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.)


  1. "Poe's Law implies a satire of Marxist criticism is indistinguishable from the genuine article."

    True that. You had me for a while there.

    I'm definitely in the camp that dislikes this episode; it's the only one I haven't seen twice, and one I routinely recommend people skip if they actually like the main characters. From my one viewing of it, I remember wanting to smack everyone's heads together.

    Definitely looking forward to next week's review, by the way!

  2. I liked this episode for pretty much the reasons you describe here.

    I've known more than one kid to get pretty revolutionary ideas, just like that. Encouraging that tendency seems like a great idea, though I do wonder what kind of blowback Aang would get if the rival camps ever figure out that he lied to them.

  3. @Sixwing: Please, please tell me you're joining in my little joke.

    "The Great Divide" is terrible! The Gaang behave completely uncharacteristically, and unlike "The Chase" (where they believably act out of character because they are completely freaking exhausted, raw, and on edge), absolutely no explanation is given. The only other time we see Aang lie, he is completely broken up with guilt over it. Sokka has never been portrayed as a slob before or since, nor is Katara particularly a neat freak or rules lawyer. Is this the same Katara who said that stealing is okay when it's from pirates?

    The entire episode makes no freaking sense.

    (And yeah, Ebby, the next episode is one of my favorites of the first season, and I have all day Monday off to write about it. I'm looking forward to seeing what I do, too!)

  4. @Froborr: nope, sorry, honestly liked the episode. Yes, it seriously strays from the established characterization, and I don't much like that. It also goes way outside AtLA's usual themes, and I did like that part, seeing it as a particularly sharp satire of ... well, some stuff that I see a lot. It's entirely possible that I'm remembering the episode more favorably than it deserves due to the stuff that was going on in my life at the time.

    I could see Katara and Sokka splitting with their respective groups, not as a logical extension of the characterization (yeah, that's a problem) but as an exaggeration of traits already there - Sokka doesn't respond well to being told what to do, as we've seen, and takes the side of the Gan Jin, who also don't like being shoved around. (That Aang does so, diplomatically - also a problem.)

    Katara, on the other hand, isn't a neat freak or a rules lawyer, but when she latches on to an idea, it's hard to get her to let go. I'd interpreted her throwing in with the Zhang as reaction to Sokka as much as anything else, and nobody else was taking their side.

    Aang's lying to the Gan Jin and Zhang is the part I really REALLY don't like. I was honestly hoping that would come back and bite him later in the series, and was disappointed that it never did.

    If you were writing a satirical review of what I already saw as a satirical episode, I've totally missed the boat. *s*