After finally fully grounding our characters, setting up the stakes for the series, and providing thrilling spectacle in the past few episodes, Avatar does a curious thing. Just when it seems like the engines are kicking into high gear it decides to lean back and take things slow for a few outings. The immediate return to the pre “The Storm” structure of things is bound to frustrate, especially for the first time viewer trying to navigate the series. And a few of these episodes are frustrating, but there is a bit more awareness of the world this time. Things start to interlock, even when the episodes themselves are one-offs.
Unfortunately this batch gets off on the wrong foot with “The Fortuneteller.” While not reviled at the same level as “The Great Divide” it sticks out like a sore annoying thumb with it’s placement in the run of the season. A sophomoric joke outing that front loads weird romantic foibles onto our heroes at a seemingly inopportune time. We’re nearing the end of the season, and this is what we’re focusing on. It’s a bit of the Quidditch problem, both inessential and narratively diverting, but used to try and ground our characters.
The problem is that some of these character grounding episodes really flatten certain aspects of our heroes as a mean to end for a certain joke or moral. Here it’s the fact that Katara and Aang would be suddenly entirely obsessed with knowing the ups and downs of their romantic lives. This element of the story has been hinted at (what with Katara’s swooning admiration for the myriad of boys she encounters and Aang’s crush on her) and will be developed more as we continue, but here it feels all at of wack. With Team Avatar seemingly dropping all interest in forward moment to just mess around with over-exaggerated character traits.
So in this place this week Team Avatar stumble upon a village with a mystical fortuneteller named Aunt Wu. Aang and Katara are enthralled by her predictions for their love life and futures, but Sokka remains skeptical. Wu’s assistant Meng takes a liking to Aang, while Aang tries harder to woo Katara. It’s all a bunch of silliness until the nearby volcano threatens to erupt, contradicting one of Wu’s predictions. Team Avatar then saves the town and learns the lesson that they can shape their fate.
The romantic tomfoolery presented in “The Fortuneteller” is exasperatingly screechy. With characters growing heart eyes and blushing at every turn. We’ve seen Aang try to court Katara’s affections before in episodes like “The Warriors of Kyoshi” but here it feels forced and outside of the lengths he would go to confirm his feelings. Same with Katara, who suddenly loses all agency and power and seems to submit herself to the whims of fate. It’s weird to see Katara so subservient to supposed romanticism when she has tried to break of the traditionally feminine box before. The less said about Meng the better, as she serves only to creep and belittle our heroes with nary a laugh to be found.
The one thing saving “The Fortuneteller” from total disaster is a shockingly good comedic run for Sokka. The famous skeptic of the group is constantly belittled by fate, the world, and himself to an amazing degree. His self defeating proclamation of, “my life will be calm and happy and joyful” before pegging himself in the head with a rock is a hoot, his being attacked by a goose is a perfect visual gag, and his defense of science is another worthy moment of hilarity. Shame that so much of what’s here just plays so poorly on both a comedic and character level.
Odds and Ends
- I will admit some amusement to the fact that Wu predicts Aang’s ongoing conflict with the Fire Lord, a piece of info he is already painfully aware of.
- Meng calling Katara a floozie as the final line of the episode is quite strange.
- Wu’s prediction for Katara does come true, as she marries Aang and has many children.
- Meng is the first appearance of voice actress Jessie Flowers, who will make her debut as Toph in the next season.
- I do like that Aang stopping the volcano is echoed in the same actions by Roku in the past.
Bato of the Water Tribe
If “The Fortuneteller” frustrates at a conceptual level, then “Bato of the Water Tribe” frustrates because it mostly squanders the myriad interesting ideas and pieces of world building it introduces. I would love to learn more about Water Tribe costumes, the rules and regulations of bounty hunting, and the world of perfume manufacturing nuns. All of these elements create a portrait of a rich and diverse world filled with incident and oddity, and most of this episode burns up its time with the classic sitcom trope of one character mishearing the other characters and then lying about a situation that could be resolved with two minutes of conversation.
So Team Avatar runs into a Water Tribe member who knows Sokka and Katara’s family. As Bato reminisces with them about their father Aang feels disillusioned and isolated, slinking off thinking that Sokka and Katara will leave him for their father. Of course the siblings don’t think this, as they immediately tell Bato that they’ll stick with Aang, but the plot of the episode must commence, and with his fear in hand Aang hides the rendezvous point that would connect Sokka and Katara with their father.
On the Zuko side of the story, the Fire Nation prince decides to recruit a bounty hunter named June. This lovely lady has a massive shirshu that can sniff out any prey in the land. So Zuko uses Katara’s Necklace to get on the sent of Team Avatar before confronting them at the perfume abbey.
What aggravates about “Bato” is how quickly the good stuff is scooped up by the annoying bits. I love learning about Sokka and Katara’s past, but Aang’s isolation insists on this being secondary information that doesn’t practically lead anywhere. Aang’s deception with the map also undermines an excellent piece of character growth for Sokka. Bato wants Team Avatar to perform the tradition of ice dodging my maneuvering around the rocks along the shore. It’s an excellent moment that displays Sokka’s skills as a tactician and leader, which is unfortunately undermined by Aang revealing his lie. This revelations sets Sokka off to rejoin his father, a path that lasts a few minute before June catches up with the siblings. A good bit is washed away for more sitcomish storytelling.
The Zuko and Iroh side of the story is more fun because it allows the show to do something that will become an excellent piece of narrative repertoire. In their hunt they revisits places from the last few episodes. Stopping by the Herbalist and Aunt Wu. It’s a small thing, but it proves the writing team’s willingness to weave the world together. This is a story where details won’t be forgotten, and the past can always interact with the future, even if the outcome is incredibly small.
The final action set-piece is also a bit of corker as well. Appa finally gets in on the action as he does battle with the shirshu, giant animal fights are always a fun edition. The bending combat also shows great development as well, with Aang and Zuko’s sparring, shifting with the combatant, ending with an excellent bit of Jackie Chan-esque stunts involving a well.
Alas these elements cannot relieve the annoying contrivances and discombobulated plotting of “Bato.” It demonstrates that the writers can consider the whole world when producing a more episodic story, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling half hour of television in and of itself.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Jennifer Hale provides the dulcet tones of June the bounty hunter. A veteran of the video game world you might remember her as the voice of female Shepherd in the Mass Effect franchise.
- Speaking of gaming, the thugs in the tavern that Zuko and Iroh find June in sure do look like characters from Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
- Not much comes up from this episode (as it’s not a particular fan favorite) but June gets to pop again later in the series.
“The Deserter” is a good episode of first season of Avatar, but my memory held it in much higher regard before this rewatch. Nothing about it is necessarily bad, and it serves as a good piece of forward momentum after the last two entries, but it is not as exciting as I recalled, and feels bit smaller this time around. The pacing is just a little more sluggish, the moral a bit more pat, and one of the inciting incidents a touch too contrived. However it also provides the best insight yet into a particular form of bending. That the magical martial arts of the Four Nations are not merely functions for exciting action, but the foundation of the world that our characters live in, informing every aspect of their lives.
Aang wants to learn more about firebending, even though he has yet to master waterbending or even touch the concept of earthbending. So Team Avatar heads to an occupied village that is celebrating a Fire Nation festival, there Aang hopes to learn the ups and downs of Fire Nation culture. Of course the Gaang gets caught and is rescued by a former Fire Nation soldier who wants to take them to Jeong Jeong, a firebending master who might be able to teach Aang.
Jeong Jeong is reluctant. His last student turned out the tyrannical Zhao, and his awareness of the dangers of firebending has put him off his own skills. Still Jeong Jeong is persuaded and begins tutoring Aang. As he begins to conceptualize and learn firebending Aang gets reckless and accidentally burns Katara. It’s then that Aang understands Jeong Jeong’s hesitation: fire is an unbridled element. So Aang uses this knowledge to best Zhao in a fight, and forswears learning firebending until he masters the other arts.
What “The Deserter” excels at is deepening what bending actually means to the people who practice the art. We’ve seen hints of the world building possibilities in places like Omashu, but this is the first episode to really connect the practice to cultural, spiritual, and philosophical concerns. Jeong Jeong, in his Apocalypse Now inspired retreat, has considered the good and evil of firebending and how that power must wielded so as not to inflict more harm than good. He reinforces some of the ideas that Iroh has brought up, including breathing and the importance of stance, but he also highlights some more elemental concepts, such as how firebending is a reflection of the sun and the life that it brings.
Heady stuff. I wish it didn’t end up being the means to a, “don’t be reckless” message in the end, the information is so interesting and exciting that it feels a bit muted to be used as a bit of trickery Aang can pull to defeat Zhao in a battle. It also ties into some of the other elements that bug about this episode. Like why does Aang reveal himself during the magician’s act? It’s so absurd for him to think that Katara would actually be in danger, and his decision arguably puts Team Avatar in a more precarious situation. It’s one of those writerly contrivances that the show has started to shake off as it matures, just not quite fully yet.
Also a bit of frustrating out of nowhere information is the fact that Katara’s waterbending contains healing properties. This in and of itself is a fine facet to add to the lore of waterbending, and a nice piece of repertoire power for Katara, but it kind of just happens. We’ve seen Katara help Aang with waterbending before, but here it suddenly arises as an unexpected virtue. It’s an element that ties into the biggest gripe with the first season, which is Katara’s growth as a bender is shockingly haphazard. Weeks will go by with nary a bend before she gets a major upgrade, again another element that the show irons out as it continues.
Still the deep look in the Fire Nation helps paper over the flaws of the “The Deserter.” It allows the viewer to understand that the country is no monolith, and the weight of war has cracked more than a few of its people. This provides Team Avatar to see beyond the traditional Fire Nation Bad umbrella they’ve operated on and introduce nuance to the perspective. After all each of the elements is in the world for a purpose.
Odds and Ends
- The Blue Spirit is on a wanted poster.
- I love Roku’s chat with Jeong Jeong. It’s stylishly presented and articulates the burden of rebirth. The Avatar must learn the same lessons time and time again. Another burden on Aang’s shoulders.
- Weird that Zhao shows up here, but Zuko does not. Wish Zuko was around more often.
- Jeong Jeong is a member of the Order of the White Lotus. Fun to see these characters seeded so early in the story.
- My frustrations with Katara’s waterbending fluctuations really come to bear when Team Avatar finally reaches the North Pole.