In this episode...
Zhao’s navy begins its siege on the Northern Water Tribe. Aang destroys several ships, but there are too many for him to fight them all. Meanwhile, Zuko sneaks inside the city to capture the Avatar for himself. Sokka is assigned the task of protecting Princess Yue. Aang decides to enter the spirit world and ask the moon and ocean spirits for guidance on how to stop the Fire Nation. But after Aang’s spirit leaves his body, Zuko fights Katara and runs off with Aang’s body.
This is the episode where Katara stops being Aang’s sidekick and turns into a superhero. From the mortified faces on Pakku’s other students, it is pretty clear that Miss Hair Loopies is one powerful bender. Even in the 21st Century, it is rare for a female character to kick this much butt. Usually the token girl is relegated to the role of damsel in distress or serves only to deliver snarky comments. Katara, on the other hand, saves Aang and Sokka on multiple occasions, and in the climax of this exciting episode Katara is the one who squares off with Zuko to protect the vulnerable Avatar. When acting his most vile, Zuko reminds me of Shredder from the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. The additional cuts and bruises he sports in this episode, combined with the helmet and face mask, make the comparison more obvious. So with that in mind, can you imagine April O’Neil duking it out with Shredder while Leonardo lays helpless on the floor? Not me.
Even though Zuko takes a beating from his waterbending opponent until he is relieved by a deus ex sun, the Fire Prince enjoys some impressive moments of his own in this episode. He follows some seal turtles through underwater passageways inside the city. This infiltration sequence reminded me of similar sequences in the Redwall series. [For the comments: what is your favorite infiltration scene ever in books, movies, TV, video games, anything?]
This Ninja Turtles comparison just won’t let up. Seal turtles, crawling in sewers, and then look at Sokka’s gloves. Those are turtle hands, people!
Perhaps most important to this episode is the fact that our three heroes finally come into their own. Katara has become a brave warrior. Aang can take down a dozen Fire Nation ships by himself. Even Sokka displays some clever thinking and battle knowledge. It’s good to see character growth.
And how about that wild scene where Aang takes down the first Fire Nation ship! He uses the Fire Nation’s technology against itself. There is also a very Indiana Jones sequence where Aang squares off against a particularly nasty crew member wielding chains. Appa steals the show by hurling that pit boss looking guy overboard. What a great face on Appa in that shot.
I’m going to pick up in the scene Matt left off talking about. Aang taking down that ship is an awesome sequence and it goes on for several minutes. Aang (and the viewer) feel a sense of accomplishment... and then Aang looks up and realizes he is screwed. That moment stuck with me after I finished the episode because I think it is the first time we all see just how large and strong the Fire Nation is. The weight of that moment is huge. Aang realizes that he may be THE AVATAR, but he is up against a huge adversary.
There were multiple times over the course of the episode where I felt bad for Aang. Yue’s expectations of him mirror the rest of the Northern Water Tribes... and the expectations are way too high. When Aang returns after taking out multiple ships to take breather and explain that he's outnumbered, all Yue offers him is “You’re the Avatar!” She also is impatient with him when he is trying to crossover to the spirit world. I get that she is a princess and obviously hasn’t had to worry much about herself, but I found her insistence that he needed to do more frustrating. Not as frustrating as her betrothed, Han. That guy, simply put, is a jerk. I completely agree with Sokka that Han is not worthy of Yue... and I think Han knew it too. Sokka may be just a guy with a boomerang from the Southern Water Tribe, but he is a very intelligent guy. I know we talk about this a lot, but Sokka really shines when his smarts are allowed to shine through.
Some quick thoughts on Zuko and Iroh. I think my favorite relationship over the course of the whole series is Zuko and Iroh’s. So often Iroh is seen as comic relief, but I feel like he has some of the most emotional moments of the series. He isn’t just all about tea. The scene where he tells Zuko that he is like a son to him always gets me and Iroh’s hug just before Zuko leaves is heartbreaking. I really hope the kids who watch this show take something away from the Zuko/Iroh relationship. It really is beautiful.
As usual over the course of the series, some really nice musical cues in this episode. Again, a reprise from the episode before this one (further evidence that all three of these final three episodes are of a piece) of the sad song Iroh is singing. Here we get a soft instrumental version of gently plucked stringed instruments, serving nicely to highlight the emotional struggle of Sokka and Yue’s relationship.
In this episode we learn that waterbenders draw some of their power from the Moon, and at night, when the Moon is out, their power is greater. I never would have considered that, but it works out so nicely, especially in light of how firebenders draw similar benefits from the Sun. Both make perfect thematic sense; fire and water are opposites, as are night and day. And, of course, with the Moon being the cause of tidal forces on the Earth, it’s kind of a celestial waterbender, just as the Sun, with its scorching heat, is a kind of celestial firebender. (This did make me wonder, however, what is the parallel for earthbenders and airbenders?) Learning this brings up some other questions about how bending works exactly—for instance, we’re lead to believe that perhaps firebenders draw their fire from the Sun itself, thus they don’t need to be near an existing fire source to bend fire; they generate their own. However, they seem to be the only bender that can do that; if in the middle of the desert, at night, during a full moon, could a waterbender bend water in the absence of a source? (Though in this episode we see Zuko firebend in a cave, at night, with no possible source of fire in evidence, so I’m not sure what to make of that. Firebenders, unlike other benders, seem to always be able to do lots of stuff even without moving their arms, like Zuko, in this episode when he frees himself from one of Katara’s icebergs. Firebenders are just a bunch of rulebenders!)
In light of this new evidence, however, and seeing how powerful the waterbenders are even in the daytime, it does kind of make you wonder how much more they could do when the Moon is out. Seeing a couple of canoes full of waterbenders surround that giant Fire Nation ship and completely beach it upon a jagged bed of ice is pretty astonishing. So I certainly see why Iroh advises Zhao to cease firing until daybreak, but my question is: How do the waterbenders not finish off the Fire Nation during the night? Also, seeing what they’re capable of makes me think that once they saw the soot on the air (and since they had so much time to wait for the battle that the chieftan was complaining about how calm it was), couldn’t they have erected huge glaciers, effectively walling off their city? Sure, they wouldn’t stop the Fire Nation ships forever, but could it not have kept them busy long enough to allow the waterbenders to implement some offense, away from the city, instead of just scrambling to defend it?
It’s funny how much we grow to care about Zuko and Iroh, even though they’re the enemies of our protagonists. For instance, the scene where Iroh sees Zuko off is genuinely touching, and I find myself actually caring and sympathizing with his character, not just being fascinated by him because he’s a badass (i.e., the Darth Vader syndrome).
I love the scene in the tranquil garden when Aang is trying to meditate so he can enter the spirit world. Katara and Yue are talking (as if narrating) about how he has to concentrate really hard on what he’s doing, then pondering if there’s anything they can do to help, only to have Aang snap at them “How about a little quiet? I can hear everything you’re saying!” And then quickly after that bit of humor we transition right to the quiet and somber visual of the yin-yang fish swirling around each other. And THEN we transition into full-blown action with a major throwdown between Zuko and Katara.
This is really an amazing episode, and together with Part 2 a fitting finale to the first season of one of the greatest works of fantasy we’ve ever seen on screen.
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: Siege of the North (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.