In Which There’s More Than There Seems
There’s always a moment when the beloved TV show becomes the beloved TV show. It can happen sooner or later in the run of the program, but when it hits it becomes clear why the series has gone down as a classic. Episodes like Lost’s “Walkabout”, The Sopranos’ “College,” and Buffy’s “Surprise/Innocence” are all inflections. Moments where the audience transitions from “this is good” to “this is something more.”
Thus we come to the hinge of Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are episodes that I personally enjoy more than “The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit” (though these are both tremendous episodes), but there are none more important to the series than these entries. Because this is the moment Avatar proves that it’s no mere kids’ show, but a thoroughly considered piece of serialized storytelling that is willing to probe deep into the psyches of its heroes and villains with great acuity.
Such greatness is no mistake. These two episodes represent what could have been a stopping point for the show. Bryke knew that they were coming to the end of the first batch of thirteen episodes that Nick ordered, and this was the do or die moment for production. So they muscled together the writing team and came up with two knock their socks off and leave them wanting for more installments to guarantee their three season run. Almost everything from here on out is thanks to these specific episodes. So without further ado let’s dive in.
Until now Aang and Zuko were your classical antithetical story combatants. Our peppy and childlike protagonist always one step ahead of the single minded pursuit of his moody and petulant enemy. There are some shades to each of their poles of narrative: Aang is a man out of time and Zuko is prince exiled from his homeland and belittled by the military. But they have functionally served as friction points to each other, with the viewer firmly planted in Aang’s perspective on Zuko’s pursuit. We want Team Avatar to triumph because any aggression from the Fire Nation means ceding ground to a fascist group hell bent on subjugating the world.
“The Storm” changes that. Transforming the relationship from one of pure polar opposition to something more nuanced and engaging. What writer Aaron Ehasz does is reconstruct the narrative into a story more than mere chase. From this moment forward (as is demonstrated immediately in the next episode) Aang and Zuko become dueling protagonists. One’s that tread on diametric ideological and narrative ground, but both become the engines of the narrative. Their tragic pasts the kindling that burns through our story from here to the final moments. Twinning their fates together, even if in this very moment they do not physically interact.
Team Avatar is out of food, so they go to a market to procure some victuals for their journey to the North Pole. Unfortunately they’re also out of money, and thus Sokka volunteers to help a local fisherman. The firsherman’s wife knows a storm is coming and leaves Sokka and her disgruntled husband to weather the uncertain sea. The fisherman also recognizes Aang, and chastises the Avatar for his absences over the past 100 years, causing Aang to flee to a nearby cave and mope.
Simultaneously Zuko demands his crew to head north despite Iroh’s warnings of dangerous weather. Zuko’s lack of tact around the crew has set everyone on edge. So when the rain begins to pound on the hull, Iroh sits by the fire with the sailors and divulges the sordid history of his nephew’s scar and unyielding desire to capture the Avatar.
Over two campfires the audiences witnesses two thematically interlinked backstories. The one Aang tells Katara, and the tale Iroh tells the ship’s crews. On the surface they seem so distanced, displaced by both time and location. The details and emotions of each tale is different, but the impact is remarkably similar. We are witness to the story of two adolescents, pressured by great powers from above into places of extreme isolation and responsibility. Zuko and Aang both suffer from similar anxieties, even if the circumstances of their current positions are pitched in completely different tenors.
Aang must bear the burden of a responsibility too great for any person the age of twelve to hold. He is the messiah of the world, and he must prevent a cataclysmic war from descending across the Four Nations. Plagued, also, in knowing that he must become a being apart from others, the most powerful person on the face of the earth, and be alone in a way because of it. As such Aang flees from his training, unable to carry the expectations placed upon him, and in that moment he vanishes.
Zuko, conversely, must suffer for the slight of minor empathy in a fascistic world. In the Fire Lord’s war chamber he speaks out against the slaughter of new soldiers for a trap, and draws the ire of his father. For his transgression Zuko unwittingly challenges his father to an Agni Kai. As Zuko begs for mercy, Ozai refuses to hear the voice of his son and proceeds to scar and banish him. Ozai cruelly notes that, “suffering will be your teacher.”
The two tales presented here provide a kind of positive/negative version of the same thing. Aang has physically lost every part of his previous life. The monks and temples of his childhood squashed by war and genocide. And now he has to go it with his new found family. Zuko’s father, uncle, and national structure still persist, and yet he is separate from them, at sea from his countrymen and the life he knew growing up as the heir to the throne.
The stories are also counterpoint to their current actions. Aang does flee and Zuko does belittle his crew, but by episode’s end they both realize the error of such decisions. Especially in the face of such dangerous weather that threatens the well being of their traveling companions. So Aang leaves the cave to save the Fisherman and Sokka, and Zuko redirects the course of the ship and saves the helmsman from certain peril. And at this moment of intersection, when Aang could once again freeze up at the bottom of the sea, or Zuko could turn his back on others in his pursuit, they don’t. They push beyond the mistakes and traumas of the past and into clearer weather. Yet this is merely the eye of the storm, there will be many thunderclouds ahead in each of our character’s journeys.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Star Wars is one of the go to reference points for the series, so it makes complete sense that Luke Skywalker himself would eventually make an appearance. Mark Hamill provides an excellent menace and gravitas to Fire Lord Ozai, and continues his tradition of being a cool voice/character actor despite being the lead of the biggest film franchise of all time.
- In what is the darkest and most ruminative episode of the series so far, leave it to the writers to find just the right amount of humor to keep things from sliding into the dour. Sokka’s dream where “Food eats people” and the fisherman proclaiming that he’s old enough to die, “but still doesn’t want to” are highlights.
- We are introduced to a new function of firebending as Iroh redirects lightening in a thrilling a moment of wonder and awe.
- The revelation of Zuko’s scar gives a lot of new meaning to his Agni Kai with Zhao in episode three. The fact that Zhao is willing to reenact Ozai’s cruelest moment to Zuko displays how morally bankrupt that man is.
- It couldn’t have been planned ahead, but it’s amazing to see the concept of redirecting lightening and our full introduction to Ozai in the same episode. For it will be the method Zuko uses to best his father in season 3.
- During Zuko’s Agni Kai we can see Azula standing, and smiling, in the audience. A truly staggering plant for a character this far out from her proper introduction.
The Blue Spirit
As an episode of television “The Blue Spirit” pulls off a trick that delights me so much in the form of a long serialized story. A move that only something like a TV show can do. Because we’ve been trained to expect a combination of more episodic stories with grander narrative entries, and because the previous episode was so heavy, there’s no real reason to fully expect another huge shift in the plot this week.
Indeed “The Blue Spirit” for most of its runtime feels like an excellent one-off of an idea. Of course it pings off moments from the last entry (specifically the impetus of Aang going to find medicine for Sokka and Katara), but the bulk of the thing appears to be a thrilling tangent. Pushing our hero into an unknown environment with a mysterious assistant in the titular character. On the surface nothing more than the writers and animators to flex their genre muscle.
Then the shoe finally drops, and “The Blue Spirit” transforms from an energizing one-off into another foundational episode that the rest of the series builds from. It serves as a thematic reinforcement of the concepts introduced in “The Storm”, this is no longer just the story of Aang, but the story of Aang and Zuko.
So Aang has to procure some medicine for Sokka and Katara, who have succumbed to illness after the bad weather of the last outing. Aang is on the case, talking to a local herbalist to determine the best cure, which just so happens to be some frozen wood frogs in a nearby marsh. Simultaneously the recently promoted Admiral Zhao sicks the deadly Yuyan archers on the Avatar, leading to Aang’s capture and imprisonment.
It seems like Aang is heading straight to the Fire Lord, when a mysterious masked figure appears and aids in his escape, taking out fire nation soldiers left and right. The mysterious Blue Spirit appears to be Aang’s greatest companion until Zhao notes that the avatar must be kept alive (lest he be reincarnated), and Blue Spirit pulls his blades to Aang’s throat. As Blue takes his hostage away, a well notched arrow reveals that the Avatar’s rescuer is in fact Zuko. Without hesitation Aang saves the fire prince and himself, and returns to Sokka and Katara with frogs in hand, ragged from the experience.
“The Blue Spirit” is not officially a part two to “The Storm” and theoretically could fit in the season anywhere between here and the finale. But it’s positioning serves as a wonderful piece of narrative harmonization with the previous outing. Where “The Storm” was ruminative, “The Blue Spirit” is fully kinetic. The show’s most dynamic and thrillingly constructed episode yet. Executing multiple unique variations of action and escape over the course of a tight as a drum 22 minutes.
We are treated to a prison break story and the mystery of who the Blue Spirit is, and the resolutions to both feels completely logical and full of exciting implications for the future. I love that Bryke have world built their way out of a common kids’ show contrivance, Why can’t the villains simply kill our hero? Because he’ll reincarnate. I love how Zuko in spirit form can’t firebend lest his cover be blown. I love all the that the thawing wood frogs that Aang has captured play a part in the misadventure. Each bit connects and ricochets off another element in the episode to lead to the shocking climax.
In “The King of Omashu” recap I bemoaned that the show left no room for consideration on the identity of Bumi. It’s all wrapped in that dreaded bit of economic storytelling and the need for a purely episodic format. “The Blue Spirit” brushes aside such concerns, and lets the mystery linger until the very end of the episode. It displays that the writing staff is becoming much more comfortable transitioning into the serialized narrative that the show will excel at. Zuko’s role as the Blue Spirit is a true shock, the ramifications of which are uncertain as the credits run on screen.
Zuko’s unmasking reveals more to his personality than we might expect. We know his contempt for Zhao, but why the need to lurk about the shadows? Is it perhaps the ability to disassociate from being “Prince Zuko” and inhabiting a new persona? Is it because while cloaked Zuko is no longer the vilified firebender, but instead the mysterious vigilante who’s motives are harder to parse. Either way it’s another wrinkle to Zuko’s swirling, and frequently emo, psyche. And show’s there is yet more to pulled from his troubled life.
Aang tests Zuko for the first time on his position as Avatar hunter. Zuko was able to extract Aang from Zhao’s clutches, and Aang is willing to do the same. Saving Zuko at the last second from the archer’s arrows. After their riotous venture from the previous night Aang asks a question, “Before the war started, I used to always visit my friend Kuzon. The two of us, we’d get in and out of so much trouble together. He was one of the best friends I ever had, and he was from the Fire Nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends, too?” Zuko responds with a blast of fire and Aang sprints away.
For now this was only a momentary alliance, a bridge that cannot crossed just yet. For though their isolation and action put Aang and Zuko together, they are still opposed, unable to connect beyond a certain moment of unexpected need.
Odds and Ends
- Sokka again provides some excellent comedy with the eternal, “Classic Appa.”
- Momo also gets in on the fun by revealing he understands nothing that Team Avatar says.
- I like that the Fire Nation propaganda is entirely accurate about Aang’s abilities.
- Favorite bit of action involves the bendy ladders. Both slightly silly and understandably functional.
- Bending was the show’s workaround for having non-contact combat for Standards and Practices. Funny to think that as Zuko holds a knife to Aang’s throat.
- I have not yet lavished enough praise on the music by Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman. They do so much with so little, especially considering they were limited to mostly midi and library instruments for the show. Here they change up the classic action music to be much more mysterious. relying instead of sorrowful horn lines and pattering finger cymbals to build tension before the climax.
- I love that Zuko’s double identity remains a secret to the world at large, only Aang and Iroh seem to be fully aware of the situation, with Zhao only catching wind right before his demise. An element that draws in Aang closer to Zuko’s mind set.
- Even then Aang doesn’t tell about what happened to him here until season three when Zuko wants to join Team Avatar.