Thursday, May 13, 2010

Insanely Late AtLA Monday on a Thursday: Setting Up the Pins

Aang: Maybe whatever I have to do will just... come to me.

Katara: I think you can do it, Aang.

Sokka: Yeah... we're all going to get eaten by a spirit monster.

Book One: Water

Chapter Seven: The Spirit World (The Winter Solstice, Part One)


The Gaang is hanging out on Appa, flying along, when they see a blight across the landscape. They land to investigate, and discover it's the remnants of a recent forest fire set by the Fire Nation. Aang is depressed, and blames himself; stopping this sort of devestation is part of the Avatar's job.

Katara tries to cheer him up by throwing an acorn at him. She explains that the acorn is a symbol of the forest's eventual return from this destruction. An old man approaches, recognizing Aang as the Avatar, and asks for help.

The Gaang travels with him to his village, where many of the buildings are half-collapsed. He explains that the spirit Heibai has been attacking for the last several nights. As soon as the sun sets, it attacks the village, smashes buildings, and kidnaps one of the people. And as the winter solstice approaches, the spirit world draws closer to the human world, allowing Heibai to manifest more powerfully and for longer. The old man fears what Haibei might do if he isn't stopped before the solstice.

Dealing with spirits is a traditional part of the Avatar's job, but Aang doesn't know how to do it. He has no teacher, and the only people who have any experience being the Avatar are dead. Still, he tries to help. That night, he attempts to appease Heibai, but cannot communicate with him, and the angry spirit kidnaps Sokka. Aang chases after him to the burnt-out forest, and crashes into a wooden statue of a bear in the middle of the blight.

Aang comes to the next morning and returns to the village, but he is now invisible, having crossed over into the spirit world without realizing it. He cries out to Roku for help, and a ghostly dragon appears, the spirit of Roku's "animal guide." The dragon is able to telepathically transmit images, but not words, when it touches Aang's forehead, and it shows him an image of a comet and a distant island. Aang mounts it and flies to the island, where there is a shrine to Avatar Roku. From the images the dragon transmits, Aang figures out that the shrine is set up as a calendar, such that, on the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun will shine on the jewel in the forehead of a statue of Roku. At that time, it will be possible for Aang to speak to his spirit.

The dragon returns Aang to his body, and he reaches the village just as the sun is setting. Heibai returns, but this time Aang touches his forehead and learns that he is the spirit of the forest the Fire Nation burned down. Aang gives the Heibai the acorn Katara gave him earlier, and explains its significance. Heibai takes it and departs, transforming into a panda as he goes. As he vanishes, Sokka and the missing villagers return, unsure where they've been.

Meanwhile, we cut regularly to the B plot, in which Iroh is ambushed and captured by earthbenders. They mention some of his past exploits, and he rather cleverly manages to leave a trail for Zuko as they haul him off to the capital. Zuko follows them alone, and along the way sees Katara riding on Appa. He nearly turns to follow, but then chooses to go after Iroh instead, just in time to save him from having his hands smashed by the earthbenders to prevent further escape attempts. Zuko and Iroh make short work of the earthbenders, and return to the ship.

At the end of the episode, Aang tells the others about the shrine, but they have only one day to reach it before the solstice. Worse still: it's in the Fire Nation.


The most important work of this episode and the next is to set up future events. We learn more about the Avatar and his world than any episode since the premiere, and we hardly notice we're doing it!

This episode actually reveals the last of the Avatar's powers. There will be no more reveals of new powers; everything else is a logical application of the powers we're shown here, though it does require a bit of reading between the lines. The powers of the Avatar, assuming he learns to use them, are:
  • Consummate martial arts skills.
  • Access to the accumulated knowledge, skill, and experience of all past Avatars.
  • The ability to bend all four elements.
  • The Avatar State, in which he lets the spirits of past Avatars basically possess him, multiplying his power and making him float and glow.
  • The ability to see and communicate with spirits.
  • The ability to separate his spirit from his body and wander the spirit world.
As we go on in the series, I'll explain how each of the powers he "develops" later are logical extensions of these powers, given the rules of the universe. The important thing at this stage is to understand that Aang is more than four benders in one person; he is also a bridge between the human and spirit worlds. He can act equally in both.

What exactly is the spirit world? Based on the way its portrayed, it appears to be a sort of shadow of the human world (though its denizens might argue that it's the other way around). The Avatar universe is pantheist; everything has a spirit, in both senses (there is a Spirit of Everything, and there are lesser spirits for each individual thing). Places, people, objects, animals, all have an animating spirit. The spirits are not good or evil, by and large; they obey their own, often seemingly arbitrary, rules. Some spirits are quite minor, being the spirit of, say, a forest or a lake. Others represent abstractions, such as wisdom, or major natural forces, such as the ocean or the moon. And some are downright terrifying, even if it's not clear what exactly they're the spirit of. Spirits usually dwell in the spirit world, but sometimes they can cross over into the human world, as Heibai does in this episode. This is easiest near the solstice. Some spirits, as we'll see later, can incarnate in the human world more or less permanently.

The two worlds are closely connected. If you destroy something in the human world, as we see in this episode, its spirit may rampage. This can be a problem if you happen to find yourself in that spirit's path. On the other hand, if you harm a spirit, it can have disastrous consequences in the human world.

Notably, a spirit without a body cannot use bending. This makes sense, as bending is a very physical kind of magic. The spirit world is not material, and thus not made of the elements; even if it were, without a body, how could Aang do the physical motions required to bend? Also, this makes it very clear that Aang's ability to walk the spirit world and communicate with spirits is separate from any of the four bending styles. It is an additional power in its own right, not some kind of synergistic effect of having access to four elements.

Also, Fang (Roku's dragon) appears when Aang asks for help from Roku. Why is the dragon free to act when Roku is not? Because Roku is already there, inside Aang. Aang hasn't yet figured out how to talk to Roku, but since Aang is Roku, when he is in trouble the spirit of Roku's closest companion comes to aid him. Unfortunately, Roku's experience and skill are buried deep inside Aang, and accessing them will require something special -- at least until Aang improves in the use of his spiritual powers, and learns to tap his own depths.

There's some interesting foreshadowing at work here, too. The comet is obvious, but there are subtler touches, as well. Literal touches, in fact -- first Fang, and then Aang touches a spirit in the forehead in order to link with it and communicate. This figures in the way Aang resolves the conflict with Heibai. He does not defeat him; in fact, he never even lands a blow on Heibai. He touches Heibai's forehead, uses his spiritual power (with accompanying glow), and then renders Heibai harmless.

We also get some foreshadowing in the B story, particularly in the moment where Zuko has to choose between rescuing his uncle and pursuing the Avatar. He hesitates a moment, even turns to start following Appa, and then turns back to save his uncle. That sequence, spread over rather a lot more time, will happen again.

The B story also teaches us a lot about Iroh. We learn that, despite his belly, he is actually quite buff. More seriously, we learn that he was once a great general, and led the siege of the city of Ba Sing Se for 600 days, which is a ridiculously long siege. It says volumes about the determination of both attacker and defender to have a siege last that long -- almost two years! He was defeated at Ba Sing Se, because he and his men were tired. (And, in hindsight, knowing the real reason Iroh ended the siege that he hides behind the claim to be "tired", it is heartbreaking when he says, "And I'm still tired." I immediately flashed to "The Tale of Iroh," and I am not ashamed to say I got a little misty.) Iroh then proceeds to top his effortless takedown of Zhao in "The Southern Air Temple" with one of the all-time great escape attempts. We thus learn that he is completely awesome -- or think that we do. The truth is, at this point in the series we've barely even begun to scratch the surface of Iroh's pure awesomeness.

The B story is actually quite brilliant. Think about it from the point of view from someone who's never seen this show before. An old man is taking a bath. His nephew tells him to hurry up so they can get moving. The old man doesn't listen, falls asleep in the bath, and is ambushed and captured by soldiers. The soldiers leave him almost naked, chain him up, mock him, and drag him off. He makes a couple of escape attempts, both quite clever, and the soldiers respond by preparing to crush his hands. At the last moment, his nephew arrives, releases him, and they non-lethally kick the asses of the soldiers, who outnumber them three to one. A first-time viewer would be completely justified in concluding that Zuko and Iroh are a second team of heroic characters, and the Earth Kingdom are villains.

How many kids' shows are willing to delve this deep into shades of gray? Heck, how many "adult" shows? The evening news is usually more black and white! And this episode is barely the beginning of the process of deepening Zuko, Iroh, and the Fire Nation.

Random Observations:
  • "Turns out clouds are made of water." Even that bit of silliness is minor foreshadowing for a few episodes from now. The fact that clouds are made of water will be critical to the plot of "The Fortuneteller."
  • The Gaang must be pretty near the equator by now, if it's this green two days before the winter solstice.
  • Sokka finds proof that the Fire Nation was at the site of the forest fire, not that they set it. It makes more sense for the villagers to have done it, possibly in an attempt to destroy a Fire Nation encampment -- it would explain why Heibai's attacking them, and not the Fire Nation.
  • Is Aang going to blame himself for everything the Fire Nation does? He's really not at all over the events of "The Southern Air Temple," as we'll see again in "The Storm." He feels guilty about running away, and believes that because he ran away and vanished for a century, he is responsible for everything the Fire Nation did in the meantime, from burning this forest to wiping out the Air Nomads.
  • Zuko really, really, REALLY does not want reminders that his uncle is a sexual being. This becomes something of a running gag: Zuko is easily grossed out by old people.
  • Katara throws those acorns HARD. She's really quite strong.
  • Iroh falling asleep in the hot spring is incredibly stupid and irresponsible of him. Sleeping in a hot spring is dangerous; it can lead to severe dehydration, overheating, coma, even death. Presumably powerful firebenders have at least some resistance to extreme temperatures, but even so, dumb move on his part.
  • Iroh's nickname, "The Dragon of the West," will turn out to have several layers of meaning. The most obvious is his ability to breathe fire or very hot air, which he uses in this episode to heat the spring water and, later, his manacle.
  • Sokka complains about having to "sit and cower" while Aang deals with Heibai. That may explain his insistence on coming with Aang at the beginning of the next episode.
  • I love Heibai's design in his "monster" form! I love all the monster design in Avatar. It's a pity they don't get to do more of it; there are only three real monsters in the series, four if you count the big, man-made, shambling plant-thing from "The Swamp."
  • Are we supposed to believe that the sandal Zuko finds in this episode is the one he uses in the finale? That's sweet and all, but what was he doing carrying a smelly sandal for months on end? Especially given that for a lot of that time, Iroh was right there next to him, hobbling around on one sandal? For that matter, how did Iroh even have his sandal to drop? Wasn't he naked when the soldiers caught him?
  • Heartbreaking Katara Moment #65,849: Clutching Sokka's boomerang after he and Aang leave. This episode must be completely awful for her. Her mother is dead, her father is gone, now her brother has been captured by a monster. On top of that, Katara is constantly acting as caretaker for the people around her, so she doubtless blames herself for Sokka's capture, especially when you consider that she persuaded Sokka to come on the journey in the first place, and did nothing throughout Heibai's attack. Doubtless, her misery and guilt in this episode are factors in her insistence on coming with Aang at the beginning of the next episode.
  • The Avatar solar motif rears its head again: as Aang approaches the village in spirit form, the sun rises. The whole plot of this episode is a variant of the Dying God trope: The sun "dies" at the solstice, the longest night of the year, just as Aang "dies" and become a Force ghost, I mean spirit. The offering is made, and the spirit appeased, and the sun returns, just as Aang returns to life. And of course, this is foreshadowing, too -- it is neither the first time (that would be the hundred years he spent frozen) nor the last that Aang symbolically dies and is reborn. Makes sense, given the solar motif; in addition to its annual cycle, the sun dies with every sunset and is reborn with every sunrise.
  • The dragons in Avatar are an interesting combination of eastern and western influences. The body shape, limbs, and heads are clearly eastern, but the wings and firebreath are pure western (eastern dragons are generally associated with water, not fire).
  • Do all Avatars have an animal guide? It's interesting that Aang has an air bison, later identified as the animal from which the first airbenders learned their art, while Roku had a dragon, the animal that did the same for firebenders. Is this a coincidence, or a tradition? Does it mean Kyoshi had a giant badger-mole for a companion? Waterbending was learned from the moon, not an animal, so what would a Water Tribe Avatar have for a guide?
  • Iroh sees Aang fly past on Fang. How? Has he always been able to see spirits, or did he learn this ability at some point? Regardless of the backstory, it makes thematic sense. Iroh is good at seeing things other people don't. Particularly, he sees Zuko's worth, something Zuko himself cannot until much later in the series.
  • What did Sokka experience during his night and day in the spirit world. Did he experience anything, or was it lost time?
  • This is the last episode of setting up. In the next episode, the main plot kicks into high gear, and we start the long, strange trip to the series finale. This is also the first episode we can more-or-less definitively date. It's not clear how much time the previous episodes cover, though it's probably about six weeks. We do know for certain, however, that this episode takes place roughly halfway through winter, and that from here to the end of the series covers about six to eight months.


  1. What a long strange trip it is.
    I absolutely squee about Iroh, like, all the time. He's my favorite character in the whole show. <3 Falling asleep in a hot spring is really not a good idea, though, and I wonder why he did it (he was tired?)
    I've wondered the same thing about companion animals. The Avatar is frequently alone, due to that whole great responsibility thing - we see it with Roku as he loses contact with his best friend over their relative positions (but he's married? That threw me for a loop!), we see it with Aang as nobody really gets what he has to do, though Katara gets close; we see it with Kyoshi, even, as nobody really knows much about her. A companion animal could be a huge help to an Avatar, especially if they're all as close as Appa and Aang. (We're given evidence to suggest that Fang and Roku, at least, were that close. Kyoshi never shows up with a badger mole, but that could also be due to a desire to keep the badger moles in the dark until they're needed?)

    The parallelism breaks down when we get to a Water Tribe Avatar, as you point out. I've got no neat solution to that. Both known and the third suspected companion animals are specific to this world, so maybe it's a similar fusion.

    Or maybe they're just extra-close to the Moon, who is, after all, pretty anthropomorphic.

    I wish we knew what Sokka had gone through. It's pretty funny that in a world with demonstrable magic-like bending,spirits, and the Avatar himself, Sokka insists so hard on being skeptical about the power of all three of them.

  2. Iroh would be my favorite character in any other show. But Avatar has Toph in it, so Iroh has to settle for a close second.

    I'm not sure that Avatars ARE necessarily isolated. At least two of the four preceding Aang were married, and Kyoshi managed to found a whole village that reveres her; I've always imagined that Kyoshi Island was founded by her equivalent to the Gaang. And in Roku's flashback, we see his Gaang-equivalent, too. Still, I agree that the two Avatar-companion animal relationships we see are extremely close.

    As for Sokka's skepticism, keep in mind, for the first 16 years of his life the only benders he encountered were Katara, who could barely do anything with her powers, and firebenders, who killed his mother and (indirectly) stole his mother. He has good reason to question bending!

    Also, Sokka's skepticism does pay off pretty often, especially in life-or-death-situations like "Jet" and "The Fortuneteller."