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Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
Korval

[table of contents]
The Avatar and the Fire Lord
Then what was the point?
Sokka, asking the most important question of this episode

The episode begins with Aang dreaming. Roku appears to him and tells him that he needs to head to Roku's former home on the day of the summer solstice. Um... why? Aang seems to be able to talk to his past Avatars whenever they feel like. So why does he need to go there on this particular day?

Cut to Zuko, also asleep. Zuko hears a sound that wakes him up, but when he goes to check, he sees nobody. He does find a scroll however, with a message, telling him to find the true story of his great-grandfather's demise, that it will reveal his destiny.

Back to the Gaang. They fly to an island with a pair of volcanoes on it. But there don't appear to be any houses. The Blind, Snarky Earthbender is blind, so she sees hundreds of houses buried under the volcanic ash.

And now back to Zuko. He's standing in a hallway, looking at some tapestries of the Firelords of old. Azula walks by, and Zuko gets her to exposit about Sozin. She says that he had been preparing for the war for some time, but patiently waited for the comet to make his first strike. And that he died in his sleep, old and successful.

Goodbye, Azula; your presence here was the high point of the episode.

Back to the Gaang again. Aang is meditating at sunset, then his tattoos start glowing and he's now in the Spirit World. Oh, and in the Spirit World, Aang is bald and wearing his old stuff. Residual self-imaging, no doubt. Roku shows up on his dragon. Speaking of which, we've seen that Kyoshi's residual self-image is herself in the prime of her youth. Yet Roku is always old. Even though she ostensibly lived longer. I guess old ladies aren't allowed to be badass Avatars or something.

Cut back to Zuko. He's frustrated, as he has no idea what the scroll could be talking about. In a fit of frustration, he accidentally tosses it onto a lantern, which causes the invisible ink to show up. Good thing he did that; otherwise, half the plot (if you can call something this tepid "plot") would have stopped. The words tell him to seek out the Fire Sage's histories stored in something called the Dragon Bone catacombs.

We see Zuko watching a Fire Sage open a firebending lock, much as we have seen before, then descending into a secret floor compartment. So they use firebending locks. In the Fire Nation, where there is the largest concentration of firebenders in the world. Sure, why not. Zuko sneaks in, showing how useful these firebending locks are. He eventually finds where they keep Sozin's history and starts reading.

Meanwhile, Roku is taking Aang on a journey to his past. We cut to Zuko to hear Sozin's narration on his deathbed. He speaks of happier times, when he was playing with his friend in his youth. And we see two guys firebending at each other. The slightly shorter one notices that the taller one is near a tree root, so he does a few firebending moves that cause him to trip over it, thus winning him the match. Then, the shorter one introduces us to the taller one: Roku. Which makes the other one Sozin.

Yes, Aang and Zuko are once again doing the same thing at the same time. Get comfy.

Anyway, we see Aang and old Roku watching the duel. Young Roku, after being defeated claims that the root did all the work, but he does give Sozin the credit. Aang is surprised that he was friends with Sozin. Old Roku says that Sozin was his BFF.

Well, minus the last letter at any rate.

A random woman walks by, and young Roku blushes. Sozin tells him to go talk to her, but Roku is tongue died and fails. Old Roku tells Aang that love is hard when you're young, but it gets better eventually. Then they fast-forward to Roku and Sozin's shared birthday party.

Young Roku and Sozin are descending some steps before the waiting crowd, but Roku spots the lady from before. This would have caused him to face-plant if Sozin hadn't grabbed him. A group of Fire Sages appear, and Sozin thinks that it has something to do with his father. Which suggests that the Fire Sages always had something to do with the Firelord and his family. They say it's about the next Avatar, so they tell them that it is Roku.

After the commercials, cut back to Zuko. Sozin's narration helps us fast-forward to Roku getting ready to leave the Fire Nation in order to get his Avatar training. Sozin walks into Roku's room and gives him a bit of good-natured ribbing about being the Avatar. But that doesn't break Roku's somber mood. It turns out that the Fire Sages told him that he wouldn't be taking any worldly possession with him.

Who the hell are the Fire Sages to be telling the Avatar what he can and can't take on a multi-year trip to other nations? Methinks they're getting a little big for their britches. Of course, Roku is the worst Avatar ever, so he doesn't deliver the appropriate smackdown; he just takes it.

Anyway, Sozin decides to give him his hairpin, which is the iconic hairpiece we've seen old Roku wear. Young Roku points out that it is a royal artifact, to be worn by the Crown Prince.

I'm not sure I understand what this is trying to say about Sozin and Roku. Sozin is giving away something that doesn't really belong to him. He's effectively depriving all future Fire Nation Princes of their birthright. What's worse is that it doesn't really seem like a personal gift. The hairpiece has not been established as something that Roku was interested in, or a unique part of Sozin's identity. He simply wore it in the scenes we saw it in. This is supposed to be a big moment in their relationship, but the gift itself doesn't hold very much inherent meaning, nor does it make sense to be giving away something that doesn't belong to him.

In any case, after this ostensibly touching scene between two BF Fs, we cut to a bit of Komedy!. It's even callback humor, as Sokka's remark on the lack of bathrooms in the Spirit World reminds one of an earlier piece of Komedy!.

Because Sozin didn't see the next part, old Roku takes over narrating duties, as the pair approach the Southern Air Temple for Roku's airbending training. We find out that Roku trained alongside Gyatso, and we get a quick vignette of the pair doing airbending stuff with gliders that ends in a crash. Old Roku explains that some friendships can transcend lifetimes.

Sure why not.

Cut to the Northern Water Tribe, where he's learning watebending. Old Roku narrates that waterbending was particularly hard for him, but even eventually mastered it. And we see him waterbend a wave so big it likely drowns half the Northern Water Tribe.

Cut to a random mountain, presumably in the Earth Kingdom. Here, he learns from a guy named "Sud." Do people in the Earth Kingdom name their children on dares or drunken bets or what? Old Roku says that Sud was a typical earthbender: hard, stubborn, and blunt. So basically, male-Toph. We get a shot of the two using earthbending to ski up-hill on slabs of stone, and they're having a race. Naturally, Roku wins.

Cut to random beach, where not-as-young Roku is doing some bending for no apparent reason. He's able to make 4 simultaneous bending attacks by doing 4 moves in succession. Which is harder than it sounds.

Now back to Zuko. Sozin's narration tells us that it took 12 years for Roku to master the other three elements. For Aang, it will be 8 months. That's pretty pathetic, Roku.

When younger Roku walks back into the Fire Nation throne, we find out that Sozin's Firelord now. The throne wasn't as dark and foreboding in those days. Also, since Sozin's Firelord, I guess he'll be needing that hairpin back for his son to wear. Sozin is initially standoffish with Roku, saying that his subjects should bow in his presence. But then he embraces his old friend. Aww. I guess.

Old Roku narrates that Sozin was still his best friend. Sure, after 12 years without any communication save letters. And a while later, Sozin was best man at Roku's wedding. So they have best men in Fire Nation weddings in the Avatar-verse. Oh, and Roku married that girl from before, proving to Aang that the first girl always wins, which Aang will naturally take to heart.

Sozin narrates that he had his own vision for the future, one he attempted to share with Roku. He takes Roku to a courtyard overlooking a city and the ocean. He talks about destiny, his being the Firelord and Roku's being the Avatar. He points out that together, they could do anything. Sozin then suggests that they take the Fire Nation's current prosperity and "share" it with other nations by expanding the empire.

Roku cuts him off, not even wanting to consider it. Obviously, Roku patiently explains to his friend how this plan will harm the world. What? He doesn't? He just says he doesn't want to hear about it and storms off in a huff?

It is at this point when the episode kinda falls apart (not that there was much to hold together anyway). The episode has been trying to make us believe that Sozin and Roku are BFF. That they're tight with each other. And so forth. The problem is that this is never really shown. The closest we get to that is the gift that Sozin gives Roku, which wasn't a very good example anyway. They behave like friends with each other, but I'm going to need a little more than good-natured ribbing to see them as BFF.

The thing that this scene shows is just how hollow this supposed friendship really is. When confronted with Sozin's suggestion, at no time does Roku offer anything more than the usual Avatar platitudes: "The four nations are meant to be just that: four." It is so impersonal a line that he could have been talking to anyone and his dialog wouldn't have needed to change. He doesn't ask where Sozin got these ideas from. He doesn't try to explain why the Fire Nation shouldn't try to run the world.

The whole idea behind the Avatar's training is that each Avatar must intercourse with different cultures in order to complete their training. This helps them form a respect for each culture, which broadens their perspective and allows them to see the good in each. This is exactly the kind of perspective that Sozin needs and Roku could provide. Roku ought to be able to talk about each of the cultures and explain why they should exist separately from the Fire Nation, what each one brings that is unique and special in the world. Does he? Of course not. Because Sozin is the badguy, and we don't talk to or reason with badguys.

This is not a test...

Honestly, if we didn't know anything about Sozin, the war, etc, and just went from this flashback, Roku would come off as a major jerk, not even wanting to hear his friend out. This isn't a discussion between close friends that creates a rift between them. It's a discussion between semi-familiar acquaintances that shows that they're far apart on certain major issues.

Old Roku has the gall to call this his first test as the Avatar. Please; we never saw any soul searching from Roku. We never saw any grand debate. There wasn't so much as a hesitation: Sozin offered, Roku said no, end of story. This is a damn far cry from the Seduction of Zuko from last season's finale. That is how you test someone.

Old Roku says that it was years later when he found out that Sozin decided to ignore him and invade the Earth Kingdom anyway. Even-less-young Roku spots an Earth Kingdom city that's flying Fire Nation colors.

Cut to him barging in on the Fire Nation throne room, Roku accosting Sozin about the attack. Sozin calls him a traitor for not obeying his Firelord. Roku tells him not to challenge him, and says that the invasion is over. When Roku walks away, Sozin firebends at him, but misses due to Roku tunneling underground. He pops up behind Sozin and takes him out with ease. For good measure, he goes into the Avatar State and destroys that wing of the palace.

Roku tells Sozin that he will be spared, in memory of their old friendship. Of course, the many servants and so forth in that part of the palace aren't so lucky.

So, all it took to end their friendship for the ages was two conversations. Man, this is George Lucas-level bad writing here. Actually no; Revenge of the Sith at least had that scene where Obi-Wan was broken up about having to strike Anakin down. Here, we don't even get to see how Roku or Sozin felt about the end of their supposed friendship.

Cut to not-as-young Roku at his home. Old Roku says that he hadn't seen Sozin for 25 years. One day, on Roku's home island, one of the two volcanoes began to erupt. Too bad he didn't have Toph-Vision to tell him about an impending eruption. Or an earthquake. Or anything. Roku and his wife leave, but the hairpin that Sozin gave him was left behind. We see shots of them running away from the smoke and ash.

Then Roku stops and turns around. He uses some airbending to help him see, and then he heads back towards the volcano. Um, why? We see everyone get off the island OK. Unless this were Krakatoa, they'll probably be just fine. And even then, I'm sure he could help the boats get away faster with some Avatar State waterbending. But no, Roku just decides to kill himself for no reason.

Cut to Sozin. He narrates that he could feel the earthquake from the eruption and see the plume from a hundred miles away. Um, I was just kidding about Krakatoa, but is that what they're going for here? Because that's not how it works. Krakatoa exploded. It wasn't just an eruption; it blew up, destroying a 5km-wide swath of the island. The explosion could be heard from a hundred miles away, and was likely the loudest sound produced during human history. By the time Sozin heard it, everyone would already be dead and the island wouldn't exist anymore.

We get two minutes of padding, where Roku works to get the lava flow under control. Old Roku talks about how hard it was to fight it with the toxic gasses. Yeah, however much the writers knew about martial arts, they really don't know much about volcanoes. The toxic gas would be the least of his worries. Besides the super-heated magma (we'll assume that he can get marginally close to it thanks to firebending), the main threat is the pyroclastic flow: the super-heated volcanic ash. It's basically hot cement powder; if breathing it doesn't burn your lungs, it'll congeal them into the consistency of a rock.

Roku's dragon appears to help, but Roku tells it to go away, saying he's fine. Eventually, Roku blows the back out of the volcano, thus channeling the lava flow that way. Just in time for the other volcano on the island to erupt.

A Sozin appears! He offers aid. Roku keeps the lava from bursting out, while Sozin uses a heretofore unseen technique to pull the heat from the lava, turning it into stone. It looks surprisingly like Iroh's lightning redirection technique. This seems to work. As the pair run from the summit, Roku gets a faceful of gas, causing him to collapse. Sozin then just leaves him to die, saying that with Roku's death, his dreams are possible.

Of course, one might ask why he bothered to come by and help at all if that's the case. Now, what would have made this not stupid is if Roku asked why Sozin came, and Sozin said, "To save my people. You're not one of us anymore." That would have shown that he had loyalty to the Fire Nation people, but still hated Roku enough to leave him to die. But no, it's just Sozin being a dick one last time. Roku's dragon circles around him as the pyroclastic flow envelops him. Because suicide pacts are fun, and carrying him away would have been totally impossible.

Cut to Aang's birth. Roku tells Aang to make sense of his past to help him preserve the future. Then Roku disappears.

Cut to Zuko, still reading. Sozin speaks of everything we already know. He knew the next Avatar would come from the Air Nomads, so he used the comet to destroy them. But he somehow knew the Avatar survived. We even see shots of Fire Nation ships patrolling the Southern Water Tribe, and the camera goes underwater to show us Aang's ice cocoon.

But that's where it ends. Zuko looks for more information, but there is none.

Cut to Zuko barging into Iroh's cell. He claims that Iroh sent the note, and then complains that the "secret history" is mostly a matter of public record.

And then... Iroh starts talking.

OK, I'm ignoring the Doyalist reasons for Iroh's lack of communication thus far. But whatever the outside-the-story reasons for it, the ultimate effect created was important. The moment when Iroh finally talks to Zuko again is supposed to be significant. Here, it just sorta happens, as though the two have been chatting through the cell bars for weeks. It should have been an important moment for both characters. When Iroh could start to forgive Zuko for what he did, and it would have marked the moment when Zuko started to go back towards the right path. But no, it's just here, with no significance whatsoever.

The worst part is this: Iroh and Zuko don't meet again in the cell. And their next meeting would have been the perfect place for them to resume talking. It would have given Iroh's words and deeds greater weight, and enhanced that particular scene. Everything would have been better if Iroh had just left Zuko another letter here.

Anyway, Iroh tells him that Zuko has more than one great-grandfather. And that Ursa's grandfather (as though she only had one) was Avatar Roku. When Zuko asks why it matters, Iroh begins... one of those speeches.

He says that the battle between his ancestors mirrors the battle within himself. Except that it doesn't. In any way, shape, or form. The battle within Zuko is all about doing what he believes is right vs. what his family tells him to do. The battle between Roku and Sozin was about what each of them thought was right. Sozin didn't want to invade the world because his family told him to (or if he did, the show never bothered to tell us). He did it because he thought it was best.

Iroh continues, but I'll leave what he talked about as an aside at the end; there's a lot to unpack.

So we'll skip to him reaching into a hidden compartment in his cell, where he removes a bundle containing the Princely hairpin. I... what... who...? How in the hell did Iroh get that? I know he must have someone sneaking messages out for him to be able to contact Zuko. But it's not about how he got it in prison; the last we saw of that particular item, it was about to be buried under tonnes of volcanic ash. The show was very clear about it: it was left behind in Roku's house, which was buried.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, we never see it again. Ever. Zuko doesn't wear it in his next few appearances or anything. It's as though the fact that Iroh couldn't possible have it caused a ripple effect in space-time that made the hairpin stop existing after this episode.

After that, cut to the Gaang; Aang explained the story off-screen. Katara talks about how, despite sparing Sozin's life, Sozin still betrayed Roku in the end. Yeah, it's not like Roku's unwillingness to so much as hear Sozin out counted as betrayal first. Sozin's evil; he doesn't have a perspective or a personality other than being evil.

When Toph says that they are just born bad, Aang says that that's not what Roku was trying to say. Aang points out that Roku was from the Fire Nation. Aang says that Roku's lesson is that everyone needs to be given a chance, even people in the Fire Nation.

Except that, while Roku was born in the Fire Nation, he abandoned it on his sixteenth birthday for twelve years. He may have been a native, but he's lived in a lot of different places. Plus, he has the Avatar Spirit, so he'd likely have Kyoshi riding his ass if he stepped out of line. So it's not like he the same as any other Fire Nation citizen.

The oddest thing is that this is not a lesson Aang needed to learn. It's not like we haven't already seen good Fire Nation citizens. Last episode, we had a big fat Mary Sue of a Fire Nation citizen. Before him was Jeong Jeong and his people. And then there are all of the Fire Nation citizens they've met in-between. The ultimate lesson of the episode is entirely redundant.

So the Gaang holds hands before the sunrise and the credits roll.

That was a waste of time. All that much for a lesson the Gaang already learned. That's pretty sad and pathetic in and of itself, but even moreso when you consider how starved the second half of this season will be for time. There was no development for any actual characters in the series. The tension of the episode turns on a friendship that was ultimately forced and unconvincing.

On top of that, the episode is pretty poorly structured. There's a lot of padding with things we don't need, when they could instead be talking about things the episode really needed. Take Roku's Avatar training. You could have told that from the perspective of letters the two friends sent back and forth. But no, it was 2 minutes with characters we barely knew if we knew them at all, who had nothing to do with the central story. The volcano sequence through to the end takes up the entire 3rd act; don't tell me that they couldn't trim some of that down for some actual character building.

Oh, but there's one more thing.

On the Nature of Legacy

What happened generations ago can be resolved now…by you. Because of your legacy, you alone can cleanse the sins of our family and the Fire Nation. Born in you, along with all this strife, is the power to restore balance to the world.
Iroh

Oh my God, how I hate these lines. I hate everything about them.

First, let's point out the obvious. Why isn't Iroh having this conversation with Azula too? You know, Ursa's other child, who also has Roku's blood in her? Why wasn't "the power to restore balance" born in her too? Where's her conflict between good and evil? Why is it that only Zuko can do this and not her?

Because she's evil; no reason other than that. For all of her personality and development, she's a badguy, and therefore there is no conflict within her. No destiny to help restore balance. Nada; she's an obstacle, and that's all the writers ever intended for her. Indeed, some fans speculate that Azula was adopted or something because of these lines, that she couldn't be a scion of Roku just like Zuko.

And now the more subtle parts. I have a personal distaste for this notion of noble legacy. That Zuko is able to do this only because he was born from Roku. That it was the direct merging of Roku's line with Sozin's that led to the possibility of hope. That Zuko couldn't have made the right choice without that. That nobody else could possibly help Aang become the Avatar, and the only reason that Zuko can do it is because he is descended from Roku. It has nothing to do with who he is or what he believes; it is only about what he inherited.

Ozai, who is pure Sozin, is irredeemably evil; Ursa, pure Roku, is a saint. Zuko is a mix. Iroh is very clearly saying that good and evil is genetic, which was supposed to be the exact opposite of what the episode was about, that people aren't born evil. So Iroh's speech doesn't even jive with the episode's overall message. Not to mention the fact that Iroh is just as purely descended from Sozin as Ozai. Yet he's delivering this speech.

This notion that only people from a certain lineage can save the world is annoying, BS, and is something I personally detest in fiction. There's also the notion planted by the episode's ending that maybe Aang's teachers are all descended from Roku's teachers or Roku himself. After all, Katara's grandmother is originally from the NWT. Sud is a stupid enough name that Toph almost sounds legitimate by comparison. We know that Gyatso personally trained Aang and was close with Roku. And we know that Zuko is descended from Roku himself.

This idea that the Avatar has a specific circle of friends that they meet over and over in each lifetime, that nobody else can break into, pisses me off. Fortunately, the episode never actually says that this is the case; it's only somewhat implied.

Want to know the sad part? Nothing that happens in this scene, none of it ever matters. Zuko doesn't do a Heel Face turn because of what Iroh says. He doesn't do it because of his lineage. He doesn't do it because destiny makes him. His final reason for leaving the Angels and joining the Gaang has nothing to do with anything Iroh tells him here. He would have done the same thing if this episode never existed, and it would have been just as plausible. So not only do we have this atrocious idea that good and evil is genetic, that the only worthwhile people are those born to a certain line, that only certain people can be allowed to teach the Avatar the various bending forms, but all of that ultimately makes no difference in anything in the story.

18th Aug '11 10:46:22 PM flag for mods
comments
So what Iroh is saying is that he's evil?
Ghilz 19th Aug 11
Good job analyzing the whole Roku thing with Zuko. That wasn't good writing: it was an unnessecary twist that gives all sorts of Unfortunate Implications and then is never spoken of again. Yes, even when Zuko is with Aang, he never once tells him "Hey, you were my great grandfather in your past life, y'know." Making the whole reveal pointless. So you're actually right on this; none of it did matter.
ManwiththePlan 19th Aug 11
I originally liked this episode, but all the flaws you point out are true. At first, my complaint was that "Let's share our prosperity with the world" seemed like a dumb reason to start a war, unless Sozin was lying to Roku. But the things you point out are much bigger writing mistakes.
BonsaiForest 10th Nov 11
I agree that the whole Genetic Morality bit was a line of bull... but for some reason I think Iroh knew it was a line of bull, and more to the point a line of bull that would get Zuko thinking in terms of living up to different ancestors rather than making his Old Man happy.
HTorranceGriffin 11th Nov 11
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