How do you build back up after tearing everything down? Eventually all great storytellers arrive at this problem, one that’s so difficult to solve that many just tumble through it and let things be. Hell George R. R. Martin is still having to dig himself out of the narrative hole cause by a A Storm of Swords. The issue still stands, how do we reconfigure our story after radical changes to the circumstances of our characters. It’s a delicate balance to find and, unfortunately for Avatar, the show doesn’t really strike it.
That’s not to say “The Awakening” is bad, but it’s the only season premiere that feels functional above all else. After the bang of the second season finale the third season premiere is a bit like compulsory cleanup. Tightening up the corners of our narrative world and setting the table for the final act of the show. It’s important work that needs to be done to get from point A to point B, but it’s also not particularly thrilling television. Especially compared to the events that led up to this point.
“The Awakening” also indulges in one of the more aggravating tropes of serialized storytelling, which is that of our hero rejecting the new status quo of the narrative and blundering off in a fashion that endangers his friends. Look, I get it, the writer’s want to demonstrate the difficulty of accepting the new circumstances of the world, but there’s got to be a better way that doesn’t feel like narrative wheel spinning.
Here we find Aang waking up on a Fire Nation ship. First he’s flustered by his surrounding, but he soon realizes that Hakoda and Team Avatar have commandeered the vessel and are traveling the seas in disguise. Aang’s been out for a few weeks, accompanied by a sick new hairdo, and is slow on the pickup for the situation. According to Sokka the Solar Eclipse invasion is still a go, but this time with a smaller group of people and a more tactical approach. Aang is despondent because once again he feels like he has failed the world, and even Sokka’s promise of future military encounters doesn’t liven the mood.
Aang struggles coming to the terms with the fact that once again the world thinks he’s dead, it’s a great advantage for taking on the Fire Nation, but it’s incredibly self destructive for his sense of being. After so much, he wants to feel like he matters to the world and stand out as a messiah that people can look up to. This impulse is driving a wedge between him and the rest of Team Avatar, and even pushes him to fly off on his own for a deluded quest to take down Ozai now.
The problem with this set-up is we know that it’s bad, and that nothing will come of it. This is the first episode of the season: of course Aang will fail, learn his lesson, and reunite with The Gaang. While a visit from Roku and Yue is appreciated in giving Aang some understanding it still isn’t enough for this escape to the rote formatting of the character arc.
Much more interesting stuff is brewing in the Fire Nation capitol. Zuko is greeted home with a hero’s welcome. He and Mai have rekindled their romantic interests and there seems to be stability in his life for the first time. But this is Zuko and Azula we’re talking about, and of course things are thrown out of whack immediately. When Zuko confronts Ozai for the first time since his banishment he learns that his father has an interesting interpretation of the events in Ba Sing Sae. From Ozai’s perspective Zuko was the one to land the killing blow on Aang, not Azula.
Zuko smells a trap immediately and confronts Azula about the situation. Once again Zuko has been played by his sister. If Aang is still alive than Zuko will take the fall for his failure to snuff out the Avatar. So Zuko is put on a precarious path with Azula’s insurance plan against him: if Zuko wavers just a bit outside the accepted story he’s once again the prince of shame and dishonor. Life back at home seems like it will be the same old story, terror and familial plots.
With Zuko on edge and Team Avatar now hiding out in the Fire Nation the stage is set for our third act. Will our heroes gather the intel needed to execute the invasion? How will Zuko cope with his new circumstances? And what of Aang’s hair, should he keep the look?
Odds and Ends
- How do you think Team Avatar’s conversation with Pipsqueak and The Duke about Jet went?
- I do love that the serpent from “The Serpent’s Pass” reappears, it’s a clever bit of world building that shows our characters retracing their steps. Thank you the universe indeed.
- Katara’s tiff with Hakoda is such a bewildering character decision to put in at this juncture. She’s come to terms with her father being gone multiple times in the past seasons.
- Ozai’s face is finally revealed, and smartly there is nothing that notable about it. He’s handsome and intense, but not unique in any visually discernible way.
- When Zuko confronts Azula there’s an odd tension. I wouldn’t call it sexual exactly, but certainly a feeling of familial rot as we see Azula for the first time without makeup.
- The captain of the rival Fire Nation ship mentions Ember Island, a place we’ll become intimately familiar with by the end of this season.
- One of the reasons this premiere is the weakest of the three to me is that there isn’t much established here that comes back in a huge way. We’ve got Ember Island, Azula’s lie, and a few scatted character details. Once again playing into the functional element.
If “The Awakening” felt like an extended bit of throat clearing than “The Headband” gives a much clearer image of what this season of the show will actually look like. That’s a bit of a surprising statement considering “The Headband” is more of a one-off comedic entry in the series. Indeed the tone here feels more in line with something like “Avatar Day,” but I think a more important goal is established: humanizing the people of the Fire Nation as a group of individuals rather than just members of the royal family or military.
In that regard “The Headband” excels, demonstrating that life in the Fire Nation is not a world of total alienation, but instead a world of people living under the boot of fascism. It doesn’t mean that the citizenry aren’t completely without sin in their compliance with the order of the day, but that their lives are ruled by fear and propaganda. That judging the populace based on the worse atrocities of a nation’s rulers is bad business for the Messiah.
Also “The Headband” is a lovely little lark, an ode to both Footloose and a variety of anime school tropes. Once again through the cross cultural references in a blender and concocting a unique result. “The Headband” is also incredibly funny, containing two of the show’s most iconic gags while demonstrating that the laughs don’t have to come at the expense of characterization or thoughtful world building.
So, deep in enemy territory The Gaang needs some new looks. They steal some clothes to blend in with their surroundings. Aang’s visited the Fire Nation before, but his social graces are seriously out of date as he greets every passerby with a “my hotman.” Sticking out isn’t great for blending in, especially when it turns out the clothes Aang snatched are the uniform for a local school. As such the truancy officers come a calling and throw him into the class room where he’s got to learn the ropes of Fire Nation education.
Here we get a nice glimpse into the not so subtly indoctrination process that the Fire Nation youth go through. They pledge allegiance to the Fire Lord, learn trumped up history about how the Air Nomads had an army, and are forced into rigorous control from a staff that forbids things like dancing and self-expression. Aang’s free flying attitude clashes with the culture of school. He endears himself to the outcasts, but finds himself at odds with bullies. Luckily those bullies are nothing compared to Aang’s dexterous movements as he’s able to avoid a fight even if he is punished for it.
The punishment is a parent-teacher conference under the supervision of Wang and Sapphire Fire, Sokka and Katara in outlandish getup. There isn’t much to add to what is arguably the show’s greatest joke, but it makes me laugh every time. Sokka’s hesitation when announcing their fake names, the principal’s credulous response, it all works so well.
Aang decides to further liberate his class mates by holding a dance party, and the results are pretty spectacular. Aang gets to school the students on traditional Fire Nation culture while also presenting a vision of life outside of strict social norms. It also allows the animators to flex their muscles as they have hosts of people participating in some fancy footwork. It all comes together as Aang and Katara dance in a manner that reminds us of their waterbending.
Alas all good things come to an end, the teachers have arrived to break up the shindig, but not without one last burst of solidarity. As Aang escapes his classmates pull a Spartacus and each put on a headband so the headmaster can’t pick out Aang in a crowd. It once again demonstrates that Aang’s abilities extend beyond just prolific bending skills, but also the ability to mend communities.
Zuko isn’t feeling as chipper as Aang though. Azula’s plots have once again interfered with his well being, cutting into his date time with Mai and causing him many a sleepless night. This has caused him to visit Iroh in prison. Zuko unleashes his pent up feelings on his uncle, calling him cowardly and a failure. But these verbal abuses aren’t really for Iroh, they’re for Zuko and his inability to move past the decision he made in Ba Sing Sae, how can he be sure that it was the right one. Iroh does not respond, instead letting Zuko sit with his decision.
He can’t put his mind to rest, and Zuko hopes that a visit to a menacing mercenary will solve his problems. Odds are that is doesn’t.
Odds and Ends
- According to the Avatar Wiki this episode contains only the second instance of Zuko laughing, which is hilarious.
- Also full new looks for The Gaang. They each been styled to look older than before (even though this is only a few weeks forward in the story). Katara gets the most dramatic overhaul as she lets he hair down. Sokka’s bun is now adorned with hair on either side.
- Aang takes the name Kuzon in this episode. The name of an old firebending friend lost to the mists of time. In “The Blue Spirit” Aang uses Kuzon as an example of possible friendship between him and Zuko.
- Of course Sokka is impressed with the noodle art.
- While not an issue with this episode in particular, the befuddling thing about the first half of Book Three is how oddly disconnected things are from another. I can’t tell if the writers wanted a return to a more episodic format, or use it as an opportunity to hone in on singular ideas, nevertheless it makes the return to this run of the show odd, even if it does contain a few of its most indelible moments.