Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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And as we trained, it wasn't your skills that impressed me. No, it certainly wasn't your skills.We open with the Gaang watching a meteor shower at night. Well, three of them are; the Blind, Snarky Earthbender is Blind. Suddenly, a larger meteor appears and hits nearby. The Gaang flies off on Appa to investigate. They see the meteor in the middle of a fire. Off in the distance, miles away, is a village. Katara takes one look at this and says, "The fire is gonna destroy that town." Um, Katara, this is the Fire Nation. Odds are, they have firebenders in that town; I'm pretty sure they can handle it. And even that assumes that the fire will be able to sustain itself to any degree on the short grass between itself and the town. So the Gaang decides to put out the fire. Katara flies off to grab some water, while Aang and the BSE use their earthbending to attack it. However, since he has his name on the episode's title, the focus is on Sokka, who can't do anything and feels left out. Eventually, Katara hands Aang a large blob of water, and he bends it to smother the fire in snow. Cut to Iroh's prison. He's lying against the stone wall, drooling and insensate. A guard comes in and kicks a bowl of food at him. Iroh quickly crawls over to it and eats it off the floor while the guard hurls insults at him. When the guard leaves, Iroh brushes the hair out of his face and adopts a more reasonable pose, eating out of the bowl. I wonder where this is going. Anyway, cut back to the Gaang, the next day. They're in the village, eating at a restaurant. When Aang points out how lucky the people are that they were nearby, Toph says that she misses the hero worship now that they have to go around incognito. Which sounds nice and all... Until you realize that it makes no sense coming out of Toph's mouth! What hero worship did she even experience? Sure, there was plenty of hero worship in Season 1, but she wasn't around then. In Season 2, the Gaang got a bit of hero worship from the pregnant couple, but their defeat of the Drill was followed by the introduction of the Dai Li. Maybe they got a bit from the Earth King, but that's about it. So what in the hell is she talking about? No, this is just the writers sticking words in Toph's mouth that should have been said by Katara. I mean, it's not like the BSE has a character or anything. Moving on, Sokka boo-hoos at them for grousing about not getting enough worship. He's also sitting off by himself. Katara asks what's wrong with him, and he starts talking about his feelings of inadequacy. What with them being badass benders and him being... him. Katara says that "No one can read a map like you." Well, except for The Desert, when Katara was reading a map just fine while Sokka was off hallucinating on cactus juice. But the writers have decided to forget that moment in order to help provide a raison d'Ítre for Sokka. Aang talks about how Sokka keeps them laughing with his sarcasm, then produces Komedy! when his attempt to employ this on Katara makes her think that something is genuinely wrong with her hair. Anyway, Sokka's self-confidence isn't being buoyed up by this, so Katara tries to enact a new solution: shopping. Specifically, weapon shopping. Sokka tries out a nunchaku, but smacks himself in the head. On the DVD commentary, the writers talk about the use of nunchaku to teach students how to pay attention, because if you don't, you'll smack yourself in the head. Then we get what has to be the most random scene in the entire series. We cut over to Aang, who's wearing something that looks like Nightmare's armor from Soul Calibur if it were crossed with nonsense. He asks Katara what she thinks. Then he starts talking about a wind-sword, which apparently would be a blade made entirely out of airbending. Then he falls down from the weight of his armor.
—Master Piandao, about Sokka
On the commentary for this section, Brian Konietzko (one of the co-creators of the series) said, "Everything that Aang is wearing represents stylistic elements that Mike and I don't really care for." Um, OK. But why is it here? You're not really poking fun at it. And the references are so muddled and incomprehensible that it's impossible to even know what these stylistic elements actually are. You can't just put a bunch of stuff into a blender, plop it onto the screen, and expect us to know what the hell you're talking about. And it certainly doesn't amount to satire or mockery. Anyway, we get a quick montage of Sokka trying out weapons. Then, he sees it: Jian. The store keeper exposits that the sword was made by Piandao, ostensibly the best sword maker and sword fighter in Fire Nation history. Yeah, sure. He has a castle nearby, which is convenient, as Aang suggests that what Sokka really needs is some training under a Master. Katara credits Pakku with her being as good as she is. Then Toph says that she learned from badgermoles. We'll... we'll come back to this later. Cut to Iroh, lying down as though dead. Then he suddenly starts doing sit-ups. Cut to Sokka knocking on the door to Piandao's castle. A rotund butler answers his knocking. According to online materials, this man's name is... Fat. Were they even trying with this episode? Anyway, um, Fat informs Sokka that Piandao turns most everyone away. He also says that people petitioning Piandao usually bring a gift. When Sokka offers no gift, Fat invites him in anyway, so that Piandao can throw him out personally. We see Piandao writing with a brush and ink. He is sitting with his back to the door. Sokka enters and introduces himself as "Sokka." What happened to Wang Fire? Wasn't that a reasonable Fire Nation name? Piandao calls him on his unusual name, so Sokka quickly covers by claiming to be from the Fire Nation colonies again. Piandao then begins to anticipate what Sokka will say, that he's the best swordsman in his village and that he thinks he deserves to learn from "the Master." Of course, Sokka, not being particularly confident, decides to say that he's not sure he's worthy. Naturally, this piques Piandao's interest. So he turns around and decides to train him. Apparently, Piandao's only interested in training people who are so lacking in confidence in themselves that they will admit this to a perfect stranger. No wonder he doesn't admit many people. This is naturally a form of wish-fulfillment for people lacking in confidence. So remember kids: don't try to get better on your own or learn to be more confident in yourself. Sooner or later, the greatest person in the world at something will appear and reward you for your crippling self-doubt. Anyway, cut to Piandao's courtyard. He's explaining the typical sort of stuff about advanced weapon-play. You know the drill: make the weapon an extension of your body. Only he says that a sword is, "like an extra-long, really sharp arm." It's funny because he's voiced by Robert Patrick. Who has really long, sharp arms in that one movie everyone knows him from. Cut to the Gaang-1, lying down in the grass wondering what to do. We learn that the BSE picks her toes a lot, sometimes, "just for the sweet picking sensation." When I said I wanted more Toph character development, I didn't mean I wanted more disgusting habits and foot fetishism. Katara actually brings up the schedule, which only serves to remind us that the schedule that was super-tight one episode ago seems to have vanished into the aether. Aang and Katara both fail at being funny. Ha ha. We get a shot of Iroh in his cell, hanging upside-down from the metal bars on the ceiling by his feet. He's doing crunches now. Obviously Sokka's not the only one in training. Cut back to Sokka. Piandao wants him to write his name, because warriors practice a variety of arts. He says some nonsense about how writing stamps your identity on the page, as fighting stamps your identity on the battlefield. Why is it that the wise old masters never bother to actually explain what these idiotic sayings are actually supposed to mean? Anyway, Sokka decides the best way to stamp his identity on the page is to cover his face in ink and smash it against the paper. Piandao is not amused. Probably. Cut to a bit of Sokka training in swordplay with Fat. He is instantly disarmed and humiliated. Cut to outside his castle. Piandao is trying to teach Sokka landscape painting. He shows Sokka the view of a waterfall from a hill on his estate. But only for a moment; this is to force Sokka to quickly take everything in, as one would have to in battle. When Sokka finishes, the painting is like a child's drawing, and Sokka threw in a rainbow. Piandao simply shakes his head. Cut to a bit more actual swordfighting. Sokka's holding his own, until Piandao distracts him by calling his name. Then he tells Sokka to concentrate on what he's doing. Ya know, I'm getting the impression that Piandao's kind of a dick. Cut to Piandao's rock garden. There are a number of Lion-Turtle statues here, referencing something for the future, and also marking this as the nadir of the episode. Piandao tells Sokka that preparing a rock garden teaches someone how to manipulate one's surroundings to one's advantage. So Sokka moves some large rocks and moss around to make himself a comfortable chair. For his part, Piandao seems to take Sokka's oddness in stride now. Cut to the next bit of swordfighting, where Sokka is finally able to beat Fat. Cut to Iroh in prison again, now doing knuckle push-ups. The kind where you clap at the apex of the push-up. One of the guards hears him, and when he gets to the door, he sees Iroh sitting against the wall, clapping at nothing, staring off into space. Cut to the Gaang-1, failing at the art of map reading. I wasn't aware that this was such a complicated skill that it merited being called an art, but here we are. Katara fails at humor again. Cut back to Piandao and Sokka, sitting in the courtyard talking. Piandao lets us know that this has all been a single day. Then he says that Sokka's ready to have a sword. But not one of Piandao's; one that Sokka makes himself. Because it's just that easy. Cut to the two sorting through blocks of metal. Piandao tells Sokka that picking the starting material is a vital step, since he trusts the steel with his life. Of course, Piandao doesn't actually say what criteria Sokka should use, or what the differences between the metal samples are. This leads to Sokka randomly handling, and even biting, several blocks. Then Sokka decides to go get something special for his sword. Cut back to the Gaang-1. Toph feels Sokka coming, so Aang and Katara go to meet and embrace him. Toph tries to play it off like she didn't care (OMG, Toph showing character!), but this isn't a social visit. He apparently wants to use the meteor that fell the night before, so the Gaang drags it up to the castle. Cut to Iroh. He's sitting down for a few seconds, then he inverts himself and starts doing handstand push-ups. Piandao meets the whole Gaang at his front door. Sokka introduces them as "other good Fire Nation folks." Yeah, that doesn't sound suspicious or anything, but Piandao ignores it. When Sokka asks if they can make a sword out of it, Piandao says that they'll make a sword unlike any other in the world. Sure, why not. Cut to them cracking off pieces of the meteor. They put this on a fire. I guess it's a good thing that this was an iron meteorite; if it was a rocky one, they'd get nothing by doing this. We see Sokka tending the fire overnight. In the morning, they take the molten metal off of the fire and pour it into a cast. At this point, Piandao apparently takes over the whole "make Sokka's sword" thing, which kinda defeats the purpose of Sokka making his own sword. Piando does all of the anvil work and the final quenching of the blade, as well as the assembly of the handle, cross-piece (though as a Jian, it doesn't have much of one), and scabbard. Cut to Piandao's study, where Sokka and the Gaang are seated while Piandao makes his presentation. He draws Sokka's sword, revealing its black blade. Because obviously regular shiny swords aren't spechule enough for a member of the Gaang. No, he needs the Black Sword. He starts praising Sokka's "creativity, versatility, intelligence," saying that these are the traits of a great swordmaster. Then he hands Sokka the sword, saying that Sokka is more worthy of his training than any student he has ever taught. Yes, really. After two days, one of which was spent making a sword. Then, Sokka decides to grip the Idiot Ball, and he reveals his identity as a member of the Southern Water Tribe. He says that he lied to Piandao to receive training. And he apologizes. Piandao apologizes as well. Then he draws his sword and attacks, with Sokka barely blocking it. The rest of the Gaang tries to join in, but Sokka stops them, since This Is Something He's Got To Do Himself. It's a life-and-death situation, so naturally we cut to Iroh in his cell. The guard comes in with food, and he starts grousing about how Iroh used to be the best, the Dragon of the West, but now he's just a slob. The guard leaves, and Iroh pulls off his shirt to reveal that he's been stomach-stuffing. Now he's trim and muscular. I'll just assume that Iroh's been working out secretly like this ever since he was imprisoned. Oh wait; it was only two months until the eclipse and invasion, so he's been here for less than two months. So in less than two months, he has managed to go from rather corpulent to muscular. Another top-notch lesson for the kids: if you start an exercise regimen and it doesn't pay off in two months, it obviously won't work so you should give it up. Cut back to Sokka and Piandao, squaring off in the courtyard. Far be it from me to tell them what to do, Katara, but there's a good chance that your brother is about to be vivisected in front of your eyes. DO SOMETHING! But no. If she did that, we wouldn't have Sokka's counterpart to Katara's fight with Pakku. Only actually done well. As I previously mentioned in that review, Sokka is barely avoiding attacks. He's clearly flustered, surviving by the skin of his teeth, forced to pull out things he's not even sure will work just to be able to draw the next breath. Nothing he does is relaxed, smooth, or confident. Eventually, Sokka jabs the Black Sword into the stone and flings a bunch of dirt into Piandao's eyes, blinding him. Sokka you fool, you've hung around Toph long enough to know that blindness in the Avatar-verse is a minor setback at most, if not an actual improvement. The moment Sokka makes even the slightest noise, Piandao jumps him, disarms him and prepares for the killing blow. Oh, now the Gaang springs into action. Sure, just stand around and watch the actual fight where Sokka was mere moments from death at any second. But when Piandao is blinded and Sokka's disarmed, now's the time to spring into action. Anyway, Piandao spares Sokka. He even has Fat throw him his scabbard, which he catches with the tip of his sword, perfectly sheathing it. While blind. Oh, that's right, Avatar-verse. Nevermind. Anyway, Piandao decides not to fight the Avatar, thus revealing that he knew who they were. He also says he knew right from the start that Sokka was from the Southern Water Tribe, due to his name. He's even good enough to suggest "Li" as a better cover name, due to the preponderance of them. Piandao feels that anyone in the world should be able to learn the way of the sword. But only as long as they have a severe confidence problem, of course. Piandao gives back Sokka's sword, saying that it's time for him to train on his own. He also says that Sokka could become a greater master than he is. Not bloody likely. As the Gaang's leaving, Fat shows up to give them a Pai Sho tile, as a gift from Piandao. Naturally, it's a White Lotus tile. We end with Sokka giving Toph a piece of the meteorite fragment, and them arguing about whether it is still "earth" if it came from space. Oh, and Screw You, Aunt Wu: 6+Yue, for Sokka gaining the respect of the best swordsman in all the land, becoming his finest student, and making the Black Sword to wield against his enemies, in two days. Oh yeah, look at all that self-inflicted suffering. Well, that was... odd. There was no actual conflict that episode; less even than The Northern Air Temple. We see some of Sokka getting to be Sokka. It's nice to find someone who validates Sokka's existence. But while this episode is around Sokka and deals primarily with Sokka, it's really more about Piandao. So let's talk about him.
Down the Rabbit HolePiandao is the worst possible kind of Mary Sue: the intensional Sue. This isn't like The Chase; A-Sue-la was a well-intentioned accident. Piandao was written from the ground-up as a Sue. The Doyalist backstory of Piandao is that the writers wanted to write Sifu Kisu ("Sifu" being his title, which is where that stuff from Bitter Work comes from), their martial arts teacher and a creative consultant for the show, into the story. So, like many fanfic-style Mary Sue's, he's a friend-insert. They even patterned his look after Kisu. Piandao is perfect in every way. He's the greatest sword master in the Fire Nation, and nobody even attempts to dispute that. He is also a great sword smith. Yet despite his skills, he somehow isn't with the Fire Nation military, even though we saw that military dominating an entire village last episode. Indeed, as he's a member of the Order of the White Lotus, he's entirely neutral on the whole Avatar thing, so he's allowed to know the Gaang's secrets. He's rude, but only to those who he thinks are full of themselves. He's into the arts in a big way, because that's the kind of thing all wise, Asian masters do, right? He loves calligraphy, painting, and so forth. He has a giant castle and a massive estate with a great deal of beautiful land just for him. He probably also rules over that little town there. Oh, and he can blind-fight. Perfectly. And catch a thrown sheath on his sword. While blind. Sokka holds the Idiot Ball, both in not coming up with an actual cover name, and in deciding to tell him the truth. He's smart enough to not do either of these, but he does them here because the writers need him to do so in order to show that Piandao's a nice guy. The Watsonian backstory of Piandao... wow. This is Mary Sue-ism at its finest, folks. Normally, I don't bother with extra-canon material (stuff outside of the show). A show sinks or swims on its own; that's my feeling about it. But I decided to look him up, and it's eye-opening how far down the Mary Sue rabbit hole goes. So, he was an orphan, the child of two badass firebenders who were ashamed that their only child wasn't a firebender. I was hoping for a roaring rampage of revenge, but sadly, that did not occur. Also, exactly how they determined that this child wasn't a bender at an age before 10 is not stated. Anyway, he went to a camp where he showed an aptitude for the sword. Thus bringing him into the army. There, he was badass, winning every battle he was in. Of course, he eventually got tired of it, thinking that the Fire Nation's war was unjust. Because being a supporter of the war would have given his character layers and such, and you can't be a Mary Sue and still have layers. So he ran off. The timing of this would have to put it before Jeong-Jeong, so that's more of the Mary Sue eating continuity. After traveling the world, studying under benders, warriors and artisans, he went to live in the village where he now resides. The Fire Nation sent a team of a hundred soldiers to arrest him for desertion. He beat them. All of them. I remind you that Piandao is not a bender. After that, Firelord Azulon decided to leave his ass alone. Now that's how you write a Mary Sue side character. They weren't even trying to hide it in their backstory. Oh, and either Azulon or Ozai (it's not clear the timing of this) sent Zuko for some training with him; that's how Zuko knows how to use swords. Um... why? From a Watsonian perspective, Ozai wouldn't want Zuko getting potentially subversive ideas from someone like Piandao. And from a Doyalist perspective, why does everyone have to be taught by this one guy? Did he teach Ty Lee how to do that chi-blocking thing too, or Mai how to use her knives?
Hey, if Aang's allowed to open seven chakras in the course of mere hours, I see nothing wrong with Sokka becoming a competent swordsman in two days. I'm loving your blog, man. It's impressive how much you think about and analyze these things.
@Shadow Warden Well, thing is, mastering spiritual peace is one thing. A normal person learning good skill in an art that requires physical might and precision, as well as a proper mindset is something else entirely. On the commentary for this section, Brian Konietzko (one of the co-creators of the series) said, "Everything that Aang is wearing represents stylistic elements that Mike and I don't really care for." Um, OK. But why is it here? You're not really poking fun at it. And the references are so muddled and incomprehensible that it's impossible to even know what these stylistic elements actually are. You can't just put a bunch of stuff into a blender, plop it onto the screen, and expect us to know what the hell you're talking about. And it certainly doesn't amount to satire or mockery. I can clearly see what they were going for. They were parodying the insanely ridiculous Armour Costumes that are all the rage in JRPG's or Shonen Anime. They wanted to make an almigated reference. And they poked fun at it by having Aang unable to stand in the stuff, let alone move. You say pointless, I laughed, I saw where the satire was, and I knew what they were referring to. Because obviously regular shiny swords aren't spechule enough for a member of the Gaang. No, he needs the Black Sword. Well, if they have an Avatar, they may as well make the connection complete. And at least they didn't infuse an evil demon into it. The Fire Nation sent a team of a hundred soldiers to arrest him for desertion. He beat them. All of them. I remind you that Piandao is not a bender. Pssh. Come back when he's blown up a Tank with a Sword and a Hand Grenade.
Most people on an exercise regiment have...y'know...lives. They have jobs or friends or whatever so don't spend nearly as much time exercising if one might if all he had to do was sleep and eat. And let's face it—there's no reason to believe that Iroh isn't continually exercising whenever there's no one in the room with him or he isn't sleeping. Not to mention that he's not eating nearly as much as he would be otherwise, so it's not like he'd be putting on a lot of weight. So it's somewhat justifiable that Iroh gets more ripped in two months than most get in a year.
Really, the armor scene was pretty much one, BEVERLEY funny jab at Anime attitues and especially the toy markers, I find it a funny Fandom Nod to have Aang demonstrating why all that stuff that has been talked about to death wouldst work. Besides, "swosh, swosh" is gold. Also Piando was looking for humility not bad self-esteem. He gets tons of request by argat douchetards for traing, and heres a kimd amditting he needs help. Espiclly in an Asian culutre that goes far. Aslo note that this isnt just some slob, he's the M Otherfucking Dragon of the West, Iroh. 2 Months can get him boosted for sure. Also note that he's a military deserter. And in the art book , it is said that they wanted to do an insert of him from the start, but lacked the proper character, so when they decided to make an ep were Sokka gets a master, they naturally gave him their irl master. S Imple.
You forgot one point of the Sokka/Piandao duel; Piandao is praising Sokka every few seconds for instinctively pulling stunts that it took him years to figure out. He's saying that Sokka will be eventually more awesome than he is - and he's 1000% true. Sokka outdoes him by taking out an entire fleet of airships within just a few months.
As an Asian martial artist myself, I would just like to say that I fully agree with every one of your statements blasting the cryptic pseudo-wisdom that comes out of the mouths of every character that's supposed to be "wise". All that mystical stuff is the cancer that's killing my beloved kung fu and relegating it to obsolescence in the face of MMA.
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