Monday, June 28, 2010

AtLA Monday: Hidden Depths

Actress Aang: (enthusiastically) Look, (points down) it’s The Great Divide. (Actress Katara looks down) The biggest canyon in the Earth Kingdom.
Actor Sokka: (looks down and throws his arm to the side dismissively) Meh. Let’s keep flying.

I've been looking forward to this review since the start, so let's jump right in:

Book One: Water
Chapter Eleven: The Great Divide


The Gaang camp near the edge of the Great Divide, the largest canyon in the world, and Katara and Sokka squabble over setting up the tents. After Aang settles the squabble, they encounter two tribes of refugees seeking to cross the divide: the slovenly Gan Jin and the fastidious Zhang. The two tribes have a longstanding enmity and wounded. Appa ferries the wounded across while the rest of the Gaang go with the refugees on foot. They find the guide, and he warns them not to bring any food with them as it attracts predators.

Of course, said predators (giant insects) attack the refugees on their way across, and the guide's arm is broken, meaning he can't earthbend the paths open. The two groups resume their squabbling, and Aang splits them up. Sokka spends the night with the Gan Jin and Katara with the Zhang, and both bond quickly with their companions as they learn the story behind the conflict: an orb had to be delivered according to a sacred ritual by one of the Zhang, but one of the Gan Jin either mugged him or took up the task after the original carrier was injured, depending on who's telling the story. The Zhang, justly or unjustly, imprisoned the Gan Jin. Both groups also reveal that they brought food, because they assumed the other would break the rule.

The next day, the giant insects return in force, but Aang gets the two tribes to work together to use their attack to get out of the canyon. He then makes up the "true story" of the incident on the fly: the "sacred ritual" was a ball game, and the two years of imprisonment were really two minutes in the penalty box over a disputed foul. The two tribes agree to work in the future, and move on to the next phase of their flight to safety, while the Gaang resume their trip to the North Pole.


"The Great Divide" is, among Avatar fans, the most reviled episode. Even the creators seem to hate it: in the recap episode "The Ember Island Players" the Great Divide is dismissed as a pointless detour. But fans only believe this because they are blinded by their own absorption of the bourgeouis ideology to see its true brilliance. Even the creators, seduced by three seasons of success, have by the end of the series abandoned the revolutionary impulse which gave rise to this scathing satire and brilliant allegory.

The key to "The Great Divide" is to understand who the two tribes represent. The Zhang are wealthy, polite well-dressed, and concerned with maintaining tradition, following empty rules while fully aware that they serve no purpose. They are contrasted with the rude, crude Gan Jin, who clearly have far less wealth, if their clothing is anything to go by. What is this but the age-old conflict of the haves and the have-nots, the patricians and the proletariat, the capitalists and the workers?

Nowhere is this so clear as in the food incident. The capitalists see the workers as hardly better than criminals, and so assume that they will break the food rule. This allows the capitalists to justify breaking the rule themselves. Just as in reality: A capitalist who cheats hundreds customers out of what little wealth they have, or calculatedly kills unknown hundreds by poisoning the environment, gets a slap on the wrist, even while crusading loudly against the lower-class criminals who steal a fraction of the wealth of one rich man, or murder one person in a moment of passion. And of course, the Gan Jin, aware of the opinion of the Zhang, break the rule as well, just as a poor man who knows the system is against him will turn to crime as the only available path.

The Zhang are almost infinitely contemptuous of the Gan Jin's way of life, while the Gan Jin complain mostly about their mistreatment by the Zhang. This again is characteristic of the class struggle: The wealthy are offended by the lack of such luxuries as manners, hygiene, and fancy dress among the poor, and use that as an excuse to deny them access to the same luxuries. The poor chafe against these injustices, but can rarely do anything about them.

The story changes, of course, when there is work to be done or an enemy to fight. Then all of a sudden there is room for cooperation and comradeship, and the bourgeousie magnanimously pretend to see the proletariat as equals, in exchange for which the proletariat are expected to fight and die for the good of the bourgeousie, who may or may not even participate in the battle. This, of course, occurs in the final fight with the giant insects.

Throughout, Katara and Sokka play the role of outsiders, children newcome to the class struggle. Katara opens the episode by insisting on tradition and adherence to the rules; women often serve as the transmitters of culture to the next generation, and thus often hold a traditionalist view even when it is harmful to them. Like many in the proletariat, Katara instinctively sides with the beorgousie because she fantasizes about becoming one of them, unaware that this very dream is what traps her. Sokka, young revolutionary that he is, instead sides instinctively with the struggle of the underclass, sympathizing with their mistreatment by the Zhang.

At the end of the episode, Aang steps in as a peacemaker, but his attempt to make peace is predicated on lies. It is important to remember that he is a religious figure, a monk described as "the bridge between our world and the spirit world." What is the role of religion in the class struggle? To mollify and tranquilize the proletariat with sweet lies, to soothe them and dupe them into cooperating with the system that abuses them. The effete Zhang need the Gan Jin's strength and pragmatism, especially now that all are refugees, but what do the Gan Jin need their oppressors for? Nothing, except they are convinced by Aang's patronizing little myth that they should be friends.

Soon after this episode, Avatar's revolutionary bent reversed itself. This is perhaps inevitable given the romantic (and thus authoritarian) philosophy that dominates visual media, and the presence of a religious icon as the main character. Still, given the powerful way "The Great Divide" captured the essence of the class struggle, it is disappointing that later episodes did not further explore the historical/politico-economic narrative.

(Next week, actually serious reviews begin. I wouldn't feel the need to say this, except that Poe's Law implies a satire of Marxist criticism is indistinguishable from the genuine article.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

AtLA Monday: The fangirls will not be pleased with me...

Jet: Sokka, you fool! We could have freed this valley!
Sokka: Who would be free? Everyone would be dead!
Jet: You traitor!
Sokka: No, Jet. You became the traitor when you stopped protecting innocent people.

At long last, AtLA Monday makes its (hopefully) triumphant return! Let's dive right in:

Book 1: Water
Chapter 10: Jet


When the Gaang stumble onto a camp of Fire Nation soldiers, they are saved by teen "freedom fighter" Jet and his band of war orphans. Jet is a gifted fighter and charismatic leader, and Aang and Katara are immediately taken with him, while Sokka is skeptical.

Jet takes Sokka on a raid, which turns out to be ambushing and robbing a single elderly civilian. After, Sokka tries to convince Katara and Aang to leave, but Jet convinces them to stay and claims the old man was an assassin.

Sokka overhears Jet and his fighters planning to blow up a damn and flood the valley, destroying the Fire Nation soldiers and the civilian town alike, but is taken prisoner before he can tell anyone. Sokka soon escapes, but not before Jet tricks Katara and Aang into using their bending abilities to fill the reservoir. Katara and Aang realize what Jet is up to, but he fights Aang to a standstill. Katara gets the drop on Jet and freezes him, but he is still able to whistle the signal to blow the dam.

The dam explodes, but Sokka arrives on Appa and reveals that he convinced the town and Fire Nation soldiers to evacuate. Jet accuses him of being a traitor, but Sokka tells him off and the Gaang goes on their way.


From one perspective, "Jet" is a completely unnecessary episode. It doesn't advance the larger plot of Avatar or really develop any of the characters. It showcases how far they've come, but doesn't really advance them.

But from another perspective, "Jet" is a vitally important episode, because it shows the flipside of Iroh and Zuko. This is probably why they don't appear (well, other than the obvious reason that there's no room for them in 22 minutes): Jet is their polar opposite. Zuko and Iroh prove that the Fire Nation are human beings, with human capacity to do good. Jet proves that the "good guy" nations are human beings, too, with human capacity to do evil.

Before we get into that, though, it's important to note what this episode isn't. This is not the episode where the silly girl character (who has GIRL PARTS!) falls for a charismatic apparent good guy who, because she is a silly girl who lacks a penis, turns out to be a villain. It could easily have been that episode, if it focused on Katara and her feelings of first attraction to Jet and then betrayal, but it avoided that trap neatly: first, by having Aang as much taken in as Katara, and second by focusing on Sokka and his jealousy of Jet.

Because make no mistake, Sokka's mistrust of Jet is initially based entirely on jealousy. He has no basis to mistrust Jet other than the fact that Jet showed him up and was more interested in Katara's and Aang's bending abilities than Sokka's (lackluster by comparison) fighting. Sokka does turn out to be right, but that's because Sokka had to be right eventually. Sure, there's the running gag about instinct, but Sokka's instincts are repeatedly shown to be useless. He's an extremely clever boy, and later in the series, when he relies more on wit, observation, and fast thinking, he's much more effective. Intuition, after all, has to be trained; Sokka simply doesn't have enough experience in anything to intuit his way through it.

Of course, Sokka has good reason to be jealous of Jet. Jet is everything Sokka puffs his fragile teen-boy ego up to be: a charismatic leader, a brilliant fighter, and almost impossibly cool. His response to learning that his newest guest is Kung Fu Action Jesus: "Avatar, huh? Very nice."

Unfortunately, Jet is also dangerously paranoid, violent, ruthless, and racist. The party his gang throws after defeating the Fire Nation soldiers is deeply unsettling. There's a strong "Lord of the Flies" vibe to it, a sense that these kids have, in the absence of any parents to give them a culture, invented rituals of their own. Jet's speech is the most disturbing part: he casts himself (and, to a lesser extent, his band) as a lone and sacred warrior standing against the forces of darkness, feared and hated by them. It may be so unsettling because it is how, in a lesser show, Aang would be portrayed.

But Jet shows his true colors when he attacks and robs a helpless old man. Sokka shows his true colors there, as well. For all his talk about hating the Fire Nation (as a vast, abstract, faceless army), when presented with an actual, frightened human being, Sokka sees only their common humanity, and tries to talk Jet out of it. Jet's later claims that the old man was an assassin are obvious lies: if he were, Jet would never let him leave alive, but the old man is in the village later.

Jet is (at least in this episode; later we will see his attempts to redeem himself) as close to pure evil as Avatar characters come. While Azula or Long Feng may be more frightening, they simply don't care about questions of right and wrong. Jet thinks he's not only a hero, but the Hero. He sees the world in stark terms of good and evil, and thinks that they're a matter of what team you're on. Anything which hurts Team Evil is good, in his eyes. He is the Good Guy, and therefore anything he does, no matter how evil, is by definition Good. It's a sadly common view in real life, spouted by everyone from terrorists in caves to pundits on TV to Presidents in the Oval Office.

Later in the series, we have many more examples that evil can appear in any nation, it just happens to be running the Fire Nation at the moment. But this first major instance of that theme is particularly noticeable. Previously the Fire Nation has been by and large a bunch of thugs who burn down forests just for the laughs. Now we are presented with them as ordinary villagers just trying to live their lives, and the people plotting to destroy a forest and murder innocents are a group of Earth Kingdom children (children!)

Jet is really the first case of evil in an apparent good guy -- someone who befriends the Gaang and shares common cause with them. But Jet is not portrayed unsympathetically, either. His actions are unjustifiable, and no attempt to justify them is made, but we can understand the reasons for them. Jet and his band have suffered terribly at the hands of the Fire Nation, losing their parents and their homes. They are children, lashing out in rage. Unfortunately, they choose to do so in a horrifically adult way.

Perhaps nowhere is the difference between Jet and Sokka so clear as in Jet's attempt to convince Sokka that destroying the valley is necessary, pragmatic, and right. Jet sees himself as a pragmatist and Sokka as an idealist, but where Jet sees only the categories Jet himself created of "enemy" and "ally", Sokka sees the reality: living, breathing people, "mothers and fathers and children." Jet is not a pragmatist, he is a madman; Sokka is the realist here. The death of Jet's parents taught him to hate the Fire Nation and destroy them before they hurt him more. Sokka, on the other hand, learned the right lesson from his pain: It sucks when people you love die, so you shouldn't kill people other people might love (which is everyone).

At the beginning of the episode, Aang and Katara see Sokka as something of a joke, and to a degree they are justified. His judgment has not been very reliable for most of the series to this point. Sokka is sarcastic, cynical, and a complainer; he's difficult to get along with, where Jet is charismatic and winning. But Sokka doesn't try to kick cowering old men in the head, and eventually Aang and Katara learn their lesson: It doesn't matter what team you're on or how much charisma you have; the people to trust are the people who do what's right.

Random Observations:
  • By focusing on Sokka instead of Katara, the episode becomes "skeptic saves the day with the power of doubt." "The Fortuneteller" uses the same plot structure, and it's a nice reminder that, no matter how fantastic the Avatar world may seem by our standards, healthy skepticism is still a vitally important skill.
  • Jet is one of the few cases of a Character of the Week who is sufficiently interesting in his own right to carry the episode.
  • The forest seems to think it's fall, judging by the amount of red and brown foliage. Weird, considering that it's at most a couple of weeks past the winter solstice. Unless they're somewhere where the first snow is really late? Avatar seasons are messed up to begin with, considering that they appear to have the same seasons in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It's possible, given a planet with no axial tilt and a fairly eccentric orbit, but it's bloody unlikely.
  • Sokka talks a great deal of sense when he complains that Appa sticks out to much. The Gaang in general does a TERRIBLE job of keeping a low profile.
  • "Why do boys always think someone has to be the leader?" Hearing Katara say that is hilarious, considering how much of a power struggle there's going to be between her and Toph later in the series.
  • Katara is just a bitch early in this episode, with her snarking on Sokka's youth (even though she's younger), lack of sexual experience (like she has any more!), and claims about his instincts (okay, that one's fair).
  • Without making a big deal about it, this episode really shows how much Katara has improved in the last few weeks. For example, she puts out the fire on Sokka's shirt with a gentler version of the water whip. In the time between last episode and this one, she's practiced it enough to modify it. The fight against the Fire Nation soldiers even suggests that Katara has actually surpassed Sokka in combat. That scroll was good stuff! Also, I think this may be the first time she uses the trick of keeping a bottle of water at her belt. Later in the episode, she quickly takes down Jet, an opponent Aang was having trouble with! Admittedly, he was probably at least somewhat tired from his fight with Aang, and she had the advantage of surprise, but still impressive on her part.
  • Why would soldiers be carrying around large boxes full of candy? Sure, a little candy in each package of field rations, so they have a quick way to raise blood sugar without having to sit down to a full meal, but a big box full of nothing but candy? A possibility: They really are trying to kill Jet, and it's either bait to trap one of his younger followers or a bribe to turn them on him.
  • That twig in Jet's mouth serves double duty. It's an Asian culture reference, showing up in a lot of Japanese films as visual shorthand for a ronin, a masterless samurai -- the rough samurai movie equivalent of the lone gun in a Western -- and it's also a stand-in for the cigarette Jet would doubtless be sporting in a show aimed at adults. The ronin parallels are particularly strong: Jet is fighting to continue a war his lord (if, as seems likely, the Earth Kingdom is feudal) has already lost. He's also entirely without honor.
  • In the first few minutes after Jet appears, he seems to be set up as Katara's equivalent to Suki: a non-bending, highly skilled Earth Kingdom warrior and war leader, wielding a non-conventional weapon (hook-swords, a fan). The biggest difference is that Suki is subject to civilian, adult authority, and Jet is not. Oh yeah, and Suki is sane.
  • The Fire Nation killed Jet's parents when he was eight years old, prompting him to become paranoid, violent, and obsessive. He then trained himself to become an incredible fighter, able to take on people with superpowers even though he has none. Jet is Batman!
  • Sokka's trick with the knife and the tree is very cool, and by praising it, Jet scores more points with Sokka. Also, I love that knife; it's clearly made from the jawbone of some animal -- it even still has some of the teeth. That's a great little worldbuilding detail -- it implies that the Southern Water Tribe neither has much access to metal, nor much opportunity to trade for it.
  • If Sokka had not intervened, Jet would have kicked a cowering old man in the head. Just thought I'd repeat that, in case any of his fangirls are reading.
  • The old man in this episode is the opposite of the old man from "Imprisoned." The old man from the earlier episode was Earth Kingdom, and repaid kindness by turning Haru in to the Fire Nation. This old man is Fire Nation, and repays Sokka's attempted kindness by helping him save the village.
  • This episode is another rare case of the cabbage cart being destroyed by someone other than the Gaang; in this case, we don't even see Cabbage Man, but a display of cabbages is prominently shown as the wave bears down on the village.
  • As I mentioned, if the old man had really been an assassin, Jet would never have let him go. In fact, from a purely military point of view, Jet shouldn't have let him go -- if you're going to attack civilians in the first place, you shouldn't let them go home and tell everyone where you're hiding. The only reason to do that is if you're more interested in making "enemy" civilians afraid than any military strategy -- which is a roundabout way of saying Jet's a terrorist. Who kicks old men in the head.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

State of the Animation

Sorry I've been gone so long. Work has been kicking my ass, I've been planning a wedding, and I've been just too exhausted to post. It's the worst possible time, too, because I've seen a TON of great animation lately, and there's more around the corner! So, in reverse chronological order, here's where I'm at:

New Futurama comes next week. I have always considered Futurama to be the superior Matt Groening show, and I think the makers agree with me -- I believe that's why the quality of The Simpsons plummeted when Futurama was on the air. They were giving their full attention to Futurama, and letting Simpsons slide. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Futurama is not only better than Simpsons, it's the best American animated series for adults. I'm racing to get a retrospective on it done before the new show starts.

Saw Toy Story 3 last night. It was amazing! I've always liked Toy Story, but I never felt it was Pixar's best work -- I consider Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Finding Nemo to be better than either of the first two Toy Stories. But somehow, I ended up caring about these characters more than I thought, because I actually cried at the end of Toy Story 3. This had better be the last movie in the franchise, though; it was absolutely perfect, both in its own right and as a finale, and it should not be messed with in future. I probably won't address it in more detail until it comes out on DVD, but I am going to see it again tomorrow!

Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake continues to be the best cartoon in years. It just so perfectly captures the essence of the worlds I would imagine with my toys, and slyly winks at the audience while it's doing it. Weirdly, it manages to do so without being the least bit cynical. Quite the opposite: It bursts with joy from every seam.

I also saw Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22 recently, and was completely blown away. To explain as spoiler-free, throughout the first half of the movie the differences (frankly, improvements) in characterization from the first movie pile up, so that in the second half it can go completely off the rails. The second half of the movie takes my favorite four episodes of the TV series and subverts them entirely, so that their outcome and meaning is utterly different even while the actual events are similar. It's pure genius, and the best anime I've seen in years. I am planning to do an in-depth analysis, something like I do for AtLA, but I'm not entirely sure when.

Speaking of AtLA, my review of "Jet" should be (finally) done this weekend. It's one of my favorite episodes, and I've been itching to it. Stupid work. Also, I want to get a post about the Racebending controversy up before the movie comes out, so expect that soon.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Apologies for flaking out lately...

I got sick, and work has been a giant pile of insanity. I have a half-written post about "Jet" left over from last week, notes about the racebending controversy, and vague notions about Rebuild of Evangelion, but nothing complete enough to post. Much apologies.

Monday, June 7, 2010

AtLA Monday delayed

Sorry, all, but I had to work crazy late today, and there is just no way I could get the next post finished in time (it's still in chronologically-ordered-notes form). I'll try to get it up tomorrow evening.