I thought when Ty Lee and I finally caught you guys, it would be more exciting. Oh well; victory is boring.
This is a fan favorite episode, generally considered one of the highlights and must-see episodes of early Season 2. And time once was that I would agree. Sadly, this episode has some major problems that need to be exposed.
We open with... establishing that Appa is shedding his fur. I say this because it's actually a plot point. This also establishes that it's springtime, because Appa sheds his fur in the spring. We get a bit of Komedy! when Sokka and Aang use Appa's sheddings to make non-jokes. Katara says she's glad to have another girl in the group, presumably on the assumption that girls know what humor is. Sadly, Toph does not as she uses Appa's discarded fur in her armpits, asking for a razor.
I'm just going to ignore the fact that Toph, the blind girl
, just made a sight gag and move on. If I ranted about "little" things like that, we'd be here forever, and this thing is huge as is.
That night, as the Gaang+1 is setting up camp, Katara notices that Toph isn't exactly helping in the whole setting up camp thing. So she politely explains the idea, but Toph just says that she's got herself taken care of. Katara again tries to be polite, but Toph says that she can carry her own weight and tells her to buzz off. The two get into it again later, when Katara tries to apologize and Toph eggs her on more.
Later, when everyone's trying to sleep, Toph feels something through the ground and wakes everyone up. She says that it's like an avalanche but not like one, which doesn't really qualify as a description. But it's enough to convince the Gaang+1 to mount Appa and leave.
And here's our first real problem: why do they leave? Why not have Aang fly up on his glider to investigate? After all, Toph can't say exactly what it is, so finding out what it is would make more sense than just running from something that may be nothing.
As they fly off, they see some kind of large metal Train/Tank. So now even the machines
are hybrids? It is a very menacing-looking machine, with spikes and such on it.
The Gaang+1 spend a few hours flying to a different location.
And that's when we get to our second problem. The Gaang+1 now all have circles under their eyes, like they haven't slept for awhile. They're also starting to act cranky. That's fair. They've been up for quite some time by this point. It's probably 2-3AM, and they're likely not used to that. But this is a problem because it's inconsistent.
Remember The Siege of the North
? Katara didn't get any confirmed sleep for a good 24 hours. Katara's first fight with Zuko took place after having been up for a night, and she was able to smack him down until the sun came up. Now, Katara did have some nap-time when Zuko one-shotted her. But Sokka got no
sleep that we saw for more than 36 hours; neither did Yue. And they were both fine (right up until Yue sacrificed herself).
Yet all of a sudden, the writers are playing the realism card. That might be forgivable if they were changing wholesale to a more realistic style, but we will see again that realism goes out the window. The Gaang will again stay up whole days without ill effects, save for one particular episode where the lack of sleep will be played solely for Komedy!
I do have a point in all of this. I'm laying the groundwork for an argument, so just bear with me for the time being.
So at the new campsite, the Gaang sets up camp again. Katara then asks Toph to help the group setup camp again, but Toph argues with her. Katara calls her selfish, and Toph calls her "sugar-queen" for some reason. Katara starts getting angry, and Toph builds a rock-tent, and slams the door in Katara's face.
As Katara rages at the non-water earthtent, Aang wonders if he or Sokka should do something. Sokka however is enjoying watching someone push his sister's buttons. Aang approaches Katara and suggests that she should calm down, prompting Psychatara to scream that "I'm completely calm!"
And I can't go any further without bringing up a personal issue: animation. I don't like Anime; I don't dislike it either. I take every series as being what it is and judge it based on its merits. However, there are certain things that happen in Anime that I can't stand. One of them is when a serious show deliberately goes Off Model
to emphasize emotions.
I'm fine with this sort of thing for comedic works. But serious shows should never indulge in it. It's cheap, it's lazy, and it's obvious. If the only way you can provide proper emotion for a scene is to overemphasize things to the point of caricature, then you suck as an artist. And yes, I'm looking at you, John Kricfalusi
. If you want me to take something seriously, then the characters need to be at least reasonably consistent physically. All
the time. Maybe that's just my personal pet peeve, but that's how I roll.
So when this episode starts trotting out this caricature to emphasize emotions (apparently, not trusting voice actors to do it right), I can only look on in disgust. It just cheapens the mood; they're trying to portray them being chased by a relentless force, and this cartoon-ism undermines that.
Cut to them trying to sleep. Katara actually makes a pointed comment about Toph's blindness. I should point out that Katara is basically pissed off that Toph isn't doing what Katara says; she's pissed that Toph isn't letting her have her way. And I would be so happy about this if it weren't for the fact that Toph is basically being a self-centered jerk. So neither side is likeable here.
Toph responds to Katara's dickishness by earthbending her on top of Sokka. Thanks Toph; thanks for helping. Then she says that the thing is back. So they leave. Again.
Wait, didn't we just have this scene?
The Gaang fly off again, wondering who they are and how they keep being found in the dark. Aang flies them to the top of a mountain, and they try to get some sleep. Katara complains about Toph for a bit before Aang shuts them up. Then they speculate as to who might be following them, and Zuko's name is mentioned. Then they try for some sleep.
Then Toph again feels the Train/Tank coming. Which nicely brings us to the third problem: the Gaang+1 are idiots.
This isn't Aang's usual idiocy. This is flat-out stupid. That Train/Tank cannot possibly be all-terrain. It has limitations, like cliff-faces. So why did Aang pick the one mountain that had a flat path that the Train/Tank could navigate? Why not look for a mountain that it couldn't possibly reach?
This time, they decide to stop and face it; Aang hopes that they're friendly
Come on Aang, this is season 2; saying stuff like this basically summons
Azula this season. And sure enough *sting*
: Azula and her Angels emerge from the Train/Tank, riding giant lizard things.
So the Gaang+1 decides to fight. Toph tries to stop the lizards by pushing boulders out of the ground in their path, but the lizards effortlessly climb over them. The non-Toph Gaang decides to immediately leave. Um, why? They didn't even get any attacks in. Oh right: idiocy. Toph stays and earthbends a cliff wall in front of their path. Azula simply uses lighting to blow it up. So Toph jumps onto Appa and they flee.
And now we reach the fourth problem: the Gaang+1 can't fight. This is a special form of idiocy. Not only can the Gaang not pick a reasonable hiding spot, but Toph has suddenly forgotten how to earthbend. She could easily have simply destroyed the path that the Angels were walking on, thus cutting off their access. Or erupted rocks directly under them, flinging them off the side of the mountain. Indeed, Toph could easily disable the tank by simply sinking it into the ground a few feet. There's no way for it to climb a vertical shaft that it's in, and it wouldn't be able to back out.
Toph has already been shown to be a strong enough earthbender to do any of these things. And she will consistently be that strong or stronger in later episodes. Only for this episode does Toph lose her skills.
Anyway, we see the Gaang flying away. Katara starts putting Ty Lee over by saying how scary it is for someone to be able to steal her bending. This dialog actually makes sense; it is scary to think that someone could steal an ability you've had all your life, to the point that it's part of your identity. Maybe it's even part of your title. The power to strip someone of their inate abilities could possibly cow an entire nation into immediate obedience to a traitorous usurper, lest this near-Godlike force appear and strip them of their identity as well. Certainly no member of the Gaang would ever
use or endorse such a hideous and terrifying power.
Cue the sun. Sokka complains that he's never not slept before, which not only is a bold-face lie, but also shows that the episode's author has apparently not watched the previous episodes of the show. Katara says that they have to keep flying, and Aang points out that they can't keep flying forever.
Cut to the Train/Tank. Zuko on his Chocobo has picked up its trail and is following it. Um, why? Does he somehow know who's on it? And if he does, why is he trying to find Azula? Wasn't he running away from her?
Cut back to the Gaang+1. Appa falls asleep in midair and starts falling. They wake him up before they hit the ground, but he does still crash. Katara then gets testy with Toph and they go at it again. Aang tries to intervene, but he gets shoved aside. Then Toph says that the reason they keep getting found is because Appa's shedding fur; he's leaving a trail.
I'm calling BS on this. I'll get to the trail itself in a bit, but my first problem is that Toph
is the one who notices this.
Sokka is a moderately skilled tracker; this is an established part of his character. We saw him deduce not only that some Water Tribesmen fought firebenders, but that they won. Just from some footprints and scattered weapons. So why didn't he
notice that Appa shedding fur would leave a trail? Hell, he's the only character who realized that a flying bison would stick out like a sore thumb in the sky.
More importantly, Toph is blind!
Now, while blind people do have just as much spacial reasoning and memory as sighted people, the mental hoops it would take for her to realize that someone could follow their trail are... well, about what she would have to do to realize that people can't see through a dust cloud. So while it is consistent, it is still wrong. I'm willing to buy that Toph could
have figured it out, but she's still the least likely person in the Gaang+1 to do so.
And that brings us to problem five. You cannot possibly track Appa this way. The fur would get caught in the wind, even moreso because Appa flies by airbending
, which would scatter the hair even more. Appa flies hundreds of feet in the air; by the time the fur lands, it will be scattered to who knows where. Any trail will at best be indistinct and easily lost.
More important than that, how could you possibly see it from the Train/Tank? Appa doesn't have that
much fur. Which means that the Angels will have to be constantly stopping to reverify the trail; if they lost it, they'd have to back up and find it again. And we're talking about fur
here; it doesn't really stick to itself, not after having flown through the air for hundreds of feet. How much fur could they find in one place? Maybe a couple of hairs?
Try finding a couple of hairs of bear fur in a bear-infested forest. Now try using that trail to track it to its home. Now do it while driving at 35mph in a car. It's simply not possible.
Now, back to the episode. Aang gets really
pissed at Toph for blaming Appa. Somebody's a bit possessive about Appa; I'm sure this character trait will never be seen again. Aang says that Appa could fly just fine with 3 people. And then Toph leaves. Because running away is how Toph deals with everything.
Aang and Katara immediately feel remorse. Aang gets the brilliant idea to give Appa a bath. He takes a bag of fur to make a fake trail, while the others go a different way. We get a shot of Appa flying off, but he hits some trees on his way out
. This is a great plan, and it shows that Aang can actually think. But, since we're in this episode, don't expect that to last.
Toph is wandering around when she sees something with her feet. She earthbends at the person, and it's revealed to be... Iroh!
Looks like the Avatar's gotten into *sunglasses* a hairy situation. Yeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhh!!
Cut to the Angels. While Azula processes the scene like a CSI, Mai and Ty Lee engage in Komedy! Azula is able to deduce what happened from the available evidence. She sees the broken trees and assumes that Appa went that way; I guess its a good thing Appa flew into those trees or else the plot would be over. She sends the Angels on lizardback to follow Appa, while Azula follows the fur, which she suspects will be the Avatar.
Aang flies into an abandoned town, finishing his trail. Then he just sits at the end of it, waiting for someone to show up. Out in the open. I've thought about this act, and I'm pretty sure that this is not only the stupidest thing that Aang could possibly do in this situation, it's the dumbest thing that he has ever done or will ever do
in the series. This includes running away and freezing himself in a block of ice for a hundred years.
Sokka and Katara are looking for Toph, when they run into the Angels hot on their trail. Appa crash-lands on the other side of a river, and they think that the lizards can't swim. They're wrong of course, and I have no idea why they even thought that. Oh right: idiocy.
Now, there's a fight scene. You would think that Katara simply face-stomps them, since neither one is a bender and Katara is right next to a body of water. But no; the woman who could one-shot Zuko isn't able to deal with an acrobatic non-bender. She makes no effort to just jump into the water and fight from there. Ty Lee takes out Sokka, while Mai (whom Katara had been perfectly able to deal with a few episodes before) pins Katara's hands to a tree with knives. Mai then speaks the page quote.
Followed immediately by Appa taking them both out with an airbending blast. So Appa gets to be awesome, but Katara and Sokka have to job out.
Cut to Azula riding up to Aang, still sitting out in the open. Like a moron.
Aang asks who she is, and Azula makes a joke at Zuko's expense to let him know she's his sister. Azula says that she'll catch him if he runs, but Aang says that he's not running.
Well, we can't have an epic confrontation between the Protagonist and the Antagonist, so cut to Iroh and Toph, having tea. Because that's what Iroh does now; he has tea. Isn't that great characterization?
Iroh says that she's too young to be traveling alone, but Toph says that he thinks she can't handle herself, using the fact that he poured her cup of tea as evidence. Um, writers? Toph was raised by the upper class. Future episodes will point out that she knows what politeness is, even if she doesn't subscribe to it. The host pours the guest's tea; that's how it works, and Toph should know that.
Toph is clearly misinterpreting people doing things for her as them thinking she's weak. And... that really explains a lot of her behavior this episode. It explains why she kept emphasizing that she was carrying her own weight, and it explains why she kept wanting to show that she could do stuff. Wow, a solid character moment.
What the hell is it doing in this
Iroh says that his nephew thinks the same way, that he has to do things on his own. Iroh then explains that letting people who care about you help you isn't weakness. Toph asks about Iroh's nephew, and he explains in general terms that the nephew is lost.
Well, after that calm, sedate conversation, cut back to mortal danger: Azula vs. Aang. They square off. Azula asks if Aang really wants to fight her. I have no idea why; it doesn't make sense in the context of their previous discussion.
But that's a lie: I know why she said it. So Zuko could run in on his Chocobo and say that he really does want to fight her. Good old contrivance; God forbid the writer find a way to introduce Zuko that didn't require that. She calls him Zu-Zu, which Aang laughs at.
Then, we get a long sequence of shots of the three fighters, like something ripped right out of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Hurray, more Westerns in the east! Eventually, Azula attacks Zuko, knocking him into a building and the fight is on.
Aang tries to flee, but Azula brings him down by dropping fire on him. He looks for her, but she's now on a rooftop; not where she was before. Azula is able to stand between Zuko and Aang and fight them both at the same time.
When Aang jumps into the second story of a building with Azula in hot pursuit, we see that the building has no actual floor on that second story. Azula almost falls down, while Aang is floating on a ball of air. However, Azula catches herself. When Zuko charges through, he face-plants (*wah wah*).
Is there any more telling example of the difference between an effective villain and an ineffective one?
Aang just sits there in mid-air, watching the Komedy! and laughing, but Azula makes him pay for it by shooting at him. And I'm sure that'll be the last time Aang is just sitting there, floating in mid-air with the power to do something but not actually doing anything, while Azula takes the initiative to hurt him.
Yep, totally sure.
Aang knocks Azula down, but it's not enough. He tries to scale buildings, but he doesn't make it thanks to her firebending destroying parts of them. She corners him in a room, with him under some rubble. She sets the room ablaze in preparation for the death-blow. Then Katara appears.
Again, I must call BS on this. Katara and Aang went in opposite directions. There's no way they got there that fast, particularly when we saw that Appa couldn't outrun the lizards.
Anyway, Katara makes the save, helping free Aang and distracting Azula. Sokka appears and helps coral her as well.
Cut to Zuko lying on his back. Iroh appears. BS! At least Katara and Sokka had Appa; Iroh walked.
This is nothing more than a contrivance
to get all of the main characters together in one scene.
And since Iroh's here, that also means that Toph shows up to knock Azula off her feet. Now quite frankly, Toph could end this whole fight right here by caging Azula in stone. But she doesn't because... she has a deathgrip on the Idiot Ball this episode.
Azula runs off, even though again Toph could easily stop her with any number of earthbending moves. But that would prevent Azula from running into Iroh's stomach. And why didn't he
attack her when she was distracted?
Do you really need to ask that question in this episode?
We could do something, but I think we should just stand here and let her do whatever she wants
Anyway, Azula is backed into a corner by the six of them. Then, Azula surrenders. With honor, even. And then... nobody does anything. No one makes any attempt to bind her or just shoot her.
Look, I know Azula's line is the page quote for I Surrender Suckers
, but what are they going to actually do? What's the plan here? Either they're going to accept her surrender and capture her, or they're not going to and they should attack. This half-state, where they just wait for someone to do something, isn't helping anyone. In fact, that half-state is the totality of Azula's plan; the longer it goes on, the better for her. Hell, the parody
of this scene made more sense, when she just said, look over there!
and left through a door.
But no. Nobody takes any kind of action. Iroh does take his eyes off her when he sees Toph with the Gaang and realizes what that means. Azula takes that moment to shoot him in the chest. And nobody stops her. Zuko even has the time to let off a huge gasp as Iroh falls.
Then the Gaang and Zuko attacks. And of course, the Gaang (and Zuko) are all standing in the order of the Avatar Cycle. SYMBOLISM! These attacks don't make sense either. Toph shoots a stream of dirt at her; what good is that, exactly? Why not hit her from below?
That's where earthbenders are at their strongest; when they make the very ground their weapon. Oh, that's right; Toph's can't fight this episode.
Anyway, Azula encases herself in a ball of fire and makes it explode; she's gone when it dissipates.
I must once again call BS at this. Oh sure, this trick was used by Jeong Jeong, but there's one problem; the firebenders in that episode couldn't see with their feet
. The trick works by denying sight; you can't deny Toph's sight that way. Even if the explosion created enough vibrations to make everything indistinct to her, that would have been only momentary. Azula could not possibly escape to beyond Toph's "visual" range (which isn't stopped by pesky walls or line-of-sight) in that short time.
Anyway, Zuko is standing over Iroh's prone form. We get a shot of Toph hearing that Iroh's still breathing, so we know he's not dead. Katara offers to help heal him, but Zuko firebends at them and tells them to leave. Because that will obviously make Iroh better.
The Gaang flies off to a mountain, now able to sleep. And now finally with Toph as a real member (no more Gaang+1).
Wow, that was something. Bad writing layered between strong action. Atrocious plot design with idiot balls and contrivances galore scattered among strong Toph characterization. Though we never did find out what was up with Katara. But there's one thing that needs to be addressed.
The problem is that [Kennith Biller] remains his own worst enemy. The story keeps hitting brick walls because he needs certain things to happen, except those things just aren't possible.
Is Biller seriously suggesting that Seska (oh, sorry to spoil it for you) is using codes she got from Voyager before leaving and noone
thought to change them? That a spy and traitor that had duped them for months; noone thought to change things just to be on the safe side?
—Chuck Sonnenberg, Star Trek: Voyager: Maneuvers Review
Yes, I am accusing Azula of being a Villain Sue
in this episode. I do this at the end, rather than earlier, because I wanted to present the evidence first and then show how it supports the claim. Calling a beloved canon character a Mary Sue
is generally the highest form of criticism and the fastest way to get fans to not listen to you, even if you're right.
First, let me define some terms. A Mary Sue, to my mind, is an audience reaction to a series of occurrences that do not otherwise make sense. It is an out-of-universe explanation for a specific and consistent pattern of contrived circumstances
, personal idiocy
, out-of-character behavior
, and other things in a story that don't make logical sense
. The particular pattern that indicates a Mary Sue is that the unexplained phenomenon all happen to aid some facet of a particular character.
No single incident, no matter how incredible or outrageous, can damn a character as a Mary Sue. It must be a consistent pattern, and to have a pattern, you need more than one incident.
And that is what we have here: a pattern. Not a single, isolated incident, but a clear and distinct pattern that strongly suggests that the author is running interference for Azula.
For the first part of the story, the Gaang keeps running away instead of investigating like they ought to. This makes no sense and is antithetical to the way they've operated in the past. But it does build suspense for the reveal, as well as to weaken them through fatigue.
Speaking of which, fatigue has never plagued them like this before or sense, but here it is. It helps explain why nobody fights up to their best, but it's primarily there to show that Azula is running them ragged. Something Zuko never did.
They don't run to an inaccessible location, nor do they use earthbending to make a location inaccessible. This would resolve the plot and prevent Azula from looking awesome.
Similarly, Toph could have resolved this entire plot by herself, given what we saw of her skills. But that couldn't be allowed (which incidentally is why she shouldn't have been shown to be that powerful before). So they basically put a restraining bolt on her.
Azula has unreasonably good tracking skills, able to perfectly track the stray hairs from a beast flying hundreds of feet in the air, while in a Train/Tank. In the dark
no less (though firebending helps). And where did she get her vehicle from, anyway? Probably the same place that Zhao pulled the Yu Yan Archers from, because we will never
see it again.
And the entire last sequence of the Azula fight is nothing more than contrived circumstances to make her look as good as possible, escaping a 6:1 battle against badass benders by sheer magic.
I feel that this is pretty compelling evidence of a Villain Sue. Other characters consistently become less-effective in her presence, and she is competent to the point of ridiculousness.
When unintended, Mary Sues generally come from lazy writing. And that's really what we have here. The writers want to show that Azula is badass. That she can be as relentless as Zuko and far more resourceful, making her more dangerous. But instead of crafting a scenario where these qualities would emerge naturally based on the known quality of the characters in question, the writers take the easy way out. Circumstances are contrived. Characters are weakened. Etc.
Because it's easier than building a story where Azula's threat level is shown naturally.
Some might suggest that it's hypocrisy to complain about this, considering how much I've talked about how non-threatening the season 1 villains are. But I didn't like them because they were badly written as villains. A villain needs to be a threat, so it's bad writing to make your villains non-threatening. You don't fix one kind of bad writing by introducing another; overemphasis is just as bad as underemphasis.
Fortunately, Azula will be written more reasonably after this, so this episode remains the anomaly. Though, if a character could be a Mary Sue from a single incident, then a certain incident in the season 2 finale would definitely
do it for her again. But that's for later.