Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, the group gets acclimated to life in the fire nation and causes social disruption at a local school. I’m not going to bury the lede here: this is one of my favorite episodes.
1. New outfits!
Since last episode was all about establishing where the cast ended up after the shocking twists at the end of season two, this episode sets up the storytelling, tone, and visual style for the next batch of episodes. For the latter, that means the cast gets new outfits!
The designs now color-coordinate, a mixture of red, brown, and gold, and they take notable elements of the characters’ past designs and adapt them for the fire nation. Katara’s hair loopies and blue water tribe necklace become long front braids and a red fire nation necklace; Toph’s green headdress with the white puffs becomes a brown headdress with gold tassels; Sokka’s top-knot with shaved hair gets grown out while he loses his boots and gains shorts that cut off at the same spot; and Aang, of course, has grown hair and gets a headband with a triangular design reminiscent of his iconic arrow. Great care was put into making sure the characters still felt like themselves, even though their overall designs are now radically different.
2. “We were on our way to play Hide and Explode! Wanna come?”
To establish the world the characters will be occupying for the next ten episodes, we see Aang go to a fire nation school. This sort of slice-of-life story is one of my favorite types of stories, partially because I love ordinary human interactions, and partially because it allows for the exploration of a socio-political landscape through simple means.
For instance, we learn how the fire nation kids are taught to be strict and hide emotions through the way their music class is conducted. In that same scene, we learn that students are only allowed to express emotion if it comes from a love for the nation. During a pop quiz, we learn that the students’ understanding of history has been altered from the reality Aang knows, just so their past rulers can seem more powerful and righteous. And, of course, there’s the quote that I used up above, which could have been a throw-away joke but was used to show how violence has permeated the speech and gameplay of the young innocents. It’s one thing to show how a leader wishes to rule, but it’s another entirely — one that’s far more effective for me — to show the subtle impact on the everyday lives of their people.
3. Where a kid can be a kid.
Part of my love for this episode comes from Aang’s ability to enjoy being a normal kid, for the first time since he came out of the iceberg. True, he’s always been fun-loving and has been traveling around with people close to his age, but he’s never had much of a day-to-day life within a community. It becomes clear at a certain point that his motivation for returning to the school is less so he can infiltrate the system and more so he can enjoy being a kid.
Of course, his free-spirited nature and nomadic upbringing mean he’s constantly put in conflict with the strict teachers and repressed students. There’s also the subtle, unmentioned implication that the fire nation Aang knew 100 years ago was about fire in the form of boundless emotional expression, while today it’s about using fire for control and repression. That gives us the main goal for the episode: Aang wants to teach the kids to freely express themselves. Which, naturally, leads us to the glorious Footloose-inspired secret dance party. More on that in a bit.
4. Iroh and Zuko imprisoned.
The Zuko story pulls off something pretty clever this episode. We gradually learn that Zuko has been trying to visit Iroh in prison, and Iroh has been giving him the silent treatment. Iroh appears cold, almost catatonic. By the end of the episode, though, we realize that Iroh, while deeply hurt, is still of sound mind while Zuko feels emotionally imprisoned.
These scenes are brutal. After all that Iroh freely gave of himself for his nephew, after years of acting as a spiritual advisor and surrogate father, Zuko betrayed him and got him imprisoned. So of course Iroh has closed himself off, yet of course Zuko feels lost without him. As with the Katara scenes last episode, these scenes are kept short and concise to make sure the impact is as strong as possible without becoming melodramatic.Continued below
5. That choreography!
This episode sees the Avatar directing debut of Joaquim Dos Santos, perhaps best known for his fight choreography on Justice League Unlimited before this and The Legend of Korra and Voltron: Legendary Defender after this. It’s funny, then, that the guy who would go on to direct Avatar’s much-lauded, fight-filled finale would get his start on such a humorous and fightless episode.
Despite that, you can see his hands all over the episode. Not a single comedic opportunity goes by that he doesn’t exaggerate a facial expression, and the dancing scenes, mixing Ba Gua (the basis for airbending) and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu (the basis for firebending) with forms of dance, have to go down as some of the best scenes in the show. Even the one “fight” scene, in which a student starts a schoolyard brawl with Aang, sees Aang doing Ba Gua circle-walking moves (without the specific airbending forms) to avoid the other student’s formless punches. Dos Santos makes the most of every bit of material he’s given.
What did you think of the episode? Are you as big a fan as I am? Let me know in the comments!