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Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
Korval

[table of contents]
The Puppetmaster
You would have me use my feminine charms to take advantage of that poor man? I think you and I are going to get along swimmingly.
Hama, to Katara

We open with the Gaang sitting around a campfire. Sokka is telling ghost stories, but his imagination centers around the Black Sword, so noone is frightened. Katara tells a scarier ghost story, one that supposedly happened to their mother. While everyone is creeped out, Toph says she hears people screaming under the mountain. Nobody believes her.

Then... an Old Woman appears! After a bit of a scare, she introduces herself as Hama, an inn-keeper. She invites the children to stay the night, and they agree.

Cut to the inn. Hama tells them that they should be careful, since people have been disappearing in the woods they were staying in. Apparently, on nights of the full moon, people will enter the woods and never return. And this is all said creepily and with scary musical tones to emphasize the unsettling nature of everything.

The next day, the Gaang + Hama go shopping. When Katara points out that one of the merchants seemed to like her and might be willing to give her free stuff, Hama speaks the page quote at her. Hurray for morally dubious heroics!

Sokka and Aang overhear a conversation reminding them of the problem with people disappearing under the full moon. Sokka, in something of a callback, feels that the disappearances at night suggests spirit world issues. Aang figures that if they investigate, they'll figure out "what these people did to the environment to make the spirits mad."

Aang, the only other time you guys dealt with spirit world issues, the people in question had done nothing to the environment. It was just Hei Bai being an asshole to whoever had the misfortune of being nearby. Even if this were a spirit world problem, there's no reason for Aang to believe that it was caused by the people. We never even established that the Fire Nation caused the forest fire that pissed off Hei Bai.

Anyway, Hama says that she needs to run a few more errands, so she tells them to take their stuff back to the inn. Sokka observes that it is a "mysterious little town," to which Hama replies, "Mysterious town for mysterious children."

The writers are really laying it on thick this episode. At this point, the initial creepy atmosphere has been crushed under an avalanche of anvils.

Sokka thinks Hama's odd, but Katara thinks she's nice, reminding her of their grandmother. Sokka, not placated by this, decides to start snooping around the inn. Naturally, Katara's totally against this. Sokka eventually finds a cabinet and eventually forces the door. Out fall a bunch of puppets. Aang finds this creepy, but Katara figures she's just got a hobby.

OK, when Katara is being the most sensible member of the Gaang, things have gotten weird.

Now, Sokka decides to head into the attic and break into a locked door. Yes, really. I don't know where this OCC behavior is coming from, but it needs to stop. Indeed, Sokka says the fact that the door is locked means that she's hiding something. At this point, Katara really should just waterbend him to the ground; it'd be totally justified now.

Sokka manages to pick the lock with the Black Sword. Yes, really. Now even Aang is suggesting they not go in. Inside the room is a treasure chest, which Toph decides to use her meteor bracelet to pick. I'm sure in her month or so of metalbending experience, she's encountered and studied locks to the point where she can pick them. Oh, that's right; Sokka just pick a lock with the tip of a sword. Obviously, meteor-metal works as an omni-key.

Toph is able to crack the lock (even though she could have just metalbended it open), but Hama interrupts before they open it. Rather than throwing the Gaang out on their asses, she decides to show them what is inside it: a bone comb. Her last relic from her life in the Southern Water Tribe.

Dun Dun DUNNNN!

Hama then reveals that she knew they were from the SWT, as she attempted overheard Katara's little SWT ghost story. She didn't mention it earlier because she wanted to cook them a traditional SWT meal and tell them over dinner. In a callback to Bato, of the Water Tribe, Aang expresses disgust at this. Sokka tries to play off his dickheadedness, saying he knew she was hiding something, but Katara rightfully punches him in the arm and he apologises.

Cut to dinner, were we get a subtle reminder of Aang's aversion to sea prunes. Then Hama reveals that she's a waterbender, which delights Katara to no end. She says that she was the last waterbender taken by the Fire Nation. And we begin the flashbacks.

A much younger Hama, who was apparently friends with a much younger Kana, starts to see the Harbinger of Impending Fire Nation Attack: black snow. We get various action scenes of firebenders fighting waterbenders and other soldiers. The firebenders capture several waterbenders, but when they try that with Hama, she cuts herself free of the net.

We even get to see that ship from way back in the pilot, and how it was disabled. Eventually, the flashbacks end with Hama, as the last waterbender, being surrounded and captured. It's actually a great bit of animation, as she starts the shot looking badass, but as the camera circles around her revealing that she's all alone surrounded by firebenders, she becomes slowly resigned to her fate.

Back in the present, Hama says that she was imprisoned in the Fire Nation, and she was the only one who managed to escape. When Sokka asks how she escaped and why she stayed here, Hama says she can't talk about it, that it's too painful. Katara then tells her about the death of her mother, then calls Hama a hero. Hama then offers to teach Katara what she knows, which naturally Katara is all for.

Cut to the next day. Hama and Katara are in a field, training. Hama talks about how waterbenders are strong in the ice and snow, but are much weaker elsewhere. Katara talks about her feelings of helplessness in The Desert. Well, if she felt like there was nothing she could do, she certainly hid it well. Hama says that waterbenders have to control water wherever it is, and Katara talks about her sweatbending last episode.

Subtlety writers. Use your subtlety. Kids aren't that stupid.

Then Hama shows her how to yank water out of the air. Then, in her creepiest possible old-lady voice, she says, "You've got to keep an open mind, Katara. There's water in places you never think about." And she says this as she forms the water into icy claws on her fingertips, then flings them into stone.

Cut back to everyone not learning waterbending. And Aang. Because obviously, the Avatar shouldn't learn how to pull water out of thin air. That would never be useful or anything. Aang doesn't see anything environmental that could cause a spirit to start attacking people. When Toph suggests that the moon spirit might be responsible, Sokka goes apeshit on her. You mean in all the many months they've been with Toph, they never bothered to tell Toph about their escapades in the NWT? Oh right, not a character.

Anyway, they find out that a guy called "Old Man Ding" was the only one who saw the spirit and lived. So they head off to meet him.

Cut back to waterbending training. They are in a field of flowers. These are Fire Lilies. Because it's the Fire Nation; they have to stick that in front of everything. Hama then says that, like all living things, they're filled with water. Katara reminds us of The Swamp and the fact that Huu was able to move plants by bending the water in them. Hama demonstrates a more refined technique: she does a circular spin that rips the water from the plants and uses it to cleave a stone into neat slices.

Katara finds the power neat, but is concerned about the now brown flowers. Hama is naturally dismissive: "When you're a waterbender in a strange land, you do what you must to survive." This time, the line is much more subtle than some of the previous stuff. It at least sounds natural for someone who escaped from a Fire Nation prison.

Hama then tells her that tonight, she will teach Katara the ultimate waterbending move. It can only be done beneath a full moon though. Katara wonders at this, since people have been disappearing under a full moon, but Hama tells her not to worry. "Two master waterbenders" can take care of themselves under a full moon.

The rest of the Gaang find Ding, and he eventually tells them that he didn't see a spirit. He just felt his body being controlled. He was compelled to walk to a cave in a mountain, but the sun rose and the feeling left him. So he ran away. Toph puts this together with her earlier statement about people screaming underground. So the Gaang-1 is off.

After a shot of the Gaang-1 approaching the cave, we head to Katara and Hama in the forest. Hama starts hulking up on the moon power, saying that it makes her feel more alive.

Cut back to the Gaang-1. This time, the hyperactive editing between the scenes isn't jarring; it actually helps the storytelling by building suspense. They break through a door to find a bunch of trapped people in chains. The people tell the Gaang-1 that Hama did this to them. Naturally, the most important thing to do right now is to go fight a badass waterbender who escaped from a Fire Nation prison and can control people via some unspecified power who is now beneath the full moon.

Oh, and they leave Toph behind to break the people out. Because that's more important than bringing the most powerful member of the Gaang along. It's not like she's really a character or anything. And it's not like she couldn't metalbend them all free in like 10 seconds.

Cut back to Hama and Katara. Hama starts talking about how she escaped from prison. Apparently, the prison was specially designed for waterbenders. They kept water away from them and pumped dry air over them.

Urine. Saliva. These are both water. And don't say that you can't bend urine because it's not pure enough; we saw back in Return to Omashu that Katara could bend sewage. Which is a hell of a lot less pure water than urine. Indeed, Katara was able to bend mud in The Drill. And what about the sweat trick that Katara used just last episode?

Hama talks about how they would bind their hands and feet before giving them water. We get flashbacks of this, where the guards use long poles to give them water. Hama attempts to plug the many, many possible ways to escape by saying that signs of trouble were met with cruel retribution. Sadly, we don't get any flashback of what that was like.

Now, one might wonder: why doesn't the Fire Nation just kill them? I mean, they were perfectly willing to annihilate all of the Air Nomads. So why go through all this effort, building this elaborate prison that has to have all of these special procedures and stuff? It's not like the Fire Nation had an image to uphold or anything.

And no: "because it's a kid's show" doesn't cut it. They could have just not had this episode. Granted, this episode is actually very good overall. So maybe the writers just decided to accept the Fridge Logic for the sake of the cool episode.

Anyway, Hama apparently realized that there was water in all life. The rats in her cell were bags of water. So she spent years developing the skill to bend them: bloodbending. After mastering it on rats, she moved on to men. And through that power, she finally escaped by making the guards unlock her cell.

Naturally, all of this makes Katara uneasy; she doesn't want that kind of power. After all, why would you want the ability to control someone every month, thus ensuring that you could never ever be held captive again? Hama tells her that the power exists and it is her duty to use her gifts to win the war. Hama reminds her of what the Fire Nation has done, and of course mentions her mother. She then says that they have to fight them wherever they are.

This gets Katara to realize that she's been capturing people with bloodbending. Hama says that they deserved it for what they did to the SWT. And she says that Katara must continue that work. Naturally, Katara says no.

So Hama bloodbends her. Idiot; Hama even points out the stupidity of not learning the technique first. Hama forces Katara to her knees. After a fade to the moon, Katara is able to use its power to gain control over herself again. Because Katara always learns things instantly, right? It's not like they didn't have a whole episode that showed the exact opposite to be true.

So they fight, both of them drawing water from trees and plants. Obviously a waterbender who not 6 months ago couldn't hit a target directly in front of her gets the upper hand on a waterbender who was badass enough to be the last of her tribe to be captured, survived years in prison, and was able to develop a heretofore unknown technique of waterbending in order to escape. Then Sokka and Aang show up (how did they find them? Forests aren't small), saying that she's outnumbered.

Yeah, not so much dumbasses, as she bloodbends them into attacking Katara. Eventually, Katara is able to freeze them both to trees, and she tries to resume the attack on Hama. But Hama decides to unfreeze them and then tries to impale Aang on the Black Sword.

Katara stops this by bloodbending Hama. Yep; it's just that easy. It took Hama years to master it, but all Katara needed was a few minutes watching Hama. Naturally, Hama does not develop the ability to counter the technique she created the way Katara did. The Blind, Snarky Earthbender shows up with the other prisoners. Late and ineffectual as usual.

Cut to Hama being led away in chains; a guard tells her that she'll be locked away forever. Because the proper reward for a heroic waterbender who managed to escape captivity but eventually lost her nut and started attacking innocent people is imprisoning her again. That's totally what Hama deserves.

I love how nobody even attempts to just reason with her. You know, escape the scene with her and try to keep her from seeing all Fire Nation citizens as evil. Even though we had an episode supposedly devoted to teaching the Gaang this lesson, none of them makes any attempt to teach this to Hama.

And the scene isn't shot like this was a hard decision or anything. It doesn't present Hama being recaptured as anything but her just reward. There's no sense that they did what they had to, or that they're upset that she couldn't be talked down or anything. There is no recognition of the tragedy of this moment. Nope; she's evil and gets what she deserves.

Even Hama's last lines don't note the irony of the situation. No, all she says is, "My work is done. Congratulations, Katara: you're a bloodbender." Katara starts crying over this. Right, because this moment where a tragic hero is taken into captivity is all about you!

In spite of the ending, this is a pretty strong episode. It's rather heavy-handed in places, but Hama is a great and tragic character, and she works very well as a foil for Katara. After all, there must have been a time when Hama lived at peace within the Fire Nation, not using her bloodbending on people. You don't generally walk into town and instantly become an inn-keeper. And she was still reasonably young when she escaped; she must have lived among them for some time peacefully. I wonder what it was that set her off.

Maybe it started with people who deserved it. Maybe someone returned from the war and stayed at the inn. Maybe this person said something about the SWT, something that set Hama off. And maybe it was the wrong night, the night of the full moon when she could bend him. So Hama decided to get some well-deserved revenge. And she couldn't just stop with one; she had to do it more and more.

Hama is a dark mirror of Katara. We have seen throughout this series that Katara very much has issues with letting things go. She attacked Jet the very second he showed his face. We'll see this in later episodes too. Hama is what Katara could become. It could very easily have been Katara, the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, if she was taken from her family, imprisoned for years, and had to invent new superpowers just to escape.

Of course, Katara's a good person, not like Hama. Not at all. Obviously she would never use this power in a bid for personal revenge or anything. Nope, I'm totally sure that eight episodes from now, Katara will not wield bloodbending to bend someone to her will in order to murder them in cold blood.

20th Aug '11 8:20:35 PM flag for mods
comments
Right, because this moment where a tragic hero is taken into captivity is all about you!

Wow. Draco In Leather Pants and Ron The Death Eater much?

Also, when you were bitching about Hama's fate, you neglected to take into account Hama's motives as to why she did all this to teach Katara bloodbending. Simply put, she's old and near death. If she didn't pass on the technique she invented to a younger, stronger waterbender, than her technique would go with her when she died. This would pretty much make her entire messed up life a waste; as if she lived and suffered (and learned bloodbending) in vain. She had to ensure it all had meaning and teaching it to a girl who wanted nothing at all to do with it gave her a warped sense of closure. Which is why she gladly accepted being locked up in prison for the remainder of her life; it wouldn't be that long a life anyway. She got the result she wanted: Katara's a bloodbender. (HAHAHAHAHA!)
ManwiththePlan 21st Aug 11
Draco In Leather Pants and Ron The Death Eater much?

So you're saying that Hama isn't a tragic hero? That she actually deserves to spend the whole of her life imprisoned, because the Fire Nation stole her away, locked her and her closest friends up, probably tortured those who attempted escape?

Yes, she Jumped Off The Slippery Slope. But it's not like Hama would have done any of that if the Fire Nation hadn't been attacking her home and captured her. Katara was right to say that she's a hero. The tragedy is that, after badassing herself free, she simply couldn't leave things alone. And in so doing, became what she despised.

you neglected to take into account Hama's motives as to why she did all this to teach Katara bloodbending.

But she didn't do "all this" to teach Katara bloodbending. She didn't go around abducting people on the off-chance that a wandering waterbending master would show up that she could teach her skills to.

Hama went into the woods fully expected Katara to just learn the technique from her, the way she'd taught Katara the other stuff that day. The fight wasn't part of the plan. Nor was getting Aang and Sokka involved; that was just a fortunate circumstance for her.
Korval 22nd Aug 11
Yes, Hama's a tragic fallen hero. But she was still a crazy, morally dubious antagonist and what she was doing, as you said, wasn't right. Katara was overwhelmed by the scary technique she just learned to really pay attention to Hama's capture, so the "all about you" crticism doesn't fit.

And the abducting people had nothing to do with her plans for Katara, nor did Aang and Sokka's involvement, and certainly not her getting locked up again. What I'm saying as that this time, she was able to accept being imprisoned for the rest of her remaining life because she had accomplished what she was setting out to do with Katara.
ManwiththePlan 24th Aug 11
If they're bound they CANNOT bend. They just ensure that they are chained whenever they would need to go, and that when they ARE unchained they make sure that any messes are cleaned, and to beat the fucking shit out of them if they move a finger.

And I'd note that Katara did it for legitimate revenge, Hama was just committing hate crimes. You see an old Japanese man on the news chaining up white people in his basement for months because he was in interment and see how much sympathy he gets.
JusticeMan 30th Aug 11
While you complain about lack of subtlety, ironically, I actually assumed the overt "witch" and "creepy" references were meant to be red herrings, and there was nothing odd going on, or a logical explanation.

The way the prisoners were treated in that flashback looked exceptionally harsh for a kids' cartoon. Quite morbid. Not complaining, as I think kids can handle this stuff (and probably have pretty damn morbid imaginations themselves), not to mention there's the season 1 threat, "We'll keep you alive, but just barely" to Aang to prevent his reincarnation.
BonsaiForest 10th Nov 11
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