Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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Book 2: Earth
Zuko started the series quite strong. He was threatening, and he had a nice bit of theme music when he was being strong (thought that theme is shared with the entire Fire Nation). He even got to beat Zhao in an Agni Kai, to prove that he was a skilled firebender, despite obviously still training. But his fights with Aang took their toll. Aang's fighting style involves a lot of dodging and avoidance; it's very easy to make an opponent look like a complete fool. And Aang did so each and every time they fought. Katara may have finished off his credibility, but it was already on life-support by then. Zuko also had a few too many Komedic! moments, where he wouldn't just be defeated but humiliated. Like in The Warriors of Kyoshi, when you get a shot of Zuko drenched in water. It's a lot harder to see him as a credible threat at that point.
Zhao had problems from moment one. His biggest problem is that he didn't have a personality. Zuko was given backstory, which was able to sustain him through the times when he was getting beaten by Aang. You feel sorry for Zuko because of who he is. Zuko also had a real personality; his fierce determination was his calling card. Zhao had none of that. He had neither style nor substance. He was just "the army guy;" he was the personal representation of the Fire Nation army (navy. whatever). Zhao never even got his own background music. He was utterly generic in every way. No backstory, no personality, nothing. He gained some of this towards the end of the season, but even that was too little, too late. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that Zhao was involved in the events of Avatar Roku. Zhao was a one-season villain, so why bother having him involved? He ultimately contributed nothing to that episode outside of making Zuko look weaker. So why have a one-season villain there? Because, at the time, Zhao wasn't intended to be a one-season villain. He may not have been meant to survive the whole series, but I don't think they intended for him to die in season 1. Avatar Roku was a big event for the series, putting a clock on the series finale. And if you have an important villain in the work, he should be involved in big events in the series. Like this one. Zhao hadn't been seen since the third episode; it was imperative for a long-term villain to be involved in a big moment, even if he didn't ultimately contribute much. Having picked apart the season 1 villains, let's look at our season 2 villain. Her introductory episode is packed to the brim with style, character, badass, and most importantly, threat. We'll get into this more when we look at season 2's opener, but this is how you introduce a character. Unlike Zhao, she gets her own theme music. And unlike Zuko, she doesn't share this theme with the Fire Nation; it's used for herself and herself alone. She even gets a little chord that comes up whenever she appears as if from nowhere (which she likes to do a lot) or is being particularly awesome. More than that is how she fights with Aang. Despite not changing Aang's style one bit, Aang never makes her look foolish. When he dodges Zuko's attacks, Aang looks comfortable and confident, like he could keep it up all day. When he's dodging her attacks, he looks rushed and haggard. He's panicked. He's barely surviving, avoiding death by hook or by crook. She loses, of course. But, with one exception, it is never a complete loss. Some damage is always done, some harm always inflicted, some forfeit always extracted. And she always loses with style, retaining her dignity. Beating Zuko merely required some skilled airbending. Beating her always requires effort, thought, guile, and occasionally some luck. Or calling in a lot of friends. Speaking of which, she gets a Gaang of her own. People who are shown to be competent in their own rights. They magnify her threat level as Aang increases the size and power of his group. It also shows off her character, as she's dealing with "equals," unlike Zuko and Iroh who clearly share a semi-parent/child relationship. And there's one last bit of evidence. Our new season 2 villain uses the same face as the woman to Iroh's left in the flashback from The Storm. However, she would have been 3 years younger; she shouldn't have looked exactly like she did in the flashback. They spent time and effort making 13-year-old Zuko appear clearly younger, but not her. That strongly suggests that she wasn't an explicit plant so much as a nice face they drew on an extra and then decided to appropriate for the season 2 villain. Or perhaps someone (older) who had a different future purpose that they repurposed as the season 2 villain. So, am I saying that the writers were just fumbling around in the dark, not knowing what they were doing? That they were incompetent hacks who shouldn't have been in the industry? That they accidentally wrote this critically acclaimed series? Quite the opposite. My point is that the writers did something that unfortunately few writers are able to do. They were able to analyze their own work dispassionately, see mistakes they have made, and endeavour to correct them, as best as possible Not many writers can do that. How many long-running shows have you seen that declined in quality despite having the same writers? That happened because they started believing their own BS. Their early successes made them think that everything they did was perfect. And with full Protection from Editors thanks to those successes, they started doing things wrong. Making mistakes is human. Being inexperienced is human. Not correcting those mistakes is foolish. And even when they're writing crap, these writers are not fools. What's more interesting is how they choose to solve these problems. Look at Zhao. They decided to off him at the end of the season, but they still gave him a personality. Not much of one, but they still spent time and effort doing so. They even tied some of that into the main story, with Aang meeting Zhao's former firebending teacher. The Gaang will even find that ancient library that Zhao ran across. Not many writers would bother with that. Particularly for a character that's already destined to die in 7 episodes. But they did. They took what they had and used it as much as they could.
You're wrong on alot of things. Zhao was always intended to be offed in season one since the conception of the series, Zuko always wanted his father's love (his honor was just an excuse he made to himself), and Azula in "The Storm" was ALWAYS AZULA. Why would they include her with Iroh and Zhao (two other established characters) if she was just an extra. And I think she DID look a bit younger in that flashback due to how her face was drawn.
Zuko always wanted his father's love (his honor was just an excuse he made to himself) Very well could've been another Ret Con. There's no real evidence otherwise. Why would they include her with Iroh and Zhao (two other established characters) if she was just an extra. Maybe because at the time there were no other established characters whose presence would've made sense, so they just made someone up?
Very well could've been another Ret Con. There's no real evidence otherwise Really? I thought it became obvious as soon as we got more of Zuko's backstory. In "The Storm", there's even that silent moment where he's remembering him and his father on Ember Island long ago. Maybe because at the time there were no other established characters whose presence would've made sense, so they just made someone up? Except that they said in an audio commentary that her purpose for being in the scene was as a Checkovs Gunman so that people couldn't just accuse them of suddenly making the character up. She's also the firebender in the opening; she was obviously a intended major character long before her debut.
And also...Azula was visibly wearing a crown on her head during her cameo in The Storm. And she was giving an evil smile aglong with Zhao. She was Zuko's evil sister from the start.
In regards to the change after "The Blue Spirit", I think at least part of it was that the writers originally didn't know if they would get a chance at continuing the story. Nick picking up the rest of the series was in doubt at the time, which kinda left the writers hanging as to how far ahead they could plan things out. Once they knew they had the rest of what eventually came out, they probably put more thought into how the story was to develop as more than "broad strokes" writing. (This is all, though, speculation on my part. I didn't get into ATLA until last year, via Netflix and a barely capable internet connection, so I'm sure that at least some of the background stuff people who were in on it from the beginning could answer ATLA questions in general more confidently.)
Ugh, that last sentence came out all wrong. I hope the meaning got through, at least. :(
I think you make a great point about how writers who actually correct their own mistakes are much better than writers who assume that their initial success means they got it right the first time. Azula has definitely made herself known as a bigger threat - I'm only on episode 8 of season 2, and I find her intimidating, though I also found Zuko intimidating as well in season 1 (though not as much as Azula). If the commentary states that Azula was added into the "The Storm" audience on purpose and isn't a random character repurposed as a villain, then that's actually good planning ahead on their part. I wonder how many of the pre-13th episode changes were due to them thinking they had to simplify and "little kid"-ify the cartoon to appeal to a Nickelodeon audience, though? Nickelodeon certainly isn't known for its high quality storytelling, and they ARE known for their dumb humor. So ATLA had a lot of that. Once they realized the show had more of a chance, they may have refocused their efforts on telling a good story.
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