What is past is prologue. Now we come to the real meat of this story: what happened to Aang.
The Last Debate
Aang's story arc starts when he's learning lightning redirection from Zuko. See, Zuko tells him point-blank that he needs to kill Ozai before Ozai kills him. Aang is rather non-committal in his response.
Cut to the Gaang practicing tactics for the battle. Sokka's plan is to have everyone distract Ozai and his forces, while Aang flies in out of nowhere to deliver "the final blow." This scene is mostly padding in order to have a fight scene in the first episode of the 4-parter. The actually important part of the scene is when Aang swoops in... but doesn't whack the "Melonlord" in the "head".
Aang simply says he can't do it. Sokka points out that if he hesitated like that in the actual fight, he'd have been killed. Aang says that it didn't feel right, that he didn't feel like himself. So Sokka draws the Black Sword and cleaves the "Melonlord"'s head in two, to show Aang how you murder someone.
Yeah Sokka, that's not going to help the twelve-year-old commit cold-blooded murder.
Cut to diner. Katara was apparently exploring the Firelord's house and found a drawing of what she thinks is Zuko as a toddler. Zuko corrects her; it's actually Ozai. Suki comments that he looks innocent. Of course he does Suki; he's a toddler. Zuko points out that he grew into a monster.
And this is where the debate starts, as Aang says that he's still a human being. When Zuko balks at this, Aang says, "Firelord Ozai is a horrible person and the world will probably be better off without him." I quoted that line because it's very important for an argument I'm going to make. Just keep it in the back of your mind. Anyway, Aang says that there has to be another way to defeat him than murder.
Aang suggests gluing his arms and legs together so he can't bend anymore.
OK, stop the presses; we have to talk. As with everyone else, I have my pet peeve tropes. By now you're well aware of my burning hatred for Deus Ex Machina (and if not by now, you will be by the time we're done here). But there are more, and this is one of them: Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Personally, I'm of the opinion that if you have taken on the responsibility to protect the city/nation/world, then you have therefore taken on the right and responsibility to use killing as an action. Not necessarily as a first measure, of course. But if a problem persists, and cannot be reasonably be solved any other way, then the hero in question has the responsibility to employ killing.
One of the most memorable subversions of this trope for me was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data had been taken captive by some collector of rare and valuable things, since Data is a rare and valuable thing. One of the guy's flunkies helps Data break out, but they are stopped in the act and the flunky is killed. Data has a weapon, but the collector knows that Data won't use it because he has a "fundamental respect for all living things."
Data stands there and thinks about it. After the guy threatens to kill more people to keep Data there, Data says, "I cannot allow this to continue." And points the weapon at him. And in that moment, you know that Data has made the decision that this is the least bad of the possible outcomes. That given the current situation, the most ethical thing to do is to kill this man. That it can be morally correct to kill if the circumstances warrant it. And it is very clear that if Data had not been rescued, he would have done so.
Part of my distaste for this trope comes due to the frequent implication (or outright stating) that killing someone is the absolute worst possible thing you can do to them, whether there is justification or not. That there is no fate worse than death, and because of that, anything short of death is perfectly valid.
And Aang's off the cuff suggestion of permanently affixing Ozai's arms and legs together is a perfect example of this nonsense. What the hell kind of life is that? Unable to even move one's body around, having to be fed by someone else? Unable to write letters to someone; barely able to even take a dump. At least in prison, you can walk around and move in your cell. Aang's suggestion would leave Ozai confined to the life of a potted plant.
Aang's suggestion is cruel in the extreme, far crueler than just killing the Firelord outright. And maybe that's what you think he deserves. But that's not what the show is saying. Aang very clearly believes that, if this suggestion were to work, it would be kinder than simply killing him. Basically, what Aang is saying is that doing anything short of killing him is better than killing him. So if they have to take extraordinary measures to contain his firebending (thus preventing his escape), that's fine.
Therefore, if Aang's glue suggestion doesn't work, why not just bind his arms and legs in a rack made of steel chains for the rest of his life. If he starts acting up, just keep pulling at his arms and legs until he stops. Or if that's too much trouble, just beat him senseless and then cut off his arms and legs entirely. Ozai wouldn't be dead, so it's all good, right?
Anyway, after Zuko mocks the glue suggestion (but not for the above reasons of cruelty), Aang talks about how killing goes against what he was taught from the monks. He obviously learned nothing from the multitude of Fire Nation corpses strewn around Gyatso's body; obviously Gyatso was perfectly ready to kill when the shit hit the fan. Aang says he can't just go wiping out people he doesn't like, but Sokka points out that that's what the Avatar kinda does.
Then Aang gets pissed off, yelling that nobody understand his position. Katara tries to reason with him, but he cuts her off and then speaks the page quote before storming off.
Aang hangs out with Momo for a bit, then goes to sleep. But in the middle of the night, an island appears in the ocean. Strange music rises up, including chanting which seems to call Aang to the island. He walks to the beach, then swims to the island, followed by Momo.
The Gaang doesn't find him the next morning. We pick up Aang's plot after the Gaang has found June, when Aang wakes up on the island. He doesn't remember how he got there, and the island is no longer where it was.
There are a couple of scenes that confirm that Aang is not in the Spirit World, since he can still bend. When the Gaang decides to camp out at Ba Sing Se, before being discovered by the White Lotus, Aang finds a depression in the dirt with a hexagonal pattern in it. He tries to earthbend it, but it doesn't bend. Then Aang wishes he could talk to Roku. For some reason.
And then he realizes he can talk to Roku, so he sits down and meditates. The image of Avatar Roku appears before him.
... I don't even know what to say about this. We've gone from Roku only being able to talk to Aang on the Solstice, to Roku being able to talk to Aang whenever Roku wants, to Aang being able to talk to Roku whenever Aang wants. And there is absolutely no explanation for this anywhere in the series. I could understand if it were a thing where Roku made a connection on the Solstice, but that is never stated or even implied anywhere. Aang can suddenly just conjure up Roku's apparition whenever he wants.
Roku just says that all of the past Avatars are available to him if he looks within himself. So why not have your dragon tell Aang that back in The Spirit World and save us a whole episode? Anyway, when Aang asks Roku where he is, Roku says that he doesn't know. But Roku does know that Aang is troubled, so Aang asks about dealing with Ozai.
Aang says that everyone expects him to kill but, "I just don't know if I can do that." Again, remember that line.
Roku talks about how his restraint with Sozin backfired. No, Roku: what backfired was your complete and total inability to even attempt to reason with or understand your supposed BFF. You just blew him off the moment he suggested something un-Avatarish. Roku says that he should have been more decisive with Sozin. Because blowing up his palace wasn't decisive enough. So he suggests that, whatever Aang does, he should be decisive.
After more scenes with the Gaang, we come to Aang talking to Kyoshi. She talks about Chin, of course. She stopped him and ushered in an age of peace. Well, except for that revolt in Ba Sing Se and creating an army to be "feared by all," but I guess we're only considering canon sources here. Aang tries to rules lawyer around the killing part, pointing out that Chin died because he didn't move from the ledge.
Which is another thing I hate about Thou Shalt Not Kill: oftentimes, heroes will try to rules lawyer their way around it. Oh, I didn't really kill him; I just put him in a position to die easy. So it's A-OK. It stems from a point that I'll get to a bit later.
Kyoshi, not being an ass, considers the difference to be irrelevant. She states that if he hadn't died then, she'd have killed him or otherwise prevented him from being a threat to the world. Her wisdom is that justice brings peace. After she leaves, Aang says that he shouldn't have asked her. Right, because Aang isn't searching for the truth; he's searching for what he wants to hear.
After even more Gaang scenes, Aang speaks with Avatar Kuruk. He says that he was a "go with the flow" Avatar, that people seemed to work things out for themselves. That's a rather different take from his attitude in Avatar: Escape From The Spirit World, where he was a preening jackass desperately trying to compensate for having a small dick. But he talks about how he lost his love to Koh because he was being inattentive. So his wisdom is that Aang must actively shape the destiny of the world.
After a bit more, we cut to Aang talking to himself. Well, to Momo, but it's basically here so that we can hear his thoughts. He talks about how his past Avatars say that he has to kill, that they don't understand. Even though he's only consulted 3. On-camera at least. Aang decides to try an Air Nomad-based Avatar. So after some Komedy! with Momo, he summons Avatar Yangchen.
He talks about how the monks taught him that all life is sacred. And Yangchen agrees. Then Aang says, "I know, I'm even a vegetarian."
I decided early on when writing this work that I would only drop the F-bomb exactly once. But where to put it? I really boiled it down to two moments in the series: Katara's line from The Southern Raiders, and this one. As I write this sentence, I have not yet posted my review of that episode, so I could still change it. But I'm not going to (as you know by now, since you've read it already). So in lieu of the F-bomb:
KISS THE FATTEST PART OF MY ASS, YOU SANCTIMONIOUS, VEGETARIAN JACKASS!
I cannot tell you how much I hate this notion that the way to show that you think life is "sacred" is to only eat plants. Even though being a vegetarian effectively means torturing plants constantly. Devouring their children by the hundreds. Cutting off their leaves and roots, leaving the rest to die and decompose, only to be fed to the next generation.
Oh, I forgot: it's not alive if it doesn't have a face.
The Water Tribes are far more aware of the sacredness of life than the Air Nomads. Living in the harsh tundra, they are a part of nature in a way that the Air Nomads can never be. They don't hunt for sport; they hunt for survival. Each kill is sacred, because it means that they get to live another few days. The animals are sacred because they need those animals in order to survive.
So don't come at me with this supposed Air Nomad "wisdom" about how not eating meat shows that you think life is sacred.
Anyway, after Aang hit another of my pet peeves, Aang talks about how he only uses violence for necessary defense, and that he's "certainly never used it to take a life."
OK, this is a kid's show. It's important to understand that and judge it by those merits. In a kid's show, someone doesn't die unless it actually happens on-camera. So all of those Fire Nation ships he destroyed in Siege of the North? The soldiers survived. All of the Fire Nation soldiers manning The Drill that he destroyed? Yeah, they survived too; they were not in fact smothered by mud from the exploding pipeline. So I'm going to let this line go.
It's not like this episode isn't furnishing me with enough material as is.
Yangchen says that she understands that he is a gentle spirit, but he needs to stop thinking about himself and think about the world. When Aang retorts that the monks taught him to detach himself from the world (so why was letting go of Katara so hard?), she replies that this is true. That many Air Nomads did accomplish this. But "the Avatar can never do it." The Avatar's duty is to the world itself.
Yangchen's wisdom: "Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the World."
And this is where the episode falls on its face. This debate, the decision to kill Ozai or not, seems framed very much to cripple itself. Why? Because Aang's arguments are effectively non-existent.
Aang's argument comes from one of two positions. First, that he holds all life to be sacred. This is not an argument because it misses the point. Just because something is sacred does not mean that you shouldn't kill someone if the situation requires it.
But this argument is also undermined by the second argument: Aang does not want to kill Ozai. Read that carefully: Aang does not want to kill Ozai. See it's not about whether life is sacred, it's all about who's pulling the trigger. Aang would be fine with someone else doing the deed; indeed, he even says that the world would probably be better off without Ozai around. His problem is that he doesn't want to do it personally. "I just don't know if I can do that."
That's why a lot of heroes following Thou Shalt Not Kill rules lawyer their way around it. Because it's not so much about killing being wrong; it's about them believing that if they kill, then they are bad. It is a purely selfish position that puts their own needs above others. The "hero" is saying that the state of my soul or conscious or whatever is more important than dealing with a problem.
Oh, I understand where it comes from: Aang's a kid. He's 12. Murdering someone isn't easy, even for an adult. But he is the Avatar; it's his burden. Yeah, it sucks, but it still has to be done. And not doing it because you don't want to goes against what Yangchen said about self-sacrifice.
The odd thing about this self-crippling argument is that it is made by the writers. They stack so much against Aang's position that there is ultimately no way to agree with it. It almost feels like a form of Writer Revolt; they know they can't get away with having Aang kill Ozai on a kid's show. But they kinda painted themselves in a corner, since that's what the series is about.
So they basically said that they'll use a Deus Ex Machina to avoid it, but if they'd had their way, Ozai would be taking a dirt nap.
Except of course, the commentary track disagrees. Indeed, during the fight scene, one of them asks something to the effect of, "Does the world really need to have the all-powerful Avatar killing people?"
YES! Yes it does!
The Avatar-verse is a world that has been without the Avatar for 100 years. The Avatar has become a myth. A bogeyman to the Firelord, but a savior to everyone else. A hope, something to hold on to or wish for. Not a real force in the world that can actually effect change.
What the Avatar-verse really needs right now is for an Avatar to kick the Avatar-verse in the ass. Who is going to say "The Avatar is back!" and put Ozai's head under that exclamation point. Who is going to set an example for the next Ozai wannabe that, when you mess with the world, this is what you get.
The other question I have for the writers is this: why even bring it up?
I can understand why it was brought up in this episode rather than, say, before The Day of Black Sun. Because Aang doesn't think ahead. If he ever gave a second thought about how he would defeat Ozai at all, he figured that he'd just knock the guy out just like anyone else and move on. The question of long-term storage for a master-class firebender probably never even occurred to him. Until that one line of Zuko's at the end of The Southern Raiders.
But my question is why the writers created this issue in the first place. They could just say that the Fire Nation has ways of keeping high-level firebenders prisoner. Then we wouldn't have to worry about it; Ozai could have just disappeared off-screen.
I don't know what they're trying to do with this issue, because it only hurts the episode. Plus, there's the fact that the entire third episode barely touches on it. Granted, it doesn't really have a way to do so, since Aang's part is just the first half of the Ozai fight, but that's my point: for an entire episode, this plotline barely exists.
If they had cut this plot entirely and found some other way to make the final battle work the way they wanted, they could have saved an entire episode. An episode that could possibly have been given to Toph Bei Fong. Oh right, she's not a character. Silly me. The most she'd get would be to share time with Suki or something.
Back to the show. After Aang realizes that he doesn't have a choice except to kill Ozai, the next Aang scene has him getting to the top of a tree and seeing that the mountains are approaching. He then realizes that the island is moving. He jumps off the island, and while swimming, he sees a great claw of some beast attached to the island.
After the Gaang gets done with their party split, Aang rushes to the front to see its head. It lifts Aang up on one of its hands and is revealed as a Giant Lion Turtle. This does not mark this as the nadir of the episode.
That comes later.
Aang asks it for help. He says that he doesn't know if he can actually bring himself to kill Ozai. The Lion Turtle speaks gibberish at him. Well, it's actually saying real English words, but with all of the layers of digital processing, it took a few viewings to even figure out what he was talking about. He says, "The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. Since beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light." He then touches Aang's chest and forehead with his other claw, and a green glow envelops them.
After a cut, it drops Aang off on a cliff, saying that "he" will come to Aang. Of course he will.
The Avatar vs. The Firelord
The episode forgets about Aang for a good long time, until Sokka has commandeered an airship and Ursa's memory broke her daughter's mind. Ozai stands on a metal plank in the front of his grand airship, and then he firebends downward dramatically. A great wave of fire slowly emerges, scouring the land.
Cut to Aang, on a giant stone pillar in a field of giant stone pillars in front of the airship fleet. Aang sends Momo away, then destroys Ozai's airship with hurled stones. Yeah, I'm sure nobody died in that. Ozai jumps off and uses his superpowered firebending to fly to a nearby pillar.
Ozai considers Aang's presence here, under the light of Sozin's Comet, to be an act of providence, the universe delivering the Avatar to him when so many of his family failed to find him. Aang pleads with him to stop the attack, for some reason. I have no idea why Aang asks this; does he think that Ozai's going to stop doing anything just because Aang told him not to?
Ozai replies with the page quote, punctuated by blasting gouts of fire from his arms and mouth. Aang realizes that his pleas aren't working and takes up a fighting stance.
And it begins: the duel of Avatar vs. Firelord. It is epic. It is exquisitely animated. The editing, cutting to other fights at the same time, help keep it from bogging down too much. And unlike the Zuko vs. Azula duel, this fight actually tells a story.
Aang is losing from the very start, and there's no doubt about that. The very first attack, a large rock he throws at Ozai, it is utterly annihilated by Ozai's fireblast. Ozai is fast and deadly. His fire cuts through virtually every attack, and he is constantly pushing Aang around the battlefield. When Aang finds a waterfall that seems to give him a momentary advantage, Ozai does his level best to push Aang out of that area as fast as possible.
Aang ducks behind a pillar and then bounces off of another in order to slam it into Ozai, who's on the other side. But like Azula, Ozai is not where you expect him to be, and he nails Aang. He recovers and quickly pulls together a stone-suit to survive Ozai's next attack. Aang gets some distance, but this gives Ozai the chance to summon lightning.
Aang dances around several lightning blasts before Ozai is finally able to pin him down. Of course, unlike Zuko who failed to catch the lightning, Aang doesn't. Oh, Ozai? You probably should have guessed that Zuko might teach Aang that little trick. Indeed, the look on Ozai's face suggests that he feels kinds stupid right now. But, thanks to the main plot here, Aang deliberately misses. Unlike Zuko who at least hit near Ozai which knocked him into a wall, Aang gets no advantage from catching the lightning other than survival.
Indeed, Aang gets negative advantage, as redirecting the lightning weakened him for a moment. One that Ozai takes advantage of to blast him off his pillar. Aang falls into a lake and saves himself from the fall with some frantic waterbending. As Ozai descends from the heavens, we cut to Azula and Zuko.
Wow, it really is amazing to see the difference in storytelling between these two scenes, as we cut to the sequence that ends in Azula getting hit for no reason.
When we get back (after Zuko's epic fail), Aang scurries out of the lake, but isn't able to get far enough away. So he... curls himself up in a stone ball, which may as well be a coffin. Really Aang? That's the best you could think of? Essentially cornering yourself in a place that he can easily see and attack? With no way out?
Did you think he'd just walk away?
This is where that episode ends. Before we move on, I do have to point out one problem with this scene, which I alluded to before. While this scene does tell a real story through combat, there is very little emotional resonance to it.
When it comes right down to it, Ozai is simply not a very compelling villain. We haven't seen enough of him to really care. In fact, the two people in this fight have never even met before. The other thing is that the rest of the season never really took advantage of the opportunity to cast Ozai as the main villain.
Look at Return of the Jedi for example. The very first scene of that movie establishes a lot, but one of the main purposes of it is to establish The Emperor (a mostly faceless character before now) as being more evil than Vader. The look on the commander's face when Vader tells him that the Emperor is coming to the station to personally oversee the mission. And that iconic last line from Lord Vader: "The Emperor is not as... forgiving as I am."
There's nothing even close to that for Ozai. The closest we get to even establishing his fighting credibility is that one bit of lightning bending when he attacked Zuko. It was faster than Iroh or Azula's technique. But that's all.
Yes, we know of his evilness. He burned and exiled Zuko, who's a pretty decent guy. He engineered his father's death and usurped the throne from Iroh, who's a pretty decent guy. But overall?
It's not like Ozai ever snuck into the capital of the enemy stronghold, convinced an enemy of that state to give you access to his agents to overthrow the ruler of that state, then turned his own agents against him, then convince your wayward brother to go against his loving uncle and join you to defeat your enemy, then slid around behind the legendary Avatar while he was assuming his ultimate form, in order to perform Avada Kedavra on him at the very height of his power, not only killing him but inadvertently threatening the survival of the Avatar Spirit itself.
I guess when you say it like that, it makes Ozai seem like a pussy, doesn't it?
Anyway, back to the fight.
So Aang is foolishly stuck in his ball. Ozai pounds on it with his fiery fury. Eventually, it rolls up against a pillar. Ozai pulls out a tiny ball of fire that he makes explode into a wave, which shatters Aang's coffin. As he uses some airbending to save himself from immolation, he is forced against the side of the pillar, where...
Cheaters Never Prosper
And here we are. Four minutes into the final episode of the series, and we now hit the nadir of the finale. Not later, as those familiar with the show might expect; it happens here. This is the single worst misstep of the entire 4-parter.
Aang is slammed into a pillar, but a jutting fragment of rock on the pillar hits him directly in his burn scar. This somehow unblocks the chakra in his head and triggers the Avatar State.
I am not making this up. This actually happens. Professional writers were paid to write this.
This is not Deus Ex Machina. This is straight-up cheating. This is the hand of the writer, brazenly and nakedly reaching into the story, and flipping the switch from "losing" to "winning."
This isn't even the kind of Deus Ex Machina that the trope is named after, where in Ancient Greek times, a god would be lowered onto the stage to resolve the plot of a play. Because at least then, the god was a character in the play. It was a force of nature. It may have come out of nowhere, but it was something.
This? This is luck. In the end, Aang won his fight, not because he was smart, not because he was clever, not because of any of his training, not because of the months of preparation, not because of his friends, not because of his personality, not because of who he is as a character, not because he is the Avatar, not even because it was his destiny to win.
It was because of the above quote; the most appropriate quote I could find for this circumstance.
Oh, and don't you even think of comparing this horseshit to Lord of the Rings. (BTW: incoming spoilers for Lord of the Rings. You know, for the 3 people who didn't read the books or watch the films).
In LotR, the ending had a purpose. It fulfilled an important theme of the work. Namely, that showing mercy matters. Being decent matters. The world was saved, not just because of all the fighting and killing and what not. But because Bilbo showed Gollum mercy. Because Frodo showed Gollum mercy. All reason told these people to kill Gollum, as he was clearly a threat, but pity stayed their hands. And it was their pity that ultimately saved the world. Their having pity for such a wretched creature made the world a place worth saving.
That cannot even begin to compare to this. This fulfills nothing at all. You could say that the hand of destiny came down and put that rock there, but we never saw the hand of destiny do it. Nobody and nothing put that rock there; it was just there, like so many other rocks.
What follows is, well, what you would think. Avatar State Aang instantly beats Ozai down, rather than waiting around as he did last time with Azula. Glad you learned something, Aang. Then he flies up in a sphere of air and forms an elemental typhoon, while keeping Ozai distracted with ferocious winds. He 5-way firebends, drawing the resulting fire into a ring. Then he rips some nearby pillars apart and compresses them into a ring of earth for easier carrying. He draws water from a nearby lake into another ring.
And now, with all elements gathered, he's ready. So naturally we cut back to Ba Sing Se for a fight that really doesn't matter.
What we get is basically 2 minutes or so of Avatar State Aang fighting Ozai who's running away. And all that great storytelling-through-combat from before? Yeah, that's over now. It's all basically random clips of Avatar State Aang doing awesome bending stuff, followed by Ozai barely dodging it. Rinse and repeat.
Oh, it all looks awesome. But it doesn't mean anything. It's just one scene of awesome stuff, followed by another, and another, until eventually, Avatar State Aang waterbends Ozai's foot and slams him into the top of a pillar.
Avatar State Aang pins Ozai down by earthbending his hands and feet. Even though something similar kept Azula pinned for less than a second before, this is somehow able to bind superpowered Ozai. Avatar State Aang speaks the above quote.
Then, Avatar State Aang does the overhead chop move that Aang remembered from his nightmares back in The Avatar State. Four streams of elements dive down at Ozai... but Aang stops them and comes out of the Avatar State, saying that he won't "end it like this." He then turns his back on Ozai, who mocks his weakness and then starts to charge.
And here we get probably the most effective sequence in Aang's entire arc. Aang enters Toph-Vision. See, when I first watched this episode, I thought this was the first time he'd done that. The scene from The Runaway was so minor and inconsequential that I had forgotten about it even though I watched the series on DVD. So from my initial perspective, it was like Aang had mastered earthbending on the spot. This just goes to show how much of a mistake that scene was and how much better this one would have been without it.
So Aang enters Toph-Vision, seeing exactly what Ozai is doing. Aang then effortlessly, without even turning around, earthbends one of Ozai's wrists. When Ozai tries to use the other one, Aang traps it as well, then forces Ozai to the ground. Ozai tries firebending with his mouth, but Aang's airbending just shoves it back in his face.
This wtfpwnage scene is great because it isn't the Avatar State doing it. The Avatar State is unfulfilling because it is effectively cheating. Aang gets to be super-powerful because he's the Avatar, and no reason other than that. It has nothing to do with who he is as a person or his character, other than the simple fact that he's the Avatar.
This scene is great because it is Avatar Aang who is doing the ownage. No superpowers. Just himself and Ozai, and he takes Ozai down without much effort. Granted, Ozai had been beaten down by his Avatar State form, but at least there's some acknowledgement here that Aang needs to take care of things himself.
We'll see how long that lasts.
A Matter of Death
Aang puts his thumbs on Ozai's head and chest. The chanting of the Giant Lion Turtle returns. And now we're about to find out why I hate that Goddamn thing so much and consider every prior reference to it the low point of every episode it is in.
Aang holds him there and closes his eyes. Then the words of the turtle come back, still difficult to decipher. It speaks the above quote, as we get flashbacks to a continuation of the turtle's conversation with Aang. Apparently, the forehead and chest touch is an ancient form of bending that the turtle taught Aang in a few seconds of touching him.
It causes Aang to glow blue and Ozai to glow red. As the turtle gives the warning about being corrupted and destroyed, we see Ozai's red start to infect Aang's blue, until he's almost covered. Then the blue of Aang erupts, covering Ozai as the music swells. A pillar of blue light erupts, piercing the sky.
Afterwards, Ozai can't firebend anymore.
So, not content to whip out one Deus Ex Machina, they decided to double down on it. Within the same 10 minutes of screen-time, no less. This scene is Godawful for so many reasons, I'm not sure I can enumerate all of them.
People try to defend this by saying it isn't really a Deus Ex Machina, because we've seen things like this before. They cite many sources: the pillar of light from Aang's emergence in The Boy in the Iceberg. They cite The Swamp and Appa's Lost Days, noting how people are connected with energy. And they cite the several Lion Turtle references we've seen before now.
These arguments don't work. The original statement of Chekhov's Gun is very simple: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." This statement works because we all know what a gun is and what it means to "go off." If the gun in the first chapter healed the sick in chapter 3, that would not be Chekhov's Gun. That is not a normal, expected function of a gun, so therefore if it happens, it must be properly established and set up beforehand.
Energy bending was not. If this episode did not exist, you would never be able to guess that energy bending had the specific properties this episode puts on it. Indeed, just going from the available evidence, I would expect energy bending to be able to locate people you love. It would also be able to read and possibly heal emotional states, as the Guru seemed to do with Appa. Because that's what we've seen it do. That's it.
What Aang does here, what the writers in the commentary consider rewriting Ozai's chi paths, is none of those things. If a connection had been made between this mysterious energy bending and Ty Lee's powers, that might have been something. But that connection was never made.
Another thing it does is act as a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for murder in a kid's show. The writers deliberately brought up the whole issue of killing Ozai solely to do this to him instead. Why not avoid bringing it up and have him caged somewhere?
But it's worse than that. Because this shows that Aang is a terrible Avatar. He's the kind of Avatar who thinks of himself and his needs before the needs of the world. He's the kind of Avatar who, if a Deus Ex Machina had not shown up, would likely have gotten killed by Ozai. He wouldn't have had the stones to do what needed to be done.
Now, you could say that taking away Ozai's firebending, such a fundamental part of his very identity, is far more of what Ozai deserves. That killing is too good for him; that he should live a long and healthy life as a weakling who will never have power over anyone again. But that's not why Aang does it. The show is very clear about this; Aang does it because it make Ozai less dangerous, not as a punishment or revenge or because it's what Ozai deserves.
Oh, and let's not forget the fact that Aang was taking a hell of a chance. He's never used energy bending before. All he got was a touch of green light from the GLT, once. If he screws it up and his spirit isn't "unbendable" enough, who knows what could happen? The best-case is that Aang drops dead on the spot. The worst-case scenario is that Ozai somehow body-surfs into Aang's now spirit-less body and now, he's the Avatar. Either way, things kinda suck. Aang would rather chance that Ozai would destroy his spirit than to kill someone.
There's an interesting defense of this moment on the analysis page for the series. It makes the case that Aang actually achieved something greater than any of the past Avatars by finding his own solution to the problem. That he achieved enlightenment, and in so doing was able to energy bend, something that his predecessors could not because of their fundamental failures as characters. It seems like it makes a good case, until you actually think about it. The argument uses a lot of facts that are not in evidence, misinterpretations of events, and out-right wrong stuff to reach the conclusion he wanted to begin with. My rebuttal of it is on the discussion page for the analysis.
The main problem with the above analysis is that Aang did not take a third option; he was given one by a heretofore unseen source from outside of the story itself. Aang did not even ask for one; he just got one from out of nowhere. This moment ultimately says nothing about Aang. The most we can say character-wise is that maybe the GLT sensed Aang's pain and took pity on him. But even if that's true, it says nothing about Aang.
And then there's the fact that this scene has absolutely no tension. It's basically Beam-O-War, only without the beams. Again, it looks pretty, but did anyone actually believe that Aang would be corrupted by Ozai's spirit? This is partially because of the incredibly sloppy introduction of that element of the story. The GLT basically just says it, then it starts happening. Before the audience can really register that Aang is possibly in danger, it's over.
Even if the audience was quicker on the draw, there's no storytelling or character here. It's a purely mental, internal battle, and the only thing we see is colors on people's skins. We don't know why Aang was being consumed. Was Ozai's spirit playing on his fears and insecurities? What was going on there? And what was it about Aang that allowed him to win? We don't get to know; he's the writer's friend, so he gets to win.
Back to the episode, such that it is. Aang tells Ozai that his bending is gone, that he can never use it to threaten anyone again. Of course, that won't stop him from being able to use other things to threaten people, but Aang doesn't exactly think ahead. The commentary track seems to imply that what Aang did to Ozai also made him physically weaker.
So basically, that glue idea. Such a great lesson for the kids: cripple your enemy, but don't kill him. Because it's better for him to live as a cripple, barely able to move on his own, than to kill him.
Aang then walks forward a bit, seeing the burning forest and downed airships that he had no hand in. Then his eyes and tattoo's glow for a moment, and he is able to pull the ocean in to extinguish most of the flames. And since that's how all of the prior Avatars use the Avatar State, a momentary flash rather than a sustained glow, this shows that Aang too has mastered it.
How did this happen? How does a story arc go so wrong? It sounds like such a simple thing. Set up a villain as a credible threat and an evil person. Hero takes villain out in a tough fight. It's just that simple. So how did they go this far wrong?
They sabotaged so much of the arc with the plot of what Aang should do with Ozai. It did nothing for the overall story of the series and served no real purpose except to take up more time. The big fight ended with Aang winning due to pure chance rather than skill. Aang's character is shown as being weak, since if he had not been saved by outside forces, he would not have killed Ozai as he needed to. There were just too many contrivances overall.
So much promise. And so much disappointment.