Monday, May 31, 2010

AtLA Monday: The moral of the story is that stories with morals are dumb...

"Stealing is wrong -- except when it's from pirates."

Book One: Water
Chapter Nine: The Waterbending Scroll


Aang is worried about having to master all the elements by the end of summer, so the Gaang stops at a lake so Katara can teach him basic waterbending. Aang masters every move Katara tries to teach him almost immediately, even one she still doesn't quite have down herself, much to her annoyance. Aang also accidentally washes away their supplies, so they have to go into town to buy replacements.

After spending nearly all their money on supplies, the Gaang browses the wares on board a pirate junk. They find a rare scroll describing several waterbending moves, but cannot come close to affording it. As they're leaving, the pirates attack them, but they escape. Back at camp, Katara reveals she stole the scroll.

She insists she took it to help Aang, but of course she wants to practice the moves herself. She struggles with a move called "the single water whip," and when Aang is able to do it on the first try, she yells at him. After she apologizes, she gives him the scroll and tells him she wants nothing more to do with it.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh are looking for a replacement white lotus tile for Iroh's Pai Sho set in the same pirates' shop, and overhear one of them describing Aang. Zuko makes a deal with the pirates to work together; they get the scroll, he gets Aang.

That night, Katara sneaks out to practice the moves from the scroll. Zuko and the pirates hear her and capture her, and soon after catch Aang and Sokka as well. Sokka convinces the pirates that they can get much more money for the Avatar than the scroll, leading to a fight between the pirates and Zuko's crew. During the battle, the Gaang escapes on the pirates' boat, and Aang and Katara have to waterbend together to avoid a waterfall.

Later, on Appa, Katara apologizes, and Sokka reveals he grabbed the scroll in the confusion. Iroh finds his white lotus tile, and Zuko fumes.


The previous episode, in many ways, was the start of the real story of Avatar. It marks the beginning of the race against time that serves as the backdrop for the rest of the series. It is fitting, then, that "The Waterbending Scroll" is the first episode that really feels like later Avatar. There is little of depth here, but there is plenty of fun, some humor, scenery porn, some great action sequences, a dollop of character development, and a thorough subversion of a standard kids' show plot.

The plot to which I refer is, of course, the tired old story in which a kid wants something he can't afford, steals it, and then gets into trouble, ultimately learning that the theft wasn't worth it. In this episodze, Katara wants the scroll, steals it, and then she and her friends all get in trouble for it. However, in the end, the move she learned from the scroll is vital in fighting the pirates, and when asked what she's learned she makes clear she doesn't regret it in the slightest.

One of my pet peeves is the insistence by many, both creators and commentators, that every work of art has to be a fable with a moral, and that the value of a work is somehow connected to its moral. This view is most pernicious in children's television. Many shows can barely go an episode without trying to cram some kind of moral down the throats of the watching kids, nearly always to the detriment of consistent characterization or realistic interaction.

So I'm always happy to see a show aimed at children reject this approach (one of many reasons I'm loving Adventure Time! so much is its tendency to subvert the end-of-episode moral). Overall, Avatar is pretty good about it. There's plenty a kid can learn by watching these characters grow up and struggle with adversity, but it's all integral to and follows from the story. Rarely does an episode feel like the writers started with a moral and wrote the episode to teach it. There's no episode where the Gaang meets a disabled kid and have to learn that he fully capable of leading a normal life; they meet a disabled kid and it is simply assumed from the start that he's a regular kid. There's no episode in which they learn about child abuse; instead it remains as a constant element, never outright stated but always lurking just off-screen, in Zuko's character arc. And, most thankfully, blessedly of all, there is never an Extra Special Episode in which they learn about (dum dum DUM) drugs.

And so we have this episode, in which Katara learns that stealing is wrong. Except that she doesn't, because those guys were pirates, and the Gaang is trying to save the world, so property rights can suck it. What the episode is really about is Katara's jealousy and insecurity. For most of her life she was the only bender in her village. Waterbending was what she did; it is what made her special. Now Aang suddenly, effortlessly, can do what she struggled all her life to accomplish. In minutes of training, he is passing her.

Is it any wonder she snaps at him? Without meaning to, he makes her feel completely inadequate. Not only is she being surpassed at her greatest skill; the ease with which Aang picks up waterbending, compared with how hard it was for Katara, doubtless makes her wonder if there's something wrong with her. It won't be until near the end of the season that we see the real difference: Aang picks up waterbending faster and has more raw power, but Katara works harder, with the result that Katara has greater finesse, greater control, and greater ingenuity.

Katara's repeated awesomeness and genuine desire to help everyone she meets put her dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. This episode, along with a few others later on, helps humanize her with genuine flaws: she has a vicious temper, she can be very insecure at times, and it's easy for her to rationalize her actions by pretending that she's doing it for someone else's benefit. This is hardly the first time these flaws will create trouble.

With Katara busy being an insecure jerk for an episode, Sokka is free to show another side of his character, too. This episode reminds us that he grew up with Katara, and in some ways knows her better than she knows herself. He teases, and pretends not to understand the importance of waterbending, but the fact that he retrieves the waterbending scroll at the end of the episode makes clear that he really does understand how important it is. He just wanted Katara to be honest about her real reasons, and maybe get over her insecurity a little.

Random Observations:
  • Given the number of times Iroh says "white lotus" in this episode, I really, really want to see some connection to the Order of the White Lotus, but I can't find any. His description of the lotus tile bears no resemblance to the Order; far from appearing weak, its members are acknowledged masters of their respective disciplines (Piandao is a much sought-after teacher, Iroh a famous general, and so on). It is still foreshadowing of a sort, but appears to be extremely indirect.
  • The voice of the thin pirate in green -- the one who doesn't know what curios are -- bugged me for ages. I could not figure out who he sounded like. Then I got it -- Beedle, the shopkeeper from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, uses the same wheedling tone.
  • Another way in which Avatar quietly does its bit to take down the patriarchy: men who enjoy typically "feminine" pastimes. In this case, Iroh loves to shop.
  • The pirates are actually pretty impressive fighters. They take down the Gaang without difficulty, albeit by surprise, and prove a pretty good match for Zuko's crew.
  • That "reptile-bird" is totally an Archaeopteryx. And that's awesome.
  • Speaking of the reptile-bird, I love the aerial battle between it and Momo. Momo doesn't actually take part in combat very often, but when he does, he always proves himself to be quite capable and extremely clever.
  • The Gaang's money supply will be an issue again in "The Storm" a couple of episodes from now.


  1. Wait, wasn't there one episode where Sokka gets totally high on cactus juice and that this is treated as a bad thing?

    So Avatar totally did the 'Drugs are BAD, mmmk?' Special Episode thing. :P

  2. Nah, anon, Sokka gets totally high on cactus juice and it's treated as an annoying and frankly hilarious thing. XD

    "Who lit Toph on fire?"