In Which The Stars Turn and a Decision Presents Itself
Avatar has never been shy about its influences. The creators are open to the fact that they cribbed from most major pieces of genre storytelling at the time. The stew of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and a variety of anime has always been blatant and endearing. Demonstrating the show’s ability to cross cultural tabs and bring different tones and styles together. Still, boiling down Avatar to its inspirations does a disservice to all ends, applying grab bag references to unique stories.
However it’s impossible to talk about the season two finale of Avatar without talking about Star Wars. Because the showrunners, writers, and directors have done something remarkable, thrilling, and noteworthy. The creators of Avatar take the outline of Empire Strikes Back repeat the same basic narrative structure, and manage to best the blockbuster. The downbeat end to the dark middle chapter has been hallmark of storytelling for a long time, but out of all the shows, movies, and books that follow the format Avatar might be the top of the heap. It makes this finale, while maybe not my personal favorite entry of the show, perhaps the series’ grandest achievement. A subversion of a subversion that rewrites what we thought we knew of the story, tearing down the whole structure of the narrative and throwing a match in to burn it down on the way out.
In “Bitter Work” we learned about earth as an element and how our characters reacted to its nature. Toph taught Aang that the ground is stubborn and no action but direct action will be able to push through the solid material. Iroh taught Zuko that earth is the element of substance, persistent, strong and hard to change. These lessons serve as a sort of bedrock for the season as whole, our characters journey through the Earth Kingdom has been one of trying to take direct action, push forward through stubbornness, and being met by great resistance. Change is difficult, and it takes a great will of character to alter one’s fundamental being.
“The Guru” serves as a recounting of these lessons, and a consideration of everything that’s happened in the season so far. Our heroes are scattered, but they are finally faced with the full consequences of everything that’s happened since they left the North Pole. All roads have lead them to this point of crisis and how they act now will change the course of history.
For Aang its reckoning with his past and earthly connections while studying under Guru Pathik. All the way back to the premiere he knows that the only way to win against the Fire Lord is to completely master The Avatar State, and having full control of such power will finally give him the ability to come out on top. The lessons are more difficult than Aang expected, as he must mentally and emotionally train himself into spiritual enlightenment and control over his Avatar abilities.
Much of this is forcing him to consider the tragedy of his life and isolation from the world he used to know. Aang’s an individual that’s been through a genocide, hunted and attacked by military leaders and vigilantes, and is always on the precipice of losing the one’s he cares about, especially with regards to his growing love for Katara. These are touch facts for Aang to face, but they are necessary steps for him to grow as person. He must learn to live with what he fears, pass the grief of his lost life, and account for the people that mean the most to him.
Unfortunately this last step isn’t one he’s fully ready to take. As he prepares to open the final chakra in his body The Guru asks Aang to let go of all his earthly connections, as they hinder his ability to connect to the universe of cosmic energy. Such a request leaves Aang flummoxed, why would his dissolve the connections he has to the people he loves, especially when they are the lifeline he has to the world he must govern as messiah. His success and well being so far have been completely tied up with the members of Team Avatar and his affection for Katara.
Still The Guru persists, and Aang reflects on letting everything go, but he can’t. On the path to mastery of The Avatar State he gleans a vision of a distressed Katara, and he fails to complete the final step. Against the warnings of Pathik he speeds back to Ba Sing Sae to sort out the problem. It’s a direct parallel to Luke training with Yoda in Empire, and the results will be equally disastrous.
Aang isn’t the only one learning lessons. Toph’s caught in a metal box with seemingly no way out. However her captors still underestimate her ability. It’s a moment connected with Aang’s tutelage as well. We see Toph strike against the box as Pathik intones, “Even the separation of the four elements is an illusion. If you open your mind, you will see that all the elements are one. Four parts of the same whole. Even metal is just a part of earth that has been purified and refined.” The world is not as rigid as we imagine, and even the solid nature of metal can be bent to the will of the powerful as Toph demonstrates. This section again highlighting how the distance between characters and situations are not as far as they seem. Another piece of info proposed in earlier episodes like “The Swamp.”
Sokka’s adventures with his dad, Hakoda, are smaller and gentler, but they remind the viewer that both Sokka and Katara still have family and connections in the world. The tragedy with their mother may define their quests, but they continue to work to help their family and people. There’s not too much here other than Hakoda acknowledging Sokka’s place as a soldier and tactician, its endearing, and important for later, but short lived as Aang comes calling.
In Ba Sing Sae things are placid for the moment, but dark currents run underneath. Katara is bemusedly sitting in on war meetings and generally out of place, but a trip to the hottest new tea house in town shakes her to the core. Without realizing it Zuko and Iroh are in the city, and she was blissfully unaware.
This problem is compounded by Azula’s plan to foment a coup in the city. Planting hints of their true Fire Nation heritage to get Long Feng’s ear. It of course works, because Azula’s cunning runs deep. Unfortuntely for Katara she steps in on the Trio of Terror in Kyoshi garb, reveals that Zuko’s in town, and is immediately captured by Ty Lee’s chi blocking.
As for Zuko things seem to be looking up. He’s acting rather chipper and non-emo. Congratulating Iroh for his success and contentment. Though for the moment it certainly feels like a veneer.
Things are rapidly spiraling out of control, and even if Aang can’t successfully enter the Avatar State the situation in Ba Sing Sae needs attention. Everyone rushes back to the city with their fate on the line.
Odds and Ends
- The deep dive into chakras is pretty darn comprehensive for a kids’ show. Though they do have to cheat with the second one, which in real life is explicitly about sexual desire. The show has to change it a bit to “pleasure.”
- You can see Sokka’s ingenuity is family trait as both he and Hakoda have a knack for the inventive.
- After Katara is immobilized by Ty Lee her water looks a lot like a pool of blood. A neat little visual trick.
- Metalbending has been referenced as something that could be theoretically accomplished, but this is the first time we see it.
- Hakoda doesn’t do much here, but his presence really helps ground the actions that happen in the third season, especially the prison break from the Boiling Rock.
The Crossroads of Destiny
At the end of The Empire Strikes back we learn that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Arguably the defining narrative twist of the last forty years. A moment that undercuts all expectations for a flash of total shock and defeat for our heroes. What’s amazing about “The Crossroads of Destiny” is that Avatar is able to replicate the feeling of, “I am your father,” without relying on a particular crutch. There are no grand revelations or secret identities. Just one simple question: will Zuko help Iroh or Azula?
It’s the question that has been hounding our Fire Prince from the beginning of the season. As Zuko has waged a war on himself to find his identity: will he be the one to help the Avatar or secure victory for the Fire Nation? What is true honor to him? Who will he follow and how will he decide his fate? From a macro perspective Zuko’s turn to the dark side is a true shock (it certainly blew my mind as a kid). In all versions of this narrative for this audience, this is the moment where the persuadable villain joins the heroes to fight the greater evil. This should be when Zuko becomes a part of Team Avatar: he’s been offered the opportunity, compassion, and reasons needed, still he refuses.
The narrative expectations being flipped are why this moment can feel like such a surprise, an undermining of everything Zuko’s character has been building towards. The genius of the moment, however, is that it isn’t actually a huge change of course for our moody prince. Yes, all season we’ve seen him struggle with his identity, but this struggle has never resolved itself cleanly. We’ve seen Zuko turn to vigilantism in times of desperation, at the end of “Zuko Alone” he declares himself inheritor of the family throne, and he refuses the opportunities Jet provides (probably a smart move there). The only time he breaks decisively for Team Avatar is by freeing Appa, and that was with an angel on his shoulder. Now the devil is whispering sweet words of familial redemption in his ear, the promises he’s yearned for since Ursa vanished. It’s what he wants to hear most of all. In a way this turn is inevitable.
That doesn’t make it any less harsh, ever since “The Storm” there’s been an element to needing to see Zuko redeemed. The child of abuse and familial backstabbing given some sort of grace, but as we’ve learned this season, nothing like that can be found in the walls of Ba Sing Sae.
Zuko’s betrayal is the crux of “The Crossroads of Destiny,” but it is also merely the centerpiece to the total collapse of all our heroes’ goals. Azula executes her coup, turns her brother, imprisons Iroh, captures Ba Sing Sae, and (nearly) kills Aang. It’s hard to imagine a more catastrophic outcome for Team Avatar. The Earth Kingdom has fallen, and they were nearly powerless to stop it in the end.
Azula’s success is terrifying. For she’s a person who knows power and how to wield it. It’s the most distinguishing mark between her and Zuko, he is uncertain of himself, she never doubts. This certitude is how she’s able to fully convince the Dai Li on to her side. Long Feng might posture for power, but his machinations mean nothing against an individual whose force of will is greater than even the leader of the secret police. She lounges on the thrown, knowing that it is hers by right, while Long Feng roots and scrabbles for control. Her plots do almost get unfolded. Team Avatar is still a powerful group, and her ingenuity can be undone by some mad waterbending skills. It’s why she needs Zuko on her side, why she can’t win without a committed group of followers.
Zuko and Iroh’s folding in to the coup is another example of how this show can build tension and excitement out of everything hinted and insinuated at. We know Iroh’s overjoyed at being invited to serve tea to the Earth King, and so he brazenly walks into a trap. One that’s gets the queasy nature off right by having a room shuffling with Dai Li agents, and then turns to the awesome as Iroh demonstrates why he got the name “The Dragon of the West.” It’s one of the few total badass moves that Iroh gets to make, and I love that its immediately undercut by Zuko trudging off to find Azula. Azula promptly throws her brother in the basement with Katara.
So Iroh turns to Team Avatar. Toph’s stoked to see her old friend, but the others have misgivings. They haven’t seen Iroh since “The Chase,” but his desperate plea and Toph’s word convinces them to go after Zuko and stop Azula. Aang and Iroh begin their dig into the catacombs of old Ba Sing Sae. Here Aang gets some of that Iroh wisdom. Aang is concerned that he left Pathik before perfecting The Avatar State, and that said decision is wrong, Iroh offers a counterpoint, “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love.” It’s a statement that cuts across Azula’s motives, and demonstrates why Iroh continues to work against the Fire Nation.
Katara gets to have her own heart to heart with Zuko. She’s (rightfully) pissed that once again the Fire Nation royal family is here to destroy all progress made by Team Avatar. Zuko’s recalcitrant, he’s sick of being the target of ire from all sides, and he lashes out at Katara noting that he’s lost his mother to this fight. But so has Katara, and the two can commiserate over their grief, and it gives Katara time to reflect on her situation.
Katara notes that her rage at Zuko is because he’s the “face of the enemy.” It’s a comment that digs deep into his pain. That he will always be marked, and condemned, as someone other in all fields. His shame is one his face, it is his identity, and nothing can change that, except maybe Katara can. She could use the spirit water to help Zuko, it’s another moment of empathy to our doomed prince, but one that can’t be acted upon as Azula intercedes.
Here the final battle begins. In Old Ba Sing Sae Katara and Aang square off against Azula. The fight is close, but our heroes appear to get the upper hand, then Zuko interrupts the proceedings. We are once again treated to the Western-genre eye glint as sides are shaped up, and Zuko attacks Katara and changes the course of the battle. There’s only one way out for Aang. To give up his earthly connections and enter the Avatar State. He turns from Katara, meditates and begins to glow.
Azula doesn’t play fair however, and she strikes Aang with a bolt to the back, seemingly killing him. His body, ragged, falls to the floor, he’s lost. Azula is triumphant, and all Team Avatar can do is retreat. With the group on the back of Appa, Aang healed by the spirit water, and Ba Sing Sae falling from view, only one conclusion can be made. The Earth Kingdom has been conquered. After a season of failure failure Team Avatar loses everything.
Odds & Ends
- This is the last episode of the show to feature Mako as the voice of Iroh. Luckily it’s again one of his best, as he gets the cocksure intonations of demonstrating his dragon breath and his desperate plea with Zuko over the titular line.
- The show has always gotten major use out of Zuko’s differing profiles, here is just the most extreme example as each side of his face is cut to as he contemplates his choice.
- I do enjoy that the house Toph wrecked is still wrecked when they return.
- Ty Lee’s amusement by Sokka is endearingly odd. I guess there’s no lady in the world who wouldn’t swoon for boomerang man.
- What’s smart about Zuko’s betrayal is that it isn’t truly a betrayal. Certainly the wrong decision, but the one that can finally open up his understanding of how he fits into the Fire Nation royal family. And it meets his joining up with Team Avatar in “The Western Air Temple” that much more delightful.