The Serpent’s Pass
In my recap on “The Desert” I noted that the midpoint of the series featured another downshift in the tonal texture of Avatar. That what was once a cheery piece of adventuring was slowly morphing into a story with more edges and angles. The show doesn’t fundamentally change, it’s all still kids’ show, and basic cable appropriate. But things feel different now, like a bit of the air is sucked out the room. The shift is an acute move by the writers, knowing that the audience is going to age with the material, and greater ambivalence in tone and ambiguity in theme are needed to keep them engaged.
“The Serpent’s Pass” builds off this shading excellently. While Team Avatar was able to navigate themselves out of the desert, and have a plan to get to Ba Sing Sae without Appa, things are still not going smoothly. Instead of raging against his loss, Aang now acts sullen and reposed. Unable to reach out and connect with those around him. An important skill considering he’s the local messiah. Another issue compounded by Appa’s disappearance is pure navigation. No longer able to fly The Gaang must either board refugee ships or brave dangerous trails to reach their goals.
The bureaucracy at work with the Earth Kingdom proves to be quite the stifling foe, as Aang fails to get aboard on name alone. Luckily Toph’s there with the assist, using her family’s famous logo to get safe passage to the city. Unfortunately they give up their tickets to help a husband and wife expecting a baby across the titular road. In a stroke of luck The Gaang stumbles upon Suki as well, who has taken up residence to help get refugees into Ba Sing Sae. The reunion is exciting, a warming presence in a time of great stress, and a bit of pressure point for Sokka.
Suki’s appearance points to the other great aspect of “The Serpent’s Pass,” the reincorporation of past elements into the show. Not only with the emergence of both Suki and Jet (which we’ll get to in a moment), but with thorough consideration of how these things reflect on our characters now. They’ve been through a lot on their journey and, and the quest is beginning to have serious ramifications on who Team Avatar are as people. So even with the giant snake, “The Serpent’s Pass” enters the series as one the most ruminative entries. A story that considers that past as our characters struggle to move forward.
The most blatant example here is shockingly with Sokka. Maybe for the first time since “The Swamp” he’s given a completely serious arc about his loves and regrets, and how he’s sometimes unable to articulate things that are concerning to him. He still has affection for Suki, but it’s tempered by loss, by knowing that he won’t be able to save everyone, even those with immense power or strength. This is highlighted by a nighttime talk between Suki and Sokka where he hesitantly try to describes his recent bought of concern, “It’s so hard to lose someone you care about. Something happened at the North Pole and I couldn’t protect someone. I don’t want anything like that to ever happen again.” The delivery is so unsure, the resolution so uncertain, that one can feel how much he struggles with what happened to Yue without saying her name. A fact reinforced by a refused kiss in the glare of the moonlight.
Jet’s return also puts the spotlight on this issue. On the boat to Ba Sing Sae, Zuko and Iroh happen upon our former freedom fighter, and find a person who wants to reform, but seems to be caught in a loop. Jet wants to move on, find a new life in the big city, and perhaps work to better the lives of people there. In their way Iroh and Zuko respond well to Jet, not just with his promise of better food, but his talk of new beginnings. Zuko has struggled to make peace with his identity, and Iroh is forced to reckon with returning to the place of his greatest failure. Jet moves into an opportune position to connect to the duo’s emotional detachment. Jet looks for a second chance, an idea that appeals to Iroh’s philosophical principles as well as Zuko’s identity crises. Though for now Zuko is uncertain if he wishes to remain companions with our former bad boy.
If there’s a weakness with “The Serpent’s Pass” it’s some of the tin-eared writing that concludes the story. A lot of obviousness about open to emotional experiences, even negative ones. A thread that goes so far as reaching a climax that includes a birth of a child and literally naming it Hope. It leans too much on the corn factor, and undercuts the more melancholic elements of the story at hand.
Still things aren’t all sunshine and roses, as soon as Aang scales the great outer wall of the city he discovers that it’s under siege from the Fire Nation’s newest steampunk wonder: a giant mechanical drill.
Odds and Ends
- The pregnant woman is the same one we saw from “Zuko Alone.”
- Even with the more serious tone some fantastic lines. Toph’s, “You can let me drown now,” might be the tops.
- It’s the cabbage man, and you know what Team Avatar isn’t involved in the destruction of his property this time.
- Smellerbee’s gender identity is incredibly small thing that feels like a thoughtful detail to include for a small side character.
- The fake Aang’s are all pretty funny, though it does raise the question of why Aang doesn’t just airbend to prove his identity.
- Jet’s casual nature in these two episodes make his subsequent brain washing and death even that more tragic.
- Even though Sokka and Suki get together by the end of the series, I always found it amusing that he, for a brief moment, was pursuing two girls.
If “The Desert” and “The Serpent’s Pass” were more contemplative entries in Avatar, than the drill is riotous klaxon of an episode. A thrilling, dynamic, and action packed story that mostly exists to display the monstrous talents of the animation team. For “The Drill” serves as a dizzying technical accomplishment, the kind that’s usually reserved for some grand climactic moment, but is deployed right before we enter the final third of the season and enjoy the wonders of Ba Sing Sae.
Aang’s quest for Appa is put on pause and he pulls his team together to consider how to best approach the titular war machine. The general on top of the wall says that his earthbending super squad will be able to conquer the menacing apparatus. Unfortunately the group can only take out a few tanks before Ty Lee pops out of the drill and renders the group impotent.
So it’s up to Team Avatar to take down the machine, and stop the Trio of Terror from infiltrating the Earth Kingdom capitol. As Katara heals some of the troops Sokka gets an idea. Ty Lee takes out her opponents by striking them at weak points and paralyzing them. Sokka proposes a more strategic approach to the problem, rendering the machine broken from the inside rather than banging their head against the outer shell. It’ll be tricky as they will have deal with the Trio of Terror as well the platoon of Fire Nation soldiers. This is Azula at her most menacing up to this point, the princess willing the full might of the Fire Nation against the Earth Kingdom.
The team then infiltrates the drill and begins to execute their plan. After securing the blueprints for the structure, Sokka indicates that the thing can be torn asunder by weakening the braces, causing the machine to collapse from the inside. A new problem emerges though. Aang and Katara can cut through the metal, but doing the whole beam is hugely time consuming. So Aang turns an earthbending lesson into a form of attack. Instead of focusing all their efforts onto one target, spread out the weaknesses before striking a final blow. It’s an idea that grows from Toph’s fighting stance, waiting for the opponent to move and using precise strikes to end the enemy.
So Aang and Katara both work to weaken the beams, but not fully separate them. As they work they’re interrupted by the Trio of Terror. Sokka and Katara hop in the slurry shoot and end up out the rear of the machine, while Aang goes to the front to knock the whole thing out. But not before Azula puts up a fight. Aang and Azula’s little rematch on the top of the drill is just one those perfect little miniature pieces of martial architecture. Both use the environment around them in their contest (here it’s the addition of the wall and falling rocks that distract both Aang and Azula). The two spar with each other and their surrounding to achieve their goals. Luckily for Team Avatar Aang manages to get the upper hand and stop the drill dead in its tracks.
So The Gaang has thwarted the latest Fire Nation advance, and will finally be able to enter Ba Sing Sae. Things are finally starting to look up after a few tumultuous episodes. Unbeknownst to Team Avatar the Fire Nation has already breached the walls of the city. Zuko and Iroh are ready to enter the city. Jet tries to appeals one more time to Zuko to join the new freedom fighters and find a new life in the capitol.
Zuko continues to refuse, he knows the dangers of joining up with a sympathetic stranger, the concluding events of “Zuko Alone” weren’t that long ago. Zuko and Iroh are also still wanted criminals. There life is tenuous at best, and hanging with Jet would only highlight those vulnerabilities. Zuko’s smart about the situation, Iroh not so much. As he gets some cold tea, his weariness overtakes his better judgment. So Iroh heats up the tea with his bending, and Jet notices the act. Iroh puts his life in jeopardy at this moment for the vice of hot tea. Now the Fire Nation is here, in the capitol, and only Jet knows.
Odds and Ends
- These two episodes aired together and are now packaged together on Netflix. This has always been a bit confounding because they aren’t related in the way a normal two parter would be.
- They also had the second highest viewership of the entire show. Hell even I remember watching it live in the year of our lord 2006.
- Yes Team Avatar is an actual name from the show. And much like The Scooby Gang from Buffy it has been the default group name for the show by the fans.
- Though “Fearsome Foursome” or Boomerang Squad” would have been good as well.
- Aang mentions that he wishes he was a metalbender to destroy the drill. An obvious foreshadow to when Toph creates the art form, but does raise the question if this is a concept that has been raised before.