, you're right, six weeks really isn't long enough. Still leaves open the mystery of why the sudden jump of quality. I'd be interested to know if there was a gap between the *production* of episodes five and six, even though they aired back-to-back.

    Of course we can psychoanalyze Katara's motivation to help people. Certainly she gets on power trips at times, and she doesn't always make sure people want her help before she starts helping them. And no, it's not practical. So what? The point is that Katara is motivated to do the right thing, not why she is or whether she'll succeed.

    I have not heard that theory on the prisoner-keeping. That does make more sense than my theory, seeing that most of the time the Fire Nation doesn't seem particularly interested in rules of war. They're pretty happy to commit genocide whenever the opportunity arises.

    Oh, and well-played on the Adventure Time! reference.

  4. Have I mentioned that I really like this blog?

    I'd heard the same theory on keeping the water- and earthbenders captive, that they were trying to capture a nascent Avatar. It makes more sense than the Fire Nation suddenly developing some sense of honor in warfare.

    I had not thought of abuse as a theme, but now that you bring it up, it fits in and makes a lot of sense.

    I think it fits just fine that the sadistic warden left Katara with the earthbenders - we've seen how he treats his prisoners, we've seen how he treats his subordinates ("Go get someone I DIDN'T throw overboard!" I love that line!) and it makes just enough sense for him to have picked her out as a waterbender and left her there for the purpose of playing a game with her and his prisoners, then using their predicted failure to further crush their spirits.

  5. Thank you!

    On the question of whether the Fire Nation has a sense of honor in warfare, I really think it seems like the ordinary people of the Fire Nation, which would include most of the soldiers and officers, are, well, ordinary people. It's their leaders that range from Smug Snakes to Manipulative Bastards to Complete Monsters. So I would think most of the time, Fire Nation soldiers do fight with at least a limited degree of honor and mercy, though I suspect they're often lied to about who they're fighting and why.

    Abuse is a HUGE theme in Avatar. I'll talk about it more when we get to "The Storm," which is one of the most important episodes for that theme.

    I think your explanation of why the Warden left Katara alone is spot-on. Arrogance, cruelty, and stupidity in one neat little package. (How efficient of him.)