The Avatar and The Firelord
There is an undercurrent in Avatar that runs through the narrative with deep implications but never becomes the primary topic of conversation for the show. In the lore of the series, The Avatar is a person who is mostly unaware of their distinction until they find out of their heritage. They are not immediately born with the knowledge of their place in history and what role they play in the world. They come to it. For Aang this transition from normal kid to Avatar was too much to bear the first time around, and it brings up the question that drills deep into the Four Nation’s messiah: is it possible to both be of the world and take action as the most powerful person on earth?
It’s a proposition that befuddled Aang in “The Guru” where he must recount what his personal connection mean, and that he must sever ties with them. It’s a question that arguably lead to his defeat at Ba Sing Sae, but Aang is not alone in his struggles, as Avatar Roku so clearly demonstrates here. Finally we learn the life and times of Roku, and how his difficulty in balancing the personal with the worldly lead to the situation our heroes find themselves in right now.
In a way “The Avatar and The Firelord” serves as a spiritual sequel to “The Storm” a story of paralleled flashbacks that provide major revelations to both the audience and characters involved in the story. It once again posits Aang and Zuko not as pure combatants, but polarized protagonists, with the narrative engine of the show propelled in equal parts by their decisions. But while the stories in “The Storm” were small and personal, “The Avatar and The Firelord” is filled with grand sweep and operatic tragedy. The tale of two friends turned bitter rivals and the world suffering the more for it.
It’s the summer solstice and Roku brings Aang to his desolated home to tell him the story of his life. In the Fire Nation capital Zuko is greeted by a mysterious note that implores him to learn the secret history of his great-grandfather Sozin. So Zuko sneaks away to the catacombs of his ancestors to read his last testament. Thus the intertwining stories begin.
You see Roku and Sozin grew up together in the Fire Nation royal court. Not as mere companions, but the deepest of friends. Sharing firebending skirmishes, confessions of crushes, and uncertainty for the future. If not for the lavish surroundings of the palace one might even believe they were normal teenage boys. But a burden lurks around every corner, for one day Sozin will be Fire Lord and both find out that Roku is the Avatar. This weight crushes down on the bonds they share, but they promise not to break their friendship. Before Roku leaves to train he receives a parting gift from Sozin, a royal headpiece.
We are then treated to a lush world of Roku’s training. His friendship with Monk Gyatso, and the trials and tribulations that it took to become a master of all the elements. This section demonstrates Roku’s growth both as a bender and as person. From the teenaged goofiness with Gyatso to a more thoughtful man by the end. This thoughtfulness creates conflict as he returns home. On the night of Roku’s wedding, Sozin confronts Roku with a proposition, use the might of the Fire Nation military and Roku’s position as Avatar to start an imperial campaign to spread the wealth of the Fire Nation to other sovereign states.
Roku is of course furious at this suggestion. He is now a man of the world and knows that such actions would disrupt the lives of too many to be justified. It is arrogance on the part of Sozin, and antithetical to the work of the Avatar. So Roku lets Sozin off with a mere stern retort, and a promise from Sozin that he will do better. He of course doesn’t. So when Roku stumbles upon an occupied Earth Kingdom city he turns on his oldest friend.
Roku confronts Sozin, and demands that his imperial impulses be shut down now or face the full wrath of the Avatar. And here is where Roku makes a key mistake. He is both of the world, but his personal connections have blurred in him what must be done. Roku merely threatens Sozin for future actions, but doesn’t take decisive steps in ensuring Sozin stays in line. It’s a fatal error, but one that makes sense. Roku is arrogant enough to believe that his status is enough to keep Sozin in check, and there is the twinge of nostalgia. The hope that the man in charge may change his ways and become the friend he had lost so many years earlier.
For a while it seems like Roku is right, but that’s before a volcano blows on his island. It’s a massive force of nature, and he takes the position that he must fight against it. The island evacuates, but Roku remains. Diverting flows of lava and noxious gas to protect his home. The event draws the eye of Sozin, who flies over on his dragon to survey the scene. In a moment of connection the two former friend bond back together as a common and dangerous goal presents itself. They battle nature itself, hand in hand as comrades once again. It’s awe inspiring to see what talent they posses, and the possibility of what can be achieved.
Unfortunately Sozin also notices this, and he realizes that this is the moment to actualize his imperial goals. He turns his back on Roku without remorse. Roku’s power is too great, and Sozin uses this opportunity to let his longest friend perish in the ash of the volcano. It’s a moment of great regret for Roku, who prized personal relationships to the detriment of the world. But what would be the right balance, did he have the right to kill Sozin, even if Sozin let him die. It’s a difficult conundrum, and one Aang will have to face head on as the showdown with Ozai approaches.
Zuko’s a little more consternated, he hasn’t learned anything new about Sozin, and he heads to Iroh for answers. Now Iroh speaks and reveals something that once again shatter Zuko’s sense of self, he is the descendent of both Roku and Sozin. He is the literalization of the conflict that has swept the Fire Nation. The balance of power and empathy rests on his countenance. It’s the sweep of history born onto a single person that once again reflects off Aang. Zuko has spent his whole life in pursuit of somebody who represents himself.
So what is Zuko to do, once again his decision at the end of the second season is called into question by this new information and Iroh’s actions. Where will he land in the lineage of his family, with The Avatar of The Firelord.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Ron Pearlman, Hellboy himself, gives Sozin a sense of grandeur and a hint of regret to his voice.
- Speaking of voices, this is the first full episode where Greg Baldwin performs as Iroh. It’s a decent enough facsimile of Mako’s stupendous work, but it’ll always feel like a copy.
- The one big gripe I have with this episode is the bathroom joke, really cuts the tension in the wrong way.
- I love that the grip of terror about The Avatar returning is a bit of family curse for Zuko.
- Really love the design of the royal portraits for the Fire Nation.
In my last piece I groused a bit about “The Painted Lady,” an episode of the show I find quite poor. In a way “The Runaway” is another go around at the structure. A contained Katara (and Toph) focussed episode with no b-plot that once again finds our heroes dallying about a random Fire Nation town. While “The Painted Lady” rubbed me the wrong way with it’s execution, “The Runaway” does a much better job at incorporating its ideas with its story without actively undermining the structure of the first half of the season.
Conflict’s brewing between Toph and Katara. Like in “The Chase” Toph is chaffing up against Katara’s more maternal notions. It’s a classic conflict between a person who wants to be unshackled from traditional responsibility and someone who wants to provide guidance for a group. So Toph starts her own little rebellion.
With the help of Aang and Sokka, Toph turns to the life of a grifter in town. Pulling fast ones with her earthbending abilities on the locals. What starts as just a scam on the scammers quickly escalates into cons on unsuspecting citizens. Yes it provides Team Avatar with some much needed fungibles, but also puts them at risk to be exposed by local law enforcement. Katara advocates for the hooliganism to stop, but Toph sees it as just another authority figure trying to intercede with her life.
Here is where this episode gets a big boost over “The Painted Lady,” we always know that Katara is concerned for the life of others, and is a mother to both the group and people they interact with. However this positioning is even stronger than she knows. In a conciliatory talk, Sokka offers some explanation for Katara, and why she frequently takes the role of caregiver. This moment is bit of a positive spin of Katara’s similarly phrased “face of the enemy” moment to Zuko. Sokka posits, “I’m gonna tell you something crazy. I never told anyone this before, but honestly? I’m not sure I can remember what my mother looked like. It really seems like my whole life, Katara’s been the one looking out for me. She’s always been the one that’s there. And now, when I try to remember my mom, Katara’s is the only face I can picture.”
It’s a moment of true grief and familial connection. Something that binds the group together with strength and fortitude, it’s why Katara matters to Team Avatar. Katara of course overhears said conversation, decides to be fun for a change and goes in on one final grift with Toph.
With Toph now wanted by the police, Katara decides to turn her in and get the reward money for the group. Unfortunately things don’t turn out the way the two hoped, as they’ve been marked by Combustion Man and tossed in a wooden cage. Now how will our heroines break out sans the usual source of elements. Katara comes up with a smart fix, her sweat can work just as well as any other source of water, and she uses it to bust out of the cell.
Meanwhile Aang and Sokka have to deal with Combustion Man himself. He’s a formidable foe, but he does have a weak spot, as a small rock right to the third eye leaves him momentarily incapacitated. But his arrival signals that the con is no longer on for Team Avatar, and that Toph’s reckless decisions, no matter how well motivated can get the group in serious trouble.
Odds and Ends
- Meet Hawkey the newest and most temporary member of the animal companions to Team Avatar. Though Sokka’s obsession with the messenger hawk is mighty funny.
- The biggest problem with this episode is the totally unneeded In Medias Res opening. I never bought that Toph and Katara’s conflict would go that far for any actual reasons.
- More great blind jokes as the team unfurls wanted posters in front of Toph.
- We see the return of the Wang Fire beard for some useful scamming.
- The one truly bizarre element of this episode is that it appears Katara is naked and bathing while hearing Sokka’s confessional. I can’t quite work out that decision besides implying a more vulnerable state for Katara, it just kind of feels off.