Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! Last week, we witnessed the military failure at the Fire Nation capital. This week, we’re picking up the pieces — and watching Zuko fail at being good.
A quick note: Originally, after “The Day of Black Sun” aired, the show took eight months off, then returned to air the rest of the episodes over the course of a week, airing one per night leading up to the Saturday night finale. It took so long for these episodes to air that four of the episodes were released on a long-planned DVD two months before they would air (naturally, I picked up that DVD on release day). I think it’s interesting to keep that in mind, considering that most people discovering the show today will watch right through with no break. Today’s binge culture really does have some benefits. Anyways, on to the episode!
Structurally, the third season can be broken down into the pre-eclipse episodes and the post-eclipse episodes. Each half has its own establishing episode(s), then development episodes, and then a calm-before-the-storm that leads into the big finale. Since this is the first episode of this half, we’re all about establishing today. We see the Western Air Temple, where the kids will spend the next few episodes; the characters sit down and try to figure out where to go from here; and Zuko has an arc where he finally tries to join the group.
I find it interesting that there’s an “Aang is reluctant to move forward” subplot here. That reluctance to cross the threshold is an important aspect of the hero’s journey, always occurring in the first act, which I see as confirmation that the writers saw this as an establishing episode. It’s reminiscent of the first episode of this season, where Aang was also in an uncertain position and wasn’t quite ready to move forward yet. In this episode, the story thread kind of peters out — it leads into the decision about Zuko, sure, but Aang starts the episode wanting to explore and be a kid before quickly switching gears because the rest of his team is more goal-focused.
I guess Aang doesn’t need a whole arc to get over his childishness, though. He can be childish and carefree, and he can also be serious and goal-oriented when needed. He’s very close to achieving a personal balance, the kind that all Avatars strive to achieve.
2. “Why am I so bad at being good?!”
Things aren’t as easy for Zuko as he crosses his threshold and presents himself to Team Avatar. He goes through a significant amount of emotional and even physical torment in this episode. His first attempt to bear his soul is met with outright rejection, accompanied by a water-whip to the face. When Toph tries to approach him later, he accidentally burns her feet and gets rejected again, accompanied by a rock to the gut. Even his later attempt to stop Combustion Man sends him falling off a cliff. But the thing about Zuko by this point is that no matter what happens to him, no matter what stupid mistakes he makes, he knows who he is, he knows what he wants, and he knows how to get back up again and make good on his past failures.
Zuko’s scenes have some nice flashbacks to bring his arc full-circle. Taking place a week after his initial banishment, his eye still bandaged from his father’s brutal attack, these scenes take us to the start of the show when Zuko was set on a fool’s errand by his father. It also contains some rare moments of Iroh’s wisdom that we’ve been missing this season. Back then, Zuko was trying to figure out his destiny, not realizing he was still living under false impressions of who he was and what he had to do. Now, he knows the truth, and he is finally setting out to do some good in the world.
3. An exploration of Toph’s stubbornness.
One of the most interesting threads in this episode is Toph’s insistence on believing and trusting in Zuko. There are a few things that contributed to this unlikely stance. First, Toph has never been one to go by others’ opinions. She makes up her own mind about people. This is what allowed her to meet and have a nice tea-time with Iroh way back in “The Chase,” despite him having been strictly a villain to the rest of the group. Second, Toph’s unique skillset means she can tell when somebody is lying, so she was able to tell that Zuko was sincere. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Toph is stubborn. If she believes somebody, she won’t let any emotions get in the way.Continued below
That last one is one of my favorite things about Toph, and it’s something that sets her apart from the rest of the group. I also find it a great example of the show’s exemplary writing. One would think that a stubborn person is more likely to hold onto grudges, and a lesser writer might have gone that route. Here, however, Toph’s stubbornness manifests as her taking a more objective view of things and being able to see past any bias. Even after Zuko burns her feet, she realizes it’s an accident and is reluctant to blame Zuko. Of course, this puts her at odds with everybody else and their emotional reactions, but in the end she’s the one with the clearest view of the truth. Stubbornness, in this case, is actually a positive trait, showing that few traits are inherently negative (even if they do cause some infighting).
4. Combustion Man? More like Combusted Man.
In what is likely the most violent moment in the show, Combustion Man shows up, forehead a-blazing, totally destroying parts of the Western Air Temple before almost killing Zuko and finally exploding his own head. It’s done in a tasteful way, showing only Combustion Man’s confusion and the resulting explosion — this show did air on Nickelodeon, after all — but it’s by far the most violent thing we’ve seen.
Since this episode is mostly concerned with large-scale plot and character beats, as opposed to telling its own stand-alone story, there isn’t much action outside of this scene. Honestly, Combustion Man ends up feeling like a final-act battle for the sake of a final-act battle. As with most things in this show, though, the team makes it work. First off, it’s nice to get closure on Combustion Man. More importantly, while Combustion Man might not have been the most interesting or developed character, here the scene ties into Zuko’s arc. Zuko initially hired Combustion Man, and now he regrets that decision, going so far as to put himself in danger to try and stop any bloodshed. It’s an important moment for Zuko, as it’s an action to back up his words from earlier.
In fact, without this scene, Aang probably wouldn’t have accepted Zuko into the group. Which leads us to…
5. Zuko Has Been Added to the Party.
By the end of the episode, Zuko is officially a part of the group. Aang accepted him because, while he had doubts earlier, he saw Zuko risk his life to stop Combustion Man, and he figured Zuko was the only shot he had at learning firebending. But first, Aang consulted his friends to make sure they were okay with it, too.
I think the order Aang consulted the group in was significant. First, he asked Toph, who really didn’t need much convincing — she was already on board, having recognized Zuko’s mistakes as mistakes and wanting to work past them. Then, Aang asked Sokka, who had more of an emotional stake in things, but was willing to override his emotions in the name of strategy. Zuko is too valuable, strategically, to let for Sokka to let emotions get in the way. Finally, Aang asked Katara. Especially for something like this, Katara is all emotion, and I think she only accepted Zuko because everyone else already had, and she didn’t want to hold anybody back. If she had been asked first, I don’t think she would have been as likely to accept Zuko.
Which means the final scene makes perfect sense for the characters. Sokka tries to be hospitable about showing Zuko his new living quarters, and he can’t help but think it’s weird nonetheless. Katara, on the other hand, shows up to give Zuko an emotionally-driven, threatening speech about how he better not betray them. Things are finally looking up for ol’ Zukes, but the situation isn’t without some internal conflict.
That’s it for this week! What did you think? Are you glad Zuko was added to the group? Did Toph’s stance impress you as much as it did me? Let me know in the comments!