Re-Avatar State: “The Southern Raiders” & “The Ember Island Players”

The Southern Raiders

Katara is a fascinating figure in the world of Avatar. For what was clearly designed to be a love interest and female counterpoint to our boyish hero, Katara has evolved into a interesting personality in the realm of the story. She started as “the girl” of the group before becoming so much more, the mother and moral center of the team, but also an individual who strives to be more than that. Katara is a person who has a distinguished role, but doesn’t really want to be pigeonholed. She’s the matron and the warrior, the duality of what she can do with her waterbending powers: attack and heal.

“The Souther Raiders” is then the exemplary Katara episode, demonstrating the full breadth of her personality while also resolving the final dangling threads of character motivation that have lingered nearly from the beginning. From the series premiere we know that Sokka and Katara have been motivated against the Fire Nation because of the death of their mother. It’s the driving force that pushed the two into leadership positions not only in their tribe, but now in Team Avatar.

This grief has been a sublimated driving force for Katara, one that has forced her into being a strong bender and moral center for the group. Even if her certitude can grate (like in “Imprisoned” and “The Painted Lady”) it’s always for the benefit of people beyond the The Gaang. Our heroes have to help those in need. This emotional through line leaves open a vulnerability, Katara’s judgement can be overridden by an empathetic responses. It’s why she’s so mad at Zuko and unwilling to forgive him until this episode. She saw how he acted in Ba Sing Sae, she allowed the emotional connection of their lost mothers to flourish, and she was burned by the experience. She was caught in the tailspin of Zuko’s tumultuous growth as a person. It’s a hard thing to overcome.

All of this information is merely the groundwork for “The Southern Raiders” one of Avatar’s best and knottiest entries. It’s an episode that begins with a bang, and then slowly constricts into an emotional void: where vengeance and regret wrap together to create an unstable personality. That there might be no need to reconcile against the worst of the worst, but find forgiveness in something better.

It’s another beautiful day at The Western Air Temple, until Azula shows up and starts firebombing the place. Once again the Fire Nation military flexing their new found air superiority. The attack leaves Team Avatar out of sorts, but it’s another moment for Zuko to demonstrate his commitment to the cause. While everyone else tries to escape through an improvised tunnel, Zuko goes head-to-head with Azula in a bombastic firebending clash. Zuko’s finally caught to his sister in ability, and their match leads to a draw as they fling each other off a zeppelin.

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Zuko’s caught by Appa, and he notes that Azula might not make it, right up until she does. It’s a second of tacit understanding from the Fire Prince, he won’t exactly be happy about his sister’s demise, but it’s also not something he would actively intervene in stopping. Still Azula is Azula, and she slithers her way out of this jam.

At the new campsite Team Avatar toasts Zuko’s valiant efforts to make sure everyone survived the attacks. A vivacious affair to be certain, but Katara is still pissed. She storms off and Zuko follows. Katara rightly points out that she was the first to place trust in him, and she was the first he betrayed, and that nothing short of total reconquest of the Earth Kingdom or the resurrection of her dead mother will mend that rift.

This outburst leads Zuko to Sokka to learn the details. They aren’t pleasant. During a Fire Nation raid a soldier snuck into the Southern Water Tribe and killed the sibling’s mother. This is the moment that set the two on the path of their current life, always fighting against the moment of their mother’s death.

So Zuko offers Katara a slice of revenge. The opportunity of retribution against the man who killed her mother, a sense of closure for the most horrific act in her life. Aang is against such an action, he’s against revenge in general, believing that it would poison the soul of those acting purely out of spite, and for once Sokka kind of agrees. What good would this serve right here, right now, with the balance of the world at stake. Katara is insistent though, even putting out a stinging retort to Sokka that he, “didn’t love her the way I did!” It’s a sickening line to here, especially after Sokka’s speech in “The Runaway.”

Still Katara is not persuaded, and she joins Zuko in some ninja attire to go find the location of the titular invading force and strike down the man that did the deed. The whole sequence of the two sneaking about Fire Nation towers is a tight and impressive bit of stealth action, with Zuko revisiting the tactics of The Blue Spirit underneath another guise. The outfits also allow a bit of character work, these aren’t the usual representations of Katara and Zuko, but people with their faces covered and the look of death in their eyes.

At last they come upon a Southern Raider ship, and with moon enhanced waterbending powers Katara easily commandeers the vessel. Then we get the most shocking moment in the whole episode, as she enters the captain’s room, and Katara bloodbends him into submission. This was always option A for Katara. A moment that truly encapsulates Katara’s rage and anger, that she would go immediately to the unforgivable skill before all other possibilities. For a brief moment she tortures and contorts her enemy. Hama was right, Katara always had this power within herself, she just needed the right motivation to use it.

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Too bad that the commander isn’t the one who killed her mother. That would be Yon Rha, a man who has been retired for the past few years. Still Katara is set on her course, and stakes out the now lonely man. What she finds is rather disappointing. A hen-pecked retiree whose life seems more of a slog than enjoyable. He’s forced to the market by his mother, and stolidly returns to his home.

There on the path he’s ambushed by Katara. Here she forces to confront the fact that he killed his mother, and more to the point that he did so in vain. For Kya knew that raiders were after waterbenders, and she offered herself in the place of Katara, dying for her child. It’s a moment that reveals how the measly Yon Rha can be. How so blasé about the death of others he is, and it finally clicks with Katara what she needs to do.

In a moment Katara reveals her true might as a waterbender, stopping the rain around her, but she cannot strike Yon Rha down. For no matter how much pain he caused her, his death will not clear her mind. And even if the show doesn’t explicitly connect the two, we can see how Kya and Ursa acted in a similar way to protect their children, bearing the burden of war to save the next generation. It’s the explicit and implied connections that stop Katara, and make her realizes what she must do. She leaves Yon Rha alone, and instead forgives Zuko.

For Zuko has been the “face of the enemy” and no act of vengeance will mean as much as embracing the person you’ve used to represent all that you hate. Yon Rha was never the target of Katara’s ire, it’s always been what Zuko used to stand in for. So she gets to clear her mind of retribution and move forward with the Fire Prince. Aang is pleased as punch that Katara didn’t strike down her enemy, but he’s got a trickier problem: what to do with the Fire Lord.

Odds and Ends

  • This episode contains one the show’s most elaborate and innuendo tinged jokes. So let’s lay it out. When Zuko is goes to talk to Sokka we get the classic interrupted lovers sequence. Sokka with a rose in his mouth waiting for Suki, cute and funny. However it is implied that Suki later joined Sokka in the tent. The next day Sokka is wearing a wreath of flowers, a lei. So Sokka got lei’d. Indeed proving once and for all that Sokka fucks.
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  • Aang acknowledges that taking a field trip with Zuko is a major experience, some might say life changing.
  • I like that Jet gets a shout out, always good to remind the fallen.
  • Also this episode is a main fodder source for all the Zutara shippers, granted they have great chemistry here.

The Ember Island Players

As a series winds down there’s always a sense of trying to consider the moments that came before. What precipitated a story’s conclusion, and how so much has changed in the intervening time. There’s always an instance for a breath and consideration before jumping into the fray, or you can use that time to merciless mock yourself and tear down the internal tension of your show for a few yucks. The choice is yours.

Out of the many genre riffs, structurally distinct, and out of tune episodes that have popped in up Avatar, “The Ember Island Players” has them all beat. An impish retelling of the story we experienced with the creators of the story poking fun at their beloved creation. Our heroes become the audience, and the whole thing is sent down a meta hole that almost completely shatters the world that has been so intricately considered. Honestly it’s a bold gambit, and one that might play differently to different groups of people. Do we really need this winking victory lap that reminds the viewer of the TV show they just watched? Probably not. But darn it, ever since I first saw this I’ve found it incredibly endearing. It’s not that I will bear no critique, but the whole thing is just very funny to me, a person who’s lived with this story for fifteen years.

So as Team Avatar trains at the Royal Family’s vacation home Sokka walks in with a proposition. To see a play about themselves. The group is mostly unfazed, but Sokka wants, “he kind of wacky time-wasting nonsense I’ve been missing!” Things have been pretty stress inducing recently so the team relents, and they decide to see their life played back at them.

Now is usually where I go through some plot points and talk about the character work or world building that goes into them, but who needs a recap of a recap, and just spitting out the funnier one-liners doesn’t make for great insight. So I’ll touch on more of the extracurricular stuff here.

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Mostly the play is a parodic reinterpretation of what a fan might take from the characters. Katara is a buxom weeper preening about hope, Sokka is literally only the meat and sarcasm guy, and Aang is played by a flighty woman with only a sense for fun.  The exaggerations for Katara and Sokka are pretty excellent: especially in regards to where the show was in the first season. Katara did trend towards preaching and Sokka’s main purpose was to crack wise, it’s unflattering but a bit of reconciliation with the weaknesses at the top of the story.

Aang’s gripe with his actor being a woman has always flummoxed me. This feels much more like a remnant of mid 2000’s teen attitudes than it does with matching with how Aang is as a person. His constant berating of not being a woman kind of flies in the face of his generally accepting attitude, a baffling choice.

Toph and the reaction to her actor is the most joking of the group. It’s amusing that she loves her muscular male design and ability to echolocate. Overall a small bit of business, but one that retains its comedic bite.

The portrayal of Zuko and Iroh onstage is both one with more of a comedic bent, and some serious introspection from the Fire Prince. For the rest of Team Avatar the play is an irritating recap of their lives, for Zuko it reminds him of all the times he mistreated the man who loved him most.

Unfortunately the biggest piece of character work is some clunky romance between Aang and Katara. While their affection for one another has been handled more carefully in the final season of the show, it’s still incredibly bizarre to see Aang get so worked up and bent out of shape over the radically silly interpretation of events portrayed on stage. Does Katara really think of him as a brother, probably not considering their dance in “The Headband” and their kiss in “The Day of Black Sun.”

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As the curtain drops The Gaang is again reminded of their goal. Ozai still stands, and in the triumphant shadow of the theater his victory is cheered on by the people in the audience, there is still so much to be done.

This tension in the episode might define how one responds to it. The jokes about serious moments are frequently hilarious (“Did Jet just die?” “You Know it was really unclear”), however this may undercut some of the stakes that the show worked so hard to build. It’s a love or leave it situation, but the self mockery is fun enough for this writer to say that I approve of all the hijinks on screen.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: The troupe of actors onstage are a cavalcade of voice talent. Actor Aang is given a high pitched squeak by Racheal Dratch, Grey DeLisle switches sides to make Actor Katara extra weepy, Scott Menville turns Actor Sokka into a dithering idiot, John DiMaggio gets in gruff jokes as both Actor Toph and Iroh, and Tara Strong makes Azula much more of a silly teen girl. Actor Zuko is played by Dante Basco’s brother.
  • The play was written with the help of, “singing nomads, pirates, prisoners of war, and a surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbage.”
  • Actor Toph was the original design for the character before the team changed her to a girl.
  • I also like that most people still don’t know that Zuko and The Blue Spirit are the same person.
  • “An airbender! My heart is so full of hope, that it’s making me tearbend!”
  • “Look! It’s the Great Divide! The biggest canyon in the Earth Kingdom!” “Eh, let’s keep flying.”
  • “Goodbye, Sokka! I have important moon duties to take care of!”
  • “I can see you doing that. I see everything that you see, except I don’t “see” like you do. I release a sonic wave from my mouth”
  • “But the effects were decent!”