In this episode...
The Aang gang are recovering from their last adventure, when on a lunch break (consisting, sadly, only of nuts), they discover an earthbender practicing nearby. They greet him, but he runs away without a word. Hoping to find a village nearby where they can acquire some actual food, the gang follows the boy. Once they catch up to him, they learn that the Fire Nation is in control of the Earth Kingdom village and earthbending is forbidden (and the reason the boy, Haru, was practicing out far away from town). So Haru dare not earthbend in front of the Fire Nation soldiers, or else he may be taken away—as his father, and every other earthbender in the village—was. But an accident at the coal mine forces Haru to use his earthbending to save the miner trapped in the cave-in, only to be betrayed and turned in by the man he saved. The Fire Nation comes to take Haru away, leaving the gang feeling responsible for his imprisonment, so Katara arranges to be arrested and joins the other earthbenders on the prison ship—which is entirely made of metal, so they’re unable to use their bending, being far away from any earth—in an effort to rescue Haru.
I think I might take some heat for my thoughts on this episode. When I initially watched this episode, it was the first time I found myself not completely invested and as I continued watching the series, I pretty much forgot all about Haru and his father. Yes, it is awesome that George Takei is the voice of the warden, but this episode just didn’t do it for me.
My first issue is Haru. Up until this episode, the new characters that we are introduced to all seem to be strong and interesting characters. I found Haru to be cowardly and forgettable. I understand that this episode gives us a glimpse of “occupied Earth Kingdom” but he just seemed to roll over and accept his fate.
Then there is Katara. My biggest issue with Katara throughout the series is her need to mother people. It’s even made fun of later on, but I found much of her action in this episode to be extremely heavy handed and at times selfish. Poor Haru is telling her about his father being imprisoned by the Fire Nation and Katara totally whips out her necklace and the “My mother was killed by the Fire Nation” line. Complete one-up on you, Haru. At least your dad is ALIVE! Readers beware, whenever Katara plays the necklace card I get annoyed... and considering how this episode ends, I’ll be annoyed for a while.
Once Katara gets on the boat with Haru and his father, she automatically assumes that because she gave a rousing speech, everyone will suddenly revolt. Yes, HER father is off fighting the Fire Nation for freedom, so she has difficulty grasping why the Earth Nation prisoners aren’t so easy to sway. They’ve lived under Fire Nation rule for years, that is a lot of fear and insecurity to break through. It isn’t until they are provided with the physical resources that they begin to fight back.
One thing I really do appreciate about this episode is the worldbuilding of the Earth Nation. As I mentioned earlier, we see what it is like to live in a Fire Nation occupied village, but we also find out important clues into what can and cannot be bent. All the earthbenders on the ship cannot bend metal (I mean, really, only a really AMAZING earthbender would even think about the possibility of bending metal. Surely a CHILD like Haru wouldn’t think to try...), but they are able to bend coal. Go them.
Overall, this episode was really only interesting to me because of the casting of Takei and the worldbuilding. Haru is just plain boring and I really don’t get what Katara saw in him. All right, Haru fans, BRING IT ON!
I always like when Appa is shown to be just completely nonplussed by everything. For instance, in this episode, when the gang hears the booming off in the distance that turns out to be the Haru practicing with earthbending, they all run off to see what it is, and Appa just stays where he is, doesn’t even bat an eye.
In this episode we get our first signs of just how much the Fire Nation is subjugating the people they’ve conquered. Haru’s mother is shown to be required to pay off the Fire Nation soldiers to keep her place of business from being burned down, much like the mafia—at least in movies—shakes down local businesses, charging them “protection” money. Also, we see that the Fire Nation seems inclined to suppress all other kinds of bending, presumably so that they can more easily fight back against any resistance.
Katara, while usually the overly responsible one of the group, seems to have delegated that job to Sokka in this episode. Here we see Sokka advocating not staying long due to the heavy Fire Nation presence, and Katara is wanting to stay longer and making jokes. Is it all because of Haru? Otherwise this is a very Katara-centric episode, almost TOO centric—Sokka and Aang seem like they’re hardly in it.
I liked how they have the old miner Haru saves turn him into the Fire Nation; it shows us that this is not a black and white world where all the earthbenders are united and good and it’s just the Fire Nation that’s bad. In a time of war like this, there will always be some people who are only looking out for their own self-interests and will happily serve as collaborators with the enemy if it means some beneficial treatment for them—even if it means sentencing a young boy who saved your life to an indefinite imprisonment.
It’s cool how Katara plans to help Haru—in an albeit rather TYPICAL heroic fashion—by arranging to get arrested herself, but was it really necessary to fake earthbending to get arrested? Surely the Fire Nation would have arrested her for waterbending too, right? Unless she felt it was too much of a risk to Aang to out herself as a waterbender. But if that’s the case, maybe she and Sokka should, I don’t know, change out of those Water Tribe outfits? It seems like all earthbenders decided that green is the color they’re going to wear, so anyone wearing blue instead would kind of seem out of place, right? In any case, it seems a bit convenient that Katara ends up on the ship with the earthbenders with the Fire Nation not knowing she’s a waterbender, because she can, of course, still waterbend just as well as ever. So maybe it’s SMART pretending to be an earthbender to get arrested and was part of her plan all along; it just would have worked better if a few more details were attended to.
Once Katara gets to the prison ship, we learn that the ship is made entirely of metal and will go out to sea where the earthbenders will be far from any sources of earth and thus unable to use their bending. I thought that this is both cool and problematic. It’s cool because that’s kind of ingenious solution to crippling an earthbender, but I find it problematic because it makes me wonder about how that works with the other elements. Obviously, an airbender would never be without access to air. But where do firebenders get the fire they manipulate? We learn later what one of their sources is, but it doesn’t seem to entirely mesh with how everything else works, and their ability to seemingly manufacture fire at will gives them a huge advantage over the other kinds of benders, and it seems like the earthbenders are by far the weakest when they’re away from dry land. Katara can carry around a canteen of water and make that do some amazing things. When I was watching this for the first time, I was thinking, Can’t the earthbenders do anything with all that COAL that’s powering the Fire Nation ships? Of course, that’s what they end up doing to escape, but how is it that none of the earthbenders thought of that themselves? It wasn’t until Aang points out the black smoke coming out of the ship’s smokestack that that thought seems to have crossed anyone’s mind. (Incidentally, Aang’s windtunnel/gatling gun trick is pretty awesome that he uses to hurl coal at the bad guys.)
As for Jordan’s dislike of Haru, well, I can’t say he made much of an impression on me either—when Jordan and Matt and I were talking Avatar one day, she brought him up, and I just didn’t remember him at all. Overall, though, I think the episode works pretty well, even if Katara comes off as a bit high and mighty.
How are these episodes only twenty-two minutes? I ask myself this question every week. Most of the best television series are serialized, telling one continuous story week after week until it reaches its multi-year conclusion. Avatar is different. Yes, anyone who has watched all of Aang’s journey will point out how well Avatar executes its serialized drama. I couldn’t agree more. Avatar does this exceptionally well, especially for a show targeting kids (Timmy and his viewers couldn’t care less what wish his Fairly Odd Parents granted last week; it never has any bearing on this week’s episode). What makes Avatar really special is its ability to also tell epic sweeping stories that are contained in a single episode. I have talked about this before, and I will talk about it again, because it keeps blowing my mind how much happens in twenty-two minutes. How do they do it? It’s like a magic trick. Any writers out there who want to learn how to tighten up their stories, watch this episode. In twenty-two minutes Katara goes from hungry kid in the woods to the leader of a prison rebellion. She has feelings for a boy. She pretends to earthbend. She restores a town’s hope. She loses a family heirloom. She rumbles with Prison Warden Sulu...
This episode could easily have been expanded to feature-length. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that episode after episode the writers pack so much story into these addictive morsels. One can only imagine what the Avatar creative team would do with double-length episode.
What’s that? Up next is “The Winter Solstice,” a two-parter? The wait is over.
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: Winter Solstice (Part 1)!
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.