Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, the Fire Nation closes in on the Northern Water Tribe in the two-part season one finale. How do the episodes hold up? Here are my thoughts, and beware if you haven’t seen these: we’re in full spoilers territory.
1. The Spirit World, Fully Realized.
Now THAT’s the Spirit World.
I noted how back in episode seven, titled “The Spirit World,” it felt like the creators had an idea for what the concept was but hadn’t fully developed it yet. Aang pretty much just flew around as a ghost for half an episode before finally getting back to his body. The only other spirits we met were Roku’s dragon, who basically just showed Aang the real-world locations he needed to go to next, and Hei-Bai, who only ever showed up in the normal world.
Here, though, we go full Miyazaki: a quaintly designed “center of spirituality” that allows Aang entrance to the Spirit World, an easily agitated monkey spirit, a quiet, beige swampy area, the prior Avatar, and a creepy giant insect-like creature who lives in the husk of an old tree and steals the face of whoever shows emotion. A lot of detail goes into making the Spirit World feel unique, from these visuals and concepts to the sound design, which somehow feels both hollow and full.
2. BREAK MY HEART, UNCLE IROH.
In what was probably the smallest moment of the episode, we become privy to an entire new dimension of Iroh’s character: His son died. Since then, he’s been guiding Zuko as if he were his own son. We can also infer that this relates to his being a disgraced General, as his only other comment about the situation so far, back in episode eight, was, “I was tired. And I’m still tired.”
That little moment where Zuko is saying goodbye to him gets me every time. Especially how Zuko stops Iroh midway through saying how much he means to him, Zuko trying to run away from their emotional bond. These characters feel, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Later on, we get more about Iroh. He doesn’t worry about being labeled a traitor if what he’s doing is the best for the world at large. At this point, it seems his ties to the Fire Nation may be much more strained than we’ve been led to believe. At the very least, he’s clearly far more altruistic and noble than the goofy wise-man we’ve come to know.
3. Zuko Alone.
With nowhere else to go, Zuko heads out on his mission to finally catch the Avatar. These scenes strike me as almost pathetic. He’s so desperate to return home to people who clearly don’t love him, not to mention so headstrong, that he’d risk blindly infiltrating a city that the man who tried to assassinate him is laying siege to, go up alone against powerful benders, and walk through a blizzard which almost kills him. None of that is necessary for the rest of the plot. It all comes directly from character, and it worked its way into the plot because the character screamed for it to happen. And it took him to new highs and new lows which would completely change his character’s direction starting immediately after this episode.
4. World Without Moon, World Without Color.
I love when Avatar plays with color, and we get multiple instances of that here. When Zhao first bags the Moon spirit, the world turns completely red and black. Then, after he kills the moon spirit, everything goes grayscale, and the only color comes in flashes as a result of the light generated by firebending. Then Aang goes full Princess Mononoke fish-monster Avatar State mode and rampages through the city, bringing a blue glow wherever he shows up, and soon after that the world finally returns to normal color. Beyond just being an awesome series of visuals, each color pattern also alerts us to a new and different sense of danger, moving the stakes up and down for a wildly paced few minutes.
5. A Noble Fridging?
So the love of Sokka’s life, who he knew for approximately two days, just got fridged. But was it, dare I say, okay?
This also ties into how, oddly, the first major death in the show ended up being the most explicit in the series (which is especially odd because a vague major death happens only minutes later). A lot of this likely has to do with the spiritual, sacrificial nature of Yue’s death. She wasn’t brutally murdered by a psychopath and stuffed in a refrigerator. She chose to give up her life to the spirit who in turn gave her her own life. She was also the only person in the world who could have saved this thing that literally gives her people power. It’s duty. It’s spirituality. She had agency, and nobody forced her to do it but herself.
It’s certainly valid to criticize any instance of fridging, but I think the creators did it about as well as possible here.
And that wraps up the first season. It’s been a pleasure writing these reviews, and thank you for reading! Going back through this first season, it became apparent to me that it rarely reached quite depth of character and complexity of story I associate with the show, which is all over later seasons. But looking at this as an episodic series of establishing episodes, it’s still a solid season of TV, and those truly incredible moments shine.
Sound off in the comments. Maybe we’ll see each other again soon!