Monday, May 17, 2010

AtLA Monday: Racing the Sun

"It's good to see you, Aang. What took you so long?"
-Roku, 112 years after his death and Aang's birth.

Book One: Water
Chapter Eight: Avatar Roku (The Winter Solstice, Part Two)


Aang tries to leave for Crescent Island without Sokka and Katara, but Appa won't budge. Sokka and Katara convince him to let them go, and the Gaang sets off, with less then a day to breach Fire Nation territory and reach Roku's statue. Soon after they leave, Zuko and Iroh arrive in the village to question the townsfolk.

Later that morning, Zuko and Iroh argue as their ship races back to the Fire Nation, violating Zuko's banishment. They catch up to Appa and try to shoot him down with flaming catapult shot, but Appa dodges. Then Aang spots a flotilla of Fire Navy ships in their path.

On board his ship, Commander Zhao gloats at the opportunity to catch Aang and Zuko in the same day. He gives the order to open fire. Appa weaves through the field of fire with only minor injuries, but Zuko's ship takes damage to the engines.

After two more volleys, the Gaang makes it through the blockade. Zhao's forces cannot follow them, but he surmises that Zuko knows where they're going, and gives orders to let him through.

The Gaang arrives at the island and sneaks into the apparently abandoned shrine. Once inside, they are ambushed by the Fire Sages, but one Fire Sage is still more loyal to the Avatar than the Fire Lord, and he helps them.

On Zuko's ship, Iroh explains Zhao's plan, and Zuko begins planning a counter-strategy. Meanwhile, the Fire Sage leads the Gaang through a network of tunnels carved by Roku out of magma. As they travel, the old man explains to Aang why he turned against the other Sages. He leads them to the sanctuary, but it is sealed. Only a firebending Avatar, or a team of firebenders, can open the door. Sokka, however, has a plan.

At the same time as Sokka is hatching his plan, Zuko puts his own into action, setting out for Crescent Island alone on his boat while Iroh takes the damaged ship on a different path, to create a false smoke trail. Unfortunately for them, Zhao is watching through his telescope.

Sokka uses a technique his father taught him to make small bombs, but they fail to open the door. Katara notes the soot they left behind, and comes up with a plan of her own. The Fire Sage on the Gaang's side, Momo, and the scorch marks left by Sokka's plan combine to fool the other Fire Sages that the Gaang has already gotten in, and they open the doors to go after them.

As soon as the doors open, the Gaang ambush the Fire Sages, but Aang is captured by the newly arrived Zuko. As the doors are closing, Aang manages to break free and runs to help Sokka and Katara, but Katara tells him to go into the chamber instead, and he makes it in just before the doors shut. The Avatar-light flares, and now even the firebenders can't open the door.

The last rays of the setting sun illuminate the statue, and Roku appears to speak to Aang. Outside, Zuko questions the renegade Fire Sage, and Zhao arrives to take everyone prisoner. Zuko tells Zhao he's too late to stop the Avatar from entering the chamber, but Zhao doesn't care; he'll get Aang when he comes out.

Roku explains the meaning of the comet to Aang: A hundred years ago, it appeared, giving the firebenders enormous power. Fire Lord Sozin used that opportunity to wipe out the Air Nomads in a surprise attack. Now, it is returning, as comets tend to do. By the end of summer, the comet will return and empower the firebenders to crush everything in their path, permanently ending the balance of the world. Normally, it takes years for the Avatar to master all four elements. Aang will have to do it by the end of summer, or he will have no hope of ending the war before the comet. There is hope, however: Aang isn't learning the elements from scratch -- the Avatar has mastered them all before, many times.

Outside, Zhao's soldiers prepare to blast Aang with everything they have the moment the doors open. Roku says that he is a part of Aang, and if Aang needs him again, he'll find a way to talk to him. He senses the threat of Zhao's soldiers, and Aang enters the Avatar State, channeling Roku to block the fireblasts and free Sokka, Katara, and the renegade Fire Sage. A volcanic eruption begins, and the temple begins to crumble. The Fire Nation people escape, but the Gaang is trapped, until Appa swoops in to save them.

On Zhao's ship, we see that he has taken all the Fire Sages prisoner as traitors, not just the one that helped the Gaang, and he intends to take them to the Fire Lord. The episode ends as the Gaang flies back to the Earth Kingdom to resume their quest.


The plot begins! The main plot of the series is revealed at the end of this episode: Sozin's Comet will give the Fire Nation the power to ruin the world beyond the Avatar's ability to fix it. Before it arrives at the end of the summer, Aang must master all four elements, defeat the Fire Lord, and end the war. Bit of a tall order, given that he hasn't even started on water yet!

Racing against time is, of course, the main theme of this episode. The Gaang spends the episode racing against the sun's daily cycle to reach Roku's statue by nightfall; they will spend the rest of the series racing against its annual cycle to win the war before Fall.

The main plot of the episode doesn't actually give us much more than that to work with; it's really all about setting up future events. To that end, it gives a lot of foreshadowing. In particular, the final tableau of the Gaang flying into the moon is heavily foreshadowing the season finale.

This is the first episode since "The Warriors of Kyoshi" in which Zuko and the Gaang interact directly, and once again the episode takes pains to note parallels between Sokka and Zuko, especially when it cuts between the two of them, miles apart, hatching and executing doomed plans simultaneously. I can't stress enough how odd this is; most of the series really does draw its parallels between Aang and Zuko, especially beginning with "The Storm."

Nonetheless, the similarities between Zuko and Sokka are clear. Both are angry young men trying to win back their fathers. The main difference is that Sokka has received care, love, and bomb-making lessons from his father; all the Fire Lord has given Zuko is pressure, rejection, and pain. Of course, I suspect we'd be a lot less sympathetic to Zuko if we saw any more of how he "persuaded" the villagers to tell him where Aang went at the beginning of the episode. Between Zuko and Heibai, I doubt much of their village is left. It was a wise decision on the part of the creators to cut away when they did.

Sokka's anger is interesting, because it's a subtle repeat of something we saw more blatantly earlier on. In the first few episodes, Sokka is a misogynist, and in "The Warriors of Kyoshi" he encounters a woman who proves him wrong. To his credit, by two episodes later, in "Imprisoned," he appears completely open to letting Katara run the show, put herself in danger, even take part in combat. In this episode, he reiterates his hatred of the Fire Nation and firebenders, only to be proven wrong by the renegade Fire Sage. What happens two episodes later? We'll see in two weeks, when I discuss "Jet."

Random observations:
  • As mentioned last post, Sokka and Katara have strong motivation to insist on accompanying Aang after what happened last episode. Sokka is embarrassed, and Katara nearly lost the last people she has left.
  • Continuity touch: Iroh is still half-naked when he and Zuko reach the village. They have not returned to the ship yet.
  • Iroh wins the understatement award: "My brother is not the understanding type." This argument becomes much more interesting after watching later episodes, especially "The Storm"; Zuko is completely unreasonable when it comes to his father, because he cannot bear to admit the truth to himself. It'll be another two seasons until he does.
  • Why is there a blockade? It's unlikely that it's permanent, since Zuko is surprised to see it. Given that Aang only announced his intention to enter the Fire Nation a few hours ago, they can't be there for him unless they've been there for weeks, and then how would they know to be in that one particular spot? No, I think they're there to stop someone else entirely from entering the Fire Nation. Who? Well, by now they've doubtless heard that an entire prisonful of earthbenders busted out and took Fire Navy ships with them... Sure, one of the crew seems to assume that all Fire Navy ships are on their side, but then again, would the Fire Nation want the rank and file to know about such an embarrassing incident?
  • "That's exactly why I didn't want you here!" says Aang. "It's too dangerous!" Katara answers: "And that's exactly why we're here." To be completely useless? To be fair, Sokka and Katara both contribute to opening the door to Roku's chamber, but really, there's no excuse for them to believe they could be any help. It will take many episodes of skill-building and character growth before they're anything like credible allies in a fight.
  • Appa seems more angered than frightened or hurt by his burning fur. Later in the series he'll develop a pretty serious phobia of fire, but none of those events have happened yet.
  • Appa is somehow able to fall faster than Sokka and thus catch him. This doesn't bother me, because Appa is a six-legged magic flying bison with a beaver tail. Six-legged magic flying bison with beaver tails fall as fast as they want to.
  • Why don't the ships keep firing after the Gaang makes it through? Possible answers, by decreasing likelihood: They had all their catapults pointed "out", and it takes a while to turn them around (presumably a ship would normally have them pointed in every direction, and this is special blockade procedure), or they only had enough ammo prepared for three volleys and not enough time to bring more out on deck, or there's some rule against them firing into the Fire Nation.
  • Beautiful moment of Zuko and Zhao staring at each other from the decks of their ships, Zuko low down and defiant, Zhao high up and smug. Both are clearly thinking the same thing: "What are you up to?" And then a moment later Iroh, the great general, rubbing his beard and pondering why Zhao let them through.
  • The Fire Sages were mentioned earlier, as the ones who told Zuko that the Avatar would be a hundred-year-old airbender. This is their first (only?) appearance onscreen.
  • The flowing lava is, of course, not at all hot unless you're actually touching it. There's no such thing as convection in cartoons. Sigh.
  • The ancestors of the Fire Sages were forced to fight for the Fire Nation when the war began. Most of their descendents now appear to serve willingly, but at least one rebels. This gives something of an explanation both for the size of the Fire Nation military and for the widely varying degree of competence they show (to put it charitably): most of the military is conscripts, who of course are not very motivated or skilled. The career military like Zhao, on the other hand, are more focused and skilled and probably better equipped -- it's hinted at that nobles are both expected to serve in the military, and given special status within it.
  • This is one of the few times we see Aang in a rage without entering the Avatar State, as he attacks the unopened door with wind. It's not as scary as the State, but still pretty unsettling; a reminder not only that he's a little kid, but a little kid with no parents and powerful weapons.
  • On what basis does Zhao consider Zuko a traitor? The circumstances of his banishment didn't imply treason. Is it simply that Zuko concealed his knowledge of the Avatar? Zhao does seem the type to equate his own career advancement with the good of the Fire Nation, and thus regard anyone who stands in his way as a traitor.
  • Roku's attack at the end of the episode is the first we get to see of what a fully realized Avatar can do: raw power enough to unleash a volcano to destroy the temple, and control enough to melt steel chains without hurting the people wrapped in them. (Then again, he's probably helped by the fact that there's no such thing as convection.)
  • Why is Momo wearing a Fire Sage hat when he and Appa swoop in to save the Gaang? We'll never know, but I assume, given that it involves Momo and Appa having adventures together, that the answer is both awesome and hilarious.
  • What happens to the Fire Sages, especially the "good" one, after they're handed off to the Fire Lord? Normally I'd assume they were killed, or worse. But there's one scene with four Fire Sages near the end of the last episode, and one of them, albeit in the background and fuzzy, looks a lot like the "good" Sage from this episode. I choose to believe that's who it is.


  1. There's no such thing as convection in cartoons. Sigh.

    Just think how much it would mess up if there were convection in Avatar. Or even realistic conduction. My goodness.

  2. I have watched up to this episode now with my almost-four-year-old son. Your blog is now my favoritest thing in the world.