Jul 30, 2011
Avatar: The Last Airbender “Avatar Day” (part 1 of 3)
Creators Mike DeMartino and Bryan Konietzko faced a large uphill battle with their idea for an animated series that—as I mentioned last time—was more than just fluffy fun that parents could shove their kids in front of. And it’s probably for this reason that the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender is easily the weakest of the three: they hadn’t yet built up the clout to challenge the general public’s assumptions about animated shows, or at least, not as much as they wanted.
That all changed in season two. Armed with a sizable fanbase who could be counted on to watch every episode and keep track of all the various plotlines, the show became more and more daring, moving toward complex stories that couldn’t be resolved in 22 minutes, and greater moral ambiguity on the part of both its heroes and villains. It was a gamble, but it paid off big time, because the season’s second half is pretty much every fan’s pick for the best period in the show’s history, and the ratings stayed steady despite less overall accessibility for new viewers.
The increase in moral ambiguity was especially clear in the case of antagonist Prince Zuko. At the end of season one, Zuko was fully declared an outlaw of the Fire Nation, and unable to return home even if he captured the Avatar, which was his primary motivation for the whole first season. With his uncle Iroh still tagging along, he was now forced to live off the land and get a firsthand look at the effect his country’s war was having on the rest of the world.
Lots of television shows have done stories about a villain reforming and joining the heroes, but this is one of the best I’ve seen, mainly because the writers actually took the time to gradually build up Zuko’s growing conscience from episode to episode, so that all of his actions during this season and the next make perfect sense.
And while this was going on, we got a new major villain in the person charged with bringing Zuko in: his sister Azula. I truly believe, with no hyperbole intended, that Azula is one of the greatest villains the American entertainment industry has ever produced, up there with the Joker, the Terminator, and most fittingly of all, David Xanatos.
Azula was a teenage firebending prodigy, able to create blue flames that symbolized her advanced skill compared to all the firebenders we’d seen in season one. But more importantly, she was a skilled strategist, toying with everyone around her like chess pieces to achieve her goals, with those goals growing more complex as the season went on. And best of all, her motivations all made perfect sense given the information she had, with her occasional failures only informing her as to what not to do next time around.
The heroes also gained a new member in Toph, my personal favorite character in the show. She had a Daredevil-esque gimmick as a girl who had been blind since birth, but easily compensated for it with her other senses, plus her incredible earthbending skills. She also added extreme bluntness to the mix of personalities, never hesitant to call out anyone she disagreed with. And on top of all this, the writers accomplished a minor miracle by including a running gag about people forgetting she’s blind due to how well she functions, and not once have it be offensive in the slightest.
But the season needed a few episodes to build up to all that stuff. And during that time, we got “Avatar Day”, the last episode before Toph joined the show, which really made her appearance all the more welcome, because the story we get here could have never happened with her around.
So it’s once more unto the breach with the Worst of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
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Oddly enough, this episode doesn’t have a “previously on” segment, despite it being necessary this time around. I’ll just fill everyone in anyway: two generations before Aang, the Avatar was a woman named Kyoshi, and in season one, the heroes found an island named after her, guarded by an elite all-female army called the Kyoshi Warriors.
Meanwhile, on Zuko and Iroh’s side of things, Zuko was reduced to begging on the street, where he was last seen robbing people, while wearing the Blue Spirit opera mask he’d put to good use in season one. And now, on with the fun!
Right away, we’re warned this will be a tough one, because we start off with a needlessly gross shot of a spider having spun a web in Sokka’s mouth as he sleeps. I know I said it was good that the show wasn’t afraid to scare kids, but it would be nice if there was some point to it. Here, it’s just a setup for a joke where Momo sees a fly land on the web, so he snatches and eats the whole thing.
A group of Fire Nation soldiers arrives on their cool rhino-like creatures, and surround our heroes in a wide shot that again reminds us of how good the show’s art can be.
Everyone manages to get away, but while Aang and Katara are able to save their most valued possessions, Sokka is forced to leave behind his beloved boomerang. And he needlessly makes a few weird faces while complaining about this. Dammit, stop that, animators!
They arrive at a town, with Sokka griping about how he’s lost part of his identity, so we know what his big issue in this episode will be. Thankfully, it’s kept pretty subtle this time, though the material we get will make you wish for more boomerang whining instead. They buy some food, and a vendor tells Katara that they don’t accept Water Tribe money in this town, and this exchange is so clunky you just know it’s going to come back to haunt them later.
The vendor then mentions that it’s “Avatar Day”, so they head into town and discover giant statues being wheeled around that are modeled after Kyoshi, Aang, and Roku (Roku being the Avatar between Kyoshi and Aang). And while Kyoshi and Roku have dignified, stern expressions, the Aang statue has a grin that’s even scarier for being carved in wood.
Aang’s response: “It’s the biggest me I’ve ever seen!” Yeah, thanks for that. But you know there has to be some twist to this to make it worth an episode, and sure enough, the statues get burned down while everyone shouts, “Down with the Avatar!” Ah, one of those stories, I see.
But enough of that, time for Zuko! His whole subplot here works pretty well, and it’s an important step in his character development. Shame it had to be shoved in with such a useless A plot. Here, he’s wearing the Blue Spirit mask as he steals bread from some people. He then brings it back to Iroh, who’s suspicious of where he got it. Okay, enough of the quality writing. Moving on.
Meanwhile, the Aang statue is set on fire, so Katara uses some handy nearby water to put the statues out. Aang then jumps onto his statue and reveals himself, making for yet another rather unsettling image where the real guy is next to a giant version of himself, with one eye burned out. I really wouldn’t be so hung up on this sort of thing, if only I thought they were doing it on purpose.