So let me just get this out of the way: I think Avatar: The Last Airbender is the greatest cartoon of all time. It’s not flawless, but what it does well, it does so insanely well that I am transported every time I watch it. And really it starts with this pilot. So much information is crammed into these thirty minutes. We meet all of the major characters (for season one), learn the basic structure of the world and its magic system, and find our antagonist. When you put this together with episode two, you also get the overarching plot of the entire series. (Minus the ticking clock element of Sozin’s comet, but that comes soon enough.)
Now, okay, those are just elements any beginning should have, right? Protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, general idea of what the world is like.
But this episode does those things uniquely well. Why? Every piece of information is related through character interaction.
Let’s start with the prologue. First, I have to confess something. I hate prologues. I think they are useless and pander to the audience, since everything that appears in a prologue inevitably appears somewhere else in a more interesting manner.
But I think this prologue is done well. For one thing, it’s short. For another, despite the world-spanning information it relates, the story is Katara’s. She talks about how the war with the Fire Nation affected her life specifically, not just how things are in general. We care about the myth of the Avatar not because it’s what the prologue is about and therefore we are obligated. We care because of character: because the narrator says it’s the only thing giving her hope.
And then we move on to Sokka and Katara’s argument. This conversation provides us with a ton of information: Katara and Sokka’s place in the world, their characters, their sibling relationship, the basics of waterbending, the current status of the Southern Water Tribe. But does it feel that way? No! It feels like a sibling argument you could overhear anywhere (except for the magic water tricks). Pretty much every line of dialog tells us something we need to know, but it sounds natural. It’s not a couple of characters discussing information they should both already know; it’s a pair of siblings rehashing a familiar argument. We learn things without realizing we’re learning.
The same thing goes for Zuko’s introduction. We get the basics of Zuko and Iroh very quickly (well, the very very basics of Iroh, but Iroh is one of the series’ best surprises). Zuko is driven to the point of madness, and Iroh is more laid-back. We also learn about the state of the Fire Nation. And, yeah, we know he’s our antagonist, and we know enough of his backstory to understand why he’s the antagonist. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am, we have almost everything we need to understand our series lined up.
The entire episode is that way. By putting a bunch of characters who don’t get along in the same place, they reveal a ton of information through arguments that spring up as natural consequences of their different personalities.
This accomplishes two main things. First, it infodumps without appearing to infodump. All of the information is disguised, except for the prologue and maybe when Katara is talking to Aang on the Fire Nation ship. (You notice how all the information from the prologue appears somewhere else more naturally? It’s almost like we didn’t need that prologue at all. We really needed to trust that our audience is very smart and can figure things out on their own. BUT THAT’S ANOTHER POST.) Characters don’t tell long stories about how the world got to the way it was. They’re not even learning new things. They’re just bickering, for the most part, and it all feels like breathing.
Second, it gives us a reason to care about all this information. We learn all the character relationships right away, and it makes the story more fun. We want to spend more time with Sokka and Katara, so we can find out if Sokka ever stops being such a grump or if Katara ever gets to realize her dreams. This technique also humanizes Zuko, who otherwise is reeeally boring in this episode. He would come off as just a generic antagonist character with a neat design, but he has an uncle who cares about him, so we’re intrigued. We want to know why Zuko’s on this quest.
What’s great is that all of this is relayed through dialog. Usually it’s hard to draw from movies and television because they have visuals and sounds to help build their worlds. And that does play a part here—for example, the different colored outfits tell us who belongs to what nation without us having to ask. The cultural influences are also obvious at a glance. However, in the pilot, the cultural differences aren’t highlighted the way they are when the characters interact with more distinctly Asian elements. If this entire episode took place against a blank backdrop, we’d still get pretty much all the same information, because although the visuals are striking, the character interactions actually do all the work.
The elements that make this pilot good are not unique to television, so pay attention. It’s gonna be on the test. And by the test I mean when you’re sitting there chewing off your arm in frustration trying to relay information to your readers.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned anything about Aang yet. There's a reason. Unfortunately. But we'll get to him next time.
- The voice acting is sooo bad in this episode. I mean, it’s good when just comparing it to a regular show, but after watching the rest of the series, everyone sounds so clunky.
- What’s really interesting is the characters are just shells of themselves (except maybe Katara and Aang), but the subtle changes that happen as the series progresses feel natural. Sokka’s more serious here, and Iroh just seems like the bumbling fool Zuko takes him for. Both characters changed because of their voice actors—Jack De Sena was too good of a comedian to keep Sokka so serious, and Mako was… I mean, Mako—but that’s not the way it feels in the show. Sokka loosens up the further they get away from his self-imposed duties in the tribe. Iroh gains complexity as we learn his backstory.
- I just love that everything happens in this show because a girl smashed the patriarchy and accidentally smashed some ice in the bargain. Katara, you’re my forever girl.