Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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Is it your own destiny? Or a destiny that someone else has tried to force on you?We open with... Komedy! After simultaneously introducing the fact that they're putting up posters for Appa and dissing Sokka's artistic skills, the Gaang sets out to put up posters. Oh, and there are professional printers in the Avatar-verse. Anyway, Aang flies over Ba Sing Se dispensing the posters. Cut to Iroh at the tea shop. One of the patrons congratulates him on his fine tea, and then offers him ownership of a tea shop in the upper ring, complete with a new apartment and complete autonomy. Iroh's boss tries to bribe him into staying with various meaningless gestures, but General Iroh knows the value of "holding the reigns" so to speak and quickly accepts. Zuko is less than thrilled. He walks outside and catches one of the posters Aang dropped. He looks around while ominous music plays. The dog has found his scent. Cut to the next day. Or maybe that afternoon; it's not entirely clear. Aang comes into their house, asking if anyone came by with information about Appa, but Katara points out it's only been a day. A knock on the door makes Aang think someone's here with info, but it's Joo Dee. The original one.
—Iroh, to Zuko
The Gaang asks where she's been, and she delivers a plot point that she visited the titular Lake Laogai. She then says that it's illegal to put up posters without permission. What, did the professional printers they got to make them not mention that fact? Anyway, Aang gets pissed, says that they don't care about their rules anymore, and throws her out. Sokka is concerned that this might be unhelpful, but Toph is so happy at being able to break rules that she demolishes the corner of their own house. Anyway, as the Gaang heads off to put up more posters, Dai Li agents perched on rooftops (I guess that's just where they hang out) watch them going. Ominously. These are pretty crappy secret police if they can't even stop 4 teenagers from putting up posters. Cut to Long Feng and Joo Dee, for some plot points. Long Feng is chewing her out about not being able to control the Gaang. I would like to remind you that this is only after a single conversation; she's been gone for some time before this. For her part, she's distraught. Long Feng then says, "The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai." Her pupils dilate and she immediately becomes calm. He sends her away to await further instructions. A Dai Li agent appears and asks if he wants the Gaang killed. Long Feng says it's too dangerous to confront them directly, so they'll use subtlety. Hey Long Feng, have you considered, you know, talking to the Gaang? Or maybe just let them put up their posters? You've captured Appa; no matter how many posters they put up, they're not going to find him. I know he has a line that says that the Avatar's search could upset what they've built, but I seriously don't buy that. Not unless his secret police completely suck at their job. So just give them permission and let it go. But no, we need more Conflict Balling. Cut to Iroh's old apartment. When Zuko enters, Iroh starts asking about names for the shop, but Zuko shows him the poster he found. Iroh says that him going after the Avatar could upset all of the good things they have, but Zuko points out that Iroh's the one that has good things happening for him. Zuko says that he wants his destiny, but Iroh tells him that it's up to him what that means. Great conversation and well done all-around. That must mean it's time to ruin all that with Komedy! Toph attempts to prove that she can hang posters too, but she puts it on backwards. I'm sorely tempted to call BS on this; if Toph can make sight gags, then I'm sure she can feel the ink on the paper. Cut to Katara walking somewhere. Jet appears and calls to her, then Katara IMEDIATELY attacks him with waterbending. I didn't skip anything there; there's no exchange of dialog, no threats, nothing. He isn't even wielding his swords or anything; he simply appears, says her name, and she grabs up some nearby troughs of water and bends at him. Katara is psychotic at this point. Granted, that fits with her established characterization (using martial arts-based magic on people for minor slights), but still, this is a bit over the top. Anyway, he get Psychatara to stop by drawing his swords and dropping them. But he incautiously reaches behind him for something, and she hurls spears of ice at him. The rest of the Gaang appear. Katara says that they can't trust anything he says, but Jet says that he may know something about Appa. Aang of course is all for listening to him, and Jet says that he's changed. Katara doesn't believe him. And then... my brain recoils every time I think about this... Toph says that she's a lie detector. Seriously guys? Seriously? You're not content to rip off just some of Daredevil? You've got to make Toph fully Bending Daredevil? Should I just call her that from now on? What's next? You're going to have her break some fundamental rule of earthbending or something, in a clear violation of internal consistency just to make her seem more badass? @#%(&#%*! And this makes me fully call BS on that paper thing; if she can sense heartbeats through the earth from several feet away, there's no way she can't read. There's no way she can't sense the millimeter thickness of ink on paper. Oh, and writers? POLYGRAPHS DON'T WORK THAT WAY! There's no way she could get enough information just from heartbeats and breathing to accurately determine anything. And she's been sheltered all her life; how did she even calibrate her lie-detecting senses? This is horsecrap of the highest order. Know what's worse? It won't matter outside of this episode. Oh, her lie detecting powers will be referenced later. But they will never be plot relevant again. They'll be used for a joke at some point, but nothing about these powers will ever affect the plot. If the plot requires it, people will lie to the Gaang. Anyway, after... that, Katara is convinced to trust Jet. Slightly. Jet says that he overheard some workers near where he works talking about a large furry creature. When they go there, they find the place empty except for a guy sweeping up the place. He is nice enough to tell them where they took the large furry creature. An island far, far away. Aang insists that they have to try to find Appa. Nobody argues the point or suggests that maybe they have more important things to be doing, like finding Earth Kingdom generals and using that plan Sokka came up with to attack the Fire Nation. Or finding Aang a firebending teacher. Or, you know, anything. As the Gaang gets set to leave, Jet's Posse shows up, wondering where he's been. Jet doesn't know what they're talking about when they say Dai Li agents took him. Good job, Dai Li; you didn't ask him about his known associates and watch them too? Worst secret police ever. Bending Daredevil says that all of them are telling the truth. Sokka realizes that she can only tell that they think they're telling the truth. Then he jumps to the conclusion that Jet's been brainwashed. Was there a lot of brainwashing going on in the Southern Water Tribe? No? Then how the hell does Sokka know what brainwashing is? The only possible explanation is that he read the script. Anyway, cut to something that isn't deeply stupid. The Blue Spirit intensionally provokes a Dai Li agent. Zuko, in an uncharacteristically clever move, traps the agent and starts to extract information from him. Back to the Gaang + Jet's Posse. They have Jet sitting in a chair and are trying to find a way to break his conditioning. Nothing works. Well, nothing except Katara's healing waterbending. Which apparently can heal mental distress now. What, don't you remember Yugoda teaching that to Katara? What do you mean there was no such scene? So the writers just pulled this out of their ass, then? This is some seriously lazy writing. That's two magical things that appear out of nowhere to resolve obstacles. And Toph's nonsense wasn't even necessary; all they had to do to get Jet's cooperation was calm down Psychatara. Though actually, there's a reason for this. Toph's abilities give them a way to figure out that Jet was brainwashed without stumbling on to his original memories. See, Jet's Posse were dangerously close to mentioning why Jet was taken by the Dai Li. Namely, his attack on Zuko and thinking that he and Iroh were firebenders. Yes, he doesn't know their real names, but one mention of "Li"'s scar and the jig is up. The plot would be instantly derailed. But thanks to Toph's nonsense powers, she was able to short-circuited the conversation before it entered any inconvenient territory. In short: bad writing. Anyway, Jet remembers being taken under a lake. Sokka remembers Joo Dee plot-pointing about Lake Laogai, and Jet confirms that as where he was taken. So, there's actually a lake named Laogai. And Long Feng has a secret base there. And he has his agents actually use that name as a vacation spot? Also, how did the Dai Li not see the Gaang returning to their house with Jet? Seeing them come back with him in tow means that the plan to get them out of the city failed (the sweeper was a plant). So why not report back and monitor the situation? Or, I don't know, do something?! I'd say that they were the worst secret police ever, but we've already established that. Cut to the Gaang finding their way into the underground base. They wander through the corridors. In one of the rooms, they see a bunch of Joo Dees being trained by a Dai Li agent. Jet leds them to a cell that he things holds Appa. As they open the door we see... Appa inside. The door opens and... a Zuko appears!, in his Blue Spirit guise! OK, so Zuko captured a random Dai Li agent. This agent then told him exactly where to find Appa. This is the only possible sequence of events that could have led Zuko to this exact room. Is Long Feng skimping on paying his agents or something? Are they disgruntled and we just don't know about it? Seriously, one of your guys gets captured by a teenager and immediately spills the beans? Can these guys go 5 minutes without screwing up? Is that possible? Anyway, cut to the room that the Gaang went to. They're immediately surrounded by dozens of Dai Li and Long Feng himself; apparently, Long Feng was expecting them. What, is he actually displaying competence? Sadly no. Rather than trying to reason with them or sneak attack them or anything, he and his Dai Li are just standing there out in the open. They banter for a bit, but it just leads to a fight. Of course, a group of seven teenagers (only three of whom are benders) is able to take on dozens of Dai Li with little trouble. If you think that's ridiculous, wait till next episode. Long Feng escapes, so Aang and Jet peruse him. But it was a tactical withdrawal. When they catch up to him, Long Feng says Jet's trigger phrase, and Jet attacks Aang. Well, we just started a life-or-death struggle (in theory at any rate). Since this is Avatar, that must mean we immediately cut to something else. Zuko is about to do... something with Appa, when Iroh appears. So not only was Zuko able to penetrate their security, so was Iroh? Oh right: worst secret police ever. Actually, for this scene, I'm willing to overlook this crap. Because what follows is really the only reason to watch this episode and the only thing that saves it from being utter dreck. Iroh asks the question that is on everyone's mind: what exactly is it that Zuko is planning to do with Appa? Store him in their apartment? Zuko points out that he has to get him out of there first, and Iroh says, "AND THEN WHAT!?" He calls him out about his pathological inability to think things through, pointing out that he would have been killed at the north pole if the Gaang hadn't found him. This is a truly awesome scene. You can see how angry Iroh was about that last point, that Zuko's lack of forethought nearly got himself killed. You can see how much Iroh cares about Zuko with how this scene plays out. As far as I'm concerned, this is the definitive Iroh scene. Zuko tries to dodge this by saying that he knows his destiny, but Iroh slams down on that with the page quote. Then Iroh delivers the coup de grace, "Itís time for you to look inward, and begin asking yourself the big questions: Who are you? And what do you want?" I think somebody in the writer's room has watched Babylon 5. But to be fair, this is a good way to do a shout out. The dialog clearly references the two iconic questions of that series, but it is still very appropriate to the situation. You don't have to have watched B5 to get the point. Zuko, trapped, gives an impotent cry of rage. Well, after the only reason to watch this episode, we naturally go downhill. Cut back to Aang, as he tries to talk Jet out of the fight. Um, Aang, you're an airbender. Your entire fighting style is based on being able to beat people without killing them. Just knock him out and then go after Long Feng. But no, Aang mentions that Jet is a freedom fighter, and somehow this causes a montage that cures his post-hypnotic suggestion. Again. Jet rushes at Long Feng, but Long Feng hits him with a piece of stone, leaving Jet lying motionless after the dust settles. Aang, for some reason, allows Long Feng to escape. Jet is apparently critically injured. BS! We have seen, time and again, that the earth that earthbenders throw around can be broken by any instrument, whether a simple chain someone swings or swords or, in this episode, arrows. I absolutely refuse to believe that Long Feng was somehow able to perform a kill-move that easily. Anyway, the rest of the Gaang arrive. Katara uses her medical tricorder waterbending to determine that he's seriously injured. Thanks, Katara; you were a big help. Longshot, one of Jet's Posse, finally speaks, telling them to leave, and they'll take care of Jet. Jet says that he'll be fine, but as the Gaang leaves, Bending Daredevil sadly says that he's lying. You know, you'd think that this bit of pathos would be worth the BS of her powers. But it's not. It's not even close. Honestly, if they invented that power just to get around character death in a kids show, it would have been better if they said that Jet was sent to the Shadow Realm. Anyway, the Gaang leaves, and... um, guy's, what exactly are the Posse going to do? They look like they're getting set for a last stand, but they're non-benders. Are the Gaang really abandoning them all to be killed (or worse) by the Dai Li? Oh well; we never find out. Because we cut to the Gaang on the surface, fleeing from Dai Li agents. They get surrounded by walls of earth. Now you'd think that with two earthbenders that this wouldn't be a problem. But Aang and Bending Daredevil have decided to forget how to be awesome. Because we need to find a way to make what happens next work and thinking of something that isn't a contrivance would have required effort. Then Momo appears, flies up into the sky and... Appa flies out of the sun and attacks the Dai Li. We see some more soft earth, as Appa is able to crash head-first through two thick stone walls. Aang and Bending Daredevil suddenly remember that they can earthbend, and the Dai Li are quickly mopped up. But not before Long Feng gets bitten on the leg; it's a plot point for the next episode. It also shows that Long Feng isn't too bright (not that this is a surprise), since he decided to attack a 100 ton bison with a flying kick. No, really, that's what happens. The Gaang hug Appa. Well time to cut to something not stupid: Zuko and Iroh emerging from the base. Iroh says that Zuko did the right thing. Zuko drops his Blue Spirit mask into the water. Good God. How do you nestle such an awesome scene between two characters in the middle of such half-assed filth like this? The previously intimidating Dai Li suddenly become nothing more than canon fodder before the Gaang. Whether it's their fighting prowess or their planning and forethought, the Dai Li suck in every possible way. How do you saddle one of the best character scenes in the entire series with such lazy writing? The Dai Li were supposed to be the omni-present eyes and ears of Long Feng. The whole concept of the Dai Li is based on the Gaang not being able to go anywhere without them being seen. Indeed, that was Long Feng's threat to them at the end of City of Walls and Secrets. And while Long Feng did in fact know they were coming, it's not like he prepared a fool-proof trap for them or anything. He just assumed that threats would be sufficient to ward off The Avatar. I could buy that the Dai Li may not be the best in a fight. They're all about subterfuge, misdirection, coming at you sideways. You don't have to be good in a stand-up fight if you cut your opponent off at the knees beforehand. The problem isn't that they were weak fighters; it's that they were weak adversaries of any kind. The closest to cleverness they showed was with Jet, and even that was derailed because they never bothered to ask him if he had any friends. It's not like the Gaang outsmarted Long Feng and the Dai Li in an epic battle of wits or anything. The Gaang didn't undertake a serious investigation, they didn't employ clever tricks, there was no misdirection or guile. The Gaang just does their usual stuff. Add in a couple of plot contrivances combined with making the Dai Li pathologically stupid and boom: they get to beat the Dai Li.
Missed me? Yeah, I didn't think so. Sorry for the delay. I had some very odd problems posting, then spent the weekend watching EVO 2011 (time well spent), but I eventually got it corrected and posted.
Yeah, the Dai Li does kind of suck. And Long Feng is a terrible villain. Of course, as Thundercats shows, if you want that someone being evil be a surprise (as Long Feng was originally meant to be). Don't make Clancy Brown voice them!
I would make an excuse that after years of effortless censorship, the Dai Li and Long Feng became soft and paranoid, but that's a dumb stretch anyway. BS! We have seen, time and again, that the earth that earthbenders throw around can be broken by any instrument, whether a simple chain someone swings or swords or, in this episode, arrows. I absolutely refuse to believe that Long Feng was somehow able to perform a kill-move that easily. I may need to check the episode again, but I think he hit him under his guard into his torso. I would suppose that would be severe enough. Now you'd think that with two earthbenders that this wouldn't be a problem. But Aang and Bending Daredevil have decided to forget how to be awesome. Yeah....Now, I freely admit that Toph is easily my favourite character. But I think the writers realised that they made her TOO powerful, and it always felt like they were always trying to minimise her full powers for the sake of drama. It might be why she got screwed over for screen time in Book 3. It's not like the Gaang outsmarted Long Feng and the Dai Li in an epic battle of wits or anything. The Gaang didn't undertake a serious investigation, they didn't employ clever tricks, there was no misdirection or guile. The Gaang just does their usual stuff. Add in a couple of plot contrivances combined with making the Dai Li pathologically stupid and boom: they get to beat the Dai Li. And yet another reason why I loved the Briggs and Intermediate arcs in FMA so much. The heroes managed to shake off the *OMITTED DUE TO SPOILERS* through very extensive and complex subterfuge. Huh. I am suddenly considering resurrecting my FMA Liveblog....
Of course, as Thundercats shows, if you want that someone being evil be a surprise (as Long Feng was originally meant to be). Don't make Clancy Brown voice them! So you're saying Clancy Brown has a naturally evil voice or something? Besides, he's great at voicing villains so you might as well have him voicing the bad guy once he's revealed to be evil.
Again, it has become very aparrent how you feel about Toph, while I will wait for The Guru to finish to reply, suffice to say this is a lynchpin.
Half Assed? One of the best episodes of the second season is half assed?
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