In Which We Will Be Changed Like Sand in the Sea
From a macro perspective “The Beach” seems like a perfectly normal episode of the show. It has an A and B-plot, it’s got a big action scene, it follows up on some narrative threads that have been dangling for a few episodes, and it fleshes out some of our side characters. So all in all an episode of Avatar. Not so fast, upon further inspection “The Beach” might rank as the strangest entry in the series. With one exception this is the show at its most self-effacing, blatantly anachronistic, and aware of how the show relates to itself and the fans. Without the structural games of something like “Tales of Ba Sing Sae,” “The Beach” enters pantheon status for its willingness to both lay bare its conceit and play the tropes its sending up completely straight.
So Ozai wants to send the teens away for the week so he can work out attack plans with the top military brass. This means Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are off to Ember Island for some enforced R&R. Zuko’s a bit prickly about the situation, after all his actions in Ba Sing Sae were meant to bring him closer to his father, not alienate him further from his family, but the group decides to make the best of it. So they willfully indulge in some truly teen activities on the island. Tossing aside their identities as royalty to find a sense of something close to normalcy.
So away to the crashing waves and shifting sands for our gang of moody teens, and what meets them on the shore is series of teen movie tropes so ripe that they’ll be fit to burst at a moment. Now normally if a show were going to parade us through the expected beats of a teen flick or anime I would be the first to roll my eyes and question the necessity of doing such a thing. Do we really need jock and nerd jokes about the boys’ of the beach thirsting after Ty Lee? Do we really need some Zuko and Mai are emo goofs? Or perhaps a few routines on how Azula can’t interact with people?
On the whole the answer might be no, but the genius of this episode is that it turns such shenanigans into a bedrock for our Fire Nation teens to be built upon. We see how these characters and personalities clash with what is expected from the usual Fire Nation adolescent, and are able to learn about their machinations and what makes them tick. It’s once again another facet of the first half of the season’s overriding theme: that the people in the Fire Nation are in fact people.
To do this “The Beach” first just totally breaks the universe of Avatar. I’ve frequently noted that the writers and showrunners have indulged in, let’s say, elastic anachronisms for their work. This is frequently to the extent of telling a certain joke or working out an extended riff on idea. The best example being the Earth Rumble competition from “The Blind Bandit.” While conceptually a bending bought with high flying characters is not out of the realm of possibility in the Four Nations, the specific homages to wrestling and real world people certainly are. It’s not a problem if executed at a high enough level or done with enough craft, but its certainly noticeable when it happens.
And boy do the anachronisms run fast through “The Beach.” To nail the tone of a teen movie/anime the writers concede a bit of the world’s reality for a bit of formal play, it works because of the emotions and stories dug out of the characters, but it also succeeds because it allows the creators of the show to play around a little bit in their own little what if scenarios. “The Beach” is the closest we’ll get to a fanfiction AU of these characters coming from the canon source, and in that way it’s extremely enjoyable. So yes I will allow the fact that everyone is wearing modern swimwear, plays volleyball, and eats perfectly scooped ice cream from the boardwalk for two reasons. It’s funny, and it pays off over the campfire later.
We get to see our moody fire teens bounce around the parodic landscape of adolescent life. Ty Lee is immediately bombarded by background actors from The OC as various boys try to vie for attention. Zuko and Mai struggle to break out of their particularly emo personalities to have a “good” time. Zuko fumbles this as he is wont to do by giving Mai a seashell that she doesn’t and spilling ice cream on her.
Azula notices a spritely game of Kuai Ball occurring, and decides to rope in her comrades for some sporting fun. Of course Azula can never keep anything purely in the fun category and decides to use her militaristic personality to annihilate her opponents. Leading to the delightful exclamation of, “Yes! We defeated you for all time! You will never rise from the ashes of your shame and humiliation!” The group’s antics eventually catch the eyes of some local cool guys, and our Fire Nation foursome are invited to the hippest party on the island.
They of course flub this experience with flying colors. Azula tries to flirt with the local hottie, and eventually just outs herself with the classic come-on of, “Together you and I will be the strongest couple in the entire world! We will dominate the Earth!” Ty Lee gets overwhelmed by courters and paralyzes them, and Zuko and Mai get in a tiff that ejects the group from the party.
From here Zuko returns to his family’s old vacation home to reminisce, aware that the seemingly great and distant past of his childhood was not altogether that long ago, but life frequently has a different course, one of completely relentless change. Such vexations in life lead to a bonfire confessional from our teen squad. Zuko challenges Mai on her resignation, and she notes that life as the daughter of a parochial politician lead her to sullen behavior. Ty Lee expounds on how life as one of seven sisters drove her to the circus to the stand out.
Things get interesting when Zuko spills his guts. He’s still mad, furious at the world around him, but he can’t explicate why. His rage is pent up and aimed inwards, he’s a man who has gotten seemingly everything he’s wanted, and nothing has made it worthwhile in return. Azula’s self diagnosis is more terse: she’s a controlling monster, even identified so by her mother, but she knows who she is, and it lets her remain in power. With these burdens laid out under the stars we have completed the teen movie confessional, a fantasy infused reckoning on the level of the breakfast club. With such catharsis reached, the fire squad goes back to the party and just wrecks the house. Which honestly is a bit weird, but I’ll let them have their fun.
What of Team Avatar this week. Well there’s mostly one thing that happens, because of Aang’s carelessness he gets spotted by some Fire Nation soldiers, word gets out of his presence, and the mercenary Zuko hired is finally on The Gaang’s trail. So welcome Combustion Man to the fold, he can blow stuff up with his mind.
This little plot lets a spectacular bit of action play out as Team Avatar tries to evade the explosives sent their way by Combustion Man. Aang does a routine of hard to get that solve slo-mo flips and full body rock disguises, he eventually has to turn to tail and run, but it’s a beautiful piece of work from the animators, letting out hero use every power at his disposal to escape capture. There’s nothing really thematically rich here, but the literal fireworks serve as an excellent tonal counterpoint to the more character focused segments with Zuko and the crew. It’s also a promise of more thrilling action to come.
Odds and Ends
- It must be said that this episode is probably the cause of a lot of, let’s say, horny thoughts about our Fire Nation characters. It’s an odd framing to see people like Ty Lee and Zuko so explicitly sexualized by the show, even for the sake of a joke poking fun at anime. So I’m going chalk this one up to a draw.
- “That’s a sharp outfit, Chan. Careful. You could puncture the hull of an empire-class Fire Nation battleship, leaving thousands to drown at sea, because it’s so sharp.”
- The final “freeze frame” has to be another nod to movie like Breakfast Club.
- This episode is an important building block for Mai and Ty Lee’s eventual betrayal of Azula. Her constant and wheedling need to manipulate her friends will eventually backfire. She’s a person with incredible power, but that power is extremely brittle.