Mon
Apr 12 2010 2:03pm

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Waterbending Scroll” (episode 109)

In this episode...

Katara tries to teach Aang some waterbending, but it quickly becomes apparent that Aang’s skills have surpassed his instructor’s. On a trip to town to pick up supplies, Katara steals a waterbending scroll from a store run by pirates. Zuko teams up with the pirates to retrieve the scroll and capture the Avatar. Mayhem ensues. Conflict between Zuko and the pirates allows Aang and company to escape with the scroll and their lives.

Jordan

For me, this episode is all about Katara. I find her arc interesting in this episode because in the end, I’m not sure that it has a very “Nickelodeon” message.

We start with Katara feeling like she is awesome because she is teaching Aang how to waterbend. Her feeling of awesomeness quickly fades as Aang surpasses her skills, which leads to her turning into quite the jealous brat. This all works for me because that happens when you are a kid. As my mom told me all throughout school, “There will always be someone who is better than you.” I think that was an important lesson to learn as a kid, because it allowed me to always push myself while keeping my ego in check. Katara, on the other hand, has never had to deal with NOT being the best. That’s a tough blow, and it isn’t helped by her brother making fun of her and being bested by someone younger than her.

Moving on, once the gang gets to the port, we see Katara’s second moment of weakness. She steals the Waterbending Scroll, causing an epic chase scene through the port. That sneaky Katara thought she could fool pirates.

Katara’s third moment in the show is when she decides to practice her bending at night, in secret, resulting in Zuko and the pirates locating Aang and the gang. Her own frustration with herself, gave their location away.

When Katara and then gang manage to escape at the end of the episode, Sokka asks her if she learned anything. She says that stealing is wrong… unless is from pirates. I don’t know, I really don’t like the idea of telling kids that stealing is right in any situation, simply because a child can find a way to convince themselves that stealing in that moment is right. “But Mom, Katara stole the Waterbending Scroll!” Did this bother anyone else?

A few small thoughts. One thing this show is great about is how it handles all the objects and money the gang has. At the start of the episode, the gang loses all of their provisions. We are reminded of where they acquired the money they have left and then Aang buys the Bison whistle. Yes, it was clear to me from the moment he blew the whistle that it was going to come in handy at some point in the episode. I just want to bring attention to it and everything they acquire as the show goes on. You’d be surprised how often objects reappear. Not just Aang and the gang. Keep an eye on Zuko and Iroh’s possessions as well.


John

It’s funny how kids are sometimes, like when Katara sort of gets jealous when Aang picks up the waterbending right away. That seemed very realistic to me, because kids DO get jealous about such things, even if you’d think Katara would have some perspective about it. After all, Aang IS the Avatar, and besides his own point that she had to learn it herself while he had the benefit of a teacher, I’d think it would also be a huge advantage for Aang that he’s already mastered a different form of bending. I mean, if you play cello and try to learn violin, surely you’d be able to pick it up more quickly than someone who’d never played an instrument at all. 



Now I’m not one to condone stealing, but I have to admit I’m a little puzzled at Sokka’s attitude about Katara stealing the waterbending scroll. Obviously, she’s right—it’s crucial for Aang to learn waterbending and to do so as soon as possible. She IS a bit quick on turning to theft—they don’t even mope about after seeing it lamenting how they didn’t have enough money—but I guess it was SO expensive that they couldn’t even conceive of making that much money. (It kind of seems like that’s more money than there is in that entire little town.) I would have been more supportive of Sokka if he’d been advocating getting farther away from the scene of the crime before they settled down to start practicing with it.



We’ve talked before about how dense these episodes are, so it’s always hard to criticize them for leaving stuff out. But one thing that occurred to me is, well, couldn’t they try to copy the scroll so they could return it? Admittedly it would be pretty hard to copy something like that, but given how bad Sokka is at drawing as we see later in the show, it might have been funny to see his attempts at duplicating the intricate poses depicted on the scroll. 



Once the pirates team up with Zuko to capture the Avatar, then turn on each other and start fighting, I was hoping we’d see more of how regular people might be able to combat benders, though in this case it seems like all they really do is throw down some smoke bombs to cause confusion. I’m not sure how that really helps anyone much, and it is kind of lame that we don’t get to see any of this battle animated. 



So when the gang are trying to flee the battle by absconding with the pirate’s ship...where the heck is Appa exactly? I realize they wanted to have him come dramatically save the day (and make Aang spending that copper piece on the whistle seem like a good idea), but WHERE was he? Why did they leave him so far away? After the left the town to start practicing with the scroll, it kind of looked like they went back to where they initially landed. 



How cool is it when Aang and Katara start pushing and pulling the water to keep them from going over the waterfall? Though seeing that kind of thing makes me wonder how Fire Nation ships even got close enough to the Water Tribe to wipe out their waterbenders. 



Also, I have to say, I agree wholeheartedly with the moral of this episode: Stealing is wrong, unless it’s from pirates. Well, kind of anyway—I agree with Jordan that it’s kind of dubious to leave it at that, but while I think their theft IS excusable, what makes it so is their extreme need, like a father or mother who steals food to feed their starving family. The fact that they stole it from pirates (who stole it in the first place) does make it MORE excusable in my book, as does the fact that, you know, they’re tasked with SAVING THE WORLD and OMG THEY HAVE TO DO IT BY NEXT SUMMER.


Matt

This is another shining example of an episode that has little impact on series continuity, but is still wildly entertaining (and has little hints about the future of the series, too). I’m always a fan of battles that involve more than two sides, so the climax here (which seemed to last half the episode) really drew me in.

Many examples of the characters’ relationships with objects come up in this episode. Katara and her necklace, and Aang washing away the team’s supplies (recently acquired from Senlin Village in episode 107). The focus of the whole episode is the eponymous waterbending scroll. Material things tend to cause a lot of problems for the Aang Gang, and this episode is no exception.

Someone mentioned to me that the early episodes of Avatar can border on after-school special. Katara’s arc in “The Waterbending Scroll” seems to be an example of this. Katara’s main issue is that she finally has found something at which she excels, but then in swoops Aang, who is naturally more gifted than she is at her own skill. Over the course of the episode, she learns that it is better to support her friends no matter what, and be proud of them for their gifts, especially since it gets her out of more than one jam. I think this is a great lesson for kids to learn. Many kids have been the best reader, or artist, or basketball player in his or her fifth grade class, only to go on to middle school with a bunch of new students who may read thicker books, draw better cartoons, and shoot more hoops. This is a hard lesson for kids to deal with, and Avatar addresses it in an elegant way.

A final, perhaps spoilery note: Either our brilliant creators knew a year in advance the importance of the Lotus Tile, or were savvy enough to reincorporate the tile later. I like to think it’s the former, because it keeps with Iroh’s drunken master persona. His shopping trip is not superfluous at all, but a quest to acquire an important object.

Either way, pretty sharp.


 

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: Jet!


« Episode 108 | Index | Episode 110 »


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.

9 comments
Josh Davis
1. YoSoyElJosh
I enjoy this episode, except for one thing, and maybe I'm just not thinking clearly:

Where did the waterfall come from?

We see Aang and the gang seaside when they meet the pirates. They presumably travel back upstream to their camp site. Then Zuko and the pirates are paddling by in their boats...

And then ten minutes later, they're all teetering on the edge of a pretty severe waterfall. I can't imagine any sort of place where this could make sense, unless somehow they travelled upriver on another part of the island, which features some sort of Escher topography...

Anyways, any clue there?
Emily Michelle
3. Emily Michelle
I agree, I love that everything was so well planned out that they have Iroh looking for a lotus tile long before we know it's significant. I'm pretty sure it was intentional:

Iroh: Most people think the lotus tile insignificant, but it is essential for the unusual strategy that I employ.
Zuko: You've changed our course for a stupid lotus tile?
Iroh: See, you, like most people, underestimate its value.

I feel like Iroh is definitely hinting there that it's more significant than a simple game; his membership in the Order of the White Lotus is his "unusual strategy."
David Weidendorf
4. Oberndorf
What makes his "unusual strategy" line even better is that the recognition signal he gives to the other White Lotus member in Ba Sing Se is a distinctly unusual pattern of moves. Unusual strategy indeed.
Emily Michelle
5. Zombie_Chow47
A lot to like as was pointed out in the main article but one thing I enjoyed that wasn't pointed out is that during the escape from the town after the scroll theft as the gang are running away from the pirates with Aang jumping through the cabbage cart (nice return of cabbage guy too) there is a repeat of the action from different camera angle which reminded me a lot of 'Ong Bak' a thai martial art film.

I can't recall if there is any more visual homages to Ong Bak in the rest of the series but that one just stuck with me.
Emily Michelle
6. ***Dave
Best quote:

Iroh: Are you so busy fighting you cannot see your own ship has set sail?
Zuko: We have no time for your proverbs, uncle!
Iroh: It's no proverb.

I love Uncle Iroh.
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
Yes, in retrospect, the lotus tile was by far the most interesting thing about this episode.

And more Appa, of course.
Emily Michelle
8. Confusador
My personal interpretation is that Iroh was not looking for a tile, but a person (hiding it in his sleeve was a ruse). I suspect he wanted to communicate some of the information about the Avatar to the rest of the group.
Emily Michelle
9. Elizabeth Randall
There's always one episode in a series that you see a hundred times. Like, every time you flip on a rerun - it's that episode. For Avatar, my episode is The Waterbending Scroll. Swear I've got it memorized by now.

I think Katara's characterization is very realistic, but I am also the tiniest bit put off by the "moral" of the story. And they do run a couple of the jokes into the ground: "how about TWO copper pieces?!"

But I do love Iroh and Zuko's exasperation at his uncle is always appealing. The writing just hit a really great balance with them so that you could always see the love there.
Emily Michelle
10. Ellynne
I like to think Iroh was doing a wonderful bit of deceit-by-being-truthful, that he had something to do in relation to the White Lotus and, rather than come up with a complicated lie, he sticks to what is essentially the truth, leaving out that the "piece" he needs is code for "running an errand for the Order." He even gets to stick with the truth in case anyone realizes he had the piece all along - he admits up front he had the physical game piece the whole time!

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