In the third episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Team Avatar are faced with the reality of the Fire Nation’s habitation of Omashu. Meanwhile, Princess Azula assembles the most badass and morally-conflicting group of young women EVER in order to hunt down Zuko and Iroh. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
As I watch these episodes (and as I do with everything I write about for both sites I’m running), I always take notes of some sort that help me determine what exactly I want to focus on for anything that is not just a development in the plot. I’m keenly aware that for everything after Twilight, I have turned into a fan of said thing: Doctor Who and Firefly and The Hunger Games and The Book Thief and most especially Harry Potter. And that is so beautiful and fun, and I imagine it must feel kind of exciting, as existing members of these fandoms that I naively come wandering into with fluttering eyes and a bashful ignorance of what sort of journey I’m about to embark on, to watch as someone else comes to appreciate the same thing you’ve invested so much time and love into yourself. This isn’t the first time I’ve talked openly about this, either, as I did get the chance to reflect on my very special ~manrage~ and ~manger~ during that one particular fail of an episode during Sherlock.
But there’s a part of me that thinks it might be fun on an intellectual level to try another series I’m bound to dislike, if only because I am in fear of repeating myself or becoming stale to all of you who choose to read my writing. This episode sparked that desire in me again, but not for the reason I think you would consider.
I cannot find anything to hate this show for. And while watching “Return to Omashu,” I honestly could not believe how ridiculously invested in these characters I am after like…A MONTH. A MONTH! On top of all this, I’m entertained on an emotional level, a mental level, and a purely superficial level.
I cannot find a reason to dislike this. And I am trying, but nothing is even something I could come up with if I stretch logic to its extreme or read subtle subtexts that no one else sees. I can’t!
Obviously, this is not a complaint, as I am always ecstatic to find a fictional story that I enjoy this much. At the same time, I want to make sure that this process is as honest abut what sort of narrative a show tells its viewers, and everything about “Return To Omashu” is so overwhelmingly fantastic, that my honesty simply turns to the positive: this shit is really good.
I suppose that is a magical thing. And I appreciate that.
The writers have very quickly thrown a wrench in what we expected for what season two. It seemed destined that we’d get a lot more of the wacky King Bumi and I looked forward to devoting more time learning about earth bending, especially from such a unpredictable character as Bumi. But with the shocking reveal at the end of “The Cave of Two Lovers,” I feel like I have even less of an idea where things are headed for the remainder of season two. If King Bumi can’t teach Aang earth bending, then I suppose my prediction for this season has to come true, since I don’t know a single other earth bending master.
ugh why on earth did i agree to watch this one episode per day. utter disaster y/y/y/y
Aang shows us that his dedication to protecting his friends and following his own moral imperative is general first in line and way before he ever considers his own personal safety, as Katara and Sokka fail at convincing him they need to move on to find another earth bending master. But Aang actually accepts this; instead, he’s concerned about finding his friend and making sure he’s ok. Thus, the first of many dangerous adventures starts off as Team Avatar head into the sewers of Omashu. And I did feel bad for Sokka, as both Katara and Aang are able to deflect the grossness of the place with their bending, while Aang is forced to deal with some of it going into his mouth. Which……..no. Just no. That is so gross. Why didn’t either of the others help him with the sewage? BENDING BIGOTS! But then he gets “loved” by a couple pentapus creatures and everything is just perfectly fine with me because they release themselves when you lovingly tickle their backs. I haven’t said it yet, but I love the thought that goes into creating these organisms in this world. They choose to combine animals that exist in our world in either super adorable or massively frightening ways, but both are pretty damn impressive.
I felt there was a poetic parallel to “The Northern Air Temple” here, as we see how another culture can take over a city and ruin it, as opposed to how the earth benders used the temple to survive in last season’s episode. Most of the city, aside from the delivery chutes, has been transformed into a lifeless hulk, a place that is visually oppressed, in the sense that you can quite literally see how a dominating culture is working their way through to erase the signs of the culture that lived there before them.
Actually, I love how much of this discrimination, prejudice, and oppression is represented visually on the screen. The original citizens are forced to live underground, out of sight of the Fire Nation nobility, as the new king and his family have all moved into the quarters of Bumi. And I think it’s great to see the issue of height addressed in this way because it so closely mirrors the way that things are constructed in our world, from the high palaces and mansions built far away from the “poor” citizens, up on mountains and hills away from the world.
Unlike the previous episode, there’s a much more direct intersection between the two storylines that unfold in “Return to Omashu.” Right as Team Avatar enter the city, determined to find King Bumi, Aang interferes unknowingly with a clandestine Earth kingdom attack on the royal Fire Nation family who is below them. (This is also when we meet Mai for the first time, but she deserves her own bit of commentary, and this is not the place for that.) By drawing attention to himself instead, Aang and his friends are forced to escape, where they’re saved by the original inhabitants below.
That’s when this episode truly becomes uncomfortable, as I expected a joyous reunion with Bumi at this point, but I was shocked to learn that Bumi gave up on the Fire Nation immediately upon learning of the Siege. Even looking back on this now, I can see why this seemed like such a jarring thing to learn. I had anticipated that Bumi would have found a way to make fighting the Fire Nation both fun and bizarre (in his own way, of course), and I also get why this kind of breaks Aang’s heart. I mean, sure, on a base level, this was simply something he was looking forward to: training under the guidance of his best friend. But I think Aang, way in the back of his mind, is thinking about what happened when he gave up one hundred years ago, and how the world changed when he was not there for those who needed him.
Still, it’s nice that Aang, while sad, works with Sokka to come up with a plan to get all of the Earth Kingdom citizens out of the Fire Nation’s fortress, and I like that he utilizes the concept of energy to convince them. It’s about prioritizing what they need to do in order to survive at this point, and being outnumbered and in a physically disadvantage position to fight against the Fire Nation certainly isn’t going to help things. And so, using Sokka’s ingenuous idea of utilizing pentapus “stings” to fake illness for the entire group. Look, I did not think this would ever happen on Avatar, and I know the concept has been beat to death by our modern society, but….ZOMBIES. Zombies on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, they’re not real zombies, but Sokka’s plan works brilliantly. Watching all those “sick” people stumble and moan their way out of the city was downright criminal in how good it was.
And there’s a baby. Because of Momo. And berries. And we’ll get there, I promise, but we need to spend some time talking about the trifecta of female power that “Return to Omashu” gives us.
I gotta hand it to the writers. Azula, as sadistic and cruel as she is, is a completely fascinating villain to me. I want to know what makes her tick. I want to see her interact with her brother more. I want to know what other dimensions her character has. (They’re there. I just know it!) If she’d been the only main antagonistic force trotted out throughout season two, I would have been one stoked pentapus, happily releasing my joy every time someone nudged my scalp lovingly. (Possibly the strangest sentence I have ever written? Oh well.)
But this is season two of Avatar and shit has to be more real than what came before. So now we have three young women who are going after Aang, Zuko, and Iroh. (COULD THOSE THREE JUST ALL BE ON THE SAME SIDE PLEASE) In a couple ways that I can think of, we’re also given characters who are all so vastly different from how they relate to each other and those around them. We have three women who view their position in the fire nation utterly separately. We’ve seen Azula’s raging dedication to the Fire Nation (insomuch as how it directly relates to how much power she has). Mai is indifferent to much about life and her dedication to the Fire Nation’s goals seem more geared toward her own gain in terms of how entertained she can be. And Ty Lee operates separate of what the Fire Nation does and only seems to come around after Azula threatens her. Oh, right, by setting her trapeze net on fire and then sending every wild creature in the circus to be in the ring with her all at one time. Again, I’m intrigued by Azula, but none of this excuses the fact that she is one super manipulative asshole.
All three vary in their fighting techniques, with Azula apparently the only one of the three who can bend. Mai favors knives and daggers and anything sharp and potentially deadly at the same time, while Ty Lee uses her gymnastic abilities to slip in unnoticed and temporarily paralyze a person’s limbs merely by hitting their pressure points. Ty Lee, you would always win a fight with me, and I already concede victory. That seriously takes some ridiculous talent and concentration.
And that’s how the baby figures into all of this. After following Momo’s intriguing tail, the young child belonging to the Fire Nation king (and Mai’s brother) wanders out with the rest of the escaping Earth Kingdom citizens. Naturally, this prompts a panicked response on the part of the king, and a trade is arranged: if the young child is brought back, King Bumi will be handed over.
Naturally, things don’t go as planned, as Mai and Azula both agree to call off the deal when they realize trading an earth bending master for a two-year-old is probably a bad idea. And then BADASS FIGHT SEQUENCE. Gosh, I really don’t watch much of anything that has fight scenes in it as explicably shown here, and if there is other shit out there that’s even as remotely as good as this, I’ve been missing out. Because we’re dealing with bending in this show, the permutations for how many possible attacks there are (and how they interact with other powers) is certainly as close to endless as one could perceive. Because of this (and because of some radical locations), the fights never feel stale and repetitive. We watch bending versus bending, versus physical action, and even some fighting between non-benders. It’s all choreographed out in stunning detail and I have no deep subtext or meaning to ascribe to any of it. It’s just fun to watch.
But even after all this, as Aang is able to successfully escape Azula (because King Bumi earth bended WITH HIS FUCKING FACE), the reunion he gets with his best friend is not what he expected. King Bumi does not want to be rescued. In a way, though it’s not spelled out, Bumi’s desire to be patient and strike the Fire Nation at the same time feels like a huge reference to “The Avatar State” (unknowingly, of course) and to Aang’s rush to rescue his friend without first finding a way to ask questions. I do think Bumi is going about things in the way that is best for him, but I wonder if the writers will address the fact that some of his citizens are suffering (and dying) while he waits. That would be a neat parallel with Aang.
I can’t pretend to know who on earth is a master of neutral jing and how that’s going to help Aang find the best earth bender, but I do know that these first few episodes of season three continue to set the stage for what’s to come, yet all are fantastic stories on their own as well.
So good, y’all.
- “Does this look like the face of a killer to you?”
- OMG. WAIT. MAI HAD A CRUSH ON ZUKO. Right? Or maybe even a relationship? I totally caught that line!
- “There are three Jings?” “Well, technically, there are 85, but let’s just focus on the third.”
- Can seriously no one recognize the avatar if he is wearing a hood. Really.
- Mai. I love you. Please be in every episode with your brooding Daria-esque commentary.