Apr 29, 2018
Avatar: The Last Airbender “The Great Divide” (part 1 of 3)
So, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film The Last Airbender has been released, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, it’s been derided as absolutely terrible by everyone and their second cousins. And the ones complaining the loudest about the movie are the fans of the Nickelodeon cartoon it’s based on, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
I saw this coming a long way off. In fact, months before the film was released, I reserved the duty of writing a recap of it, so that’s something you can all look forward to. But it occurred to me that you can’t really appreciate just how bad the film is without an understanding of the original series, or how much everything that made it good was ruthlessly destroyed by Shyamalan.
So before recapping the film, I’ll be looking at three episodes of the show, one from each of its three seasons, to give some sense of the show’s progress. But since recapping a typical episode would probably just result in endless statements of “Boy, this is great,” I’ll be taking a different approach. Each season features a single episode that stands out as being of much lower quality than everything around it, thus making it the perfect target for a recap. So get ready, because here comes the first installment in The Worst of Avatar: The Last Airbender!
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The first thing I need to get out of the way is that despite the show usually being labeled “anime”, it isn’t Japanese. It was produced, written, and voiced by Americans and Canadians (except for the Japanese voice actor Mako, but he’d been working in English for so long it doesn’t really count). So why the confusion? Well, for one thing, the series features a strong Asian influence. Much of its background mythology, and also a lot of the props and the writing are taken straight from the continent.
But I think the truth is a bit deeper than that. You may recall from my Heavy Metal recap that one of my biggest pet peeves with the American entertainment industry is the lack of quality animated shows and movies. Somehow, people in this country have gotten the idea that animation is a genre rather than an art form, suitable only for brainless fluff you can sit your kids in front of. Thus, when people see a show like Avatar that actually takes itself seriously, they instantly think it has to be from a country like Japan, which treats animation as just one more way to tell a story.
The show takes place in a world where certain groups of people have the ability to telepathically control or “bend” one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. And there’s also a single person reincarnated through the ages called the Avatar, who can control all four, and is tasked with keeping the world at peace.
But when the Fire Nation makes a grab for world conquest, the current Avatar is Aang, a twelve-year-old Air Nomad who isn’t prepared for the job at all. He runs away and is caught in a storm, where in desperation he forms an ice cocoon around himself. He stays frozen for the next hundred years, during which the Fire Nation is free to wage war.
Aang is freed by Sokka and Katara, brother and sister Water Tribe peasants who quickly learn who he is, and decide to tag along with him, helping him learn the other three bending arts (he’s already mastered airbending). They soon learn a comet will be passing by at the end of summer, which will give the Fire Nation the power boost they need to fully conquer the world.
So there’s the setup for the first season: Aang needs to find a waterbending master to learn from, and while Katara has some natural talent, she’s not up to the job. So they have to travel to the opposite end of the world to the only place that other waterbenders still live, while getting into various other adventures along the way, with their main transportation being the flying “sky bison” Appa, who was Aang’s pet and frozen along with him.
This means season one is pretty episodic, but there are still a few minor story arcs that fill the time well, and a lot of what happens becomes important in the later two seasons, usually in wonderfully unexpected ways.
But what really makes the show stand out is how seriously it takes itself. There’s humor in the show, sometimes quite a lot, but all of it comes naturally from the characters and the situations they find themselves in. The world itself and the rather dark backstory laid out above are treated completely straight, making the viewing process all the more rewarding. Aang, Sokka, and Katara are not just bags of fluffy fun; we genuinely care about them and want to see them succeed.
And this is even more the case when it comes to the show’s main villains at this point. Throughout the first season, the heroes are pursued by Zuko of the Fire Nation, a teenage prince with a nasty scar around his left eye who’s obsessed with finding the Avatar. We don’t quite know why he’s obsessed at first, but the gradual fleshing out of the character actually makes him the deepest personality out of all the characters, and compelling in his own right.
It also helps that he’s accompanied by his uncle Iroh, who despite playing a villainous role, is typically portrayed as a completely nice, likable guy who just wants to enjoy a good cup of tea while listening to fine music. It’s not often you see these kind of traits among an American cartoon’s “bad guys”, and right from the start, it showed that Avatar was going to be something special.
In fact, all three of the episodes I’ll be recapping have the same core flaw: they’re written as if Avatar really was what most Americans think of when they hear “animated TV series”. These episodes talk down to the audience at every opportunity, throw in all kinds of gratuitous gags, and in the case of two of them, only exist to shove a moral down our throats. Even by the time this first one aired, the show’s audience had learned to expect more than that, and I shudder to think that there were probably more than a few people who had been telling their friends about this great show called Avatar: The Last Airbender that was so much better than any other American cartoon, only to have this be the next episode that aired.
And with that, here is “The Great Divide”.
After the standard opening narration sequence, the episode inexplicably has a “previously on” section, featuring nothing that matters at all to what we’re about to see. My only guess is that since this is one of just two episodes in the whole series that’s complete filler and could easily be removed without affecting anything else, they just wanted to remind us of how good the show already was, so we might give them a pass on this one. But seeing as how you’re reading about this episode right now on this website, you can guess how well that went.
So, in order to set up the big lesson the episode is supposed to teach us, we need a rift between the Avatar’s two companions Sokka and Katara. They get into a fight while putting up a tent; Katara wants to put up an extra tarp in case it rains, while Sokka doesn’t see the point, because it’s the dry season. This goes in circles for a while, until the tent ends up knocked over, and they turn their backs to each other. Kind of a nice metaphor for this episode’s relationship with the rest of the series, actually.
Aang, the Avatar himself, suggests they switch jobs, and gloats over having thus solved the dilemma. And then he catches his sky bison Appa and the other team pet, the lemur Momo, fighting over a watermelon, so he chops it into two proportionately equal pieces. Are you starting to get a feeling for what the lesson of this episode is going to be yet?
The group then comes to the titular Great Divide, an enormous canyon that takes a day to cross on foot. And it’s nice to see that even when the writing isn’t up to par, this show still has some damn good artwork.
Unfortunately, this becomes another excuse for Sokka and Katara to disagree some more; Sokka wants to get going, while Katara wants to learn more about the canyon first. And while I can see both sides of the tent thing, I’m totally with Sokka here. You may recall from the introduction that they’re on a pretty tight deadline.
Some other guy arrives looking for the “Canyon Guide”, an earthbender whose help is vital to surviving a trip through the canyon. And as he talks, Sokka is behind the guy making faces for no reason at all. Yeah, someone didn’t get the memo that this wasn’t supposed to be your typical goofy kids’ show.
The new guy is from a tribe called the Gan Jin that’s been forced out of their homeland by the Fire Nation, a nice example of this show’s sense of scope. Even here, you really get the sense that there’s more happening in this world than the little bubble of what we get to see, which works wonders in getting us to care more about the characters. Now let’s get back to seeing all that effort go horribly to waste, shall we?