Welcome back for the penultimate weekly Avatar review! Leading into next week’s finale, we have a unique take on the recap episode. It’s a blast.
1. Not exactly a recap.
As with “Nightmares and Daydreams” before the eclipse, the creators chose to make a comedic episode right before the big finale. This comedic episode also recaps the entire series so far, but I don’t see this as a traditional “recap episode.” The intention of a recap episode is to show the most important bits of a show to remind people of what happened before. This episode has a very different goal: to make the audience laugh through a botched retelling of past episodes.
The Fire Nation play that the team attends does recap a decent portion of the show — by my count, 24 (of 56) episodes are explicitly referenced or shown. However, these recaps do not provide much information, nor do they deliver it in a succinct or accurate way. The purpose is to exaggerate, making this more of an episode for long-term fans than an episode for people just joining in, or for lapsed viewers.
2. The Art of Bad.
Much of the episode’s comedy comes from the fact that the people putting on the play are bad. The actors are terrible, the sets and costumes are cheap, and the character portrayal is exaggerated to the point of inaccuracy. As anyone who has attended a bad regional theatre performance can attest, it’s much easier to put on a bad play than a good play. In fact, if you have a low budget and inexperienced creatives, you can be sure you’d end up with something like the play in this episode.
In animation, though, it takes skill to recognize what these bad elements are and to portray them. At a play, a bad actor is bad because they are incapable of a good performance. In animation, the director, storyboard artists, and animators have to go out of their way to draw the characters overreacting in specific ways that read as “bad.” A low budget on a play will often lead to badly constructed costumes because they will have so many rough edges, while in animation, each of those rough edges or bad makeup choices have to be designed and consistently animated. It’s difficult to animate a stage hand running behind play-Aang and attaching a cable to his back; in real life plays, that’s the easy way out.
The story was probably the easiest to put together, because writing parody is similar to writing other forms of comedy. Even so, the writing team really had to think about the logistics: what would have been known to the Fire Nation, and how did they pick up this information?
There’s an art to being bad, and the Avatar creators mastered that art for this episode.
3. Reflections on the past.
Watching this bad production of their lives has our team reflect heavily on the past. Aang has a bit of a masculinity crisis because he’s worried about how Katara sees him, and Katara begins to wonder if she sounds as emotional and preachy as her play character does. Zuko has it the worst of anyone: as he puts it, “it takes all the mistakes I’ve made in my life and shoves them back in my face.” While his story has always been one of mistakes and redemption, this play is focusing on the mistakes with zero redemption, as it doesn’t want to portray the traitor prince in a good light.
On the one hand, I was surprised that the depictions weren’t as overtly negative as they could have been. I guess since the Fire Nation citizens all know who their heroes and villains are, there’s no need to go overboard with making the audience hate the play’s villains. Regardless, the portrayals were exaggerated to the point that they still struck a nerve with everyone (the lone exception, naturally, being Toph).
4. Decisions in the present.
The big character moments of the episode unfold during the play’s intermissions. It’s during these that Aang tries to kiss Katara to make up for his increasing anxiety over their relationship, which does not go well. It’s also during an intermission that Toph and Zuko are able to have a strong conversation about Zuko’s self-image. Toph gets a rare moment of soft-bellied friendship in giving Zuko some words of encouragement, assuring him that Iroh would be proud. (Though we shouldn’t forget that she punches Zuko at the end of their conversation to make up for her emotionality; this is Toph, after all.) These are some important moments for last-minute subplot progression, and it’s impressive how they come so naturally out of the play.Continued below
5. Worries about the future.
By the end of the episode, the play has everybody a little worried about the future. Will Zuko ever receive Iroh’s forgiveness? Where will Katara and Aang’s relationship go? Worst of all, how does Aang expect to confront the Fire Lord without killing him?
There are questions all around, both big and small… and they’re the kind of questions that can only be resolved in the finale.
That’s it for this week, the last regular episode of the show. Any thoughts? I’ve heard some fans say this episode is one of their favorites- do you agree? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you back here next week for the four-part epic finale.