Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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Winter Solstice: Part 1: The Spirit World
Yeah. We're all gonna get eaten by a spirit monster.We open with... not padding! They're flying on Appa's back. After some joking around, Aang discovers clouds are made of water. This is actually relevant to a future episode, which is why it's not padding. They see a brown spot on a hill up ahead and stop to investigate. Apparently there was a big forest fire. Sokka takes one look at some tracks and says, "Fire Nation! Those evil savages make me sick! They have no respect for-" before Katara cuts him off. Let's give Sokka the benefit of the doubt here. Let's say that those tracks are indeed from Fire Nation soldiers. There's no way to be sure of that, but let's pretend that Sokka has sufficient experience to know. That doesn't prove that the Fire Nation did this. It only proves that they were here after the fire (since the tracks are in the ash). Indeed, the fact that the tracks were there after the fire strongly suggests that they were just passing through. You might say that Sokka's over-reacting. He hates the Fire Nation so he projects anything bad onto them. And I could live with that... except that this episode only makes sense if the Fire Nation burned the forest down. Aang wonders how someone could do this. Which brings up a question. If Sokka's right and the Fire Nation did burn this forest down, why did they do it? The Fire Nation does not randomly set fire to stuff (and yes, I know what happens later, but that's not random; that's indiscriminate. There's a difference). So either some Fire Nation soldiers did it for kicks or there was a battle fought there. Anyway, Aang blames himself for not having stopped it. Only, he seems to be missing why it's his fault. He says that the Avatar's job is to protect nature (the Avatar certainly has a lot of jobs), but he doesn't know how to do his job. That is in fact this episode's theme: Aang not knowing how to be the Avatar. But this is a very awkward way of establishing that theme. It just doesn't fit the situation. The forest didn't get incinerated because Aang didn't know how to do his job. It was incinerated because Aang was frozen in ice for a hundred years. Even if he knew how to do his job, he simply couldn't have done it. The thing is, we find out later that he was frozen for reasons that were entirely his fault. So it makes sense for Aang to blame himself. Just not for this reason.
Cut to something more interesting: Naked Iroh Time. Oh God, my eyes! It burns! Katara hits Aang with an acorn to cheer him up. She points out that the forest is going to grow back thanks to the seeds. And... this works. Some guy shows up, asking for the Avatar. He knows about Aang because he saw Appa flying by. He asks for Aang to help his village. In the village, we find out the problem. A spirit called Hei Bai shows up at sunset and wrecks the place. This is because the Winter Solstice approaches. Apparently in the Avatar-verse, on the Solstice, the Spirit World and the real world intersect, and around that time, spirits can cross over. The Avatar is apparently "the great bridge between man and spirits." Man, can they pile any more stuff for Aang to do? Privately, Aang mentions that he doesn't know anything about the spirit world. Katara has faith in him to figure out what to do. And what reason does she have for having faith in Aang anyway? Cut to Iroh getting captured by some Earthbenders. They recognize him and refer to him as "the once great" General Iroh, the Dragon of the West. A kick-ass title, I must say. Meanwhile, Aang goes to meet Hei Bai at sunset. Hei Bai eventually shows up and ignores Aang; he starts his usual wrecking of buildings. When Aang gets fed up with being ignored, he "commands" it to turn around. This ends with Hei Bai smacking Aang around. Sokka attempts to help, while Katara was perfectly willing to just stand there and let the monster wail on him and do whatever. Because it was Sokka who helped instead of Katara, Hei Bai picks him up and runs away, with Aang in pursuit on his glider. Cut back to Zuko finding that Iroh's missing. One of his men suggests that it was a landslide. There's nothing about the scene that looks like a landslide; everything about it has the earmarks of earthbending. Which Zuko points out. This means that, among Zuko's crew, Zuko is the smartest. Yeah, he's such a compelling threat. Back to the A plot. Hei Bai eventually disappears as Aang tries to rescue Sokka. This causes Aang to fall down and be rendered unconscious by the fall. And now, back to the B plot with Iroh and his captors. Man, the editing in this episode really isn't working. In this case, the A and B plots do at least have something to do with one another thematically (both Zuko and Aang are trying to rescue someone). But the actual places where it intercuts do not seem particularly well chosen. We get some exposition and backstory. Iroh once laid siege to a city called Ba Sing Se for 600 days. And he still didn't get in. We'll actually find out more about why and how that's possible later on. Iroh is suitably humble about his defeat. However, Iroh says that they broke the siege because, after six hundred days, he and his men were tired. This is... not true at all given what we later learn. But we'll get to that. Iroh falls off the Chocobo-like horse they're carrying him on and deliberately drops one of his sandals. This is not just a clue for Zuko to track them, but it also sets up the longest brick-joke in Avatar history. No, really. Katara is sitting at the entrance to the village, waiting for Aang. While the village elder is trying to cheer Katara up, saying that Aang is the Avatar and will fix everything, Aang shows up. But he's pale blue in the sunlight and translucent; he's in the spirit world now and nobody can see him. Well, that was one minute with Aang; time to cut back to Zuko. He finds his uncle's sandal, confirming it's Iroh by the smell. We'll cheerfully ignore how Zuko knows what his uncle's sandals smell like. And after that fifteen seconds, we go back to Aang. See what I mean about the editing? So Aang starts fretting about not knowing what to do. He then sees something coming towards him from the trees. It's a spirit dragon. Well, the spirit of a dragon. Aang tries to flee, but he can't bend in the spirit world. The dragon flies up to him and touches Aang on the forehead with one of his whiskers. This causes Aang to see a vision of Avatar Roku riding on the dragon's back. So it's Roku's dragon. The dragon gives Aang a lift when Aang asks to speak with Roku. Cut back to Iroh as a captive. But shockingly enough, this actually matters. Iroh sees Aang and Roku's dragon flying by, but none of his captors do. This tells us... something about Iroh, but more importantly it lets Iroh know that the Avatar is somewhere nearby. Then Iroh uses his firebending to escape. And now cut to Aang flying towards some volcanic island. The dragon flies into the top room of a temple, where there is a statue of Roku. When Aang points out that he wanted to talk to the actual Roku and not a statue, the dragon gives him a vision of a flaming comet (how Aang knows it's a comet, I don't know, since it looks more like a fireball). Thanks to another dragon-induced vision, Aang sees that he can speak to Roku by coming to this room on the day of the Solstice, when a beam of light hits the statue's eyes. Which doesn't exactly help Aang now. So the dragon takes him all the way back. Cut back to Iroh again. He doesn't manage to get very far, since his arms and legs are bound. The Earthbenders decide that he's too dangerous, so they have to do something. The smirk on Iroh's face suggests that this is what he had in mind. Meanwhile, Katara is flying around on Appa, looking for Sokka and Aang. She gives up and heads back to the village. But not before she's spotted by Zuko. And now Zuko has a choice to make: keep pursuing Iroh, or go after the Avatar. The dragon takes Aang back to his body. Which is odd, since his body is now sitting on top of a panda bear statue, when it was at the base of the statue before. It's spirit world stuff; it doesn't have to make sense. Aang, now back in his body, looks at the panda bear statue and realizes something. He returns to the village. Since we're at a critical juncture in that plotline, it's time to cut back to Iroh. The earthbenders are getting ready to crush Iroh's hands. Even though what he did to escape primarily involved his nostrils and his feet. So it's not just Zuko's people that aren't paying attention. The leader pulls out a rock and is about to drop it on Iroh's hands when... Zuko shows up to make the save. Then Zuko breaks Iroh's metal shakes with a kick. No, really; he shatters metal with a kick. Where was that back on that prison platform with the earthbenders? And it is here that we get our first look at what I call "soft earthbending." The earthbenders here don't seem to be using rocks so much as balls of soft clay. Iroh is able to shatter thrown rocks by swinging his chain around. Eathbenders hit with their own rocks cause the rocks to shatter rather than their bones. Yeah, I know it's a kid's show. But it's more than that. This is basically the justification for why the Fire Nation is any threat to the Earth Kingdom at all: because the earth the earthbenders bend is nothing like actual stone. Except when the plot needs it to be. After Zuko and Iroh finish taking out the trash, we cut back to Aang. He figures out that touching the forehead of a spirit, the way Roku's dragon touched him, can cause certain effects. Specifically, whatever effect is needed by the plot. He sees that Hei Bai is really a panda bear spirit. Namely, the one that had a statue made of him; the caretaker of the forest. So he... basically does what Katara did at the beginning: showing Hei Bai an acorn. See, Aang figured out that Hei Bai is associated with the burned forest. And this is enough to calm Hei Bai and send him on his way. As he leaves, in a scene almost right out of Princess Mononoke, he releases all of his captives. As for what I said earlier, about how the episode doesn't make since unless someone intensionally burned the forest down, consider this. If the forest wasn't burned down by the Fire Nation, if it simply caught fire due to a lightning strike or any other entirely natural cause, then Hei Bai is rampaging around for no reason. Either way, he's attacking people who did nothing to him, but one could at least consider the idea that Hei Bai figured the nearest humans were the ones responsible. But if nobody burned the forest down, this effectively means that Hei Bai, and any other similar spirits in the world, will run amok whenever anything upsets them. Even entirely natural things like forest fires. Forests burning down is part of the natural order of the world. The decision to intercut the A and B plots was fine. The two plots push the whole idea that Zuko and Aang aren't that different. Both are involved in rescues. But the actual editing of the episode, the specific places where it switches between the two, was terrible. Overall? This episode is clumsy. It exists as a setup to the next episode, but it is very clumsy about it. Think about the elements involving the dragon. The dragon doesn't help Aang at all; not for his current dilemma. It takes him away from the main action of the episode, then returns him back to exactly where he started out. Indeed, the trip to the spirit world in its entirety contributed almost nothing. The only thing Aang learned that was relevant to this episode's plot was the forehead-touch thing. And even that could have been superfluous, if Aang had realized that Hei Bai was running back to the statue. It's almost like the writers wrote an episode about Hei Bai, but realized that the concept wasn't really that good. So they decided to fill the episode out by setting some things up for the next episode. Well, that's better than padding. It would also explain the Colon Cancer name of the episode: "Winter Solstice: Part 1: The Spirit World"
And thus we have the first iteration on the last airbender facts of the verse: the Spirits are either useless or total jerks.
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