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.)