Avatar: TLA Re-Watch S1E10 – Jet

Episode 10: Jet could be seen as a filler episode, in that no progress is made in the fight against Fire Lord Ozai. However, no episode of this show is ever wasted. Even when we aren’t advancing the main plot, the show spends its time developing the characters and themes that will ultimately drive the central conflict.

We begin with a bit of silliness with Momo, (though it also sets up the way Sokka ditches his captors later), and then the kids have a discussion about tactics and leadership. Sokka observes that, although flying on Appa is fast, it’s also very noticeable, and may well be why Zuko is always a step behind them. Sokka also argues that he is the leader of their little group, Katara questions whether they even need a leader. (It’s also worth pointing out that she says “Why do BOYS always think…”, which shows a little bit of reverse sexism on her part. Not a big deal, but interesting.)

Sarcasm abounds as the kids try walking for a change, and whoops! “Sokka’s instincts” lead them straight into the middle of a Fire Nation camp! It’s not looking good, but then the kids are saved by the arrival of Jet and his Merry Men! Together, the Jet Set and Team Avatar defeat the whole camp. Though Sokka’s getting good with his boomerang, he didn’t get to do anything in the fight, as Jet kept stealing his opponents. “Gotta be faster next time.”

It’s another indication of how well-thought-out this show is that we meet and learn about a half-dozen of Jet’s crew. We learn their names, we learn their reasons for fighting, they all have their own distinct look, and they each get a moment to shine in the battle. A lazier show would have given all the glory to Jet himself, and the rest would be generic spear-carriers.

Team Avatar follows them back to their hideout in Ewok Village, but while Katara is crushing hard on Jet, Sokka is suspicious. His “instincts” are warning him, but how much of that is just jealousy? Jet is pretty charming, and with his speech at dinner, we see why his crew follows him. Especially after Katara’s bout with envy in the last episode, it’s easy to imagine that it’s just Sokka’s turn.

Then things turn darker and more complex. On a scouting mission, Sokka watches in horror as Jet, Smellerbee and Pipsqueak bully and rob an old man. Sure, he’s from the Fire Nation, but is this the sort of thing these “Freedom Fighters” call a victory? When Sokka tries to tell Katara and Aang what happened, Jet claims that the man was an assassin with a knife and hidden poison. The episode places us in the same position as Sokka, where we’re suspicious, because we didn’t see any knife, but how can we prove it? Jet says the knife was concealed. Is it possible we were wrong? Katara is determined to believe the best in people, and sides with Jet. (“I made him this hat.”)

Sokka is not convinced, and so he follows when Jet leaves the hideout in the middle of the night. Turns out, they plan to blow up the dam, and flood the occupied Earth Kingdom village. The show then presents us with an interesting question of whether all really is fair in war. It’s a good topic for discussion on the face of it, but the show gives it an additional character twist.

It’s telling that Jet doesn’t try to defend this plan until he’s caught in his lies. If he genuinely respected Katara, Sokka and Aang, and wanted them on his side, he would tell them the truth and try to persuade them to take his side. Instead, he lies to them, manipulates them… He is USING them, to further his own desire for violence against the Fire Nation. We can be sympathetic to his motivations, but murdering an entire village is beyond the pale.

The show is clever and subtle with how it portrays Jet. It shows us how he uses flattery, insight and flat-out deception to get people to trust and follow him. When Sokka tries to get Smellerbee and Pipsqueak to question the plan, they confess to blind faith in Jet. “We do what he says, and everything turns out okay.” Then, when Aang and Katara discover the plan, Jet attempts to play on Katara’s infatuation, touching her cheek: “I want you to understand me.”

She’s not falling for it this time though, not with Sokka missing, and when his manipulations fail, Jet resorts to physical violence, fighting Aang to keep him from warning the village. We get a great fight sequence in the tree-tops, but it’s looking like Jet is going to win, when Katara Fire-hoses him into a tree, then freezes him to it. Though we’re glad that she’s no longer fooled by Jet’s superficial charm, it’s heartbreaking to see her feelings of betrayal and regret, especially because it’s now too late to stop Jet from blowing the dam.

Thankfully, we see that Sokka, instead of trying to stop the bomb, has gone to warn the villagers. So although the village has been flooded, the people have been saved. We see a cute little girl find her dolly just to drive home that not every citizen of the Fire Nation is a scary soldier.

The exchange near the end says it all. Jet shouts: “We could have freed the valley!” and Sokka replies: “Who would be free? Everyone would be dead.”

Additional Notes:

* A crate of blasting jelly and a crate of jelly candy. “Let’s not mix those up.”

* Katara’s canteen is a very clever source of water for bending, and flowing it back in like sheathing a sword is way cool.

Avatar:TLA Re-watch S1:Ep9 – “The Waterbending Scroll”

“Stealing is wrong… unless it’s from pirates!”

Not exactly your typical children’s show morality.

Then again, they do have only a matter of months to save the world, AND the thing they stole would be legitimately helpful, AND the people they stole it from had themselves stolen it in the first place. That definitely puts it in “stealing bread to feed your starving family” territory, but it’s nonetheless a bit more complex than we usually get from cartoons.

As we begin, the Aang gang is still reeling from Avatar Roku’s message at the Fire Temple. Time is short, and they are still weeks away from the North Pole, (where they hope to find a water-bending master).  In the meantime, Katara volunteers to help teach Aang. She may not be a master yet, but maybe she can at least get him started.

Turns out, Aang is a natural, and within minutes, he has surpassed the techniques she has spent years learning. It’s not completely surprising, he IS the Avatar after all, and she was never officially trained in the first place. That said, it’s also very understandable that she would feel a little jealous. Being a water-bender has always been a big part of her self-identity, and she has had to work very hard to get where she’s gotten with it.  Seeing Aang pick it up so easily would have to be frustrating, even threatening. She has been thinking of her water-bending as her contribution to the group; if Aang learns how to do it too, what do they need her for? It’s irrational, but completely understandable, especially given her age.

Aang’s not exactly a water-bending master himself yet though, as evidenced by his accidentally washing their supplies away down the river. This show treats that sort of thing seriously. The kids have finite money and supplies, and when they lose stuff, that means something. They got by for a while on the money supplied by King Bumi and the supplies given to them by the village they saved from Hei Bai. Now all that is gone, and the show doesn’t forget that.

They head into town and Aang squanders one of their three copper pieces on an apparently-useless whistle. No extra points for guessing that it won’t actually be useless, however. When they investigate a ship selling “curios”, they discover a water-bending scroll, obtained through “High-risk trading”, AKA Piracy. The pirates are asking far more than the kids could ever hope to afford, (even given Aang’s top-notch haggling skills), and so Katara decides to steal it. This leads to a chase through the city, as the pirates try to recover their lost scroll. The kids escape unscathed, though the Cabbage Merchant’s wares are not so lucky.

The other kids are surprisingly non-judgemental about Katara’s theft. Aang doesn’t say anything about it directly, and Sokka’s objections are purely on the level of being angry that she put them at risk by angering the pirates. This concern is justified, as not only did they have to escape the pirates, but when Zuko and Iroh show up, the pirates are complaining about the little bald monk who stole a water-bending scroll.

When Katara and Aang resume training, this time with the scroll, she snaps, shouting at Aang in anger and jealousy. He is hurt, and she immediately regrets her outburst, promising not to be so competitive. But then, when the others are asleep, she takes the scroll again and leaves camp to practice. It’s not completely clear, but it’s quite possible that Zuko and the pirates would not have found their secluded camp unless they had spotted her out on the riverbank.

Zuko captures her, and sends the pirates after Aang and Sokka, who are also captured, but Sokka cleverly points out to the pirates that the Avatar is worth way more than their lost water-bending scroll, and then the kids are able to escape in the resulting kerfuffle. There’s some great teamwork between Aang and Katara as she recognizes the power they can wield when they water-bend together, instead of making it a competition. And in the end, Aang’s “useless” whistle saves the day, when it summons Appa for a last-second rescue.

Additional Notes:

* Pretty mountain scenery with the rivers and waterfalls

* While interrogating Katara, Zuko reveals that he has her mother’s necklace

* Air-bending not so good against nets

* Three cheers for Momo taking out the lizard-parrot thing

* Those of us re-watching the show will likely recognize the significance of Iroh’s lotus tile, and so we understand that his real errand in town was not exactly what he told Zuko it was, especially given, as he points out later, he really had the tile on him the whole time!

Avatar: TLA Re-Watch S1:E8 – Winter Solstice Part 2

Stakes: Raised.

With this episode, the series-level threat has finally been established. Sozin’s comet is coming at Summer’s End (a matter of months!), and when it does, Fire Lord Ozai will use its power to finish the war once and for all. It also helps explain how the war started in the first place. After all, a hundred years of consistent war seems like it would have been decided one way or the other by now. Instead, there was a devastating first attack leading to a lot of destruction and occupation, followed by lower level fighting over many years. It seems clear though, from Avatar Roku’s warning, that another dose of the comet might just get the job done.

We begin this episode with Aang making a noble, (but kinda lame), attempt to leave without Katara and Sokka, in the interest of keeping them safe. They are not convinced that this trip needs to be made anyway, given that they don’t have the benefit of Aang’s vision. If they can’t talk him out of it though, they’re determined to come along, and the race is on. Shortly after they leave the village, however, Zuko shows up and beats their destination out of the village elder. Chasing after Aang isn’t quite so simple for Zuko though, because, after all, he’s been banished! And Uncle Iroh warns that if they are captured in Fire Nation territory, there is nothing he’ll be able to do to protect him. Worse, the Fire Nation blockade is commanded by our old friend Captain Sideburns… er, I mean, Commander Zhao.

It’s the worst game of Red Rover ever, when Team Aang, (pursued by Zuko) have to run the blockade. Dodging giant fireballs is pretty harrowing. It did occur to me to wonder why they didn’t simply fly higher to avoid them, but then, they did try that at one point, and it wasn’t high enough, plus the clouds prevented them from seeing the projectiles coming. It also occurred to me that “FLYING BISON”, so I decided not to worry too much about it.

Zhao lets Zuko through the blockade with the intention of following him to the Avatar, and Zuko kind of implies that he has some secret plan which ultimately seems to amount to: “Lead Commander Zhao to the Avatar”. Later Zhao says “Your smokescreen didn’t work,” but it seems to me more like the smoke made them easier to follow. Whatever.

When Team Avatar arrives at the Fire Temple, it appears that the Fire Sages are now loyal to the Fire Lord. All but one, anyway, and he leads them to the sanctuary. It’s worth noting that the Sages lost their faith because the Avatar took so long to return. After a hundred years, it’s hard to really call them fickle. Just like the Air Temple had an air-bending lock, the Fire Temple has a fire-bending lock. Unfortunately, Aang’s not a fire-bender yet. Sokka has a pretty ingenious plan involving lamp-oil explosives, but alas, it doesn’t work. (Does this suggest that there is something more to fire-bending than simple flames?) Regardless, Katara’s follow-up plan to PRETEND it worked is inspired.

Zuko shows up out of nowhere and almost spoils the party, but Aang is able to break free and enter the sanctuary, but not without risk. After all, Katara and Sokka are still held prisoner outside! Then Zhao shows up to take EVERYBODY prisoner. Meanwhile, Aang is communing with Avatar Roku, and learning the deal about the comet. He states that it usually takes YEARS to master each element, but Aang needs to do it in about three months. Still, despite the incredible odds, Roku expresses optimism. “After all,” he says, “You’ve done it before.”

Then Roku helps Aang Avatar-out with some mad fire-bending skillz, yo, and brings down the whole Fire Temple. Zuko manages to escape from Zhao back to his own ship, and the kids leap on to Appa. The Fire Sages aren’t so lucky though, because if Zhao can’t have the prisoners he wanted, he’ll take what he can get.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-watch S1:E7

Episode 7 – The Winter Solstice Part 1 – The Spirit World

This episode kicks the main plot back into gear. The show is too well-written to call any episode “filler”, but to be sure there are some episodes which are more focused on character and world-building than on the larger story. The last several episodes did that, but this one moves things forward more than any episode since the opening two-parter.

We start with some silliness involving clouds, though it’s kind of delightful how Aang is able to just throw himself off of Appa with impunity to check them out. When the kids discover a giant burned-out scar in the forest though, things turn a bit more serious. Katara and Sokka aren’t exactly happy about the destruction, but Aang takes it personally. As the Avatar, it’s supposed to be his job to protect the world from this sort of thing, but he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. The monks never taught him about being the Avatar, beyond the idea that his previous incarnation, Avatar Roku, would tell him what he needed to know.

Aang’s lack of teaching is brought home when the local village is threatened by an angry spirit. The Avatar is supposed to be the bridge between the living world and the spirit world, so in theory, Aang should be the perfect man for the job. Unfortunately, this spirit is unexpectedly huge and scary, and it doesn’t seem too interested in listening to a little kid. Even worse, the solstice is approaching, and every day, the spirit is getting stronger and angrier.

Given Sokka’s initial skepticism, it’s nice to see him leap into action to save Aang. It’s just like when he tried to defend the water tribe village, and just about as effective. When the spirit creature kidnaps him, Aang pursues, failing to recover Sokka but inadvertently entering the spirit world instead. It’s a nice touch to see that other avatars have animal companions as well. Aang has Appa, Roku apparently had his dragon, Fang. Fang shows Aang to a Fire Temple, where he learns that he will be able to speak to Roku on the day of the solstice. There are also flashes of a giant fireball in the sky, which isn’t at all ominous.

When Aang returns, he’s able to calm the spirit in the same way that Katara reassured him earlier. Acorns, as a promise of eventual re-growth. It’s a little bit easy, but kind of poetic and meaningful, so I’m willing to forgive the convenience factor. All in all, an exciting way for Aang to be introduced to the Spirit World, and gives Team Avatar a destination… in the Fire Nation. Yikes.

Meanwhile, we also get a nice story of Iroh and Zuko, continuing the show’s trend of making the villains more complex. After all, in this portion of the episode, Zuko and Iroh are the protagonists, and the Earth Kingdom soldiers are the antagonists. We get a lot more background on Iroh, and everything we learn just makes him that much more interesting. We see this laid-back, tea-loving guy, and learn he was once known as “The Great Dragon”, a general who laid siege on the Earth Kingdom Capital for 600 days, only to suddenly withdraw for heretofore unspecified reasons. We get the feeling that “My men were tired” is far from the end of that story.

He is also remarkably sneaky and badass, managing to leave a trail for Zuko to follow. It’s only a brief moment, but we also get a nice beat from Zuko where he chooses to continue following his uncle’s trail, rather than divert to go after the avatar. Then, at the end, it’s nice to see them fighting together to escape. (And then we remember: Wait, these are the bad guys!)

Additional Notes:

* “Yeah, we’re gonna get eaten by a spirit monster.”

* A boomerang in the butt is insufficient for the defeat of an enraged panda spirit.

* Apparently, air-bending doesn’t work when you are non-corporeal

* Did you catch how Iroh was able to see Aang in the spirit world?

* The Earth Kingdom Soldiers War-Ostrich-Horses are cool, but the animal of the episode has got to be Hei Bai

Avatar: TLA Re-Watch S1:E6 – “Imprisoned”

After last week’s silliness with King Bumi, this episode turns a bit serious again.

For starters, the episode begins with the kids literally scrounging for nuts (and rock-like nuts which may just be rocks) in the forest. After Kyoshi, they understand how it can be dangerous to stay in one place too long, but constant travel carries its own problems.

While the city of Omashu seemed far away from the war, in this episode we get a peek at what things look like under Fire Nation occupation. Though it’s an Earth Kingdom village,  the Fire Nation soldiers have been in charge for five years, forcing the villagers to work the local coal mines in order to feed the massive Fire Navy. All the Earth-benders (except for Haru), have been taken away to a place where they won’t be able to bend, but will still be able to work. The lazy corruption of the soldier asking for protection money is sickening. “You can keep the copper ones,” he says, dropping the coins on the floor.

It doesn’t speak well of the Fire Nation, of course, but the show never allows things to be quite that black-and-white. When Haru is arrested for bending, it is the Earth Kingdom miner that he saved who turned him in.

Katara, of course, feels responsible, so she is determined to rescue him. (They bonded! And she showed him her mother’s foreshadowing, er, I mean necklace!) And the only way to be sure that she would be taken to the same prison is to get arrested, not just for bending, but for earth bending! (After all, if they arrested her for water-bending, they probably would not send her to a floating mining rig. We get some nice humor with Katara and Sokka’s terrible acting during the plan, and it’s fun seeing how Katara’s bogus insults about Sokka’s ears seem to touch a nerve. Note also how the plan (blowing the rock using the ventilation shaft) sets up the eventual solution with the coal.

At the floating prison, we meet the warden, voiced by Sulu himself: George Takei. Despite his lovely voice, the warden himself is shown to be egotistical, vain, and borderline incompetent even from the start. He may be a big fish on the rig, but it’s kind of a crap job for any real Fire Navy officer. Still, he’s got his prisoners broken and he knows it. Katara is naive enough at first to believe a simple motivational speech will be enough to rally them, but she is mistaken. (Honestly, it would have been a bad move tactically as well. Until Aang provides the coal, they have no way to defend themselves against the fire-benders.) Note how unconcerned the warden is as she speaks.

Katara isn’t used to seeing people give up. After all, her mother was killed fighting the  fire nation, and her father, as well as the rest of her village’s warriors, are off fighting it now. She is determined not to abandon Haru and the earth-benders to their despair. When Sokka and Aang arrive on Appa, she refuses to leave, even against Sokka’s protests. They form a plan, but even once Aang provides the coal, the earth-benders are too afraid to fight. All but one, that is. Haru throws the coal at the warden, then his father saves him from the warden’s reprisal. Then it’s on.

The fire-benders aren’t used to this level of resistance, and they are quickly routed. You can see the joy the earth-benders have in using their skills again, especially in the service of fighting the enemy. (And I especially loved Aang’s air-coal tommy-gun!) The earth-benders seize the rig and the ships, and we last see them as they plan to take back their village. “And take back all our villages!” This victory, along with the Avatar’s return, has given them new hope.

We finish, however, with the reveal that Katara lost her mother’s necklace during the fighting, and that now Zuko has found it. I am shocked, SHOCKED, that the necklace turned out to be relevant! *Dramatic Music*

Additional Notes:

* Act Natural!

* “That lemur! It’s earth-bending”

* A nice little bit of bending rules: Earth-benders can’t bend metal, but can bend coal.

* “Well, was it a buffalo or a bison?” … “I’m not sure what the difference is, but that’s not really the point, is it, sir?”

Avatar: TLA Re-Watch S1:E5 – “The King of Omashu”

The last two episodes had their moments of levity, but were otherwise pretty serious. The kids learn that Aang really is the last air-bender, and then the high price of staying in any one place too long.

This episode, on the other hand, has some brief moments of seriousness, but is otherwise pretty silly and fun. Especially from the perspective of the re-watch, when we know Bumi’s identity and understand that the kids are not in any real danger. On a first viewing, we’re given a few hints as to who the King might be, but we wouldn’t necessarily understand his real motivations. Even still, the rapid-fire jokes and silliness keep us from taking the threat very seriously.

The episode is also significant for giving us our first good look at an Earth Kingdom city and Earth-Benders. Kyoshi Island was, of course, named for Avatar Kyoshi, who was born an Earth-bender, but the village culture seemed to be a sort of hybrid between the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. (Interesting too, the complexity of having communities that don’t easily fit into any of the defined cultures.)

Omashu though, is a full-fledged Earth Kingdom city, and one that seems pretty distantly removed from the front lines of the war with the Fire Nation. The city bustles along, apparently content with the day-to-day routine. We are given a dramatic introduction to Earth-bending when the city guard lifts a boulder out of the ground to hold over Aang’s head. Then, the awesome bending-powered chute delivery system shows additional ways that the skills can be used. Then, of course, the climactic duel between Aang and Bumi shows us the moves of a really powerful bender.

I love that every culture in this world tends to have not only distinctive clothing and architecture, but even a unique color scheme in the animation! The land of the water tribes are all blue and white, the Fire Nations are red and black, The Air-nomads (shown in Aang’s clothing, and in the flashbacks) feature a lot of yellow and orange, and now, at last, the Earth Kingdom features lots of green and brown.

We get a bit of a lesson in lateral-thinking for Aang, but the episode’s real purpose in the narrative is to give us a mental picture of the Earth Kingdom, (We’ve now seen bits from all four of the world’s primary cultures). The rest is really just jokes, which is not to say that they aren’t plenty entertaining. Some of my particular favorites include:

* Aang’s disguise and phony name: “Bonzu Pippinpaddle-Oppsokopolis… the Third”

* “Kangaroo Island, eh? I hear that place is really hopping!”

* “Take them to the refurbished chamber that was once bad!”

* “There are no take-backsies in my kingdom!”

* “Rocky! Because of all the rocks!” … “We’re going to keep trying, but that’s a good backup.”

The actual challenges also feature some pretty impressive action, especially the duel between Aang and Bumi, a fight which shows us a few new insights about how bending-combat works. For example, Aang can use air to deflect fireballs pretty easily, but it doesn’t work as well for a giant boulder. Likewise, Earth-bending can block air-blasts. Aang only fought Bumi to a draw when he used the air to send Bumi’s own attacks back at him.

Additional Notes:

* Bumi provides a bit more confirmation of Aang’s claim to have friends all over the world.

* Flopsy, the giant goat-rabbit-gorilla thing, is my animal of the episode.

* Who needs doors or gates when you can just Earth-bend an opening wherever you want?

* “Nooo! My cabbages!” (Newbies, we have not seen the last of the Cabbage Merchant)

Avatar:TLA Re-Watch S1:E4 – The Warriors of Kyoshi

I was excited to see this episode coming so early in the season, because I have fond memories of it. Though I’d been enjoying myself so far when watching for the first time, I think this was the first episode that really sold me on the show.

This episode, more than any single episode so far, really encapsulates everything that I enjoy about the series: the humor, the character development, the world-building, and the epic drama.

As we begin, Zuko and Iroh discuss Aang’s mastery of evasive maneuvering, which when we rejoin Team Avatar, we learn is actually just erratic wandering. Even though the stakes could hardly be higher, Aang doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to reach the North Pole and learn water-bending. Even though, at the end of episode 2, he talks about finding exotic animals to ride, I think that we didn’t quite believe that he would really consider that important enough to delay his real mission.

One of the big themes of this episode is that, as Katara mentions in the opening, Aang really does have a lot to learn. He tries to blame their stop near Kyoshi on Appa being tired, but it’s really because he wants to ride the giant koi fish, and his show-off tendencies are on full display here, first for Katara, and later for the Kyoshi citizens. “I’m just a simple monk,” he says, while walking to the window to smile down at his screaming fans.

Speaking of fans, the female warriors of Kyoshi are yet another excellent example of this show’s attention to detail in depicting different fighting styles. The animation is fluid and every style has its own distinctive movements. Plus, they just look cool, don’t they? Their makeup is reminiscent of Geisha, as are the  fans, but their armor is more reminiscent of samurai than kimono, and as we learn, the various elements of the uniform actually carry meaning, meant to honor Aang’s previous incarnation, Avatar Kyoshi.

We also see them, not only in action, but also in training. This is something that is sometimes left out on the rare occasion that we see female warriors in fantasy. They are often depicted as inherently gifted, but we rarely see the hard work required to earn those skills.

The skilled female warriors also present an opportunity to give Sokka some needed depth. As in the first episode, Sokka is initially pretty sexist, first trotting out the old tropes about “women’s work” and “men’s work” and then refusing to believe that the Kyoshi warriors could have legitimately beaten him. However, after they humiliate him in the dojo, it only takes a short period of sulking before he admits his error and humbly asks if they will teach him. Think about the strength of character that requires, not only willing to admit he was wrong, but to ask for help, and even dress up in their “girly” uniform when they ask it of him. And of course, the chemistry between him and Suki is obvious right away. Even without the benefit of having watched the series before, I think no one is surprised that we see her again later.

And just like in the first episode, where the show has the courage to actually take a step beyond the cliche to actually use the word “sexist”, this episode brings another sophisticated twist. We’ve seen the “Girl’s can be warriors too” trope before, but when Sokka says: “I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior,” she reminds him: “I may be a warrior, but I’m a girl too.”

Aang’s arc in this episode also works on a couple of levels. I mentioned before how it shows that he still has a lot to learn, but he receives lessons on both a very personal, and epic scale. On the personal level, he recognizes that fame can be fickle, and that ignoring your real friends for the hangers-on just leaves you alone when the fad passes. Also, that showing off can get you into serious trouble. Fortunately for Aang, Katara is able to push past her own feelings of annoyance and jealousy, to do the right thing for her friend, even when he’s not been especially worthy.  Then, even beyond that valuable life-lesson, Aang sees just how serious it can be when he stays too long in any given place. The entire village of Kyoshi is nearly burned to the ground, simply because he decided to stay for a little while. This is a lesson that our  trio of heroes will not soon forget, nor should they.

We don’t get a whole lot from Zuko this time, beyond the point that he’s still after Aang, and a few gags with him and Iroh. (I love when Zuko learns about Aang, and storms away from the dinner table. Iroh asks “Are you going to eat that?” and Zuko grabs the plate: “I was going to save it for later!”) But it is, of course, only a half-hour episode, and there is plenty more character development to come.

So a great early episode, as the show continues to establish how large its world can be, how deep its characters can be, and laying the groundwork for the epic struggles still to come.

Additional Notes:

* The giant koi fish are cool, but the Super-Soaker Unagi definitely gets “Animal of the Episode”

* How cool was it when Katara water-bended the water out of Aang’s lungs? Even untrained, she shows a lot of promise.

* It’s nice that the show is interested in showing us that many of Aang’s previous incarnations are still remembered and honored.

So what did you think?


Avatar: TLA Re-Watch S1:E3 – The Southern Air Temple

With our heroes officially on their journey, this episode is split into two primary plot threads: The first involves Aang, Sokka and Katara making their way to the Southern Air Temple, the other follows Zuko and Iroh.

(One quick note – in my post for episode 2, I wonder if the thoroughness of my write-up discouraged discussion. So this post will be a little less detailed and hopefully a little more open-ended, allowing for conversation. Please let me know if you prefer the more in-depth style, and thanks for reading!)

With the Team Avatar thread: Aang can’t let reports of Air-bender extinction go un-investigated. He is pretty confident that the Air Temples are hard enough to reach that some Air Nomads may have survived, but Katara and Sokka are less optimistic, and try to prepare Aang for disappointment.

We see where Aang’s coming from, as the Temple really would be extremely difficult to get to without a flying bison, (or at least a flying SOMETHING), and the temple is beautiful… but deserted. Things aren’t looking good, but they continue to explore. Meanwhile, Katara and Sokka are trying to protect Aang’s feelings however they can: Katara hides the Fire Nation helmet, Sokka volunteers for an Air-ball demonstration.

We also get a bit more detail as to what Aang’s life was like before he was frozen. We see his friendship with Monk Gyatso, and learn that Aang was, for unspecified reasons, told that he was the Avatar four years earlier than is custom.

After investigating the Air Temple sanctuary (how cool was that air-bender door lock?), the kids find a “lemur”. There is a playful chase, as Aang wants to make friends, and Sokka wants food!

We get the feeling though that the lemur’s appearance is significant though, because it leads Aang straight to where he finds the body of his friend Gyatso, surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers, all long dead. The truth of what happened is now undeniable, and Aang, in his despair, goes all glowy-eyed again, and is only calmed when Katara tells him that he’s not alone, that he has a new family. The lemur, which Aang names Momo, now joins this new family, and it’s time for Team Avatar to move on.

Little do they know, however, that Aang’s outburst has sent shockwaves through every Air, Water, Earth and Fire temple in the world, meaning that everybody, even the Fire Lord, now knows that the cycle was NOT broken, and that the Avatar has returned.

Meanwhile, we spend nearly half the episode following Zuko and Iroh. Though he is still determined to capture Aang, Zuko is shown as a bit more sympathetic here. We learn that Zuko isn’t simply hunting the Avatar for kicks, he was actually banished by his own father for being “a failure”. What’s more, we see from Commander Zhao that he is considered, by many, to be a laughing-stock.

We don’t want Zuko to capture Aang and take him to the Fire Lord, and yet, we see that he is perhaps the lesser of many evils. To be sure, we like him more than the duplicitous and cowardly Commander Zhao. Zhao tricks Zuko and Iroh into joining him for tea while he has his men interrogate Zuko’s crew.

On the one hand, Zhao has a point that a threat as great as the Avatar should probably not be left to “one teenager”, but we see very quickly that Zhao is more interested in his own glory than he is about simply protecting the Fire Nation. And he has an entire fleet at his disposal.

Enraged, Zuko challenges Zhao to a Fire-bending duel, and we get suggestions that a previous duel is how Zuko got his scar. Now watching that duel, how can we not be cheering on Zuko? How many other kids cartoon’s would spend time making us root for the antagonist? With wisdom gained from his uncle’s teaching, Zuko is able to defeat Zhao, and then Iroh saves Zuko from Zhao’s attempt to sucker-burn him. Still, even in his defeat, we realize that Zhao is not going to stop his own pursuit of the Avatar.

Additional Notes:
* Many of the animals in this show are explicitly referred to as hybrids “Hog-monkeys” for example, but Appa is simply called a “flying bison”, and Momo a “lemur”. What do you think is the other animal for their respective hybrids?
* Interesting that Iroh is a “retired” general, and clearly a very skilled Fire-bender, so why is he accompanying his banished nephew?
* I like the attention to detail regarding the techniques of bending. For example, Iroh telling Zuko to “break [Zhao’s] root”

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.

Avatar:TLA Re-Watch: S1Ep1 “The Boy in the Iceberg”

Commentary on Avatar: The Last Airbender S1:Ep1 “The Boy in the Iceberg”

First, a brief word about spoilers. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers in these discussions, but I may occasionally mention general themes and concepts from later in the series. Please, in your comments, try not to spoil the fun for the people watching for the first time!

Just like the iceberg that kept Aang frozen, only the smallest portion of the story is visible in this first episode. We meet the principle characters, establish the setting, but there is so much more lurking beneath the surface!

If we were to judge the show only by this first episode, it would be easy to assume that it’s a pretty typical children’s adventure cartoon. Plenty of silliness and slapstick, and a story with clear good guys and bad guys. And yet, there’s already hints of more, suggestions that there is greatness, waiting to be discovered.

Consider the first scene with Sokka and Katara. It establishes several things right away: They are siblings, with the attendant rivalry. Katara can use water bending, and Sokka is a little bit resentful of her talents. Their parents aren’t around, and they have many responsibilities.

But then in their argument, Katara actually calls her brother “sexist” (among other things). I remember watching this scene for the first time and being surprised. While I’ve seen other cartoons take up the “Boys Vs. Girls” story trope, this show’s willingness to actually use the word “sexist” struck me as more sophisticated. It’s an indication that the show is prepared to explore some deeper issues, beyond the superficial “Good Vs. Evil” conflict.

Then, despite Aang’s dramatic entrance, his first words are: “Will you go penguin-sledding with me?” He is playful, impulsive, and a bit of a show-off, but ultimately friendly and earnest.

Another peek into hidden depths is the fact that Aang lies to Katara when she asks about the Avatar. Even if we hadn’t guessed that he was the Avatar by the fact that his face is on the DVD box, we saw him frozen in a giant magic iceberg, and then he woke up all glowy-eyed. Given what we learned in the intro, we can see that the Avatar’s disappearance is a big mystery to the whole world. Yet, despite his playful, extroverted nature, Aang chooses to lie.

We are also introduced to Prince Zuko and his Uncle Iroh. Zuko is established as the principal antagonist, simply through his desire to capture and “defeat” the Avatar. He is shown as determined, but impatient, and yet we wonder: How did he get his scars? Why is his honor dependent on completing what must have seemed like a century-old wild goose chase?

Even his frustration with his uncle’s refusal to teach him advanced fire-bending techniques is interesting. For the primary villain of a children’s show to openly acknowledge that he is not already all-powerful is unusual. His uncle’s laid-back attitude and fondness for tea is an unexpected blend with his skill at fire-bending. These things suggest that even the show’s antagonists are more than they may first appear.

We spend much of the first episode having fun, watching Aang show off his gliding skills, playing in the snow, laughing at Sokka’s Drill Sergeant routine. (“No potty breaks!”) And then there’s sneezing.

But after the penguin-sledding, we discover the derelict Fire Nation ship. Katara describes it as “a very bad memory for my people”. That, and the nasty-looking weapons inside, are ominous. Aang tells Katara: “If you want to be a bender, you have to let go of fear”, which introduces a theme which will resonate throughout all three seasons.

This leads to Aang’s discovery that he was frozen for a century, which is the first thing he seems to take seriously since his introduction.

But before it can be carefully discussed, the trip-wire alerts Zuko to their location, as well as the location of the Water Tribe’s village. This sets up the conflict to appear in episode 2.

Additional Notes:

* I love the show’s animals, nearly all of which are blends of traditional earth animals, like the otter-penguins and the tiger-seals.

* Sokka’s sarcasm is always welcome in my home. “And this is Katara, my flying sister.”

* Given how important they become later, it was a bit surprising to remember that characters like Toph and Azula don’t actually appear until later in the series.

* The Fire Nation’s coal-punk technology is cool.

* This is the only episode using this version of the opening. The more abbreviated opening that starts with episode 2 is less personal to Katara and more matter-of-fact.

Tor.com also did a re-watch of this show!

Also, check out this great Avatar Wiki!

So, what did YOU think?

You can leave comments here, but I’d also encourage you to check out my posts on Google Plus. An excellent place for discussion.

And be sure to come back on Tuesday for episode 2!

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