Thursday, 4 July 2013

Avatar: The Problem of Aang

My fiancée and I are watching through the Avatar cartoon again (a practice which is fast becoming an annual tradition) and I noticed something. It's something I've probably noticed before - but I've never had a blog before. So, because I'm loud and opinionated, I'm going to tell you about it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (or Avatar: The Legend of Aang in countries where "bender" means something else) is one of the best animated series ever made. We all know this, so I won't dwell on it. If you haven't seen it - see it! The sequel series, The Legend of Korra is not quite as good (it's lacking in, for example, Sokka), but it's still better than almost anything else out there.
But I've always had a problem with Legend of Aang. A teeny, tiny little problem that I like to call "that bloody stupid ending". Because, while Avatar as a whole is a brilliant achievement, the four-part finale, Sozen's Comet, is a weak, scrappy, deus-ex-machina-ridden nightmare. Actually, no - that's not true. The Toph/Sokka/Suki section is suitably awesome, and the Zuko/Katara/Azula showdown is among the show's best ever parts. But Aang's story - the third corner of the triangle - collapses, and brings the whole finale down with it. For me, at least, Sozen's Comet is a failure.

Naturally, spoilers follow.

So what have I noticed in rewatching the series? Has something changed my mind?
No - quite the opposite. I've noticed something that crystallises what was already wrong with the ending. Something that makes the failure hurt even more.
It concerns the first episode of the second season; an episode called The Avatar State. The overall arc of season two - Earth - from the very beginning to the Empire Strikes Back ending ("If I leave now, I'll never complete my training - but I have to save my friends!") is all about the Avatar State. It's about Aang's fear, acceptance, attempts to control, and eventual loss of this glowing, superpowered god-state. One would think, after that entire season of setup, that the Avatar State would play into the finale in some way. Oh, it absolutely does - but not in a way that makes any narrative sense.

The first episode of season two is about an Earth Kingdom general who believes that, after his victory at the North Pole, Aang is more than ready to defeat Firelord Ozai. All they need to do, he argues, is get Aang to the Fire Nation and release the awesome power of the Avatar State. By the end of the episode it becomes apparent that Aang has no control over the Avatar State. It is an uncontrollable force of destruction - too chaotic and unpredictable to use. If Aang is to defeat Ozai, the episode tells us, he must master the two remaining elements (earth and fire) and beat the Firelord on his own terms. Which would seem a fair and noble message for the episode to have, if only any of that had actually been true.

The reason that specific episode has spawned this blog post is that, in the finale, Aang defeats Ozai by... releasing the awesome power of the Avatar State. The general was right! Two seasons of the show, and countless lives within those seasons, could have been spared if they had just listened to that general!
All Aang's training; his mastery of all four elements; all the stuff that The Avatar State told us he would need to defeat the Firelord turns out to mean nothing. When they fight, Aang loses. He loses fast and he loses hard. At no point are they anything like an even match - Ozai decimates him from the very start.
Then Aang releases the Avatar State (an uncontrollable force of destruction that's too chaotic and unpredictable to use, don't forget) and the tables are instantly turned. Ozai runs away; Aang wins; hooray. Remind me again why this kid needed to spend two series learning earth and fire, please?

This could have played well if, and only if, Aang was in control of the Avatar State. If that glowy blue god had still been recognisably Aang, just more powerful, then I would have no complaints. That was, after all, the point he had supposedly reached at the end of season two. We never got to see him in control of it because Azula skewered him with lightning, but we saw him let go of his material attachments, we saw his chakras (everybody loves chakras) unblocked and flowing freely. As the guru explained, this should have given Aang complete control over the Avatar State.
Yet the thing that defeats the Firelord (so very very easily) is not Aang. It doesn't act like Aang (except in one fantastic moment involving a beard); it doesn't move like Aang; it doesn't fight like Aang (it barely "fights" at all). Then, when it is going to kill Ozai - something Aang has just spent three episodes telling everyone that he would never do - the only way Aang can prevent this is to actually come out of the Avatar State. That doesn't sound like control to me.

So now we find Aang once again facing Ozai as his own human self. Now, surely, he will use those bending skills he spent two seasons learning. This moment should justify all that training and hardship instead of just barging in blindly when the general suggested.
But no. Instead, Aang uses a fifth kind of bending (deus) that he learned literally that morning (ex) from a handy giant lion-turtle (machina). The show's greatest moment, this is not.

So, in conclusion, if Aang had listened to an overzealous general when he first reached the Earth Kingdom, the war would have been over roughly a day later. Two days at a stretch.
Aang spends two whole series learning how to bend earth and fire, mastering water, and learning to control the Avatar State. And not a single part of that comes into play during the show's eventual conclusion.
There's also the fact that the finale turns the credible villain of the Firelord into a caricature and a joke in the Phoenix King. But that's for another time.
For now, all that matters is that the general was right.

I love Avatar - but Sozen's Comet mainly just upsets me. Not least because, on top of everything else, it's clearly a meteor and not a comet.