Mon
Apr 26 2010 1:35pm

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Blue Spirit” (episode 113)

In this episode...

Sokka gets sick from the storm, and then Katara gets sick from Sokka. Aang runs off to find medicine. On his way to collect a cure, Aang is captured by a squad of Fire Nation archers. The archers work for Admiral Zhao, who has redoubled his efforts to get the Avatar. The mysterious Blue Spirit rescues Aang, but when the masked man is knocked unconscious during the escape. Aang discovers that the Blue Spirit is none other than Prince Zuko. Aang offers him friendship. Zuko says “Huah!” and throws fire at him.

John

I love seeing the search for the Avatar increase in importance. It kind of seemed a little odd that the Fire Lord would have been taking it so lightly even after it was proven that the Avatar had returned. It made some sense that he assigned the banished prince to hunt down the Avatar when everyone believed the Avatar cycle to have been broken, but once it was proven that the Avatar was actually back, it makes sense that the Fire Lord would make his forces de-prioritize their current assignments and make finding the Avatar their primary action item (to paraphrase Fight Club).

I also love seeing Aang showing off more of his skills, though I wondered why he doesn’t use more often that RUN (literally) LIKE THE WIND power, as it seems like it would come in handy. It was also great, though, to see the guards reading the wanted poster and smirk at it disbelievingly, dismissing it as Fire Lord propaganda. “There’s no way that’s true,” they say, as Aang runs by their guard shack so fast it knocks the walls down.

Did anyone else think archers are a bad idea to send against an airbender? Since, you know, arrows travel through the air? Admittedly, those are the elitist elite archers ever. A bit TOO elite, if you ask me. Though it got me wondering what an airbender archer would be like. Now I could see THEM being the elitist of the elite when it comes to archery. Firebenders, though, well these guys seem to just be part of the Fire Nation, not actually benders since they don’t set their arrows on fire or anything. They’re just like super awesome ninja archers.

Because Aang is the Avatar, we have what is basically the first situation in the history of film, books, and TV, in which the hero is captured by the bad guys, and there actually is a 100% logical reason for not just killing him. He’s the AVATAR! If they kill him, he’ll just be reborn again, and they’ll have to start the search all over.

It’s cool that Aang is able to send a little attitude Zhao’s way after the admiral finishes taunting him, but what I would have really liked to see is instead of blowing the man down, how about sucking the air out of his lungs? I guess that would be more of an Avatar State kind of thing to do, but come to think of it, why the heck DOESN’T Aang go into the Avatar State when he’s captured? I’d like to see Zhao be smug when he’s writhing around on the floor gasping for air.

When Aang and the Blue Spirit are using those ladders to sort of stilt-walk out of the Fire Nation fortress, I love how one of the firebender guards sensibly runs up to it and just lights the damn thing on fire.

One kind of important criticism from me on this otherwise outstanding episode: It goes on for about a minute too long. It clearly should have ended with Sokka asking Aang, “So did you make any new friends?” and Aang replying “No, I don’t think I did,” followed by the cut to Zuko turning his back on the Fire Nation flag. Boom.


Jordan

Here’s a question: Is it not COMPLETELY obvious that Zuko is the Blue Spirit from the moment it’s seen? Okay, maybe not the first time, but the reveal didn’t come as a surprise to me. Over the course of the series there are multiple reveals that I saw coming (King Bumi and the Blue Spirit are the first two). I’m curious how these reveals went over for the target audience. How about all of you people watching for the first time? I wonder how conscious the writers were about making these reveals true surprises. For example, for a viewer with a keen eye, the Blue Spirit swords have been hung up in Zuko’s room since the first episode. Obviously, the writers knew what they were doing.

Rewatching this episode reminded me of how funny it actually is. My memories of this episode mainly focused on the Blue Spirit aspect and totally forgot about Sokka and Katara’s illness. From Sokka’s discussion of Appa’s hilariousness to Momo-Vision, this episode is packed fully of funny moments. I love that the frozen frogs defrost in Sokka and Katara’s mouths. It was a funny moment to end on.

Aang’s eyebrows are all over the place in the episode. They are constantly twitching in reaction to what he’s encountering, whether it’s an old lady cooking her cat some food or being attacked by crazy archers.

I love how much Aang and his animals care for Sokka and Katara. Momo tries his best to help them out, but fails in hilarious ways. And Appa is always willing to be a big fluffy bed for sick pals. Aang ran up a mountain in an attempt to find a cure what their sickness. None of this is surprising because they have been a team for so long, but it is nice to see the lengths Aang will go for his friends.

Clearly, this episode represents a shift in Aang’s opinion of Zuko. I love that. Nothing is black and white on this show. The Zuko/Aang relationship is my favorite aspect of this show (aside from Appa’s existence, of course) and I look forward to rewatching it grow and change.


Matt

Props to Avatar continuity. Sokka is sick because of the weather he was exposed to in the previous episode, “The Storm.”

This is one of the most violent episodes in the series, with the sword-wielding Blue Spirit, deadly monster-of-the-week archers, an infinite number of Fire Nation guards, and snarling Com-, er... Admiral Zhao. It’s also one of the funniest episodes, with delirious Sokka, a baffled Momo who just can’t get Katara’s order right, and the nutty Cat Lady on the Mount. Is there a wider trend of crazy ladies living in isolated greenhouses? This character reminds me a lot of Lois Smith in Minority Report. Is anyone with me on this?

The first time I watched “The Blue Spirit,” I was overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the episode. From the moment Aang rushes out of his team’s hideaway, and the pounding drum music starts, driving him ever-forward through the episode, I was glued to my television screen. This is some of the best directing in the show. As Aang hurries to save his friends, we know he is on a collision course with Zhao.

It seems from the setup of the archers that Aang probably fares better than the snipers’ previous quarry, but in the end they capture the Avatar. I find it rather amusing that in “The Waterbending Scroll” Aang’s air blast was thwarted by a net (his air goes right through the holes), but here he can knock high-velocity arrows off their mark with relative ease. I guess that random net had some sort of magical anti-airbending properties imbued in it.

Props to John for pointing out the awesome point about why Zhao lets the Avatar live. Evil Overlords everywhere should take note.

My biggest issue with this episode the second time through, ironically, is the Blue Spirit. There are just so many questions raised by this delightful twist—that Zuko has mad ninja skills and is the best swordsman we have seen on the show. When was Zuko trained? Where? Was Piandao his master? Why is this never explained? Where does his identity as the Blue Spirit come from, and why do we never hear about it again? If he is such a killer swordsman, why doesn’t Zuko fight with his dual swords all the time? The biggest injustice here is that the Blue Spirit never plays a major role later on in the series. I’m not saying this as a fanboy wishing I could watch all Blue Spirit all the time. There is not enough time or information dedicated to this character to really justify it (sad as I am to say it, because part of me geeks out when he lands on top of that wall, squares off against two squads of guards, and then gets whisked away by helicopter Aang). Imagine Avatar Season One is literally a book. At the end of Chapter Twelve, we learn that Zuko was scarred in a duel with his father and was banished from the kingdom. Then at the end of the chapter, there is a one-sentence paragraph that reads, “Oh, and by the way, Zuko is Batman.” And then Zuko’s superhero identity is never addressed again for the rest of the book. That’s basically what the Blue Spirit is.

 


 

Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may 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 Fortuneteller!


« Episode 112 | Index | Episode 114 »


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.

19 comments
John Riggs
1. jmvreality
Hmmm, that seems awful spoilery to be so wrong. (regarding Zuko, swordsmanship, and the Blue Spirit).

Later on (I can't remember specific episodes) in seasons two and three, we get to see Zuko as the Blue Spirit again——for example, when he infiltrates the Northern Water Tribe and the Dai Lai's base.

And, in later flashbacks, we see that Zuko constantly practiced swordsmanship as a boy——at the same time as Azula practiced the fundamentals of firebending.
James Jones
2. jamesedjones
Then at the end of the chapter, there is a one-sentence paragraph that reads, “Oh, and by the way, Zuko is Batman.”
ROFL. Great summation.

On the other hand, no amount of sword work can really compete with firebending. It would be like giving Bruce Wayne a green lantern ring, and expecting him to just leave it on his belt as another gadget.
Lsana
3. Lsana
Maybe I'm particularly dense, but I didn't immediately figure out that Zuko was the Blue Spirit. I had a pretty good idea before the reveal (based on conservation of characters and the fact that there was no reason to keep this guy's identity hidden unless we've seen him before), but it certainly wasn't obvious from the second he appeared on screen.

I loved the "Zuko is Batman" line, but I don't think it is really accurate. Zuko has a couple of missions during which he needs to hide his identity, so he wears a mask. I don't think he makes a habit of it, and I don't think he has any sort of deep-seeded philosophical compulsion to go out righting wrongs as the mysterious masked avenger, the Blue Spirit. I'm not sure how much there is there to explore.
jeffrey denzel
4. md9dme65
Blue Spirit Spoilers:

The Blue Spirit is mentioned many, many more times. He does make a few more appearances.

Zhao makes the 'swords on display' the next time he in Zuko's quarters.

Wanted posters of him permeate background of most Fire Nation conquered cities.

During the early portion of season two, once Iroh and Zuko are on the run without possessions, Zuko takes a few episodes to reacquire the components of his alter ego. He then goes on a Robin Hood personal vandetta for an episode in Avatar Day.

In Zuko Alone, it is mentioned how Zuko as a child constantly trained 'with knives' when Azula mocks him. (Also, keep in mind that three years in banishment gives you a lot of free time.)

In Serpent's Pass, Zuko does not don the mask, but helps Jet 'liberate' food from the Captain.

Zuko officially gets rid of the Blue Spirit identity in 'Lake Laogai" after freeing Appa.

Although season 3 does not have Zuko wearing the mask, he does have his "I am up to no good cloak" that he seems to wear when he is visiting Iroh in jail, hiring assassins illegally, confronting his father, or sneaking out of the palace for some other shady/treacherous plot.

The last amusing appearance of the Blue Spirit is during the 'Ember Island Player's'. One of the better gags in that episode.
Lsana
5. KTFinn
md9dme65 is right, I think Matt needs another cup of coffee. The Blue Spirit hangs around in the background for awhile!

In Zuko Alone, he talks about how he trained with the swords and was mocked because it wasn't firebending. We also see that the swords are not uber weapons or anything -- he tried to take out the Earthbender but eventually has to use firebending.
John Joseph Adams
6. johnjosephadams
Lsana,

I don't think I knew the Blue Spirit was Zuko either the first time I watched it. And rewatching it now, it seems pretty well handled; I'd be surprised if many people figured out it was Zuko. You'd have to be really freaking observant to notice (and then remember!) that Zuko had such swords hanging on the wall in his quarters, and even that is hardly evidence of anything given that probably everyone of rank in the Fire Nation army has similar weapons hanging on display. I thought it a pretty effective surprise. As I recall, I was as surprised as Aang seemed to be when he pulled off the mask.

As for the other reveals Jordan mentions, I think King Bumi was really obvious and probably wasn't really supposed to be a surprise (i.e., that the kid Aang was friends with is the crazy old king that puts Aang through those tests in ep 105).
Lsana
7. Doug M.
The "Momo as Lassie... not" stuff was one of the touches that clinched my interest in this series. It's hilarious, and done really well.

Swords vs. bending: actually, a recurring theme in the series is that if an ordinary human is really, really skilled, then s/he can take on a bender. You can argue whether or not that's plausible, but it's central to the whole series. The most obvious examples are Mae and Ky Lee, but there are plenty of others.

-- But! this is something that's developed over time. The main non-bending character in Season One is Sokka, and he is -- as he says more than once -- just a guy with a boomerang. There are the Kyoshi warriors, but they're unable to stand against the firebenders attack until the Avatar helps out. The closest we come to a bender-busting "normal" human is Joon, and she's got a giant anteater-monster on her side.

So, the super-duper archers are the first normal humans we meet who can give a bender serious problems. In that sense, they're laying the groundwork for Azula's Gangbusters in Season Two.


Doug M.
Lsana
8. ChrisG
One thing that struck me mildly the first time I watched this episode and then more strongly the second time is the interesting visual style used in direction. Most notable are the quick cut zoom ins, but there are several little touches throughout that seem both cohesive and effective. The dialogue is also sharp and funny for the most part.

The archers *are* a bit too good, but it serves as a nice challenge -- making the situation truly desparate and counteracting Aang's airbender fu.

On rewatching, this has become one of my favorite episodes of Book 1.
Lsana
9. Zombie_Chow47
@ Doug M.

What about the Pirate Captain from 'The Waterbending Scroll'? The fight may have been short but for a time he was able to match Zuko before Uncle Iroh interrupted them.


How awesome was it when the archers jumped off the cliff after Aang and in mid fall were still firing off arrows at him.
Matt London
10. MattLondon
Looks like there are fans that really do their homework! Props for spying all those Blue Spirit shout outs.

I'm not sure Where's Waldo wanted posters really count as appearances, but yes, TBS does show up again. I guess my complaint is that his ninja skills never seem essential to his character. It's just one more tool in his toolbox, like Rita Repulsa sending just another giant monster after the Power Rangers. Yes, the parallel of young Zuko training with swords while young Azula trains with fire is a nice touch, but that scene isn't given a lot of dramatic weight, and it happens 40 episodes from now.

Crafting a persona for the Blue Spirit seems like it would take time, thought, and some personal connection to Zuko. It seems to have none of these things. Also, one would think that if Zuko could spy on anyone (as he does with Zhao in this episode) he would be a bit more with it when he is just plain Zuko.
Lsana
11. Elizabeth Randall
I always assumed that "the Blue Spirit" was in way of being a folk tale (like Robin Hood) that Zuko appropriated for his own use because it was handy and he needed a mask. I never thought of it as some sort of consistent persona that he set up. It looked to me like one of Iroh's theater masks tied over Zuko's workout clothes - an improvised disguise because he had to get at Zhao and Aang.

I love this episode. It absolutely upped my appreciation for the storytelling, both visual and character, that was going on in Avatar the Last Airbender. This and "The Storm" put me on notice that it wouldn't be just another kids show.
Lsana
12. wandering-dreamer
I remember watching Avatar when it was first out, so I was about 14 or a little outside the target audience, and I don't think I called many of the reveals in the first season. Later on, yes I was starting to think about "that seems familiar and that was pointed out, hang on," but Avatar was the first show where I learned to do it.
René Walling
13. cybernetic_nomad
"School Shipping" (one the Chibi shorts):

Best appearance of the Blue Spirit ever.
Matt London
14. MattLondon
@11

Elizabeth,

You bring up a really interesting point that may be worthy of its own internet-wide discussion. You assumed a rather awesome thing had been layered into the episode, but to my knowledge, such a folktale is never addressed. Furthermore, I can't remember if the name "Blue Spirit" is ever mentioned in the episode, though Zhao may reference him as such later on. This all brings up an interesting relationship between canonical text and the imagined world, or fan fic world, of Avatar.

There are many instances of fan fic illuminating a character aspect or plot thread in famous literary works that the canon author left ambiguous or unsaid. With the exponential increase of fan fiction since the popularization of the internet, it's no wonder that many examples come from great works of the internet age -- Harry Potter for literature, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for television. Personally, I am best-versed in video game RPGs, where in the 90s cartridges were so densely packed with data, much of the text of the story was cut. Poor translations from Japanese to English exacerbated this problem. (Compare the original SNES cartridge of Final Fantasy II to the recent Nintendo DS release of FFIV to see what I'm talking about.) These obstacles required gamers to take the story as written with a grain of Echo Herbs. It also left openings for many fan fic writers to explore the gaps between the dialogue scenes.

It would be wonderful if there was some magnificent folktale backstory to The Blue Spirit, but alas, such a history is never mentioned in canon. Compare this with The Painted Lady, who has a clear folktale backstory as depicted in the episode of the same name.

Food for thought. I'd love to hear other opinions on this, perhaps someone who knows more about the relationship between canonical lit and fan fic than I do.

M
Lsana
15. wandering-dreamer
What Elizabeth is saying rings a bell and I do recall hearing something about the Blue Spirit being part of the mythos of the Avatar world. I forget if it was specifically mentioned to be a character in a story within the world or if a fan made a connection to an outside story, but I recall reading that the Blue Spirit was a character in a theater story (think it was opera).
John Joseph Adams
16. johnjosephadams
According to the Avatar Wiki, "the mask Zuko wears when he is the 'Blue Spirit' is actually an Earth Kingdom theater mask, similar to the two frowning and smiling masks displayed in real life acting theaters," so it seems unlikely there is any mythic resonance to the character in the Avatarverse.
Lsana
17. Elizabeth Randall
@14, @16

Mostly I was connecting the mask itself with what little I know of Kabuki theater masks, which seem to have similar exaggerated features. Then I jumped from there to the traditional folk tales.

It is also fascinating to think of Zuko constructing an alternate identity that would allow him to move around freely during his banishment. I think I might be interested in some fanfic re: The Blue Spirit - or if they expand into another medium like comics, perhaps?
Jennifer B
18. JennB
Re watching this episode now. I think it is my favorite of the entire series. I love the frogs thawing out and hopping away from Aang throughout the episode. Momo bringing items to Katarra is so funny. I loved that it was Zuko who rescued Aang even though I figured it out from the beginning.
Lsana
19. LazarX
I tend to think of the "Momo-Vision" sequence also as a homage to Peanuts' rare occasions when adults speak to kids, it's heard in a very similar sounding babble.

I think a key thing of the Blue Spirit is that it's not Zuko's "super hero identity." Iroh calls him out on what it really is... a running away from his problem of facing who he truly is and taking full responsibility for his actions.

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