The Siege of the North
This is a two-part episode, but because it's basically one story told in two parts, I'm reviewing the whole thing in one go.
Nice try, Pupil Sanguk. A couple of more years, and you might be ready to fight a sea sponge.
We begin with what I alluded to previously: a desperate and transparent attempt by the writers to make Katara learning faster than Aang seem reasonable
. And as previously stated, it doesn't work. Nice try, though.
3 months ago, she couldn't hit a target directly in front of her. Now, she does this with ease.
Katara is sparing with a guy before Pakku, and she totally thrashes a guy in one move. Pakku, being a jerk, adds insult to injury quite literally, speaking the page quote. He then points to all of his other students that she has thrashed, practically daring them to have another go. Then he praises Katara's hard work and dedication as being more important than "raw talent." Of course, this is undermined by the fact that Katara's raw talent is the only possible excuse
for why she's been able to progress as she has.
Anyway, after some Komedy! with Aang, we cut to Sokka and Yue. They chat for a while, Sokka makes a not-joke that Yue laughs at, and they start getting close. Then Yue pulls away, saying that she's engaged and shouldn't be doing this. Sokka points out that they're just friends.
Sokka decides to impress Yue by taking her flying on Appa. While they're up there, they have another tender moment and almost kiss. But both of them break off when they realize what they're about to do.
They are interrupted by the Harbinger of Impending Fire Nation Attack: black snow falling from the sky. We saw this all the way back in the second episode. The soot from Fire Navy ships turns falling snow black, even though that doesn't make sense. To do that, the smoke plumes from the ships would have to be covering the sky, and they're clearly not. You can't even see them in the distance.
Anyway, we cut to various reaction shots from around the city as the black snow falls and almost instantly darkens the water. For those who have forgotten what happened 18 episodes ago, Sokka delivers exposition about what the black snow means.
We then cut to Zhao and Iroh on his flagship. We get our first real characterization for Zhao, as he talks about how history books will receive his campaign. Pity this characterization comes not long before his death; he might not have been such a bland villain. Zhao and Iroh banter a bit, then we cut to an establishing shot of disguised Zuko, reminding us that he's still here.
Sokka and Yue are heading to a meeting in the palace when Yue stopped him. She then says that they can't see each other, because she's getting married and she likes him too much to be just friends.
In the palace, the Chief tells them that war is coming and that many faces are going to leave us forever. And when he says that line, the camera needlessly lingers on Yue. FORESHADOWING! He calls upon the Ocean and Moon Spirits to offer guidance for the battle ahead. FORESHADOWING! Then he calls for volunteers for a dangerous mission. Not foreshadowing this time.
Sokka immediately volunteers for the deadly mission. The NWT apparently likes forehead marks like the SWT, since Sokka and the other volunteers get forehead marks. Yue and Sokka look at each other, and... something passes between them. I'm not sure what it is they're trying to communicate here. Is Sokka going on the near-suicide mission because of Yue? Or to hurt Yue? Or... what? It's not very clear.
We cut to the Chief talking with Aang as they look over the city, waiting for the battle to happen. Aang laments how he was unable to help his people back when they were slaughtered. Of course, we know that Aang would have just died along with everyone else, since the firebenders had Sozin's Comet on their side.
Or maybe they'll unleash a crazy-amazing Spirit attack on the Fire Nation! ...Wisdom's good too.
The Chief and Aang's conversation is interrupted when a flaming rock hits the outer wall of the NWT. Aang takes up his mount and rides out to face them.
We get a lengthy action sequence where Aang takes out all of the catapults on the decks of the lead Fire Nation ship. Water tribesmen then raise an iceberg under the ship, halting it. For some reason. Aang had already neutered it; the waterbenders could easily have attacked a different ship. Anyway, Aang mounts Appa again and sees the full breadth of the fleet marshalled against them. Though how he missed that on the way to the first ship, I can't say.
The Chief meets with the people going on his dangerous mission. The mission is to infiltrate the Fire Navy, using some old Fire Nation uniforms they have. We're introduced to Hahn, who's modelling one of the old uniforms. Sokka points out that the Fire Nation has changed their uniforms in the past hundred years.
When the Chief says that their objective is to find out who the commanding officer is, Sokka replies that it's Zhao and gives a rough description. This is one of those points that makes perfect sense as long as you don't think about it
. We all know that Zhao's in command, so it's easy to accept this comment. Even though there's no way Sokka
could possibly know that. I'm not even sure when any of the Gaang learned Zhao's name, let alone his new rank.
Anyway, the Chief tells Hahn to debrief Sokka on Zhao, and to show Sokka respect. He then reveals that Hahn is Yue's fiancée; this draws perfunctory congratulations from Sokka.
On Zhao's flagship, Iroh points out that night is falling. And now, in the nineteenth episode of the series, they decide to inform us that, since waterbenders draw power from the moon (while firebenders gain power from the sun), waterbenders are strong at night. Particularly this night, since the moon is nearly full. Well, isn't that remarkably convenient?
Zhao says that he's aware that the moon is a factor and that he has a solution. But for the time being, he halts the advance for the night.
Now, does the NWT use their nocturnal advantage to, say, capture a few Fire Nation ships and turn their weapons on each other? Do they send teams of benders out there to sabotage ships or even sink them? Do they send benders to repair their walls and defenses, using the available water to patch up holes? Do they do anything at all?
Not that we see. The Fire Nation stopped attacking, so the NWT decided to agree to a cease-fire.
Aang returns and immediately finds Katara. He says he took out a dozen ships. Which, given how fast he neutered one ship, took him what, an hour? Maybe two? What else was he doing during all that time? Anyway, he says that he couldn't do more and goes into a bit of Aangst about how he's just one kid against an army.
Meanwhile, unlike the NWT defenders, Zuko is actually preparing to do something. He's packing some things for a one-man infiltration of the water tribe. Iroh shows up, and they have a touching scene where Iroh says that ever since he lost his son, he thinks of Zuko as his own. They hug, and Zuko leaves.
Sokka and Hahn are getting into another argument, with Hahn talking about the "perks" of marrying Yue. Isn't it great how Yue's prospective husband is a complete jerk with absolutely no redeeming qualities? I mean, if he were actually a nice guy, we might have some kind of remorse for him not getting Yue. But nope, not here; he's the bad guy and we cannot like him in any way.
Welcome to lazy, hack writing.
Anyway, a fight breaks out, and the Chief breaks it up, telling Sokka he can't go on the mission.
Cut to Zuko seeing some Turtle-Seals near the ice wall to the NWT. They go down a hole in the ice, and he figures that they have to come up for air at some point. So he follows them.
Zuko's body was found 3 days later.
No, not really.
Yue meets up with Aang and Katara. She tells them about how the Moon was the first waterbender, and the people of the water tribes learned waterbending by imitating the tides. Katara then exposits that her waterbending always felt stronger at night. Isn't this a great time to learn these kinds of things? It took them eighteen episodes to mention this? Yeah, this doesn't look lazy at all.
Anway, Aang decides that he could asks the spirits to help, using the page quote. Yue leads them to the most spiritual place in the NWT, which is behind the city and palace. It's a large ice chasm, where there's a warm oasis complete with grass, trees, and a pond. The pond has two fish in it: one black and one white; they swim in a circle around each other. Aang starts meditating.
Zuko emerges from underwater in an ice cave. He uses a little firebending, which seems to instantly undo the damage caused by immersion in sub-zero water for quite some time. He then starts crawling through a tunnel that has water pouring down it.
Zuko's body was never found.
Cut to the Chief telling Sokka that he pulled Sokka off the mission so that Sokka could protect his daughter. Um, what? Either the Chief knows about their relationship or he doesn't. If he doesn't, then this makes no sense. Why would he trust Sokka to protect his daughter, instead of asking one of the warriors that he actually knows well to protect her?
And if the Chief does
know about their relationship, why would he trust Sokka to not help screw up that whole arranged marriage thing? After all, the Chief clearly wants Yue to marry Hahn, since he was almost certainly involved in the arranging of this marriage (which also paints the Chief as a jerk, for forcing his daughter to marry such an obvious jerk). So why would he put Sokka and Yue into that kind of position, knowing that they're into each other?
Anyway, back to Zuko. He manages to get out of the watery tunnel, eventually firebending through some ice and emerging inside the city. He takes a rest in an icy tunnel.
Zuko's frozen body was found the next day.
Again, not really. I'm just counting the ways in which Zuko should
have died this episode, but didn't.
Cut to Aang, trying to enter the Spirit World. After getting Yue and Katara to stop talking, he looks at the two fish. In his mind, they turn into a spinning taijitu
, and he gets all glowy and enters the Spirit World.
Zuko can't even beat a waterbender in training now.
For once, for once
, Irony strikes
Katara; immediately after she says that she can protect Aang, a Zuko appears!
How he knew Aang was there is unknown. Man, if it weren't for the fact that we've seen Zuko get beaten down so much in previous episodes, I could probably find this threatening. But who knows? He's just fighting Katara, who only really started learning waterbending a few weeks ago or so. Not 4 months before, she was barely able to pick up a ball of water, and her aim for attacks was off by a full 180 degrees.
Naturally, Katara proceeds to whip his ass. She blocks pretty much everything he does, and traps him several times. He belittles her throughout the battle, and why not? By all reason, he should be able to walk away with this. Eventually, Katara freezes him to the wall.
You rise with the Moon. I rise with the Sun.
Cue the sun.
Zuko evaporates the ice holding him back and then one-shots Katara. In a desperate attempt to justify this sequence of events, Zuko says the above quote. Now, I have to admit that it's a cool line, and it does give Zuko some tiny shred of respect and dignity back. But it's still nothing more than an attempt to justify all this, by saying that Katara isn't as good as Zuko.
Even though the fight clearly showed that she is. When the Moon was on her side, she took Zuko apart. When the Sun was on his side, he one-shotted her. That suggests at least something close to parity; if you control for the Sun/Moon factors, Zuko and Katara are about equal.
Meanwhile, the Fire Nation starts up the invasion, with Zhao claiming that the NWT will fall that day. They breach the walls with the prows of their ships and start dropping off infantry and tanks.
Katara wakes up and Aang's gone. Sokka and Yue show up on Appa, and she tells them what happened. We get a camera pan up the icy cliffs, and we see Zuko carrying Aang across the ice. Except that he's in a blizzard. And the skies are overcast.
I know that weather can be localized, to some extent. And I know the NWT city is big. But it isn't that
big. You can't have a blizzard with overcast skies a few miles from a place where there's no blizzard and the skies are clear. This is simply not possible.
This is where the first episode ends.
After some shots establishing where everyone is, we cut to Aang in the Spirit World. And the Spirit World has changed quite a bit from before. The last time we saw it, the Spirit World was just like the regular world, except that people couldn't see the spirits. Now, the Spirit World looks like a completely different location from the real world, a swampy jungle area.
After some hijinks, Aang falls into some water. Then, in the reflection of that water, he sees Avatar Roku.
We had a whole two episodes
that revolved around Aang meeting up with Roku. Aang was in the Spirit World before, and that's when Roku sent his dragon to find him. If all Aang needed to talk to Roku was a body of water, why not have the dragon take him to a lake?
Or are they trying to say that Aang wasn't really
in the Spirit World before? That he was just a disembodied spirit then, and now he's truly in the Spirit World. Or are they saying that Aang had to make some kind of connection with Roku on the Solstice before being able to contact him through more mundane means? Well, whatever they're trying to say doesn't matter, because they have failed
to say it.
Anyway, we cut to some padding with Zuko. He finds shelter from the blizzard in a cave, and he ties Aang up.
Back in the Spirit World, Aang asks Roku for help in finding the Ocean and Moon spirits. Roku exposits that those two spirits left the Spirit World a long time ago. The only one who might know where they are is Koh, the Face Stealer. Roku warns him that Koh steals people's faces when they show emotion before him.
Zuko, trapped in a blizzard, decides that it's an appropriate time to talk to the unconscious Aang. As previously mentioned, Zuko is a very good jobber. And like any good jobber, he puts over his replacement: he starts talking about how his previously unmentioned sister is a firebending prodigy, while he always had to struggle and fight. He even mentions that his father said that she was born lucky, while he was lucky to be born.
That's kind of an asshole thing to say, Ozai. Just saying.
Meanwhile, the fight rages on in the NWT. Iroh points out that they need to win by nightfall, or else the full moon will make the waterbenders unbeatable. Great timing there, Zhao; you couldn't have waited four days before attacking?
Actually, Zhao has a plan. They are interrupted for a bit of Komedy!, as Hahn appears, claims that he's going to kill "Admiral Choi," charges Zhao, and is casually
thrown overboard. Cue "wah wah" music. It's great to see that all of Hahn's scenes were just leading up to this lame joke. Really great writing.
Zhao continues as though nothing happened (since nothing did
happen). Once upon a time, Zhao discovered a library that told him of the Moon Spirit's mortal form. Iroh urges Zhao not to trifle with spirits, but Zhao isn't concerned. He exposits that he knows about Iroh's trip to the Spirit World, which theoretically explains why Iroh was able to see Aang and the dragon back in The Spirit World
Speaking of which, back to Aang. He's approaching the cave to Koh's lair, when he sees a monkey and is happy. The monkey turns around and reveals that Koh had stolen his face, serving as a grim reminder that Aang shouldn't be very expressive.
All he needs is a trophy bone pit. I guess his face collection counts.
Aang enters and Koh appears. Koh is sort of a giant centipede, kinda like a Ur-Quan
, with a face that can take on the appearance of other faces he has stolen. Aang and Koh banter a bit, with Aang retaining a neutral expression. Koh says that he stole the face of a previous Avatar's lover, and that Avatar tried to kill him in retaliation.
Aang asks about the Ocean and Moon Spirits, wanting their help. Koh says that it is the spirits who will need his
help, as they are in danger. How Koh knows this is not explained. Koh tells him that he's already met the two spirits, who always circle one another. Aang realizes that he's talking about the two fish, but almost emotes before Koh and narrowly avoids losing his face.
Though how that would affect his physical body, since he's in the Spirit World, is not explained. But Koh is a suitably creepy character, helpful but threatening, so the scene works well enough. Aang runs across Hei Bai, who carries him back to where he started from.
Meanwhile, night has fallen and the Fire Nation didn't back off. So now the waterbenders get all badass on them. Pakku himself goes into hyper-badass mode, taking on an entire group of soldiers by himself, and even floating atop a pillar of water to dispense death from above.
Somehow, Zhao avoids all of this, leading a cadre of warriors to the oasis. Now how exactly does he get there? The oasis is behind
the city. How did he get past the array of waterbenders, all of whom are now awesome? Again, not explained.
Aang is sent back to the real world, but he finds that his body is gone. This lends support to the idea that last time he wasn't actually in
the Spirit World, that he had just become disembodied. However, he now manifests the ability to find his body no matter where it is, even though last time he needed Roku's dragon to find it for him. Not only that, he magically flies back to it.
The rest of the Gaang + Yue also somehow see Aang flying back to his body, even though it was established that most people couldn't
see spirits. Now, I could understand if Yue could see it, for reasons that will quickly be explained, but everyone else saw it too. They see Aang's spirit fly into a cave.
Aang wakes up in Zuko's custody. He uses his breathbending to knock Zuko down, but being tied up, he can only try to crawl away. Zuko catches him, but the Gaang + Yue show up.
And then Katara kills Zuko.
No matter what happens now, you're dead. You're still shuffling around a little, but believe me, you're dead
Not literally. She just raises him up and slams him down, rendering him unconscious.
Behold: the very instant where Zuko's dignity died.
But as far as any legitimate threat level that he will ever
pose again? Yeah, that's dead. Zuko, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and Heir to the Throne is dead. His dignity died the second he was one-shotted by someone who not four months prior could barely bend a puddle of water. He will never
recover from this.
Oh, he'll still be a character for the next two seasons. But he can never be taken as a serious threat again. But fortunately, the writers will never expect the audience to do so.
I know there are extenuating circumstances. Zuko hasn't slept in a while. He should have died three times over by now. He's been through a blizzard. And he is literally standing on top of Katara's element, her very weapon, while she's bathing in the light of a full moon.
But that doesn't change the fact that he just got punked out by Katara. If you want a villain to be taken seriously, you simply don't put them in circumstances that allow them to get smacked down with ease.
As the Gaang prepares to leave, Aang say that they need to take Zuko with them. Sokka protests, but Aang doesn't want him to die. So they tie him up and take him with them.
Zhao finds his way to the oasis, against all odds. He puts the white fish in a bag, and suddenly a lunar eclipse starts. Because the moon is in a bag. Sure, why not. Immediately, all waterbenders lose their power.
The Gaang and Zuko (again) + Yue see the red moon. Yue and Aang sense a disturbance in the Force. The reasoning for Aang is obvious, but is explained for Yue. She exposits that, as a baby, she was dying. His father appealed to the moon spirit to heal her, and it did, turning her hair white.
Back to Zhao. He starts talking about how history will call him "Zhao the Moonslayer!" He's basking in his greatest triumph. And then... Momo jumps on his face, pulling at his beard, and causing Zhao to stumble about screaming for someone to get it off.
And then Zhao died. Just as Zuko did: bereft of all possibly dignity and threat. Is there any need to ask why he only has about 10 minutes left to live? Couldn't the writers at least leave him with some tiny shred of dignity in his moment of triumph?
The Gaang and Zuko + Yue arrive, with Aang begging Zhao not to kill the Moon Spirit. He says that doing so will hurt everyone. And then suddenly, Iroh appears, agreeing with the Avatar. Iroh says that the Fire Nation depends on "the balance" just as everyone else does.
What does that mean?! Goddammit, if you're going to have the tension of a scene turn on something, explain it!
Iroh then says that whatever harm he visits on the Moon spirit, he will visit on Zhao ten fold. And I think he means it. Zhao decides to acquiesce, putting the fish back in the water.
And then Zhao kills it.
And that's literal this time. The moon disappears, and everything is now rendered in black-and-white.
Iroh instantly follows through on his threat, opening up canned-whoopass on Zhao's men. Zhao, being at least semi-smart, fairly flees for his life. We also get a shot of Zuko not being with the group, having escaped his ropes.
Yue says that there's no hope now, while Iroh looks at the burned fish. Then Aang gets all glowy and starts speaking with a thousand voices. He walks into the pool and merges with the other fish, the Ocean Spirit. They become a ball of glowing water that heads into the city. There, they erupt into a massive fish-shaped monster that starts kicking Fire Nation ass.
Yep. Deus Ex Machina time.
Zuko hunts Zhao down. They engage in dueling banter, where Zuko says he knows Zhao tried to have him killed, while Zhao says he knows Zuko was the Blue Spirit. And as usual, Zuko is kicking Zhao's ass. Of course, after the Momo-on-Zhao's face Komedy! bit, this isn't the least bit surprising.
I usually don't comment on the quality of animation. I'm not a fan of animation.
Well, let me rephrase that. I'm a fan of animation: things moving. I'm not a fan of drawings
, primarily because they don't move smoothly (and thus ironically aren't good animation). But the drawings in this scene is all very well done. The desaturated colors due to the lack of moonlight work very well. And most importantly, the firebending illuminates them briefly, giving them color where appropriate.
Back in the oasis, Iroh looks at Yue and realizes that she's been touched by the Moon Spirit. Time for some more Deus Ex Machina. Yue decides to sacrifice herself, to give back the life that the Moon Spirit gave her. Sokka naturally objects, but Yue sees it as her duty.
So Yue dies. Again, really this time.
Aang/Ocean Spirit pushes some Fire Nation ships away and damages others. Then it waterbends a massive wave to push the fleet away.
Yue's spirit appears briefly to kiss Sokka, saying that she'll always be with him. Then she becomes the moon, and the moon shines again. When Aang/Ocean Spirit notices, it puts Aang down and heads back to the oasis. Though it does take a detour.
Zuko knocks Zhao down, when Zhao notices the moon is back. Then the Ocean Spirit shows up and grabs him. Zuko, for some reason, offers his hand to Zhao in an attempt to save him. Even ignoring the fact that Zhao tried to kill him, Zhao is in the grip of a pissed-off spirit monster. What exactly does Zuko think will happen even if Zhao took his hand?
Mainly, this is to show how Zuko and Aang are Not So Different
, even though it makes no sense in context. And so that Zhao can choose not to accept Zuko's offer and die as he lived: as an idiot.
Zhao's body was never found.
We abruptly cut to after the battle. Pakku decides to head to the Southern Water Tribe, ostensibly to help them rebuild. Please; we know damn well why he's going there: to get some Septuagenarian poontang. When Katara asks who's going to teach Aang, Pakku then anoints her as a master waterbender.
Sure, why not.
Sokka and the Chief talk about Yue. The Chief says that he had a vision about a young woman becoming the moon once. Which... explains absolutely nothing about why he was marrying his daughter off to a jerk. If he knew his daughter was going to die, why wouldn't he make sure she had a happy time while she could?
We get a coda with Zuko too, as Iroh was able to get Zuko out of the city. Iroh presses him about not immediately trying to capture the Avatar even now, but Zuko says he's tired. And Iroh echoes a line from the first episode, saying, "A man needs his rest." So Zuko has learned... what exactly?
We get one final shot of the Gaang together, with Appa and Momo, looking out at the sun, prepared to take on whatever threats come up.
But there's one final scene that I'll talk about in the next episode.
This is easily the weakest of the season finales. There's poor plot structure, random jokes at inappropriate times, and abusive
use of Deus Ex Machina. It works OK as an action piece, but you have to turn off a lot of your brain to swallow it. The whole Aang-travels-to-the-Spirit-World subplot meant absolutely nothing in the end; it served only as an excuse for Zuko to capture Aang. And that only served as an excuse to get them away from the oasis so Zhao could get there. And they wouldn't even have been at the oasis if Aang hadn't wanted to go to the Spirit World.
See what I mean about the poor plot structure?
The episode isn't all bad. It retains many of the show's more positive elements. Yue's sacrifice is at least somewhat emotional. Everyone retains their effective characterization, and most of the characters do get to do something. Though admittedly, Sokka doesn't really get to do much more than hang around Yue.
Overall, it's decent, but could have been much better. Especially if they dumped all the Deus Ex Machina. Or at least Aang's. Make them have to actually fight and win a battle. You know, with tactics, strategy, and whatnot.
Oh, and Aunt Wu? Yue's sacrifice causes Sokka's greatest suffering in the series. And there is no
way that this is his fault. I do not feel that this moment can be quantified by a number. So the Screw You, Aunt Wu count will have a "+ Yue" suffix attached to it. It's like a plus infinity, showing that Aunt Wu fails entirely at being a fortune teller.