We have been presented with an extraordinary opportunity, girls.
—Princess Azula, walking the path to awesomeness
Want to guess what the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender I ever saw was? Well, since you're reading this, you can probably guess correctly: The Guru
. I was flipping around, noticed that the show was on, and decided to give it a try. To say that this is perhaps not the best introduction to the series is putting it mildly. It's a strong episode (overall), but as an introduction,
it's pretty terrible.
Azula at Ba Sing Se
We begin with the other half of The Guru
. The episode proper opens with Zuko and Iroh. Zuko's well after his fever, and he asks about something that Iroh's making. Iroh thinks Zuko won't like it, but Zuko cheerfully says that it smells good and wants to try some. Noticing this out of character behavior, he says that Zuko seems different after his fever. Of course, it was Iroh who said last episode that Zuko was going through a metamorphosis, so I don't know where this is coming from. Zuko says that it's a new day, exposites about Iroh's tea shop opening, and so forth. Iroh smiles at Zuko's optimism.
After Sokka finishes meeting with is father, we cut to the Earth King and the Kyoshi Angels. The Earth King tells them about how Long Feng had been using him and so forth, then Azula speaks the page quote that I'm completely certain will never come back to haunt her later. The Earth King then tells the Angels about the plan to invade the Fire Nation on the day of an eclipse. Azula's eyes widen slightly at this, but she only says that it is a, "fascinating and brilliant plan." She doesn't also say, "that is now ruined," because some things don't need stating.
Cut to Katara meeting with the generals. There's a bit of Komedy! here with Momo, but this scene is here only to establish that a plan has been formed and Katara is taking the plans to the Earth King for his signature. That, and we find out that the "Day of Black Sun" will be in roughly two months.
After Toph's first scene in a box, we cut to the Angels, at night. Azula starts planning to take over Ba Sing Se, and she focuses on the Dai Li as the way to do it. Ty Lee remarks about how she admires Azula's confidence.
After Sokka gets some fatherly encouragement, we cut to Iroh and Zuko, in their new teashop named the Jasmine Dragon. Iroh dispenses to Zuko some advice about following his passions. Zuko congratulates his uncle. Iroh then says that he's grateful Zuko was here to share the day with him. Again, Zuko is being uncharacteristically nice, and it's really creepy
After Aang opens his Fire Chakra (kinda), we cut to Mai and Ty Lee on the palace steps, talking. They casually mention how they stole their uniforms from the actual Kyoshi Warriors, then mentions Azula by name and title, explaining that they're here to capture the Avatar. Of course, Dai Li agents are watching from the shadows. Armed with this intelligence, they climb away.
This was where I originally stopped watching. Besides being utterly confused by a lot of stuff I didn't understand, I was really annoyed that Azula's Angels had just given themselves away. Of course, I didn't know Princess Azula that well, or I'd have stuck around. Azula appears, saying that the Dai Li agents will deliver their message to Long Feng. Yep; she was running game.
After Toph casually learns to shatter the laws of the Avatar-verse, but before she escapes, we cut to Katara stopping by a tea shop before seeing the Earth King. Hold on a second. It has been a day
since she met with the generals. And she hasn't delivered the message yet? The meeting wasn't at the outer wall or something; we got a clear shot of where the meeting took place and it was clearly in the city. So what has Katara been doing for a day?
Anyway, she happens to walk into the Jasmine Dragon. Oops. She spots Zuko and Iroh, but they're busy and don't see her. Naturally, she freaks out and runs off.
Bet you wish you'd stayed with Zuko
After Aang first refuses to let go of Katara, we naturally cut to Katara, running into the throne room. She's initially glad to see Suki, and tells her that Zuko and Iroh have infiltrated the city. Azula answers, and Katara appropriately gets an Oh Crap
face right before Ty Lee nails her. Azula then starts plotting to deal with "Zu Zu."
After Aang and Sokka are flying away, Azula is being dragged to Long Feng's cell by Dai Li agents. Azula beautifully feigns outrage at what he's done, but instantly becomes docile when Long Feng lets her know that he knows who she is. Long Feng says that he wants to take control of the city, but he needs Azula to do it. In exchange, he'll turn over the Avatar. She says that she's listening, but in a way that breaks character a bit too much. Granted, Long Feng is an idiot, so he doesn't notice.
Meanwhile, a messenger delivers something to Iroh. Apparently he has been invited to serve tea to the Earth King himself. Zuko smiles while sweeping the floor.
The episode ends with Azula being escorted away from Long Feng. As she draws close to the camera, a cruel smirk appears on her face.
The Crossroads of Destiny
Believe me, if there was any danger at all, Bosco’s animal instinct would sense it.
—The Earth King, commenting on his bear's keen senses
itself opens with plot. Sokka and Aang are flying back to Ba Sing Se. They spot something scurrying across the ground and they find that it's the Blind, Snarky Earthbender. So they pick her up.
Cut to *sting*
: Azula, in a partial Dai Li uniform giving a speech before various Dai Li agents. She reminds them how the Earth King doesn't trust them. You know, what with the betrayal and all. After pointing out that victory today is vital for their continued survival, she approach them. She lets them know that Long Feng placed her in charge. Then she approaches one of them in the front row, not looking directly at him directly. She then says that she will personally deal with any disloyalty or hesitation. Then, she dismisses them.
Sorry; no sale
So Ty Lee starts selling this tepid speech as being worthy of Patton or something, saying that it's pretty but scary. Mai chimes in about the one agent she approached almost peeing his pants. Except that nothing like that happened.
Azula's speech was OK. But it wasn't exactly something that's going to really motivate them. Azula doesn't really have a good speech voice; her speech at the beginning of the season wasn't very good, and this was wasn't either. The writing also didn't help. The fact that the writers have Mai and Ty Lee trying to shill it shows that they knew it wasn't good enough, but this speech really needs to be sold as being motivating for the Dai Li. This is vital for justifying what follows.
Cut to a quick scene with Iroh and Zuko, approaching the palace. Iroh talks about imagining being before the threshold of the palace as a conquerer before, yet now he's here as the Earth King's guests. Hey Iroh, maybe that's not something you should talk about within spitting distance of the palace.
Cut back to the reforming Gaang. Toph asks how things went with the Guru. After Aang flashes back to Pathik's warning about not being able to go into the Avatar State, Aang tells a pretty transparent lie that he has mastered the Avatar State. Sure.
Cut back to Iroh and Zuko, now in a room awaiting the arrival of the Earth King. But someone else shows up: *sting*
Azula walks in with some Dai Li. Iroh decides to talk about how he got the title, "Dragon of the West." Apparently by firebreathing,
which he now demonstrates.
Zuko and Iroh escape down a hall, pursued by Dai Li agents. They blast a hole in the wall and Iroh jumps down to the ground. But Zuko decides to stay behind and confront his sister and the dozen Dai Li with her. Iroh facepalms. Zuko challenges Azula to an Agni Kai, but she politely declines before the Dai Li incapacitate him.
Cut to the Gaang meeting with the Earth King. He tells them that Katara is off with the Kyoshi Warriors. Oh I'm sure she is. Then he says the page quote. And then Bosco breaks the fourth wall
, looking at the audience
as if to say, "Don't look at me; I just eat stuff.".
Cut to Katara, trapped in a cave with glowing green crystals. A Dai Li agent throws Zuko in.
Cut to the rest of the Gaang back at their house. Toph uses her Toph-Vision to see that nobody's home. Then she says someone's at the door; an old friend. When the Gaang opens it, they see... Iroh! Wait; how did he know where they were? I know how he knew they were in Ba Sing Se, but how did he know how to find the Gaang's house?
Anyway, Toph explains how they met, saying that he gave her some good advice. Iroh tells them that Azula is in Ba Sing Se, and they assume she has Katara. Iroh mentions that she took Zuko as well, so Aang decides they should work together. Sokka isn't down with the whole "helping Zuko" thing.
Iroh then tries to convince Sokka that there's good in Zuko. Which is an odd line, but we'll go into that more in a bit. Anyway, Sokka doesn't care about what's in Zuko so much as what's out of him, so Aang has to point out that working together is the best chance they have to stopping Azula.
Iroh then takes them to a Dai Li agent that he somehow subdued. He's bound and gagged, but his feet are still in contact with the earth, so I don't know why he doesn't leave. The Blind, Snarky Earthbender pins him in with some earthbending, which again he could escape from. This is apparently enough for him to start spilling his guts. No really; that's all it takes for the agent to betray the others. This agent is the same one Azula approached in the earlier scene, so I think they're trying to say that he had doubts anyway. But they really needed to do more than just hint at something like this.
Anyway, the agent says that Azula is plotting with Long Feng to take over the city, and that Zuko and Azula are in the "crystal catacombs of old Ba Sing Se," which are under the palace.
Of Coups and Conversations
More than cooperating, she's really taken charge. She's terrifying and inspirational all at the same time. It's hard to explain.
—A Dai Li agent, desperately trying to sell what comes later
Cut to Long Feng getting a report from one of his Dai Li. The agent says that they've planned out their moves against the Earth King and the main generals of the army. Long Feng asks after Azula, and the agent says the above quote. This scene is here primarily to establish that Azula is gaining influence over the Dai Li. Which doesn't make any kind of sense, as it has only been a few hours at most.
Long Feng gets a slightly concerned look after the agent leaves. Of course, being an idiot, he doesn't investigate this obvious statement of questionable loyalty.
Cut to Katara and Zuko. Katara is inflicting the only weapon she has left against him: her voice. She thinks that Zuko's here as part of a trap, so that when Aang shows up, he can capture him. Except that this would be stupid, since thus far, Zuko has proved utterly useless 1:1 against Aang. And all that was before
Aang learned how to turn the very ground into a weapon. Also, let's not forget that last time she saw Zuko (outside of the city), he was attacking
Azula. So it doesn't exactly make sense that she would assume that he's as part of Azula's scheme.
Or maybe it does, since she's clearly gone into Psychatara mode.
Anyway, Zuko ignores her. Then she starts ranting that he's horrible for hunting the Avatar, then says that, as Ozai's son, violence and hatred are in his blood. Wow, a bit racist there, Psychatara. When Zuko says that she doesn't know what she's talking about, she turns it up to eleven. She starts talking about how he doesn't know what the war has done to her, personally. How much she has suffered. Then she says that her mother was killed.
Because it's all about you
, Katara. Forget about the other people who were killed in the war; no, the only thing that matters is that your mother was killed.
Zuko then unfortunately says that this is something they have in common.
Cut to the Gaang. Toph uses her Toph-Vision to see that there is a city buried under the palace. So the Gaang decides to split up: Aang and Iroh will go after Zuko and Katara, while Toph and Sokka will warn everyone about the Dai Li. Um, this doesn't seem to be a wise division of labor; sending their weakest member on the most important mission doesn't seem to be the best idea. Sokka should be going after Katara, while Aang or Iroh should be going with Toph to fight the Dai Li.
Cut to Aang and Iroh, with Aang earthbending a passage down to the city. Aang starts asking Iroh for some advice. He talks about his problem with choosing love over mastering the Avatar State. Iroh calls this very wise, saying that power and perfection are overrated. When Aang asks what if he can't save everyone without the Avatar State, Iroh just says that "Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving, you will come to a better place."
What simplistic pap. Aang is responsible for keeping the world from falling into chaos, and being able to wield his ultimate power without being insane is a vital part of that. It'd be like saying, "Oh, it doesn't matter if you never learn earthbending. I'm sure if you keep not learning earthbending, everything will work out fine." It's one thing for Aang to be irresponsible; it's another for others to say that it's just fine for him to be irresponsible.
Anyway, we cut to Toph and Sokka. They witness the Dai Li using their metal chains to capture General How. Of course, not being a 12-year-old blind girl, General How will not be able to magically manifest an impossible power with no explanation for where it comes from in order to break free (no, I'm never letting this go
). So the pair decide to go straight to the Earth King.
Oh no, please don't, he's so important...
We cut to the other four generals being captured by the Dai Li. Then we cut to Toph and Sokka running into the throne room. The Earth King is there, along with two of the Kyoshi Angels. Ty Lee decides to hit on Sokka for some reason, but Toph smacks her down saying that they're impostors. What follows is a fairly standard fight, but just as Toph has subdued Mai, Azula appears holding the Earth King hostage. Why Toph didn't see her with her Toph-Vision is not explained; after all, we've already established that she can see ants
from 30 feet away.
Naturally, the two surrender. Because the death of the completely ineffectual and unnecessary Earth King would have been so terrible for the world. Ty Lee disables them and they are dragged off.
In comes Long Feng, flanked by a couple dozen Dai Li agents. His first words are, "Now comes the part where I double-cross you." Good God, you really
suck at this whole "being secretive" thing, don't you? Anyway, one of the most ridiculous moments in the series happens here, and if there were just two more such moments in this episode, I'd be calling "A-Sue-la" in full caps-lock.
The Dai Li refuse to take Azula into custody. They don't say anything; they just choose not to do it. Azula says that they haven't made up their minds yet, that they want to see how this ends. When Long Feng asks what she's talking about, we begin one of Azula's most infamous speeches.
She talks about how she can see Long Feng's life story. How he had to scratch his way up from nothing to get to his position. She then says that true power is something you're born with. Then she basically dares him to defy her, telling him that one of them will be sitting on the throne and the other kneeling before it. And they both know what position they'll be in. Azula sits down, arrogantly crossing her legs.
And Long Feng kneels.
If what she said about Long Feng's past is true, that would only make it more
likely for him to defy and attack her. People who've been clawing their way to the top will do anything to gain that kind of power. And they damn sure won't let some stuck-up, pampered princess who got her power by accident
of birth get in their way just because she said to. Such a person would kneel down, earthbend her out of that seat, and then perform that kill-move he used on Jet while she's flying through the air.
What's worse is the behavior of the Dai Li here. The two prior scenes existed solely to show that she was winning them to her side. But as you may have noticed, this was not shown, it was told
to us. Azula gave a speech, which we're told was inspiring. But that's the sum total of her on-screen attempt to influence them. Basically, what the episode is telling us is that the Dai Li can be swayed to her side by a speech.
And that's the thing. I might be able to buy that Long Feng would puss out in his moment of truth. That maybe he was too careful and wouldn't take the risk of eating lightning from her. And some of his personality bears that out, to a degree. But that doesn't explain why the Dai Li turned on him; he only surrendered because they weren't on his side.
The stupid part about this is that it could have been fixed. All they had to do is have a few scenes of Azula reminding the Dai Li about Sozin's Comet. You know, the thing that will allow the Fire Nation to take Ba Sing Se. The Dai Li are self-serving; they'd be willing to bail on Long Feng if it meant staying in power. That is, they'd give Ba Sing Se to Azula in exchange for keeping their power over the city itself. That would ensure their loyalty to her, thus precipitating this crisis.
But the writers didn't do that. Why? Because there wasn't time
. This episode is so full of stuff that there simply wasn't any time to write it that way. Maybe if they hadn't screwed around with those time-wasting episodes earlier in the season, they could have done the finale as a proper two-parter rather than a 1.5-parter.
You are not the man you used to be, Zuko. You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been. And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny
Speaking of what the writers could have done with this episode if they had more time, cut to Katara and Zuko. Katara apologizes for yelling at him. See, they're all chummy now after some bonding.
No, no, NO!
You don't do it this way. You don't have important character scenes that are entirely absent. What Zuko and Katara discussed when we were elsewhere is important.
Hell, it was vital
in some respects, because the Zutarans use this scene as Exhibit A in their defense of "Why Zuko And Katara Are Meant To Be." If this scene had been done properly, when we actually see the conversation, the writers could have made it seem much more reasonable than the "they fell in love" explanation that some try to shoehorn in.
Also, we never know what exactly it is they talk about. Katara never specifically mentions what Zuko said. I gather he told her about his mother, but did he tell her everything about how he was banished and such? That kind of thing would be important for us to know.
Anyway, Katara says that when she imagined the enemy, she always affixed his face to them. Zuko thinks she means his scar, but he says that he used to think the scar marked him as a banished prince. But he's learned that he can choose his own destiny, even if his mark will always be with him. Then Katara says that she might be able to heal his scar using her spirit water.
Right. Because healing a facial scar is obviously more important than, I don't know, saving Jet's life a few episodes ago!
Incidentally, the writers claim in the commentary that they forgot about the spirit water in that episode. Which is bullocks; they knew damn well when they introduced it at the start of the season exactly what and who it was intended for.
Before Katara can use the special magical healing water to cleanse Zuko's face, Aang and Iroh show up and embrace Katara and Zuko, respectively. Aang and Zuko shoot looks over their respective person's shoulders. Zuko asks what Iroh's doing with the Avatar, and Aang snidely remarks that he's saving him. Before Zuko can futilely attack Aang, Iroh restrains him. Iroh says that he and Zuko need to talk, so Aang and Katara leave. Sadly, Katara gives Zuko a look as she goes which is what punctuates this scene as one of the definitive Zutara moments.
Iroh then delivers the above quote. He says that it is time for Zuko to choose "good." And I can no longer ignore this.
What is wrong with Iroh? Since when did chasing the Avatar become "bad" and helping him become "good?" Before now, the main arguments Iroh has used were practicalities: Zuko's lack of foresight. The fact that they were fugitives from the Fire Nation. The fact that there was a good chance Ozai wouldn't care even if he brought back the Avatar. These are all things that make pursuing Aang a bad idea at those particular times. But at no time did Iroh ever make the case that there was something specifically "wrong" with it, that it was morally objectionable.
And even here, he doesn't make the case that it's wrong. He just declares it, as though Zuko believed it too.
: Azula's Dai Li trap Iroh in a crystal prison. Azula appears. And then we have one of the best moments in this episode.
While I have certain pet-peeve tropes, I do have certain weaknesses. Certain things that I will forgive anything for. One of these is the seduction scene. When the villain has a character and slowly turns them to their side. Not with threats, but with words. Not necessarily true words, but words nevertheless. I forgave Revenge of the Sith's
failings primarily because it had good seduction.
Likewise, I'm willing to overlook the rushed crap with Long Feng in part because of this seduction here. I'm going line-by-line with this:
"I expected this kind of treachery from Uncle, but Zuko, Prince Zuko… you're a lot of things, but you're not a traitor, are you?" Notice how she reminds him of his crown. "Prince
Zuko." A subtle reminder of what he's lost, of what he could still have, of what he deserves.
She also reminds him that he's committing treason against the Fire Nation.
"It's not too late for you Zuko. You can still redeem yourself." And there it is: the offer of hope.
She pushed him down by calling him a traitor, but now she says that there's a way out. Her
When Iroh says that what she offers isn't for Zuko, she says, "Why don't you let him decide, Uncle?" This puts Iroh in a bad light. He's telling Zuko what to do; all Azula is doing is making an offer. Giving him options. And Zuko hates being told what to do.
"I need you, Zuko." Four simple words. But you can be damned sure that these are not words that Zuko has ever
heard Azula say. It draws his attention like nothing else. She, the great firebending prodigy, the one born lucky while he was lucky to be born, needs
him for something. Azula has humbled
herself before him.
"I've plotted every move of this day. This glorious day in Fire Nation history. And the only way we win is together." Ahh, the subtle stroking of the ego. She needs him to claim victory, that with all of her plotting and scheming, Zuko is necessary
to her. She needs him to make the day "glorious." She promises him remembrance in the history of the Fire Nation. Again, the humility: they will win "together."
"At the end of this day, you will have your honor back. You will have your father's love. You will have everything you want." And there it is: what he stands to gain. Everything he has lost. Everything
he wants. All of it, back again.
And what does Iroh offer? Some crap about looking within himself to find what he truly wants. He offers nothing.
And it ends in, "You are free to choose." She's told him that he is needed
. That he is necessary and vital to winning. Then she leaves. She makes no threat. Nothing stronger than her simple, humble
offer. She leaves it in his hands, trusting him to make the right decision. Unlike Iroh, Azula tells him what he will gain and lets him choose. Iroh tells him nothing about what he will gain but tells him what to choose.
We get several shots of Zuko, one from his scarred side, and one from his unscarred side. SYMBOLISM!
Cut to Aang and Katara, trying to leave the catacombs. Azula attacks them, and they have a fight. Katara grabs some nearby water and flings it at her, but Azula is able to evaporate it, thus hiding from sight. As per her idiom, as the steam cloud starts to dissipate, she jumps out of the side of it, firebending at them; they deflect it with some water.
After a display of his earthbending, Azula lands with Aang and Katara standing nearby, ready to attack. She looks back and forth between the two, her fingers aimed at them. She even looks... worried.
Then: a Zuko appears!
, flinging fire between Azula and Aang. There is a tense moment. He looks back and forth between Azula and Aang. Then...
IT WAS A SWERVE!
Which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed, and the Anomaly revealed as both beginning and end.
No, not a Shocking Swerve
; that's something different. Indeed, quite a few people in the fanbase believe that this does constitute a Shocking Swerve. Certainly, all the buildup to this moment seemed
like Zuko's inevitable Heel-Face Turn
was imminent. But the writers left themselves enough wiggle room to make it reasonable for Zuko to renege.
Or course there's the seduction scene we saw play out. But more importantly, there's all that really creepy happiness
that Zuko displayed. While it could have been genuine, it's all very out of character for Zuko. Indeed, when we actually see his real heel-face turn (oh, spoiler alert for the 5 people who couldn't figure out that even this moment of backsliding is temporary), he's still Zuko. He's not particularly cheerful, and he doesn't smile very much.
From that, it's clear to see that his prior behavior was all just an act, likely for Iroh's benefit. See, the fundamental reason why Zuko didn't make his turn here is that, well, why would he? We, as viewers, know who's right and who isn't. But however much Iroh may have suddenly come to this knowledge, Zuko certainly has not. What Iroh's path offered was nothing more than a lifetime serving tea, a career he never wanted.
This is in part because Iroh didn't say anything about helping the Avatar dethrone the Firelord and thus being in prime position to rise to that throne himself. Of course, Iroh didn't say this because he wanted Zuko to make the decision for the right reasons. Iroh wanted Zuko to see that the Fire Nation was taking the wrong path and be willing to stop them.
Zuko didn't come to terms with their life in Ba Sing Se; he simply lost hope that there was ever a chance to regain what he had lost. He still wanted it back, but he accepted that it wasn't going to happen. Zuko came to accept that he would live a life of quiet desperation, dreaming of what might have been but never will be. The reason he acted happy for Iroh's benefit was to thank him for his being there. I imagine that Zuko would probably have committed suicide in a year or two.
Zuko was not ready. And when we find out why he eventually does make the turn, it will be for reasons that play more strongly into his character.
What I like about this is that the writers clearly pushed the viewers in this direction. They left some hints that Zuko was growing, particularly his behavior around Iroh. His "illness" that Iroh said would transform him; that was all a convenient excuse for his sudden change. People don't change because they have fever dreams about a blue dragon eating them. But the writers let the audience believe that this was perhaps possible in the Avatar-verse.
Then they allowed reality to assert itself.
This also echoes back to the season opener, in that Azula was able to convince Zuko over the objections of Iroh. Only this time, Azula is 100% sincere.
Back to the episode. Because having Zuko join his clearly evil sister to lay the smackdown on the Avatar would be boring or something, we cut to Sokka, the Earth King, and the Blind, Snarky Earthbender. They're in one of the metal cells they used for Long Feng. So the BSE casually shatters the laws of the Avatar-verse, and they make good their escape. Though the Earth King demands that they rescue his pet bear.
Seriously, why did they surrender just to keep this fop alive? Let Azula roast his ass; serves him right for being an idiot, and maybe someone not made of fail can run the Earth Kingdom afterwards.
Well, we needed that 20 second interlude, so cut back to something important. Zuko and Aang pair off, as do Katara and Azula. For someone who hasn't been practicing firebending for a good month or so, Zuko seems to have actually gotten better
at it. He's more ferocious than ever, and Aang is really off his game here. Zuko even starts whipping out flaming... whips, when Aang tries to hide on a rocky plateau.
Meanwhile, Azula is taking care of business with Katara. In their fight, Katara sends a knife of water at her, but only manages to cut Azula's hair. Which echoes back to Azula in the season opener, where her lightningbending was imperfect due to a single hair. Well, I don't know about "echoes" precisely; they only similarity is that they're both about Azula's hair...
Zuko and Aang fight a bit more, with Aang clinging to stalactites on the ceiling. He eventually cuts one off and jams it into the ground with all his might. While the force of this sends Zuko flying, it seems to take Aang out of the fight too. Good job, Aang.
Then we get one of the silliest and most nonsensical moments in any fight of the series. Katara engulfs most of her body in water, then sends water tentacles after Azula. And Azula... is grabbed by them. She doesn't dance out of the way. She doesn't evade them. She doesn't evaporate them with her firebending, the way she did two minutes ago
. She's just seized by them. Both an arm and a leg are grabbed by Katara's water tentacles.
Sorry; I'm not buying it
Let's look at this by way of math. Basically, the writers are saying that Zuko == Katara > Azula
. This is made even more apparent when Zuko has to save Azula.
Let me repeat: Zuko, someone who has raised failing to an art form, saves Azula, badass extraordinary, from KATARA
, someone who not 5 months before couldn't hit a target directly in front of her.
Sadly, this will not be the last time that the writers arbitrarily decide that Katara > Azula. Only the next one will be infinitely
So Zuko and Katara square off while Azula goes after the recovering Aang. Zuko counters her water tentacles with his fire whips. Something that obviously Azula
couldn't do. I could understand it if it were a matter of Zuko knowing Katara better. After all, this is the first time that Azula and Katara have fought. But Zuko only really fought a waterbending Katara once before himself, and she took him to school before the sun came up. So it's not like he has any great insight into her fighting style.
Anyway, Katara yells about how he was supposed to have changed. He only says that he has in fact changed.
Cut to Azula and Aang squaring off. Azula blows blue flame behind her, using them to push herself forward like a jet. Aang bends a bunch of glowing crystals together into armor, and bends himself towards her. Before they collide, she bends all of that fire towards Aang, shattering his armor and hurling him into a wall.
Cut to the throne room, where Ty Lee is wasting precious episode time teaching the bear how to walk on its front paws. Toph earthbends her to the ground (why doesn't she do this more often?) and Mai immediately surrenders, saying that they can take the bear.
Back to something that matters. Azula and Zuko commence a double-teamed beatdown of Katara. Aang explodes out of the wall he was placed in, and then rides towards the pair on a mound of earth. A random Dai Li agent appears to shatter this ball. And that agent isn't alone; a lot of them jump down.
Katara draws some water to herself in preparation for fighting 12 Dai Li. Meanwhile another 20+ are with Azula and Zuko facing down Aang.
And now we come to it. The single, defining moment of Avatar: The Last Airbender. What's past is prologue; every moment in the second season has been leading up to this event. Again, I will cover it step by step, in all its glorious detail.
Aang looks around at the group of warriors standing against him, with Azula and Zuko at their head. He realises that he can't take them. Not with his current power-level. He remembers what Pathik said about what he must do to open that last Chakra.
So Aang turns around and seals himself in a group of glowing green crystals so that he can mediate. In so doing, he opens his last Chakra and is able to call upon the Avatar State. His tattoos start glowing. We can see the glowing from outside when we get a shot of the Dai Li with Zuko and Azu-
Wait, someone seems to be missing from this shot. Oh well, I'm sure it's just an animation error.
The Dai Li and Zuko step back, unsure of what's happening. Inside his cocoon, Aang's glowing eyes open, and the cocoon explodes in a pillar of white light. Aang slowly rises up this pillar, fully in the Avatar State, watching the fear and awe created by his presence. The music swells and becomes hopeful, fully in Avatar mode. We get a shot of Katara looking up at him with hope.
Aang gazes down on his enemies from up high, his full strength gathered. And he... does nothing. He knows he has already won. We can imagine that, in his mind, he laughs at them, knowing that he has power they can never master, that they can't hope to stand against him, that they have alr-
Yeah; I just did that
We see Aang being struck by lightning in the reflection of someone's eye. We get the most epic pullback in the series to reveal... Princess Azula!
In my coverage of The Chase
, I often lamented the fact that Azula's antics didn't seem to evolve naturally. And the best way to explain that is with this scene. This scene is absolutely unimpeachable.
This isn't Diabolus Ex Machina
, the negative counterpoint to the Deus ex Machina
used in the last season. Everything that happens in this scene is almost predestined by the essential nature of the characters involved. Aang's unwillingness to immediately attack when he has the upper hand has been shown several times. This is a consistent part of his character.
Indeed, there's a scene in The Chase that I made reference to at the time, specifically forshadowing
this exact moment. If you recall the scene, Azula was recovering from almost falling, while Aang was floating in the air. Rather than doing something, Aang was laughing at her, which allowed her to take the initiative. Exactly as she does here, only she used lightning this time.
And for her part, running around behind Aang while he was in his stone cocoon is exactly
her style. She does this all the time. When you loose sight of Azula, more often than not, she will not be where she was when you last saw her. This was reinforced in this fight, when Azula leapt out of the steamcloud rather than just standing there waiting for it to vanish.
Each character behaves exactly as their characters have been shown to previously. That's what makes this scene so good; it can't not
happen this way. It is their destiny. Indeed, I imagine the writers crafted this scene by starting here, then building the character of Azula to be exactly the person who would naturally cause this scene to happen.
Oh, and FYI: this is not
a subversion of Transformation Is a Free Action
. Why? Because Aang had been in the Avatar State for several seconds before Azula shot him. That trope only applies during the actual transformation; Aang was finished with his transformation. Indeed, the transformation into the Avatar State is more or less instantaneous. If you want proof, watch the series finale; when Aang goes into the Avatar State then, he immediately
starts kicking ass.
Probably because he remembers the last time he screwed around when he had the upper hand. Getting shot in the back has a way of reminding you of things.
I feel the good in you. The conflict.
—Luke Skywalker, to Darth Vader
Back to the episode. Katara bends a wave of water that she rides to catch Aang, while simultaneously covering the entire Dai Li army. She engages in some Pietà Plagiarism
with Aang's corpse. Then Iroh appears, attacking the Dai Li, telling Katara to get the Avatar away.
Katara waterbends herself and Aang's corpse up a waterfall while Iroh firebends away. Once they escape, Iroh surrenders, allowing himself to be contained in green crystals. He and Iroh exchange a look, then Iroh looks away, in disappointment.
Cut to the Gaang + The Earth King on Appa. Katara breaks out that spirit water and uses it on the scar on Aang's back. Naturally, this raises him from the dead. Because the Northern Water Tribe just has a bunch of water on hand that brings people back to life. Aang weakly looks up at her and smiles.
Cut to *sting*
: Azula and Zuko in the throne room. Azula is on the throne itself, as is proper. As she's basking in their shared triumph, Zuko starts worrying about the fact that he betrayed Iroh. Azula tells him that it was Iroh who betrayed him, then reminds him that his father will welcome him home. Zuko then wonders whether Ozai will really restore his honor, since he doesn't have the Avatar. Azula tells him that he has restored his own honor.
This isn't sufficient to comfort Zuko, who silently broods.
Cut to the Gaang leaving. The Earth King says, "The Earth Kingdom… has fallen." Yeah, thanks for your input; we would never have noticed that if you hadn't said anything. Oh, and it wouldn't have fallen if you hadn't been a blithering idiot and dealt with the Dai Li immediately upon discovering their treachery.
And the credits roll.
This is the best of the season finales. Most things flow naturally, the ending comes without any form of Ex Machina
. We get some surprises that, upon closer inspection, seem entirely natural. That's the best way to surprise the audience.
We can see the first episode and this episode as mirrors of each other in many ways. In both episodes, Zuko defies his uncle in order to get back that which he wants. In both episodes, Zuko joins with his sister. But only here is her desire sincere.
Lightningbending was first seen in that episode. And here, we see its promise fulfilled as a killing technique. The spirit water introduced in that episode existed to be used here to save Aang from death. And we learn about the vulnerability of the Avatar State, that being killed while in it will kill the Avatar forever. Which means that Azula has come as close as anyone in the history of the Avatar to ending the Avatar Cycle permanently.
That last part is somewhat poorly done however. Why? Because it doesn't factor into this episode.
Azula didn't shoot Aang while he was in the Avatar State for the purpose of ending the Avatar forever. She did it because he presented her with a clear target and his back was turned. She didn't even know (as far as we can tell) that the Avatar's death would result from this. She just saw an opportunity and took it. Which means that she didn't mean to do it; the act was without imperative.
The problem is ultimately this: the fact that killing the Avatar while in the Avatar State breaks the cycle doesn't matter anywhere
in the series. The main reason why they don't try to trigger the Avatar State is that it's uncontrollable; they could easily do more harm than good. Yes, Roku explained this after an attempt to do so, but that attempt also brought home the inherent dangers in trying to trigger it. To put it another way, there was no need
for us to learn this.
Next season, Aang will be prevented from using the Avatar State, not because of a fear of being killed, but because Azula's lightning damaged one of his Chakras. Somehow. Having the Avatar die if he is killed in the Avatar State is simply a violation of The Law of Conservation of Detail
: they told us something that doesn't matter.
Of course, that doesn't affect this episode, which remains awesome and my pick for best episode of the series. It certainly makes up for some of the sins committed by some of the last episodes of the season.
The problems with this episode really boil down to the writers not giving the episode the time it needed. Cutting out some of the filler episodes from earlier could have allowed them to improve the final arc of this season. This episode in particular screams to be a two-parter.
Oddly enough, the series finale will be a 4-part story, and it will have pacing problems in the other direction. They will have to add padding to the story to make it 4 episodes long.