Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, we visit a small fishing village in the Fire Nation which has been polluted by a military factory. Quick nostalgia note: I first watched this episode on a pre-smartphone cell phone using Verizon’s “V-Cast” service, while riding a school bus. It was the first time I’d ever watched a TV show from a phone. The episode was put up on the service for free a few days before it aired (!!), and I remember being so grateful that I had a Verizon phone for that reason. Anyways, on to the thoughts!
1. Who is the Painted Lady?
I like that the “mystery” of the Painted Lady’s identity is underplayed, because the answer should be obvious as soon as we hear that the spirit has been visiting the village. In all honesty, this is probably the most telegraphed reveal in the whole season. So, I’m glad they reveal at the end of act 1 that Katara has been healing the villagers. It feels like the sort of thing that was more of a mystery in an earlier draft, something to last the whole episode, and that subsequent drafts focused less on the reveal and more on Katara doing good for other people. The result is something that’s far more interesting, as it’s not trying to hide an obvious story beat. I do, however, think it leads to the episode feeling less structurally tight than I’m used to from the show.
2. “I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me!”
This episode is a great spotlight for Katara’s optimism and compassion. She has no qualms about pausing their overall mission to help people; she simply can’t sit by and do nothing. This, I feel, is what sets Katara apart from many other fictional characters. Her belief that she can inspire the village through a few small acts of kindness screams of the type of optimism most characters in fiction would scoff at. She believes that with great power comes great responsibility, and she won’t let anybody stop her from using that power for good.
As with most character traits in the show, her compassion comes with its faults. On a macro level, she jeopardizes the overall world-wide mission in order to help a small village. On a smaller level, when she ends up destroying the fire nation factory that has been polluting the river, it lead the village to even greater danger from the fire nation officials. Yet at no point is Katara portrayed a complete fool. She is a flawed human being who does great things, yet whose positive qualities can sometimes lead to negative consequences.
3. Sokka the Pragmatist (II)
Sokka’s planning skills are strongly highlighted here, complete with giant timeline, and he isn’t going to be swayed. So it’s no surprise that Katara ends up sneaking out and adopting a persona in order to help the villagers.
Sokka represents the reverse ideology as Katara: he wants the group to continue onwards and ignore the problems along their way, so they can ensure that they face the fire lord during the eclipse. In other words, through inaction in the present, they will be able to cause the most good for the world in the future. In truth, the “best” ideology is probably something in between the two. Isn’t it always?
4. A Superstitious and Cowardly Lot
The majority of the third act deals with the fire nation officials, whose factory Katara and Aang had destroyed the night before, starting to destroy the village before being scared off by a hoax. First off, I appreciate that the show doesn’t shy away from the consequences of Katara and Aang’s actions. That sort of forced revolutionary act has immediate consequences, and even if it technically helps the village, that doesn’t mean the villagers won’t feel the brunt of their oppressor’s backlash. The officials literally destroy a home and get in position to destroy the rest of the village, potentially killing some villagers in the process — not quite what Katara and Aang had in mind.
I also love how the scene turns from the serious to the goofy as our gang pulls off a hoax, pretending to be the Painted Lady. Katara whips up a giant fog, Aang provides some airbending power from beneath the docks, and over on sound effects we have Toph lifting and dropping a giant boulder, Sokka playing a woodwind instrument, and even Appa getting in on things by letting out loud growls. The whole scene is played in an almost slapstick way. This ends up achieving two things: one, it lightens things up from the threat of point-blank murder, and two, it shows the power of the oppressor to be ridiculously fragile. These oppressors are, to put it another way, a superstitious and cowardly lot.Continued below
5. No subplot!
It’s been a while since we’ve had an episode with no subplot. The entire episode focuses on Katara’s attempts to help the village with the Painted Lady. No Azula, no Zuko, no Iroh. Even the one plotline of the episode that you can consider separate from Katara’s plight, Sokka’s vigorous adherence to their schedule, is less of a subplot and more of a character beat designed to contrast with Katara. I do wonder if the episode might have played a bit smoother if the main plot got cut by a few minutes, but overall, the episode did work as-is.
That’s it for this week. What did you think? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you next week for “Sokka’s Master!”