In Which Pants Are an Illusion, Just Like Death
In a random episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer the character Xander recalls many of the misadventures he’s had over the course of the series. The fact that he both accidentally got wrapped up in a were-hyaena group and was brainwashed into a cult paramilitary. These comments are tossed off and mostly a joke on the character’s ineptitude, but it points to one of the reasons that show was so incredibly beloved. Every detail, no matter how trivial or overall inconsequential, has happened in the show and the characters can reflect upon it. Those moves can be considered mostly fan service, throwing the viewer a bone for their commitment, but it demonstrates that the writers are aware of the world they created.
More than any entry in the show “The Day of Black Sun” is a display of all the accrued details that have been gathered from the past fifty episodes. For the dedicated viewer this the great reward for pushing through the more middling episodes of the program, because now it feels like those pieces did in fact matter. That the random misadventures of Team Avatar had a greater impact that we could have first guessed. That our gang of heroes actually fulfilled their heroic duty, binding disparate people in the world together to fight for a common cause.
Not since the season one finale of the show have the stakes been so huge and dramatic. Certainly “The Crossroads of Destiny” is a linchpin for the series, but that episode is relatively contained compared to the other blockbuster entires of the show. Here we have Avatar at its grandest and most sweeping. An epic struggle for the fate of the world with huge amounts of people on either side of the battlefield, and even though nobody actually bites it in this outing there’s a palpable sense of dread to the proceedings. That things can and will go south for our heroes fast.
First we are greeted with a triumphal return of a myriad of characters that made short appearances beforehand. There’s Haru and his village, The Mechanist and Tao, The Boulder and The Hippo, and the Swampbenders. In the premiere Sokka promised a ragtag group of people to help in the invasion, and that promised is fulfilled with the multitude of supporting players that show up. It may be fan service for the people who diligently watched every episode, but it also demonstrates the real impact The Gaang had on the world.
This recollection of previous encounters doesn’t just end with people showing up to fight the good fight. The reappearance of The Mechanist also allows the show to tie up one of its oldest loose ends. Sokka is able to construct some steampunk submarines with the help of the tinkerer, but his presence also lays the groundwork for the conclusion of the episode. The confluence of all these characters and concepts lays the groundwork for the show stopping material that is contained in the episode. Despite past successes and failures, this is the biggest do or die moment yet.
Because of this Sokka’s a bit on edge, and flubs his war speech (and gives a bit of a recap of the first season along the way) before Hakoda steps in and rallies the troop. This bit of public face planting riles up Sokka’s fears about the invasion. Aang steps in to comfort him, noting that his mettle won’t be tested by his speech performance, but his tactical hand on the battlefield. So the stage is set for the attack, the main force pushing in to secure the capital with Aang going ahead to fight Ozai head on.
Thus proceeds the show’s only true example of pure warcraft between two distinct armies. We’ve gotten tastes in episodes like “Siege of the North” and “The Drill,” but there it mostly boiled down to what Team Avatar was able to pull off. This is an all hands on deck scenario, and the truest evocation of what conflict in this century long war might actually entail.
First is the surprise landing involving the subs. I mentioned in “The Northern Air Temple” that Avatar slid gracefully into the steampunk milieu, the return of The Mechanist only heightens Avatar’s entry into the format. The whale subs are also a delightful bit of design, propelled by waterbenders, but not futuristic enough to properly vent and circulate air underwater.
With the armada on the beaches, the second phase of attack begins. Now we’ve got earthbending caterpillar shields that can deflect direct attacks and protect the non-bending Water Tribe soldiers. Sokka and Katara play points by taking out guard towers and armaments, and when Hakoda gets knocked out it’s time for Sokka to step up to the plate. Sokka’s skill at speech obviously pale in comparison as a leader. With Hakoda knocked out Sokka is able to reconfigure his troops and begin the final push towards the palace before the eclipse truly gets rolling.
Yet there’s something amiss. In the lead up to the invasion we are constantly cutting back to Zuko, calm, quiet and reserved. It’s one of the few times in the show where he doesn’t seem overtly tortured by his ongoing thought process. He collects his things and writes his goodbyes to Mai. Everything is hushed, indeed too hushed. When Aang knocks down the place doors he’s greeted by nobody. The royal retinue has absconded off to some unknown location, they were prepared for the attack.
Aang returns to the main force to share his news, and the plan gets quickly reworked. The invasion will still go and secure the city, but now a splinter group of Toph, Sokka, and Aang will try to locate the Firelord in an underground bunker. Luckily Sokka’s instincts prove right again, and indeed the Royal family has sequestered themselves in a cave underneath the volcano. With the eclipse starting the group is on the clock to try and suss out Ozai and try to win the day.
Deep in the bunker our heroes actually stumble upon a more challenging foe in the form of Azula. She’s aware that the firebending is off, but decides to play a game of cat and mouse with the trio by forcing them to fight some Dai Li agents she’s brought home from Ba Sing Sae. But it’s a ruse, she’s just here to run out the clock while Ozai sits comfortably elsewhere.
Ozai has problems of his own though. Zuko at long last confronts his father, and with the momentary respite from firebending speaks his mind. Over the past few episodes Zuko has truly come to understand his position in the world. That he is the product of abuse, and that any love from Ozai is purely transactional. Affection as a reward for compliance, Zuko searched for that love, and did not find it in his father, but instead in Iroh. Of course Iroh and Zuko clashed, but even in Zuko’s darkest moments Iroh was always an arbiter of grace and understanding. Ozai is only a mechanism for control and abuse.
“For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor I wanted, but really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me, a thirteen-year-old boy, to an Agni Kai. How could you possibly justify a duel with a child?” This statement from Zuko clarifies the arc of his life. He is of the Fire Nation, and indeed a child is hard pressed to sort out the emotions of imperial rule and domestic tribulation. Still Zuko admits what he has learned, that what he was looking for was merely love from his own family. With this Zuko renounces his father and states his aim to join Aang.
This pushes Ozai to the edge, and the Firlord decides to use some of that manipulative magic to hold Zuko in his own thrall. He describes how Ursa came to be banished. How she killed Azulon to make sure Zuko lived and ensured Ozai received the throne, how these “vicious and treasonous things” came to transpire all for Zuko to live. Yet Ozai fails to understand that he is making Zuko’s point. Ursa acted in love for her child, while he acted in ambition for power.
Still this speechifying is one last attempt to kill his only son, as soon as the eclipse clicks by Ozai shoots Zuko with lightening. But this time Zuko is prepared. His mind is cleared and emotions balanced. He’s not screaming at God to strike him down, and he redirects the bolt back at his father. Rarely has the show been so explicitly dramatic about it’s daddy issues, but boy does it play like gangbusters in the moment.
Azula has obviously learned well from her father, and is able to keep Sokka, Toph, and Aang at bay by baiting Sokka with information about Suki. It’s a striking moment to see Sokka struggle with what he knows is a trap with his love for an individual. So Azula mocks, taunts, and teases our tactician right until the moment she can bend her way out of the situation. Things are swiftly approaching the level of calamity reached at Ba Sing Sae.
Still the invading forces have held the palace, and they might be able to rally and fight, if it weren’t for one pesky thing. So long ago the Fire Nation discovered The Mechanist’s war balloon, and now that seed has fully blossomed into a terrifying air based battalion. With a league of zeppelins hanging over the city the Fire Nation retaliates and drives out the invaders. Aang tries to knock out a few of the balloons, but the group is overwhelmed, they thought this would be a quick operation, not a funeral dirge fought in the sky.
So one last difficult decision must be made. Hakoda and his men offer Team Avatar an out, take the youngest soldiers and get out of dodge and let the adults be taken as POW’s. It’s again a distressing decision, but the only option available if The Gaang wants to fight another day. So they take their opportunity to escape. The invasion is another notch on their belt of failures. It seems like the world might be all wrung out, if not for the fortuitous appearance of a valuable ally.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Iroh’s friendly guard Ming is performed by legendary tennis star Serena Williams. She got this cameo by being a legitimate fan of the program and petitioning herself to play a small part. This is probably the most bonkers piece of trivia about Avatar.
- Speaking of Iroh, we don’t see his grand escape, but what Zuko finds in the aftermath suggests that it was pretty darn exciting.
- I’m happy that the soldiers used proper eclipse eyewear, which here look likes the tools used to cut down on snow blindness by native tribes living near the Arctic.
- Haru’s mustache was quite literally a joke drawing by Bryan that got into the show.
- Also, kudos to the Water Tribe for having the best military outfits.
- I will miss Aang’s hair, he just kind of looks better with it.
- As Zuko leaves his confrontation with Ozai, we are focussed on the unscarred part of his profile.
- I like that Azula can trick Toph’s lie detector.
- When I was silly child watching the show live I somehow thought this was the actual series finale. Color me surprised by the events that transpired.