Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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Winter Solstice: Part 2: Avatar Roku
Mastering the elements takes years of discipline and practice. But if the world is to survive, you must do it by summer's end.Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Arc. Finally, finally, we're done with intro episodes and are ready to move to the main story. We're eight episodes in, and only now do we get to something of actual substance and purpose. At the end of the last episode, Aang dropped a bombshell on the Gaang. He has to get to Roku's temple before the end of the Solstice. Which is tomorrow. And the temple is in the Fire Nation. Now, Aang says the last part like it's this terrible, arduous thing. But in any sane universe, getting to an island nation would be quite simple. Especially when you can fly. Granted, Avatar-verse isn't entirely sane, which is why it becomes an ordeal. So the episode itself opens with, what else? Padding! The episode plays lip-service to Aang going to the temple alone; Aang doesn't want to risk his friends. But Katara and Sokka won't let him go alone. For some reason. Sure, they just so happen to be vital, but there's no way any of them could have known that. After the Gaang leaves, Zuko shows up in the village. Thus letting us know that the last episode wasn't a complete waste of time; he's hot on the Avatar's trail. After a scene with Aang urging Appa to go faster, we have a conversation between Zuko and Iroh. This re-establishes that Zuko is a banished Prince. He's not supposed to return to the Fire Nation without the Avatar. When Zuko says that he's pursuing the Avatar and his father will understand, Iroh says, "My brother is not the understanding type." That's... one way to put it. The Gaang spots Zuko, and then Zuko catapults a flaming ball of garbage at them. Possibly because his ship doesn't have actual ordinance. Then, the Gaang and Zuko (those four words are going to be said more and more often as the series progresses) see perhaps the most ridiculous sight imaginable. A blockade. OF THE ENTIRE FIRE NATION! I'm serious. There are hundreds of ships in two rows, constantly moving back and forth. And that's just all we can see; the lines stretch to the horizon. This is positively ludicrous, even for a cartoon series. And don't give me some crap about this being temporary for the Solstice. If the Fire Nation thought Aang would go there on that particular day, all they had to do was station a battalion of soldiers in the temple. And as we're going to see, they didn't. Furthermore, we'll see this blockade again! So it's not temporary. And yes, there's some dialog from Aang about going around it, but they can't since it would take too long. And that just makes this even more stupid. The point of a blockade is that you can't go around it. So not only are these ships out here, using up precious man-power and materiel, they're also completely ineffective. They're only effective against Aang because avoiding them would slow him down too much. Oh, and Zhao's in charge. What? Command of the blockade fleet, the fleet that burns incredible quantities of coal and does nothing more than patrol waters, is not something you give to any commanding officer you consider to be good. It's what you give to people who screw up, because it's pretty hard to screw up keeping ships moving in a line forever. The only reason Zhao's here is so that he can be involved in the action, not because it makes any kind of sense for him to be here. Anyway, Zhao orders a full bombardment. When his subordinate points out that there's a Fire Nation ship out there, Zhao tells them to fire anyway, knowing that it's Zuko. OK, I'm sure Firelord Ozai wouldn't be happy with Zuko coming back to the Fire Nation without the Avatar, but murdering the Firelord's first born, even when he's defying orders, is perhaps not the wisest course of action. Especially considering what we'll find out about Firelord Ozai's temperament and ideas of forgiveness. So we have a pretty decent bit of action, where Appa and the Gaang have to dodge massive waves of flaming rocks. Zuko doesn't fare as well, as his ship gets hit. When one of his crew says that they need to stop to repair, Zuko says not to. After Sokka falls off and gets picked up, and Aang has a moment where he shatters a flaming boulder with an airbending kick (so it's not just earthbenders who use soft-earth), the Gaang gets past the blockade. Zuko tries to run the blockade, but since he's in a ship, it doesn't work so well. Right up until Zhao lets them pass. Zuko and Zhao have a stare at each other when they pass. After some Komedy! once they land, the Gaang reaches the temple. They figure that the temple is abandoned, and it seems that way at first. But once they enter, a group of people calling themselves Fire Sages shows up behind them. And if you think the Fire Nation likes putting "Fire" in front of everything too much, you haven't heard anything yet. The Fire Sages are the "Guardians of the Temple of the Avatar." When Aang says that he's the Avatar, they attack him. They're guardians of the temple, you moron; that doesn't mean they like the Avatar. So Aang knocks them down with an airbending move and the Gaang flees. They run into another Fire Sage, but when he corners them, he tells them that he's a friend and kneels before Aang. Which is enough to convince Aang that he's on the level. If this were Season 2, this would all be a clever ploy by the head villain, one that plays on Aang's incessant gullibility to lure him to his doom. But since this is Season 1, this guy is naturally everything he says he is. Back on Zuko's ship, he wonders why Zhao didn't stop him. It takes Iroh to point out the obvious: that he's following them, hoping that Zuko will lead him to the Avatar. So Zuko decides to take a small ship to follow Aang, using the smoke their ship is belching out as cover. Well, this is mildly clever, and it almost makes up for him not being able to figure out why Zhao let them pass. The Gaang is getting a bunch of exposition from Shyu, their new friend. The Fire Sages were originally supposed to be on the Avatar's side and no one elses. But since the Avatar vanished for a hundred years; during that time, Firelord Sozin (who started the war) forced them to work for him. Good job, Avatar Aang. When they get to the sanctuary where Roku's statue is, they find the doors closed. It's a special bending-lock: you have to firebend to open it. But it's sufficiently complex that only the Avatar, or 5 regular firebenders, could open it. In a desperate attempt to show that Sokka's not an idiot, Sokka comes up with a plan to use lamp oil to simulate firebending. The explosion goes off, but unfortunately for Sokka, it doesn't work. Katara comes up with a new plan. However, she's smart enough not to discuss it on camera, so that it can actually work. Using Shyu as an inside man, they trick the Fire Sages into thinking that their simulated firebending worked. And they put the Lemur Momo though the holes in the door so that the Fire Sages can see that someone's inside. When they open the door, Sokka, Katara, and Shyu attack the other four Fire Sages and tell Aang to run inside. But Aang's been captured by Zuko. Holy crap, Zuko actually did something useful! Oh, but that only lasts a second or two; Aang slips free, punks Zuko out (cue "wah wah"), dodges the Fire Sages' attacks, and gets in before the doors are closed. Once he does, a bright blue glow comes through the door. Zuko and the four other Fire Sages try to open the doors again, but they don't open. Supposedly Roku's preventing it. And then Zhao shows up. He orders Zuko taken captive and then decides to wait with his firebenders for Aang to come out. Honest question. Why have Zhao ferret out Zuko's plan here? Being able to out-think Zhao would have made Zuko more credible in the eyes of the audience. But this basically makes Zuko's entire participation in this episode ineffectual. You might think that it builds Zhao's threat level up. Which is true, but don't forget: Zhao is going to be dead at the end of this season (spoiler alert!) Yes, it's important to see him as a threat, but his threat has always been due to him being the leader of an army (technically navy). It has had nothing to do with him being able to out-think people. So why not let Zuko, who's going to be sticking around for all three seasons, win? I have a theory on that. I'll introduce it at the beginning of next season; just remember this point for the time being. Meanwhile, Roku appears before Aang, asking what took him so long. Roku then proceeds to set up, well, the entire series. Apparently, there's a comet that comes into the Avatar-world every hundred years or so. When it does, firebenders become incredibly powerful. Firelord Sozin decided to use the comet's arrival to launch his war, destroying the Air Nomad temples and generally kicking ass. But note that the comet arrives every hundred years. Sozin's Comet will arrive at the end of next summer. Firelord Ozai will use the comet's power to end the war and complete the conquest of the world. And supposedly, this will mean that the world will be permanently out of "balance" (again, what does that mean?). Also, we get our first shot of Firelord Ozai, standing amongst the flames. Despite the fact that there's fire all around him, his upper body is completely in darkness. Get used to that; we won't see Firelord Ozai's face for 2 seasons. Roku then says the page quote. This puts a ticking clock on everything the Gaang does from here on out. It also sets up the sheer ridiculousness of the premise. Aang needs to master 3 martial arts forms in about 8 months. Roku even tries to calm Aang's fears of failure by saying that he has done it before. Really? An Avatar needed to master 3 disparate martial arts forms in 8 months? And was able to do it? When did that happen? For reference, as we will see in the future, it took Roku 12 years to become a fully realized Avatar. When Aang asks if he can talk to Roku again, Roku says that he is a part of Aang, and that he will find a way if he needs to talk to him. If that's true, then what was this entire episode for? Aang traveled all this way, ran a ridiculous blockade, all to talk to a guy that was a part of him? Why did he need to come here to talk to someone who was a part of him this whole time? Anyway, Roku somehow senses Zhao's ambush, and says that he will help him face it. Aang gets all glowy, the temple doors open and everyone sees... Avatar Roku. If Avatar Roku can just hijack Aang's body, why doesn't he have Aang go find Firelord Ozai, and hijack his body for the 30 seconds it would take to execute a beatdown?
Roku kicks some ass, freeing the Gaang and Zuko (told you). Then he does some lavabending to destroy the temple. Even though the Gaang are still trapped inside (but not Zuko because he high-tailed it the second he was free). Did Roku not plan ahead? No, he just knew that Appa, Aang's personal Deus Ex Machina, would show up in time to rescue them. And get used to that: Appa showing up to save them from something is a staple of first season. The episode ends with Zhao snarling about how he completely failed (such a credible threat) and with the Gaang flying off, framed against the full moon. This is a pretty good episode. Its main job is to give the series a much-needed kick in the pants by putting a ticking clock on everything. Yes, it's ridiculous that Aang not only is expected to learn 3 martial arts forms in 8 months, but actually does so. But this is ultimately a children's show, so it's something that is theoretically forgivable. Our villains come off worse than ever though. Something is going to have to be done about this.
But once they enter, a group of people calling themselves Fire Sages shows up behind them. And if you think the Fire Nation likes putting "Fire" in front of everything too much, you haven't heard anything yet. Well they are the Sages for the Temple of the Avatar on the Fire Nation side. I think that would be important. Plus it kinda works if you assume that there are also Earth, Air and Water sages. I guess that title would hold weight. The Fire Sages are the "Guardians of the Temple of the Avatar." When Aang says that he's the Avatar, they attack him. They're guardians of the temple, you moron; that doesn't mean they like the Avatar. Yes, but the Temple is dedicated to him, so therefore, the Avatar is the reason that they are guarding the temple, ergo they should have some commitment to the Avatar. ''The Gaang is getting a bunch of exposition from Shyu, their new friend. The Fire Sages were originally supposed to be on the Avatar's side and no one elses. But since the Avatar vanished for a hundred years; during that time, Firelord Sozin (who started the war) forced them to work for him. Good job, Avatar Aang.'' Eh. It's happened before. Like that one lazy Avatar who disappeared from his land for a Hundred Years and when he got back, people forgot about him and a religion masterminded by an evil red guy gained huge influence in the land. This was after he indirectly caused a war with the Gargoyle nation and caused his virtues to be perverted into a series of corrupt state mandates. Oh wait..... And supposedly, this will mean that the world will be permanently out of "balance" (again, what does that mean?). The world is build on four elements. This is the way the world is supposed to work. When one element faction takes over the others, particularly when they embrace smog blasting death machines and annual ethnic cleansing, I think that would be grounds for imbalance. Anyway, Roku somehow senses Zhao's ambush, and says that he will help him face it. Aang gets all glowy, the temple doors open and everyone sees... Avatar Roku. If Avatar Roku can just hijack Aang's body, why doesn't he have Aang go find Firelord Ozai, and hijack his body for the 30 seconds it would take to execute a beatdown? Because he was only able to do that when linked to Roku's Spirit at that time. I assume he was in the Avatar State, it's just Roku decided to get in the proverbial drivers seat to keep things in control.
Not really, come Avatar Day, we see Avatar Kyoshi take possession of Aang, so there's really no reason Roku can't do it and go kick ass...
"The world is build on four elements. This is the way the world is supposed to work. When one element faction takes over the others, particularly when they embrace smog blasting death machines and annual ethnic cleansing, I think that would be grounds for imbalance." There are two points here. First, nobody ever explains why the world needs to work with four (five if you count the SWT as separate) nations. They simply accept that this is how it must be without question or comment. Second, there's no need to apply unquestioned values to stopping the Fire Nation, because as you pointed out, they're doing clearly bad stuff. So why invoke this ephemeral concept of "the balance" when you could just say, "hey, the Fire Nation's being lead by a colossal douche who's conquering the world and enslaving populations in prisons and stuff. Stop them." It just seems like a cheap way to make "stop the badguys" sound more deep or spiritual.
Because they need a "generic" reason the Avatar exists. Sure, Aang needs to stop the firenation, but that alone doesn't explain why there's ALWAYS an Avatar. Because there's not always a nation that picks up the Villain Ball presumably.
This was the first really good episode, in my opinion, even with the flaws you pointed out. And yes, I too thought the temple guards were technically supposed to be on the avatar's side, though their behavior didn't surprise me.
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