Oct 25 2010 3:08pm

Avatar Rewatch: “The Chase” (episode 208)

Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch episode 208

We wish to extend our gratitude to our readers for their patience this past month. Things have been hectic. Hopefully we will now be able to return to a regular posting schedule, with a new post appearing every other Thursday. We have gone so long without an Avatar Rewatch post, I assume many of you thought our faces had been stolen by Koh, leaving us to wander blindly in the Spirit World. So let’s go with that as our excuse.

Episode 208, “The Chase,” features only characters who are pivotal to the overall arc of the series, in other words, the series regulars. There are no pirates or lost boys here. Azula chases Aang. Zuko chases Azula. Iroh chases Zuko. And in the end we get one of the most awesome battles in the entire series.

At the beginning of this episode, Katara is happy that there is finally another girl around. One can imagine that spending a whole winter watching a bald friend and a brother pick their noses could wear a girl out. But to Katara’s surprise and sorrow, Toph is as much of a gross boy as Sokka or Aang. Hairy pits indeed. This is not the last time Katara and Toph will fight about the division of labor in Camp Avatar. As an only child, Toph has always been a loner. She looks after herself, and is not used to having to help out other people. Katara, the vigilant maternal surrogate, considers this behavior selfish. This is the root of their argument.

Appa’s shedding is yet another way that the series subtlety shows the changing of the seasons. The shedding results in many sight gags and sets up the relationship between Toph and Appa. For some reason, Toph does not seem to like the furry mount that serves the team so well throughout the series. Perhaps when she’s in the air, and disconnected from the Earth she so depends on, Toph is frustrated and irritable. She takes this frustration out on Appa. Her resentment will have serious consequences later in the season. The moral of the story is, don’t mess with an airbender’s sky bison. Aang lashes out at Toph, and the earthbending master stomps away.

One of the themes highlighted in this episode is that the line between good and evil is often blurred in the Avatar world. Toph and Iroh share a pot of tea and engage in amiable conversation as strangers, and in the end work together against the greater evil, Azula.

In other words, this episode is epic. “The Chase” also fools the audience. In the opening scenes, we are led to believe that this is a character development episode, where Toph and Katara have a petty argument, and by the end resolve their differences. But actually, this episode features critical scenes to the story, when the gang learns who Azula is, Zuko confronts his sister, and Iroh is reunited with his nephew (albeit briefly, before some pesky blue fire messes up their reunion).

Isn’t it strange and fascinating that a third of the way through the season Team Avatar still did not know who Azula was. To them, she was simply some Fire Nation lady who could shoot lightning out of her fingernails.

When Zuko pushes the gang away, they have no choice but to leave. In the face of the difficult challenge that Azula poses, the squabble between Toph and Katara seems irrelevant. The girls seem to think so, too. When they finally reach safe ground, they fall asleep next to each other peacefully, finally at rest.

A few weeks ago, a flowchart started making the rounds on the internet, detailing the many cliched “strong female characters” featured in books, television, and cinema. Anyone interested in reading something amusing or having their thoughts provoked should definitely check it out.

The reason I bring up the flowchart here is that our very own Azula is featured in the flowchart as one of the stereotypes, titled “Girl Hitler.” Seeing as how Hitler is used to describe everything these days from the President of the United States to Youtube trollers, it seems silly to play into that drama in this forum. So let’s rename the title and assume the author of the flowchart would be just as happy with the term “Tween Who Is the Root of All Evil.”

Here is the question I would like to open for debate: Is Azula a strong female character? She is certainly powerful—powerful enough to take on the entire Aang Gang, Zuko, and Iroh all by herself. But the “strong” in “strong female character” is meant to refer to her complexity and interest as a dramatic figure, not the way she shoots lightning out of her fingers. The flowchart criticizes omnipotent women, saying that they are boy-fantasies manifested. In terms of her flaws, Azula is a complete sociopath. Later in the series, it is revealed she does indeed have weaknesses. Are these weaknesses cliche? I think so. Azula’s weaknesses could even be considered offensive, and are certainly what keeps her out of the flowchart’s “True Strong Female Character” status. I’d be happy to debate this point in the comments, but I wouldn’t want to risk spoiling the ending for people who haven’t seen it yet. So, once again, the question: Is Azula a strong female character? And for that matter, is Toph? Is Katara?

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: “Bitter Work”!

Jordan Hamessley is an Earthbender and is probably going to be Toph for Halloween. She is an assistant editor at Grosset & Dunlap/PSS at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Club Penguin, and Dinosaur Train publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She can be found on Twitter as @thejordache.

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Michael S. Schiffer
1. Michael S. Schiffer
I think the chart is interesting as a conversation-starter, but that it proves too much. In particular, I think it's significant that they don't have a picture for the actual Strong Female Character: I submit that any possible candidate proposed for that role could be legitimately placed in one or more of the other boxes.

And that goes doubly for supporting players. Compared with other antagonists in adventure shows, male or female, I'd say Azula is drawn vividly and with more complexity than most. (Certainly more than her father, who's pretty much a two-dimensional Bad Guy.) She's compelling, entertaining, and scary-- and she's read most of the Evil Overlord's Handbook, making her one of the best villains I've seen in a recent adventure story. To me, that counts for more than the number of boxes she ticks off on a chart.
Michael S. Schiffer
2. Doug M.
Well, what is "strong" in this context?

Putting aside the whole lightning-shooting thing, Azula is intelligent, charismatic, and fearless. Yes, she's also cruel, sadistic, and treacherous, but that comes with the boss villain territory. Maybe more to the point, it's plausible given where she comes from. The royal family of the Fire Nation seems to have been something of a snakepit. The wonder isn't that she and Ozal were nuts; it's that Iroh and Zuko weren't.

Here's a throwaway thought: you could have flipped Season Two around and told it from Azula's POV, and it would still be pretty interesting.

Doug M.
[da ve]
3. slickhop
I love that you've referenced that flowchart.

So, if we get spoilery, towards the end Azula is sort of depicted as weirdly developed. I've only seen the end game episodes a couple times, but she's petty to the point of parody and isn't it all sort of blamed on not having her mother around?] But my Avatar pedigree isn't really good enough for me to remember enough material, so I could be way off.

And re: Mark, I think what you're describing says more about how women are portrayed in the media than the chart. I agree that some of it can be somewhat rhetorical, but the chart is pretty concise with the basics five questions that need to be answered in order to make a real character. Although I was about to use Ripley as my example for who would be an easy titular Strong Woman Character, but I was double-checking and saw that they clocked her as "The Final Woman." maybe you've got something there.
Michael S. Schiffer
4. Milly-W
@slickhop: More spoilery discussion . Well, that's my opinion anyway :D
Michael S. Schiffer
6. Ellynne
What I love in this episode is why Toph gets upset at Katara. Yes, in some respects, Toph was spoiled and indulged. On the other hand, she's spent her entire life being discounted, being told not to do things or that she's unable to do things because she's blind.

She expected to be treated as an equal in the Aang gang but she doesnt' get that Katara is telling her that means she's supposed to help the group. She actually hears Katara's lead ins about helping each other as Katara patronizing her and saying, "Poor little kid, let the people with eyesight take care of this." When Katara gets to the point of telling Toph she's not doing her share, Toph is actually hearing Katara tell her she's being a burden to the group - which, to her means "You're increasing the work load for the rest of us because of the things you can't do."

You can really imagine how Toph must have gotten the passive-aggressive treatment from her own mother, keeping her from doing things to "protect" her and then - very nicely and sweetly - going on about how much work it made for Mommy.

Motherly is not the way to go with Toph.
[da ve]
7. slickhop
@Milly: Interesting thoughts, thank you. I'll try and keep them in mind when I'm watching some of the backstory I've missed!
Michael S. Schiffer
8. Sandrinepi
Spoilers abound ...

@Milly: That is one of the best summaries of Azula's character I have ever seen. I think Azula really is a tragic figure ... I think this is underscored beautifully in her final fight with Zuko in the Series Finale. The music in that scene, good God, the music - it's very haunting and highlights the fact that while this COULD be a totally badass knock-down dragout (and it kind of still is), it's also really very sad that a brother and a sister are trying to kill each other. Things shouldn't be that way ... but they are.

Also, Crazy Azula is TERRIFYING. Her descent into insanity is without a doubt my favorite part of the entire series.

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