In this episode...
The Aang Gang is visiting a small Earth Kingdom village when Sokka is abducted by a vengeful forest spirit. While pursuing the spirit, Aang is transported to the Spirit World, where he is told by Avatar Roku’s spirit animal, Fang the Dragon, that Aang’s former incarnation has a message for him. Using his newfound knowledge of the Spirit World, Aang calms the forest spirit, freeing Sokka and other abducted villagers. At the same time, another abduction takes place. Iroh is captured by earthbenders, who want to see him stand trial for war crimes at the Earth Kingdom capital city of Ba Sing Se. Zuko rescues
his uncle, then sets out once again to capture the Avatar.
Welcome back Uncle Iroh! Good to see you (although maybe we’re seeing too much of you this episode, if you know what I mean). The Dragon of the West is at the top of his game in “The Spirit World.” He is at his funniest, hippy-est, and most awesome. There is a great moment early on when Iroh encourages his nephew to join him in the bath, which he has heated himself with a snort of firebending. This is a great setup for later in the episode when Iroh uses the same move to escape from the earthbenders. And what an impressive escape it is. It’s a credit to the writers here that the soldiers are not bumbling or incompetent. In fact, they seem to be rather skilled, but it is quite apparent that these soldiers are totally outmatched. By the time he scalds one guy’s hands and takes out two others with both his wrists and ankles tied, I think we get the idea that there’s more to General Iroh than the lovable cuddly Uncle side.
At the same time, Aang is on his own quest. After some silly antics involving clouds and a blow-dried Momo, the gang visits a small earthbending village currently being terrorized by a giant monster that looks like a cross between an Orca whale and a demon from some creepy late night cartoon on 1990s MTV. Hei Bai, this spirit in question, abducts Sokka and whisks him away to the spirit world. Aang gives chase but ends up in the spirit world himself.
Two of the themes of Avatar that really stand out to me are the struggle to find balance between nature and technology, and the other is the ambiguity of good and evil — that all people have shades of gray. Both of these themes are presented in full force in this episode.
The message is that when technology damages nature, nature gets angry. If firebenders torch a forest, panda demons are going to be bloody pissed. I can’t help but notice that every shot in the show of a Fire Nation ship has a thick cloud of billowing black smoke trailing behind it, polluting the atmosphere, a constant reminder of mankind’s impact on the natural world.
The forces of nature are not portrayed much better. Hei Bai is a frightening monster that can only be tamed by getting what it wants. In this case, it wants its forest back. For some reason, it’s willing to settle for a handful of acorns and a promise that 100 years down the road, everything will be as it was. And it’s not like this one earthbending village and poor Sokka had anything to do with the forest’s destruction. Pandaman really needs to do some detective work before jumping to any rash conclusions.
It’s quite remarkable how every character seems to have both a light side and a dark side. Katara can be both motherly/suppportive, as well as grating. Sokka can act like a coward, as he did in the previous episode: “Shouldn’t we run away from huge booms, not toward them?” But then in this episode he risks his life to save his friend. What a good guy that Sokka is. Meanwhile, in the other plotline, earthbenders capture the man responsible for a two-year siege against their home, but the warmonger is portrayed as the hero of that story.
Interestingly, both these themes are favorites of acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Look at a film like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and you will see what I mean. No one is pure good or pure evil. Heroes with good intentions often have a learning curve, as all young people do. They make mistakes, and learn from them. At the same time, villains are given three-dimensional motivations, and intent beyond serving a function in the plot. (Sounds like Aang and Zuko, no?) So much of the imagery in this episode, from the burnt forest to the frightening Hei Bai, the mystical dragon Fang to Panda Hei Bai whose every step makes the plants grow, is classic Miyazaki.
In terms of story, this episode feels very much like a lead in to “Avatar Roku,” and not much more. But as an exercise in style, this is one of the best episodes in the series. So soak in the beauty, think about the nature spirits and their feelings, and get ready for the next episode, where we’ll get some delicious exposition from a firebending Obi-wan.
Hello, Spirit World!
In this first installment of the Winter Solstice two-parter, we are given a deep look into the Avatar’s connection to the Spirit World. Aang comments at multiple times in the beginning of the episode about how he doesn’t know how to BE the Avatar. No one taught him how to connect to the Spirit World, he just knows that he is supposedly connected. He also knows that somehow Avatar Roku will help him, but again, he is clueless as to how he is supposed to contact his previous self.
Like the Kyoshi episode, we get to see how Aang and the gang end up bringing destruction to another village that they encounter. Yes, this village was already suffering through the loss of inhabitants, but visually, it doesn’t seem like there was any structural damage until Aang actually tried to communicate with the spirit. Once Aang started talking, Hei Bai started destroying the town until Sokka attempted to help Aang.
Once Sokka had been abducted, Aang suddenly had a personal interest in the safety of the village. I’m not saying that he didn’t understand the importance of his helping the town, but once it became personal, he was able to make strides in saving the town. If only he’d known that all he had to do was show Hei Bai an acorn...
One cool piece of mythology that was introduced in this episode was the acknowledgment of animal spirit guides for avatars. Appa is to Aang as Fang is to Roku. Just a cool piece of info. I don’t want to delve too much into what if’s in this episode, but I am curious if Fang would’ve shown up to guide Aang to Roku’s temple if Aang hadn’t already been attempting to contact the spirit world. Seeing how it was important for Aang to find out how to contact Roku, I assume this contact still would’ve happened.
One thing I love about this show is how tied to nature it is. Obviously, the elemental bending styles are key, but the spirituality of the series is based around the sun and the moon and the seasons. It’s a good thing Katara and Sokka woke Aang up when he did, because he is on a tight deadline to save the world. Had Aang never frozen himself up in that iceberg, would he have had an easier time connecting with his former lives?
A few quick thoughts on the Zuko/Iroh plot. I love the relationship between the two of them. Zuko takes himself so seriously and Iroh is just hanging out, relaxing and thoroughly enjoying chaperoning the banished prince. Zuko also consciously chooses to save Iroh instead of going after the Avatar. I think that says a lot about how he feels about Iroh. As Matt pointed out, this episode we really get to see Iroh kick some ass. We got hints of it following the Zuko/Zhao Agni Kai, but this is the first time we really see Iroh do his thing. It was awesome watching Zuko and Iroh take on multiple Earth bender soldiers and succeed.
This episode is set-up, but like every episode so far, we are given some great world-building. And again, we see how the return of the Avatar is affecting the world and the weight that Aang carries.
When I do my rewatches, I sit with my laptop and jot down notes as I rewatch each episode. At first I was having trouble coming up with things to say about this one because there’s just so much great stuff going on, I didn’t want to pause the episode to write anything.
When the Hei Bai spirit shows up—HOLY CRAP. How terrifying and awesome is that? I love how it’s just so alien, unlike other spirits and demons we’ve seen before in other shows or stories. The way it teleports around seems really different and interesting, and how creepy is it when it does that sonic/roar attack?
This is a really good Sokka episode, even though he ends up not being in it much (being trapped for most of it in the spirit world). Not only does he seem very stoic and heroic when first presented with the Hai Bai problem by the villagers, but he refuses to let Aang face the giant terrifying monster on his own. He also has a bunch of good one-liners, from the “Yeah, we’re going to get eaten by a spirit monster.” to “You could give us some supplies. And some money.”
Some great Uncle Iroh backstory in this one. He’s revealed to be the “Dragon of the West” and to have been a feared warrior, not just the brother of the Fire Lord. Also, first mention of Ba Sing Se, the coolest locale in the Avatar world! And how clever is Iroh, falling off that—what IS that thing anyway? An Ostrich-Horse?—anyway, falling off that steed so he can leave behind one of his sandals as a breadcrumb for Zuko to find. That seems pretty believable to me that it could have worked, and such intelligent gambits are rare in adventures stories of all kinds, let alone ones intended for children.
I love how Katara, after witnessing Sokka’s abduction by the Hei Bai (and being left alone after Aang goes after Sokka), not only sits despondently by the gates of the village but holding Sokka’s boomerang too. The show always does such a great job showing the characters when they’re hurting. Earlier in this episode, we saw Aang hurting over the loss of the burned down forest. And even Appa is sad!
Very nice job on the reveal that Aang had entered the spirit world, when he walks back to the village, just as the elder was telling Katara he was sure Aang would not return without Sokka, and Aang himself hasn’t even realized he’d crossed over. And then when he sees the dragon flying toward him and tries to airbend—only to discover he can’t!—how cool is that?
We keep mentioning how dense these episodes are, just jam-packed full of material, so much so that it seems impossible that everything each one contains can play out over only 22 minutes. This is another example of that. This episode, there’s just so much going on! Near the end, we see the appearance of Avatar Roku’s dragon companion, which is a really interesting new piece of worldbuilding. The other benders have animal companions too, not just the airbenders. So if the firebenders have dragons, and the airbenders have flying bison, that made me wonder, what do earthbenders and waterbenders have? (We can talk about this a bit in the comments since neither has been addressed in the series thus far.)
Also interesting that Iroh seems to be able to, if not SEE the spirit world dragon, at least SENSE its presence. I wonder why, though?
All of this AND we get an awesome firebending vs. earthbending battle!! Man, what an episode! I have to admit, though, I was totally underwhelmed by the abilities of those earthbenders. Iroh was not lying when he said they were clearly outmatched. How could five earthbenders possibly lose a fight with two firebenders when standing in a canyon and surrounded on three sides by solid rock? It says a lot just how exceptional Iroh and Zuko are, and what a huge gulf there can be between benders of different skill levels. It seems like it’s as broad ranging as little league and Major League Baseball.
How cruel is it to make us stop and write a retrospective in between the two halves of this great episode! I can only imagine the suffering of those who watched this during its initial run and had to wait a whole WEEK to see part two.
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 2)!
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.