In this episode...
After Zuko steals Aang’s body while he’s in the spirit world, Sokka and Katara rush off with Appa to try to catch them. Aang, in the spirit world, talks with Roku and learns that he must find out the location of the moon spirit from a fierce creature named Koh the Face Stealer. After an intense encounter, Aang learns from Koh that the one of the yin-yang fish is the physical embodiment of the moon spirit. Katara and Sokka catch up with Zuko and defeat him and liberate Aang, then together the gang rushes off to protect the moon spirit from Zhao. When they fail to stop him from killing the moon spirit, the moon disappears from the night sky. Zuko faces off with Zhao (who tried to have him killed); Aang enters the Avatar State and summons up a gigantic water spirit and kicks a lot of Fire Nation butt. Princess Yue, who was touched by the moon as a child, must sacrifice her life to return the moon to the world. The water spirit takes care of Zhao.
First off, how beautiful was the use of color in this episode? I feel like it was a very sophisticated choice for a kid’s show. The red that appeared when the Moon spirit was in danger was very intense and the longer it lasted, the more uncomfortable I became. Iroh’s interruption of Zhao gave us about 30 seconds of normal coloring before Zhao killed the moon spirit and created the black and white sequence. This sequence is where I think the color was handled best. Throughout the fight scenes here, color would return briefly around the fire, but everything around the fire would stay black and white. When Yue’s blue eyes came through the black and white, I decided the color shifts were an amazing choice. Earlier in episode she mentions her connection to the moon spirit but that moment, when her eyes shine bright blue through the grey, is when it all really comes together. Poor Sokka. His girlfriend turned into the moon.
Now, I have a question for Zuko. What on Earth was his plan after he kidnapped Aang? Just keep on walking across the ice until he finds his way home? Iroh didn’t seem to have any sort of Zuko rescue plan going on at all in this episode. So did Zuko really think he could just walk off with the Avatar? Iroh, again, is the most interesting character in this episode to me. We get hints at a trip to the spirit world that he made and get more hints of where he actually stands in the war the Fire Nation is fighting. He lost it on Zhao and his guards once the Moon Spirit died. Iroh obviously has a strong connection to the spirit world. Something Zhao seemed to take for granted and which ultimately resulted in his demise. I love the way the Iroh is animated. His talk with Zuko on the raft at the end had so much going on visually that wasn’t said. Iroh is a character that I think thrives on non-verbal cues for the audience.
One issue I take with this episode is the introduction of Zuko’s sister. To a first time viewer, I remember thinking that it was really weird that Zuko randomly started monologuing about his sister. Did anyone else have this experience? She appeared in the flashback episode where the origin of Zuko’s scar is revealed, but that is only noticeable if you are rewatching. So obviously the writers knew what they were doing. Why did they wait until this episode to have him start talking about her? Season two, LOOK OUT! Azula is here and ready to kick some Zuko ass.
Final thought. I always enjoy Aang’s trips into the spirit world. It always is a little bit “off”. I wonder if the spirit world appears the same to all who enter it. And who or what is that meditating monkey? Let’s get that guy a spin-off series!
Katara seems to imply that it’s a big deal if Aang’s body is moved while he’s in the spirit world, that if his body is moved he’d be trapped in the spirit world forever. But I guess it doesn’t really matter all that much if you move it, now does it? When he gets back, it looks dire for him for about two seconds, and then his spirit just locks onto his body’s homing device or something and zips right to it. So it seems like it’s just fine whether you move his body or not. Incidentally, Katara is all broken up about losing Aang, but after Sokka says everything will be all right, she stops crying and says “Okay.” Really? How about something like “You’re right, sitting here crying about it won’t help Aang or help us defeat the Fire Nation.” Saying something as simple as “Okay” in that situation seems to go against the new fierce badass waterbender Katara has become.
Koh the facestealer is completely awesome and horrifying. And man! When Aang approaches Koh’s lair and he sees that faceless chimp! But probably the creepiest scene in the whole series is when Aang actually faces down Koh and has to keep all his emotions in check lest he leave himself open to facestealing, and the encounter between the two is really engaging as they verbally parry as Aang tries to get information and Koh tries to trick Aang into making himself vulnerable.
When Zhao sneaks into the garden and steals the physical embodiment of the moon spirit (the white yin-yang fish), that was a great moment. But all along you figure there’s no way he’s going to kill the fish, no matter what he’s saying. There’s no way he can KILL THE MOON. And so before he has a chance, we see Aang and the gang show up, and then Iroh too appears to talk Zhao out of it, reasoning with him that even the Fire Nation needs the moon, that it’s critical to keeping the world in balance. And so Zhao, momentarily cowed, releases the fish back into the water, but then, in a rage, destroys it! Man, what an intense scene! I never expected that to happen, because it just seems like the sort of thing that is threatened in epic fantasy stories but cannot possibly happen because of the irrevocable damage it would cause. Kudos to the Avatar writing team for daring to go there—even if a Yue ex machina is required to hit the reset button before the end of the episode. (I can’t help but wonder how thrilling it would have been, though, if they had to suffer for a while longer without the moon, to show some of the “chaos it would unleash on the world” that Aang mentions. Of course, given all the wonderful use of colors in this episode that Jordan mentions, it would be impractical for the storyline to be left unresolved for long.)
But despite all the great moments in this episode, as it progresses, it keeps trumping itself. Like how freaking awesome is it when Aang walks into the sacred pool and communes with the yin-yang fish and then summons up the ginormous water spirit? Or when he starts just slicing through those Fire Nation ships, or flings them away with one swat of his mammoth spirit hands? (It’s a shame, of course, that Aang didn’t know he could do that all along. But I suppose the spirit world works in mysterious ways.)
This is just an incredibly epic finale. But man, it just keeps getting better from here.
And so the first season of Avatar comes to a close. In twenty-two minutes, we experience victory and defeat, comedy and drama, apotheosis, and a hook for what’s to come. There are scary moments (the terrifying Koh) and funny moments (like at the height of Zhao’s “I’m awesome” speech, Momo pops out of nowhere and plays Zhao’s muttonchops like an accordion).
I am struck by how spiritual it is. Ghosts, spirit worlds, and reincarnation feature heavily here. The first half of the episode takes place almost entirely in the Spirit World, with just a few cutaways to the gang searching the snowy wastes on Appa, or firebenders liquefying the water tribe city. I can just imagine what this beautifully designed ice city would be like during a heat wave. Two friends are canoeing down the stream. “Hey,” the first one says. “Didn’t there used to be a great tea shop right here?” The other waves a hand dismissively. “Are you kidding? That place melted years ago.”
Can anyone tell me why the Spirit World is a swamp? It seems like a strange choice, but an interesting one. The meditating monkey and floating light remind me of Alice in Wonderland, but Koh straight up scares the crawfish out of me. He’s like, part Alice in Wonderland Caterpillar, part Queen Slug-for-a-Butt (from Earthworm Jim), and has the air of some character from Return to Oz. And that blinking thing he does to change heads? Ew. Double Ew. But Aang (who normally has little control over his overly expressive face) manages to maintain his composure and learn the identity of the Moon Spirit. Believe it or not, I had no idea the fish were going to be the spirits. I assumed Yue was going to be one of the spirits all along, but rewatching the episode, it’s pretty obvious that there’s something going on with the yin-yang fish. They cut to those fish every five shots. So...
Eventually, Aang makes his way back to the human world and whisks his spirit body to his corporeal shell. Katara spots Aang’s light, and the gang heads for Zuko’s shelter. I’ll say something here about Sokka’s growth and the show as a whole. I’ve always tried to point out that Avatar is about the little things. Note how casually Sokka says “Yip Yip” to get Appa airborne. And later, once Zuko is captured, Sokka makes a big point of saying what great rope Zuko used to tie up Aang. Sokka has that rope now, and you can bet we are going to see that rope again.
When the Moon Spirit dies, Aang hulks out like we’ve never seen him before, drawing water to him to form a giant fish-man monster that makes short work of the Fire Navy. There is something god-like about the Avatar’s transformation. Waterbenders bow to this monster. The firebenders defy it. The monster smites the firebenders. This is not very subtle angel of death stuff here.
And of course, in the end, it’s about a fish. The very first action in the very first episode is Katara drawing a fish out of the water with her waterbending. This season of Avatar begins with a fish and ends with a fish.
The best part about this episode, and the cliffhanger ending specifically, is that it reminds me that this whole season is basically prologue, and that what I really consider Avatar when I think of Avatar (Toph being Toph, the gang being the gang, Zuko being angsty angsty Zuko, and Azula hot on their heels) is coming up next.
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 Avatar State!
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.