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Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
Korval

[table of contents]
The Western Air Temple
I'm beginning to wonder who's really the blind one around here.
Toph Bei Fong, who barely qualifies as blind anyway

The episode begins with a shot of the Gaang+3 walking across a plain. Katara apparently feels humiliated. Well, maybe next time you should let people know when you are captured by an enemy while carrying plans for an attack against said enemy. Apparently, they're walking because Appa got tired from carrying lots of people. Even though it's only 3 more than before. Hey Aang, maybe you should get him out of his armor; all that leather and metal has to weigh more than the other kids.

Well... I wasn't expecting that...

Suddenly Toph stops, saying that they've arrived at the temple. Katara is confused, as there's nothing but a cliff in front of them, but Aang confirms that they are at the temple. It turns out that the temple is built on the bottom side of a cliff, with inverted buildings.

Cut to Zuko, climbing down to the temple on a rope. I guess the whole "walking" thing was to justify how Zuko got to the temple before them. He looks around, then goes into a flashback.

Iroh and a much younger Zuko with a bandage around his left eye are looking around. Zuko is already focused on finding the Avatar, but Iroh exposites that it's only been a week since his banishment, saying that he needs to heal and rest. Zuko naturally gets pissed, calling him the laziest man in the Fire Nation, and then says that he has to find the Avatar to regain his honor, so he will.

Cut back to present-day Zuko, looking ashamed at the memory. He spies the Gaang+3 coming, so he runs off.

The non-Gaang Troika quickly make themselves scarce, but when Aang tries to join their temple exploration, Katara cuts him off, saying that they need to make plans. Sokka says that, since his whole invasion thing failed miserably, the idea is to go back to the old plan: master all 4 elements and defeat Ozai before the comet arrives. Aang points out that he can't do that without a firebending teacher.

Katara suggests Jeong-Jeong, but Aang says that they'd never be able to find him. Toph reminds us that she wasn't around in season 1; I point that out because it actually matters this episode. Since that one idea wouldn't work, Aang figures that they should just take a tour of the temple. So Aang goes flying off.

Well, that character development wore off fast, didn't it?

Sokka gives us a segue into Zuko apparently trying to convince someone that he's changed and can teach Aang firebending. His dialog is really unnatural, and he stumbles over what he's saying. Then the reveal; he's talking to a frog.

Zuko realizes that his spiel wasn't very convincing. So he wonders what Iroh would tell him, followed by a bad Iroh impression spouting nonsense. Then he considers what Azula would do, for some reason. In Zuko's warped mind, she would simply threaten them with harm/death if they don't accept her. Which shows how much Zuko knows his sister; she wouldn't give them a choice in the matter.

Back to the Gaang. They are following Aang, trying to get him to come talk about their future plans, which he doesn't want to hear. When they land, Toph then senses someone and points towards Appa. Appa moves and a Zuko appears!

Naturally, they take up fighting stances. Zuko says that he figures they're surprised to see him, but Sokka points out that they've seen him everywhere. Zuko talks about how he has changed, that he's good now, and can teach Aang firebending. Katara is incensed. Zuko tells them about the time he let Appa go free, and Appa licks him. Sokka figures that he covered himself in honey to make Appa lick him.

Katara and Sokka run down some of his crimes, like attacking their village and the like. Zuko start apologizing for them, then he apologizes for sending the third-eye guy after them. Which they didn't know he was responsible for.

Oops.

Everyone gets pissed. Everyone except Aang, that is. Zuko notices this, then reminds him of that time at the end of The Blue Spirit, when Aang said that they might be friends. Aang thinks about it for a bit, then decides that Zuko is just too untrustworthy. This gets Zuko frustrated, but Sokka tells him to leave or they'll attack.

Zuko then suggests that he could be taken prisoner instead. Nope: Katara waterbends at him. Count yourself lucky Zuko; Katara waited until after the conversation was over before attacking. She's usually in Kill On Sight mode, and even this time she warns him of the fate in store for him if they see him again. Zuko counts his blessings and fairly flees for his life.

Cut to Zuko back in his camp. He calls himself stupid for telling the Gaang that he sent an assassin after them. This scene ends as Zuko points out that he could have blamed that on Azula, and we get a bit more Komedy! with the frog.

Back to the Gaang. They wonder why he would try that. Katara mentions how it reminded her of how he acted in prison. She says that he made it seem like he was "an actual human being with feelings." Right, because he wasn't one of those before he started talking to you. Katara seems ashamed that this worked on her, that she did feel sorry for him, which of course led to him joining his obviously evil sister and killing Aang.

Then Aang calls back to The Blue Spirit, saying that Zuko was the one who freed him, that Zuko risked his life to save him. Katara points out that it was only so that he could personally capture Aang. Then she wonders about Zuko talking about freeing Appa.

Toph tells them that he wasn't lying about that. Sokka points out that this was only one act to stack against all of his other crimes. Toph says that, considering his family, he could have turned out worse. Katara sarcastically suggests throwing a parade for Zuko, for not being as big an asshole as he could have been. Toph suggests that they're letting their personal feelings get in the way, which leads to the other three rattling off another list of Zuko's actions.

When Katara asks why Toph is defending him, she points out that Aang needs a firebending teacher, and Zuko's offering. Yet none of them will even consider it. The other three are adamant about not having Zuko join, so Toph storms off, speaking the page quote.

Let's analyze these arguments for a bit. Toph is very much correct that the rest of the Gaang is letting their personal feelings cloud their judgment. The problem with Toph's position is so obvious that she practically says it herself, "Now [a firebender] shows up on a silver platter..."

When enemies conveniently show up on silver platters, claiming to be reformed, that means one thing: trap. The risk is way too great to just invite him to join because he says he's better. However much they need a firebender, they need Aang to not be dead more. And it's way too easy for someone to cause damage when they're a part of your group. Even as a prisoner, there would be no way they could ever rest with him around.

So the Gaang have used faulty logic to come to the right conclusion. While Toph used correct logic to come to the wrong conclusion.

That being said, this conversation works well, and Toph actually gets to be a person with her own ideas and such about what to do next. This scene emphasizes the fact that she never really got to know Zuko as an enemy. And she thinks the way she does because she's rarely personally experienced Zuko going after her. She's able to focus on the goal (learning firebending) and less so on who's doing it.

That all gets tossed out the window, as we cut to nighttime. Toph shows up in Zuko's camp, but it's dark and Zuko firebends through his campfire blindly. Toph is able to block most of it, but her feet get burned. Zuko gets up and tries to help, but she flails around and hits him with a rock, then leaves.

Zuko impotently screams, "Why am I so bad at being good?!" Because you fail at everything you do.

Cut to a morning breakfast of rice with the Gaang-1+3. Katara asks about Toph, but nobody has seen her since she stormed off. The Troika offers to go check on her, but this is all just to get them out of the way for the plot-relevant stuff.

Toph bursts through a nearby wall. She tells them what happened with Zuko, but she tries to cast it in a good light, saying that it was an accident. Aang and Sokka decide that leaving Zuko to his own devices is too dangerous, so they decide to do something about it. Toph suggests taking him up on his offer of being taken prisoner, which devolves into Komedy! from Sokka.

As Toph is getting her feet treated, cut to a POV shot from far away. A Combustion Man Appears! None of them notice, as Toph-Vision is (conveniently) out of commission. Well, supposedly; she ought to be able to see with her hands, but the writers forgot about that. Anyway, as he prepares to strike... A Zuko Appears! to stop him.

Zuko throws off his aim, turning a kill shot into a warning shot. Zuko tries reasoning with him, telling him that the mission is over, then offering money to stop. For some reason, the paid assassin ignores this. I love the DVD commentary for this scene, as they try to invent reasons for the paid assassin to continue attacking despite his employer calling off the contract. One of them suggests that Azula got involved, another suggests that maybe he figures the Firelord will compensate him well for doing the deed.

Because if the creators of the show can't even bother to come up with an explanation for something after the fact, that's good. Right?

Speaking of which, after Zuko attacks him (failing of course), Combustion Man turns his eye towards him. Zuko uses a fire shield to try to protect himself, but he's still blown over the side. There's a fleeting moment when we're supposed to think Zuko's dead, but then we see him holding on to some vines.

The Gaang took cover while Zuko had him distracted. Aang and Katara try various attacks, but eventually he has them pinned down. As it looks like he's just going to blow up the building they're standing on, Sokka gets an idea. He traces back the trajectory of the attacks, then hurls his boomerang from around a corner. Naturally, this hits Combustion Man perfectly in the third eye. As alluded to before, this makes his next shot misfire, which apparently kills him. We see his metal arm fall off, which is good enough for a kid's show.

Screw You, Aunt Wu: 8+Yue, for Sokka taking out a badass firebender that the other Gaang members all failed to stop.

Zuko meets up with the Gaang, who thank him. Zuko is a lot more coherent now. He says that he's been through a lot, but that has all helped him to see the truth. That only he can restore his own honor, by doing what's right. He then says that it's his destiny to help Aang restore balance to the world. Of course, the last time he thought he knew what his destiny was, that didn't exactly work out so well.

Then, he turns to Toph to apologize. And he sounds really... weird here. Almost like a speech he practiced beforehand, saying exactly the kinds of things that one is supposed to say, but without any of Zuko's character to them. He talks about how fire is wild and that, as a firebender, he has to control his bending to keep from hurting people. I'm not saying it's OOC, but it really doesn't sound like Zuko.

Aang buys into this whole destiny thing, calling back to when he first tried firebending and he burned Katara. So he accepts Zuko. But he first needs to check with the rest of the Gaang. They give their approval, with Katara clearly doing it through clenched teeth. Zuko is happy, but there are no smiles or hugs here.

Cut to later. Sokka shows Zuko to his room. After Sokka leaves, Zuko has a flashback to himself and Iroh. His younger self repeats his refrain about his destiny being to capture the Avatar. Iroh tells him about how destiny can lead him down unexpected roads. But he will find his destiny if he keeps his mind and heart open.

Back in the present, Katara comes in. She very clearly threatens him with death should she detect even the slightest hint of backsliding. As badass as this is intended to be, there's no follow up on it at all. She may as well not have said it.

That was a pretty decent episode. We got to see Toph have an actual character, with her own opinions about the plot and so forth. Zuko was accepted into the Gaang, but it's clear that they're not particularly happy about it. After all he's done, he has to earn their respect and trust.

Consequences for actions. That's all I ask.

The omniscient perspective here also seemed to damage, not the episode itself, but the possibilities around it. Because we saw the scene last episode where Zuko confronted Ozai, we as the audience know that Zuko is sincere. So the audience tension is whether the Gaang will see that sincerity.

Imagine if we didn't have that scene. Or any other scene of Zuko, outside of what the Gaang sees. We as the audience would be as cautious about trusting him as they are. Indeed, Toph's position would have seemed much more naive from that perspective. We would be looking for some kind of clever plan to bring the Gaang down. After all, we don't know that Zuko's not here on Azula's orders, as her way of finally taking them out.

That could have added some underlying tension to the next few episodes. Especially if they played into it, with Zuko making a few comments that could be taken several ways and such. I'm not necessarily saying that they should have gone that route. But it would have been interesting to see.

And there's one more issue here.

Combustible Materials

Combustion Man. Hands down, the worst villain in all of the series.

Oh, he was a physical threat certainly. He had a striking character design, with a metal arm and leg and his intimidating facial features. He had a unique and powerful attack. But that's about it.

In a show that is driven more by its characters than plot, he really has no place. He doesn't speak on-camera. He has no personality that isn't obvious and aggressive. He's just a big dragon for the Gaang to slay. A bogeyman who appears, attacks the Gaang and goes away.

Even Zhao was better than this guy. He interacted with people. He may not have been the physical threat that Combustion Man was, but Zhao was an actual character. Not a very good or deep one, mind you. But he had a personality. He wanted stuff.

Combustion Man is just a generic beast, a giant to be toppled. My ultimate question, as with many thinsg in the show, is why they wrote him that way? It's not like they didn't know how to write a decent villain. And it's not like they didn't know how to write an awesome villain. So why did they do this?

I think it has to do with the structure of the first half of the season. Because Aang is "dead" as far as most know, you can't exactly have Azula and Zuko hunting him. And Azula and Zuko remain characters during this time. So you now have 6 characters plus a few extras all vying for screen-time. And that doesn't include one-shots.

You can't just add a new character on top of all of that; somebody would get the short end of the stick (though Toph already got plenty of that). Combustion Man is a poor villain, but he's certainly an economical one in terms of storytelling. No talking. No personality. He just appears and blows things up. Simple, direct, to the point, and very fast in terms of screen time and presence. You know what he's about immediately; there's no need for subtlety or detail.

But there's a deeper question: why introduce a new villain at all? If they were going for this episodic structure for the first 9 episodes, why bother with a recurring villain? The purpose of having a villain recur is to allow them to be a bigger threat (the Gaang flees rather than defeats them) and/or to give them a real personality.

I have no idea; it doesn't really make sense. The only real purpose that Combustion Man serves is in this episode: it makes it easier for the Gaang to accept Zuko. And you can see that most clearly in his lame death sequence. The moment this purpose is served, he jobs out. Sokka hits him one time. And it's just a lucky hit; it's not like he was aiming for that spot or anything. There was no outsmarting of the villain. Sokka just got lucky and he died.

It's like David vs. Goliath, but instead of the hand of God helping David out due to his faith, it's just dumb luck. It says nothing about David, Goliath, or the story itself.

24th Aug '11 10:04:02 PM flag for mods
comments
Combustion Man is essentially Avatar's Boba Fett. No matter how much Star Wars fans deny it, he was a characterization-less villain who was there to serve the plot and then die a lame, anticlimactic, dumb luck death when the plot didn't need him anymore.
ManwiththePlan 25th Aug 11
He also, was probably pissed out of being asskicked so much by little kids.

I'd also note that the Creators giving many possible reasons makes him feel more organic as a plot device, but that's just me; logically that IS what a person would do.
JusticeMan 26th Aug 11
I liked Combustion Man as a villain for what he was: dumb, simple, distinctive and a threat. He got the short end of characterization, but he was almost an Implacable Man, and being that he never talks, that makes him seem more intimidating, I think.
BonsaiForest 10th Nov 11
I always assumed the attack was personal after getting hit in the Third Eye.

It's like they kicked him in the balls and he wanted payback.
Peteman 12th Mar 13
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