Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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You will learn respect. And suffering will be your teacher!So we begin with what is usually the scourge of joy and happiness: a dream sequence. We see the usual randomness, but it ends with Aang flying on Appa into a storm while his former guardian, Gyatso, keeps saying, "We need you, Aang." Aang wakes up from the nightmare, which wakes everyone else up. Katara exposites that Aang's been having a lot of nightmares lately, but he chooses not to talk about it. A bit later, the Gaang discovers that they're out of food, so they head into town to get some. Meanwhile Zuko is on his ship. Iroh says there's a storm coming despite the clear skies. When he suggests altering course away from the Avatar's trajectory, Zuko says no. And when Iroh tries to get him to consider the safety of the crew, he tells Iroh to ram it. In front of said crew, in the form of the ship's captain. Not having fulfilled his jackass quotient, Zuko then gets in the captain's face, saying that their mission is more important than anyone's safety. The Gaang realize they don't have money, so they can't buy food. They overhear an argument between an old fisherman and his wife. The woman says that there's going to be a storm, but he doesn't buy it. She won't come with him to fish, so Sokka agrees to go along in her place. It's a paying job, after all. Back with Zuko, the captain points out that Iroh was right, gesturing towards the advancing grey stormclouds. Zuko tells him to show him respect. But this time, he's not backing down. He talks about how Zuko doesn't show anyone else any respect, even his uncle. Then, he calls Zuko a spoiled Prince. Yeah, them's fightin' words. Before they get into a fight, Iroh breaks them up. Aang also notices the weather, but Sokka says that he already agreed to go. Because a matter of pride is totally worth risking your life for. At this point, the old fisherman notices Aang's tattoos and immediately identifies him as the Avatar. And then he proceeds to deliver one of the most awesome speeches ever. He points out how the Avatar disappeared for a hundred years, leading directly to the current state of the world. He says that Aang turned his back on the world. Naturally, Katara leaps to Aang's defense, saying that he wouldn't do that. While the two are arguing back and forth, Aang slowly creeps away. And when Katara tries to point out that his being trapped wasn't his fault, Aang quickly flies away. Of course, Katara ignores the fact that her brother is possibly sailing out into a fierce storm that could kill him; she instead goes to cheer up a sad boy. She finds him in a cave. When she tries to point out that the fisherman was being a jerk, Aang says that he was right. Cue the flashback. Back at the Southern Air Temple, while Aang was playing with some of the boys, the elders of the Air Nomads collect him. They reveal to him that he's the Avatar. Normally they would have done that on his Sweet Sixteenth birthday, but there are signs of war brewing. Gyatso reiterates the line from Aang's dream. And now we duck out of the flashback to Zuko's ship. Down below decks, his men are grousing about Zuko when Iroh interrupts them. And then he starts talking about Zuko's backstory. Cue the other flashback. One day, 13-year-old Zuko (pre-scar) tried to get into a war meeting, but the guards don't let him. Zuko convinces Iroh to allow him to enter and observe, but Iroh gets him to promise that he won't speak. Yeah, I'm sure Zuko will say absolutely nothing in this meeting. Totally sure. The Firelord's chambers are quite interesting. The various military people are sitting around a table. At the head of the table is no-one; instead, the table is arranged to face the throne. And in front of the Firelord's throne is a large wall of eternally burning fire. Because he's the Firelord. One of the generals suggests sending a division of raw recruits against some of the Earth Kindgom's elite soldiers as a diversion, while their real troops attack from the rear. Naturally, Zuko speaks out against this. As Iroh says, there were "dire consequences." That's certainly one way to put it. Back to Aang's flashback. Aang's friends ostracise him because he's the Avatar; they won't play games with him since he'll unbalance any team he's on. It should be noted that none of the other children have the Airbender tattoos Aang does. This signifies... something. Well, it seems pretty obvious; he's more "advanced" in his training. Which means that he already unbalanced teams before, but they didn't have an excuse then. Then we cut to Aang and Gyatso playing Pai Sho. Or rather, Aang not really paying attention and Gyatso cheating like crazy. One of the other Airbender elders enters and tries to take Aang for some training. Gyatso pulls rank, pointing out that he's Aang's guardian and he decides when Aang trains. Back to Zuko's flashback. Firelord Ozai expresses his anger by making the flames in front of him flare up. He then decides that Zuko was disrespectful, and thus must fight an Agni Kai. Zuko thought that this would be against the general he spoke out against. Um, it wasn't. He disrespected the Firelord's general, in the Firelord's presence, therefore he disrespected the Firelord. So yeah, Firelord Ozai just challenged his thirteen-year-old son to a fight. Isn't he such a nice guy? Cut back to Aang. The Monks decide that Gyatso is interfering with Aang's training, since he insists that Aang grow up as a normal boy. So they decide to send Aang to the Eastern Air Temple. Aang is spying on them, so he hears this. Back in the present, Aang gets really pissed. He starts airbending, and his tattoos start to glow. His airbeinding causes the fire to almost burn Katara. And I'm sure that's the last time that Aang will do something thoughtless that might accidentally burn Katara. Totally sure. In the flashback, Aang decided to run away from home instead of be sent away. We even see a scene Aang couldn't have seen, since he ran away, when Gyatso goes to his room. Gyatso says that he's not going to let them take Aang away from him, which means that if Aang had stuck around, there's every chance that the two of them would have run off together. Aang and Appa are caught in a storm; it blows them into the water. While there, Aang gets all glowy and then freezes the two of them in ice. For a hundred years. It is at this point when Aang admits the truth: that he was selfish and foolish. That he did run away when the world needed him. Katara just says that it was meant to be. You're right, Katara. Say, how's that mother of yours doing? Oh, she's dead? Killed by firebenders who invaded your home because the Avatar wasn't doing his job? I'm sure it was just meant to be. Katara says that Aang would have been killed along with all the other airbenders. Even though we just established that Gyatso would have run away with him. Granted, she doesn't know that, but the audience does. In short, Aang would have been fine. Gyatso would have finished his airbending training (assuming there was anything left to teach him) and saw to it that he was trained in all other forms of bending. And then he would have taken out Sozin. And everything would have been better. I have no idea why they put that scene with Gyatso in there. It completely undermined what they were trying to say. Meanwhile, in Zuko's flashback, Zuko is begging for forgiveness. Right, a man who would publicly challenge his own 13 year old son to a fight to the death for speaking out of turn in a closed war meeting (that nobody outside the room would have ever heard about if he hadn't told them); this guy totally understands the concept of forgiveness. We still don't get to see Firelord Ozai's face, but we do get to hear his voice and HOLY CRAP IT'S THE JOKER GET IN THE CAR! No, I'm not kidding. The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series. AKA: Mark Hamill. Which is interesting, as this scene is an inversion of another father/son dialog that Mark Hamill was famously a part of. Granted, he's playing a different part this time. And in this case, the father is demanding that the son fight him instead of join him. But the son is on his knees in both cases. Oh, and Zuko, FYI: if your father is the Joker, you're screwed. Just ask Tim Drake. After Zuko refuses to fight, Ozai then says the page quote, with all the chilling evil that Mark Hamill can muster (and if you've not heard Luke Skywalker be evil, you really should). Zuko is on his knees, looking up to his father, crying. We don't actually see it happen, but we all know what happens. When it does, the camera cuts over to Iroh.
Oddly enough, Zhao is to Iroh's right. And there's some woman to Iroh's left that we've never seen before. She seems... needlessly happy about all of this. So yeah, that's how Zuko got his scar. And how he was banished until he found the Avatar. Somehow, I get the feeling that Firelord Ozai didn't expect Zuko to complete his quest. You know, what with the Avatar having not been seen for a hundred years and all. Iroh, in the present, points out that the Avatar gives Zuko hope for the future. We then cut to Zuko meditating on something. The ship is then struck by lightning. And for some reason, we take that moment to cut back to Aang. The old woman from before shows up at the cave, saying that the fisherman and Sokka haven't come back. Aang naturally says he'll go to find them. Back to Zuko. He gets a hero moment when he rescues one of his crew at great personal risk. Then a lightning bolt strikes... Iroh. But he magically diverts the lightning away from the ship, with only minimal damage to himself. That was odd. Oh well, I'm pretty sure that was just a one-time thing. Totally sure. Meanwhile, we get a good piece of action where Aang rescues Sokka and the fisherman. Zuko spots them, but says that they need to get to safety. After the rescue, a great wave rises up and hurls them into the sea. This is designed to echo the scene earlier from Aang's flashback, where he froze himself for a hundred years. Except this time, Aang gets glowy and they escape. Zuko apologizes to his uncle. Then, he sees the Gaang fly off; Zuko and Aang get a good stare at one another. On shore, it appears that Aang is totally cured. Yep, after a few minutes of time with Katara, Aang says he's not living in the past anymore. He doesn't care about what might have been. Which is a fine thing... except for two problems. One, he never acknowledges that it was a mistake to run away. Katara's "meant to be" crap aside, it's important for Aang to understand that he screwed up. He doesn't have to wonder what might have been, but he does need to learn from his mistakes. And the first step in that is admitting that it was a mistake to begin with. The second problem is more insidious. The echoing scenes of Aang going underwater, getting glowy, and doing something. The fact that the two scenes are mirrors strongly suggests that Aang could have chosen to escape in the past. After all, he did escape this time. This means that, on some level, Aang wanted to flee from the whole world, to be frozen for a while. That means that Aang in fact chose to leave the world to its own devices. The ultimate in irresponsibility. Despite that, you can put this episode in the "win" column. The two plots reinforce one another. Contrast that to the way the two plots in The Southern Air Temple step on each others toes. I think Zuko's plot is stronger overall, but they both work pretty well. The idea that Aang brings hope to everyone, even to his enemies, is an interesting one. Indeed, I would consider this episode the point where the series put on some facial hair. The episode's not perfect, but it is the first episode where all of the bits of the series are really working. That's not to say that other episodes weren't good. But here, everything works as it is meant to. Many of the jokes are genuinely funny, Zuko's role as a foil for Aang is clearly established, all of the characters are treated with respect, etc. But perhaps the most important thing this episode does is give us a real Big Bad. Avatar Roku gave the series a clock, which provided necessary urgency. But this episode provides us with a villain. Until now, Firelord Ozai has been faceless. And, well he still is technically. But here we see his cruelty fully on display. This isn't his Fire Nation soldiers extorting money from innocent people. This isn't Zuko or Zhao roughing up some locals. This is direct, unmediated, face-to-face contact with the Big Bad. And even without an actual face, we want to see him die. This episode also sets up a lot of things, both in the near and far futures for the series. This makes watching the episode after seeing the series quite a treat, as you can see where they dropped hints of things in, some of them quite subtle. Oh, and as for the random woman next to Iroh in the flashback? I'm sure she will never be seen again for the entire rest of the series. Totally sure. And good riddance too; she looks kinda like an asshole.
At that point, Azula is only 11 years. How the hell does this count as being a "woman"?
I know she's 11 years old. But 'look' at her; would you describe her as a teenager if you didn't know she was supposed to be? She looks too old to be an 11 year old. I actually have a point to make with that, which I'll get into in my season 2 introduction.
I actually missed Azula next to Iroh. Anyway, I totally agree that this was the episode that grew the beard for the show. If I were to introduce my brother to this cartoon, I'd probably start with this episode.
"it was meant to be" oh god. They used a Shyamalan.
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