Happy Independence Day eve, US friends, and welcome back to our weekly Avatar reviews. What better way to celebrate than with a look back at the beach episode? Grab a nice cold drink, sit back, and let’s revisit this little masterpiece.
1. Comedy is character
I’m a firm believer that plot is character. Plots should develop naturally out of the personalities and flaws of the characters. Likewise, I see comedy the same way. I think it’s safe to say that Katie Mattila, the staff Writer’s Assistant who wrote this episode, would agree.
The first two-thirds of the episode explores this concept, putting the characters in ordinary situations and letting their personalities do the comedic heavy lifting. When Azula wants to win at volleyball, she notices a slight hesitation in her opponent’s left leg, which she hypothesizes is from a childhood injury, and then exploits that weakness by relentlessly serving the ball to her left. When Ty Lee attracts so much attention that all the boys at the party corner her, she takes them all out with her pressure point attacks. Zuko and Mai are that emo couple in the corner of the party who can’t do anything right for each other.
It works because not only is all this funny, it’s also rooted firmly in the characters we’ve come to know.
2. Comedy is action
I noted in Dos Santos’s last episode, “The Headband,” that I liked seeing him do comedy since we’ve come to know him as an action director. This episode goes even further. The majority of the episode’s first two acts are gag after gag, and again, he turns every one into an event. The scene where Azula tries flirting with the host goes through so many distinct beats, each increasingly funny. The framing of the shot where Zuko and Mai are sitting bored and alone on a bench always makes me laugh due to its simplicity. There are so many little details to point out, but my favorite is probably how one of the two party hosts keeps adjusting his hair into the perfect pop-punk style, even though it never needs to be adjusted.
I think all this is proof that great action directors can often do great comedy, because both require a mastery of control over tiny details.
3. Combustion Man attacks!
Since the fire kids have the spotlight this week, that means Aang and friends get the subplot. As with the other season 3 subplots so far, it’s quick but very important to the show’s large-scale serialized story: the kids get attacked by Combustion Man! Notably, there are some unique techniques on display during these scenes.
When the kids are first attacked, there is no music. All we hear are small diegetic sound effects: footsteps on dirt, water splashing against rocks, and that strange, unsettling popping noise when Combustion Man shoots his forehead laser. That last one is particularly important for this point, since that singular sound effect wouldn’t stand out nearly as much if it had to compete on the track with music.
Additionally, since the scenes take place in the dark and Combustion Man’s powers deal with, well, combustion, the scenes turn into a visual exploration of light and dark. The moon provides just enough natural light so we can make out the dark blue tones of the location, but because it’s still dark, Combustion Man’s explosions set off a bright flash. To represent that contrast, everything appears almost black-and-white.
These short scenes pack in so much artistry that they feel much larger than their runtime would suggest.
4. “The beach has a special way of smoothing even the most ragged edges.”
As mentioned above, this episode was written by the staff Writer’s Assistant, Katie Mattila, and I think this episode is emblematic of the great work a young and fresh writer can do. She clearly has such passion for the characters, a unique perspective, and a wonderful sense of humor. But as is also common with young writers, the deep emotional parts of the episode come off a little melodramatic.
But this actually works in her favor. It’s a bunch of teenagers sitting around and pouring their hearts out! It’s a bunch of high-class kids airing their grievances about their families! Of course it’s going to be melodramatic! I particularly enjoyed the insight into Mai and Ty Lee that had only been hinted at way back when they first joined Azula. Mai’s upbringing as the single child of a politician shaped her personality, just as Ty Lee’s upbringing as a septuplet led her to reach out to establish her own identity. Valuable insights all around.Continued below
5. “Who are you mad at, Zuko?”
The most valuable of insights comes from the emo prince himself when he finally says, out loud, what he’d been internally struggling with for a while. I appreciate how much it takes to get him to that point. He has to be confronted, questioned, and verbally beaten down until he finally has his outburst, even though these feelings have been bubbling under the surface since the start of the season. “I’m mad at myself!”
Zuko has finally admitted that he’s made mistakes. He now knows that his father’s approval hasn’t bought him any happiness. So where does he go from here?
That’s it for me this week. What did you think of the episode? Did you enjoy the comedy, or were you itching to get back to the action? Thoughts on the fire kids’ personal revelations? Let me know in the comments!