Re-Avatar State: “Return to Omashu,” “The Swamp,” & “Avatar Day”

Return to Omashu

Avatar is a show that does not forget its past. Such a tool can be wearying as writers have to navigate reams of important canon and context when they tell such a long story, but it’s also a supreme advantage when you want to involve the viewer. You train them to consider even the most trifling moments to be important, because you never know how it might impact the future.

“The King of Omashu” is an amusing early episode of the series. From the moment when the show was trying to find its legs and establish its identity. “King” was also a slight comedic story, playing in the field of goofs and minor pieces of earned wisdom. As a part of a grand narrative “King” might feel small, but “Return” graces it with a new context. Turning what might have receded as footnote into a stepping stone. “Return to Omashu” is the first episode of season two to fully revisit a location or idea from the first season, and it does so in way that brings more breadth and understanding to the Four Nations. After all we are witnessing a story of great upheaval, so it is to be expected for beloved locations to change with the winds of war.

So Team Avatar now must navigate the occupied city to unearth the location of King Bumi. Aang’s old friend is the only committed earthbending master that the group can think of, and Aang needs to learn the art as quickly as possible As the Gaang sneaks through the sewers and alleyways they learn from the local resistance that Bumi surrendered the city immediately. Not a finger was lifted to protect Omashu from the marauding Fire Nation army.

The problems are further complicated by Azula’s decision to recruit a cadre of former friends to form a group of hunters to track down Zuko and Iroh. Azula is a cunning leader, and realizes that efficiency and high skill is better in this situation than mere military might.  This structure allows episode writer Elizabeth Ehasz to introduce us to the trio of terror and then set Team Avatar and Azula into direct conflict. The climax of the episode doesn’t seem like the guaranteed outcome from the start, but it all coalesces together beautifully.

One of the reasons the formation of the trio of terror is so fun is that we are introduced to Mai in a fashion that would indicate she would stand mostly as a villain of the week. Azula spends most of the episode trying to court Ty Lee to her side, so Mai gets to spend the bulk of the runtime tussling with the resistance and Team Avatar. So when Azula arrives in Omashu, wraps up Mai in her schemes it’s a genuine surprise. A moment when the viewer gets a better sense of the upper crust of Fire Nation life as the trio of terror form and attack our heroes.

With Azula now running roughshod over the maneuvering of politics in Omashu (soon to become New Ozai under Fire Nation rule) she has to contend with the governor’s failure in dealing with letting the resistance out of the city from under his nose. In another moment of Sokka genius miliatary tactician, he has cooked up a scheme to let the resistance out of Omashu so they can retreat and live to fight another day. You see after trudging through the sewers Sokka is able to trick a few guards by pretending the marks left by the harmless pentepus have resulted in the pandemic causing pentepox. So why not use this ruse to escort a large people out of the city. It’s a clever bit of storytelling that once again sublimates Sokka role as the clown into somebody who can use his failures to access success.

With the citizenry cleared out, and the governor’s missing baby in the hands of Team Avatar, the stage is set for a multilevel battle. The Gaang and the trio of terror meet at the base of what is to be a giant statue of Ozai. Here a trade is going to be made, the baby for Bumi. Azula’s smart though, and she realizes that Bumi is worth far more than a mere child. So she goes on the offensive and attacks Team Avatar. Thus we are treated to another exciting bit of dynamic action. This time enhanced by the introduction of two new fighting styles. Mai specializes in sleight of hand tricks, using hidden daggers and knives to get the drop on her enemy. Ty Lee is the true secret weapon, as she has the power of chi blocking, punching her enemies to the point that they lose their bending abilities. With these new wildcards introduced the writers and directors have created new possibilities for action spectacle.

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Indeed the conclusion of this episode is quite spectacular. Once again inverting the experience of “King” for more daring ends. In season one the mail chutes of the city were used for adolescent mischief making, now it’s the stage for a thrilling chase. Using the slides as stages of a fight. With Aang riding on Bumi’s cage and Azula hot in pursuit.

Luckily Bumi is even more powerful than anticipated, and he knocks Azula away at the last second and reveals to Aang why he surrendered his city. Earthbending is based on waiting and listening, understanding the best time to attack, and for Bumi now is not the right time. Aang will have to find a new teacher that will show him the ropes of true earthbending. The explanation is a bit of cop out, but it’s at least grounded in the philosophy of bending, something the show has gotten better at explicating.

Still Team Avatar is on the back heel again, and are sent off to find Aang a new earthbending teacher, now with a new threat hanging over their head in the form of Azula.

Odds and Ends

  • The whole pentepox thing plays weird right in this moment, but that’s not the show’s fault.
  • The fight with Azula at the end is remarkably similar to the fight with Zuko in the unaired pilot.
  • You’ll notice that the Fire Nation is slowly transforming Omashu into a city where earthbending is impossible, covering the city in metal sheets.
Spoiler

  • Bumi does pop again later in the series, but this is the last time he’ll meet with Aang in person. Odd considering what he says about seeing Aang again.

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The Swamp

These next two episodes are the only really hiccup in the thrilling second season of Avatar. Neither are outright bombs, but they struggle in telling clear stories and communicating their ideas. The tone can be slightly out of whack, and it feels like a bit of wheel spinning before the show blasts off into a new level of quality.

“The Swamp” is especially puzzling in regards to the balance of important world building and goofy shenanigans. For half of the episode is consumed by a sort of surreal introspection, and the other dedicated to wacky animal hijinks.

As Team Avatar is flying over the Earth Kingdom Aang feels a mysterious calling to a swamp below. He tries to avoid, but the group is dragged down by a freak tornado. The Gaang is then separated from Appa and Momo, and each side must battle their way through the muck. But the Swamp is more than meets the eye, as each of our heroes are greeted with haunting visions and are stalked by mysterious creatures. Appa and Momo on the other hand have to outrun the Deliverance styled swamp benders to avoid becoming dinner.

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The two sides of the episode work well enough on their own, but sit uncomfortably together. The animal antics are fairly well drawn and amusing, and the animators and Baker continue to astonish with the amount of character introduced to these fuzzy creatures. Unfortunately it kind of deflates the serious elements that our main characters are experiencing. For the first time this season Sokka and Katara have to confront the unimaginable loss that has stacked up in their lives. Sokka contends with the fact that his first love is now otherworldly, beyond grasp and understanding. Katara must reconcile the promise of familial reunion with the knowledge that her mom was a causality of a brutal war. It’s heavy stuff and there’s a bit of dissonance compared to the foot stomping hoedown action of the swamp benders.

Aang has a bit of a different experience. His vision is of a girl he’s never met before, and by the end of the episode it is revealed that this person is an individual he has yet to meet. This revelation is accompanied with the unmasking of the monster that has been following Team Avatar throughout this adventure is just another swamp bender, Huu, hiding his countenance in the vines. He speaks to Team Avatar about the importance of the swamp, how each of the vines are merely part of the large banyan tree spreading over the land.

This lesson is merely a step for Aang to come to terms with a world that is all connected ideology of the swamp benders. He uses the spiritual power of the vines to locate Appa and Momo. The Gaang is able to intervene and get their animal friends off the menu. They leave the swamp, slightly enlightened.

Team Avatar’s adventure is bookended with two short bits with Zuko and Iroh, and even though these segments are slight, they are fascinating. Iroh is willing to sing for his dinner and humiliate himself to get a mere penny. Zuko is irate, royalty laid low by betrayal and fate, so he decides to retaliate. He once again dons the mask of The Blue Spirit to rob the man who tormented Iroh, transforming into a vigilante, but now for petty things. It’s another step in Zuko’s transition from royalty to outlaw, and highlights how much he has fallen.

A lot of what is introduced in “The Swamp” will lock into place later down the road, but in the moment it’s too uneven to call an unqualified success.

Odds and Ends

  • While Zuko and Iroh beg for money at the beginning a cart with masks past in front of them, and for a brief moment music from The Blue Spirit plays.
  • More Miyazaki love in the design of this episode. Huu’s vine form looks like No Face, and the swamp itself feels pulled right from Nausicaä.
  • I love that the swamp benders are waterbenders with no affiliation to the Water Tribe, plants the idea that bending is not always tied with a specific nationality.
Spoiler

  • This is the last tease we’ll get for Toph before she joins the Gaang in two episodes.
  • Also the swamp benders amusingly return to invade the Fire Nation.
  • The spiritual power of the swamp becomes of major importance in Korra, but I won’t divulge too much.

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Avatar Day

If there’s one sticks out like a sore thumb episode in the whole of season two it’s “Avatar Day.” While not stumbling to the lows of season one comedic one-offs, it comes at the exact wrong moment in the series to work as a side trip. The opening chapters of season two have added a sense of urgency and direction into the story of Team Avatar, and here it’s mostly abandoned for a bout of trivial goofiness. Though keeping with the edict of the higher production values of the show, it’s well wrought goofiness.

Once again Team Avatar is out and about and stumble upon a small village that they must intrude upon. After being ransacked by some Fire Nation bounty hunters the Gaang looks to recoup their losses at a town that appears to have a festival in support of the Avatar. Not so fast, as the residents of this town are actually factionally opposed to the Avatar, as their leader was killed by Kyoshi centuries ago.

Katara steps in to speak on Aang’s behalf, but the town is unmoved. Aang gets thrown in the clink, and it’s up to Sokka and Katara to prove his innocence. With his best Holmes impression in his back pocket, Sokka begins gathering clues. This involves a trip back to Kyoshi island, and a deep dive into Avatar lore. On trial Aang fails to impress, only to be inhabited by Kyoshi and reveal that, indeed, she did kill the town founder as he was a ruthless imperial leader. Aang’s guilt almost leads him to be boiled in oil, but the bounty hunters return and Team Avatar saves the day, restoring Aang’s image in the town’s conscious.

It’s all a bunch of set-up for the show to do a silly spin on the Sherlock routine, and in that regards it’s a moderate success. Sokka’s appropriation of the super sleuth, complete with hat and pipe, is amusing enough. As is the fact he and Katara frequently come to the same conclusion at the same time. The return to Kyoshi Island is another welcome turn for the episode. Demonstrating the commitment that the writers have in making sure that the world of the Four Nations is constantly in conversation with itself. The return also provides a lavish reminder of how much better the show looks now than it did in the fourth episode.

Most of the rest of the episode is rather irritating, boosted by the Zuko subplot and our first grand introduction to Kyoshi as person. The way the town comports itself around the Avatar is supposed to be humorously obstinate, but becomes ditheringly tedious as the story winds its way to a conclusion. And if Aang was able to lie his way out of “The Great Divide” his moral scruples here feel even more strained. Is it so hard for him to believe that one of his past lives was more violent than he is, certainly Aang acts as a pacifist, but he can’t be so naive to think that there was never killing in his past.

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Luckily the sequence of Kyoshi’s confession acts as an excellent history lesson for the world of the Four Nations. It demonstrates Kyoshi’s willingness to use force, and the true power that the Avatar has, using their abilities to literally reshape the world around them. It’s awesome stuff, and a shame that it comprises such a small portion of the episode’s runtime.

Speaking of which the story of Zuko and Iroh this week is particularly fascinating. Zuko has turned full time thief to compensate for the loss of status that he has suddenly faced, but all the riches in the world cannot satisfy him. There is a void in his heart that he believes only restitution with Ozai will fill, and capturing Aang is the only way he can conceive of accomplishing said goal. Zuko is at his most confused and angered now, and Iroh has some words about not falling into despair for it will cause Zuko to, “slip to his lowest instincts.”

But Zuko doesn’t want to heed such warnings, and turns his back on Iroh for the time being.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know that Voice: Venerable character James Hong provides the voice for the stubborn mayor of the village. Hong is always a welcome presence, though I wish he was in a better episode of the show.
  • Big introduction to boomerang guy and hair loopies with this episode.
  • I don’t like “Avatar Day” much, but includes one of the show’s best jokes, when Aang casually takes his head and arms out of the stockade he has been shackled with.
Spoiler

  • Zuko’s solo sojourn only lasts a few episodes, but it does result in the show’s masterpiece, more on that next week.

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