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.
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.
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.
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)!
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.