Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Avatar: The Glory of Aang

In my last post I said that Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best animated series ever made; then I proceeded to rip it to pieces for its disappointing cop-out ending. I feel bad about that.
As I said, I love Avatar - but that's probably not the impression that last post gave. So, to restore balance to the Force (or possibly to the chakras), I'll be using this post to look at the things the show gets right.

If you were to ask me which is the best season of Avatar my default answer is, and always has been, Book Two: Earth. But now, watching it back for the umpteenth time, the second series seems to have a lot more fluff and filler than I remember. Stuff like that swamp episode, or the first three quarters of The Chase. Tales of Ba Sing Se is blatant filler of the most gratuitous order (though Sokka makes it work). Likewise Avatar Day (likewise Sokka). That's not even mentioning the entire subplot with Appa!

Book One has a lot less of this - or rather, if it does, it hides it better. There are filler episodes, but at that point we're still learning about Avatar's world, so even filler is interesting and new and educational. The only ones that really stand out as obvious fluff are The Great Divide and The Fortuneteller - but even those serve to teach us more about these characters we're still getting to know (and the latter gets a pass anyway on the strength of just one line).

Book Three is similar in that we've never visited the Fire Nation before that series. Again the filler episodes are teaching us about this new environment, and about the people living there. Up 'til now our only experience of the Fire Nation has been their military - faceless soldiers who do bad things. Episodes like The Painted Lady, or that weird Footloose one, show us that people in this land are just as oppressed as those in the Earth Kingdom - even while they're blatantly killing time before the real meat of the series begins.
Series three is also the first series to really embrace what Tales of Ba Sing Se tried to do, which is to just go crazy with it. The Play and the amazing anime beach episode (also, somehow, very important to the plot) are both half-an-hour of winking and nudging the audience - and Daydreams and Nightmares is just plain bonkers (did I mention that everybody loves chakras?).

So why do I prefer Book Two? As a series it's essentially treading water until Toph arrives in episode 6, and then it wastes even more time when we reach Ba Sing Se. Again, not even mentioning Appa's subplot. It has (discounting the finale) the deepest, and the longest, low-points of the entire show.
But it also has the highest high-points. Zuko Alone is one of the best episodes of the entire programme. The end of The Chase (after a pretty poor first half) is also brilliant. Zuko's entire second series arc, in fact, is one of the best things in the entire run - and it has that bit where Uncle sings.
Series two also introduces Toph, who is obviously amazing, and Azula, who is obviously terrifying. Azula's far more effective as both a character and a threat than either Ozai or Zhao (and infinitely better than Sparky-Sparky-Boom-Man) so this series has the best villain too.
But the real reason that Book Two is my favourite is how coherent it is as a complete series. The way that, from start to finish, it's always about the same few things, and how those same things all collide come the finale.

Think about the final battle of each series. In Book One, Team Avatar must save the North Pole from a Fire Nation attack - something that is only set up a few episodes earlier. There's also some business with two mystical koi fish and Sokka's new girlfriend, both of which are also introduced in the last few episodes. It ties in with a recurring theme of technology versus nature (and skepticism versus mysticism) that crops up throughout the first season, but that's about it. Don't misunderstand, though, this ending still works pretty damn well.
In Book Three, Team Avatar must stop the "Phoenix King"'s ridiculous plan to (literally) set the world on fire - something that's never ever mentioned before the finale itself! Also energybending and lion-turtles and Aang's unwillingness to kill (he's blown up a lot of ships and tanks at this point) are all clumsily introduced during the ending itself. It doesn't even have the thematic anchor of season one's ending. This ending does not work so well.
In Book Two, by contrast, Team Avatar must prevent the Fire Nation from conquering Ba Sing Se, capital city of the Earth Kingdom. This conflict is set up in the first episode of the series - maybe even before that, in season one. Everything else about that ending - the temptation of Zuko, Aang learning to let go, everything with the Dai Li - is set up and foreshadowed throughout the series. The only thing that feels out-of-nowhere is the sudden introduction of Guru Pathic - but we did already meet him briefly in Appa's Lost Days and, unlike energybending, the aid he provides is something Aang knew existed and has been searching for for some time.

Every episode (except, perhaps, that swamp one) pushes forwards these themes. Episodes I’ve already described as filler are nevertheless focused on the central concepts of the series. Both The Cave of Two Lovers and Return to Omashu, while not progressing the overall story very much, highlight Aang’s reliance on emotional attachments (to Katara and Bumi respectively) and the entire Appa plot, much as I keep joking about it, does the same thing. Almost losing Katara and actually losing Appa are the only things in the series that drive Aang into the uncontrolled Avatar State - and it’s no coincidence that they come at the beginning and exact midpoint of the series: the whole series is built around these ideas, so that the finale mirrors and contrasts what has come before.
Zuko’s arc is even more pronounced. The battle between what he wants and what he thinks he wants plays into every episode he appears in, and the string of choices and realisations he makes mean that his character is subtly different every time we see him - abandoning Uncle, accepting Uncle, dealing with Jet, dealing with Jin (his date), and finally helping Appa. Like Aang, this is underlined exactly half way through his arc by his screaming at the sky in Bitter Work. And, like Aang, the finale reflects and complements everything that has happened to him. It’s brilliantly done.
It’s not just those main two characters, either. Toph gets almost as much focus - her need to prove herself, and the insecurity it stems from, coming up again and again from her first episode to her last. The Chase and Tales of Ba Sing Se, again both mostly filler, highlight this, as do The Blind Bandit and The Serpent’s Pass. When she fails to save Appa in the desert (though not actually in The Desert) this gets hammered home to both us and her and, once again, it comes at the exact midpoint of the series.
Azula doesn’t have an arc the way the others do (though she does get the most interesting arc in Book Three) but her single-mindedness and skill at manipulation are emphasised from the minute we meet her, using Zuko’s desires against him. She does the same thing with Ty Lee, and later with the Dai Li, and, once again, the end of her story - the temptation of Zuko - mirrors where that story began.

This is all fantastically constructed, and perhaps the best thing the series then does with it is to split the characters up as the ending approaches - each character must deal with these issues alone before being thrown together to see how they affect one another. Even Katara and Sokka are separated to deal with her hatred of the Fire Nation and his desire to be a man - themes which, while not foreshadowed as overtly as Aang’s or Toph’s, have been bubbling under the surface for two whole series.
Then, after each character faces the conclusion of their individual theme and each seems to be heading towards a particular solution, the arcs suddenly come crashing together, veering off in new directions. Some get the catharsis they needed (“I am the greatest earthbender in the world!”) and others find it in a way they weren’t expecting (as with Sokka realising where he’s most needed), but it’s Aang and Zuko of course - their respective struggles reinforced so well throughout the season - who get the most interesting changes and turns in that ending. The whole thing eventually converges on Zuko - fitting, since his arc is the strongest in the entire programme - and comes together in unexpected, undesirable, but totally perfect ways.
Contrast this with series three, which splits up our characters, has them face their individual problems, then reunites them after the fact just to talk about what happened. It’s going for enormous scale, but the separate story threads feel quite small in the face of Book Two’s tightly interwoven character arcs.

The second series is just built so well, with every episode - filler, standalone or otherwise - driving towards an ending that must have been meticulously planned from the beginning. It escalates slowly and surely, focusing all the themes and character journeys towards that one unifying crescendo. It’s wonderful, honestly, and it’s one of the best seasons of television - certainly of a cartoon - I think I’ve ever seen. In terms of such an unblinking focus on the endgame, the only comparisons that come to mind are Babylon 5's fourth season, Doctor Who's fifth and, of course, the first series of Game of Thrones.
Book Two is the best example of this, but it’s a level of storytelling quality that’s consistent throughout the whole of all three seasons. The buildup and conclusion to Day of Black Sun in the third series, for example, is similarly great, and the worldbuilding in series one deserves a discussion all to itself. And that's all before we even mention the great dialogue, fantastic characters, stunning choreography, terrific animation (with hilarious inbetweens), and the way it can jump effortlessly from genuinely dark and serious stuff to ridiculous humour, doing justice to both!

It’s just an amazing show, basically, despite what I said last week. I love Avatar.