On the surface this episode looks like another episode running down the checklist of requirements for a series opener: we get our first confrontation between protagonist and antagonist; the main character reveals his mysterious powers and his destiny; and the characters embark on a quest that provides the story structure. This sounds pretty generic on the outside, like the first world in a video game. You know. The one that always makes you go, “I should play that again,” and then you play it again and immediately get bored.
Except that, again, Avatar does things really well. How? By subverting our expectations via humor.
Think about it. If you describe this episode by the beats, it’s dramatic: Aang is banished from the village until Zuko comes knocking. Then Aang gives himself up to Zuko, but escapes by invoking the Avatar state, and he and the siblings set out on a quest to save the world and fulfill his destiny.
Whoo! I’m exhausted just thinking about it. But if you already know everything that happens, without anything else to make it stand out, you might skip it to get to the really good stuff. The only thing more boring than a prologue is a prologue you’ve watched ten times.
Butttt if you go into more detail, Avatar distinguishes itself. Think about it. We get this several minute sequence of build-up to Zuko’s arrival at the Southern Water Tribe: Aang noticing the Fire Nation ship, Zuko and Sokka suiting up, the ship destroying the village… and what happens? Sokka gets his ass kicked, and Zuko gets his dignity destroyed via boomerang. Then the calvary arrives. On penguin-back. I think we’ve all given up on a dramatic confrontation at this point. (Not to say there aren’t excellent fight scenes in this episode. They’re just not the kind of fight scenes we would expect from a normal show.)
This continues through the whole episode: Aang escapes his captors via sneeze, Sokka beats Zuko by bonking him on the head again… it’s great. I think Zuko falling on his face is my favorite joke of the entire first season. (I take great pleasure in early Zuko’s pain. Get used to this.)
This emphasis on humor sets the story apart in two ways. First, the story refuses to take the easy answer and have everything resolved via show of strength. For a show famous for its fight scenes, Avatar is really about conflict resolution. Aang doesn’t start fights. He finishes them, and that only reluctantly. Aang never gets angry in the pilot. If anything, he’s just confused that everybody else takes things so seriously. This is a great contrast to most chosen one narratives, where everything funny gets thrown out the window eventually. (Except in Harry Potter, because Harry Potter is just about perfect.)
Second, the humor helps flesh out the characters. Sokka, Katara, and even Gran Gran become more interesting through their jokes. For example, the most important Sokka moment in the pilot comes when he flips out over Appa actually flying, because we don’t get to see that really goofy, excited part of him on a regular basis until later in the series.
But that’s most important when it comes to our antagonist and protagonist. Zuko gets his dignity taken away at every possible opportunity. At this point, we don’t have a lot of reason to like him—Zuko does a lot of really bad stuff in this episode, and he’s a jerk with no sense of humor. But the narrative punctures his self-importance wherever possible, suggesting he’s going to be more than an antagonist some day. (Looking forward in the story, this foreshadows Zuko’s most important change. When he learns humility, he stops being the butt of every joke.)
And Aang gets to be more than the generic chosen one. A lot of times, chosen one characters are reluctant to accept their destiny, but it’s just kind of… because the story says so, or because the destiny is something bad or difficult. At this point in time, when Aang says he doesn’t want to be the Avatar, we don’t know why, since he didn’t know about the conflict with the Fire Nation. But we don’t question it because it makes sense with his character. Aang is a goof and, again, kind of a derp. If you had to pick out chosen one protagonist in a lineup, odds are you’d go with someone like Zuko instead of someone like Aang. (What’s really great is the story preserves Aang’s derpiness and makes that into a strength instead of a weakness at every opportunity, but that is another post.)
So yeah, the humor’s doing a lot here. It’s not just lightening the tone because it’s a kid’s show. It’s helping to set this story apart and make it a classic.
- The animation in the first season is sooo pretty. Although I forgot about Katara’s shiny anime eyes.
- Sokka’s war paint is the best underutilized thing in the show. I really wish he got to do this more than once or twice.
- Not to talk too much about things you can’t do outside a visual medium, but the use of color in the pilot is so, so great. The story doesn’t go into too much detail about the different nations at this point—it shows, not tells, wink wink nudge nudge—but we don’t really need that. We can tell all the characters are from different areas because they’re all color coded. And then there’s that slight sepia shift at the end, when Aang confesses his destiny. *Aunt Wu voice* VERY CLEVER.
- I like the fight scenes with Zuko and Sokka because they foreshadow Zuko’s strengths. The obvious question is why he doesn’t just firebend right away, and the answer (not stated outright, although heavily implied) is that he sucks at firebending but rocks at hand-to-hand.
- The fight scenes also foreshadow Aang’s weakness: his reluctance to engage. (Which ends up being a strength, but THAT’S ANOTHER POST OKAY WE’LL GET THERE.) I mean, part of that is just the style of martial arts he uses, but most of it is Aang’s personality. Especially at this point in the story, everything is just a joke.
- On an unrelated note, how the heck does Zuko survive being slammed around his bedroom like that? I mean, ow.
- I really love the ending of this episode. Aang gets all excited, but that’s not where it stops. Everything gets quiet and thoughtful again. Avatar isn’t afraid to let the characters sit for a little bit.