Book Three: Fire

The first episode, Awakening, catches us up on the aftermath of Crossroads of Destiny. Katara did indeed save Aang. The young heroes were able to join with Hakoda and they took over a Fire Nation ship. Their invasion plans are modified slightly since the Earth King in is hiding, traveling the world as a peasant; they’ll gather together their ragtag team of friends and allies.

While the heroes hide out in the Fire Nation, Zuko’s princely title is restored. Lo and Lee announce to a crowd that their clever and beautiful princess Azula found her brother in Ba Sing Se and together, they took down the city and the Avatar fell. And the Earth Kingdom fell. After three years, the Fire Nation’s prince has returned. There are cheers from the crowd. But Zuko soon discovers that while he desired his father’s love and affection and believed that redemption of his honor lay with him, in conforming to what was expected of him, he lost himself. He visits Iroh in prison and begs advice, but his uncle is silent; this is still Zuko’s journey and one he must travel himself.

The Headband is silly for the most part, but does establish that not everyone in the Fire Nation is evil. Just like not everyone in the Earth Kingdom is good. A whole nation cannot be condemned. The heroes help out a Fire Nation village in The Painted Lady, Katara declaring sharply to her brother that she “will never, ever, turn my back on people who need me!”

Sokka’s Master brings to the forefront Sokka’s dejection that he is not as powerful as the benders. They urge him to find a master and Piando, the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation agrees to teach him, even after secretly knowing that the young man is Water Tribe. Sokka gains confidence and an ally.

The Fire Nation teens bonding over causing destruction at a party; because that’s how they get their kicks.

The Beach exhibits that even the scary and villainous Fire Nation young people are still teenagers. We learn a lot more about their dynamics. Ty Lee ran off to the circus to prevent becoming part of a matched set with six identical sisters. Mai’s mother was demanding and she was forced to stay quiet and well-behaved as a child (following the old adage that children are to remain seen, not heard). Zuko reveals that he’s angry at himself, confused about right and wrong. Azula gives a tiny insight, claiming that she does not care that her own mother thought she was a monster. Azula’s military tactics are so ingrained in her that she exercises them at the volleyball-type game (after Zuko dramatically removes his robe and doves appear out of nowhere and there are screaming girls).

The Avatar and the Fire Lord explains more fully the connection between Aang and Zuko. Zuko’s paternal great-grandfather was of course Fire Lord Sozin, while his maternal great-grandfather was Avatar Roku and they incidentally were best friends. Until Sozin’s ambition drove them to separate paths. He wanted to share the Fire Nation’s prosperity with the world and expand his realm into an empire. Roku showed Sozin mercy due to their friendship and Sozin even helped Roku stop a volcano, yet he still left him to die. Iroh finally speaks to his nephew, explaining that Zuko needed to learn this history to understand the battle within himself between good and evil. He has it within him to cleanse the sins of previous generations and restore balance; just like Aang as the Avatar.

The Runaway broadens the relationship between Katara and Toph. Toph bucks at Katara’s motherly nature, since she ran away from parents who were constantly telling her what she could and couldn’t do and never listening in return. And Katara sees a child, someone to care about. We also get insight from Sokka as to a reason for this; she stepped up when their mother died at a young age and by this time, doesn’t know anything different. Both Sokka and Katara deserve a hug after Sokka’s statement that he doesn’t remember his mother’s face, because Katara has filled that spot for so long. The episode ends with Katara helping Toph write a letter to her parents.

Katara is again in the spotlight in The Puppetmaster, when the four young heroes cross paths with Hama, the last waterbender from the Southern Tribe, in a small Fire Nation village. Except she’s bitter and exacts revenge for her treatment by kidnapping villagers during the full moon, when she has the power to bloodbend (using waterbending to bend the water or blood within a body). Katara eagerly takes lessons from Hama at first, except she’s scared and questions the morality of bloodbending, but when Hama makes Aang and Sokka fight each other, she has no choice but to use bloodbending to stop Hama. She sobs to Sokka and Aang afterwards.

Nightmares and Daydreams gets odd at the end; when Aang hallusicantes from sleep deprivation, Momo and Appa can talk. To help, the other three make a soft bed for him, encouraging him that he’s ready for the showdown; he’s been training since the day he met Katara and Sokka. On the other side of the war; we get a glimpse of Zuko’s life as an accepted prince. Servants waiting for his every whim, adoring fans, an affectionate girlfriend; yet when he finds out that there is another war meeting that he did not know about, his old insecurities come back. However, his father halts the meeting and sends for him. He was at the Fire Lord’s right hand, the “perfect prince,” but Zuko wasn’t himself.

The Gaang
Their new looks

The Day of Black Sun arrives. The heroes change back into their old clothes and here we can see the changes months of traveling have wrought; they’re leaner, they’re older. Katara wears her hair different, looser. Sokka’s hair has grown in and he looks more like a warrior. Aang shaves his head and wears a partially revealing top. Toph dons armor. They’re reunited with old allies and during their last break before battle, the teens’ bid each other a farewell. Aang gives Katara a quick kiss and sets off for the palace. Yet, when he arrives, the palace is empty; no Fire Lord in sight.

The Fire Nation was prepared for the invasion, a callback to Azula’s infiltration into Ba Sing Se as a Kyoshi Warrior. Hakoda is injured during their invasion and Sokka takes over as the leader. It’s Sokka who figures out that the Fire Lord would be in a secret bunker near the capital, not hiding on a remote island. He takes Toph and Aang, while Katara remains with Hakoda to continue healing him. Azula is still a few steps ahead and is waiting for them with Dai Li agents, distracting them from the Fire Lord. Even without being able to firebend, she eludes their attacks. Just when they’re ready to ignore her and find the Fire Lord, she taunts Sokka with information about Suki. Sokka demands answers, not willing to let another woman he cares for die, draining the last of their time. When they rejoin the rest of the invasion force, the Fire Nation has resumed their attacks, forcing Hakoda to instruct Katara and Sokka to escape with Aang; they are their best chance in the long run; Aang has to be free in order to keep hope alive. Bato makes the decision that the young members flee on Appa; the older ones will accept capture.

Zuko’s path has him change back into traveling clothes, removing the image of a prince. He vows to set things right. The first step: finally confronting Ozai.

“I’m not taking orders from you anymore.”
“You will obey me, or this defiant breath will be your last.”
“Think again! I am going to speak my mind, and you are going to listen. For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that 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 can you possibly justify a duel with a child?”
“It was to teach you respect.”
“It was cruel! And it was wrong.”
“Then you’ve learned nothing.”
“No, I’ve learned everything! And, I’ve had to learn it on my own.”

Zuko quietly informs the Fire Lord that if the world doesn’t want to destroy itself, it needs peace and kindness, and openly acknowledging Iroh’s influence. He’s going to free him, then join the Avatar to bring down Ozai. When Ozai questions why he doesn’t just kill him himself, Zuko replies that the task is the Avatar’s destiny; he will discover his own.


Ozai has one final taunt: information about Zuko’s mother. Ozai admits that he was willing to kill Zuko years ago, but Ursa proposed another plan in order to protect Zuko. A plan in which she committed vicious treason. She was banished as consequence. Ozai growls that Zuko will not be so lucky, the fading eclipse granting Ozai the ability to shoot lighting, which Zuko deflects and disappearing in the aftermath. When Zuko arrives at his uncle’s prison cell, he finds that Iroh has already escaped.

The final shot is Zuko following Appa in his war balloon.

They end up at the Western Air Temple, which is built upside down underneath a cliff. For Zuko, it’s come full circle; the Western Air Temple was where he started his search for the Avatar a week after he was scarred and banished. Now, he approaches the core four heroes, offering to teach Aang firebending. They do not trust him at first, for good reasons. Well, Toph, is willing to give him a chance, but she startles him and he accidentally burns her feet. When they go to confront him, Combustion Man (an assassin Zuko had hired to cover the fact that Aang survived Ba Sing Se) attacks and Zuko fights against him. This convinces Sokka. Zuko’s apology to Toph, speaking of the danger of firebending, convinces Aang. Katara goes along with the rest of the group, but threatens Zuko in private later. They both know he’s struggled with right and wrong in the past and she will not hesitate to permanently end Zuko’s destiny if he turns again. A glimpse that these characters are not children any longer. They’re involved in a war and hard calls will have to be made.

I love Firebending Masters; it shows more background into how bending was developed in different nations. We’ve already learned at the North Pole that the first waterbenders learned the push and pull motions from the moon. Toph tells of how the badger moles were the original Earthbenders, using it as she does, as an extension of themselves since they too are blind. Aang says that the original airbenders learned from the sky bisons.

The original masters

Zuko and Aang must learn from the original firebending masters because Zuko’s change in sides has affected his firebending. Dragons are the original firebenders but they were hunted to extinction in the past hundred years; Iroh reportedly killed the last dragon. However, an ancient civilization has ruins near to the temple, so the two young men hope to discover some sort of knowledge. The ancient civilization is actually still secretly alive and lead the Fire Nation Prince and Avatar to the spirits Ran and Cha to judge whether they are worthy. Ran and Cha are a pair of red and blue dragons. Iroh had not killed them; they had judged him and found him worthy of firebending knowledge; he lied to protect them. Aang and Zuko are shown visions of the true nature of firebending; fire is life, not just destruction. Aang gains the confidence to try firebending again (after burning Katara in season one) and Zuko has found a new source for his inner fire, a drive to bring peace rather than typical rage.

After their return, Sokka is desperate to rescue his father and other warriors. The invasion was his mistake and thus his job to fix. “I need to regain my honor,” Sokka tells Zuko. So the two sneak off to Boiling Rock prison. Once there, they find Suki, but no Hakoda. They gain a few minor tagalongs who utilize their first escape plan (and fail) while Zuko, Sokka, and Suki stay another day to discover if Hakoda is part of the new transfer of prisoners. He is. Sokka catches him up and they develop a new plan; take the warden captive and ride out on the gondola.

Wrenches are thrown in the work when first Mai, then Azula and Ty Lee show up. Mai wants answers as to why Zuko left. To her, he is a traitor while he sees it as part of his destiny to save his country. Azula and Ty Lee attempt to stop the heroes’ escape and the teens face each other on top of the gondola. Mai takes Zuko’s side on the ground, giving them the opportunity to get away. Azula is furious. But when she goes to eliminate Mai, Ty Lee sides with Mai, using her chi blocking to take out Azula. They do not have the chance to flee; Azula orders them locked up.

The two-part episode does a good job of showing Zuko and Sokka interact; they’re a similar age and it’s been pointed out by fans that they both have younger sisters that are naturally gifted benders, both are missing mothers, and desperate to prove themselves to their fathers. They even reminisce over girlfriends on the flight to Boiling Rock. During their escape, Sokka catches Zuko when the prince leaps from the platform for the departing gondola. And through the battle on top the gondola against Azula, they effortlessly cover each other.

Boling Rock ends with the Water Tribe family being reunited. Only to have to break apart at the beginning of The Southern Raiders when Azula attacks the temple, hoping to become an only child. Brother and sister face off again, allowing the core heroes to fly away on Appa (and another daring rescue for Zuko…please stop attempting to fall to your death). But when they’re all joking around the fire later, it’s clear that Katara still does not trust Zuko. Zuko approaches Sokka, inquiring about the day his mother died. It seems as if Katara has tied her anger about that event to her anger at Zuko, and he cares about what she thinks of him. We flash back to the raid on the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka went to help his father and the other warriors when the black snow began to fall. Katara had gone to their mother, only to find a strange man in their hut. Kya, their mother, soothed Katara and sent her after her father. When the rest of the family returned, the man was gone and their mother was dead. A few more questions reveal that the group responsible was the Southern Raiders. Zuko offers to take Katara to their headquarters where she can exercise justice. Aang counsels forgiveness. Katara’s not sure she can do that. Sokka even advises that Katara let go of her rage; Kya was his mother too. “Then you didn’t love her like I did!” is the biting response. Just, ouch.

Katara willingly uses bloodbending to get her answers, unsettling even Zuko. When she faces Yan Ra (a despicable man, offering his own, admittedly annoying, mother as recompense) she almost does it. They discover that Kya had died protecting the last waterbender of the South Pole. Katara is ready to unleash all her power as a master, shooting ice daggers at him, seconds away from ending him. But she won’t become the same as him, empty inside. Back at their camp, Aang is proud of her; but she didn’t forgive Yan Ra. She is however, ready to forgive Zuko.

The show does its own recap special; The Ember Island Players where the teens engage in a popular fanfic plotline, watching their own story play out as a stage performance. Their characters are exaggerated and annoy the heroes. Katara is overly dramatic, Toph is a man, Aang is a woman (oftentimes in traditional theatre, teenage boy parts are played by young woman, a popular example is “Peter Pan”), Sokka speaks only in quips. For Zuko, it’s his worse mistakes shoved in his face. The show-within-a-show plays up the fan pairing of Zuko and Katara, which upsets Aang. But it’s the end that really depresses our heroes; as a play put on in the Fire Nation, Azula and Ozai successfully kill Zuko and Aang, Ozai declaring “the world is mine!” and the crowd cheers. There is horror in the teenagers’ eyes.

Everything comes to a head in this season. It also really showcases that this war is being decided by children/teenagers. The main characters range between twelve and sixteen years old. Sokka is fifteen and takes charge of two major battles. Zuko is sixteen and crowned Fire Lord. Aang is twelve and confronts Ozai.


The latter half of the season, Aang has been struggling with the dilemma of how to put an end to Ozai, claiming that violence is never the answer. He even greets the tyrant at their final battle saying they don’t have to fight. He was taught as an Air Nomad monk that all life is sacred and he cannot take another person’s life, no matter how horrible they are. The final duel starts with Aang fleeing from Ozai; he’s on the defense. Ozai shoots lightning at him and Aang redirects, like Zuko taught him; he has the perfect opportunity to end Ozai, but points it away. Ozai calls him weak, like his people, who are not worthy of existing in his world (megalomaniac much?). His last stand was to create a ball of rock surrounding him, but Ozai broke through. When that happened, a perfectly positioned nub of rock presses in on his scar, helping him unlock the Avatar State. He comes back powerful and effortlessly bends all four elements into an orbit around himself. Now it’s his turn to chase the self-proclaimed Phoenix King. This is the first time we’ve seen fear in Ozai’s eyes. Yet even then, when he is controlling all that power, Aang comes back and cannot deal a killing strike. Aang’s last mystical journey on the back of a lion turtle taught him to bend the energy within a body resulting in the Avatar taking away Ozai’s bending. (There’s a really cool visual where their bodies are overtaken by blue [Aang] and orange [Ozai] representing their wills. Ozai almost overtakes Aang, but he comes back stronger and brighter).

The final Agni Kai between Azula and Zuko, “the showdown that was always meant to be” is tragically beautiful. It is destructive and at least on Azula’s account, she has the intention of killing her brother. And it is quite possible that Zuko is willing to kill his sister, facing her so no one else will get hurt. But the imagery of blue and orange fire meeting, paired with the music, quiet and almost soothing in the background, is powerful. This isn’t some upbeat ride into danger or fanfare when the hero saves the day. We can hear the roar of the fire, balls of flame propelled at one another.


And Zuko has to taunt his sister (they’re still teenage siblings) about shooting lightning at him. He was not as successful the second time, primarily due to Azula shifting her aim to Katara. He’s unprepared and the angle is wrong and it’s not dissipated properly. It gets too close to his heart and he collapses. So Katara and Azula face off. Katara out tricks the princess, freezing her then chaining her to a grate. Finally, Katara is able to heal Zuko, exchanging thanks for saving each others’ lives.

We gain some sympathy for Azula in Book Three. All her life, she has been her father’s favorite and now that he’s bent on world domination and titles himself as the “Phoenix King” and Supreme Ruler of All, he passes on the now insignificant title of Fire Lord to Azula, explaining that he needs her at home. She fires back that “you can’t treat me like Zuko!” And with the betrayal of Ty Lee and Azula, her former staunchest supporters, Azula is paranoid. She’s learning that fear is not the best tactic to retain supporters. Mai told her “I love Zuko more than I fear you.” Azula banishes her servants, the Dai Li agents; everyone she was once close to, leaving her alone. She envisions her mother in the mirror, claiming that she is proud of her and loves her. Azula throws her hairbrush and cries. Zuko tells Katara that Azula is slipping; he can take her. When Katara defeats her, she’s left screaming and breathing fire before breaking into sobs. As the hallucinated Ursa says, Azula is confused. Like Zuko, she lost her drive. Her purpose for so long was to follow her father and now that Ozai has essentially cast her aside, she’s lost. Everyone she’s ever cared about, she’s pushed away.

Touching on the themes running throughout the show, the core troupe of heroes became their own family and that group was certainly more important than blood family. That is most clear in Zuko’s case, with both his sister and father the major threats, but he’s learned to rely on his uncle’s teaching. Katara fights to keep her family together, except she keeps getting ripped away from her father. Toph and Katara face off over the issue of family roles in the group. Zuko’s destiny is to restore the honor of the Fire Nation now that he has struggled and suffered and followed his own path. Ultimately, what all the young people learn through their adventures is that they can shape their own destinies and they decide on their own honor.

There are some paired-off couples at the end of the show, after Zuko has been crowned Fire Lord and promises to aid the Avatar in guiding the world into an era of peace. Sokka and Suki are together, exchanging a brief kiss before they’re separated during the air ship takedown. Mai returns for Zuko and there’s a kiss, though she warns him to “never break up with me again.” And the final shot of the show, before the ending title card is a silent scene between Katara and Aang, where they exchange a deep kiss.

I have to admit, I am in the camp in the fandom that prefers to pair Katara and Zuko. They’re a bit closer in age to one another and the show even demonstrates the awkwardness of younger Aang and older Katara. Aang takes the idea of stage-Katara together with stage-Zuko too seriously and pushes a kiss when she says she’s confused. Also, there’s the dynamic of opposites. They’re opposite elements and started off on opposite sides of the war; but they’re both passionate and they make a good team. Reminder, this is my opinion, others may have different views.

SWCLC; has an awesome slightly AU (alternate universe) series called “Airbender’s Child” (I don’t want to give away too much, but it does involve Zuko in the gang a lot earlier). Also has an excellent story “Arranging Marriages” (again, AU) and a “Proposal” series.
ChannelAwesome: the Nostalgia Critic has an entire series of vlogs (video logs) on each episode of Last Airbender and a load of other content.
HelloFutureMe: also has a lot of content on Last Airbender and other categories that are near and dear to my heart.

Next Time: we continue down the path of memory lane to Disney, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Rockin’ and Rollin’

Book Two: Earth

Now that Aang has mastered waterbending, he must learn Earthbending. The plan is for the trio to go to Bumi in Omashu. Upon arrival back in the Earth Kingdom a general proposes the idea to simply master the Avatar State, bypassing mastering each element. That plan results in leveling his base and the teens continue on their journey, but the seed for exploring the Avatar State has been planted. New characters come into play. We’re introduced fully to Azula, the Fire Lord’s daughter, who has retained her father’s favor. Her father tasks her with bringing Iroh and Zuko home, for punishment we presume. She weaves a tale of regret to convince Zuko, but Iroh knows his brother well enough to not believe her, but follows in order to protect Zuko. The first episode of the season ends with the pair removing their ponytail and top knot, distinctions of their rank, I believe, known now as traitors to the Fire Nation.

Azula is joined by her friends, Mai and Ty Lee so they create an elite team to track Iroh and Zuko. Mai is skilled with throwing knives and Ty Lee is an acrobat who can block a person’s chi and bending abilities. Azula is already a gifted firebender, surpassing her brother on many respects and is extremely agile. My question is, what do they teach girls in the Fire Nation? On the one hand, cool, women should definitely be trained as warriors, if they want. On the other, they’re kids! Let’s make a whole bunch of mini assassins!

fire nation trio

The heroic trio is eventually joined by Toph, an awesome twelve-year-old girl who happens to be blind (I say “happen” because by the way she acts, you rarely notice, and yes, it defines her, but she is far more capable than most people give her credit) who learned Earthbending on her own and holds out against men who are far older and stronger than her. Her parents clearly do not understand her, only see her as “blind, tiny, and helpless” and feel that what’s best for her is being guarded twenty-four-seven.

Toph fits in with the gang pretty well, being of equal age to Aang and both are skilled benders of their own element. There do not seem to be many problems between Sokka and Toph, but she butts heads with Katara. They’re both young women used to fending for themselves. Toph has spent her childhood secretly bucking her parents’ rule and is not in a hurry to listen to someone else tell her what to do. It is an interesting counterpoint to Katara, who is accustomed to the rest of the group obeying her for the most part (well, Sokka is her older brother, so we can expect slight contention from time to time).


At the end of Avatar Day Zuko told Iroh that he needed to find his own path, bringing us Zuko Alone, highlighting Zuko’s softer side. The royal family dynamics are…complicated. Zuko shows sympathy for his uncle at the death of his son and even before his banishment, he was trying to prove himself to his father and grandfather (I’m not sure that man even liked Zuko, calling him “pup” and a waste of time). Azula learned her ruthlessness from Ozai, who asked for Iroh’s birthright to be revoked since he abandoned his post at the death of his son. Azluon was also the one to tell Ozai (overheard by Azula) to sacrifice his own son in retaliation. His mother, Ursa’s seemingly last act was to visit Zuko in the middle of the night to say goodbye; “Everything I’ve done has been to protect you.”

This is all told in flashbacks that Zuko has while helping a family against army thugs. He bonds with the son, Li, showing him how to properly use dao blades and even gifting him his own dagger (a previous gift from Iroh), engraved with “never give up without a fight.” When Li is taken by the thugs, Zuko goes to rescue him and fights the crew. He easily dispatches the first three with minimal moves. However, when he’s knocked down by the leader, he comes back firebending. When finished, he reveals to the village “My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne.” He has always seen himself as this. He has told Iroh several times that he wants this throne back, his birthright, his kingdom. Even in exile, even branded as a traitor (as an old man points out) he is not ashamed of who he is. I was crushed when the villagers and the family turned on Zuko.

Bitter Work from the Avatar crew is hilarious. (Foofoocuddlypoops? Really, Sokka?) From Zuko’s camp, still heart wrenching. Even Iroh, recovering from a shot of lightning from Azula, agrees that the young woman is crazy and needs to go down; he tries to train Zuko to face her. More hidden depths for our favorite uncle: he recognizes that the world needs balance and the elements balance each other out, and within a person; if Zuko learns this and draws wisdom from others, he will be more powerful. Zuko can’t find the clarity of mind to create lightning, and can’t get Iroh or the weather to cooperate to test deflecting it. Yeah, he’s not talking about the storm at the end when he cries out “You’ve always thrown everything at me. I’ve taken it. Now I can give it back.” I just want to give him a hug (except he might shoot fire at me, so, I shall refrain).

Side note: I wonder what Sokka realized during his time trapped in Bitter Work? They broke to comedy before we could find out. We want more layers to this young man. The Library is actually Sokka’s idea. He wants a map and intelligence about the Fire Nation in order to formulate a plan, compared to the rest in the group who want mini vacations. The Library is overseen by an owl who does not want to give the heroes access, claiming that humans desire knowledge merely in an effort to destroy. They persuade, or trick him, only to discover that the Fire Nation records were burned (most likely Zhao; it’s insinuated that he learned of the Moon and Water Spirits in the library, so yes, the owl spirit had a point…he’s still creepy). Unfortunately, while Sokka is calculating a future solar eclipse, sandbenders steal Appa. Toph, who had no desire to go into a library, keeps the escape route open for the others to flee from the spirit’s wrath, but had to choose between her friends and Appa.

The loss of Appa, Aang’s longest companion, is too much for the kid. He wants to blame Toph, but it had been a difficult, but necessary decision. He goes off on his own in order to find Appa and Katara is left to handle Sokka, who has drunk hallucinogenic cactus juice (a hilarious bright spot in the episode) and Toph. Once again, she has to calm Aang down from the Avatar State. Character growth all around. We see Sokka’s analytical mind, Katara leading, Aang’s grief and pain, and Toph is feeling helpless and a little guilty for not being able to save Appa; she can’t see in her traditional manner on the sand.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh, still fleeing Azula, are attempting to make their way to Ba Sing Se. We’re introduced to the Order of the White Lotus (see Zuko, all those games your uncle played were important after all). In the next episode, the pair board a ferry, shared by Jet. Jet and Zuko almost bond, but Zuko won’t join Jet’s Freedom Fighters and Iroh subtlety bends fire in front of Jet, arousing his suspicions. That all comes to a head in City of Walls and Secrets when Jet attacks Zuko at the tea shop where he and Iroh, under the names Li and Mushi, work. An exciting battle of dual swords ensues and Jet is taken away by the authorities.

Katara, Sokka, Aang, and Toph take a harder path, leading a pregnant woman and her companions through the Serpent’s Pass, accompanied by Suki. Sokka is pleased to be reunited with the warrior, but after losing Yue, he’s scared to lose Suki as well. Just when you think it will all work out for the burgeoning couple, Suki’s duty keeps her with the other Kyoshi Warriors.

The message of hope is beaten into us in this episode. A sign posted at the entrance to the Pass warns travelers to “abandon hope.” Aang, in an effort to not let his emotions overtake him like they did in the desert, tells how the monks taught that hope was a distraction; Aang theorizes that they cannot afford to be distracted on the Pass and so maybe they should abandon hope. Seeing the baby knocks some sense back into Aang; he sees that life continues. He tells the parents that the experience has given him hope again, prompting the name of the baby.

I’m not saying that The Serpent’s Pass is a bad episode, just not one of the best. There are funny moments; Sokka offering Momo as a sacrifice, Toph thinking Sokka saved her when it was Suki. And I am not opposed to the idea of hope or naming a child such (see my submission to the Tolkien Symposium); I just think that this episode was heavy-handed in the telling. What I love about the show is how is subtly passes information on to the audience. Looking to my favorite character as an example: Zuko is originally supposed to be the obvious villain, Katara even pointing is out in the catacombs later: by chasing the Avatar. But the show has done a marvelous job of showing hidden sides. Aang has an angry side we’re seeing; attacking the Sand People for kidnapping Appa; he’s not just a joking child.  And hope is shown throughout the series in more subtle ways. Every time Aang’s in a different village, helping out, he is hope that the war will end, that the Fire Nation won’t win. So it wasn’t necessary to beat the audience over the head with “don’t abandon hope.”

The heroes come across a stumbling block on their way into the city; a Fire Nation drill is almost upon the outer wall. And who else would be behind it but Azula. Sokka’s idea of hitting the pressure points and teamwork brings down the drill. We see the combination of bending coming into play, Earth, Water, and Air. I am impressed by the bending battles throughout the series. These teens are masters of their crafts and bending brings a whole new element (ah, I see what I did there) to battles. Air can destroy Earth. Fire and Water can take on each other, and they can all work together.

Inside the city, we discover a new culture. The sections (read classes) are separated by walls, the city is run on strict rules. The common person does not know about the war (consider that a remarkable feat since it’s been going on for a hundred years). The Dai Li, cultural ministers, run the city; the king is merely a figurehead. Long Feng is unnerving and brainwashes anyone who doesn’t stay in line (this is what happens to Jet).

Tales of Ba Sing Se and Appa’s Lost Days are a slight departure from the typical storytelling. Tales of Ba Sing Se is a collection of short clips of each character in the city; they experience life as a normal person might, without the pressure of the world at war weighing on them. Toph and Katara go to a spa for a girls’ day and Katara stands up for Toph, telling her she is beautiful, even if she can’t see it and she admires the younger girl for her strength (an excellent message for young girls, or any woman; you don’t need someone else’s approval). Sokka joins in a poetry session, once again showing he is not a simple dunderhead, though he’s more creative than his competitor (he loses on a technicality). Aang creates an open air zoo; Zuko goes on an awkward date; Iroh helps a variety of people while he remembers his son’s birthday (tearjerker at the end with “In Honor of Mako,” the original voice actor for Iroh, who passed away before the season was finished). Momo even gets some action and finds Appa’s paw print, proving that the sky bison was in the city.



Appa’s Lost Days fills the audience in on what’s happened to Appa, flashing back to four weeks previous with his capture. He was traded once, then sold to a circus run by a cruel firebender giving Appa a fear of fire. He escapes and crosses paths with other characters (Iroh sees him on the ferry and Hakoda sees him from his ship as well). Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors discover him in the woods, wounded and scared, and heal him. Azula attacks and Suki forces Appa to fly away. He finds the Eastern Air Temple where a man is waiting. The man is Guru Patik and he is waiting to help the Avatar. He sends a message with Appa and guides the two back to each other. Except Long Feng is waiting and captures Appa first. He’s discovered and ultimately freed by Zuko from beneath Lake Laogai.

That act brings about a change in our antagonist. Iroh advises Zuko that it is time for him to think about what he wants in life, and why; his destiny is up to him. Iroh even follows Zuko, disguised as the Blue Spirit, to Lake Laogai and begs him to think his plans through. This is the most worked up we’ve seen Iroh, usually calm and placid. He doesn’t want to lose Zuko like he lost Lu Ten. Perhaps he’s feeling guilty for not protecting Zuko better from the war meeting and subsequent Agni Kai. It is painfully clear that Iroh loves his nephew. Iroh has demonstrated throughout the two seasons that he is not traditional Fire Nation; he follows other nations’ teachings and is knowledgeable about the Spirit Realm.

This change in character brings about a fever. Iroh explains that his soul is warring between itself, personified in Zuko’s dreams as a red dragon (Iroh) and a blue dragon (Azula). The blue dragon silkily counsels that Zuko, an unscarred Fire Lord, give in, go to sleep. The red dragon urges Zuko to flee. His dream melts, but he’s haunted by his mother pleading for help. He has a vision of himself as the Avatar, complete with Airbending tattoos, echoing some connections we’ve seen between the two and foreshadowing others.

In a plan that seems logical to teenagers, but one that only they could pull off, Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph fight through ranks of guards to finally talk to the Earth King. Proving that he has a mind of his own, the Earth King listens and observes the teens’ evidence. He dismisses Long Feng and uncovers messages for all of the kids. The Guru’s note leads Appa and Aang back to the Eastern Air Temple for further Avatar training. Toph’s mother has apparently written and wishes to see her daughter and the Earth Kingdom Army has intelligence on Katara and Sokka’s father’s whereabouts. So they all split up, Katara letting Sokka see Hakoda while she stays to finalize plans.

And just when things look like they’ll work out for the heroes…the letter to Toph was a trap, yet she manages to develop metal-bending and escapes (which is just badass; a little blind girl is the greatest Earthbender in the world). The Kyoshi Warriors that Sokka thought would be Suki and her girls are actually Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee in disguise. When Katara runs to the Earth King to inform him of seeing Iroh and Zuko at a tea shop, she actually tells Azula and is captured. This image makes its way to Aang during his training and he leaves before he has completed his training.

[A brief side note: one could do an entire analysis on the training that Aang went through and the chakras and what they mean…that person is not me. Was it interesting? Yes. Am I now thinking of how it pertain to the mindset of the Jedi? Yes. Am I going to carry on with the pervious train of thought? Yes. So, onward and upward!]

I loved the moments Sokka had with his father. He’s not a bender, he can’t always keep up with the other teens, but he’s trying to grow as a warrior and be the leader since he’s the oldest. And for a brief time, he’s with his Tribesmen, men who are like him; he’s with his father, who has the same sense of humor and who is proud of him. Hakoda tells his son that he always knew that Sokka was a great warrior, that’s why he left him in charge of the South Pole. And he’s going to join their battle…and Appa and Aang land. Sokka leaves with them and watches his father sail away, again.


“For so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face.”
“I used to think that this scar marked me; the mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, I’ve realized that I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.”

Of course, Zuko’s identity crisis is not finished yet. Just when he’s become happy, Azula has to attack and twist his mind. On the one hand, Iroh is telling him that he is “stronger, wiser, and freer” than he’s ever been. And on the other hand, Azula dangles redemption, honor, their father’s love in front of Zuko. She tells him he’s free to choose. And that choice is made clear when he joins in her attack against Aang and Katara. (And more awesome bending!) Upon reflection, Zuko’s choice can be understood; his metamorphosis so recent, it hasn’t had enough time to stick.  He doesn’t know if he can trust the Avatar and his group; they’ve been on opposite sides for so long.  Thus, he goes back to what he knows.

The season ends with Azula shooting lightning at Aang’s unprotected back. Iroh jumps in to cover their retreat and lets himself be captured. While it’s never specifically stated, it is heavily insinuated that Aang died. But the water from the Spirit Oasis of the North Pole that Katara has been carrying is able to magnify her healing abilities (she had offered to attempt to heal Zuko’s scar while they were getting along) and bring him back.

We pick right back up with the themes of family and honor. Zuko’s family is far more complicated and he’s still struggling to understand his honor. His own father wanted him dead years before his banishment, seeing him as a minor inconvenience in his blind ambition for the throne. Ozai pushed Iroh aside and willingly let Ursa go (there are strong hints that Ursa had a hand in the death of Azulon). With no counterbalance, all those two children got were their father’s example. Azula was the firebending prodigy her father craved. In return she was taught to be cunning; she stages a coup right under the Fire King’s nose and takes control of the Dai Li from Lang Fe. She is ruthless and relentless, pursuing the Avatar and his companions throughout the night and does not hesitate to attack her brother and uncle. She demands perfection from herself and from her friends; not a hair out of place, no sign of disloyalty. Ty Lee was scared into accepting her offer. Mai is fully aware of the consequences she may face for not following Katara into the slurry, yet still refuses.

Final takeaway: The stakes are raised and no one’s destiny is certain.


Comments?  Questions?  Let me know


Next Time: Book Three: Fire

A Little Bit of Nostalgia

First up: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.

Title Card for the show

I’ll specify, the Nick cartoon, not the movie (I was severely disappointed in the movie). This is first essentially because it is what I was interested in watching at the time and I couldn’t decide on another path (so many categories!)
The show ran from 2005 to 2008; I was in high school and I managed to stumble onto it midway through season one flipping through channels. The story was what got me hooked, and the animation was good.

I reiterate the Standard Disclaimer: Here, there be spoilers!

Book One: Water

For me, as someone who did not watch anime, it was intriguing to watch a show not based in America or Europe. My background being in British mythology, I am not as familiar with the Eastern spirits, but what I can grab a hold of is the rest of the fantasy setting. Avatar inhabits its own world with a major factor being the bending of elements. Sokka grouses about his getting soaked whenever Katara plays with “magic water.” It’s a whole cast of believable, human characters. Pre-teens and teens for the most part. And it’s written as an ensemble; while the show is titled Avatar and is sometimes referred to as the Legend of Aang, the others are not merely supporting characters. The main antagonist, Zuko has a complicated and developed backstory.

The plotline, in a sentence, is Aang, the Avatar, must master the other three elements in order to stop the Fire Nation by the end of the following summer. He’s accidentally discovered by two Southern Water Tribe teenagers, brother and sister, Sokka and Katara. “Accidentally” in that, he was frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years (after he ran away from the early pressures of becoming the Avatar, at twelve). Aang forms an early bond with Katara and since she is the last waterbender of the South Pole and has had no official training, the trio must venture to the North Pole. Giving chase to them is Zuko, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, who was banished by his father and given the seemingly impossible task of finding the Avatar and “reclaiming his honor.”

The deadline is due to a powerful comet reappearing at the end of the following summer; given the chance, the Fire Nation will use the comet to bring a devastating end to the war. The overall arc of the story has this one goal, but breaks it up with episodic adventures (sort of like Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the movie moreso than the book. Lord of the Rings does this a little as well; “here’s what happened on the way to Mordor, or the North Pole, or the Fire Nation”). And the show is an excellent mix of humor and drama and does not simplify topics for kids. Kids, teenagers, and adults can all relate to the show.

trio season 1
The main trio of heroes (and Appa and Momo)

Sokka, while hilarious a good portion of the time, is also a young man who has had the fate of his village put on his shoulders at a young age; his father and the rest of the men of the tribe had left two years prior to aid the Earth Kingdom. When we see the South Pole, it is one tiny village comprised of a few huts and igloos and a lonely watchtower, inhabited by a few women and a gaggle of small children. Sokka and his sister Katara are the eldest.

Looking back, after watching the rest of the series, I wonder at the intelligence of that decision. Why would you leave two teens in charge? What would happen if they got attacked? There were decades of raids prior to Hakoda’s (Katara and Sokka’s father and chief of the Tribe) departure; did he think the last one which killed his wife had ended the Fire Nation’s interest? Were they hoping that the South Pole was remote enough and unimportant? Or did they have a plan to stop anything from going too South? I would not say that this is a deterrent from the show, just a question my mind came up with after several viewings.

Sokka can also be a typical guy. He believes, until Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors teaches him differently, that men are superior warriors. Really, the whole show does a great job of showcasing strong female warriors alongside men. But periodically he gets to showcase his training. He was right to not trust Jet and it was his kindness to the old man that evacuated the village in time. In Bato of the Water Tribe, he can read a battlefield. His off-kilter ingenuity is sparked in The Northern Air Temple. In Siege of the North, he has the most current information about the Fire Nation. The chief chooses Sokka to protect his daughter.

I have mixed feelings about Aang. Whenever I get frustrated with him, I have to remind myself that he’s twelve. Twelve-year-olds are more concerned with having fun, something Gyatso championed. And as the Avatar, the fate of the world rests on him, overwhelming for anyone. It was cruel of the other Airbending children to shun him from playing (it’s like Rudolph). And he tried to protect his friends; in Winter Solstice Part Two: Avatar Roku, he tried to leave them behind so he can’t get hurt. And he feels guilty for leaving the world to war for a hundred years. He even shows mercy and kindness to known enemies. Twice, he won’t leave Zuko behind when he’s injured (Blue Spirit and Siege of the North Part Two). Overall, a fun character and he certainly develops as the show progresses, but I can sympathize with adults when they roll their eyes at his antics.

The show does a good job of showing multiple sides of Katara. Yes, she can be girly; obsessed over finding out who is her true love, crushing on Jet (typical bad boy who’s cool cause he lives on his own). Yes, she can be petty, stealing the waterbending scroll (again, she’s fourteen; this all made more sense when I was closer to their age): “What did you learn?” “Stealing is wrong; unless it’s from pirates”. But she’s also the one to keep the group in line. It’s awesome to watch her take on Master Pakku at the end of Book One; she holds out well against an experienced Master, and in the next episode, she’s shown to have quickly become his best pupil. She essentially learned waterbending on her own, through trial and error.
zuko season 1

Zuko is my favorite character, though during the first viewing, the fondness didn’t show up until season three. Re-watching the series has pointed out several early sympathetic moments: during The Southern Air Temple, we are introduced to Zhao (an excellent villain because I hate him, he’s a bully), a commander in the Fire Nation Navy who despises young Zuko, baiting him and telling the banished prince he has “no home. No allies. Your own father doesn’t want you…in his eyes you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation…you have the scar to prove it.” We get the full backstory in The Storm; Ozai is a cruel man, challenging his own thirteen-year-old son to a fire duel and purposefully burning his face. Telling his own son that his sister was born lucky while he was lucky to be born. Not winning any father-of-the-year awards.

[As many other fans will point out: Oh the irony! For those of you not in the know, Ozai is voiced by Mark Hamill, most famously Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He has also lent his voice to the Joker from several Batman cartoons]

Iroh has always been a supporter of his nephew. After the loss of his own son, he has viewed Zuko as his own. He’s aware of Zuko’s faults, but he chooses to love and support and teach him. (And teenagers never make it easy). The Winter Solstice Part One: The Spirit World illustrates that it is reciprocated; Zuko begins the episode annoyed with his uncle, but when it becomes clear that he has been captured by Earthbenders, he hunts them down, even passing on chasing the Avatar. He arrives just in time to prevent the Earthbenders from crushing Iroh’s hands. Iroh compliments the prince on his excellent form and Zuko acknowledges “you taught me well,” and Iroh tells the Earthbenders that though the pair is outnumbered, it is the Earthbenders who are outmatched. Of course, Zuko points out at the end that Iroh really needs to put some clothes back on.

Devastation was clear on Iroh’s face when their ship exploded, with Zuko still on it. He tells a bruised Zuko “no nephew of mine is going to stow away on a ship without back-up,” and gives Zuko last minute advice before the young man hunts for the Avatar in the tundra. Iroh knows what his brother, Ozai is like; he tries to protect Zuko as best he can. And he understands the balance of the world; cautioning Zhao not to kill the Moon Spirit. The idiot is drunk on delusions of power and doesn’t listen and Iroh takes out the squad with little difficulty.

Avatar is a coming of age story, for all of the primary characters. Even the animation reflects it, showing them all a little more round-faced, voices pitched a little higher at the start of the season compared to the end. We witness children, and teenagers take on adult problems.
As a family show, it’s also about family; family that one is born with and how supportive, or not they are, and more importantly, the family that is chosen. When Katara, Sokka, and Aang visit the Southern Air Temple, where Aang grew up, they find evidence of the Fire Nation attack. Gyatso, Aang’s mentor and guardian, was surrounded by the remnants of a host of soldiers. Aang is grief stricken and furious and a mess of other emotions and enters the Avatar State, putting Sokka and Katara in danger. But Katara gets close enough to talk him down, saying that she and Sokka are Aang’s new family. It’s revealed in The Storm that Aang ran away because the council wanted to take away everything he knew and everyone he loved.

In Bato of the Water Tribe, we glimpse Sokka and Katara’s family. Seeing Bato is a reunion and a small piece of their father. Aang almost costs them their chance to be reunited, but they’ve grown as young people and know their place is with Aang; they’re extended family. As Hakoda told Sokka, “being a man is knowing where you’re needed most.”

Another clear theme is honor. From my albeit limited knowledge of Eastern culture, honor is highly valued. During the Agni Kai between Zhao and Zuko in The Southern Air Temple, Iroh blocks Zhao’s disgraceful attack after his defeat, asserting that “even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” Even more poignant, considering Zuko is attempting to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar. In The Blue Spirit, when Zuko believes that Zhao will succeed in capturing the Avatar first, he despairs “My honor. My throne. My country. I’m about to lose them all.”

Hope and destiny are brought up through the series as well. It is Aang’s destiny to be the Avatar and to master all four elements. And it appears to be destiny as well that he returns when he has, before the comet. He gives people hope, even Zuko, for it is with the Avatar that Zuko aspires to return home and please his father. Zuko still feels that it is his destiny to rule the Fire Nation, he still views himself as the rightful heir to the throne and next in line.

The season ends on a mixed note; enemies were defeated, but friends were lost. Aang saved Zuko and Zuko tried to save Zhao. Iroh helped Katara and Yue. Alliances were getting muddled. Iroh and Zuko manage to escape and Katara, Sokka, and Aang now must travel back to the Earth Kingdom so Aang can master the next element. The Avatar has entered the war and change is coming.

What are your thoughts, feelings, favorite episode? Who are your favorite characters?

Next Time: Book Two: Earth