Avatar:TLA Re-Watch: S1Ep2 “The Avatar Returns”

With episode 2, the story is officially underway.

In hindsight, it might have been better to go ahead and do these first two episodes together, since it really is only the combination of the two that really represents the series at large. Episode 1, though fun, is all wind-up and no pitch. Episode 2 gets to the action, but only works with the set-up established in the first episode. In fact, I believe the first two episodes were actually shown back-to-back when the show premiered.

No sense spending too much time lamenting the separation, however. Best to move forward!

The episode begins as Aang and Katara arrive back at camp, both fully aware how badly they’ve screwed up. To be sure, the specific trap was an accident, but of course, that’s exactly WHY exploring the ship was dangerous in the first place. Aang and Katara didn’t break some dishes. This is a potentially life-and-death mistake here.

Aang understands this, of course, which is why he doesn’t protest at all when Sokka and Gran-Gran decide to banish him. Katara, on the other hand, insists that Aang’s arrival has awakened something within the village that it was sorely lacking: Fun. (It’s important to consider, I think, that simply calling it “fun” is a bit of a childish term on Katara’s part. Though Aang has still not confirmed that he is the Avatar, I think we can guess that Katara is sensing some aspects of that, if only subconsciously, and that, in many ways, “Fun” is probably code for “Hope.”

Another interesting side-note is the exchange where Sokka insists “You can’t fight the Fire Nation with fun,” and Aang replies “You should try it sometime.” Though it is not apparent now, the idea of using “fun” as a weapon is returned to a few times, as a somewhat counter-intuitive tactic.

Katara, reluctant to lose Aang, initially decides to join him in exile. She doesn’t want Aang to have to go alone, and she wants to take him up on his offer to find her a water-bending master. It’s a noble instinct, but it’s also impulsive. Aang gently talks her out of it, not wanting to be responsible for her losing her home and her family.

So Aang leaves, but Prince Zuko’s ship is still coming. It’s very cool to see Sokka gearing up for battle, but kind of heart-breaking as well, because we know they haven’t got a chance of withstanding any kind of real attack. This is driven home by the giant steel ship literally crushing through the wall like it was nothing. Then, as Sokka attempts to attack Zuko, he is easily defeated. But it’s amazing, because Sokka does not give up. His bravery and determination are admirable, if ultimately ineffective, as he is repeatedly knocked aside by Zuko. (He does get in a good shot with the boomerang though!)

What might initially have been a straight-forward “He went that way” is complicated by the misunderstandings Zuko still carries about the Avatar. He assumes both that the village would have known they had the Avatar, and also that he would be a very old man. So the village is confused by Zuko’s demands, and Zuko is infuriated by what he sees as a refusal to cooperate. The situation begins to escalate, but then Aang returns to save the day, kinda. Sliding in on a penguin and temporarily humiliating Zuko.

We get our first taste of actual battle here, with Aang using his staff to spin away Zuko’s fire. Zuko recognizes that Aang must be the Avatar right away, and so reveals it to everyone else. I love the exchange: “You’re just a child!” “Yeah, well, you’re just a teenager.”

Aang is holding his own against Zuko, but after a close call with some of the village children, he recognizes that the battle is too dangerous for him to let it take place there in the village, and he surrenders himself to spare the village.

A noble gesture, though as we see later, not quite as dire a sacrifice as it initially appeared. Aang is not planning to stay locked up in a cell. (He even says: “Take care of Appa for me until I get back!”) Still, it already shows that, beneath his playful exterior, he does have some true wisdom. Sure, he MIGHT be able to take on Zuko individually, but probably not the entire ship, and certainly the battle would incur significant casualties in the Water Tribe village. To simply escape captivity, on the other hand, allows him to take on all the risk himself, rather than being responsible for any additional damage to the village. And escaping simply requires getting away, not having to defeat every person on the ship.

Aang is led away and the ship leaves, while the village is left to try and rebuild, but Katara has a speech. She has a lot to say about why Aang is important, and why she has to go after him, and if we didn’t like Sokka already, we finally do when he says: “Are you going to talk all day, or are you coming with me?” Then Gran-Gran blesses the mission as well, saying that their destinies are now intertwined with the Avatar’s. Then, just as they are discussing how they can never catch the ship in their canoe, it’s Appa! Happy feelings all around.

Though of course, Sokka can never abandon his sarcasm for long. “You just love taking me out of my comfort zone, don’t you?” Still, it’s Sokka who remembers the proper phrase: “Yip-yip!” and it’s such fun to see him overjoyed by the miracle of flight. Even if he must once again resume his veneer of teenage apathy.

Back on board the Fire Nation ship, Aang seems awfully relaxed as his staff is confiscated and he’s been led to the cell. Then, we see why. “You guys have never fought an air-bender before, have you?’ Kid’s got skills! Of course, he can’t leave without his staff, so the search is on. We get a nice gag with Uncle Iroh sleeping through the whole thing, but Zuko is ready. He traps Aang in the chamber and it’s time for another duel. We see that both of these characters have significant skill, but ultimately, it’s a TKO by mattress, and Aang escapes to the main deck with his staff.

Getting on deck is not the same as escaping, unfortunately, as Zuko manages to leap onto Aang’s glider, and send them both crashing to the deck. Then, more fighting, but Aang is ultimately forced over the side, and we can’t help but be reminded of his dream, when he escaped the storm by freezing himself in the ice. As before, Aang’s eyes glow, but instead of freezing himself again, he rises out of the water, and defeats Zuko with a so-far unprecedented skill of water-bending. This is significant, because recall that he told Katara he could not teach her, because he was an air-bender, not a water-bender. He apparently has incredible power, but is, perhaps, not fully in control of himself when he exercises it, and it leaves him drained when he finishes.

Thankfully, Katara and Sokka have arrived on Appa. Sokka gets a nice moment when he’s recovering the staff, only to receive a horror-movie jump scare from Zuko. And yet, in payback for the earlier defeats, Sokka knocks Zuko back over the side and retains the staff. Katara, in her moment of need, discovers additional water-bending skill, freezing the fire nation soldiers (and Sokka) in ice. Katara, Sokka, and Aang escape on Appa and the day is saved.

We get one last moment with Zuko and Iroh, as they appraise the damage to their ship. Iroh says “Good news for the Fire Lord. The greatest threat to the Fire Nation is just a little kid.” (Yet, his tone is reserved, as though this is a test for Zuko, rather than his actual opinion.) If it was a test, Zuko passes. “That little kid did THIS,” he says. “I won’t underestimate him again.”

The last scene of the episode is pretty much: “Hey audience, here’s what the show is going to be about! Aang has to learn, in order, water bending, earth bending, and fire bending, so he can defeat the Fire Nation and save the world, but there will still be time for fun and riding exotic animals. “They don’t like people riding them, but that’s what makes it fun!” So with the conclusion of the two-parter, our story is officially under way. Hooray!

Additional Notes:
* Zuko intends to give Aang’s staff to his father, commenting to Aang: “You probably do not know of fathers, being raised by monks.” This is just a peek at the thoughtful Zuko, rather than the single-minded “I will catch the AVATAR!” Zuko. Also, his father issues are deep and plentiful.
* Aang confesses that he lied about being the Avatar because he “never wanted to be.” We’ll be seeing a lot more about that as well.