Re-Avatar State: “The Siege of the North”

In Which There’s a Giant Fish

In all ways that Avatar is a response to the renewed interest in fantasy during the 2000’s, in its production it is fairly modest. For all the epic questing and grandiose sweep, it’s still a TV show, and before the time of Game of Thrones and The Witcher that means it has to be judicious about the scale of what was being displayed on screen.

Avatar has the benefit of animation on its side. A point that allows even a kids’ show to have a canvas encompassing a whole world filled with action and mystical creatures. Still even the most thrilling episodes, such as “The Blue Spirit,” are relatively contained. Using the dynamic action that the series has honed in single settings or on a small scale. For all the excitement of “The Blue Spirit” it’s mostly a two handed, low-key escape.

“The Siege of the North” is then a refutation of small thinking. A moment where the writers and directors decided now was the time to pull out all the stops and prove that Avatar can be big. Not just big for a kids’ show, or a program on a cable network, but fully embracing the canvas that fantasy provides. A sweeping conclusion to a myriad of threads laid out in the first season, an action filled spectacle, and a series of intriguing reveals and cliffhangers. Though not at the exact same point narrative, “The Siege of the North” functions as Avatar’s Helm’s Deep. A set-piece from which all others in the franchise will build from.

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One of the reasons the finale hits so well is that it’s spectacle comes in a variety of forms. First is the direct assault of the Fire Nation navy on the Northern Water Tribe, complete with tanks, lizards, and explosions pushing forward the air of true danger from the aggressors. In the many times the view has watched the Fire Nation attack other people they rarely come off as threatening as they do now. Maybe it’s because of the assurance afforded by the more contained episode structures of the first season that’s been mostly removed from the finale. By the end we know Team Avatar prevails, but they’ve never come closer to outright failure before.

Such an assault from the Fire Nation forces Aang to consider more extraordinary options to help protect the Water Tribe, and thus consult with the spirits. Aang learns that power of waterbending comes from the moon, and the spirits of the moon and the ocean may be able to help fend off the incursion. So Aang takes a full throated trip back to the spirit world to uncover the location of the moon and ocean spirits. Here the viewers are treated to a land more phantasmagoric than anything the show has aired before. Gone is the mere astral projecting of “The Winter Solstice,” replaced by bizarre landscapes and terrifying creatures.

Another level to the escapades is Zuko’s attempt to kidnap Aang out from under Zhao’s nose. Even with the more grandiose elements and staggering action, this smaller, almost diverting element of the finale ends up being the most crucial. Allowing the tables to turn from the events of “The Blue Spirit.” No longer is Zuko assisting Aang in escape, but rather binding him and dragging him off from where he’s most needed. Instead of question the possibility of friendship, Zuko soliloquizes about the despondency of his life.

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Each of these three sections wonderfully ping off each other, each building to the thunderous climax of the season while also laying down elements for the future and resolving conflicts that have built up over the past eighteen episodes.

Aang’s journey to the spirit world is a thrilling expansion of what we learned previously. Where earlier we were treated to blue ghosts and a singular angry beast, here we are shown the wonderland just beyond the veil that the Avatar can cross. Floating islands, mysterious marshes and more populate the land of higher beings. The spirits that Aang meets are also intriguingly amoral in the order of things. The meditating monkey is more angry than helpful, and the sprite Aang dances after is just a flick of the light.

The fantastic reaches its peak when Aang visits Koh the face stealer. This ancient being is one filled with knowledge and danger, for Aang needs the spirit to tell him the location of the moon and ocean. But Koh’s a sneaky character, dare to show emotion and he will rip your countenance away. It’s the first time the show has really dipped into what I would call more of a horror sphere, and it works shockingly well. Koh is menacing and unnerving, a centipedel being that crawls and shocks those who dare approach it. Koh also allows the show some deep history. Stories beyond what immediately impact the current narrative. A crack about how a previous Avatar tried to kill Koh is a minor moment in the finale, but implies so much about the history of the world.

The influence of the spirit world looms large over the finale. Aang eventually learns that the koi housed in the Water Tribe’s spring are the moon and ocean spirits, and the ultimate target for Zhao and his fleet. Zhao has always been the villain of arrogance, a man whose inflated sense of self has propelled him up the ranks, but will also be his ultimate downfall. Iroh warns that messing with the domain of the spirits will have repercussions that Zhao can not anticipate, and as always Iroh is right.

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Zhao’s slaughter of the moon spirit is the action that directly leads to the defeat of the Fire Nation in this particular battle. Though it might not seem that way at first. When Zhao bags the magical koi the world turns blood red and the waterbenders lose their power. It’s a moment of true uncertain terror, only heightened when Zhao decides to go through with the deed of killing the moon.

This action leads to the most visually stunning sequence that the show has produced yet so far. Suddenly the world is shunted into a queasy monochrome. The only time color returns is when when firebenders light up their combatants. It feels like this is it, the apocalypse, a point of no return. But then Aang combines with the Ocean spirit, turns into a koi kaiju and wrecks the Fire Nation fleet. These minutes are the highlight of the artistic power of the show so far. A staggering sense of scale accompanies the koiju, and it’s watery attacks on the Fire Nation are breathtaking even all these years and rewatches later.

Still such spectacle is not the dramatic peak of the finale. That is reserved for Zuko’s speech to an incapacitated Aang. Ever since “The Storm” these two have been drawn together in thematic counterpoint, and the reversal of the ending of “The Blue Spirit” highlights both Zuko’s misery and his misunderstanding of Aang’s life.

“There’s always something. Not that you would understand. You’re like my sister. Everything always came easy to her,” says Zuko “She’s a firebending prodigy, and everyone adores her. My father says she was born lucky. He says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck, though. I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.” This statement highlight’s both Zuko’s resentment for his family, and his desire to return to them. To prove that he is not bound by the winds of fate, but able to forge his own identity out of his trauma. Time will prove how right he will be.

However Zuko misreads Aang. Though the Avatar possess great power his life has been burdened with sorrow instead of good fortune. Aang is the orphan of genocide, a man out of time, and struggling against the clock to end the war. In many ways his luck is that of Zuko. A person expelled from the world he knew and forced to find a new path forward.

If there’s one thing that still rubs the wrong the way it’s the suddenness with which we learn Yue’s connection to the Moon spirit. Conceptually there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s introduced right before Yue makes her grand sacrifice to the world. It’s a bit that feels like it needed to be massaged into the narrative in the first part of this two parter, but the timing never exactly worked out as needed.

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Still the emotions from Sokka still play correctly. His romance with Yue and contempt of her fiancee Han add enough shading to the moment for it to hit the right chords. This relationship is one of the few times that Sokka has melted away the snark and cynicism to the core of a real romantic. So when Sokka and spirit Yue kiss, a true loss is felt between the characters.

So Team Avatar arrives at the other end victorious. Knowing that Zhao has been defeated, and the Norther Water Tribe safe from attack. Yet it’s still temporary, as Pakku notes there is still work to be done, and Aang has much more to learn, but the table has been cleared the stakes cemented for what the Avatar most face to prevail. Even if Ozai disowns his brother and sends out a mysterious combatant to chase down Team Avatar. All this will be considered in the marvelous second season of the show.

Odds and Ends

  • Did _____ Just Die: A lot is made of how this show balances it’s epic story with Nick Standard and Practices, which leads to the question of whether a character really croaked in the implicit way that the show has to work. Yue: weird one to track as she turns into a spirit, but going to a different realm might be considered a death of a sort. Han: Yue’s fiancee gets thrown off Zhao’s ship and is never heard from again, don’t know if he’s a waterbender, but if he’s not I don’t know how he makes it. Zhao: though the show deliberately plays this moment Zhao’s refusal of Zuko’s help certainly puts him in a watery grave.
  • Koiju is a reference to the spirits in Miyazaki’s movies, and it definitely plays that way.
  • Tying Aang and Zuko together: both offer mercy to their enemies,
  • Han pronounces Sokka’s name wrong, in a manner that is similar to the terrible film.
  • The music throughout the episode plays off the motif’s in Iroh’s song from “The Waterbending Master.”
Spoiler

  • Though she isn’t named that’s Azula at the end. I do like that she’s shown onscreen in the same episode Zuko talks about her.
  • Zhao mentions a library, a place that will become important for Team Avatar in season two.

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