In this episode…
Aang must reach a Fire Temple inside the Fire Nation by sundown so he can commune with the spirit of Avatar Roku. Zuko picks up their trail at the village then heads after them in his ship, risking returning to the Fire Nation despite his banishment. Aang and Zuko both run into a Fire Nation blockade, and both attempt to run it. Aang and the gang make it through, and Zuko manages to sneak by, but only because Zhao lets him through so that Zuko will lead him to the Avatar. Aang makes it to the Fire Temple in time, but discover Fire Sages protecting the temple. Fortunately, one of the Sages is more loyal to the Avatar than the Fire Nation, and offers to help Aang commune with Roku. Aang learns that Sozin’s Comet, which imbues firebenders with super-firebending abilities while it’s passing, will be returning again soon, and Fire Lord Ozai will use the extra power to end the war once and for all. So Aang learns he must master all the elements—which typically takes years to master—and defeat Ozai before the comet arrives at summer’s end.
In story terms, this episode is what’s called “upping the stakes.” Remember those carefree days of being attacked by giant monsters and learning all your friends are dead? Well guess what. Now Aang faces something much worse—a ticking clock. Not only does Aang have to master four types of bending and defeat the super-powerful Fire Lord, but instead of years, he now has only a few months to accomplish all these tasks. When I was a kid, I took three years of martial arts classes. I studied one form of self-defense, for three years. I think I made it to Green Belt. And something tells me hoisting your body into the air with a 50-foot column of water takes a little more skill than executing your average kata. Then again, Aang has the wisdom of 1000 generations of master warriors trapped inside his soul or whatever, so he probably takes to different styles of bending like Momo to lychee nuts. Or maybe Aang’s teachers are as skilled as Yoda, who trained Luke to be a Jedi knight in, what, like eighteen hours?
In my introductory post, I promised to analyze Avatar in terms of the hero’s journey. I haven’t done a great job of this, so I’ll try to play catch up now…
The hard part about deconstructing Avatar in these terms is that as a tv show, there are so many different ways to divide it. All three seasons fulfill the hero’s journey. Each season individually does the same. Individual episodes follow the journey (the Avatar State is a helpful hint, along with the accompanying dark fanfare, that we have entered the “Resurrection” stage). Interestingly, “The Winter Solstice I-II” elegantly follows the hero’s journey, beginning with his consistent rejection of his destiny as the Avatar, and concluding with a clear picture and strong resolve of what his personal destiny is. At the start, the question of Aang’s connection to the Spirit World raises more questions about what it means to be the Avatar. This is the Call to Adventure. Fang the dragon serves as the mentor. His meeting with Aang offers the hero guidance for his journey. Taming Hei Bai acts as Crossing the First Threshold. Here Aang takes his first step into a larger world, so to speak. The awesome scene where Appa breaks Zhao’s blockade is the Approach to the Inmost Cave, and the race through the Fire Temple is Aang’s Ordeal. His Reward is his audience with Avatar Roku, and the Road Back is of course the escape from the collapsing temple. The Elixir that Aang returns with is the knowledge of Sozin’s Comet and his connection to his past lives.
Unrelated coda: this episode has more collateral damage. Shyu is really screwed, and all he ever did wrong was help the Avatar.
The revelation that Sozin’s Comet is returning to the planet, and will grant the Fire Lord unlimited power, was not the only thing we learned this action- and twist-packed episode. We learned that a fully-realized Avatar can kick some serious tail. There were a lot of unsuspected surprises in “Avatar Roku.” We learned that there are kind-hearted Fire Nationals out there, and not just dead ones like Roku and Aang’s unnamed friends from before the war. We learn that Commander Zhao is not just a one-shot antagonist. He’s back for more, and more dangerous than ever. And we learn that Zuko is much craftier than we often give him credit for. I gave an honest “Ooooh, nice one,” when he made his appearance in the temple with a captive Aang. Brilliant. And that was after he used the smoke of his Fire Nation ship for cover as he sneaked off to follow Aang.
Sokka also had moments of intelligence this episode. Even if his attempt to open the doors to Roku’s room failed, it LOOKED like it was successful. And Momo must be like a New York City rat, able to get between any crack no matter how small. I recently read an interview with M. Night discussing “the importance of Momo” and how he was struggling to find his arc. Momo may be a cute piece of comic relief most of the time, but there are times when he comes in handy. Just something to think about.
I really love seeing all of the doors that have to be opened using the elements in this series. It is just another piece of worldbuilding that really grounds the audience.
Matt mentioned earlier that this episode gives us a clear deadline for Aang to defeat the Firelord. I just think it is something keep in mind over the course of the series. Much like I plan on having a Zuko Agni Kai count, I think I want to have an “unnecessary vacation” count for the rest of the series.
Overall, this episode gives the audience tons of backstory for Aang and deepens the rivalry between Zuko and Zhao. (Those Fire Nation people really like the letter Z.) I enjoy rooting for Zuko to successfully capture Aang and that is just plain silly.
The running of the blockade sequence is very exciting, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Couldn’t Aang just take Appa higher so they’d be out of range of those fireballs? Maybe there’s an issue about breathing if they tried to go up too high, but how long would they actually need to be up that high? One of the cool little things about that sequence is how Appa’s fur ends up on fire in a couple places and Sokka, Katara, and Momo have to go pat out the flames. It’s the kind of attention to detail that the show typically does quite well.
Here we do get an early sign of just how powerful an airbender can be, when Aang leaps toward one of the fireballs and annihilates it with an airbending thrust. It seems like airbending would be weak in general for this kind of combat, but it always surprises me again and again throughout the series.
Good thing that Sage offered to help Aang otherwise he’d never have been able to commune with Roku since the key to opening the door is firebending. Which, incidentally, as Jordan said, is another one of those great little details in the worldbuilding of the show—what a great locking mechanism to keep out your enemies! (Wouldn’t be very useful in a civil war, of course.)
Sokka comes up big again in this episode, coming up with a solution to the locked door leading to Roku’s sanctuary. It’s quite a clever solution, actually, and at first I thought, “Well that makes those aforementioned firebending locks seem like not such a great idea!” I’m a little skeptical that pouches full of lamp oil would do anything but catch on fire, though—why would they cause an explosion like they do? (Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of Mythbusters to believe that one.) Still, there’s dumber things than that in movies all the time that we buy, so I’m willing to cut them some slack. And, after all, it doesn’t actually work, so the lock integrity is better than I thought.
But now KATARA’s plan, now THAT was smart! The blast made it look like the doors had been opened, so they just have to wait for the Sages to catch up with them since they’ll obviously rush into the sanctuary to stop the Avatar. And it would have worked too if it wasn’t for that meddling Zuko! (Nice timing, Captain Buzzkill!) Fortunately, Aang throws some smooth moves on the banished prince and is able to sneak into the sanctuary.
And everything that follows that sequence is just plain awesome. We learn everything about Sozin’s Comet, and Aang’s ticking clock, and get to see Aang kick some serious butt.
Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will continue to be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes will abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.
Up next: The Waterbending Scroll!
Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.
Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on twitter as @thejordache.
John Joseph Adams (www.johnjosephadams.com) is an anthologist, a writer, and a geek. He is the editor of the anthologies By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), Seeds of Change, and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. He is also currently the fiction editor of Lightspeed Magazine, which launches in June 2010, and the co-host of Tor.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.