In the thirteenth episode of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang heads off to a nearby mountain to find an herbalist who can hopefully help the dreadfully sick (and hilariously delusional) Sokka. Aang is captured by the Fire Nation, where a strange masked fighter works to help the Avatar escape. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
In grounding this show in a bit of reality, the writers still find ways to keep this plot adventurous and fantastical. “The Blue Spirit” opens precisely with this sort of realism: Sokka is sick from exposure during the storm in the previous episode. I like that. Yes, it’s a way for the writers to re-focus the story almost entirely on Aang, but it’s a also a nice nod to the fact that there are other factors that this trio has to take care of on their journey to the north pole.
In addition to that, we also get a glimpse of the inner politics of the Fire Nation. I’ve commented before that this show does a great job with blurring the lines between the two camps, so much so that I don’t even really believe there are two sides anymore. I’m simultaneously cheering for Aang and Zuko at the same time, there are people in this world who side with neither people, and aside from a small handful of characters in the Fire Nation, there really aren’t people I feel like I could grow to dislike. (Do I need to talk about my astral plane love affair with Uncle Iroh? I will if I have to.)
Commander Zhao’s promotion provides him with another method with which he can capture the Avatar. As I was watching this episode, and as I do most times I’m watching something, I look for things I can pick up on, parallels I want to talk about, character changes that deserve a comment, and other things of the sort. I though the Yu Yan archers were a neat idea, but would they actually be a match for someone who’s a pretty good Airbender? (The answer is yes, but that’s not the point.) The first real thought that I believed most of this review would deal with is the fact that things, yet again, seemed to be heading down a familiar path: Fire Nation comes up with a new way to capture the Avatar. They try. They fail. Cycle starts over again.
“The Blue Spirit” is the first significant time that the episode starts off that way, but suddenly veers way off to the right and takes us down a completely unsuspected path. The first inkling we get of that is right after Zhao is promoted, and we pan up to discover that someone in a blue mask has been listening to his conversation with another Fire Nation general. (Also, seriously, that mask in the dark made me jump a little. WHY AM I CREEPED OUT SO EASILY.)
So, that’s the Blue Spirit, I assumed. But who was he working for? And why?
Back in Camp Avatar, as Sokka is telling us tales of Appa’s jokes and his magical Earthbending abilities, Aang decides that it’s time for him to head to a local herbalist at the top of nearby mountain to find something to bring his friends back to good health, setting in to motion his eventual capture.
That capture is not at all a typical bit of plotting, though, and I began to appreciate the further parallels between Zuko and Aang that are drawn throughout this story, especially since so many of them are understated in the narrative. Prince Zuko is becoming frustrated and hopeless about his quest to capture the Avatar, giving us one of the sadder moments we’ve seen for him. There’s something vast and spacious about his vacant fear spreading out on the deck of the ship as he confesses (seemingly unintentionally) to Iroh that he may soon have to come to terms with the fact that he might actually lose his father, his respect, his honor, and his country. The fact that he entertains this idea at all is gut-wrenching to me because Prince Zuko’s determination seemed so ironclad throughout the show so far.
We’ve seen Aang doubt himself quite a bit, with “The Storm” providing the largest slice of it so far. In that sense, “The Blue Spirit” is kind of a wonderful emotional companion to the last episode, because even though Prince Zuko’s screentime is so reduced, I’d say this story is mostly about him.
Really, though, that’s sort of all that I want to talk about, and I can’t be arsed to slog through a play-by-play analysis of what essentially amounts to a chase-scene-into-a-capture-into-another-chase-scene kind of story. (FOR THE RECORD, THESE CHASE SCENES, ESPECIALLY THE FINAL ESCAPE, ARE TRULY SPECTACULAR. I WILL COMMENT ON THIS LATER.) I need to talk about Things. There are these Things I Need To Talk About and This Is My Blog.
I was entertained by “The Blue Spirit.” Nothing about what I’m going to say invalidates that concept. I was enjoying the episode and the spectacular choreography of the fight scenes, in particular when Aang was trying to avoid the Yu Yan. I was pretty stoked once it was clear the Blue Spirit was coming after Aang to rescue him. It was even more satisfying to watch how well the two of them worked together, despite that, to Aang, this person was an absolute stranger. (Side tangent: What were those amazing ladder things that the Fire Nation had??? I rewound that scene TWICE just to be flabbergasted by how fantastic those things were. THEY ARE BRILLIANT DEVICES.)
I knew something was going to be different about this episode when the Blue Spirit and Aang did not clear the final wall, falling painfully to the ground by Zhao and a handful of soldiers. Zhao orders his troops to stop firing, to prevent the Avatar from dying. Without hesitation, the Blue Spirit brings his two swords to crisscross over Aang’s neck and suddenly THIS DOES NOT MAKE SENSE AT ALL. Surely it’s just a bluff, right? But the speed with which this masked person brought those swords up…it was as if losing the Avatar right then and there would have meant virtually nothing to him. Either the Avatar comes with him or it comes with no one. CHILLS. FOR REAL.
But Zhao is not done with this intruder, despite letting Aang leaved with the Blue Spirit. As a Yu Yan archer draws back their bow, I figured Aang would show off his bad ass skills and block the arrow. Except NOPE. NOT AT ALL. In the blink of an eye, the arrow nails the Blue Spirit directly in the mask, knocking the figure to the ground. For just a moment, Aang looks down and IS THAT THE FAMILIAR SCAR WE’VE ALL COME TO ASSOCIATE WITH ONE CHARACTER YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME
I love plot twists because most days, as pedantic and complicated and ridiculous as my brain is, I am a simple man. That’s not to say this is a simple twist, as it suddenly opens up a GIGANTIC WAVE OF COMPLEX THEORIZING AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, but seriously: BRILLIANT EXECUTION. I did not see that coming for a second at all. In fact, going back over the few appearances of Prince Zuko in “The Blue Spirit,” it actually doesn’t feel totally obvious in hindsight. His dejection expressed towards Uncle Iroh is genuine. In terms of the timeline, there are no hints or visual cues that Prince Zuko is slipping away to track Aang. In short: completely unprepared.
Once Aang brings up that dust cloud and is able to pull off the Blue Spirit’s mask, the scene is written with a brilliantly silent sadness, as Aang’s tries to comprehend the very idea that Prince Zuko would save him from his own Fire Nation. That shock turns into conflict: Does Aang leave the guy behind? Does he leave him to suffer at the hands of his own people? God, I seriously love the tortured look on his face at this point in the story, and I love it even more that he willingly chooses to take Aang with him.
Of everything that could have happened when Aang and Zuko were alone and Zuko finally woke up from being knocked out cold, I have to commend the writers for not only avoiding the obvious, but for choosing to go a much more poetic route than I anticipated:
“Before the war started, I used to always visit my friend Kuzon. The two of us, we’d get in and out of so much trouble. He was one of the best friends I ever had….And he was from the Fire Nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then, do you think we could’ve been friends, too?”
Aang puts the situation in terms he understands: there’s no mention of wars or nations fighting against kingdoms. He just wants to be friends. Seriously, one of the best moments of this show so far, and yet another totally and completely unfair thing that makes me wish there was like TEAM AVATAR or something and Zuko could just join and everyone could be cute friends and stuff? Ok, yeah, that would ruin like half the fun of the tension between the two, but a boy can dream.
I think maybe a small portion of me just wants Prince Zuko to find something to make him feel satisfied. The final shot of Zuko and Iroh on board their Fire Nation ship is, again, a surprisingly understated moment for Avatar. This show is most certainly an action show, full of adventure and fighting, and energetic fighting. That’s why this quiet moment, paralleling Aang’s own earlier, is a great chance for this story to slow down and reflect on the intricate emotional turmoil that Aang and Zuko are going through.
Bless this show.
- There will probably be more of these than usual. BUCKLE IN, WATCHERS.
- Appa’s jokes….seriously. SERIOUSLY SO GOOD.
- As strange as it was, I loved the tiny switch to Momo’s point-of-view, confirming what I believe to be true: animals can’t understand shit when we talk to them. Also, I’m gonna need a full list of all the items Momo brings Katara and Sokka. That shot with like a hundred things littered in the frame? Brilliant.
- I want to sleep on Appa. 🙁
- Ok, that’s like the…third time we’ve heard about Ba Sing Se? We know Uncle Iroh laid seige there before giving up, so now I’m curious: what is inside Ba Sing Se?
- Uncle Iroh’s beautiful obsession with Pai Sho is perfection.
- Oh man, MUSIC NIGHT ON THE SHIP. I MISSED IT.
- Speaking of the music….some truly hypnotizing work in this episode, particularly the theme used when we first see the giant fortress that Aang is imprisoned in.
- “Take that, you rock!”
- Um….where did the Blue Spirit get that bucket from? I’m not really a fan of nitpicking this sort of stuff, but that literally came out of nowhere.
- I am really, truly enjoying this show. This is not really like much of anything I’ve ever watched, both in terms of the medium and the genre. I AM QUITE GLAD I PICKED THIS.