Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender


The Awakening

Now the heroes have returned home. Your princess, Azula! And after three long years, your prince has returned. Zuko!
Lo and Li, Azula's elderly handmaidens

As a rule, I don't usually talk about the opening "previously on" segments, because it talks about stuff that we've already seen. What's interesting about them in this episode is that they're all about Azula and Zuko. Oh sure, the Gaang show up in them, but only to be beaten, thrown down, and discarded by the Children of Ozai. That says something about where the focus is for the episode.

We begin with Aang waking up. And he has a full head of hair now; he's also heavily bandaged. He looks around to get his bearings, only to find that he's on a Fire Nation ship, with a Fire Nation banner at the head of his bed. Naturally, Aang grabs his staff and hobbles out the door.

He runs across a pair of Fire Nation soldiers, one large and the other small. When one of the hears Aang, he attacks them with an ineffectual gust of wind and limps away quickly while the soldiers tell him to wait. Aang hobbles up some stairs only to find more Fire Nation soldiers and... Momo.

Toph, apparently now able to see through metal (sure why not) recognizes him and the rest of the Gaang appears. Sokka shows up in a Fire Nation uniform. Then Aang faints.

We get an exterior shot of the Gaang's ship that dissolves into Azula's ship from last season's pilot. Cut to Zuko, looking out onto the water. Mai approaches him and she asks if he's cold. He then starts talking about not having seen his father for years. She's dismissive for a bit, but then pulls Zuko in for a kiss. After they kiss, she tells him not to worry.

Well, that was... abrupt.

Cut back to Aang. He asks why they're on a Fire Nation ship. Katara tries to calm him down a bit, and then she points out that she likes his hair. This causes him to freak for a bit, then she tells him he was out for a few weeks.

Hakoda comes by to introduce himself, but Katara is oddly short with him. After Aang shakes Hakoda's forearm (that's how they do it in the Southern Water Tribe) Katara tells him to get lost. Aang asks if she's upset with him, but she says she's not. Before he can continue, his wounds start hurting him, so they go back to his room for a "healing session."

So that's what they're calling it these days.

Cut to upstairs. Katara's running her water over Aang's scarred back. She starts looking for where the pain is most intense, and when she hits a place, Aang has a flashback to seconds before being shot. Katara says that she can feel energy twisted up there, and when she pulls her water away, Aang has a flashback to the moment where he was shot. Aang suddenly realizes that he died, but Katara brought him back. Though it's strange that Aang uses circumspect language for it, since the show hasn't shied much away from talking about people dying before.

Cut to the Fire Nation. We get a shot of a port that will become quite important in a few episodes. On a high parapet, the two old women from Azula's introduction start recapping the last episode. They also exposit that the Dai Li shattered the walls of Ba Sing Se to allow the Fire Nation troops admittance to the city. We get shots of faces we've seen before. The woman who took Zuko on a date. The married couple that the Gaang helped. We cut back to the announcers, who end their exposition with the above quote. And the crowd goes wild.

Cut back to the Gaang for the rest of the exposition. Sokka says that they took Aang's near-corpse to Hakoda's people. There, they captured a ship and have been under cover ever sense. And the two "Fire Nation" guys Aang met earlier were two of Jet's old Posse. You know, the ones the Gaang didn't leave behind to die in a Dai Li stronghold.

Oh, and the Earth King ran off with his bear. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out...

The idea is that they're planning a smaller version of the invasion plan. They'll round up some random cameos from past episodes for an epic confrontation. Then Sokka says that their biggest advantage is that everyone thinks Aang is dead. So that they won't be hunting for him anymore. This causes Aang to freak out. He says that people thinking he's dead is terrible.

Another Fire Nation ship shows up, and Aang wants to go fight. Katara points out that this is stupid, and Hakoda goes off to handle it, while everyone else hides. When the Fire Nation commander boards the ship, Hakoda tries to bluff them. However, as the commander is leaving, one of his men points out a factual error on Hakoda's part, and they plan a sneak attack.

The Blind, Snarky Earthbender uses her Daredevil powers to hear this whisper from 75 feet away and attacks with her metalbending. What follows is an action sequence that exists to... have an action sequence. Because obviously the kiddies would get bored with all the talking and character development going on. No, we have to shoehorn in a pointless action sequence.

And to emphasize the pointlessness, it's ultimately resolved by the serpent of the Serpent's Path. Yes, really. It attacks the other Fire Nation ship. Oh, and Toph actually refers to herself as a thing ("Load the Toph!") rather than a person. Well, since the show doesn't consider her a person, why should she?

During the middle of this pointlessness, we have something of importance with the actual main characters: Zuko and Azula. Time for Fire Nation Capital: 90210.

Zuko's sitting by the turtle-duck pond. In a callback, Azula appears and the turtle-ducks flee from her presence. She wonders at why he's so gloomy, thinking that Mai has been rubbing off on him. Though she points out that Mai has been uncharacteristically cheerful. Zuko goes on about not having captured the Avatar. Azula wonders why it matters, since he's dead. But then she suspects that he thinks the Avatar may have survived.

Zuko gets a flashback of Katara talking about the spirit water. Back in the present, Zuko says that there's no way Aang survived. So Azula tells him that there's nothing to worry about. Azula's face clearly shows that while Zuko's pokerface has improved, she wasn't born yesterday.

After the pointless action scene, their ship pulls into a port. The non-Aang part of the Gaang want to go get food, but Aang says he's not going if he can't "wear my arrow proudly". Now, I could complain that Aang has hidden his arrow before on many occasions, but Aang is supposed to be being unreasonable here.

Katara decides to stay behind to talk to Aang for a bit. Once alone, she starts digging into the problem: it bothers him that people think that Aang failed. Though it's not quite that, as Aang corrects her: he did fail. You know, with all that failing he did, Zuko-style. Katara tries to say he didn't, but lies aren't really what Aang needs right now, so he brushes her off. She reminds him of the invasion plan, but he throws a fit, saying that he hates the plan.

And now we come to the real heart of the matter. Aang says that he doesn't want anyone else risking their lives for his mistakes. He says, "I've always known that I would have to face the Fire Lord. But now, I know I need to do it alone."

Destiny heard you Aang, so now you will. May you live in interesting times.

Basically, Aang has finally come to realize that people can get killed doing what he did. Since he, you know, got killed literally doing what he did. He realizes that it could have been Katara fried up like a slab of bacon by Azula's lightning. And now they're going to put themselves in more danger because he sucked at doing his job.

As Katara leaves, at Aang's request, she asks him if she needs anything. This would have been a great character scene if it didn't end with Aang saying this: "I need my honor back." I'm sure you'll be shocked to know we do a dissolve-cut to Zuko right after that line. Oh, and the camera only had half of Aang's face in the frame when he said it, and we dissolve to the other half of Zuko's face. The scarred half.

I mean, who could have predicted that?

This is crap. Look, I know they have this whole "not so different" thing going on as a running theme of the show. But this is just ridiculous. Aang wouldn't use those words; they're simply not in character for him. Even if Aang were to express that concept, that's just not how he would say it. This is lazy thematic development; they just put words in people's mouths regardless of whether those words make sense coming from them.

Not to mention, it's rather late to establish arc words for your series when two-thirds of it is already over. There was no reason to do this. Before, they at least pretended to be semi-subtle, and they at least made sure that it was all character appropriate. Now, they're breaking out sledgehammers and hitting you with it until you really, really get it.

This is even more forced because all the scene of Zuko does is show him walking towards the Firelord's throne room, take a deep breath, enter, and see Ozai on the throne (still dark). Then we cut away. The Zuko scene would have worked so much better as a single take, not cut into two pieces like this in editing.

Anyway, we cut to Katara, returning with some food for Aang. But he's not there. Cut to Aang flying across the sea on his glider. Why didn't he take Appa? I'm guessing the idea is that he didn't even want to endanger Appa, but the real reason is that if he had, the show would have ended with Aang charging blindly into the Fire Nation palace alone and being murdered. We'll see why in a bit.

After a few seconds establishing that Aang is flying, cut back to Zuko and Ozai. Yes, this less than 20 seconds of footage between scenes of Zuko was totally necessary.

Zuko kneels before his father's throne. Ozai speaks of Zuko's travels changing him Ozai steps through the flames, approaches his son and says that he has redeemed himself. Zuko looks up, and we see... Ozai's face. For the first time in the series.

At this point, we can finally understand why we haven't seen his face. Every shot of Ozai that we've seen has been through Zuko's eyes (except for Azula's introduction). This is Ozai as Zuko remembered him. He doesn't put a face to the man because Zuko has been dishonored and cast down. Only now, only after having been given redeemption, can he meet his father's gaze and see his face again. The face of a human, a simple man, not an inhuman thing, not a force to be appeased.

As a father.

We get a quick cut to Aang having trouble keeping his glider flying, since he's hurt. Then, we cut to Katara informing her father that Aang ran off. She tells him why, saying that he thinks he has to save the world alone. Hakoda suggests that this is his way of being brave. Thinking like that is probably why the Southern Water Tribe is on the Endangered Cultures List and only survives because the Fire Nation doesn't care enough to snuff it out entirely.

Katara calls him on it immediately, though she goes a bit off-topic as she starts talking about how much they (ie: she) needs him and how could he leave them (ie: her) behind. And Hakoda realizes that she's not talking about Aang anymore. The two of them have a really tender moment, talking about why he had to leave and how hurt she felt, even though she understood why he left.

Damn you, third season writing! Stop making me not hate Katara! I was working up a good mad too after her "it's all about me!" schitck late last season.

From there, we cut to a very different kind of father reuniting with his child. Ozai circles around the still kneeling Zuko, talking about how proud he is of Zuko. For taking Ba Sing Se. For capturing the traitor Iroh; this one makes Zuko look uncomfortable. But Ozai is most proud of how he slew the Avatar.

Wait, what? Zuko succeed at something? No, that's just Azula's lies; she told Ozai that Zuko was all badass and took out Aang.

Speaking of whom, cut to Aang, still flying. He runs into that really stupid blockade from before. So no, sorry; it wasn't just for that one episode.

BTW, we need to have a quick digression and talk about distance in the Avatar-verse. It seems clear that flying things in the Avatar-verse are allowed to bend space and time whenever the plot allows, because Aang just flew around the world. We saw a map of where he was, where their ship was, and it was just about on the opposite side of the world from where the Fire Nation is. And he flew there. Within the space of a single night.

We'll see this time and again this season. And it's really silly, considering the fact that getting from the south pole to the north pole was such an ordeal in the first season.

Anyway, Aang flies under the ships this time, rather than going over them. This is likely to maintain the element of surprise. When Aang pops out of the water, he spots a log and decides to combine it with his glider to go wind-surfing. However, a storm comes up and sends him into the water.

Hmm, which "plan to utterly destroy Zuko" did he stumble onto?

Cut to Zuko barging into Azula's room at night. Shouldn't the Princess's room be locked? Or a guard posted, to announce any guests or interruptions? He simply asks why she did "it." She needs some clarification on the particular "it" he's talking about.

After Zuko tells her that he's talking about her lie to Ozai, she says that he seemed so worried about Ozai not accepting him that giving him the credit would help. She calls it a generous gesture for helping her at Ba Sing Se. You know, when she was getting taken apart by a waterbender who's formal training time could be counted in weeks. Zuko immediately says she's lying.

He guesses that she has an ulterior motive, and she actually tells him what it is. Because it's not like he can do anything about it now. She points out that, if the Avatar is alive, all the glory she gave him would become his undoing. But of course, Zuko himself said it was impossible.

Alternate Character Interpretation Time! Think about it from Azula's point of view. She saved Zuko. She included Zuko into her plans. She restored Zuko to his rightful place in the family. She didn't have to do these things; her Dai Li agents would have had her back in the fight with Aang and Katara eventually. But she did. Does Azula still have some love in her for her brother? This would seem to be evidence of that.

And then, when they were finally starting to trust and accept one another again, Zuko lied to her. Right to her face. As if she couldn't read him like a scroll. Not just any lie; a lie that was designed specifically to see her on the bad end of Ozai's wrath.

From Azula's perspective, Zuko set her up to take the fall. You can imagine Azula thinking that Zuko planned it this way. That he wanted to see her face burned, her exiled on some quest that can never be completed. Azula could have felt betrayed by this. After all, Zuko was betraying her trust by lying to her. A lie that set her up for significant pain down the line.

All she did was take his little plan and turn it on itself. If he wasn't lying, then he's fine; better in fact. If he was, then the lier is the one who will be punished, not Azula who was entirely innocent. It's like the negative-reverse Xanatos Gambit: either way, Zuko gets what he deserves.

"Sleep well, Zu Zu." This is how Azula dispenses justice.

Cut back to Aang. The storm carries his glider away, and Aang laments that he's failed again. If he keeps this string of failures up, he's going to really become Not So Different from Zuko. Suddenly and unbidden, Roku appears before him. Yadda yadda, that one episode, hard to meet past lives, yadda yadda.

Aang laments that he's letting the world down. That they think he abandoned them. No, they think you sucked and got killed; there's a difference. Roku then tells him that Roku himself should have seen the war coming and acted to stop it, that Aang inherited his problems. He then says that Aang is destined to save the world.

Suddenly Yue appears from the moon. Wait, wasn't the sky overcast, since there was a storm? Anyway, she urges him not to give up, reminding him of his victory at the end of season 1. Aang, reinvigorated, waterbends up a wave and starts surfing it. Yue has apparently spent her time as the moon in whatever accelerated waterbending learning annex Katara took, as she raises her arms to enhance the wave.

Aang eventually surfs his way all the way to that island where Roku's temple was. Then he passes out.

He wakes up to find that the Gaang found him. Sure, why not; it's not like the Fire Nation is a huge country and he could literally have gone anywhere. This also explains why he didn't take Appa; if he had, they wouldn't have been able to catch up. They all embrace. But, rather than going back to the ship where they will be safe, they decide to head directly into the Fire Nation where they won't be safe.

Well, we've got to get the plot going somehow.

This is a good episode despite itself. The editing issues that have plagued the series are still here. It has some really heavy-handed and contrived themes. But it also has some well-done themes, like the mirror of Zuko and Katara's reunions with their parents, showing that they're quite different. Azula showed her cruel side a bit, but I really like my personal take on Azula.

But of course, there's one important thing to talk about:

Shipping Redux

Shipping fandom never ceases to amaze me with their nonsense. Hence: Azuko.

Yes, really. I wasn't kidding about the First Law of Avatar Shipping: Zuko is shipped with everyone.

It's all based on this scene in Azula's bedroom (with a few other scattered moments this season). Supposedly, Azula is engaging in suggestive poses and such while she's taunting him. Thus obviously showing her passive-aggressive attraction to Zuko.

No; Azula is simply engaging in her normal posing; this is just what Azula does. The difference is that she's wearing more flattering attire this time. She just happened to be in bedclothes while she was taunting Zuko.

Anyway, the more meaningful shipping-related thing that happened here, that was intended to be here by the writers, was Maiko. There were only ever two hints of this given. The first was all the way back in Return To Omashu, when the only thing that brought a smile to Mai's lips was hearing that she might meet Zuko again. The second was a blush from Lil'Mai in Zuko's flashback in Zuko Alone.

Kataang and Maiko are the two canonical ships that are in direct conflict with the (wholly fictitious) Zutara ship. Yet Maiko is the one that is often battered the most by the Zutarans. Why? Well, there are several reasons, but the most important is how poorly the relationship is handled in the show.

If you didn't see Kataang coming, you weren't watching the show; it's that simple. Even the most rabid Zutarans can admit that. But Maiko just springs into being ex nihilo. Mai and Zuko kiss. Like it's nothing. Yes, we know that Mai's carrying a torch for him, but thus far we have seen nothing from Zuko reciprocating. There hasn't exactly been a chance to, but that's the point. We suddenly go from not knowing about Zuko's feelings to them together and hooked up. And there's nothing easier to discredit than a relationship that apparently springs out of nothing.

The way this should have worked is that, over the course of the next few episodes, we see Zuko and Mai drawing closer together. Maybe going out on dates, getting to know each other again, that sort of thing. Something that we can watch evolve and grow, rather than something that we're told to accept. This relationship is rather important to the overall plot (as we will see), so seeing it develop should be important.

Zutarans attack it because it's the easier of the two targets. It's easy to imagine that Mai is just worming her way into Zuko in order to gain influence over him, in the expectation that he will assume the throne, at which point she will murder him in a supreme act of betrayal and become the Firelord. We don't know very much about Mai, whereas we know lots about Aang. Demonizing Aang, the star of the show and title character, is much harder than demonizing Mai.

Even though nothing Aang does is even a tenth as awesome as what Mai eventually does. But that's a topic for another time.


The whole Katara / Hakoda plot annoys me, becomes it comes out of freaking nowhere. Watch Bato of the Water Tribe. Katara is HAPPY at the idea of joining her dad (not as much as Sokka, who is positively hyper, but my point stands). There's NO trace of the abandonment issues she has here. This plot comes out of nowhere, and quietly leaves, not accomplishing anything.
Ghilz 14th Aug 11
I always assumed that Zuko and Mai were continuing a relationship. That's the feel I got from watching the two of them interact. Kataang, by contrast, spent most of its shelf-life in the form of a one-sided crush on Aang's part. Katara seemed too old to be interested in Aang romantically (even if it's only a two-year age difference). 14th Aug 11
Earth is round you know, he probably just went around the other way.

And yeah, I think the Maiko issues are due to the episode editing problems you've noted.

And I hope the Yue thing was a joke.

Good Review.
JusticeMan 14th Aug 11
Earth is round you know, he probably just went around the other way.

That still doesn't work. They are almost smack dab in the center of the world map. Fire Nation is on the western edge. Ergo, half way across the world, no matter which direction they go.
Ghilz 14th Aug 11
The whole Katara / Hakoda plot annoys me, becomes it comes out of freaking nowhere. Watch Bato of the Water Tribe. Katara is HAPPY at the idea of joining her dad (not as much as Sokka, who is positively hyper, but my point stands). There's NO trace of the abandonment issues she has here. This plot comes out of nowhere, and quietly leaves, not accomplishing anything.

My thoughts exactly. This actually WAS poor writing, and yet Korval doesn't call it out? I call bullshit on this liveblog!
ManwiththePlan 16th Aug 11