Monday, May 31, 2010

AtLA Monday: The moral of the story is that stories with morals are dumb...

"Stealing is wrong -- except when it's from pirates."

Book One: Water
Chapter Nine: The Waterbending Scroll


Aang is worried about having to master all the elements by the end of summer, so the Gaang stops at a lake so Katara can teach him basic waterbending. Aang masters every move Katara tries to teach him almost immediately, even one she still doesn't quite have down herself, much to her annoyance. Aang also accidentally washes away their supplies, so they have to go into town to buy replacements.

After spending nearly all their money on supplies, the Gaang browses the wares on board a pirate junk. They find a rare scroll describing several waterbending moves, but cannot come close to affording it. As they're leaving, the pirates attack them, but they escape. Back at camp, Katara reveals she stole the scroll.

She insists she took it to help Aang, but of course she wants to practice the moves herself. She struggles with a move called "the single water whip," and when Aang is able to do it on the first try, she yells at him. After she apologizes, she gives him the scroll and tells him she wants nothing more to do with it.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh are looking for a replacement white lotus tile for Iroh's Pai Sho set in the same pirates' shop, and overhear one of them describing Aang. Zuko makes a deal with the pirates to work together; they get the scroll, he gets Aang.

That night, Katara sneaks out to practice the moves from the scroll. Zuko and the pirates hear her and capture her, and soon after catch Aang and Sokka as well. Sokka convinces the pirates that they can get much more money for the Avatar than the scroll, leading to a fight between the pirates and Zuko's crew. During the battle, the Gaang escapes on the pirates' boat, and Aang and Katara have to waterbend together to avoid a waterfall.

Later, on Appa, Katara apologizes, and Sokka reveals he grabbed the scroll in the confusion. Iroh finds his white lotus tile, and Zuko fumes.


The previous episode, in many ways, was the start of the real story of Avatar. It marks the beginning of the race against time that serves as the backdrop for the rest of the series. It is fitting, then, that "The Waterbending Scroll" is the first episode that really feels like later Avatar. There is little of depth here, but there is plenty of fun, some humor, scenery porn, some great action sequences, a dollop of character development, and a thorough subversion of a standard kids' show plot.

The plot to which I refer is, of course, the tired old story in which a kid wants something he can't afford, steals it, and then gets into trouble, ultimately learning that the theft wasn't worth it. In this episodze, Katara wants the scroll, steals it, and then she and her friends all get in trouble for it. However, in the end, the move she learned from the scroll is vital in fighting the pirates, and when asked what she's learned she makes clear she doesn't regret it in the slightest.

One of my pet peeves is the insistence by many, both creators and commentators, that every work of art has to be a fable with a moral, and that the value of a work is somehow connected to its moral. This view is most pernicious in children's television. Many shows can barely go an episode without trying to cram some kind of moral down the throats of the watching kids, nearly always to the detriment of consistent characterization or realistic interaction.

So I'm always happy to see a show aimed at children reject this approach (one of many reasons I'm loving Adventure Time! so much is its tendency to subvert the end-of-episode moral). Overall, Avatar is pretty good about it. There's plenty a kid can learn by watching these characters grow up and struggle with adversity, but it's all integral to and follows from the story. Rarely does an episode feel like the writers started with a moral and wrote the episode to teach it. There's no episode where the Gaang meets a disabled kid and have to learn that he fully capable of leading a normal life; they meet a disabled kid and it is simply assumed from the start that he's a regular kid. There's no episode in which they learn about child abuse; instead it remains as a constant element, never outright stated but always lurking just off-screen, in Zuko's character arc. And, most thankfully, blessedly of all, there is never an Extra Special Episode in which they learn about (dum dum DUM) drugs.

And so we have this episode, in which Katara learns that stealing is wrong. Except that she doesn't, because those guys were pirates, and the Gaang is trying to save the world, so property rights can suck it. What the episode is really about is Katara's jealousy and insecurity. For most of her life she was the only bender in her village. Waterbending was what she did; it is what made her special. Now Aang suddenly, effortlessly, can do what she struggled all her life to accomplish. In minutes of training, he is passing her.

Is it any wonder she snaps at him? Without meaning to, he makes her feel completely inadequate. Not only is she being surpassed at her greatest skill; the ease with which Aang picks up waterbending, compared with how hard it was for Katara, doubtless makes her wonder if there's something wrong with her. It won't be until near the end of the season that we see the real difference: Aang picks up waterbending faster and has more raw power, but Katara works harder, with the result that Katara has greater finesse, greater control, and greater ingenuity.

Katara's repeated awesomeness and genuine desire to help everyone she meets put her dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. This episode, along with a few others later on, helps humanize her with genuine flaws: she has a vicious temper, she can be very insecure at times, and it's easy for her to rationalize her actions by pretending that she's doing it for someone else's benefit. This is hardly the first time these flaws will create trouble.

With Katara busy being an insecure jerk for an episode, Sokka is free to show another side of his character, too. This episode reminds us that he grew up with Katara, and in some ways knows her better than she knows herself. He teases, and pretends not to understand the importance of waterbending, but the fact that he retrieves the waterbending scroll at the end of the episode makes clear that he really does understand how important it is. He just wanted Katara to be honest about her real reasons, and maybe get over her insecurity a little.

Random Observations:
  • Given the number of times Iroh says "white lotus" in this episode, I really, really want to see some connection to the Order of the White Lotus, but I can't find any. His description of the lotus tile bears no resemblance to the Order; far from appearing weak, its members are acknowledged masters of their respective disciplines (Piandao is a much sought-after teacher, Iroh a famous general, and so on). It is still foreshadowing of a sort, but appears to be extremely indirect.
  • The voice of the thin pirate in green -- the one who doesn't know what curios are -- bugged me for ages. I could not figure out who he sounded like. Then I got it -- Beedle, the shopkeeper from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, uses the same wheedling tone.
  • Another way in which Avatar quietly does its bit to take down the patriarchy: men who enjoy typically "feminine" pastimes. In this case, Iroh loves to shop.
  • The pirates are actually pretty impressive fighters. They take down the Gaang without difficulty, albeit by surprise, and prove a pretty good match for Zuko's crew.
  • That "reptile-bird" is totally an Archaeopteryx. And that's awesome.
  • Speaking of the reptile-bird, I love the aerial battle between it and Momo. Momo doesn't actually take part in combat very often, but when he does, he always proves himself to be quite capable and extremely clever.
  • The Gaang's money supply will be an issue again in "The Storm" a couple of episodes from now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

No AtLA Monday this week...

Sorry all. Work is kicking my butt, and I've been getting a little burned out on this series, anyway. (And that's on a series I like! How does Fred do it?) I think a week off will recharge me, and I'll be back on schedule next week with The Waterbending Scroll, which is a great episode that deserves a much stronger treatment than I could give it this week.

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.

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.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Not going to make it on AtLA Monday...

Sorry, all. Other obligations came up. It got right down to the wire, but I am simply too tired to finish. I will try to get it up after I get home tomorrow, but I may not have time, so AtLA Monday may be as late as Wednesday this week.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

AtLA Monday: Heroism, Abuse, and Scenery Porn

Sorry this is up so late. I had planned to proofread and post when I got home from work, and I did do that. It's just that "when I got home from work" was a lot later than I had hoped.

Anyway, you're not here to hear about my job, so let's jump right in.

Book One: Water
Chapter Six: Imprisoned


The Gaang are facing a night in the woods with almost no food when they see an earthbender practicing. Katara calls out to him, and he runs. Hoping to buy some food, they follow him to a nearby town, which they learn is occupied by the Fire Nation. Earthbending is banned, which is why the boy, Haru, snuck out to the woods to practice. His father was taken prisoner by the Fire Nation years ago, and Haru's mother is afraid the same could happen to him.

Katara and Haru hit it off, and she tries to convince him to continue practicing earthbending. A nearby coal mine has a cave-in and an old man is trapped. No one else is around, and Katara convinces Haru to save him with earthbending. That night, the old man leads Fire Nation soldiers to Haru's house and he is taken prisoner.

The next morning, after Katara learns what happened to Haru, she hatches a plan. She fakes earthbending in front of some soldiers and is taken prisoner, with the rest of the Gaang to follow after her and break her and Haru out of prison in twelve hours.

At the prison, Katara meets up with Haru and his father. She tries to rally the earthbenders, but the all-metal prison has nothing to bend and their spirits are broken. That night, Aang and Sokka come for her but Katara refuses to leave until the earthbenders are free. Aang realizes that the prison's smokestacks are coal-powered, and Sokka comes up with a plan to get the coal to the benders.

The next morning, they put their plan into action, and it works: a large pile of coal is deposited on the deck of the prison platform. However, the earthbenders still won't do anything, and the warden mocks Katara. As he is leaving, Haru hits him with a piece of coal, and he counterattacks, but his flames are blocked by a wall of coal created by Haru's father. A battle erupts, and the earthbenders win. They steal the Fire Navy ships docked at the platform and flee before the Fire Nation catches on to what's happened.

As the Gaang is leaving, Katara realizes she lost her necklace in the melee. That evening, on the prison platform, Zuko finds it...


The first time I watched this episode, I didn't think much of it. It was a good episode, but not a great one. Rewatching it while paying close attention, however, I've realized that this episode is a huge jump in quality for the series. There's a major improvement in both the animation quality and the backgrounds compared to the first five episodes, which leads me to suspect this is the first episode made after the series' ratings came in. There's also the beginning of a real effort to deepen the characters here. And, finally, this is where the series passes to the next stage of feminist media, from acknowledging and celebrating female characters who transcend gender roles, to treating that transcendence as normal.

This is the first episode to really convey how heartbreakingly beautiful the Earth Nation can be. Haru's village is all hills and pines and soft sunlight, depicted in a much more impressionistic style than previous episodes. In particular, the shot of the hillside after the scene where the Gaang meet Haru's mother could easily be framed and hung on a wall. The characters continue to use the same art style as before, however, and look a little odd compared to the backgrounds in some scenes.

The animation is also top-notch. The characters' faces are incredibly expressive; I replayed the scene of Katara walking and talking with Haru about bending and their parents just so that I could watch their eyebrows dance. And the overacting when Katara and Sokka stage their fight for the Fire Nation soldiers is a thing of beauty, from the slightly jerky, exaggerated gestures to the ridiculous facial expressions. It perfectly captured every student play I've ever seen.

And speaking of Katara's plan, isn't it interesting that Sokka not only participates in it, he praises it? Just two episodes ago he was implying that Katara is good for nothing but sewing -- a mistake he will never make again. Sokka is still a typically insecure teenage boy, as witness his response to Katara's ear cracks (and especially the way he immediately starts mocking Momo's ears), but he's letting go of the macho-man protector of all.

Aang is barely in this episode, which is interesting in and of itself. The Gaang has learned not to mention his name in every town they come across, so there is no one hunting or celebrating him. He is effectively free to not be the Avatar for an episode, and he spends most of it lazing about, barely paying attention, playing with Momo and passing butterflies. Notably, he's not bothered by the plight of the prisoners; without a clear threat to himself, his loved ones, or the world, Aang reverts to being a carefree little boy.

But not Katara, and that is why this is Katara's episode. Aang and Sokka both are essentially reactive: Aang fights threats to his friends or the world, but is otherwise content to go with the flow. Sokka, especially early on, seems more motivated by anger at the Fire Nation then any desire to better the world. Katara, on the other hand, works constantly to better the world around her, in any way she can. This episode casts a new light on her "superego" role in the previous two: She is the caretaker, the mother of the group, who tries to make things better for everyone. When confronted with people suffering, she cannot ignore it like Sokka or Aang; she must do something to help them. Even if it means a delay in the group's mission, Katara alone understands that saving "the world" is meaningless if you don't save the people in it, too.

Katara began the series as a typical female character for a children's story: she's studious, serious, full of hope for the future, a bit self-righteous, and constantly taking care of the male characters; Hermione Granger is probably the best-known contemporary example of this type. But beginning with this episode, Katara is transformed into a far more interesting character, and the most heroic in the show.

Note that I said "most heroic", not "the hero." The hero of Avatar is unquestionably Aang; he is the one with the heroic destiny and the magical powers, aided by the gods in his quest to face the world's greatest evil. But all of this destiny and divine assistance makes Aang less heroic, even as it marks him as The Hero: the odds are stacked unfairly in Aang's favor by the narrative structure itself. He is a Special Person, and therefore anything Special he accomplishes is a little less impressive than if somebody else does it.

Katara, meanwhile, works her butt off. While Aang is goofing around, relying on innate talent, Katara struggles to master waterbending, and ends up far more skilled and creative in its use than Aang, even while she is unable to match him in raw power. Aang's goofing off is consistent with his repeated attempts to run away from the destiny that is forced on him; Aang does not want to save the world, he has to save the world. Katara, meanwhile, wants to save the world. She is motivated by empathy and compassion, not duty, to help people she sees in need. When she sees an injury she wants to heal it. When she sees injustice, she wants to right it. When she sees a victim, she tries to teach them to stand up for themselves. Katara never stops trying to make the world a better place.

And she neither asks nor receives a reward for it, as we'll see at the end. By the end of the series, the other Gaang members have achieved greatness: Sokka led the strike force that stopped the [spoiler], [spoiler] and Aang are hailed by cheering crowds, and [spoiler] is the Greatest [spoiler] in the World; but Katara just fades into the background. Everyone else is rewarded because everyone else has completed their quest, because everyone else's quest is to defeat the Fire Nation. Katara, however, has only begun her quest, because her quest is never-ending. There is always something you can do to make the world better than it is.

In almost any other series, Katara would be denied the cheering crowds and the global fame because she's the girl, and it's her job to support the men and fade into the background when not needed. Why dig into her character looking for reasons? Because Avatar reminds us, again and again, that that's not what "the girl" does. That was the whole point of "The Warriors of Kyoshi," but this episode takes it a step further by simply having several of the prisoners fighting to free themselves at the end be women, including making one the main focus of one shot. This is never commented on or made a big deal of; it's simply presented as a fact: women are fully capable of kicking ass, and there's nothing unusual about them doing it. The "generic person" of the Avatar world is not always male; when there's no reason for the character to be a particular gender, the character is quite likely to be female, and that likelihood increases as the series goes on.

Avatar, in other words, portrays women as people. Katara isn't portrayed as an instance of Woman any more than Aang or Sokka is an instance of Man; she's Katara, and her possession of a vagina is just one (fairly minor) aspect of her character. More than one episode could have been played as "silly Katara gets the Gaang in trouble because of her silly girl parts," but isn't, usually by dint of having Aang be suckered as easily as Katara is ("Jet" and "The Fortuneteller" in the first season, for example).

But for all that Katara is the hero, in a sense she fails in this episode. She is not able to save the prisoners; they have to save themselves. The reason is that this episode is the beginning of one of Avatar's most important themes: abuse, and what it does to its victims. We've already met one abuse victim, Zuko, but it will take much of the series to explore the nature of that abuse and his response.

The prisoners here respond differently. Years of abuse at the hands of a sadistic warden have created such deep feelings of helplessness in them that, even handed the weapons they need to overwhelm his tiny handful of guards, they cower in fear. This is learned helplessness; it's real, and one of the most insidious effects of abuse. The warden's pseudo-friendly speech "welcoming" Katara to the prison isn't just posturing; it's all part of the game of beating the prisoners down and making them depend on him, making them afraid and convincing them that he is protecting them from much worse. Years of that could break anyone, and so it is no surprise that, when confronted with an opportunity at freedom, most of the prisoners draw back in fear.

But learned helplessness is a two-edged sword. All it takes is to be pushed a little to far, to taste power just once, and all that fear transforms into rage. This is part of why abuse victims so often become abusers themselves, if they get power over someone. (And we'll see exactly that happen with another former Fire Nation prisoner in a couple of seasons.) In this case, the breaking point is when the warden attacks Haru. Haru's father's paternal instincts break through his learned helplessness for just long enough for him to block the attack, and the earthbenders suddenly realize their power.

In this first attempt to broach the topic, the writers of Avatar allow the abuse victims to stand up to their abusers and begin to pursue justice as a road to healing. Other abuse victims will do the same later in the series. Still others will not.

Heavy stuff for what I originally dismissed as an unimportant episode.

Random Observations:
  • The running gag of Momo being an earthbender (first ground shaking as he tries to crack the "rock-shaped nut", and then the soldiers mistaking him for one) is hilarious. This episode in general manages quite a bit of humor while still being a generally serious story.
  • Another running gag, this time series-wide: the Gaang tries to come up with a solution to the crisis du jour, and one of the characters suggests an absolutely terrible plan. Last episode it was Sokka's "Rocky" suggestion for the King's name; this episode it's Aang's hurricane idea. There will be plenty more examples.
  • Just about everyone in Haru's village (and Omashu before it) wears green, which is the main color of the Earth Kingdom. However, unlike the other three nations, the Earth Kingdom's color is far from universal in its people's clothing. Haru wears mostly yellow with green accents, and browns, purples, and blues are common as well. Over the course of the series, we'll see that the Earth Kingdom is in many ways the most diverse of the nations; this is just one example of that diversity.
  • Katara's mother's necklace will be important a couple more times this season.
  • No explanation is given for the old man betraying Haru to the Fire Nation. It's entirely possible he's just a dick looking to curry favor or get some reward money. I prefer to imagine, however, that either he desperately needed the money, they threatened him or his family, or he was afraid of the consequences for the entire town if the Fire Nation discovered they were hiding an earthbender.
  • Katara bends water out of a pump, using the move she was practicing in "The Warriors of Kyoshi." It's a nice touch of continuity; she's clearly been working hard at her bending while they travel, and she's gotten a lot better.
  • George Takei as the warden very nearly steals this episode. He hams it up beautifully, clearly relishing every word, and transforms a character who is, going by the script alone, a generic, prisoner-abusing, minion-killing bad guy into an unnervingly polite, superficially cultured sadist whose inner thug keeps breaking through the veneer.
  • It is common knowledge in the Avatar world that metalbending is impossible. Remember that next season.
  • Earthbending apparently works only on unworked, unrefined minerals. Interestingly, it works on coal, even though coal is organic.
  • Katara has actually struck a pretty major blow for the resistance against the Fire Nation. She's just released hundreds of armed POWs, with three captured Fire Navy ships, into occupied territory.
  • One odd question worth asking: Why does the Fire Nation kill all the airbenders, but take water- and earthbenders prisoner? One possibility is that they were trying to take out the Avatar in the assault on the airbenders, and now believe the Avatar cycle is over. However, that doesn't really give them a reason to spare the water- and earthbenders. More likely is that they are following some sort of rules of war; possibly they don't kill people who surrender. The Air Nomads, struck rapidly in a surprise attack, never had a chance to surrender.
  • Why are so many of the prisoners old? Almost all of them have gray or white hair. It can't be that younger prisoners are kept elsewhere or killed, because then that would have happened to Haru and Katara. The likeliest possibility is that this prison is specifically for non-combatant earthbenders, and there is another prison for earthbenders captured in battle. It would not surprise me if nearly all earthbenders in the 15-40 range were in the military.
  • The warden hears Katara's speech to the earthbenders, so he knows she's from the Water Tribe. Why doesn't he take any precautions or send her to the prison for waterbenders (which we see in the third season, though only in flashback, so it's possible it no longer exists)? This is probably just a plot hole, though it may be a mark of the warden's arrogance.
  • Katara still has her necklace when loading coal into Aang's wind-gun-thing. She therefore lost it, not during the actual fighting, but during the off-screen run to the ships.