The Southern Air Temple
Most of the first article of this series was dedicated to the delicate process of introducing an audience, especially a young audience, to the intricacies of a high fantasy tv show. And how the writing staff of Avatar effectively set the stage for their world and characters, but now they are faced with the most daunting task presented by any long running television program. What does the show look like week-to-week.
The answer provided by these two episodes is incredibly encouraging, as Bryke and the writing team decided on a fairly repeatable approach. Team Avatar heads to a new location each week on their journey, meets some new characters, solves some internal or external problem, and heads on their merry way. On the flip-side Zuko pursues our heroes, while contesting with the political and military structures of the Fire Nation. It’s an elegant way to turn the epic quest story into something more episodic, rechristening the case of the week format so beloved by genre shows with a flexible place of the week format.
The structure also allows the worldbuilding to be weaved into fairly self-contained stories, even if no actual places or characters recur, the ideas that are produced are always in place. It’s a “the show never forgets” format that allows even weaker moments to be integrated into the story.
Luckily the first outing in the weekly format leads to the first great episode of the series. “The Southern Air Temple” is a shockingly dark tale that finally fulfills the subtitle of the show. It’s the moment where the horrors of the past finally reveal themselves to our heroes and set the stakes for the importance of their quest. It also established Avatar as a series about reckoning with scars of war and long lasting impact of cultural genocide. Heavy stuff to dole out in the third episode.
Aang wants to revisit his former home after his extended absence, but his leave puts Sokka and Katara in a tricky situation. Do they inform Aang of the Fire Nation’s genocide, or do they let the issue go and hope nothing comes up. The siblings’ obfuscation is tarnished as Aang explores his former stomping grounds and discovers the remains of his previous airbending master Monk Gyatso. Such sadness and anger again force him into The Avatar State, which in turn alerts the world to his reappearance.
Initially the plot set-up feels like one of those frustrated “gotta lie to keep the peace” stories that plague animation and sitcoms, but by episode’s end Sokka and Katara’s concerns seem fully justified. Genocide is no happy subject, and with Aang’s evasiveness in the premiere there is genuine concern that he will disperse just as quickly as he appeared once his world is shattered.
Cleverly “The Southern Air Temple” uses this dynamic to reforge the found family nature of Team Avatar instead of tearing them asunder. When Aang stumbles upon the grotesque grave of his desiccated master the world tumbles in on him. His reflections of a happier time are moot. There is no airball, or cake baking, or bounteous Air Bison riding. The past has been totally burned. However, Sokka and Katara promise a future, there is time to dwell on history, but progress forward must be made if the team want to heal their pasts and possible futures.
Such themes come to the fore with Zuko’s story this week as well. We finally learn his status in the world, he’s the banished prince of the Fire Nation. Exiled for some now unknown crime. He’s then the lowest rung in a sniveling hierarchy. What should be the exalted child of a ruler is treated with such contempt by the authority of the military. We are introduced to these dynamics with Zhao, a craven, power hungry figure that sees everything as a means to an end for his enrichment.
Zuko’s bought with Zhao reveals that he exists in the inverse state of Team Avatar, his blood family is in tact, but all relationships (with the exception of Iroh) have been shattered. He is betrayed by his subordinates, belittled by higher-ups, and mocked for his narrow minded pursuits for the Avatar.
This tension boils into the first excellent action sequence of the series. Zuko’s Agni Kai with Zhao demonstrates a bit of nice world building (this is a culturally formalized duel), and character building. Zuko seems outmatched, but there’s a piece of him that realizes he cannot fail here because of the further damage it can cause to his reputation. But Zuko has enough of conscious to not completely fall for Zhao’s goading after he loses. For all his singleminded intent there’s a pain and a regret in Zuko’ action. his temper gets the best of him, and he’s self aware enough to know that’s wrong.
That the Agni Kai and Aang’s Avatar state burst and cut together as the climax is also revealing. Here are the two poles of our story going through both a physical and emotional transformation from the pangs of past failures. It connects the characters even if they are apart.
“The Southern Air Temple” isn’t all gloom and doom though. We get introduced to the flying Lemur Momo, and the peak into the Avatar reincarnation cycle posits hope of learning from history. There’s pain to be dealt with, but also joy and excitement as well.
Odds and Ends
- Because of how early in production this episode was, the actual Avatar statues aren’t exactly right. A minor error in continuity that is immediately laid bare by the following episode.
- This is the only episode of the show to have a unique title screen, makes me wish they did it more often because it’s quite fun.
- The show’s visuals are still a little lumpy, but the design of the temple and fire nation docks show that everything about the contstruction of the world was fully considered.
- This where Sokka’s obsession with meat is introduced, a surprisingly effective running gag despite its prevelance in other children’s entertainment.
- I Know That Voice: Jason Isaacs joins the cast a Zhao, always one to play the sniveling enemy isn’t he.
- Monk Gyatso’s death is revealed to be even more ghoulish by events in The Legend of Korra. Looks like he sucked the air out of the room to kill the Fire Nation invaders.
- The Agni Kai works as referendum on Zuko fighting his father, and is structurally almost the same. It works both as foreshadowing to the events of the “The Storm” and much more revealing of character on rewatch.
The Warriors of Kyoshi
The fourth episode of Avatar is the definitional version of the Place of the Week format. While “The Southern Air Temple” exuded a more contemplative air, “Warriors” is sillier, more free wheeling, and pointed with a few obvious moral lessons. Add in a pinch of worldbuilding, and you get the most traditional week-to-week experience for the show, the structure of which will be copied (with major exceptions) the rest of the series.
It’s not bad, but “Warriors,” despite some interesting history and fun fights, feels like a step down from the emotional highs of the previous episode. It’s light and fun, provides important character beats for Team Avatar (Zuko is unfortunately given short shrift), and contains one of the show’s defining moments (foaming mouth guy), but it’s also overly blunt in its moralizing, and too obvious in its structure. The show exaggerates the more nuanced character flaws of heroes to make a fairly obvious point. A good point yes, but the execution is fumbled. We’re still at the moment where the writers can struggle to balance the “kids show” with the mythic sweep.
So this week Team Avatar pops over to Kyoshi Island as Aang wants to show Katara his ability to surf the elephant koi. Unfortunately our heroes are nabbed from their beach retreat by the inhabitants of the island, a group of people that worship past Avatar Kyoshi. As such the townsfolk are immediately enamored by Aang and his antics, while Katara grows frustrated over his swiftly swelling ego. Meanwhile Sokka gets poked in the eye for his casual misogyny, as he is constantly bested by the local war force of women dressed up as the previous Avatar.
So our boys have to learn a lesson. Aang needs to relinquish the need to show off and be self-involved, and Sokka has to learn that women are people too. Such ideas are fine enough on their own, but the presentation is lacking. We are aware that both Aang and Sokka can be easily distracted by faults in their egos, but the pointed ways in which the flaws emerge here do brush against the overly contrived. In a world of earth conquering heroines throughout the annals of history, it’s a bit odd for Sokka to solely believe fighting belongs only to men. The show sets him up as a bit of bumpkin, but it doesn’t quite sit well with the rest of our understanding of this world.
Aang fares a bit better with his morality tale. For the first time since his return he’s treated with honor and glory. Certainly a respite from the death and desperation of the previous episode, but he has to learn not to be complacent. There are enemies everywhere, and too much stagnation can lead to trouble. Despite being the unambiguous heroes of the series, Team Avatar travels with the burden of a giant target on their back.
So Aang takes a bit of responsibility, as his recklessness and id lead to Kyoshi being attacked by Zuko and his underlings. This once again underlines the weight Aang wishes he didn’t have to carry. In his ideal world the frivolity he enjoys would not be leaden with dread of attack and pillaging, the responsibility of the world again tearing down the life a normal child could lead.
Luckily this episode is great in the realm of fleshing out the locale and history of the Four Nations. In a reality where the messianic figure is reincarnated into different people with different lives and emotions, of course each specific one would engender respect in a different way. Though we know little of Kyoshi now, she cuts a striking image in the local town idol and the warriors she inspired.
Which leads to Suki and the warriors. The premiere postulated that there was a notable difference between people who could and couldn’t bend, and that Katara and Aang’s abilities are notable. Such a hierarchy seems to place the non-benders at a disadvantage, but the Kyoshi Warriors boldly strike back against that. Even if they train in service of the Avatar, their skills are simply well executed (and might I say excellently choreographed) martial arts. There fans and snares providing an exciting movement counterpoint to the bending we’ve seen so far.
It once again opens up the possibility space of the Four Nations. That a non-bender is not an at an immediate disadvantage in a fight with a skilled element manipulator is thrown out the window. Sokka demonstrates that he has the potential for growth, not just in terms of how he relates to women, but also as an actual soldier in the field.
There’s good stuff interlaced with the more paint by numbers plotting, and its a kink that the show will eventually smooth out and more intelligently integrate into its storytelling. So even if the balance is out of whack in “The Warriors of Kyoshi” there’s still so much of the world to drink in.
Odds and Ends
- Zuko gets the short end of the narrative stick this week after beautifully integrating with the themes of the previous episode without actually interacting with Team Avatar. Though his breathing exercise at the beginning is an interesting demonstration of the principles of fire bending.
- First big meme moment from the show, foaming mouth guy, an internet staple since 2005.
- Animation still needs to be fully ironed out, but the sequence with the elephant koi and unagi is delightfully deformed and cartoonish.
- Both Suki and Avatar Kyoshi are elements that work so much better in retrospect once the full breadth of their involvement with overarching story is revealed. What makes the world building and character growth so good in Avatar is that it knows when to bring back a good idea and concept, and frequently make it work better in a new context.