So here we are at episode three of the series, and whoa is it dark. Aang discovers the genocide of his people, and Zuko meets the antagonist who’s going to spend the rest of the season rubbing his nose in the dirt like a bad puppy. This post is mostly about Zuko’s scenes, but first a quick comment on Aang’s story.
This episode expands the Avatar mythos only slightly—past lives, the Avatar cycle, et cetera—and that’s good, since the Avatar universe is unique and we couldn’t handle learning too much about it at once. We don’t get a ton of detail about the nature of the Avatar state or reincarnation yet; at this point it seems mostly like a typical grand destiny thing. And, like most typical grand destiny things, there’s a scene where the protagonist learns everything he loves has been destroyed. Think Luke finding out his aunt and uncle were killed in A New Hope. (Star Wars is one we’ll come back to, since these stories draw from the same deep well. But that’s for later.)
Here, we get Aang stumbling on the corpse of his beloved mentor. This is the third episode of the series, guys! Ease us in here! (Never mind that death is already a specter that haunts the series. We’re all used to fridged parents, so we never for a second think that Katara’s mother will be an important character or even just a foundational trauma for Katara.)
Anyway, not the point. As I keep pointing out, this is a typical fantasy trope, but Avatar excels at it. The genocide usually happens before outlining the main quest, as a way to get the main character’s ass in gear. Since Aang is already out to save the world, he doesn’t need this incident to motivate him. Therefore, it’s a character moment, not a plot moment. We’re all with Katara in this episode: we don’t want Aang to find out what happened because we don’t want him to get hurt. And when he does, it’s devastating. A lot of silly things happen in this episode, but it’s also more emotional than the pilot, which I really appreciate.
For another thing, since Aang is already committed to the quest, the bonding moment between our main characters feels more genuine. It’s not like Star Wars, where Luke falls in with Obi Wan and Han Solo because he doesn’t have other options. Aang is already allies with Katara and Sokka, but now he’s becoming friends with them. (Friendship is the best part of this show. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.)
Okay, there’s that. So let’s talk about Zuko. Here we get our first real indication that Zuko isn’t just our well-developed antagonist; he’s another main character in his own right. By introducing Zhao, Zuko becomes an underdog, and we root for him.
I mean, before this Zuko was not a sympathetic character. Intriguing, certainly, but dude had no chill. But Zhao is such a raging bag of dicks that we start being on Zuko’s side. Or at least on Iroh’s side. We want Zuko to win, but only because we don’t want Zhao to win.
This “lesser of two evils” idea is a great way to approach the problem of making your antagonist sympathetic. How can you make sure that your antagonist has a chance to do really bad things, so he still counts as an antagonist, but also find a way to make him sympathetic so that we buy his inevitable redemption arc? By introducing some other jerk who’s worse. Avatar uses this a lot—I’m looking at you, Azula—because Zuko takes a looooong time to stop being an asshole, and if there weren’t other characters to hate, we wouldn’t have put up with him for so long. And it works. Pretty much from his first words, we all want Zhao to die in a fire, and we want Zuko to beat him.
Introducing Zhao also adds some detail to the Fire Nation. So far, Zuko and his faceless mooks have been the Big Bad, and Iroh has been the only indication the Fire Nation characters will be more than faceless NPCs. Now we’ve got Zhao, who shows us how bad the Fire Nation really is. All the Fire Nation characters so far buy the company line about conquering the world, but there are different ideas about how that conquering should work. Again, this helps us believe that the Fire Nation can be redeemed. It’s not just something to be torn down like the Empire. The people of the Fire Nation are just people with differing opinions, and we eventually want them to come around to the side of good just like Zuko.
- I really hated Zuko when the show was airing. I could never forgive him for all the bad stuff he did. However, rewatching has made me realize what a dork this kid is. He’s the butt of every joke in the Fire Nation scenes, and he’s a terrible liar. He’s a teenager, in other words.
- How long was Aang standing in front of that statue of Gyatso? I always wonder that during flashbacks.
- The scene in the Air Temple Sanctuary made me wonder a few things. A) Who carves all those statues? B) How are they arranged? Did they start with Avatar Wan and just scoot the statues around as more avatars were born?
- They don’t tell you what happened the last time Zuko dueled someone, but you can figure it out through that slow pan over his face that settles on his scar. Visual storytelling only trick, yes, but soooo effective. After being a fan of this show for so long, I almost forgot how Zuko’s scar was such a shock and such a big mystery.
- Wouldn’t the statue lighting up thing have happened earlier when Aang tapped into the Avatar state? Yes, yes, this is more dramatically appropriate. But still.
- The Agni Kai is the coolest thing that never gets used again.
- It’s good to have Zuko duel a master because it emphasizes that he sucks at firebending. Like Luke’s initial comment about the Millennium Falcon. When Luke sees the ship for the first time, we as the audience are like, “Whoa, spaceship!” until Luke says, “That hunk of junk?” And that tells us what kind of world we live in. To us, Zuko looks talented because he’s doing martial arts and making flame appear out of nowhere. But when he duels Zhao, we realize he’s not all that experienced or talented. (And then Azula shows up and makes it even more obvious, but we’ll get there.)
- I think the bit where Iroh stops Zhao and Zuko from continuing their duel is the first real hint we get that there is a lot more to Iroh than we first thought. I mean, Zhao refers to Iroh as a general, but it’s with disdain, and we’ve seen no indication of Iroh’s abilities as a firebender yet. TL;DR: ILU Iroh, please marry me.
- Again, really quiet ending. I forgot how many episodes trail off like this, with quiet shots of the characters riding Appa. Not just the ones that merit it, like “Lake Laogai” (which we are not going to talk about until we have to because I’m still not over it), but a good quarter or so. It’s part of what sets Avatar apart—not even just from kids’ shows, but from media in general. We don’t always need screaming and action to keep our attention.