The second episode of this first season – or ‘Book 1’, as the series prefers – continues immediately from where we left off previously. We see both Sokka and Zuko more clearly in their roles, and how woefully under-prepared they are for the position they find themselves in. Sokka in the responsibility that lays on his shoulders, Zuko in the power he wields – neither ready for what they hold. And boy are both of them over-zealous in how they handle their problems! Sokka in his nearly immediate exiling of Aang for his mistaken triggering of the flare on the Fire Nation ship, Zuko in his heavy-handed tactics to intimidate a tribe of women and children.
The image of Sokka silhouetted against the approaching Fire Nation ship is striking – here is a kid who can’t win, knows that he is powerless to defend those in his charge, but dang if he isn’t going to stand in front of them until the end. Of course we know that this won’t work, but I couldn’t help but smile with him when his boomerang lands a lucky blow against Zuko – who otherwise has the upper hand in every possible way.
Despite his exile, Aang returns to defend the village (was there any doubt he would?), and we’re confronted with another child who is in over his head. “You’re just a child!” says Zuko, to which Aang retorts “Well, you’re just a teenager!”. Yup. Aang’s approach – to surrender in exchange for the village’s safety – is the logical, if inevitable conclusion to the confrontation. Equally inevitable is the pursuit by Katara & Sokka, amusingly punctuated by the proof that Appa is indeed a flying bison – along with Aang’s easy escape.
A couple of light moments I especially enjoyed were right in the midst of the escape. Sokka’s triple prodding of Zuko, knocking him off the ship, was a nice reversal after Zuko did the same to him as he tried to defend his village. Similarly, I chuckled at Katara’s pragmatic acceptance of her limits: If you can only fire freezing water backwards, face away from your enemies! Problem solved – at least for this round.
It’s notable that Aang, too, is a boy with more going on than he knows how to handle. Though he escapes the guards with ease and defeats Zuko handily, if less confidently, the entire encounter reveals the truth behind his previous hesitancy: he doesn’t want to be the Avatar. As he recovers from going into the Avatar State during his escape, his response to Katara’s confusion is telling: “Why didn’t you tell us you were the Avatar? Because…. I never wanted to be.”
Our heroes set off to get Aang the training he needs – albeit with a several detours for ‘serious business’ at Aang’s request. Given the revelation of Aang’s reluctance, it’s not hard to guess that perhaps these detours are deliberate distractions – the question is, how do you force someone to be the Avatar?
(It’s worth noting that this episode’s opening sequence is the one that we’ll see for the rest of the series – and that all but one of the benders we see depicting each tribe will eventually be revealed as a major character. The pilot episode had a longer opening and omitted any visual of Aang, presumably to allow us to meet him for the first time inside the show. Also, in the first episode I wondered at Katara’s ‘ruthless Fire Benders’ remark in the opening sequence – no longer present in this shortened version – will this bear true if/when we learn about the Fire Nation, or is this the bias of an opposing tribe?)