Fri
May 14 2010 10:21am

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Waterbending Master” (episode 118)

In this episode...

Aang and the gang find the Northern Water Tribe at last. Aang meets a waterbending master who refuses to teach Katara because she’s a girl. Sokka gets a crush. Zhao commandeers Zuko’s crew and hires the pirates from “The Waterbending Scroll” (episode 109) to kill him. Zhao believes they succeed, but Zuko somehow escapes. Sokka’s heart is broken when he learns his crush is betrothed. Katara fights the waterbending master to prove she’s good enough to learn from him. Iroh infiltrates Zhao’s ranks and reinforces the lie that Zuko is dead. Aang and Katara learn a lot of waterbending. Zhao’s fleet sails north to confront Aang and the Northern Water Tribe.


John

How cool (no pun intended) is that city made of ice? It’s kind of awesome how when we see the Southern Water Tribe, we see this very primitive way of life, and it would have been easy to pigeonhole all Water Tribes that same way. Instead, we see this VASTLY different society, with incredibly sophisticated cities and who seem to be quite capable of defending themselves. (Thus explaining why they might still be around while the Southern Tribe has basically been wiped out. Of course, in the next episode, it looks like their ability to defend themselves will be tested...)

Did anyone else just love the utterly awkward way in which Sokka asks out Princess Yue? Reminded me how sometimes people will go so far out of their way to avoid calling something a “date” that they spend way too much time thinking of a way to avoid the “D” word. But what Sokka says really gets to the point, right? “I want to spend more time with you, so I propose we do an activity together.” It’s the most honest (if awkward) description of a date ever!

Not that I’m one to stick up for a sexist custom that would prevent a woman from doing something only because of her gender, but isn’t it kind of funny how might makes right in this case? Katara is told no, so she fights the waterbending master, and when she proves her talent, he agrees to teach her. (Or perhaps a combination of that, and the fact that Katara is his long-lost-love’s granddaughter.) So he’s willing to go against his customs after that, but he was ready to turn his back on the Avatar? He’s got to SAVE THE WORLD, people! Help the kid out!

I was also a bit puzzled by how much Katara disdained the thought of participating in the healing lesson. She’s like one of those obstinate D&D players who refuses to play a cleric even though the party is in dire need of one (who then complains when there’s no one to heal his fighter after he gets his butt kicked). I mean, she’s only just learned to heal herself, so I would think she might be interested in learning some new tricks. Of course, I understand her feelings when she sees that the whole class is made up of little kids, but she disdained the idea before even seeing that.

I love the character development of Iroh and Zuko in this episode, how much the stakes are changed for them both. It’s all in the background–completely separate from what the Avatar is doing, but it works nonetheless. I’m kind of curious what finally drives Zhao to have Zuko killed, though; was it simply the idea that Zuko may have been the Blue Spirit? In any case, I love the Iroh’s ruse of going along with Zhao to help protect Zuko. I admit, however, that I’m extremely puzzled how Zuko could have possibly survived. I don’t recall if it’s explained in any detail later, but it seems like the kind of thing that you need to actually see depicted, otherwise it feels kind of lazy. I could imagine some scenarios in which Zuko could escape a firey blast like that—he IS a firebender after all—but without SEEING it, it feels like a bit of a rip-off.

Another really fine episode. Really makes me eager to see the final two of season one–which are EPICLY EPIC.


Matt

After John questioned Zuko’s odds of survival in the explosion that gave him “battle damage,” I assumed that the chilling moment where he sees the pirate captain’s parrot-lizard tipped Zuko off to the danger, and he was able to jump off the ship in time. My third re-watch of this ep, with commentary, it was pointed out that Zuko throws up a protective fire shield to absorb some of the boom. Nicely theorized, JJA.

This episode stands out as being (in my opinion) the first part of a three-part season finale. “The Waterbending Master” is tied so closely to “The Siege of the North,” how can you not include it? And a lot of groovy stuff happens in this episode, too. The plotlines in this half hour seem to bring all of the elements of the season together into one epic Rube Goldberg device, adding the final component of Princess Yue, that will lead to the grand finale to follow. The creators are once again having fun by reincorporating characters from previous episodes into the story. In this case, it’s the pirates.

It also has some of the best combat in the show to date. Avatar never runs out of creative ways to use water to bust people up. The best in this ep? Katara’s pizza tray razor discs that she flings off the top of a column of ice. Gordon Freeman would be proud.

And perhaps most importantly, we finally reach the conclusion of our mini-plot with GranGran’s necklace. After having this trinket float through the entire season, it becomes crucial here.

Also, it occurs to me that this show could just as easily have been called “Katara and Sokka” instead of “Avatar.” Aang is so far in the backseat this episode he’s bumping his head against Dad’s golf clubs in the trunk. Meanwhile, the Amazing Friends are experiencing first love and standing up to authority.

And of course, Zhao figures out that Zuko is the Blue Spirit, and so sends assassins to kill him. Isn’t it kind of obvious that Zuko is the Le Fantom Bleu if he has the outlaw’s signature weapons tacked to his wall? That would be like Peter Parker wearing his web shooters to work.


Jordan

First off, how cool is that after close to a season of watching the show, we finally meet the waterbender featured in the opening sequence. It’s Pakku! It just shows how thought out the show was by the creators. He isn’t the only familiar face in the opening sequence either...

Matt and I rewatched this episode with commentary from the creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, along with head writer Aaron Ehasz. They really feel like fans of the show. They commented on the cuteness Northern Water Tribe’s children, talked about their favorite moves in the fight between Katara and Pakku, and gave interesting tidbits about the voiceacting.

For instance, when casting Admiral Zhao, they told the casting department to find someone like Jason Isaacs. In the ned, they actually ended up casting Jason Isaacs in the role. Also, Yugada, the healing teacher? Voiced by Lucille Bliss, the voice of Smurfette. These are the silly things you find out listening to the commentaries.

I really enjoy establishing moments for cities and towns in this series, especially the towns that rely on bending. The entrance into the Northern Water Tribe’s city was beautiful. I love that bending pretty much puts doors out of business. Who needs a door when you can bend the wall to get through it?

This episode heavily featured Katara’s necklace, but in a way it had never been used before. Up until this point, the necklace simply serves as a reminder of Katara’s lost mother, but this episode gives the necklace an entire backstory that I never expected, along with giving the viewer a hint into the customs of the Northern Water Tribe. One thing mentioned on the commentary was the difference between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes. The creators said that they always felt like the Southern Tribe suffered much more in the war with the Fire Nation than the Northern Tribe. Because of that the Northern Tribe was able to maintain their infrastructure and customs. Obviously Katara never realized that her necklace served as a sign of engagement. I like when characters get to experience new ideas along with the viewer.

Katara’s necklace backstory serves as setup to Sokka and Yue’s moment on the bridge at the end of the episode. Up until that point, we never saw Yue’s neck, but as soon as she started to pull down her cape, it was clear. The first time I experienced that reveal I remember thinking “Oh, man. There is a dude out there who is gonna be sooo mad at Sokka.” You know, for a depressed mope of a guy, Sokka managed to get kissed by two girls in one season. Not bad.

I really enjoyed this episode for its nice balance of humor and drama. For the most part, the plot with the Aang Gang is pretty humorous, even with Katara basically challenging Pakku to an Agni Kai. On the other hand, Zuko and Iroh’s arc is much darker. The fact that this episode pretty effortlessly balanced between the two is a testament to the writers. 

 


 

 

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 1)!


« Episode 117 | Index


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.

10 comments
Zombie_Chow47
1. Zombie_Chow47
I liked a lot of really little things in this episode

In the fight Pakku V Katara how miffed does Pakku look at the disc of ice that reflects his own face back at him.

The Icicles that form Katara's cage being a reference to Asian Kung/Wire-Fu film House of Flying daggers.

Zuko's firebending shield that I don't think I noticed on my first viewing.

Music Night on Zuko's ship with the reference to the oft mentioned Sunkee Horn (Not sure if I spelled Sunkee right. The horn first mentioned way back in the waterbending scroll is what I'm talking about. Gee what else is from TWBS, High risk traders anyone. Was the jeweled monkey also seen? I can't remember).

I remembered hearing on the commentary that the Sokka/Yue love theme is the same song that Iroh is singing on the ship.

And that final image of all the fire nation ships preparing for war.

And poor Iroh lamenting the loss of the cook to Zhao's armada. Don't you just want to give him some tea.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
I HATE this episode.

Master Pakku is not only proudly sexist and deeply condescending, but he deliberately sets out--as a two-generations-older master of his craft, the best probably in the world at what he does--to publicly humiliate an untrained teenager, to break her spirit, and to put her in her place. He makes my skin crawl, and I cannot believe we are supposed to see him as a happy kindly trusted mentor by the end of the episode.

I also think the change at the end is undersold; the first time I watched it I thought it was simply the revelation that she was his lost love's granddaughter that did it. I _think_ we are supposed to think instead that he realized, "oh, duh, this set of customs of ours really are painfully and counter-productively restrictive, if they drove people to run away then and now drive this fourteen-year-old to fight for her life." But it comes and goes so fast that it's muddled.
John Fitzingo
3. Xandar01
We couldn't just stop at this episode, so we've watched the two part season finally as well. One little thing to keep an eye on is the passage of time. There isn't much to show how much time has passed between this episode and the next, maybe a week or two?

Watch for how much Katara increases her skill in such a short time. She stands up well to the master in this episode, in the next ones shes much better (top of the class and standing toe to toe with Zuko who's been training his whole life.)

Also watch for Zuko's wounds. Not sure how long it would take for some deep scratches, cuts and bruises to heal, maybe two to three weeks to loose the scabs? They are still pretty prominent in the finale. IIRC they do seem to get smaller to show some healing?
Zombie_Chow47
4. Nentuaby
Yeah, Pakku's change of heart really needed more dramatic time. I do get the impression it took some time in-world, but the way they cut it on screen didn't help anything.

I was also a bit puzzled by how much Katara disdained the thought of participating in the healing lesson.

I'm not. First off, the Gaang fight for their lives ALL THE TIME. They're basically a teenage commando unit. Knowing how to patch people up is good, but it's no substitute for winning the fight; fighting training was priority 1. Second, the way Pakku was acting toward her, she'd probably be fighting her way into the healing class if he was trying to keep her out, and she wouldn't be wrong. That was seriously infuriating.
Zombie_Chow47
5. Sitka
I'll try not to be too spoilery (my apologies if I'm unsuccessful), but in light of "The Puppetmaster" (season 3), in particular Hama's flashbacks, it seems like the South Tribe just didn't have same way of fighting. If the Southern tribe suffered more, then perhaps the sillier aspects of trad waterbender gender roles were wholly jettisoned quite early in the war with the fire nation.

And of course, no southern waterbenders=no majikal healers, so Katara's underwhelm and disdain is understandable for me. And really Team Avatar hadn't been too beaten up at this point, so who wants to learn to heal when the ability to knock a ship over is more valuable ability? She was so desperate for a master to teach her to fight that she kinda went a little Stockholm with Pakku (and then realized what a douche bag he really was being, despite being a master)- I think it's during season 2 she truly realizes what an asset her healing ability really is :)
Zombie_Chow47
6. Doug M.
This is the first of several eps that will go to a dark place for a while, then do a heel turn in the last two minutes because it's a kids' show. (The most extreme examples will show up in Season Three.)

In this case, it's the whole Pakku thing. Pakku makes perfect sense; he may be hateful, but he's totally plausible. Men bend, women heal, that's how things are. The Northern Water Tribe looks like an orderly, prosperous society that's been stable for centuries if not millenia. There's no reason an older, high status male should be anything but a staunch defender of The Way We Have Always Done Things. Pakku's sexism and condescension may be revolting to us but in terms of the world he lives in, they make perfect sense.

As others have noted, the jarring bit isn't Pakku but his sudden change of heart. The necklace is what makes this just barely acceptable... not good, particularly, but not a blight on the show.

This was another well choreographed fight scene. The animators did a good job with the difference between Pakku's controlled style and Katara's wilder one.

Also, yes, it's really part one of a three-part season finale.

-- Did anyone point out that the pirates are animated version of the Korean animation crew? IMS this is in one of the episode commentaries.

Also, the pirate parrot-lizard is really an Archeopteryx with a parrot head. That's just neat.


Doug M.
Zombie_Chow47
7. ChrisG
About Pakku's change of heart. My reading from initial (and re-) viewing on Pakku's behavior was that he was carrying a lifetime of bitter feelings toward his former betrothed that came to focus on women in general and manifested itself as the sexism that he shows. Yes, the Northern Water Tribe had regimented gender roles, which enabled him to get away with it, but the bile with which he holds to his sexism speaks to the deeper issue. When the necklace re-connects with that past in the form of young Katara, my sense is it made a crack in that bitterness, which eventually crumbled. I agree that the transformation is too quick, which is jarring, but given the dramatic build up toward this three-part finale, several events are accelerated. I don't see it as too grievous a failing.
Zayne Forehand
8. ShiningArmor
First of all, does anyone else have trouble getting the main page to update? I always feel like I'm coming late to the party because I check daily but it doesn't tell me there is a new review.

On topic, this is one of my favorite episodes if for nothing else than the first major step towards bad-a Katara. Waterbending has always been my favorite of the disciplines which made Katara an easy favorite for me. Plus, I enjoyed the raw emotional talent they played with her. Even with minimal training, her instincts help her do things she shouldn't be able to. The discs o' flying ice are my second favorite technique next to the octopus form.

I forgot how revolting Pakku's attitude was in the beginning but I didn't find the transition as the end as jarring as others. That may also be because I kind of glaze over the more "kid" aspects of the show. The silly humor I can enjoy but when they try to give a message/lesson, I usually zone out.
Zombie_Chow47
9. wandering-dreamer
When I first saw the episode (again, years ago, can't wait for that collectors set to come out so I can finally buy the dang episodes) I thought that Katara was annoyed that she could ONLY learn healing, not healing and fighting. I think the idea that there was actual learning for healing, as opposed to hoping it works, also caught her off guard and put her down.
Jennifer B
10. JennB
The most jarring thing for me in this episode was how Katara suddenly was a master waterbender. I know she practiced alot, but we never saw her do anything like what she does during her battle with the waterbending master before. I have only watched the series once. I am thinking I will have do a rewatch and pay close attention to Katara's waterbending prior to this episode.

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