Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, we take a look at “The Waterbending Scroll.” How does the episode hold up? Here are my thoughts.
1. Aang Learns Some Waterbending!
It’s taken nine episodes, but we finally get to see Aang dip his toes in the waterbending world! And he’s a natural. Watching the difference in ease with which Aang goes through the Tai Chi-based waterbending forms compared to the rough time Katara has, it’s obvious Aang can bend much more intuitively. That subtle difference in character animation also reminds us that Aang has had other bending training, whereas Katara has had to rely on herself.
This leads to some nice character moments: Who hasn’t felt like Katara, getting frustrated working hard at something when someone else comes along and does it far better on their first try? At the same time, who hasn’t found something they’re naturally good at and felt bad for those who work harder yet have worse results? These character dynamics come from universal experiences, so while we are watching a mystical art occur, we can still relate.
In any case, I’m glad we’re finally starting to explore bending training!
These characters always felt weird to me. I still can’t put my finger on what exactly it is about the pirates that don’t feel as imbued into the Avatar world as pretty much every other concept in the show. They have entertaining personalities, they give Katara a reason to explore a moral gray area, and they lead to some great fight scenes. Something about them still doesn’t sit right with me, though. Are they too wild? Not wild enough? Is it that they’re non-benders? Is it their character designs? Their voices? The fact that they act like they’re from a different era? Whatever it is, I’m glad this is one of their few appearances.
3. Bits of Serialization.
Given how episodic the previous four stand-alone episodes (season one, episodes 3-6) were, the few bits of serialization we get here already feel like a big evolution for the show. Aang starts the episode off re-establishing the path Roku set for him in the last episode, Zuko brings back that necklace he found in the end of episode 5, and as previously mentioned, we start the journey of Aang and Katara learning waterbending. Even the Cabbage Merchant comes back! By this point, the creators are really starting to weave together the grander world and develop the overall arc for the series.
4. Sound Design Sells the Fight Scenes.
I’ve mentioned the genius of Avatar’s music before, but I haven’t talked much about the overall sound design. That changes now.
The entire last half of this episode takes on a tense on-the-run tone, and the entire last third of the episode consists of various related fight scenes. Because that means nearly double the length of fight scenes compared to other episodes, the animation budget couldn’t handle everything. So, in comes the sound design.
Try watching the first few minutes of the fight scenes without audio and you’ll realize the animation isn’t doing a lot of the heavy lifting. The pirates and Zuko’s crew all disappear into a smoke cloud, and aside from a few shots of Zuko firebending in a fight and some of Aang moving around, we don’t get much. With audio, however, we have some suspenseful music, controlled yelling, and chaotic sound effects of metal clanging against metal. With that layer over the visuals, the scene takes on a completely different tone.
The animation gets better as the scene goes on, particularly when Momo and the iguana parrot have their aerial duel and the crew’s ship heads over the waterfall. But the sound design never stops lifting the scene well beyond the quality expected from the show’s early budget constraints.
5. The White Lotus Tile.
I appreciate how such an innocuous detail as this comes back again in the future with much greater ramifications. Here, Iroh simply wants to turn Zuko’s ship back so he can find the White Lotus tile to his Pai Sho game. It seems like a completely throw-away idea, especially given how much the episode doubles down on Iroh’s goofy exterior. Nice to catch these little hints in early episodes.
What did you think of the episode? Let me know in the comments!