Avatar: The Last Airbender “The Painted Lady” (part 1 of 2)
If season three of Avatar: The Last Airbender seems like a letdown, it’s only because season two was such a home run that it was pretty much an impossible act to follow. By and large, the show still had the same quality writing, acting, and artwork as in prior years, and now it had the added advantage of being the final season where all those slow boiling plot points could finally pay off. It quickly became quite a ride.
The second half of season two followed Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph on a long and arduous quest to deliver a key piece of intelligence to the ruler of the Earth Kingdom, who could use it to finally defeat the Fire Nation. In the end, they succeeded despite great costs, and as season three begins, the group enters the Fire Nation to make final preparations as they await the invasion.
Plotwise, this really wasn’t the best idea. For the first time, our heroes have nowhere they need to go, so for much of the season, we’re simply watching them sit around with time on their hands. However, the writers still managed to turn this into a positive, by taking the opportunity to do more character-based stories that further fleshed out our heroes, and also let us see how much they had all grown during their journey.
Plus, the Fire Nation characters easily took up the slack for more plot-heavy scenes. Azula remained as good a character as ever, and Zuko only improved as he went through the final phase of his development, which saw him become what was easily the show’s most evolved character by the time it ended.
This is despite the writers facing another major handicap when Mako, the voice of Iroh, died shortly after recording his lines for season two. Once again, they used this to their advantage, by having him only show up sparingly in situations where he was understandably silent. Eventually, they introduced Greg Baldwin as his new voice, who did quite a good impersonation of Mako’s work.
This final episode of The Worst of Avatar is “The Painted Lady”, the season’s third episode. Luckily, much like “Avatar Day”, the season got this embarrassment out of the way early, with the episodes that followed all being decent to spectacular. And right now, it’s the last episode in my way before I take on M. Night Shyamalan’s hideous mangling of the series, so here goes.
Just like “The Great Divide”, the episode has a “previously on” segment, despite being the second of two episodes that are complete filler. At least it serves some purpose this time, as it shows our heroes picking up the Fire Nation clothes they’re now wearing in order to go incognito in enemy territory.
Our heroes are heading down a brown, dirty river, where after some filler, and a pointless game of hide and seek with Momo, Aang brings up the pollution around them. And then he thoughtlessly sprays everyone else with garbage while cleaning himself off, because that’s funny, right? Oh, and I’ll just mention this here so no one’s confused by the screencaps: Aang has hair in this season. If you want to know why, watch the show.
There’s a painful joke between Sokka and Toph that I’ll spare everyone, then Sokka rolls out a long scroll. It’s a schedule he’s cooked up, where he’s apparently plotted out their time all the way up to the day of the invasion. Never mind that we see them do plenty of lazing around this season, including in the episode right before this one.
They come upon a village up on the docks in the middle of the river, and decide to stop for food. On the nearby coast, Aang pulls some grass over Appa so he looks like “a little hill with horns.” He didn’t really think this one through, did he?
They meet a man named Doc, and after they claim to be from Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom, he offers to take them to the village in his boat. Hope you enjoyed that bit, because references to the bigger picture here are rare. As they head across, there’s a nice detail in the animation, showing Toph holding onto Sokka, since her blindness makes her uneasy when she’s not on solid ground. Whatever faults the writing may have, this show’s animators always got the job done.
Doc explains that the village started out as a town of fishermen, but now a nearby military factory is polluting the river and killing all the fish. And as I’m sure you just figured out, this episode is going to be about the environment and saving the planet. A worthy cause, to be sure, but environmental messages can really be annoying and preachy when not done properly, and “The Painted Lady” falls way on the wrong side of things.
Katara immediately wants to be the hero, while Sokka is the voice of pragmatism, insisting they don’t have time to stop and help people when they’re supposed to be preparing for the invasion. But any real depth here is again wrecked by how we see the heroes having plenty of free time over the rest of the season. Plus, Sokka stupidly starts shouting about “taking out the Fire Lord,” just to make it clear we’re not supposed to be on his side.
They head to a fish shop, which is run by Doc. Except, it’s actually run by his split personality Shu, who refuses to admit they’re the same person. Welcome to the episode’s big running gag, and believe me, it’s all downhill from here. They buy some fish, and Shu ducks down and pops back up as Doc. See what I mean?
After a cheap pathos scene of Katara giving some of her fish to a begging kid, there’s some serious tone whiplash to another painfully long and unfunny scene of Sokka trying to adjust the schedule to handle this detour. God, I think I actually prefer the Doc/Shu bit to the schedule nonsense.
And it’s not over yet, because the next morning it turns out Appa is sick. Sokka expresses concern, but in a gag even the kids will undoubtedly see coming a mile off, it’s because this further screws up their schedule. Appa’s purple tongue lolls out, and the animators again show their stuff by throwing in a nicely subtle bit of foreshadowing where Momo licks the purple part of the tongue
Everyone heads back to the village for medicine, where they discover that all of the villagers are suddenly happy. Doc/Shu explains that some food mysteriously appeared overnight, and on my first viewing I figured things out right about here, which made the rest of the episode a bit of a slog. Regardless, they think it was done by a local spirit called the Painted Lady.
But Doc/Shu doesn’t have any medicine, since the factory takes it all, so they have to stay a bit longer. How convenient. Plus, there’s a lame joke involving two-headed fish, just so we remember what lesson we’re supposed to be learning here.
At night, Katara goes back to the village dressed as the Painted Lady. Okay, we’re not actually supposed to know it’s her at this point, but honestly, did your mind not jump there immediately?
Thankfully, they don’t try to keep up the pretense too long, as we see her whole face immediately afterwards.
The next day, we’re immediately treated to another Doc/Shu gag, as he runs around the shop while changing personalities. Honestly, the only thing that could save the gag at this point would be if it turned out they really are different people. Unfortunately, this script isn’t that clever.
There’s more stuff about the Painted Lady coming again, and everyone’s even more happy, until Sokka points out the factory is still there, and if the Painted Lady really wanted to help, she’d get rid of it. Then comes another lame filler gag, where Sokka and Aang offer impressions of what that would look like. Are you getting the sense yet that they really didn’t have much of a story here?