Re-Avatar State: “The Puppetmaster” & “Nightmares and Daydreams”

The Puppetmaster

Third time’s the charm for this particular format of the show. Once again we have an episode of the third season that focusses on Katara and demonstrates that life in the Fire Nation is more varied and textured than the audience was lead to believe. Where “The Painted Lady” and “The Runaway” were more uneven entries of the show, “The Puppetmaster” is one of its best singular stories. Another sterling example of the show doing an extended genre riff to amazing ends, bending the form of the show to explore the possibilities of the world.

Here the show leans towards the grotesque as it dives in deep to the fringe ends of what bending can accomplish. The tone is hit right off the bat with a series of campfire stories told by Team Avatar. Sokka fumbles, but Katara scores a scary slam with her chilling tale. With the group on edge the group is primed to be spooked by the sudden appearance of Hama, a kindly old innkeeper from the local village. She offers them a place to rest as there’s tell of people going missing in the woods.

So The Gaang takes Hama’s offer of hospitality, but things seem off. First of all is the chill in the town about the missing people during the full moon, and the other is Hama. Her odd comment of “mysterious town for mysterious kids” has set off alarm bells in Sokka’s mind. He decides to do a bit of investigating in her inn. All he finds is a cupboard of marionettes and a locked room with a box in it. In the box is just a comb, here Hama steps in to explain. She’s a castaway from the Southern Water Tribe, lost in the middle of the Fire Nation.

This revelation immediately swings Sokka and Katara around on Hama. She represents a world lost to them by the Fire Nation. Many of the episodes this season have reinforced the idea that the Fire Nation is not just a country of cruel fascists, but Hama’s tale is one of explicit genocide. While not a grand destruction comparable to that of the Air Nomads, the suffering of the Water Tribes. The whittling down of the waterbenders from the south is in its own way a form of cultural annihilation, a ghastly move by a military already inclined to act in a monstrous way.

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This story twines Katara and Hama together, and the two decide to engage in some waterbending practice while the rest of Team Avatar investigates the mysterious disappearances in the town. Hama’s lesson has one central idea with ever expanding ramifications. Water is an integral part of the world, and as an element it exists everywhere. Katara notes how she escaped from the wooden box in “The Runaway,” her sweat is just as good a source for bending as a river or a lake. Hama takes it further, pulling moisture from the air and the flowers. The power of a waterbender is greater than one would think.

On the detective side of the group we find out that there’s one survivor of being kidnapped, one Old Man Ding. So Team Avatar goes to question him, and he reveals that a force took over his body and forced him to the mountain. With a guide to follow the group hurries to the mountain and discovers a prison for the townsfolk. Kept as a form of torture, not by a spirit, but Hama herself.

It turns out that the elderly waterbender has one malevolent power up her sleeves: bloodbending. The ability to use the water in ones body to control them. People are merely vessels for control under the full moon, and this is the skill that Hama used to escape from her Fire Nation captors, and the kidnapping of the townsfolk is her vengeance for years of torture. It’s her gift to Katara, an ability to dominate her enemies and literally bend them to her will.

Bloodbending is one of the show’s great inventions. An idea that exists as the logical conclusion of what the magical martial arts in the Four Nations can do. The perfect example of idle speculation about the central conceit of the magic inherent in Avatar. If firebenders can make lightning, and earthbenders can change metal, what in the world can a waterbender do? We know they can manipulate the water in plants, and pull water from clouds, so why not bring this together in the form of moving the water within the body.

So now we have Hama the bloodbender, a frightening combination of witch, vampire, and werewolf. A person who’s justified rage at her captors has turned her ability into one of pure horror. The terror of bloodbending is heightened by the show’s limitations. Here we see contorting limbs, throbbing veins, and a nauseating sound mix that includes squelching and sloshing. All wicked implication at the fear and pain one must feel.

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We then get our first major showdown between waterbenders since the end of the first season. It becomes more a contest of deflection as the rest of The Gaang barges in and Aang and Sokka become the playthings for Hama. This finally forces Katara to indulge in Hama’s lesson and bloodbend her to incapacitation. It’s an intense moment of violation, where Katara finally realizes the power that resides within her. The question than becomes will she use said power.

This is the moral quandary raised by the end of the episode. Is Hama’s use of bloodbending justifiable? Certainly the conditions she lived in were crimes against humanity, and if not directly responsible the citizens of her town are complicit. But removing one’s ability to act for themselves as a form of retributive torture doesn’t seem to actually resolve Hama’s grief. Indeed the weight she carries seems to be a burden that she wants to spread. Passing the concept of bloodbending to Katara as a kind of moral curse. That to use it is to strip one’s humanity away.

This episode also succeeds where “The Painted Lady” and “The Runaway” got tripped up by telling a complete and thoughtful contained story that also calls backwards and forward in the story. We see how the Fire Nation ship in the premiere became grounded, we get why Katara could be blinded by respect for somebody from her culture, and the conceptual ground here opens the world up to even greater possibilities. It’s the best use of an episodic story. Deepening the world while telling a singular narrative.

So what will Katara do. Bloodbending is the legacy of war for the Southern Water Tribe, and what she does with it may determine her future.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Tress MacNeille gives tenderness and menace to Hama. Quite the departure from her most famous roles like Dot from Animaniacs and the variety of Springfield residents in The Simpsons.
  • One big gripe is Hama loudly proclaiming that Katara is a bloodbender at the end. It’s an unneeded button that also weirdly blows Team Avatar’s cover and is never commented upon. Like Katara’s reaction is enough to get the idea across.
  • I enjoy that Aang still greatly dislikes Water Tribe food.
  • This episode did air the week of Halloween in the US.
Spoiler

  • Of course the use of bloodbending becomes the moral line that needs to be contended with in “The Southern Raiders”.

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Nightmares and Daydreams

At last the day of the invasion has come, except it hasn’t. Despite Sokka’s kvetching about time management it appears that Team Avatar has arrived ahead of schedule. This gives The Gaang some time to get things ready for the attack. Recoup after their myriad misadventures, and put the final touches on their invasion plans.

Unfortunately for Aang this also means there’s plenty of time to reflect on the situation at hand and how he’s not prepared for the upcoming battle. The audience, being aware of how many episodes are left in the season, can immediately identify that Aang is right. He’s not quite at the level needed to battle the Firelord in direct combat. He’s still yet to actually accomplish any form of firebending, and even if the oncoming invasion is a success, there’s always the chance that he could slip in a fight.

Thus Aang gets the jitters. He can’t sleep, he’s plagued by cartoonish dreams that exacerbate the core problems he’s facing. Every time he closes his eyes to get his requisite winks he’s met by the visage of Ozai, picking apart every minute detail of Aang’s presentation. In his first dream The Firelord mockingly notes that Aang is indeed missing his pants, and in the followup Ozai notes that Aang forgot to study for his math test.

While these specific instances of terror are quite silly they have a real impact on Aang. Specifically a stress loop. Where his fear over what he’s missing is increasing his already strained mental state. Despite the absolute goofiness this episode indulges in, the point made is rather cogent. That our minds get hung up on the details (like Sokka being unable to climb a wall or Toph needing a bathroom break) rather than confront the big problem at hand. Aang’s real issue is that he hasn’t finished his training, but that’s not a fact he’s fully ready to accept.

The rest of Team Avatar tries a variety of therapeutics. Katara offers some hot yoga, Sokka goes full Freud with his Wang Fire beard (surprisingly versatile that thing), and Toph attempts to stamp it out with some good old earth pillars. Alas such remedies are of no use, as Aang conjures up his worst nightmare. A truly haunting vision of dying friends, claustrophobic spaces, and most of all the approaching comet.

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This leads to another bought of staying awake, which of course leads to hallucinations. But isn’t a talking Appa and Momo worth not sleeping. The climax of this episode is perhaps the single silliest thing that the show has ever done, but it’s bracing in its audacity and visual oddity. In the throes of his meltdown Aang conjures up the vision of his two trusted animal companions in a heated Samurai duel. It’s a moment of sheer meta-textual power from the showrunners, filling the skirmish with as many references as possible. Momo is dressed like Miyamoto Usagi from the Usagi Yojimbo comics, he scratches his chin like Toshiro Mifune, the fight between Momo and Appa greatly recalls the duel with General Grievous from Revenge of the Sith. It’s a moment where the viewer either rolls with the oddity or doesn’t. I find it fun because even in the sillier moments of the show its way out of the normal scope of joke.

This freakout leads to the rest of Team Avatar building a bed for Aang, and consoling him on what the future might hold. Now is not the time for the fear of failure, we must approach the challenge, and do what we can. It’s enough of a comforting sentiment that Aang drifts off to slumberland.

Also resting comfortably is Zuko. After a few flare ups in the previous episodes he seems to have fully settled into a life of royal charm and inclusiveness. He’s waited on hand and foot by servants, offered a palanquin to go a mere few yards to see Mai, and is at long last invited by his father’s request into the war chamber.

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Here is what Zuko has been waiting for, the moment he is anointed Prince by his father for his participation. Yet the experience leaves him hollowed-out. He felt nothing by being the right-hand man to his father. It is the moment where he realized that conditional acceptance from his father might not be worth it, that sacrificing his identity is indeed a greater loss. “During the meeting, I was the perfect prince. The son my father wanted. But I wasn’t me.” Zuko might be Ozai’s son, but he was raised by Iroh, and those lessons go far deeper.

While Aang’s story does grab on to some conceptually interesting ideas about stress, and presents them in an interesting way, it does reveal fully my main frustration with this section of the show. The opening salvo of the third season contains many delights for a watcher at home, but together they don’t really cohere into a narrative piece with forward momentum. This isn’t me ragging on the idea of contained stories or more character focussed episodes, but an expression of disappointment that the show seems to, for a moment, drop the larger threads of the story for Team Avatar between the premiere and this entry. One of the show’s two major ticking clocks is set to go off, the narrative fire that pushed us to this point has been deliberately set aside.

I’m not against a breather, but the whole second half of the second season was animated by the concept of the invasion, it’s just odd for that mostly to be dropped here. This is the only episode since the premiere to actually contend with prep work for that big event, and honestly I would have loved to see more of it, especially if it involved Team Avatar actively interacting with the Fire Nation populace to achieve that goal

Odds and Ends

  • Bunch more references to account for here:
    • In his first dream Aang is styled after Goku and Ozai looks a bit like Bowser from the Mario franchise.
    • In his second dream Aang is dressed like Vash the Stampede from Trigun. He also does a bit of a Naruto run.
    • Throughout the episode there are design references to things like FLCL and Samurai Champloo. To those in the know FLCL was required watching for the team making Avatar.
  • I do like that Mai and Zuko seem to have a stable relationship all things considered.
  • Also I love that Sokka has to prove he can climb up the side of a cliff.
  • Glad that Mark Hamill gets to be funny for a change in the series.