To ensure that the next two episodes are packaged together I’ve decided to cover these three Place of the Week entries in one go. Because, let’s say, the quality of this bunch is highly variable. As such I’ll save the best for the final entry in the article.
The Waterbending Scroll
A funny thing about revisiting a beloved show after many years away is how the non-notable episodes float in your mind. Not the highlights or the truly terrible entries, but the bits that probably would get a six from your run of the mill TV recapper.
In the back of my head “The Waterbending Scroll” was a season one lowlight. Another episodic entry that seem to stubbornly deny the viewer forward momentum on any of the main plot elements, Doubly frustrating because of the giant ticking clock introduced to the series in the previous outings. It was a lark, a goof, a silly thing that involved questionably gender coded pirates, and not really worth a length of digital ink spilled over its details.
“The Waterbending Scroll” is indeed all those things, but it’s also much better then I remembered. Not a list topper in any regard, but consistently amusing in its setups and inventive with its action scenes. Most importantly it finally breaks the weird drought of waterbending that has been present in the last run of episodes. Katara, for being our perspective into the world of waterbending, has mostly sidelined her powers for other shenanigans until now.
The plot does revolve around a rather annoying bit of sitcom plotting. Katara’s upset that Aang is quick to learn all of her bending techniques in mere minutes, and in an envious fog she steals a scroll with waterbending moves from a cabal of pirates. Of course Team Avatar is tracked down by the boisterous buccaneers, with an assist from Zuko and Iroh. Our favorite fire prince and uncle needing to stop in the local port town to retrieve Iroh’s missing Pai Sho piece.
This adolescent envy is a staple of the kids’ show diet. It makes sense, of course teens get wigged out when someone younger than them shows more talent faster. But Katara’s story is falls too much on the side of clean moralizing. She should admit how she feels instead of letting her anger push Team Avatar into a myriad of wacky hijacks. The biggest issue is that this is a big turn for her and Aang as waterbenders. She learns moves that will carry on for the rest of the series, and becomes the first teacher Aan gains knowledge from after his return. It’s momentous stuff that is mostly consumed by pirate chases.
Luckily the chases are pretty darn fun. After a bunch of ups and downs in the animation quality, the visuals of the show have finally locked into place. The movement of the characters is smoother and the action performed with greater dynamism. So even if the clash between pirates, the Fire Nation, and Team Avatar is bit of frivolous fisticuffs, it has a pep in it’s construction that is quite admirable. Especially in a sequence where each sides takes turns stealing the titular scroll, with even Momo getting in on the action.
So while being a bit more disposable than the previous high stakes entries would suggest, “The Waterbending Scroll” has enough comedic oomph and skillfully deployed action to be worth the rewatch. Even though I wish that Katara and Aang’s ascension into waterbending prowess had been deployed in a more meaningful way.
Odds and Ends
- The Cabbage Merchant returns. This guy really gets around.
- Since it’s the first time we’ve seen waterbending in multiple episodes it looks like it got a real visual upgrade. The fluid dynamics of the bending is improving all the time.
- The fight with the pirates includes some fun uses of non-bending v. bending action, always an exciting way to flip around expected action beats.
- Iroh’s Pai Sho piece is indeed very important, as it serves as a calling card for The Order of the White Lotus.
- That bison whistle turns out to be a canny purchase by Aang, as it’s useful in the search for Appa in the second season.
- Smartly Katara does become Aang’s better in the tactical abilities of waterbending. You can’t become a blood bender without a high amount of skill.
The Great Divide
Every beloved TV show has a worst episode: Buffy had “Beer Bad,” The X-Files has “First Person Shooter,” The Sopranos has “Christopher,” and Avatar has “The Great Divide.” It’s an episode has reputation really stinks up the opening run that show has, the one guaranteed skip from even the most die hard fans. Nothing is really gained from watching this particular story.
And I don’t really have any defense of “The Great Divide.” It’s a cliched and contrived piece of mawkish moralizing that trips over the worst impulses of the expected “Kids’ Show” format. It heightens character flaws to a shrill degree, basks in a constant barrage of unfunny jokes, and doesn’t even add that much of interest to the world of The Four Nations.
So Aang fancies himself an expert at conflict resolution, he is the Avatar after all. And when the Gaang comes across a massive canyon he must put his skills to the test. The Zhangs and Gan Jins are two warring factions that must cross the canyon at the same time. They both hate and lie to each other as they believe the other group wronged a long ago ancestor. So Aang must keep the peace while the two groups bicker and fight, and let’s not forget the treacherous canyon crawlers that stock our heroes.
The main reason this episode falls flat is that everything it does feels like a screech at the highest level. Sokka and Katara’s introductory argument is so loud and unneeded that it puts goodwill on the downslide immediately. The comedy is similarly off-putting, loud and oafish in a way that hasn’t been seen since the premiere. The whole thing is pitched entirely wrong, screaming at the audience when a room tone would do just fine.
There are two minor, and I mean minor, saving graces here. One is that we get some fun pieces of animation variance as the groups recount their fractured histories. It’s a tactic that Avatar is surprisingly spare in using, and it looks great here. The other is that the lesson can sometimes be, “lying to people for their immediate benefit might not be so bad.” It’s a bold gambit for the show to do, especially considering some of the more treacly moral sentiments expressed elsewhere this season.
That’s all I really have to say, honestly just skip this episode, not much of a spoiler to point out the fact that nothing of importance is originated here.
Odds and Ends
- Doubly frustrating is that this episode comes before two of the show’s best.
- Once again we are hinted to the importance of the Earth Kingdom’s capitol of Ba Sing Sae.
- The writing team knew this episode was bad, so they delightfully skewer it in “The Ember Island Players.”
What makes a good standalone episode of a long running TV show? Is it the concept of the story of the week, or perhaps a container that breaths life into our characters, or maybe it’s executing a variation on a specific genre or tone? In many cases it’s a combination of all of those things. The luxury of serial TV is you don’t (always) have to introduce the characters and world to the audience each work, but instead extrapolate ideas and scenarios into contained bites of narrative that can always be called upon as the story continues.
Each of these factors play into why “Jet” is the standout Place-of-the-Week episode from the first half of the season. It’s a story that doesn’t do much significant world building or play into the immediate quest that our heroes are on, and those factors allow it to give our characters space to engage with their surroundings and respond in kind. It also strikes me as the writing team finally feeling like they can free up some greater tonal complexity for their smaller episodes as well. This is a story free of direct references to genocide and apocalypse, but it strikes a notable ambivalent tone at the end. Team Avatar succeeds, but the situation hasn’t been resolved, and the tribulations of war progress.
Sokka has noticed that there’s an issue with Team Avatar’s transportation. They keep getting followed because, honestly, Appa is an incredibly conspicuous presence in the world, so traveling by foot will be better for now. Unfortunately Sokka’s sense of direction leads the Gaang right into the clutches of a Fire Nation camp. Luckily our heroes get an assist from Jet and hist motley crew of Freedom Fighters.
Striking a roguish figure, Jet has carved out a life for his band of misfits as they enact guerilla warfare on the local occupiers. Aang loves the childish camaraderie that the Freedom Fighters have forged: giddily slinging around the tree fort hideout and chumming it up with unique skilled combatants like Longshot and Smellerbee. Katara is struck by his certainity and fortitude, Jet nimbly plots out actions, takes them, and succeeds with both a nod and a wink. Sokka doesn’t trust him.
Sokka turns out to be right. Jet is great leader, but a man with murky morals. Such is the life for an orphan of an eternal war. You see Jet, with an assist from Aang and Katara plans to blow up a dam and flood out a town. It will kill the Fire Nation soldiers, but also wipe out the innocent civilians as well. Aang and Katara revolt against such underhanded actions, and freeze up Jet while Sokka alerts the townsfolk and lead them to safety.
As seen by the surrounding episodes, the morality of the Avatar series frequently swerves into the obvious. Pat lessons for children, after it is a show for Kids. “Jet” isn’t really different, it has a clear point (killing innocents in warfare is still wrong), but that point is both a shade darker than our other lessons, and tonally more textured. Even though Team Avatar thwarts the plan, it doesn’t feel like a moment of triumph. Jet may have been forestalled, but he’s still alive, and his Freedom Fighter’s still active. He’s a presence that will linger beyond these actions, even as Appa flies off to the next village.
The more ambivalent textures are highlighted by the visuals this week as well. Up until this point “Jet” is the best looking episode of show. With everything cast in stark reds from the leaves, portending the dangers to come while wrapping the action in autumnal hue. The action is also excellent. Avatar his quickly become a show of dynamic encounters, with each side displaying unique abilities that result in exciting pieces of combat. Here we have the different weapons possesd by the Freedom Fighters: Jet with his hooked swords, Longshot with his arrows, and Smellerbee with their slight blades.
These weapons allow for unique fights to ensue, my favorite being Aang’s direct battle with Jet. It weaves in and out of the trees. Aang is able to more easily evade his enemy, but Jet is fiercer, clawing up the trees with his sword to fight. It peaks with a tremendous long shot, where both fighter appear as mere figments emerging from the leaves.
These rougher battles also lead to some heaviness by the end. Team Avatar has faced it’s first full throated betrayal, not from enemies but by allies. Jet is animated by the death of his parents, and he uses that leverage to coerce Sokka and Katara to achieve his goals. It paints a dispiriting picture of what it will actually take to overcome the Fire Nation, and the sacrifices might be greater than our heroes are willing to admit.
Odds and Ends
- Yes it’s more tonally complex, but the show does go too cute with the old man and the little girl finding her doll.
- This episode plays like an inverse of “Imprisoned” and reveals how empty Haru felt as a character.
- Jet the character is based on Spike from Cowboy Bebop.
- Another reference: The Freedom Fighters are modeled after the Lost Boys from Hook. A movie that starred Dante Basco (the voice of Zuko) as their leader Rufio.
- The tree fort is based on the Ewoks, and it makes sense. Dave Filoni is back in the directing chair, and that man loves him some Stat Wars.
- This episode just hits so much harder on rewatch because of the thorough tragedy of Jet as a character. He’s a paranoid teenager turned refugee who’s brainwashed and killed. It’s hard to say how much of that was considered when making this episode, but the character is drawn well enough here to allow his return and death to be so striking.
- Of course that doesn’t stop the show from ruthlessly mocking their own tragic character in “The Ember Island Players” to excellent comedic effect.