Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, we fall into The Swamp for a journey of horror and enlightenment. How does the episode hold up? Here are my thoughts.
1. Avatar Does Horror!
Suspense is baked into the premise of the show but it’s rare for the crew to go all-out horror. The only thing approaching this level of horror-movie so far was when Aang met Koh the Face Stealer back in “The Siege of the North,” and even that was just a short scene. I should clarify that this episode isn’t particularly scary for anybody over the age of eight, I’m instead talking about the style of the episode.
Mixing together horror tropes, we have the team mysteriously being attacked by a large natural environment, getting split up and seeing personal visions, and ultimately fighting a large swamp monster. On the visual side, the simultaneous vastness and claustrophobia of the swamp mix with the dark colors and shadows to create a unique haunted house, and the sound design introduces an eerie, empty ambient noise on top of which every plip of water sounds menacing.
2. Appa and Momo Spotlight!
Before our three human characters get split up, their animal companions get separated from them. We end up getting our first spotlight on Appa and Momo, an entire B-plot dedicated to their wordless adventures.
I’ve always thought that the Avatar crew just gets animals. It’s heartening to see how much personality these creatures can express with their limited motions and growls (shoutout to master voice actor Dee Bradley Baker for voicing every animal in this show). Even as these animals lack the complex thought patterns of humans, they’re able to have adventures and express emotion in their own ways. They have a goal: they want to get out of the swamp. They have obstacles: the vines and the swampbenders. Their ways of reacting to those obstacles show their personalities: Momo skitters around and neurotically tries anything he can, while Appa takes a more direct approach at first, pummeling through thick vines, and later switches to evasive actions out of fear. Far more than simply being cute (though they’re that too), these are characters in their own right.
3. Oneness with the World.
While I don’t exactly know my Zen from my Hinduism from my Taoism, I do know that the philosophy lesson under the giant tree is distinctly Eastern. Just as with the horror elements, we’ve experienced Eastern philosophy and religion before, just never as explicitly as this. Hue speaks of enlightenment, the connectedness of all creatures, the thread of life that every living being shares: the people, the animals, the trees, the vines. The lesson gets tied into Aang’s quest and, more immediately, the plot of the episode, so it never feels out of place. This is how you introduce a complex ideology in a family-friendly cartoon.
And so we meet another personality in this world: the swampbenders, modeled after… backwoods urban white Americans? As with the hippies back in “The Cave of Two Lovers,” we have another American personality introduced into this world, but this one feels much more fully fleshed out. They’re in a remote swampland, purely creations of their environments: of course they’re sparsely clothed and eat giant bugs. Most of this is played for laughs, but we’re also reminded to take them seriously through their powerful bending and enlightenment, and they remind our characters not to take themselves too seriously, as their customs are equally as strange to the swamp people.
While on the topic of bending, note how powerful Katara has become since the North Pole. She’s creating huge waves, using new moves to expertly slice through vines, and fully controlling her ice abilities. It’s impressive to see how far she’s come as a bender!
5. The Blue Spirit Returns!
If you’ve been following along from the beginning, you’ll know how much I love the Blue Spirit, so imagine how great it felt to hear that familiar bell ringing at the very beginning of the episode. Back in his initial appearance, the mask was a way for Zuko to help himself, to restore honor, in a way he couldn’t in his own identity. Here, Zuko uses it for a similar purpose: to rob a man who disrespected his uncle.
This brings to mind the power of masks. When donning the mask, Zuko frees himself from the shame of his situation, though he loses some of his moral sense as well. Just as with heroes and villains, the mask has the power to remove the wearer’s humanity and take on a life of its own. Zuko’s whole character arc shows him feeling lost in the world, and this season has been doubling down on his confusion. It’s no wonder he felt the need to retreat into this simpler figure who can act purely on id.
The appearance is very short, but man, I love this facet of the character.
What did you think of the episode? Are you a fan of the swampbenders or Appa and Momo’s solo adventure? Excited that the Blue Spirit is back? Let me know in the comments!