The Avatar State
If you’re a reader joining the watch of Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time you may be a touch consternated by the lavish high praise that the show has received. While the first season is an excellent introduction to the conceptual elements of the show, it’s also mostly an uneven stretch of television. Containing both emotional and spectacular highs with some twiddling about in one-off stories. Even with knockouts like “The Storm,” “The Blue Spirit,” and “The Siege of the North,” it can feel a bit like waiting to get to the fireworks factory.
Well we have arrived to the show’s second season, and viewers both old and new will be treated a run of twenty episodes that cements the show’s place in the TV pantheon. The writers and directors smartly reorient the structure of the show to a sublime balance of episodic and serialized storytelling. Learning lessons about what worked in the first season and massaging structures that worked so well for programs like Buffy and Lost. Now even when Team Avatar stops by a weekly village there’s more of an overarching hook for the story to land, a goal is always kept in mind as we move forward, even if the show creator’s still grant moments of respite from the relentless march forward.
These storytelling upgrades are also enhanced with a major boost in animation quality. Avatar has always been a cut above compared to its contemporary cable animation compatriots (it was Nick’s most expensive show by a country mile before Legend of Korra took that honor), but there was a stiffness to some of the movement and a barren nature to some the backgrounds throughout the freshmen season. Even within the first two episodes of the second seasons the visuals have been starkly improved. More character detail, more intricate fights, and lusher background art breath new life and wonder into the proceedings.
And there’s a lot to get to in “The Avatar State.” The second season premiere is a deluge of new information, new characters, and new challenges for our heroes to face, and honestly it’s a bit chaotic in the way it decides to tell its story. But the quick and cluttered pacing does an excellent job of establishing what this new season of TV will be like. There’s no longer time to dawdle. Team Avatar may have won the previous battle, but the war is still raging on ahead.
So the Gaang is dropped off at a Earth Kingdom military base, where the shifty General Fong has hatched a scheme. After hearing of Aang’s koiju attack at the Northern Water Tribe Fong believes that the war can end today if Aang can be forced in the Avatar State. Such power could be used to kneecap Ozai now, months before the deadline of Sozin’s comet needs to be reached.
It’s a compelling argument, especially after the events of the North Pole, but Fong is approaching the process through the wrong channels. Aang is not a weapon, but a person. He carries the burden of spiritual balance, and forcing the issue of tremendous life threatening power is akin to playing catch with a firecracker. Fong’s methods start as mere amusements. Caffeinated tea, pointless ritual, and empty moralizing about the troops returning from the battlefield. It turns nefarious when Fong attacks directly on Aang, cornering him and threatening Katara. Of course this does trigger The Avatar State, but Fong cannot control it. Instead his troops and laid low and his base destroyed, all of his pushing has backfired.
In this moment Aang finally learns the dangerous truth of this monumental power. Roku informs him that the Avatar State is the moment when all of his past lives channel their power into him, but if he is killed in the Avatar State the line will be shattered forever, ending the cycle of rebirth. It’s an ominous warning, especially considering reincarnation is the only thing that kept Aang alive in “The Blue Spirit,” and it finally puts a full target on Aang’s back. He can be defeated for good.
The tomfoolery with Fong and the weight of this knowledge about the Avatar State leads the Gaang to the realization that Aang must continue to learn the elements before confronting Ozai. So they leave the military escort to travel to Omashu on their own.
On the flip side of the narrative we have Zuko and Iroh contending with the fallout from the Fire Nation’s failure at the north. The two are now seen as traitors, and are in direct conflict with both Team Avatar and the Fire Nation Royal Family. This dichotomy is highlighted by the arrival of Azula, Zuko’s powerful and malicious sister. After insinuating her existence throughout season one we are treated to thrilling and telling entrance for our new and most prominent villain.
She arrives with a full entourage. She threatens to throw her captain overboard and allow the tides of the ocean decide his fate. She is a control freak who won’t let a little thing keep her from pursuing her goals. She’s also very powerful, manipulative, and aware of how to tweak the psychology of her own family.
She comes to Zuko and Iroh to offer restitution of their past crimes. She says Ozai has offered forgiveness, Iroh is skeptical, but Zuko is all on board. He has lived the past three years in shame and remorse, and he would take anything to rescind that shame. Unfortunately he has to be reminded by Azula about why that is not possible at the moment. When the captain of the ship reveals that Iroh and Zuko are prisoners, the uncle and nephew turn. Iroh rarely goes on the offensive, but here he beats up the soldiers and redirects Azula’s lightning. A direct attack between the two sides of the family.
Zuko’s duel with Azula also proves how outclassed he is by his sister. She doesn’t throw a punch to the very end, and her firebending glows a hot blue, placing her above everyone else. In a clever bit of filmmaking this sequence is directly cross cut with Aang’s fight with Fong. Here we see the two poles of our show revolting against supposed allies. The two groups don’t meet in person, but they continue to be pulled together.
After the fight Azula, Zuko and Iroh know they are truly isolated from their country. They cut their top knots and go along as fugitives, uncertain of what the future will hold. Both of our groups are moving forward, now into a new and exciting season.
Odds and Ends
- I Know that Voice: Two this week. I mentioned Lost above and Avatar recruits one of it’s best cast members for a bit part as Daniel Dae Kim plays General Fong. On the other hand Azula is voiced by industry vet Grey DeLisle (now Grey Griffin) who has been in shows as varied as Rugrats and many superhero shows.
- Zuko’s knife reads, “Never give up without a fight.”
- We’ve seen Azula a bunch of times, she’s the firebender in the opening credits and is next to Iroh in the flashback in “The Storm.”
- We are introduced to the Avatars before Kyoshi, who breifly demonstrate their power.
- You can tell the production values of the show have gone up because we have a bunch of new outfits and hair for our main characters.
- Lots of set-up here for things that happen in the finale: Katara gets the spirit water, Aang learns of dying in The Avatar State, and Zuko will be offered to return back to his home country.
The Cave of Two Lovers
In my recap of “The Fortuneteller” some in the comments noted that I was a mite annoyed with what would pejoratively be called filler episodes of the show. To whit the episodes of Avatar that don’t push the main plot forward and can mostly relegated to a comedy side plot for the overarching narrative. I want to make clear, I don’t dislike these episodes, they are integral to the DNA of Avatar. However the execution of the comedy episode has greatly increased from the first season to the second. The problem with episodes like “The Fortuneteller” and “The Great Divide” is that they aren’t that funny and exaggerate certain character traits to near breaking point.
As such “The Cave of Two Lovers” finds the right way to do a comedic one off. The story has a hook with a sense of the ongoing narrative (Team Avatar needs to get to Omashu), more deftly deals with the romance (Katara and Aang feel like a more believable pairing here than in “The Fortuneteller), and has a b-plot that deals with Zuko’s emotional turmoil (an always welcome edition).
Team Avatar needs to get to Omashu so Aang can learn earthbending from Bumi, and they need to hurry up as the Fire Nation begins closing in. But they are interrupted by a group of singing nomads lead by the spacey Chong. Chong and his crew inform the group of a secret tunnel that can take the Gaang to Omashu while avoiding the Fire Nation. Unfortunately the titular cave is a deadly labyrinth filled with dead ends and nasty beasts. Even worse the group is split up as Aang and Katara have to make their way on their own and Sokka has to contend with the Nomads.
What “The Cave of Two Lovers” accomplishes so well is being a primarily comedic narrative that never the less has a bit of edge to the proceedings. Everything with Chong and the Nomads is a gas, filtering the classic hippie stand up routine through a fantastical world. But the dangers of the cave are very much real, a territory of marauding wolfbats and suffocating darkness. All of the goofs cannot hide that the mission Team Avatar is on is still quite serious.
This tonal contrast also allows for some more thorough worldbuilding about the Earth Kingdom. Aang and Katara find the tomb of the lovers and learn the history of Omashu and the legend of the first earthbenders. It’s a lovely little digression that makes the comedic focus of the episode less of a toss off. The writers are not just here to make you laugh, but also inform the viewer on the history of the world. This story is bolstered by the ink painting animation used in the legend of Oma and Shu, another example of the show upgrading techniques we saw in the first season for greater impact.
The romance here is also smoother. Aang has always had a giddy crush on Katara, and this story doesn’t really remove the middle school element of the story, but the affection between the two can be felt. Especially in the most blatant tease of the show so far, with the torch going out right as the two may or may not kiss. It’s not subtle exactly, but the tone is more ambiguous than what we’ve gotten so far in the series.
Zuko and Iroh’s narrative is completely disconnected from what Team Avatar is doing, but it’s a fascinating introduction to how these characters will function as fugitives from all sides. Iroh’s passion for tea has caused him to eat a poisonous plant, forcing the two to seek medical attention in a local village. While there they spend the night with the average citizenry of the Earth Kingdom and begin to reckon with the destruction of the Fire Nation.
When Zuko talks to Song, his host, he knows he must lie or risk being exposed. In some ways his scar is now an asset, a way to physically demonstrate how the Fire Nation has hurt him to those with sympathetic ears. It’s the first step in a process of Zuko realizing that he’s as much of a victim as others in the war, even if he is unwilling to admit it right at this moment.
In fact Zuko plays the bad guy pretty straight in this episode. Stealing a chickenhorse from his hosts to sneak away in the night. It’s a small moment, but a telling one. Highlighting that Zuko still sees himself as someone above what has happened to the common folks of the world. That his quest for honor is still more noble than the livelihood of a family torn asunder by war.
It’s war that still drives all this misery and destruction, as the shocking cliff hanger shot of the episode reveals. Omashu has fallen to the Fire Nation, what was once a story of flighty fun has now become one grave seriousness.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Dee Bradley Baker has the honor of being the only voice actor to appear in every episode of Avatar (as well as Korra where he only skipped out on two eps), but you may not have realized that fact. Baker is the go to voice artist for animal sounds, and his grunts and growls give spirited life to Momo, Appa, and the wolfbats and badgermoles. But here he gets his only named human character role as Chong the nomad.
- The music the Nomads sing is pointedly anachronistic, which does kind of break the rules of the world, but is funny enough to work in the show.
- Which means of course that Secret Tunnel is one of the true bangers of the show.
- The running bit of Sokka slapping his forehead until it leaves a mark is truly incredible commitment.
- Much like the waterbenders learned from the Moon and Ocean here we learn that the earthbenders learned from the badgermoles.
- And hey I don’t have any real spoiler thoughts for this episode.