The Painted Lady
There’s an episode of the sci-fi show Fringe that aired in its second season, but was filmed to fulfill the order for the first season. The network thought it wasn’t worth airing the first time around, but needed an extra hour to fill later. They dusted off the shelved episode and just aired it in the middle of a different season, not accounting for the fact that the cast, characters, and the narrative situation of the show was completely different.
“The Painted Lady” feels a bit like that episode of Fringe. A story yoinked from the pre-“Blind Bandit” era of Avatar and dropped in the third season to pad out the expanded episode order that the showrunners needed to fill. If it weren’t for the presence of Toph or the Fire Nation setting, viewers could be mistaken that they were caught in the dregs of the first season of the show. Yes I’m just going to come out and say it, “The Painted Lady” easily lands in the bottom three or so episodes of the series. It’s the wrong story at the wrong time, and even its jabs at humor or interesting spirit stuff fall almost completely flat.
So we’ve got another village of the week, this time a fishing town filled with muck due to a local military refinery. Team Avatar stops by to pick up some food and are dispirited by the dismal state of affairs. Katara is moved to try and help the locals, but Sokka is much more narrow minded. He wants to stick to rigorous schedule to push things forwards to the invasion. There’s no time for dawdling in a random Fire Nation encampment.
Katara disagrees, and she goes about helping the citizens of the village while gussied up as the local spirit known as The Painted Lady. She provides food, heals the sick, and does all around good stuff for the villagers. Aang finds out and wants to join in, the two go full eco-terrorist and blow up the factory. Such noise brings the ire of the military, and the captain of the foundry is ready to crunch the village under his boot. But Team Avatar steps up together to put on a show for Katara being the Painted Lady. They beat the bad guys, reveal their bending abilities to the townsfolk, and then help clean up the river. Everything’s rosy, and oh yeah, Katara sees the real Painted Lady.
Really nothing here works. The conflict between Sokka and Katara is acutely contrived, this is the first and last time that Sokka’s anal retentive schedule keeping is mentioned before the invasion, and the last time it’s so rigorously regarded. It feels especially out of place considering that Sokka went along with Aang’s similar shenanigans just last week. Speaking of which the concept here, that the Fire Nation is not a country hegemonic brutes, was more effectively demonstrated in “The Headband” without all the heavy handed, pollution bad, moralizing that crops up here as well.
The last baffling layer to this whole thing is that there is no b-plot here. No check in with Zuko, Iroh, or Azula. No story outside the concerted singular focus on this small Fire Nation town. It’s bizarre to give so much attention to a story, and I say this without fear of spoilers, contributes nothing in the long run of the show. Instead we get a tragic misfire of an entry late in the game, luckily it’s the last of what I would call a full blown failure from the show. So I guess count your blessings.
Odds and Ends
- This episode is so inconsequential that there’s no entry in the continuity section of the Avatar wiki page.
- Even the supposed joke with Doc and Xu just expires so fast.
- The one fun detail in this episode is that Sokka’s schedule is just a print out of an animation pipeline for an episode of the show. You’ll notice there’s English words written on the paper.
If the overriding theme of the first half of season three is that, “the citizens of The Fire Nation are people too,” than “Sokka’s Master” is a much better evocation of that ideal than “The Painted Lady.” While so much of the previous entry felt like dithering for the sake of the dither, here we get a strong examination of what makes Sokka an important member of Team Avatar. “Sokka’s Master” explicates why bending isn’t the limitation one presumes of Sokka, and gives a clear sense that despite being the group clown, Sokka is also the brains of the operation.
So Team Avatar is spending an evening watching a meteor shower, and one happens to transforms into a meteorite and strikes the ground. The blast creates a brush fire that the bending members of The Gaang quickly extinguish. Sokka is left to Momo sitting duties for the time being.
This experience puts a major downer on Sokka’s mood. When he should be exuberant about the upcoming invasion, he’s tempered and morose. Vexed by the fact that he will personally never be as powerful as his traveling compatriots. Even a brief shopping spree does little to lighten the mood, as all the weapons he tries prove to be the wrong fit. That’s before he notices a perfectly crafted sword and here’s tell of the local smith and sword master Piandao. It turns out that what Sokka needs now most of all is a teacher, someone to provide direction and purpose at this difficult moment of his life.
So Sokka journeys to Piandao’s manor and offers himself up for tutelage. Where Piandao expects another cocksure brat here to challenge the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation, he instead finds Sokka, humble and in pursuit of true betterment. This demonstration of curiosity of self-effacement piques Piandao’s interest and agrees to give Sokka a chance under his wing.
What proceeds is kind of an inverse Karate Kid scenario. We’re used to our hero getting and unexpected training from a master martial artists, but here the tables have been slightly turned. Of course Piandao offers the slightly off-kilter advice that one might expect from a storied fighting master. Calligraphy translating to swordplay, painting swirling into memory, gardening a part of planning. But Sokka does something unexpected and takes each of these lessons further than Piandao anticipated. He uses his face to sign the paper, adds a rainbow to his painting, and maneuvers a garden setup into a relaxing chair.
These initiatives demonstrate to Piandao that Sokka, while not the most adept fighter, has something truly unique in the world: ingenuity. It’s the element of his character that lets him compete with his bending peers. He has ideas, concepts, and plans that works to his teammates strengths, and those factors allow him to excel past his initial goofy demeanor. It’s the reason why Sokka’s character works on a macro level where somebody like Xander from Buffy doesn’t. Yes he’s the comedic character in the core group, but he’s not there to solely cut the tension with a well timed punchline, he’s there to provide a plan for our heroes to follow.
This level of creativity if fulfilled when Sokka decides to forge his sword out of the meteorite from the first act. It’s eccentric, unique, and befitting his personality. So much so that he opts to use it in a duel with Piandao immediately. Revealing that he’s actually from the Water Tribe instead of a colonists. Thus we get the second best non-bending scuffle in the show (the throwdown between Jet and Zuko still tops the charts for me). As we see Sokka leverage his techniques against the more skilled Piandao. Because of those S&P rules sword combat is something that’s hard for the show to pull off, the blade can never cut the flesh, so the writers and directors have to be clever in how they present a straight head-to-head battle as they do here. So we a get a ballet of blades through bamboo, on ledges, and with bursts of sand, all to demonstrates Sokka’s talent.
Of course this skirmish was all for show. Piandao is man who’s above the factionalism of the Fire Nation and will let Team Avatar leave without incident. In fact Piandao shows his hand further by offering up a White Lotus piece as a parting gift. Demonstrating that he’s in a fraternity with Iroh.
Speaking of which Iroh’s plot this week is a smidge thin, though it does lay groundwork for some upcoming events. What we assumed was mere resignation and resentment is revealed to actually be a ruse, as Iroh is using his jail time to get swole. I’ll be the first to admit that buff Iroh’s design is a bit, odd. But it’s fun to see that he’s still as sharp as whip through this section.
So with space sword in hand Team Avatar goes forth into even greater unknowns in the Fire Nation.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Piandao dulcet delivery is provided by the T-1000 himself Robert Patrick.
- Piandao’s design is also based on the show’s Martial Arts consultant Sifu Kisu.
- The ridiculous outfit Aang wears in the store is a reference to the short lived toy line for the show that featured accessories and weapons never used.
- I like when Toph and Katara try to make Sokka jokes and fall completely flat.
- I enjoy that Piandao has enough awareness to know what a Water Tribe name sounds like.
- At the end Toph bends the meteorite into the shape of the Nickelodeon logo.
- Some more Lion Turtle references, here in the form of statues in Piandao’s garden.
- Of Course the White Lotus members are going to team u by the end, and Piandao will be there for the battle of Ba Sing Sae.
- Iroh is of course preparing for said event.