Monday, August 23, 2010

Temporary Hiatus

Not that the effect is at all noticeable, since massive delays and procrastination are the norm for this blog, but I'm going to have to go on temporary hiatus until I can get the headphone jack fixed on my laptop, which will hopefully be this coming weekend. My twice-daily train rides are my primary AtLA-watching-and-dissecting time, and it's, you know, illegal to go without without headphones on Metro. Not to mention nigh-impossible, given the background noise.

So, no AtLA for a while. I will try to fill in with thoughts on other shows as I can, but nothing with the depth of my AtLA reviews.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Site Business: August Schedule for AtLA Mondays, Otakon Report

A couple of site business items:

  • I will not be able to post an AtLA Monday tonight. Rather than keep on making and breaking promises, for the month of August, I'm going to have to go to AtLA every-other-Monday. So, expect "The Blue Spirit" next Monday, and "The Fortuneteller" August 30.
  • I was a guest on Viga the Otagal's podcast to talk about Otakon 2010. So if you've ever wondered if I sound as nerdy as I write (answer: I sound even nerdier), check it out.
  • If you want a shorter summary of my thoughts on Otakon: They've gotten too big to keep being a disorganized bunch of unprofessional buddy-buddies whose immediate reaction to any criticism is to circle the wagons and protect their own. They need to be more open and communicative with the attendees and less defensive when they screw up. Also, the con has a very strong focus on guests, which is fine if that's what you're into, but personally I'd much rather hear a bunch of fans debating the philosophical implications of LeLouch's powers than meet his voice actor. That goes double if it's the American voice actor. Otakon just doesn't seem to care about fan-generated programming, and it shows -- I had much, much more downtime than at Anime Boston.

Monday, August 2, 2010

AtLA Monday: Zuko Explained

Sokka: I'm too young to die!
Old Fisherman: I'm not, but I still don't wanna!

I live! Sorry about vanishing for so long. There is no explanation; I simply suck at sticking to things. But I am going to see this through to the end!

So, that said, let's dive back in!

Book One: Water
Chapter Twelve: The Storm

Synopsis: The Gaang are out of food and money, so Sokka gets a temporary job helping on an old man's fishing boat. The old man accuses Aang of abandoning the world to the Fire Nation, and Aang runs, followed by Katara.

Sheltering from a storm in a cave, Aang tells Katara his story: He found out he was the Avatar much younger than the normal 16, and was isolated from his friends, except for his teacher and guardian, Gyatso. Unfortunately, Gyatso's attempts to ensure Aang had some time for freedom and fun in among his training did not sit well with the other monks, and they decided Aang had to be separated from Gyatso. Rather than continue his training at the Eastern Air Temple, Aang ran away, was caught in a storm, and fell into the sea. Next thing he knew, he was waking up at the South Pole a hundred years later.

Meanwhile, Zuko is obsessing over finding the Avatar, and claims even the safety of the crew doesn't matter. One of the crewmembers takes exception to this, and he and Zuko nearly come to blows. Iroh separates them, and later tells a few of the crewmembers Zuko's story: Zuko snuck into one of the Fire Lord's war councils with Iroh's help, and was outraged at a proposed strategy that would sacrifice a unit of new recruits to draw out an Earth Kingdom force. His outburst was deemed disrespectful, so he had to take part in an Agni Kai against his own father. He refused to fight, and Ozai gave him his scar, then banished him until he can bring back the Avatar.

After the flashbacks, the storm gets bad enough that Aang, Katara, and Appa have to set out in it to rescue Sokka and the fisherman, while Zuko has to rescue his own helmsman. They come within a dozen feet of each other, but both are too busy saving their comrades to fight, and the Gaang escape Zuko once more.


And suddenly Zuko makes sense. The main work of "The Storm" is to unfold for us who Zuko really is, under the anger and obsession. Without this, the next episode ("The Blue Bandit") makes no sense; the season finale makes no sense; the entire second season makes no sense.

We get Aang's backstory, too, but it's less interesting than Zuko's because we know Aang will come to terms with it. He is a largely healthy and balanced child; he can handle it. Zuko, on the other hand, is constantly on the verge of breaking. He rages and obsesses; he sulks and throws tantrums -- and then he turns around and risks his life to save one of his crew. He's more complicated than Aang, more confusing, and therefore more interesting. We want to solve the Zuko puzzle, and so an episode like this is exciting, presenting us with so many pieces.

Early in the episode, Zuko insists he doesn't care about the safety of his crew -- finding the Avatar is more important. Iroh hastily tells the overhearing lieutenant that Zuko doesn't mean it, which sounds like Iroh is making excuses, but is actually the truth. The flashback shows that young Zuko was full of compassion for the common soldiers, and the end of the episode sees him foregoing the pursuit of the Avatar precisely for their safety, which previously he had only done for Iroh. Saying he doesn't care is the temporary aberration, which has lasted for a good couple of years at this point, but is finally beginning to change.

We see Iroh's point of view, but think about the whole incident from Zuko's point of view. He was mostly raised by first his mother, and then his uncle. He doesn't actually know his father very well, but is desperate to win his approval, praise, and love (the same approval that Azula seems to earn effortlessly). Ozai and Azula consistently present Ozai's love as a prize to be won or earned, and so Zuko absorbs that it is his failure that he does not receive praise or acknowledgment from his father.

Zuko is eager to take on an adult role, partially because he's thirteen and partially because he wants an opportunity to prove himself to his father. He tries, but an outburst of his natural compassion, in defiance of the hierarchy and social rules, earns him a brutal, painful rebuke. He is terrified to face his father, in part because he knows his father is a powerful and deadly opponent, yes, but mostly because he knows there is no way to win what he really wants, approval: if he fights back and injures his father, he is a traitor, but if he is defeated easily he is a weakling. Ozai wounds Zuko terribly, scarring him for life not just physically but mentally. The one person who should love and protect Zuko most brutally and disproportionately punishes him. It is monstrous and evil and cruel, and it turns Zuko's world upside down.

From all this, thirteen-year-old Zuko learns that compassion is weakness. He assumes, because he has always assumed, has been trained to assume, that the abuse is his fault for being weak. He cannot admit the real reason for it, that his father is a sick, cruel tyrant. What child wants to believe that? He desperately wants his father's love back, but cannot phrase it to himself that way, because the thought of being abandoned by his father, especially after losing his mother, is too much to bear. So, Zuko lies to himself, pretending that what he is seeking is his honor (which he never lost; we will eventually see, in "Zuko Alone," why he makes that particular jump). Nonetheless, what he really wants is clear: we see a single flash of it, as Zuko remembers Ozai standing beside him, one hand on his shoulder.

Zuko sees capturing the Avatar as his only chance to regain his father's love, and so he is willing to sacrifice anything -- including his honor, as the next episode will show -- to accomplish it. Zuko sees compassion as a weakness which cost him his father's love, and so he tries to be cruel to his enemies and demanding of his men -- yet his essential goodness occasionally shines through, as when he spares Zhao after their duel in "The Southern Air Temple." Zuko is unable to confront his own real need for love, and so he is unable to accept Iroh's love, kindness, and excellent advice.

Zuko's efforts, of course, cannot succeed. The abuse is entirely Ozai's choice and Ozai's false. Unfortunately, it won't be for two more seasons until Zuko finally -- and awesomely -- admits this.

Random observations:
  • Aang's dream is in order of closeness: Aang rides Appa, his oldest and closest companion. Sokka is alone on the glider, as the one Aang is least close to. Katara rides Momo, Aang's pet and in some ways his id and libido. Katara is the first to say "We need you, Aang." As we see much, much later in "The Guru," Katara is Aang's primary attachment to the world, and represents it in his dream. Additionally, he fears that she will be hurt because of him -- he is, after all, the reason she left her home. This fear comes to the fore in "The Deserter." Next we see Gyatso, who represents Aang's attachment to and abandonment of his old life. The storm is Aang's guilt over abandoning them, as well as a memory of how that abandonment came about. In a chorus of voices, the entire world begs for Aang's help as he drifts away, and then we get a quick flash of the Fire Lord as Aang wakes.
  • Katara says Aang has been having "a lot" of nightmares lately, meaning more so than when they first started traveling together. So what was the trigger? Something has upped his guilt level or brought it closer to the surface -- knowledge of the comet, perhaps? Or maybe the waterbending training with Katara in "The Waterbending Scroll" reminded him of his airbending training?
  • Sokka's dream about food eating people, of course, never comes true (unless it presages the coming of the ultimate evil of the Avatar world, against whom the true hero, Wang Fire, struggles epically -- the foul, demonic entity known only as Melon Lord). But it raises an interesting point: for all the talk of "destiny", there doesn't appear to be any way of predicting the future in Avatar (with the exception of known cyclical events like comets and eclipses) -- but that's more a discussion for "The Fortuneteller" a couple of episodes from now.
  • In Aang's flashback, none of the other children have airbender tattoos, but all of the adult monks do. The distinction cannot be simply age-based, however, because some of Aang's friends appear to be close to his age, maybe even older. Nor can it be a born distinction, such as caste or nobility; in "The Avatar and the Firelord," young Gyatso doesn't have the mark. Aang's gifts and the subconscious aid of his past selves have probably accelerated his airbending studies just as they do for the bending styles we actually see him learn. The tattoos also cannot indicate total mastery of airbending, because Aang clearly still has airbending to learn in this flashback; otherwise, they'd be sending him away to the North or South Pole, not another Air Temple. My best guess is that the tattoos are the airbender equivalent of a black belt: Aang has demonstrated the ability to use all the techniques of airbending, but not necessarily mastery of when and how to use them.
  • The way the monks find the new Avatar -- looking for a child born as close as possible to the moment of the Avatar's death, and then letting him choose from toys that include relics of previous Avatars -- is very reminiscent of the methods used to select a new Dalai Lama, who is also held to be the reincarnation of the prior Dalai Lama.
  • Is Jinju supposed to be, er, developmentally disabled or something? Or is he just a not-very-skilled airbender with a goofy laugh and hygiene problems? Anyway, his addition, apparently for a joke, is unfunny and a little bit distressing. Avatar's usually better than that.
  • Is Gyatso specifically assigned as Aang's guardian because he's the Avatar, or does every kid get one? Or is it an apprenticeship thing? Maybe the tattoo indicates that Aang is done with general training and ready to train with a specific master, sort of like the difference between undergraduate and graduate instruction. Regardless, the relationship between Gyatso and Aang is clearly a paternal one: play and love and instruction and the passing on of life lessons. Gyatso is not very serious, much like Iroh, but much liike Iroh (as we saw in "The Southern Air Temple," when his skeleton lay on top of a pile of soldier skeletons), Gyatso's playful demeanor conceals a powerful and deadly combatant.
  • Gyatso is presented in opposition to an unnamed, sour-faced monk who is clearly well-meaning, but more concerned about the well-being of the world than whether Aang gets to have a childhood. His attitude is understandable, but as Avatar emphasizes again and again, joy is a necessary part of wisdom. Iroh knows it; Gyatso knows it; Aang knows it intuitively. Zuko will eventually learn it. Those who don't understand how important joy, love, and play are (Zhao, Azula, Ozai) will inevitably be defeated by those who do.
  • Gyatso is right, of course, about Aang's reputation. No matter the threat to the world, it's hard to imagine it being more dangerous than an Avatar unable to appreciate freedom and fun. Think about it: a child with prodigal, but potentially very dangerous, talents is taught by all the adults around her that her talents are the only thing about her that anyone else values. Everything else must be sacrificed to honing her abilities, or else she is worthless. She is also led to believe that she is the most important person in the world, destined for greatness. How long could the world survive Avatar Azula?
  • Aang was not there when (if) Gyatso found his note. That entire scene appears to be made up by Aang. He imagines that Gyatso would have fought to keep him if he hadn't run away, and uses that to enhance his own guilt.
  • Just as 100 years ago, Aang is in a storm, goes underwater, and enters avatar state -- but before, he saw the world's needs as abstract and in opposition to his needs. This time, actual people depend on him, so he saves them. There's a parallel to Zuko here, as well: he was unable to save the soldiers described abstractly in the war council, but he can save his own crew.
  • Let's say Aang didn't run away. Katara's right -- he almost certainly would have been killed with the rest of his people. Now, presumably the Avatar Cycle wouldn't have ended right away -- the Water Tribe would still be there, and so there could be a next step in the cycle -- so the question then becomes, is there someone in the series who would have been the Avatar if it wasn't Aang? We'll get some hints much, MUCH later of who that might be.
  • I've mentioned before the solar symbolism that surrounds the Avatar. The shafts of sunlight after the storm? They're all about Aang's return, and his growing acceptance of who he is.
  • The fishing boat captain and the fishhauler at first bicker like an old married couple. But then the old man says he'll hire a new fishhauler at double what the old woman gets, implying she's his employee. This is further confirmed by him taking back the offer to pay double as soon as Sokka volunteers for the job -- clearly, double is more than the normal pay, so the normal pay can't be zero. But then at the end, she refers to him as her husband when she asks Aang to help him! I am confused by these people's relationship.
  • Telling Zuko he needs to learn respect, this episode shows, is a major trigger for his temper. And it's understandable why, given what happened with his father! But the final straw seems to be the suggestion that he's spoiled. Later episodes show how far that is from the truth; Zuko was far from the favored child, and held to a brutal standard he could not live up to.
  • The Lieutenant Zuko nearly fights seems kind of old to still be a lieutenant. Of course, given that Zuko's been banished, his crew is likely not made up of the Fire Nation's best and brightest.
  • In Iroh's flashback, he's about the same height as Zuko. In the present day, Zuko is at least half a head taller. Nice reminder from the animators that Zuko is still growing -- and has some growing to do yet.
  • Unlike his dour present self, young Zuko is bright, ambitious, optimistic, idealistic, and compassionate. Except maybe for the ambition, he's a lot like Aang.
  • So much said without any words at all! Zuko catches the falling helmsman and passes him to the lieutenant he nearly came to blows with earlier. They smile at each other; all is forgiven. The lieutenant understands Zuko better now, and Zuko is starting to re-manifest the essential goodness that his father tried to (literally!) burn out of him.
  • In "The Spirit World," Zuko gave up on a chance to chase Appa in order to rescue Iroh. Now he does so for his entire crew. He doesn't need to catch the Avatar to get his honor back; it never left him.
  • When Zuko apologizes to Iroh, is it for the way he acted earlier in this episode, or for bringing Iroh into exile with him?
  • In the crowd of people watching Zuko get burned, we see generals from the war council, Iroh, and Zhao. Zhao's presence is interesting, since at the time of this episode he's only a commander. Three years prior he may have been an even lower rank; regardless, based on military rank he's not important enough to be standing next to the Fire Lord's brother. Perhaps he's a member of the nobility; it would explain his high rank despite his arrogant incompetence.
  • Also next to Iroh, clearly revelling in Zuko's pain, is some girl. She's also the firebender in the opening credits. But I'm sure her appearance and behavior here aren't foreshadowing her appearance as a prominent character later in the series. Nope, nope, not here.
  • Irony alert: the Avatar gives Zuko hope, just as he does Katara.
  • As an adult, it is at least accepted, and maybe expected, for the heir to the Fire Nation to serve as a military leader. And in the war room, Zuko is not only right, but shows an attitude that could some day make him very popular with the troops. And Zuko is close to Iroh, who was at one time the rightful heir to the throne. All of this adds up to make Zuko a potential threat to the Fire Lord; in a few years, an impatient Zuko -- who Ozai doubtless knows has every reason to resent him -- could well try to seize the throne early. Ozai is afraid of Zuko, and burns and banishes him as a way of reasserting power.
  • Ozai's throne is concealed behind a wall of flames -- it is both a concealment and a defense. It seems that not even top military officials can see the Fire Lord directly. Such a taboo suggests an almost religious deference; Ozai is not just the Fire Nation's ruler but their epic hero (as we see in "The Deserter") and practically a god. He is a tyrant, used to obedience, and the way he treats his own son (disfiguring him for life, just for being "disrespectful") is an indicator of how he treats everyone weaker than him: cruelly and abusively. The entire Fire Nation is an abused child lashing out in hopes of earning its father's approval.
  • I believe this episode is the first time Ozai speaks. He's voiced by the incredibly talented Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker in the DCAU. Oh, and also he played Luke Skywalker, but we don't care about that.
  • Given that one of the episode's major themes is characters blaming themselves for things that aren't their fault, it's possible that Iroh feels guilty for letting Zuko into the war council. That may be a factor in why he travels with Zuko, though undoubtedly it's primarily out of a paternal desire to protect and guide Zuko.
  • It's interesting that Iroh agrees with Zuko in the war room. Sacrificing a not-very-valuable unit to draw out a well-entrenched enemy is a pretty good strategy, but like Zuko, Iroh doesn't see that unit or those troops as being of low value. He values them for something other than their military effectiveness. Still, it's interesting that Zuko is outraged, not at the sacrifice of lives or of human beings, but of loyal citizens of the Fire Nation. Even he is not immune to the Fire Nation's nationalism.
  • During the storm, while Zuko is risking his life to save the helmsman, Iroh catches a lightning bolt headed for the ship and redirects it harmlessly into the water. After, he looks slightly singed and very surprised -- was this the first time he ever used the move? Entirely possible; he says later he developed it himself by watching waterbenders, so presumably it was during his hinted-at-but-never-described travels after his son died (during which, apparently, he had some kind of an adventure involving the spirit world). It seems unlikely he engaged in Agni Kai with anyone who can throw lightning (as far as we know, only Azula and Ozai), so he really probably never did try it before.
  • Iroh gives this great sideways glance after Zuko chooses not to go after Aang -- he's proud of Zuko's choice, and I think he really doesn't want the Avatar caught. He has to have already realized that the Avatar is the only good way to end the war.
  • Both Zuko and Aang have serious issues tied to events before the series began, which led directly to their first appearance. Both have those issues brought out by an older, bearded man who says things in anger, not realizing how they will resonate with Zuko/Aang's own issues. The whole episode is, in addition to filling in back story and developing characters, working to show us that Zuko and Aang are fundamentally alike. Neither can return home. Both blame themselves, even though it isn't really their fault.
  • The Avatar is normally told of his nature on his sixteenth birthday (four squared). Zuko is sixteen for the duration of the series. Coincidence?
  • Gyatso's similarity to Iroh is, of course, yet another way of playing up the parallels between Aang and Zuko.
  • Both Zuko and Aang face banishment in their respective stories.
  • That moment of Zuko and Aang staring at each other both plays up their parallel and foreshadows "The Blue Spirit," which in many ways has the opposite ending.
  • Aang gets over his past. Zuko won't for a long long time. But then, Zuko was abused. That's often harder to get over than survivor guilt in an otherwise healthy psyche.