The Spirit World
The first half of Book One of Avatar has been defined by introductions. Introducing the audience to the myriad of details and concepts that will define a high fantasy epic. We’ve been shown the elemental powers, the intricate societies built around said powers, and the life of the citizens and military during war time. All of this has been great for deepening the audience’s understanding of how the world works, but until this pair of episodes we haven’t really been given a goal for our heroes besides “stop the Fire Nation.” And so the odd two parter “Winter Solstice” finally gives us the full stakes of the series: presenting another huge wrinkle to the world and setting a ticking clock that our heroes must beat.
In a sense “Winter Solstice” feels like a kind of re-up of the pilot. Pounding through conceptual work and myth-arc storytelling to paint a picture of where the adventure is headed. While the series premiere was a functional introduction to characters, these two episodes feel like a shotgun blast of world building. The aspects of the Four Nations brought to bare in “Winter Solstice” aren’t clean storytelling, but they are fascinating and exciting elements. It’s even bizarre that these stories were packaged as a two parter, as each episode has a distinct story it wants to tell.
“The Spirit World” greatly expands the scope of the world as the audience knows it by detailing the powers that govern the province of the Four Nations are greater than expected. Of course the wold of Avatar has been populated by the fantastical from minute one. Bending is the magic that defines the world, but we also see bizarre creatures and otherworldly machinations. Aang’s venture into the Avatar State causes a magical ruckus far and wide. But now we have spirits and a spirit world, a place where beings of great power reside, and only the Avatar can bridge the space between the two.
This information is doled out when Team Avatar stumbles upon a forest devastated by Fire Nation burning. Aang is wrecked by the realization that people could be so cruel to nature. The trouble only mounts as the Gaang realizes that spirit called Hei Bai is capturing people from a local community. Aang sets out to confront the spirit beast, and is dragged into the astral plane where he is set a task to complete by Avatar Roku’s dragon. Aang must visit Roku’s temple before the solstice ends to gain valuable information about his goal. With this task in mind, Aang calms Hei Bai and turns his eye to the Fire Nation.
The biggest issue with “The Spirit World” is that the main spirit conflict feels like total throat clearing to reach the cliffhanger of the episode. Hei Bai is a fantastic piece of design and animation, but he serves merely as a catalyst for future story developments rather than an interesting conflict in and of itself. Hei Bai kidnaps Sokka, and not much is made of it except a bathroom joke by the end. The spirit’s terror is easily reversed by Aang recounting a few kind words about regrowth that Katara spoke to him at the beginning of the episode. It’s frustrating that the cool world building done here feels almost immediately brushed aside.
Interestingly the Zuko/Iroh subplot of the episode provides an engaging counterpoint. It mostly starts as a lark: Iroh won’t leave his hot springs to join Zuko in his pursuit. It’s an amusing bit of old man laughs from our favorite uncle. Cleverly writer Aaron Ehasz turns the mildly amusing situation into a serious one. Iroh’s sluggishness is repaid by being capture by a group of Earth Kingdom soldiers. It’s the first time that we’ve seen Iroh be in serious trouble, and while he wriggles his way out of the situation, it’s good to know that even our wizened villains are fallible.
This kidnapping also provides Zuko with a miniature moral conundrum. While hunting for Iroh, he gets a chance to follow Team Avatar when they are on their back heel. It’s a possible route to take, but Zuko rejects it to instead save Iroh. It’s a small thing, but it demonstrates the loyalty Zuko has to his uncle. It also introduces us to a snazzy action sequence where trained earthbenders fight master firebenders.
Over all “The Spirit World” is all set up. Constructing a framework for the future of the series. It’s inelegant, but forceful enough to intrigue the viewer by once again blowing up what is possible in the world.
Odds and Ends
- The Earth Kingdom soldiers divulge some interesting tidbits of lore for the viewer. Iroh was once considered the greatest military general in the world, until he failed to overtake the Earth Kingdom capital Ba Sing Sae. His Stalingrad like siege failing after 600 hundred days.
- Also, Iroh roasted that soldier’s hand real good.
- Angry Hei Bai sure looks like an Angel from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
- Biggest laugh is Sokka getting dinged in the head by a nut that Katara threw.
- This episode is a bit of frustrating rewatch because a lot of the world and lore it builds is changed around a bit as the series continues. It’s not bad here, but it becomes much clearer and coherent by the end of the season.
The end of the summer. That’s how long Aang has to learn all types of bending and stop the Fire Nation from striking a decisive blow and ending the war in triumph. This crucial bit of info finally strikes the series into focus. We have an end date, a do or die scenario, and everything after this divulged information will lead to that moment.
As a stand alone episode of TV “Avatar Roku” fares much better than the “Spirit World” in doling out story defining information and paramount pieces of world building. It might be because all the needed throat clearing was done in the previous episode, but “Avatar Roku” provides a thrilling kick in pants to a series that might have seemed somewhat directionless until now. It also helps that the show steps up the animation game in a major way with this story, constructing multiple dynamic set-pieces that utilize bending and world design in an exciting way.
So Team Avatar must zoom to Roku’s temple in the Fire Nation for Aang to finally communicate to his past life and glean important knowledge. Our heroes are pursued by Zuko, who in turn is followed by Zhao, as they all vie for the honor of capturing Aang and turning him over to the Fire Lord. At the temple the Gaang is attacked by the Fire Sages, before being assisted by one that feels that the Fire Nation has lost its way, spiraling into devotion of the Fire Lord above all else. Aang contacts Roku and receives the troubling news, and Team Avatar escapes with a schedule to follow.
“Avatar Roku” does contain some of the same clunky introductions of the previous episode, but they are more effectively couched this time. The expository information conveyed is done so in the form of high action and mysterious ritual. We are still finding our way through this world with Aang, and a few monologues about the past are forgiven if they are presented in a cinematic manner.
And “Avatar Roku” looks to be the most cinematic episode so far. Starting with the daring flight across a Fire Nation blockade helmed by Commander Zhao. This sequence is one of the most thrilling set-pieces that the show has cooked up. Displaying a multilevel encounter from variety of angles. Team Avatar just need to barrel through, they don’t have time to fight the issue. Thus we are treated to Aang smartly weaving in and out of projectiles both on and off of Appa. Zuko is in a trickier spot, he’s not allowed back in the Fire Nation, but must force ahead, despite sustaining damage from his countrymen. And Zhao displays his wily ability by allowing Zuko through to track Team Avatar.
This dynamism continues within Roku’s temple. With assistance from the good sage the audience gets to bask in the unique architecture and possibility of the Four Nations. Here we are greeted to secret passages and massive door mechanisms unlocked with firebending. It’s a moment that finally allows Sokka to shine as well. When confronted with a door that needs five firebenders to open, Sokka comes up with the idea to construct some rigged explosives and blow the door open with, “Fake firebending.” Smartly this plan doesn’t work at first. Every success seems to come with a setback. Another plan is sketched out, and Team Avatar tricks the other Fire Sages to open the door and let Aang in to hear what Roku has to say.
Roku is glad to finally connect with his reincarnated self, but has no time for pleasantries. He explains how the war started, with Fire Lord Sozin using the power from a comet to start the fight, and how Fire Lord Ozai plans to use the same comet to annihilate his enemies. The apocalypse is coming, and Aang has to giddy-up on his bending abilities to put an end to the situation.
It seems impossible, but Aang has to try. Roku gives him one last boost to help him on his way, possessing his body and letting out a giant display of bending prowess to knock back Zhao, Zuko, and the sages to let Team Avatar escape. It’s one the best moment of iconography from the series, with Aang and Roku displaying that the power they have is within the multitudes of lives they led.
Now, finally, the endgame has been set. Though the show has many episodes to go, we know what’s at stake, And we also know what tools Aang has at his disposal to complete his quest. Yes the ability to master all four elements, but also the channel to his past lives for wisdom and power, and its going to take everything he’s got to succeed.
Odds and Ends
- Just love the design so much in the temple. Roku’s sanctum is truly awe inspiring.
- Zuko also displays a bit more cunning with his plan to smokescreen Zhao, a shame that it doesn’t actually work.
- Strangely Katara doesn’t waterbend at all this week either.
- The time line on this show has always been, let’s say ambiguous, but for all intents and purposes the whole series takes place over 8 or so months.
- Only on retrospect does the whole “need to talk to Roku before a certain moment” aggravate. It’s not how communication with past lives works for the rest of show. A minor issue in the grand scheme, but annoying none the less.