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Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
Korval

[table of contents]
Sozin's Comet: Dénouement
I'm trying to capture the moment. I wanted to do a painting, so we always remember the good times together.
Sokka

Time to wrap up the series.

We start off with, what else, Komedy! As Sozin's Comet departs, Sokka and his ladies meet up with Aang and taunt the Firelord a bit. Suki fails at the art of taunting. Though to be fair to her, her comment of "King of the Guys Who… Don't Win" was only slightly worse than Sokka's "Loserlord" and the BSE's "Phoenix King of Getting His Butt Whupped."

Actually, now that I see them written out, I'm starting to wonder if Suki's wasn't the best of the bunch...

Cut to Zuko at his new home, his palace. He's bandaged up, and as he's putting on a shirt (because Azula banished all the servants), Mai appears to offer aid. The two chat for a bit, then kiss, thus earning the eternal ire of Zutarans everywhere. After the kiss, Mai tells him not to break up with her again.

Cut to outside the palace, where a crowd is gathered. We get a bunch of cameos that tell us that the prisons were broken upon and everyone meets up. Sokka and Katara meet their father, and he tells them how proud he is of them, and that their mother would be proud too. Aww...

Toph runs up to her parents, who look at her for a moment, then embrace... oh wait, that didn't happen, because that would require that Toph be an actual character. So the BSE has to live with hugging The Duke. Because that's like having parents and stuff, right?

Sokka encounters Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors, back in full Ninja-Geisha battle garb and face paint, which he admits he misses. Then Ty Lee shows up. Apparently, she "bonded" with the Kyoshi Warriors in prison, taught them some chi blocking, and joined them. So I guess she got over that whole "spending the rest of my life as part of a matched set" thing, since she's now almost identical to all of them.

So let me get this straight. Ty Lee, a bit character whose primary purpose is to increase Azula's threat level, gets more character development off screen than Toph Bei Fong does on screen this entire season. She gets a full character flaw/issue, and she gets a resolution of that issue.

Christ.

Cut to just behind the curtain. Zuko is in his Firelord garb, while Aang has somehow pulled together a full Air Nomad outfit, the kind that the adults of his people wore. You know, in case you didn't get that he grew up or something. Zuko says that he can't believe that a year ago his purpose was hunting Aang, but now they're friends. You know, like Sozin and Roku.

So the two of them hug and then walk out to applause. The crowd is made from people of the three remaining bending nations. Zuko tells them to save their applause for Aang, who steps out. Yes, do applaud him. It's not like he won his fight because of dumb luck or anything; no, he totally earned his happy ending when he accidentally hit that rock.

Zuko declares the war over, saying that he's going to restore the honor of the Fire Nation. He proposes fixing the world with Aang's help, to usher in a new era of "love and peace." Again, I don't see the Fire Nation as the "love and peace" type of place. Zuko is then proclaimed Firelord, and the Hairpin of Firelordship is placed on his head.

After various applause and music, we cut to Zuko walking towards Iroh's former prison. He goes to a cell that contains Ozai, slumped against a wall. Ozai is sarcastic with him, but Zuko says that he should feel lucky for having his life spared. Yes, so lucky, having a fundamental part of your identity destroyed, and left weakened and frail for the rest of your life. What Aang has done is surely less cruel than killing him outright.

Zuko then says that he's glad Ozai banished him, that it put him on the right path. Then he suggests that Ozai use his time in prison to get on his path. Of course, Ozai doesn't buy that Zuko's here just to tell him all that. And he isn't. Zuko then forcefully asks, "Where is my mother?"

Now, we don't get to see Ozai's response. But if I know the Joker, I'm guessing it was something along the lines of, "You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength!" Because I don't see Ozai saying one damn thing to the son who helped depose him. Or even better, he'd lie his ass off. Send Zuko on a wild goose chase. Keep doing it every time Zuko comes back from the ass end of nowhere more and more pissed off.

Cut to Ba Sing Se. Apparently, they haven't cleaned up all the Fire Nation tanks yet, as children play amongst them. Cut to the Jasmine Dragon, where Iroh plays his horn and the extended Gaang are all gathered. Sokka's trying to draw everyone, so that they remember the good times. Of course, Sokka fails at art, and everyone comes over to critique him over their character portrayals. Oddly enough, the Blind, Snarky Earthbender gets the very last line of the series. "Well, I think you all look perfect!" Yep: snark about how she's blind.

Though that was the last line of the series, it's not the last event. See, Aang left early to go watch the sun set. And Katara followed him. Zutarans everywhere tremble in fear as the pair look at each other in view of the picturesque sunset. Katara blushes. She grabs Aang's shoulder and pulls him into a hug. Zutarans breathe a sigh of relief; it's only a hug. She loves him like a brother. It's fine, they say; there is still hope.

Then we get a side shot. Katara comes into view on one side. Aang on the other. They stare intently at one another. Music from The Cave of Two Lovers shows up. Terror grips the hearts of Zutarans. They desperately hope that what is obviously going to come next will not happen. They tick off each frame of animation where Aang and Katara look at each other, wanting so much for Katara to walk away, or for Zuko to shove Aang violently aside and take his woman, or any number of other fantasies they have that will stop this from taking place.

So to the victor go the spoils

And then it happens: Katara kisses Aang, for the first time (her initiating). The music swells into a triumphant version of the theme as the first girl wins and Zutarans cry or shake their fists angrily. A soft, powerful version of the theme plays over the ending credits.

Well...

The production values for this 4-parter are absolutely incredible. The animation is about the best you're going to get in a TV show and could give some movies a run for their money in some scenes. The music is exceptional. Even the normally slipshod editing is more reasonable most of the time. There is no question that this feels epic.

It's just a pity that the writing couldn't really make it pay off.

Despite everything I've said, it's still leagues better than season 1's ending. Even on writing quality it's better, despite the double-Deus. It ultimately has fewer overall plot tumors, like that plot about Aang going to the Spirit World that served no purpose other than to get him captured. And while it does have a lot of padding, the sheer spectacle and finality of what happens here gives it an edge.

But season 2's end is a tough act to follow, and season 3 did not get the job done. The pacing at the start is slow, full of a good 15 minutes of just padding and shuffling people around to different places. It takes a long time for something to actually start happening.

The driving force of the conflict in this episode is from Ozai's fleet. And yet, none of the characters seem to really acknowledge it as the existential threat that it supposedly is. If this were truly the Earth Kingdom about to die, then it's a problem they should attack before any other. Ignore Ozai and Azula; they're not the problem, the airships are. But no; they send two of their weakest members to deal with it, along with a person who can't even see the airships when they're in the air.

There was necessary setup work for this epic finale to function properly that was not done. Ozai had to become a real villain. There were 17 episodes before this, and two of them were pure filler; that was plenty of time to set this up. But it didn't happen, and without it, the whole Aang vs. Ozai fight lacked a great deal. Oh, it was huge and epic and such. But it lacked an emotional core, a reason beyond "he's the badguy I have to fight."

Zuko's character arc was aborted for seemingly no reason, failing in a moment that should have been his greatest success. And while that does play up Azula as a threat, being able to defeat her inferior brother through trickery even during a nervous breakdown, she's the one person who doesn't need a higher threat level. Katara has to make the save, and even that has to be full of contrivances just to make it even remotely plausible.

The double Deus Ex Machina speaks for itself. Having the hero win solely due to luck is unconscionable; how do you even write that with a straight face?

It is a disappointment, to be sure. But it is the perfect finale of season 3, as it is a microcosm of everything that was wrong with season 3. It was merely good, when a few tweaks could have made it great.

Seasonal Planning

Season 2 could more or less be broken into 3 phases. Early season 2 ended with The Chase, with Bitter Work as a breather. Mid season 2 went from The Library to The Drill, a sequence of five episodes that slowly built to a climax. From City of Walls and Secrets to the end was the final phase.

The point is that each story flowed into the next. Early season 2 gave us an introduction, establishing our villain, heroes, anti-heroes, and everyone else. We got backstory, character development, and so forth. Mid season 2 started upping the tension. The Gaang got a real purpose, a plan to take down Ozai. But they lost Appa, were stranded in the desert and had to forage their way around. And the Fire Nation almost broke through the walls of Ba Sing Se.

Late season 2 saw the introduction of a new adversary. Then narrative momentum died for a bit, but it picked back up. The last four episodes was just a constant cascade of things happening, going right, going wrong, going wrongly right, and so forth until it built into an epic, series-defining moment.

And while each phase of season 2 was something of its own story, each phase flowed naturally and each phase was important to the overall story that was season 2. Yes, there were certainly superfluous elements and even whole episodes that could be excised. But you couldn't strip out Early season 2 without losing something of importance; the specific way characters are introduced, established, and develop actually matters later. You can't remove Mid season 2 without hurting Late season 2. And without Late season 2, Early and Mid lose all meaning. Each piece is necessary, just like a proper story.

If you took out the entire first half of this season, what would happen to the story? Not much. You'd need to explain why they are in the Western Air Temple. And you couldn't really do The Boiling Rock, as it relies on continuity. But other than that? Not much.

This season does not flow; it simply jumps around. Things happen, then some other things happen. Then oh, it's time for a big event. Now some other things happen. Then some more things happen. And now, suddenly and apropos of nothing, it's time to end the entire series.

Now let's be fair to this season. The series finale is a four-parter. And it would not be entirely unreasonable to compare it to the last four episodes of season 2. The difference is that those episodes had continuity and connections with what came before. The antagonism between Long Feng and the Gaang was established. Azula attacking the Kyoshi Warriors was established. Jet being in Long Feng's hands was established. And so on. All of these plot elements are used and resolved in the season 2 finale.

There is exactly one plot element that the season 3 finale uses from episodes in season 3: the plan to burn the Earth Kingdom. That's it. Everything else in the finale is fully self-contained.

The Avatar State sets up a very great deal of what happens in The Crossroads of Destiny. It sets up the Avatar State, Azula, her lightning, the spirit water, etc. What does The Awakening set up? Nothing; less than that in fact. In that episode, Aang says he wants to fight Ozai alone, to keep his friends out of danger. In Sozin's Comet, Aang indeed fights Ozai alone, but only because circumstances conspired so that he would. It's not a conscious choice by Aang to protect his friends; it just happened to work out that way.

The point I'm making is that season 2 has an overall narrative structure. Season 3 does not. And the lack of that structure makes the lead-in to the finale much weaker and slower paced than it needed to be. And the previous episode, The Ember Island Players, effectively stopped narrative momentum so much that the finale has to slowly ramp itself up to the climactic battle.

There has been some suggestion that Executive Meddling was at work in season 3. That the writers were told to be more episodic to avoid Continuity Lock-Out. I'm not sure I can accept this as a complete excuse however.

Now, it is true that these writers do seem to work best when dealing with a full story told over a season; season 2 seems to be a testament to that fact. Therefore, telling writers who are good at continuity writing to adopt an episodic style is not exactly a plan for success.

However, it is possible to build tension without continuity. You simply have one episode that is somewhat tense, perhaps with some close escapes. Then you have an episode that is more tense; maybe a Fire Nation soldier spotted them, and they have to decide how to silence him permanently. And one that is even more tense: a tough fight against a difficult foe that they barely escape from. And then you hit the climax. These episodes do not have to have anything plot-wise to do with one another. But because of their proximity and progression, it feels like you're building to something.

This was never done in season 3. It wasn't done in season 1 either.

Indeed, in many ways, season 3 could be looked on as a better version of season 1. Most of the problems of season 1 were growing pains, the writers not really having found their voice or what they were aiming for. There is more tension in Season 3, what with them traipsing around the Fire Nation. There is a sense of foreboding in that they have to hide their identities. Season 1 was just them roaming around willy-nilly having random hijinks until they found their way to the north pole.

Season 1 had the possibility for that tension. Zuko and the rest of the Fire Nation were dogging their trail, and there were even several episodes where the Gaang was caught because they were not being stealthy. The problem is that there was little real acknowledgement of this fact in the show at any point. The Gaang just keeps doing random stuff, no matter how many times it led Zuko to them. There was too much Komedy! and a lack of seriousness of the threat of Zuko or Zhao posed to create tension.

Season 3 is misdirected, but it is on the whole more coherent and sure of itself than season 1.

6th Sep '11 10:12:00 PM flag for mods
comments
Stay tuned, there are still two more to go. I have a discussion of the thematic material of the show, as well as a full conclusion left.
Korval 6th Sep 11
And I'm still prepping my commentary. ;)
JusticeMan 7th Sep 11
So let me get this straight. Ty Lee, a bit character whose primary purpose is to increase Azula's threat level, gets more character development off screen than Toph Bei Fong does on screen this entire season. She gets a full character flaw/issue, and she gets a resolution of that issue.

If it happened off screen and now she's suddendly fine with the very thing she hated and wanted to escape, that sounds more like Character Derailment to me. The writers just didn't care about Ty Lee whatsoever.
ManwiththePlan 7th Sep 11
Well their are still parts to this live blog but I am just going to say this

I don't agree with you but this was a very good live blog
Envyus 7th Sep 11
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