Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, Aang and Zuko go searching for the old firebending masters in one of my personal favorite episodes. Let’s dig in.
1. Zuko Team-Ups Begin!
Now that we’re firmly in the second half of the season, and now that we’ve established the new status quo — Zuko is in the group and Aang needs to learn firebending before the comet arrives — we get to explore that new status quo. Which can only mean one thing: character team-ups! After spending so long watching Zuko go through his soul-searching solo adventures, I like the decision to go character-by-character now, teaming him up with everyone in the group so we can get a few last moments of character development before the finale.
2. Deep bending theory.
From the start, this episode dove deep into the philosophical ideas behind bending. When Zuko realizes he can’t bend at the level he used to, he turns inward pretty quickly. Aang is still afraid of fire, seeing it as an agent of destruction. Toph reveals more about her time learning earthbending from badgermoles, explaining how “it wasn’t just about fighting, it was their way of interacting with the world.” All of this happens in the first few minutes, before the main plot even starts, and these concepts continue to develop over the following twenty minutes. It’s one of the most effective first acts in the entire show.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying this is one of the show’s best-written episodes. This was written by John O’Bryan, who is responsible for some of the more comedic, and in some cases simplistic, episodes of the show. Some fans don’t love his writing and see his work as more childish than the other writers’, but I think when he is put on an episode with deeper themes, he has a way of distilling those themes into simple, beautiful moments of symbolism while also keeping the episode upbeat and hilarious. And in that sense, I think his scripts are the show at its best. It’s certainly the case here.
3. Pulpy Indiana Jones-style Adventure.
A large part of this episode features Aang and Zuko going through a pulpy adventure, discovering old ruins reminiscent of the major South American civilizations, getting stuck in booby traps, and meeting a legendary lost people.
Given how thematically strong this episode is, I find it fascinating that this is the direction the team chose. Those old pulpy adventures have such a throw-away quality to them — the term “pulpy” even comes from the low-grade pulp paper that was intended to be discarded after use — and I love that they combined this with such decidedly important material. For instance, the dance Aang and Zuko have to do is based on the pulp idea of “let’s do this silly useless thing to get us out of this trap.” Later, however, the dance is revealed to be an old dragon-based firebending form which has great implications for the show’s world and for developing Iroh’s character — and Iroh isn’t even in this episode! Few things that happen here are without meaning.
4. Buddy comedy.
As Aang and Zuko bounce around between booby traps, they start to resemble a buddy comedy, with Aang as the funny timid character and Zuko as the strong-willed angry one. This is best represented when the two have to carry their flames to the top of the mountain. Aang, timid and afraid of fire’s raw destructive power, keeps his flame small and close to his chest with his other hand guarding it, like a child holding a baby chick in his palm and afraid to make the tiniest movement. Zuko, on the other hand, is used to being around destructive fire — just look at his face — and keeps it burning confidently in one hand away from his body, even as the wind blows against him.
I appreciate the implication here that, while he may now be a well-realized Avatar, he — how does the phrase go? — has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But Zuko believes Aang can save the world.Continued below
5. “I understand.”
I’ve seen this episode about a dozen times by now and I still get chills during the dragon scene. It’s a combination of the build-up throughout the episode, the build-up throughout the scene with the pounding music and the increasing tension through editing and shorter shot length, the use of beautiful bright colors, the sense of surprise, the sense of scale between the characters and the dragons, the use of a shaky-cam-like technique, the soft blur over the image, and probably even more that I didn’t consciously notice. Everything about the visuals, the audio, and the story pacing make this moment incredibly memorable.
Easily the best part of this scene is Zuko’s revelation. Looking up into the sky after dancing with the dragons, with the dragons’ beautiful fire swirling around him in slow-motion, he says, “I understand.” He and Aang finally understand the truth about firebending, that it’s NOT destruction and fighting. It’s, as Toph stated, a way of interacting with the environment, and as Iroh always said, not inherently bad. Fire is life and energy, which means it can be drive and will and positivity. Ever since the first episode, the characters have been under the impression that fire is dangerous by its very nature, yet here they realize it’s just another aspect of life that society has perverted.
Zuko has a new inner drive now that he understands his place in the universe, and he has replaced his self-destructive motivations with a newer, healthier one. Aang is no longer afraid of fire, and he has learned to fully harness it for himself. Fire isn’t bad or good; it simply is.
That’s all for me this week. What did you think of the episode? Were you glad to finally see Aang and Zuko become the buddy comedy pairing we deserved? Did you have any fire-related personal revelations because of this episode? Let’s chat in the comments!