1×04 – The Warriors of Kyoshi

I feel bad for Sokka. Despite his bravery against Zuko’s threats to his village, and despite his often clear-eyed grasp of the obvious problems that no one else seems to take seriously, he seems to get the short end of the stick in every episode.

With that said, I was grateful to see Sokka get a little more serious treatment in this episode. Admittedly, it is preceded by a well-earned comeuppance (though delivered in overstated characterization by the writer(s)), but it was nice to see Sokka get to exercise restraint, respect, and even show some competence for once. Constant comic relief does not make for a well-rounded character.

Of course, all of this goes on in the midst of Aang’s continuing campaign to distract himself from the reality of who he is meant to be. His detour to Kyoshi island, ostensibly to ride elephant koi for fun, goes awry. This is first due to an unexpected attack by an unagi (basically a giant eel that shoots water – and has an uncanny resemblance to Spirited Away’s Kohaku, an influence to which the makers of this show readily admit) and thereafter, capture by the warriors of Kyoshi – who are all women.

Sokka’s interactions with the warriors eventually brings him first into conflict and later into a relationship of mutual respect with Suki, their leader. Aang, on the other hand, uses his status as Avatar (proven by his use of airbending) to amuse the crowds who follow him wherever he goes, looking to get a little closer to the latest Avatar – it turns out that the island of Kyoshi is named after a previous incarnation.

All of this attention means that words spreads and finally reaches Zuko, who had been thrown from the scent due to Aang’s unpredictable tourist-like travelling. As with the Southern Water Tribe, he arrives and threatens the locals unless Aang surrenders. This time, Aang simply leaves, knowing that Zuko will abandon any attack to pursue him. His use of the unagi to put out the fires from the attack is a neat, though it seems a waste to introduce both the elephant koi and the unagi to such a short end.

Of these first four episodes, this is definitely the weakest yet. Though it introduces the warriors of Kyoshi, the overall storyline is basically in limbo. Admittedly, the warriors are just too interesting to be a one-off and I look forward to seeing how they enter the storyline in the future. The budding romance between Suki & Sokka seems a bit rushed even for a 20-minute show, but is balanced by the antagonism they have to overcome, and the development of Sokka’s otherwise weak fighting skills. I must admit, Sokka’s non-apology apology (“I’m sorry if I insulted you earlier”) made me grind my teeth. I doubt there will ever be any follow-up, but man is that not the way to genuinely say ‘I’m sorry’.

A quick note to acknowledge ‘foaming mouth guy’ – the character that goes into hysterics before foaming at the mouth and collapsing when Aang reveals himself as the Avatar by airbending. Apparently he has quite a following among fans, evidenced by the wiki entry that he has online.

1×03 – The Southern Air Temple

‘The Southern Air Temple’ breaks open the world and stories of Avatar in immensely satisfying – though incomplete – ways. We begin with Aang and company, revisiting nearly immediately Aang’s avoidance of reality – both his destiny and the ramifications of the passing of a hundred years.

Meanwhile, Zuko faces off against Command Zhao, whose dialogue reveals that Zuko is the disgraced son of the Fire Lord, banished for an unnamed offense. Similarly, he mockingly addresses Zuko’s uncle as ‘General’ Iroh, a great hero of the nation – though he clearly has no regard for either prince or uncle. Iroh’s calm acceptance of the blatant disrespect stands in stark contrast to Zuko’s barely contained fury.

Zhao takes over Zuko’s mission, citing his failure to hold the Avatar, and taunts Zuko into rashly challenging him to some sort of duel called ‘Agni Kai’. After Zhao accepts smugly and leaves, Iroh worriedly reminds Zuko of what happened last time he dueled a master, leaving us with more questions than when we started. Is this what happened to Zuko’s face?

Meanwhile, Aang is losing himself in the joy of being back at the Southern Air Temple, empty though it is. Katara & Sokka are notably subdued in contrast, both intuiting that the temple is empty because the Fire Nation overran it years ago – this is confirmed when Katara finds a Fire Nation helm, though she quickly hides the evidence to spare Aang’s feelings. This can’t last, and a feeling of nervous anticipation shadows Aang’s fond recollections of his mentor, the loveable and wise Monk Gyatso.

Things reach a head for both storylines as Aang enters the temple itself and Zuko faces off against Zhao. Zuko initially falls against Zhao’s confident attacks, overwhelmed by their power and unsure of his ability. Iroh’s encouragement and reminder of his ability helps bring him back and he turns the tables, ultimately standing ready to deliver the finishing blow to Zhao. He instead fire the shot deliberately wide, allowing Zhao to live with the shame of his defeat.

We aren’t surprised when Zhao mocks this mercy as weakness, nor when he moves to attack Zuko from behind. But it is Iroh’s intervention that stands out, and is surpassed not only in his rebuke of Zhao, but his statement of faith in Zuko: “Even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” The moment of camaraderie between these two as they walk away together is understated but affecting.

Aang has his own crisis of faith when the reality of what has happened at the Southern Air Temple can no longer be avoided. After chasing a lemur that entered the temple (mysteriously filled with statues of every previous Avatar incarnation), he finds the remains of his beloved mentor Gyatso surrounded by the remains of Fire Nation soldiers. Distraught, he enters the Avatar state, wreaking havok all around him as he glows almost insensate with sorrow and rage. At the same time, all of the statues and every Avatar temple around the world begins glowing too.

It is only Katara’s statement of faith and sharing of her own pain in the loss of her mother that brings Aang back from the brink. Sokka, too, expresses his commitment, as Aang finally accepts that he really is the last airbender. They set off together with Momo, the earlier mentioned lemur, to their next destination.

More pieces of the puzzle are laid out for us in this episode. Aang’s angst (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) is on full display, and I can’t help but think that this isn’t the end of his avoidance issues of his destiny and of his loss. It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. Similarly, I wonder if we’ll hear more about Katara & Sokka’s loss of their mother – and where is their father? What became of him & the warriors who journeyed to the Earth Kingdom?

We also got a few extra facts about how the Avatar cycle works: air, water, earth, fire. That the last Avatar was a Fire bender and that the Fire Nation is currently the source of the world’s woes makes for an interesting potential story point. And the life of the airbenders just seems neat – along with their lock design! I very much enjoyed seeing how that sort of made sense, while also being ridiculous and fanciful.

1×02 – The Avatar Returns

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?)

1×01 – The Boy in the Iceberg

The pilot of Avatar: The Last Airbender stands up well as an establishing episode. I’ve watched this series several times now and I’m still impressed at how the show puts its best foot forward right from the beginning.

This is evident first in the opening sequence. Nowadays it seems that television shows eschew narrated opening sequences, but this wasn’t the case before the turn of the century. However, most of the time this was a mark against the show, not a statement in its favor. Notable exceptions were the Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series (a trend that ended with TNG, I believe) – though I may be biased due to my affection for Trek.

What I love about this shows introduction sequence is that it isn’t just a filler for credits; it introduces you to the world you’re entering, the major factions, the historical backdrop, and a brief montage of the main characters. The only other animated introduction that has impressed me with its ability to do this so well is the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series.

Also notable from the introduction is the art style of this series. Although Nickelodeon takes its artistic cues from Japanese anime, this is clearly American animation. Additionally, it’s interesting to see the styles of familiar famous anime – notably Hayao Miyazaki – combined with digital animation. On one hand, I find the digital insertions to be a bit jarring. The movement from the drawn map of the world to the digitally placed ships of the Fire Nation shows the stark difference of a softly drawn world and the hard lines of computer rendering. However, the animators seem to have only rarely used digital animation and to good effect overall.

Alright, to the episode. The episode introduces us to our main characters by establishing dual plotlines. We’re first introduced to Katara & Sokka, out fishing for their village. Right off the bat, you’re reminded that this show is geared towards kids as we are thrust into a typical brother/sister teasing, joking, whining, pseudo-fighting scene. But what sets this otherwise mundane drama apart is the undertone of tension (and perhaps even tragedy) in the reality that these two are responsible for their tribe in a largely troubled world.

I really appreciate the alternating plots between character pairs. Katara & Sokka are contrasted with Uncle Iroh and Prince(?!) Zuko. It’s quickly apparent that despite the differing cultures and settings, they’re complementary sets. Katara is to Sokka as Iroh is to Zuko. Both Sokka and Zuko are young men thrust into responsibility before they have the experience to handle it. Katara and Iroh are the calming, mature influences that temper them and provide a reflective counterpoint to the rashness of the boys they accompany, though not without faults of their own.

Having established the four main characters, we’re introduced to Aang and Appa (his flying bison, though the descriptor has yet to be proven!) towards the end of the episode. Though we the audience know that we’re meeting the titular character, his discoverers (Katara & Sokka) are yet ignorant. The beacon of light alerts Zuko and by extension, Iroh, to his awakening. After Aang’s introduction to the village, he and Katara accidentally set off a trap in a derelict Fire Nation ship, giving Zuko the location of Aang and the Southern Water Tribe’s village – and sets the stage for the conflict between our paired protagonists and antagonists.

Throughout all of this, we are introduced to a number of themes that are especially promising: Aang’s guilty evasion of questions about the Avatar, how he and Appa came to be encased in ice, the question of Aang being the ‘last’ airbender and the significance of that to others and for him, Zuko’s status (honor-bound?) and why he has been searching (and for so long, apparently) for the Avatar, Zuko’s constant state of anger, and Katara & Sakko’s backstory as to how they came to be in charge of their village.

It’s a strong start to the series, with foreshadowing for everyone involved. If the series can make good on these threads, we’re in for a fun ride.