I talked about the pilot as two separate episodes, even though it’s a two-parter, because the parts were doing two distinct things. Episode one introduced all our main characters; episode two smacked them all together and created the plot.
“Winter Solstice,” however, I’m going to talk about in one long post because these two episodes are doing one really, really important thing: getting Aang to step up and be the protagonist.
But we’ll talk about that in a second. First, let’s talk about Zuko, since he gets cemented as our deuteragonist. Two things happen to Zuko in these episodes: he prioritizes something over the Avatar, and Zhao shows up again.
Let’s be frank here: Zuko is an jerk to his uncle. It’s an important part of his character arc—probably the most important part, because Iroh makes us care about Zuko even though he does a bunch of awful, stupid things. First, Iroh’s awesome, and he cares about Zuko, so we care because he does. He also explains things about Zuko that Zuko would never verbalize himself, like his backstory in “The Storm.” Second, Iroh reminds us that, ultimately, Zuko is just a kid like everyone else in the cast, and that means Zuko still has a chance to grow.
But Zuko doesn’t recognize any of these things about his uncle. He thinks Iroh is just a fat, lazy failure with no sense of what really matters, never mind that Iroh is the only person besides his mother who has ever been kind to Zuko. In a way, Zuko being mean to an uncle who loves him so much is worse than burning down villages, because at least the whole Fire Nation burns down villages. It’s not just that Zuko is on the wrong side of the conflict; he has to realize who loves him and who has his best interest at heart. And up to this point, Zuko has given little indication that he likes his uncle, much less loves him enough to change for Iroh’s sake.
So when Zuko turns away from Appa and follows his uncle instead. It’s our first inkling that Zuko has a heart in there after all. He can do the right thing. We need reminders that Zuko isn’t heartless so we can keep rooting for him to get his head out of his ass.
Then Zhao shows up again, putting the audience in a weird spot. When Zhao was an asshole all over the place in episode three, rooting for Zuko was okay because Zuko wasn’t pursuing Aang right that second. Yet now Zuko is chasing Aang, but we’re still rooting for him because Zhao is such a massive dick that we don’t want him to get anywhere.
So we’re in that “lesser of two evils” place again. Kind of like how we start liking Draco Malfoy because all the other Death Eaters make him look like a whiny pissbaby. (He was always a whiny pissbaby, but still.) Again, Zhao’s presence makes us more invested in Zuko, because we don’t care what happens as long as Commander Dickhead doesn’t get what he wants.
Okay. So here’s the real point of the episodes.
I’ve talked about how Aang is not doing a very good job at protagonist-ing. That’s partly because one important element of our plot was missing: the ticking clock, AKA Sozin’s Comet. But it’s more than that. Even though in episode three we see Aang’s entire nation has been destroyed, Aang still derps all over the place. It’s like he doesn’t care, or realize there are real human lives at stake if he doesn’t get his act together.
The opening scene of “The Spirit World” is the first time Aang shows real emotion again. He says he understands his duty as an Avatar—and, more importantly, that he wants to fill that role. He just doesn’t know how.
Suddenly, everything makes sense. Aang is just a lost kid. We knew that, but we didn’t know it because Aang had never admitted it out loud. This is the first time Aang cares about something serious besides his friends.
And Aang gets rewarded for caring.
For one thing, Aang gets to solve problems his way, respecting the values of his people. When he tries to fight Hei Bai, he fails. Instead, he resolves the conflict through empathy, not violence. (Further evidence that “King of Omashu” was not needed. Yes, I’m going to keep beating that horse.)
For another, we get Aang’s first voluntary use of the Avatar State (well, sort of—at least Roku asks permission first). He literally takes the mantle of Avatar.
Also—and this is less obvious—Katara and Sokka slide into their support roles. Katara’s not arguing that they should stay and help this village, like “Imprisoned.” Instead, she’s fulfilling her role as group mom. Sokka gets to build some things and make a plan. Because Aang finally steps into his role, they can play theirs.
My biggest question here is why these episodes didn’t take place after episode three. When we find out that Aang is paralyzed by his ignorance of his Avatar duties, we’re sympathetic, and we understand why he’s been screwing around so much. Without that context, he looks like he’s thoughtless instead of just cheerful and easily amused.
Also, with the ticking clock missing, we’re left wondering if we’re going to derp all over the place and then remember the North Pole exists at the very end. (Which is what happens, but we’ll get to that point soon enough.)
These episodes don’t even take halfway through the season, like the Day of Black Sun in season three. I can’t think of a reason why they’d be here, because nothing in the three episodes that came before had to happen first. (The trip to the Southern Air Temple is in the right place, though. We do need confirmation of what happened to Aang’s people so that’s not just hanging over the series the entire time.) IT IS A MYSTERY.
- The older I get, the more I appreciate Iroh. I’d much rather sit around in a hot tub than do anything else.
- This is the first time where people actually ask the Gaang for help. It’s a monster of the week episode! Which, interestingly enough, is not a formula Avatar ever falls into. I mean, yes, every episode is “new and interesting place we’re only going to see once,” but the conflicts are always distinct. It’s not like “show up in a new place every week and fight Zuko” or anything.
- Hei Bai is terrifying. The creature designs were always top-notch. I haven’t watched much of Legend of Korra beyond the second season, but something I am excited for is more spirit designs.
- Poor Iroh. The soldiers don’t even give him any pants. But why wouldn’t they gag him? Good firebenders breathe fire all the time, and Iroh is a formidable foe. Maybe they don’t take him seriously after his defeat? Or I guess he could just burn through the gag… But maybe they’re just not very smart. I mean, they decide to break his hands, when he didn’t even use his hands to bend—he used his breath and his feet. Clearly the Earth Kingdom doesn’t have very high standards.
- For being all creepy with Katara’s necklace, Zuko’s not doing anything with it yet. Another reason why this episode would have made sense later—we could have led directly into “The Waterbending Scroll.” And Zutara shippers would have turned into Foaming Mouth Guy (more), because that would make arguments for a love triangle way stronger. The way things are set up now, Katara and Zuko only interact intermittently, as opposed to having a smooth relationship arc that follows through the episodes.
- We’re not going to talk about this sequence in the movie. I remember being upset to hear that the Kyoshi warriors had been cut from the film before we knew how godawful it was. Now I’m glad, since it means I don’t have flashbacks to it. I’ll be glad when we’re out of season one and I can bury those memories again.
- I think ostrich horses are awesome. There’s no other point to this bullet. I’d just love to have one.
- Lucky Korra. You never had to go through all this solstice crap. And that’s good, because you wouldn’t have had the patience for it anyway. You would probably have just burned the temple down or something.
- Jeeze, those earthbender soldiers don’t mess around. They skip straight from transport duty to permanent maiming. But I guess the Fire Nation task list is just “burn everything” underlined several times, so maybe this is tame by comparison.
- IDK why the bathroom thing is a running joke where the spirit world is involved. I guess we do need to remember this is a kid’s show now and again.
- Realistic consequences! They get food and supplies here, so they don’t have to worry about that for a few episodes. Again, always ask where your characters are getting their food and their money. The conflict writes itself.
- Aang knows how to solve problems. Zuko… not so much. There are other strategies besides head-on collisions, dude.
- Again with the quiet ending. If I can complain about Legend of Korra for a minute—the Gaang works as a believable group of friends. Team Korra never does. And part of the reason is because we don’t get a lot of quiet moments like this, where we see them together, recovering from all the crazy stuff that happens. We get all of the action but none of the aftercare, basically.