Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" - On the Disappointing Grandiosity of "Sozin's Comet"

Spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender after the jump:

I’ve been thinking through my issues with the Avatar: The Last Airbender finale (a frustrating end to a series I generally deeply loved), and they all ultimately boil down to it making a choice between spectacle and swiftness. On a purely abstract level, "Sozin's Comet" is one of the show's best-looking episodes ever. It's pure gorgeousness, in fact: fire and water flying across the screen in destructive yet dazzling arcs, airships flying across an expansive sky as the animation pulls back (in a fashion akin to a live-action dolly movement) to reveal the full tableau, and so much more. Yet in looking back over the course of three mostly terrific seasons to the many episodes that thrilled and moved me far more than this conclusion did, I kept pulling other images and story developments from my mind: Princess Azula dueling Aang atop a giant drill, her shooting Aang with lightning as he's about to enter the Avatar State in the season two finale, and Zuko's actions in "The Blue Spirit", to name but three. What these scenes all have in common is a sense (one I found largely lacking in the finale) of deft footwork: be it developing characters in new ways, taking the narrative in wholly unexpected directions, or finding the joy inherent in watching two skilled combatants go head to head.

Which is not to say that Avatar ever shied away from spectacle. Season three's finest hour is "The Day of Black Sun", a thrilling two-part episode that documents the attempted invasion of the Fire Nation during a solar eclipse. These installments are downright massive in scale, but what makes them so exciting isn’t what is on screen (tanks, submarines, and plenty of explosions), but rather the way in which these fairly traditional action scene staples are orchestrated visually, as well as the sense of urgency on display due to the pressing time constraints underlying the attack. The action is huge, but it’s also lightning-quick; benders advance across the screen to meet tanks, while other members of the attacking group move to execute another part of the plan. These movements don’t necessarily occur within the space of the same shot, but the cuts are always precisely timed to ensure the sense of motion never ceases. The episodes also take care not to play their cards too early. Part one, for instance, doesn’t depict the process of coming up with the idea to use Appa as a submarine, ensuring that when it does happen it takes us by complete (and delighted) surprise. On a less happy note for the heroes (but an awesome one for those of us who tended towards cheering Azula on), the Fire Nation’s counterplot unspools equally cleverly, fluidly, and rapidly. It’s a battle, sure, but it’s also a great chess match.

For me, at least, there just aren’t many surprises to be found in two of the three major battles in “Sozin’s Comet”. Aang vs. Ozai is hamstrung by a few major factors, not least of which is that Ozai himself is a seriously boring antagonist, while Aang is likely the show’s least interesting heroic figure. Then add in the frankly uninspired terrain: an isolated piece of land that doesn’t leave many geographic quirks to be exploited. Perhaps that’s why it’s a battle primarily marked by the two fighters flying around and shooting stuff at one another. All of this is impressive initially, but the fight must take up at least a third of the episode’s last 22 minutes, and ultimately the effect is similar to that of half the big-budget blockbusters released in theaters every summer: loud and explosive, but not particularly thrilling. Some of this might boil down to a personal preference; I have quite frequently been left cold by bravura displays of special effects, while a good martial arts film is just about my favorite thing ever. That said, I still think the complaint holds water, simply because this fight is so different than just about every prior one the series has done. It's Avatar going big in an effort to give us the final battle to end all battles, while ignoring exactly what it is that made all the previous battles so exciting.

The decision to make this last battle more a display of brute bending power than skillful maneuvering is one that serves as a metaphor for the problems in the narrative as well. From early season two onward, Azula has been my favorite Avatar character, as well as probably one of my favorite TV characters of the last ten years. She remains diametrically opposed to Aang and company throughout, but up until this finale her actions had never once functioned merely as obstacles for the heroes to overcome; rather, they're displays of swagger, skill, and strategy that often leave you tipping your hat to her sheer brilliance. This being an animated series on Nickelodeon, I knew from the start that her defeat was inevitable. But I'd hoped it would be a defeat worthy of her, as well as one that reflected the degree to which the show had muddied the water in terms of how we're supposed to feel about its protagonists and antagonists.

Instead, "Sozin's Comet" elects to have her completely lose control, drowning in a sudden wave of paranoia and mistrust. There is admittedly some set-up for all of this: most notably Mai and Ty Lee's betrayal a few episodes earlier. With a few more episodes of development, it perhaps could have been an effectively tragic final arc demonstrating the perils of leading through intimidation (which has of course been Azula's main mode since day one). But I think I still would have been upset, because it would still represent the finale taking what was a more complex struggle and boiling it down to a pair of out of control villains spewing fire and/or lightning all over the place. This is frustrating with Ozai, for sure; so much more could have been done in terms of exploring his ambition and ruthlessness, and how it relates to that of his predecessors. But it's doubly annoying when it involves the show's single greatest character, reducing her to the role of providing yet more spectacle in an episode that's already overloaded with it.

It's particularly telling to contrast these two fights—and the accompanying character arcs that accompany them—with the one action setpiece in the finale that I have zero issues with: the airship battle involving Suki, Sokka, and Toph. This is Avatar at its finest right here. It delivers the awe-inspiring visuals and the swift sense of movement that the show's best action scenes do; certainly nothing else in "Sozin's Comet" provides the same thrill that the heroes swiveling their airship around and piloting it into a row of enemy crafts does. Free of the self-conscious need to surpass all else the series has done (this is, after all, a comparatively minor part of the final battle that does not involve either of the main villains), the sequence manages to deliver an airborne confrontation—set beautifully against that lush, orange-tinted sky—that feels both fleet and epic. Had this had been the approach of the rest of the finale, it might well have gone down as one for the ages.

But for all that sequence's impact and entertainment value, it is alas a relatively brief section in an otherwise often mind-numbing hour and a half. I might be more forgiving of the fight scenes' woes (though not of what happened to Azula, because that is not cool) if they weren't preceded by endless scenes of Aang struggling with the possible need to kill the Fire Lord. On the one hand, I do see why this might be considered different than, say, all the lives that have been lost on both sides of this conflict. This would be a battle fought with the express purpose of ending Ozai's life. But on the other hand, it feels like a pretty simple judgment: Ozai is pretty much irredeemably evil, and if it's a choice between killing him and letting this war drag on and kill hundreds more... well, that seems like a pretty easy call. But in any case, the bigger issue is that (like the fight itself) the show just spends so much time on it, prioritizing Aang's final arc over everyone else's. Yes, his name is the one in the show's title, but Avatar rather quickly became far more than just the story of "The Last Airbender". It was every bit as much the story of Katara, Azula, Zuko, Toph, Sokka, and so many others, and to devote so much time to a moral dilemma that is considerably more straightforward than many previous ones just doesn't feel true to what made this show so special.

It was special, though. And in the interests of not leaving on a note that's too negative, I'd like to counterbalance this take on the finale with a list of my favorite episodes: ones that don't feature a completely unmotivated Katara/Aang kiss that—after her clear rejection of him in "The Ember Island Players"—sends a terrible message. (Just keep at it, guys! If she rejects you, it just means that she secretly likes you! Here's hoping that any children or young teens watching this show have someone around to explain to them the reasons why this approach to romance is not okay. Come to think of it, a lot of older viewers could probably do with a lesson about this as well.) 

Top 10 Episodes

1. "The Crossroads of Destiny" - Second season finale brilliantly subverts everything. Aang gears up for another last-second transformation (a la season one's ending), but Azula has other ideas. Zuko's season-long redemption comes—for the time being—to naught, while Iroh's timely intervention proves to be the critical difference between freedom and capture for our protagonists. Almost certainly the single darkest day in the show's entire run, but also its single most thrilling episode, and one that season three ultimately just couldn't quite live up to.

2. "The Blue Spirit" - In which Zuko becomes Aang's savior, then is himself saved by his quarry, in a way that beautifully furthers the parallels the show has already begun drawing between the two. But the episode's real claim to fame is their flight from Zhao's compound, which is arguably the show's single greatest action setpiece: a stellar sequence of animated fluidity that concludes with a jaw-dropping attempt to escape via ladder. An outstanding early highlight. 

3. "Zuko Alone" - The show breaks from its usual format for the first time for an outing that deepens Zuko's already rich characterization immensely, while also telling a compelling standalone story with a strongly Western flair. No Aang Gang, no Azula . . . no one besides Zuko, the people he encounters, and the weight of his prior actions as he sets about on this new journey. Gorgeously animated and haunting in its emotional heft, it's an amazing testament to how far this character has come since the start of the series, and to how far he still has to go. 

4. "The Day of Black Sun: Parts One and Two" - As discussed above, the high point of season three, due to the way it combines displays of power, technology, and strategy into a single tour de force, extended battle sequence. It's also possibly the bleakest Avatar chapter outside of "The Crossroads of Destiny", as the invasion plan is foiled with relative ease by the great Azula. What can I say? I loved it when this show went gloomy.

5. "The Southern Raiders" - The last all-time great Avatar episode (sorry, "The Ember Island Players"), this is the show's last and greatest meditation on grief, anger, and the struggle to overcome the very human desire for revenge. After helping Aang to keep from losing himself in his rage and hate at the Fire Nation and the sandbenders, Katara is now forced to contend with her own fury. The resolution is not a simple one; though she can't bring herself to kill her mother's murderer, she also refuses to let go. Sometimes that's impossible. But she does finally find herself able to forgive Zuko, ending the episode on a magnificent note somewhere between hope and despair. 

6. "The Drill" - All the other episodes here are strongly connected either to the show's larger mythology or its ongoing character arcs. The exception is this one: a glorious, largely self-contained caper plot with tons of humor and probably my favorite one-on-one duel of the entire series. The whole thing is just so much fun, and it might well be the Avatar episode I'll watch first if I ever have a desire (and I'm sure I will at some point) to revisit the show's best installments.

7. "The Southern Air Temple" - The second episode was the point at which Avatar hooked me. But it was this third installment—devoted to Aang's discovery that the Fire Nation has wiped out his fellow airbenders in an act of genocide—that demonstrated just how much weight and darkness it could contain. In addition, it's the show's first signal of its intentions to make Zuko far more than simply the bad guy who chases the Avatar around, showing him to be a deeply tormented soul with motivations far more complex than initially meet the eye (while also giving him that thrilling moment of triumph over Zhao).

8. "The Beach" - This one is weird, I'll grant you. But the Fire Nation characters are to me the show's best, and so it was a treat to see them attempt to blow off some steam. It goes about as well as you'd expect (and is hilarious), but leads to a surprisingly powerful nighttime conversation around the campfire, chock-full of insights into each character's psychology and motivations. I do wish they'd simply went ahead and made this a "Zuko Alone"-esque episode, cutting out the fairly uninteresting Aang Gang scenes altogether. But no matter; it's still plenty terrific as is. 

9. "Appa's Lost Days" - Another great season two episode told completely through a different set of eyes than usual: Appa's this time, as we witness what happened to him after he was stolen in the desert earlier in the season. This one isn't quite as rich in character as "Zuko Alone", but it's even more heartbreaking: depicting the bison's abuse at the hands of a circus, his escape, and his eventual rediscovery of kindness with simple, beautiful resonance. 

10. "Tales of Ba Sing Se" - You might be starting to sense a bit of a pattern here. This is definitely my least favorite of season two's structural deviations, but that's mostly just a comment on how great "Zuko Alone" and "Appa's Lost Days" are. This one is marvelous as well: a series of short stories that pretty much all capture their desired tones perfectly, from the wonderful, hilarious brevity of Sokka's haiku adventure to the quiet devastation of Iroh's story.

Five More Favorites: "The Avatar State", "The Cave of Two Lovers", "Lake Laogai", "The Western Air Temple", and "The Avatar and the Firelord"

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