In Which Aang Saves the World
As any self-respecting fan of Avatar can tell you, if you take the first and last words of the show and combine them together you get a pithy little encapsulation of how many feel about the sweep of the series: “It’s perfect.” A cheeky bit of congratulations on the part of the showrunners? Perhaps, but even if accidental it captures a general spirit about Avatar’s final moments. They did it, they stuck the landing.
I do not think “Sozin’s Comet” is perfect. In fact out of all the finales the show has to offer it might contain the most nits I could pick at. There are odd moments of plotting, sudden resolutions to season long problems that feel like narrative shortcuts, and some frustrating priorities when it comes to a few characters. Despite this “Sozin’s Comet” works and concludes the series in a satisfactory manner. That’s mostly because the series finale of most shows are never their best episodes, but the ones that work do so because they nail the right emotional beats at the right time. “Sozin’s Comet” is a good finale for the show because when and where it matters it knocks it out of the park.
Structurally “Sozin’s Comet” is a bit of an odd duck as well. Despite being sold as a feature length conclusion to the series (which it was produced as for behind the scenes reasons) narratively it feels like three separate stories. The first two parts clearing away the final bits of build up before the fireworks of part three and four. I can’t begrudge this bit of choppiness because that’s how TV production works. But it gives the transition between sections when all stacked together a bit of a halting quality.
Never the less let us jump into the fray. At the beginning of “The Phoenix King” Team Avatar seems practically jubilant. Luxuriating in their own beach time fun before the apocalypse roles around. Unfortunately the good times halt when Zuko attacks Aang and forces him to answer for the pokiness. Here is where we hit my first major quibble of the finale. Aang reveals to Zuko that he was going to wait until after the comet to fight Ozai, and then Zuko reveals to Aang that this isn’t an option because Ozai is literally planning on burning down the Earth Kingdom on the day of the comet.
This bit of narrative misunderstanding is frankly a bit of sitcommish writing on behalf of the show. These are the stakes for the entire world, a little communication between team members would be greatly appreciated. This creates a weird bit of narrative backlogging of the past few episodes as well. So Aang and company went on all those life changing field trips to deal with their big issues later?
Never the less the team decides to put in some final training, and with the Melon Lord all set and ready to go they square up and execute Sokka’s plan. It demonstrates that the group focus is their, but the problem remains with Aang as he struggles to reconcile the fact that he must kill Ozai with his pacifist philosophy. Such a struggle increased by the fact that Ozai’s Phoenix King shtick truly threatens the livelihood of the world.
Ozai’s grandstanding also extends to Azula as well, whom he offers the role of Fire Lord to as he ascends the ranks of world conqueror. Such a tactic seems to be a mere placation of Azula’s quickly deteriorating faculties, but it once again demonstrates that Ozai’s lust for power makes his sense of filial binds transactional at best.
With the world at stake Aang sleepwalks away to a mysterious moving island that appears on the bay, here to reflect before the final battle.
“The Old Masters” is the section that provides the emotional undergirding for the bombast of the closing moments of the series. Much like “The Day of Black Sun,” “The Old Masters” is a moment of recollection and accounting of everything that has come before in the show. From Aang’s conversations with the past Avatars, to the White Lotus, and even the reappearance of June allowing us one last breath before entering the breach.
From a purely narrative level the story of Team Avatar sans Aang is the most compelling and emotionally moving. It’s the story of Zuko stepping up to the leadership role and understanding the weight of what he has to accomplish to help restore balance to the world. It starts as a bit of a clever callback, as Zuko flies to the Earth Kingdom to reconnect with June and her capable shirshu. It’s one of those details that delights the long-term viewer. A small player from a so-so episode resurfacing in a way that’s consistent with our characters’ experience. It’s cute, but also an effective way to demonstrate that once again the show doesn’t forget its past.
Nyla first tries to snuffle out Aang, but fails. Aang is gone, not dead, but gone. Vanished from the physical world. So Zuko goes for the backup option, calling upon a stinky shoe for Nyla to conjure up Iroh. Outside the wall of Ba Sing Sae the group encounters the titular teachers all together: Pakku, Piandao, Bumi, and Jeong Jeong all point to their work together in the fraternity of the White Lotus, demonstrating ideology that transcends national borders. The Order of the White Lotus represents everything good that Iroh stands for, bringing together multicultural thought to help bring about a more peaceful world.
Because of how representative the White Lotus are of Iroh’s philosophy, and the fact that he serves as the Grand Lotus of the group, Zuko is hesitant about this reunion. But Zuko should know better, he waits as Iroh sleeps, and once his uncle awakes the most emotional stirring moment of the finale occurs.
Zuko begins to sob and apologize for his actions, but Iroh cuts it off with a total embrace. Zuko is shocked, “How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me.” Zuko has not fully learned the lesson of the show, Iroh’s love, unlike Ozai, is totally unconditional, and no matter how many time Zuko fails, Iroh will always see him as his son. “I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you lost your way,” says Iroh. Zuko admits he’s right, but that he’s struggled to find his way back to the true path. Dear viewer I am not too proud to admit that this reunion once again brought misty eyes to my apartment.
With the group together a game plan is set. Zuko and Katara will return to the Fire Nation palace to claim right as Fire Lord as soon as Ozai and Azula are subdued, offering a strong political head just as the war ends, The White Lotus will reconquer Ba Sing Sae and send the Fire Nation packing. Sokka, Toph, and Suki are on zeppelin duty, trying to take out the Fire Nation air command. Everyone hopes that Aang will return to stop Ozai, but Iroh notes that destiny is on their side this time.
Indeed Aang is taking a lesson from a different set of masters. The past Avatars appear before him and offering wisdom on how to deal with Ozai. It’s Aang’s own version of the Bhagavad Gita as as our hero consults the deities on what action he should take. Aang’s looking for a solution that doesn’t involve slaying Ozai.
Roku’s wisdom doesn’t really console Aang. Roku tells the young Avatar that he, “must be decisive.” Whatever action Aang takes it must be followed through to the end, no half measures. Kyoshi’s advice is much more blunt, “only justice will bring peace.” From Kyoshi’s perspective direct action will be the only solution. Avatar Kuruk notes that Aang must, “actively shape your own destiny and your destiny of the world.” This is not the moment to retreat, but putting the world first. There’s no iceberg to go to now. The last airbender Avatar, Yangchen, also counters Aang’s pacifism, “Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs, and do whatever it takes to protect the world.” This once again reinforces an idea brought up in “The Avatar and The Firelord.” The Avatar is both a part of the world and separate from it, Aang will never be a true Air Nomad because of his service to the Four Nations.
Aang remains consternated, but pushes out to explore the island when he notices that it’s moving to the shore. He dives in and discovers that the island is in fact not an island but a giant Lion Turtle. The most spiritual of all the beasts. Aang bows to the Lion Turtle and gets the solution to his central problem. The Lion Turtle informs us, “The true mind can weather all the lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can tough the poison of hatred without being harmed. Since beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void but always yields to purifying light. In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements but the energy within ourselves.”
Here Aang learns of energybending, and gains the power to take away a person’s bending. This power resolves the conflict Aang faces, he has a non-violent solution to taking out his enemies. I must admit that this resolution is a bit out of nowhere. Yes there have been hints towards the Lion Turtle before, but there was never a notion given to what power they possess and why this one shows up now. Is it also a touch contrived to allow our hero an out from breaking his ethics? The answer is also yes, especially considering that the forcefulness of Aang’s nonviolence has only been heightened in the back half of this season.
However I will excuse some of this because of the execution. The conversation with the past Avatars is really insightful and understanding to Aang’s fears and struggles, and while the Lion Turtle is a curveball of huge proportions, it is also a gorgeous piece of art design. Visually thunderous enough that in the moment I don’t get hung up on the details of the world building. On reflection it’s imperfect, but in the moment it plays well. So the final stage has been set, and with the backdrop of the blood red skies the battle begins.
Out of all the segments of the finale “Into the Inferno” stands as the finest. The upped production values of the show for the four-part conclusion are on full display. The color palette heightens into an apocalyptic bleeding red as the comet arcs across the sky, live strings on the soundtrack screech and thrum as deadly powers coalesce around our heroes, the fate of the world hangs in the balance, elevated by the enhanced visuals and score on display.
“Into the Inferno” also represents the show at the most volatile and dangerous. While I know that none of our heroes would actually meet their end (standards and practices and all that) this is the only section of the entire show where that feels like a feasible outcome. This climatic series of events have a touch more than the normal kids’ show daring do about them, the characters are well and truly playing for keeps.
This framework is highlighted by the finale’s greatest plot, Azula’s fall from grace. Azula’s relationship with Ozai has always been used as a sharp counterpoint to the one between Zuko and Iroh. Where uncle and nephew share an unconditional bond, father and daughter and merely points on a line for more power. Ozai uses his daughter to grasp the world more tightly, not out of any sense of familial duty, and said clench has twisted Azula into the mad princess she becomes.
You see Azula has ruled by fear fiat, out of the assumption that all relationships are merely as transactional and power oriented as her’s is with Ozai. This is a mistake, and when Mai and Ty Lee betrayed her in “The Boiling Rock” it demonstrated the flaw in her logic. Once someone acts in a way that isn’t purely motivated by self interest they can crack Azula’s facade.
Such a countenance crumbles in “Into the Inferno.” As her coronation draws closer Azula slips into unbridled paranoia, accusing all of her servants and confidants of disloyalty and treason. Banishing them all one by one. But Azula still has to live with Azula and in one of the show’s most chilling moments her reflection opens up to reveal the form of her mother. Azula is snide to this phantom, but Ursa insists she’s here for her daughter’s big day, and Azula can’t handle it. This is, after all, a projection of her own thoughts and a realization that the parent she scorned is the one who would actually treat her as human. Azula has disgraced such humanity for a petty bid at power.
Thus when she finally confronts Zuko with a duel for the thrown we see the total inversion of her and Zuko’s character. Before Zuko acted in conflict with himself and Azula in total control, here the roles and notably reverse. Zuko is confident and assured in his actions, while Azula slips and stumbles through her delirium.
The final Agni Kai between Zuko and Azula is arguably the artistic high point of the entire series. A swirl of impressionistic colors given life with a sparse soundtrack of strings and drums, heightened by the brief sounds of breathing, footsteps, and fire. The sound and image twine together to further demonstrate Zuko’s growth. In his encounter with Zhao in “The Southern Air Temple” Zuko slipped, here when his footing is pushed he reorients and remains steady.
Azula knows she can’t win now, and in a final act of malice shoots lightening not at Zuko, but Katara. Zuko jumps in to take the blow, and leaves the two girls left to finish the fight.
Up in the air we have Team Boomerang commandeering the Fire Nation airships to take out Ozai’s support. Sokka, Suki, and Toph make a bit of a ragtag bunch to flatten a bunch of military professionals, but Sokka’s wit, Suki’s athleticism, and Toph’s general metalbending talent help them slice through the enemy. Much enjoyment is to be had from Toph’s horror movie metal suit taking out guards to Sokka’s prankish final plan to rid the ship of crew (turns out it was someone’s birthday).
Even with this general tomfoolery Team Boomerang’s real importance is delivering a sense of scale to this final attack. In all honesty the fleet of airships is a bit dinky by world conquering standards (which feels more like a technical limitation of the show rather than any storytelling deficiency), but this group sells the danger. Because Toph can’t see outside the immediate vicinity, and Sokka and Suki can’t bend, there’s a palpable sense of vulnerability from our heroes. When Toph looks out a window and feels the heat from the rest of the fleet burning, her nervous, “that’s a lot of fire,” strikes genuine fear.
Interestingly the central conflict in the back half of the finale carries much less emotional weight than these side stories. The final battle between Aang and Ozai isn’t bad, in fact there duel is another technical marvel. Taking a freewheeling and flying virtual camera and tracking the two powers clash through a maze of mountains and rock formations. It’s a little bit like a flared up flight of fancy from something like Dragon Ball, two powers bouncing back and forth and wailing each other with attacks. Here we see that Aang will stick by his beliefs, as he redirects lightening not back at Ozai, but rather off to the side. Aang will not strike a mortal hit.
This leads then to the opening of “Avatar Aang” and honestly the biggest singular gripe I have with the finale as a whole. While the Lion Turtle can be critiqued as an out of nowhere surprise that too neatly resolves a central conflict, the real stinker here is Aang getting access to the Avatar State back through a thorough whacking against a nearby rock. It’s one of those things that is so thoroughly contrived and undoes a pillar of storytelling that it’s a bit of a head scratcher. It truly feels like the writers could not conceive a better way of returning our hero’s highest powers. This has been an engine of plot and character throughout the entire season, and a simple visit to Toph, chiropractor, could have cleaned the whole thing up. No consideration of chakras or letting go of earthly tethers, simply a good smack.
It’s a disappointing development, and the one I can’t really talk myself out of, so it is what it is and we’ll move to the main course of the ultimate entry: Aang’s energy ball. Yes the Avatar State has returned and so has the wicked cool tricks that it can pull. This time it’s forming of sphere of elements around Aang that let him do sick attacks. He can fly through the air, shoot chunks of rock like a gatling gun, and turn whips of water and fire into a massive drill. Once again Aang cannot strike the final blow, and pursues a different path.
Elsewhere we see the fallout of the previous section. Katara is now left to defend herself against Azula’s rage. It’s a tense encounter, but Katara’s a clever combatant and pulls a fast one on Azula. Sneaking the Princess over a crate of water before freezing her in a block of ice and chaining up the mad daughter to the ground. It’s an amazing bit of clever bending from Katara and demonstrates her eternal resourcefulness and power. Azula is now restrained, the results sad and pitiable. Her final appearance on screen: laughing, crying, and screaming.
Team Boomerang has a final hair raising experience as well. With a majority of the airships destroyed Sokka and Toph have have clattered down the side of another and are barely hanging on for dear life. Sokka tosses his space sword and his boomerang to knock out a few soldiers. But his grip is loosening, and the two come perilously close to tumbling to their demise. Sokka’s desperate, “I don’t think boomerang’s coming back, Toph. It looks like this is the end,” is especially striking. I know he wont’ die, but for that moment Sokka thinks he’s met the end, and it still stings to hear the resignation in his voice. Luckily Suki sweeps in and saves the two.
Now Aang makes his final decision, he decides not to kill Ozai, but bend the energy within. This power allows Aang to take away Ozai’s bending, and since Aang did not sacrifice his beliefs to achieve such a goal he overpowers Ozai’s spirit, and in a flash of light becomes triumphant. The visuals of energybending are exciting, and once again another facet of the world opens up, even as the series comes to close. Aang gets to win with his morals in tact. Aang changes the world in his own way.
With Ba Sing Sae liberated, Ozai and Azula neutralized, and the comet on its way out, the world is ready to turn a new leaf. At Zuko’s coronation he consecrates the vision Aang had in “The Blue Spirit.” the two live in new, different, and better world. Where once again they can be friends across the boundaries of nation and creed. Zuko concedes, “The road ahead of us is challenging. A hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided,” the cycles of life never truly end. But for now things can be changed for the benefit of all. Even if a quick visit to Ozai in prison about Ursa’s disappearance once again shows that there will always be something on Zuko’s mind.
In the final moments we return to the location of Team Avatar’s greatest failure: Ba Sing Sae, and finally get to enjoy some of Iroh’s tea. Things have settled, the world has moved forward. In a haze of dreamy sentimentality, swirling music, lush colors, and one last blind joke: Aang and Katara share a kiss in the sunset with a dramatic pan to “The End.” If I could complain one final time, I wish the romance wasn’t the coda for this show, but the music and lighting sell it hard enough that the final bitter taste is minimal.
And that’s it, the epic of children’s TV fantasy concludes with sweetness and hope for the future. Avatar is not a perfect show, but its still one of the foundational programs of the modern era: exciting, daring and world expanding at just the right time for future programming to push the boundaries ever further. For all its faults, missteps, and oddities it brought forth perhaps the richest modern fantasy setting, and a slew of indelible characters that have become touchstones for now multiple generations of people. Avatar is not perfect, but in the end it is still great, thrilling, moving, and entertaining TV.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Kevin Michael Richardson returns to give his booming baritone to The Lion Turtle.
- Sokka never does get his space sword and Boomerang back.
- The two awkward Fire Nation soldiers in the bomb bay are voice by Mike and Bryan.
- This episode is dedicated to Michael DiMartino’s father.
- Joaquim Dos Santos, the director of the final two parts, won an Annie for his work and will continue in Korra and will direct the sequel to Spider-Verse.
- Iroh finally gets to run his Tea Shop in peace.