The Northern Air Temple
As I’ve noted multiple times throughout this series, the first season of Avatar has constituted a string of introductions. A show thoroughly laying the groundwork for the epic fantasy story to come. Sometimes those openings are cleaner then others, but the writing staff and directors have been diligent in clarifying what this fantastic world looks like to an all ages audience. We know each form of bending, the way bending interacts with the world, the broad strokes of the war, and that there’s a spirit world that the Avatar can interact with.
“The Northern Air Temple” is another introduction, but it’s a subtler kind of curtain raising. Where other elements inform plot, character, and theme, here the genre of the show gets a bit more shading and texture. Avatar is without a doubt a piece of high fantasy, but with “The Northern Air Temple” the show suddenly, but defiantly, dips its toes into the realm of steampunk.
Steampunk is one of those genre things that is fraught with semantic confusion, aesthetic ideology, and legitimate questions of its purpose. In most popular culture the term gets smoothed over to simply mean wacky flying machines, Tesla coils, and cogs on hats. That’s a reductive statement, but it’s the rut that steampunk unfortunately finds itself in. Furthermore is the realistic questioning of why those aesthetics might be popular: is it really proper to indulge in the ideology of grandest Victoriana when that era was the height of colonial power?
I don’t really have the right answer, but I think Avatar does something smart. It translates the aesthetic ideas of steampunk, keeps the hint of colonial conquest, and massages it into it’s own world and context. The Four Nations are place bereft of Great Britain, but the tyrannical force of the Fire Nation serves as a decent counterpoint. Allowing the creators to imagine a steampunk drenched in Meiji Era Japanese design instead of the typical anglophile route.
The shift into steampunk comes in the form of a group of refugees that have taken shelter in the titular local. A group headed up by the eccentric Mechanist and his son Teo. These refugees have constructed gliders that imitate the actions of the flying airbenders that used to live in the temple. When Team Avatar hears about them, they rush to see them. Aang is disappointed that they aren’t actually airbenders and that they have desecrated a sacred part of his culture. Sokka, on the other hand, is thrilled by The Mechanist’s work, and assists in helping suss out the solution to a gas leak that has been plaguing the group.
Things come to a head when it’s revealed that The Mechanist has been manufacturing arms for the Fire Nation, tensions briefly boil, but Team Avatar decides to stay and help the refugees, using the Mechanist’s newly designed hot air balloon to defend against a Fire Nation attack. Team Avatar succeeds, with Aang conceding that life in the temple might be better than it sitting as a ruin, but the Fire Nation acquires the hot air balloon in a final ominous moment.
“The Northern Air Temple” is an excellent entry in the series not just because of the slight shift in genre, but for providing some smart bits of character building for Sokka and Aang without tipping over into the blindingly obvious.
Sokka’s a fascinating character. From the start he seemed mostly to fill the role of group clown. He sort of succeeds in function as the Xander of the group in the early run of the season. The first to crack wise, a bit of chauvinist’s streak, but always grounded by his failure and empathy for his companions. Interestingly, even at this early juncture, Sokka has morphed into the scientist and tactician. The man to urge skepticism and caution, and value planning over heedless action. The show has been planting the seeds carefully for such a change: his fake firbending in “Avatar Roku,” the silly denial of the future in “The Fortuneteller,” and his skilled ice dodging in “Bato of the Water Tribe.”
In the “Northern Air Temple” Sokka fully gets to flex his tactician muscle. Helping the mechanist devise a way to detect odorless natural gas (they come upon the solution we have in the real world) and fully design a hot air balloon. We see that underneath Sokka’s goofball exterior is a considerate and clever individual inside.
Aang’s growth here is another nice extension of him coming to grips with the genocide of his people. He’s of course disappointed that Teo and his family aren’t true airbenders. He’s especially mad that the refugees has destroyed many of the artifacts in the temple. But all this leads to a surprisingly mature revelation by Aang, even if his people aren’t coming back, that doesn’t mean their world has to be abandoned, and thus he lets The Mechanist to continue to roost in his former stomping grounds.
These concepts are also nicely knitted together with continually snappy and clever action. Aang and Teo racing around the temple provide dynamic shots of the temple architecture. The final confrontation gives us the best look yet at what standard Fire Nation military assaults would look like. With tanks design to grappling hook and flip around the mountain. Director Dave Filoni once again demonstrating the flair for fleet action and dynamism to bring the story together.
And with that we enter the final stretch of episodes, the big finale for book one, and an exciting culmination of everything up until this point.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: The Mechanists is given quirky spark by veteran character actor Rene Auberjonois. The late actor is probably best remembered for his work in Deep Space Nine, but he’s popped up in a variety of things over the last fifty years.
- Teo is an interesting character on the whole good representation spectrum. His disability is only ever alluded to, but never spoken about directly. I do like the implication of his father’s inventions giving him the spirit of the airbenders despite lacking the ability to walk.
- “I laugh at gravity all the time.”
- Four ‘o’ candle
- Lots of little hints of what’s to come, not just that the Fire Nation military will suddenly invest in zeppelins.
- We the see that the mechanists has the plans for a giant drill.
- Sokka notes that whoever controls the sky controls the battle, a preminition that will come to pass in both “The Day of Black Sun” and “Sozin’s Comet”
- Sokka’s acumen with technology will be an asset from here to the end as he engineers solution to a myriad of problems.
The Waterbending Master
At last Team Avatar has made it to the Northern Water Tribe. The goal for the season finally being met as our tired heroes are welcomed into the dazzling world of the north pole. The audience and the Gaang invited to ogle at the majesty of what is presented before them. An icy Venice mixed elegantly with the cultures of First Nation people and palatial Mediterranean design. It’s a wonder to behold and serves as a fitting setting for the conclusion for the first season of the show.
“The Waterbending Master” is also where the show finally feels comfortable to completely lean into the more serialized elements of Avatar. Yes there’s a clear contained arc of Aang and Katara seeking their training and Sokka romancing Yue, but almost every section of the episode is an elaborate mixture of either callback or setup for the fireworks. The intricate world building, dynamic plot structuring, and exciting action all come together to make “The Waterbending Master” a season highlight, despite one insistent piece of frustrating continuity.
As Team Avatar is welcomed to the Northern Water Tribe in extravagant fashion, with the chief throwing a feasting and relishing the opportunity to introduce Aang to his waterbending teacher Pakku. There’s just one problem, Pakku won’t teach Katara, and banishes her to the healer’s tent. Katara doesn’t take kindly to this action and challenges Pakku to a duel, Pakku eventually wins, but notices that Katara’s necklace is the one he carved to give to her grandmother and decides that her tutelage may commence.
On the fire side of the story, Zhao has come to offer Iroh a position on his invasion force of the north pole. Iroh declines. Zhao, however, notices that Zuko has the same swords as the Blue Spirit and sets to stop the fire prince here and now. So Zhao hires the pirates from “The Waterbending Scroll” to blow Zuko to smithereens, and with his plan seemingly successful he recruits Iroh to his side. But not so fast dear viewer, for Zuko has infiltrated Zhao’s forces and will work with Iroh to capture Aang.
From the dense two paragraphs above there’s a lot going on in this episode, but it’s smartly buoyed by past information. The writers have laid the groundwork with Zhao, The Blue Spirit, Katara’s necklace, the pirates, and Iroh’s reputation so well that they can feel like integral parts of the plot this week without laboriously reminding the audience of their significance. In some ways this episode feels like Bryke have finally settled on what serialization for the show will look outside of the “big episodes.” Pick up pieces from the past, fit them together to lay the groundwork for the future, all while having a contained arc to let the story bask in.
“The Waterbending Master” is then shockingly effective at both massaging past elements into the current story, and set the table for the fireworks contained in the season finale. A myriad of small details have brought us to the place where we can intuit Iroh’s plans with Zuko and how Team Avatar will interact with the world of the Northern Water Tribe.
Which does lead to my one big gripe with an otherwise excellent episode of television. Katara’s response to Pakku’s sexism is reasonable and within the bounds of her character. After all she was introduced going on a tirade to Sokka about the overly tight structures of Water Tribe society. However what doesn’t track is her sudden bump up in ability, she’s strong enough now that she’s able to go toe to toe with Pakku in a fight and blithely disregards the uses of healing.
This isn’t a “this girl is too strong” tirade, but instead a frustration with the arc of Katara’s character. So much of the “The Waterbending Scroll” is dedicated to her envy of Aang’s ability, and now she entirely outclasses him at every level, so much so that she can fight with the best. Her response also puzzles with the revelation of her healing abilities from “The Deserter.” Then she was awed about the possibility of her power, now she’s fairly flippant about what it could mean.
These gripes would hardly be an issue if they weren’t in such stark contrast with how well the rest of the episode handles it’s long form elements. And I’ll mostly forgive these nags when it results in the spectacular fight that Pakku and Katara engage in.
The details do matter, which is one of the reasons that Sokka’s romance with Yue surprisingly works so well. It’s a quick affair, a love at first sight story, one that shouldn’t play because of the compressed time frame that the episode is operating under. But it does. I think I can nail it down to the moment when Sokka introduces himself at the feast. It’s clumsy, yet endearing, and honest in its own way. When talking about the animation in Avatar it’s frequently in reference to the dynamic action and unique designs. Here it’s the specific traits of Sokka and Yue’s animation that take the viewer through with his crush. It’s so human and specific, that even the time crunch can’t break it.
Still his romance is doomed, for Yue is betrothed to another. Such is life in the Northern Water Tribe. It’s vast and wondrous design, rich culture, and engaged populace maintaining some unfortunately regressive standards. Yet that doesn’t Team Avatar can’t learn from this culture, they always must learn from every place they go, especially when the Fire Nation is right around the corner.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Jon Polito is oddly the voice of the Northern Water Tribe chief. You may remember him from stuff like Miller’s Crossing and Homicide: Life on the Streets.
- Favorite detail is that process through which boats are allowed access to the city. Multilevel canal works for life.
- Do love that we finally get a full view of music night, complete with Iroh singing the crew a song.
- It’s a classic TV annoyance, but I wish the show hadn’t flashed back to The Blue Spirit when Zhao recognized the swords.
- This won’t be the last time Iroh sings. His voice will greet us again in Ba Sing Sae.
- Not too much here that isn’t immediately resolved in the next two episodes.