Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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The Waterbending Master
Just because you're destined to save the world, don't expect any special treatment.*deep breath*. Here we go. We begin with padding. The Gaang are at the North Pole, but are unable to find the Northern Water Tribe. Fortunately for them, the Water Tribe finds them. Cut to Zhao. He's meeting with several of his people. He exposited that the Avatar is at the North Pole, and that the NWT is a fortress. Taking it will require considerable effort, so he's gathering a grand fleet to do so. Cut to the NWT. Basically, the totality of the Northern Water Tribe is a single big city. Um, OK. Our introduction to the city itself is very nicely done. There's more world building, as the NWT uses waterbending for just about everything. There is a massive ice-wall separating the city from the outside, and the only way through is with waterbending. They even use waterbending powered water locks like you would find on a canal. The city itself is on water, with water channels dividing buildings like streets. That kinda makes one wonder how people without waterbending get around. As the Gaang float upstream, they pass a boat carrying a young woman with white hair. Sokka instantly falls for her. The NWT chief, named Arnook (for some reason, this show often refuses to actually provide names for characters in the show itself. Many of the names I give in this review are from online sources, this one included), throws them a feast. There, we find out that the white-haired girl is Princess Yue. Sokka immediately tries to hit on her, but Katara is a terrible wingman and he fails. Though Yue does laugh, which is something. Meanwhile, Arnook introduces Aang to Master Pakku, who will be teaching Aang. Pakku says the page quote, which is just one of the reasons why he remains awesome despite everything he's about to say and do. I have a personal weakness for haughty old bastards who are so skilled and indispensable at something that everyone else has to put up with their BS eccentricities. Probably because I would like to become one. Cut to Zuko's ship. Iroh and some of the crew are singing and dancing, when Zhao shows up. In Zuko's quarters, Iroh and Zhao explain to Zuko that Zhao's taking his crew. Zuko can keep the ship though. While there, Zhao notices the swords Zuko used when he was the Blue Spirit. Zhao asks about them, but Zuko says that they're decorative. His poker face is only slightly better than it was before, so kudos again to the writers for consistent characterization. The next morning, Katara is happy about being able to learn from a real master. Pakku isn't however; he takes one look at her and informs them that, in the Northern Water Tribe, they don't let them womenfolk do waterbending. Well, except that they do let women use waterbending to heal, and Pakku suggests that Katara go see Yugoda for some healing training. Aang's ticked off by this and doesn't want anything to do with Pakku, but Katara convinces him to stay and learn from him. And then Pakku smacks Aang with some water. In the meantime, Sokka has met with Yue and secured a date. Also hypothermia, when he plunges into what must be freezing cold water. But apparently in the Avatar-verse, hypothermia doesn't exist. Cut to Zhao. In a callback to The Waterbending Scroll, Zhao's meeting with the pirates. He pays them to kill Zuko. This seems unnecessary since he just took Zuko's crew. Katara walks into her healing lesson. Old woman Yugoda is teaching her students and welcomes Katara. I'm going to properly and thoroughly dissect this short scene at the bottom. There's way too much to talk about right here. After... that, we get a scene with Pakku teaching Aang. Or rather, Pakku belittling Aang, which is always fun. We cut to Katara after her class. Yugoda sees her necklace and says that it's a betrothal necklace. Katara just says it was passed from her grandmother to her mother and to her. Then, Yugoda says that Katara looks like Kanna, the name of Katara's grandmother. Apparently, Kanna was born in the NWT and engaged (in an arranged marriage) to a young waterbender. But then she disappeared one day. Wow, what are the odds? Cut to Zuko that night on his ship. After Iroh leaves to go on a walk, the pirates come on board with explosives. Zuko hears something and gets up to look around. He's too late, and the ship is destroyed with him on it. As the explosion engulfs him, we see him bending the fire around him, but we don't see if he survived. On Sokka's date, he gives Yue a fish he carved from some wood. Well, it's supposed to look like a fish. Anyway, Yue says that she shouldn't have come to see him and then runs off. The Gaang meet up later that night, each explaining their particular troubles. Sokka solves Katara's problem by suggesting that Aang simply teach Katara what he learns. Does Katara solve Sokka's problem? Of course not; this is a Katara episode. She got what she wanted, and she only belittles him when he has the temerity to point out that he still has a problem. However, when Aang starts to teach Katara some move, Pakku intervenes. What, was he waiting there for them? He claims that they have disrespected his entire culture (hardly a defense considering that it's not a particularly respect-worthy culture) and says that Aang is no longer welcome as his student. The next day, Katara tries to get the Chief to intervene and have Pakku take Aang as his student. Right, because there's only one waterbending master in the entire Northern Water Tribe. A society that can't even leave its own city without waterbending, mind you. The Chief seems oddly powerless over Pakku, despite being "Chief" and all. But he says that Pakku might reconsider if Katara apologises. It should be noted that the Chief himself doesn't seem to be on Katara's side here. So this isn't just Pakku being a jerk; this really is part of their culture. Before Katara can apologise, Pakku takes great delight in needling her. The way he says, "I'm waiting," is just perfect in its douchebagginess. Naturally, as Pakku no doubt expected, this enrages Katara. She refuses to apologise and instead challenges him to a fight. In a desperate attempt to establish that she has a chance in this fight, Katara's emphatic gesturing inadvertently breaks the icy ground and shatters some nearby pots. Something similar happened in the pilot episode, which is how Katara freed Aang from the iceberg. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now, for reasons that I'll go into later. Also, it should be pointed out that the purpose of this meeting wasn't for Katara to be trained; it was to get Pakku to allow Aang to be trained. You remember him, right? The Avatar. The person who needs waterbending training, or else the world is screwed. Yes, by all rights there should be other teachers he could learn from. But the way this scene is structured, either they don't exist or Aang's faux pas would mean that nobody would train him unless Pakku allowed it. So basically Katara's little temper tantrum just doomed the world. Cut to Iroh having tea with Zhao, lamenting the apparent death of Zuko. Zhao is a bit concerned when Iroh says that he knows who was responsible, but is visibly more relaxed when Iroh blames it on the pirates. Iroh then agrees to be taken on as a General under Zhao's command for the attack on the Northern Water Tribe. Now, back to the NWT. Pakku eventually comes out, but walks past an incensed Katara. When she tries to goad him into the fight, he just says, "Go back to the healing huts, with the other women." Wow, you just don't see misogyny that naked and plain these days. Nowadays, when present, it is hidden behind layers of language and such. It's somehow refreshing to see a jerk just being a jerk without hiding it. For this comment, she smacks him on the back of the head with a water tentacle. At which point, Pakku decides to teach her about fighting via demonstration. And the fight is on. Now, by all rights, Katara should be getting flattened. But she's not. It's pretty clear that Pakku isn't exactly unleashing everything he's got on her, but she is pulling off moves in this fight that are well beyond anything she's done up to this point. The worst part is how this is depicted. I might have been willing to buy that Katara was playing over her hand, so to speak. That she was coming up with novel tactics and moves on the fly to take on a man far beyond her skills. But that's not how she's animated. Every movement of hers looks practiced and crisp. Every attack or defense looks like she's been doing it for ages. None of it looks at all like someone who's desperately trying to keep up, someone who's making things up on the fly and is barely able to execute some of them. Never once does she try something and have it not work exactly as she expected, unless Pakku directly counters it. She even runs up to him and starts melee-ing him, even though she's never done that before. This fight is clearly more about showing off her skills than his. At one point, Pakku even compliments Katara's skills. That's right, the guy who has nothing but disdain for Katara pays her a compliment. This is utterly ridiculous. The worst part is that, come Season 3, they'll actually do this right, where the novice is very clearly barely keeping up and having to basically flee and use everything at his disposal in order to just survive to the next minute. Here? No; it's just Katara being awesome. Slightly less so than Pakku, but awesome nevertheless. Eventually, Pakku puts an end to the fight by throwing an array of ice spears at her that somehow pins her in place so that she can't waterbend. Yeah, I don't know how that works either. As Pakku walks away after their fight, with Katara impotently struggling against her ice cage, Pakku sees Katara's neckace, which was knocked off during the fight. He picks it up and recognizes it as the one he gave to Kanna, the love of his life. We are temporarily spared the rest of this scene when we cut to Iroh meeting with Zuko, who is disguised as a regular soldier aboard Zhao's ship. They establish that Zuko is using this as a way to get the Avatar, and Iroh only agreed to go with Zhao to serve as Zuko's backup. And now we come to perhaps the most contrived moment in the entire series. And when we're talking about a series that includes a guy surrendering their own nation's captial to the villain because the villain made a speech, that's saying something. You see, the writers have written themselves into a corner. They need to have Pakku teach Katara, but they've made it ultimately impossible. They can't have Katara legitimately beat Pakku; it would move Katara unquestionably into Mary Sue territory, and this fight already has her knocking on that door as is. And since Pakku is a jerk, they couldn't find a legitimate way for Katara to convince him to teach her. So instead, they cheated. Pakku gave Kanna the necklace, but Katara claims that Kanna left the NWT to avoid having her life dictated by their customs. How she knows this, I have no idea, since Katara didn't even know her grandmother came from the NWT until she spoke with Yugoda. But the series, and apparently Pakku, accepts it as fact. Which makes absolutely no sense! If Kanna ran off because she didn't want NWT traditions running her life, because she didn't want to marry Pakku, then why the hell would she take Pakku's necklace with her? The necklace is the symbol of male oppression in the NWT; it is symbolic of everything she wanted to run away from. Why wouldn't she have thrown it away? But it gets dumber; not only did Kanna keep the necklace, the thing that symbolically bound her to the traditions that she ran away from, she gave it to her own daughter without telling her what it really meant. And she watched her daughter give it to her granddaughter, again without saying what it meant. See what I mean about the contravity of this scene? It's here because it needs to be, not because it makes any kind of sense. Yue, upon hearing this, starts crying and runs away; God knows I want to do the same after that scene. Aang tells Sokka to follow her. Then *bam*, it's night. No, really. It was broad daylight a second ago, and now its night. I know that day/night work differently at the poles, but it doesn't instantly become dark. Anyway, Sokka tracks Yue to the bridge where they had their aborted date. Sokka apologises, saying that he's not worthy of her. Then she kisses him and says that she likes him a lot, but they can't be together. And she reveals that she's engaged by showing off her shiny new necklace. And here they really play up the idea of the necklace being like shackles or something, thus offering further evidence on how the last scene made no sense. The next day, Katara shows up for waterbending training. So yes, Pakku decided to train her. And let's examine why this happened. It's not because she impressed Pakku to the point where he made an exception for her. He was quite clear on that. He was going to walk away from the whole thing after he ended their duel. It's not because Kanna's leaving him made him think that the NWT's customs are wrong, because we never hear him say that they're wrong and we never see him teaching any woman other than Katara. The only reason he trains her is because she's the granddaughter of the woman he loved. If she had been anyone else, he would have turned her away. Notice that the resolution of the episode happens without addressing any of the actual cultural issues. Does Yue, who clearly doesn't want to get married, get what she wants? Of course not. Because hers is an ancient culture who's ways must be respected even if you don't agree with them. Do any of the other women of the NWT who might want to be fighters get to train with Pakku? Of course not. Because theirs is an ancient culture, and the Avatar can't go starting cultural revolutions and so forth. No, he must be respectful of other cultures even if he doesn't agree with them. Unless it's about Katara and what she wants. Because Katara always gets her way. That other people might still suffer is entirely irrelevant. Speaking of which, that's another thing I hate about this episode; it's another instance of Katara's episode thievery. That callback to The Waterbending Scroll is quite apt. Both this and that episode were supposed to be about Aang getting his necessary waterbending training so that he can save the world. But both were almost immediately co-opted by Katara and her desires/obsession to become a waterbender. I thought this show was supposed to be about the Avatar, the last airbender. It's only in the title. The episode ends with Zhao in command of a massive invasion fleet. Good luck with that, dead man walking.
Healing LessonsI skipped over this due to the sheer length of what has to be said. Half of the reason why I hate this episode comes from the quick 10 second scene when Katara walks into the healing lesson. This is a scene I absolutely loathe.
Katara walks in. She sees the old woman Yugoda teaching... a bunch of children. Not one of the girls is older than eight. Look, I understand the conflict in the episode; I really do. Katara wants to use her waterbending to fight, and she absolutely has the right to want that. I don't buy the NWT's philosophy that women shouldn't fight even if they're capable of it and want to learn how.* And I don't think that Katara necessarily denigrates her magical healing powers. The problem isn't what Katara thinks; the problem is what the episode is saying about healing-bending in general. It's saying that healing is for children. Children and old people. It's saying that healing doesn't matter. It's saying that healing is simple, easy, and not a skilled activity that any person with any sense of self-worth should be bothering with. You can see it on Katara's face when she sees that all of her "classmates" are children. When Yugoda asks if she's there for the healing lesson, she just sighs and agrees* . It's not just that she didn't want to be there in general; she sees that she's getting involved in something that isn't worth her time. That kind of thing pisses me right off. This notion that fighting is more important than healing, that fighting requires discipline and training, but healing is just some simple magic children learn. This kind of idea comes from the same place as the pseudo-feminist clap-trap that says that a woman who wants to be a stay-at-home mother is betraying the feminist cause. That being a stay-at-home mother is a priori denigrating, unimportant, and a waste of her time. It's absolutely deplorable. The writers could have very easily had healing be a skilled art form. It could have been a fulfilling career path for those who want it. This would have focused the problem squarely on the fact that the women are forced into being healers, rather than having the choice. But no. Thanks to this scene, the problem is that women are forced into an unskilled pseudo-profession with no chance of personal achievement. This means that the writers want the audience to see healing as a waste of time. As something for children. This is world building at its worst.
Zhao's meeting with the pirates. He pays them to kill Zuko. This seems unnecessary since he just took Zuko's crew. Not really. He knows now Zuko's the blue Spirit, and he knows the Blue spirit, acting solo, can still twart his plans, because he's done it before. Also, it should be pointed out that the purpose of this meeting wasn't for Katara to be trained; it was to get Pakku to allow Aang to be trained. You remember him, right? The Avatar. The person who needs waterbending training, or else the world is screwed. Yes, by all rights there should be other teachers he could learn from. But the way this scene is structured, either they don't exist or Aang's faux pas would mean that nobody would train him unless Pakku allowed it. So basically Katara's little temper tantrum just doomed the world. To be fair, the NWT needs the Avatar too, so by not teaching him waterbending over a perceived slight, they are dooming themselves too. Katara and them can share in the blame. I do agree the resolution is kinda cliche, contrived and dumb. I'd have preferred Yugoda be the one to decide to teach Katara, as a way to stick it to the system (after all, she's ancient, AND in a city of benders. Even if she "officially" can't waterbend, you really think she has not picked up anything?). Alternatively have Yugoda pressure Pakku in accepting (Who's gonna treat your bad back next time if you gone pissed her off old man?) For the healing things... Maybe it's just a beginner's class? Hence the kids? I mean, sure Katara HAS done healing, once before, but to parallel real life, the fact you actually bandaged a wound correctly once before should not dispense you from taking an anatomy course before learning open heart surgery. Anyway, it's what I always assumed each time I watched the episode.
I agree that this episode didn't show healing for the impressive power it should realistically be. Not to mention how much use healing will be to Katara as she and her friends fight a war.
I agree with your assement of Katara. She is waaaay too skilled to have only scratched the surface of Water Bending.
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