In the second episode of the third season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Team Avatar decide to disguise themselves as Fire Nation citizens in order to prevent from constantly having to travel each day. In the process, Aang enrolls in school. REALLY. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
I think that, at heart, there’s a very serious issue that the writers would have to address in season three, and that concerns how our heroes would find a way to assimilate into a culture that is so unlike their own. Even if Toph hadn’t convinced them all that staying put for a while was beneficial, at some point, they all would have had to become part of the Fire Nation in some way. Aang does not have a master of fire bending to teach him the element yet, and I’m not one to believe it’s just going to happen to them through random chance as it did with Toph.
The Fire Nation culture is one that is the most rigidly defined of all four elements, and it’s because of this that I appreciate just how charming “The Headband” ultimately was. It pokes fun at how serious the Fire Nation can be, but it never strays into insulting the culture at all. It’s about Aang coming to understand more about these people and to simultaneously give them a taste of the Air Nomad culture as well.
I know that I’ve not watched this show in the way that a lot of you have. The wait between seasons was drastically shorter for me. Because of this, season two is a lot fresher in my memory, and I couldn’t help but feel that we’d been delivered a whole lot of downers in a row. The last third of season two is increasingly bleak, and the story that opens season three isn’t all that positive either. Don’t get me wrong; I am drawn to darker narratives over the positive ones, but putting Zuko’s story aside (LOL WHAT AM I SAYING I CANNOT), there’s a pervasive and pleasant humor strung from scene to scene, as well as a whole lot of sentimental squishiness between Aang and Katara. We see that right from the start: Sokka’s overreactive snooping is meant to be funny because the guy chooses to take the strangest things seriously. I mean, THE BIRDS ARE EVIL, YOU ALL.
But given the situation that they are all in, I sort of feel that humor is probably the only way for them to stomach what’s happened to them since the previous year. How else do you deal with stealing someone’s clothing? Or going into town with a boy who still thinks 100 year old slang is appropriate to use? (HOTMAN WILL NEVER NOT MAKE ME LAUGH.) I mean, if you think about it, this episode is about how all four members of Team Avatar are forced to hide all signs of their identity. Once you stop and think about that….it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? I think there was a way for the writers to take “The Headband” into a really dark place. And let’s be real: I would have loved it. I AM SO PREDICTABLE.
(Side note: I love that Aang goes to find lettuce in the trash and I dearly hope that was a reference to the fact that people who are veggie are constantly asked if they only eat lettuce.)
Truthfully, though, there was no better way for Aang to learn more about Fire Nation culture than for him to just happen to steal a school outfit and get shipped off to school. AANG HAS TO GO TO SCHOOL. That sentence alone is like a story in and of itself, and of all the members of Team Avatar, I really think that Aang was the perfect one to get stuck there. He had the smallest chance of being uncomfortable, because for him, it’s simply another adventure and another challenge. (More on that in a second.)
It’s clear that this is definitely going to be a challenge just seconds after Aang–ahem, I mean Kuzon–is brought to his new classroom. Even something as simple as the standard Fire Nation greeting is new to him, but Aang doesn’t face this challenge with a sweaty brow and a dose of worry. Instead, it’s something new to learn. But there’s a subtext that’s later spelled out that explains why Aang is so drawn to the idea of going to school: he gets a chance to be “normal.” That’s a word I sometimes despise, but sometimes I completely desire it, and it all depends on the context. For Aang, I completely get what he means. He’s been on the outside his entire life and he’s largely missed out on growing up as a teenager without being the Avatar. (And even after all this is over, is it honestly going to be any different for him? How could you return to a “normal” life even if you win? You’re the Avatar.) We’ve seen bits and pieces of his life with the Air Nomads before he went into the Avatar State and disappeared for one hundred years, and we know that his childhood pretty much ended around that time.
So for me, despite how silly a lot of this is, this is actually a remarkably serious story. Like the idea of identity and how that is tied to visual markers and the way a person chooses to dress, humor is simply the way to get us to digest other themes that might have otherwise been harder for people to swallow. (I’m reminding myself that this is a kid’s show, and this is a great way to do just that.) At the same time, I imagine that these scenes of Aang in school were something that a lot of the younger audience could actually relate to in way. I used the word “charming” before, and I think it resonates well with all of the scenes with Aang interacting with the Fire Nation student. Despite being ignorant of virtually every custom or tradition of this culture, he approaches it all with a wide smile on his face and a willingness to learn new things.
Even when faced with the prospect of a bullying boyfriend of a young girl who befriends him, Aang never slips into anger, discomfort, or violence. He has no interest in such things; it wasn’t until the end of the episode that I realized he was showing these kids what life as an Air Nomad was like, despite that he never once revealed it to anyone. (He was from the “colonies” to them.) It was never about insisting his way was right, either; it was just different.
Of course, being different and simultaneously making the main bully in school look like an utter fool doesn’t always work out beautifully. That night, Aang returns to the cave that is Team Avatar’s temporary home, and as he tries to convince his friends that he needs to return to school the next day, I knew that there was no way that Aang wouldn’t have another confrontation with Hide. But I did enjoy the scene for what it was: A chance to see Lord Ozai in noodles and for Sokka to say: “I am a fan of secret rivers.” Sometimes, it’s the little things that do me in. FLAMEO, HOTMAN. aang what are you doing
That second day of school is predictably worse, but it was also the first time that we see Aang actually express discomfort. He didn’t intend to make his lack of knowledge of the Fire Nation oath a joke, and he didn’t mean to be so distracting with his dancing while playing the Tsungi horn, and he didn’t mean to be rude about correcting the history lesson about Fire Lord Sozin and the Air Nation Army. Where Aang previously met these moments with a carefree smile, now he knows how out of his element he actually is. This only gets worse when Hide confronts Aang yet again for talking to his girlfriend, On Ji. (Ok, just a side thought: Why didn’t Aang just say he already had a woman he liked to make it clear he wasn’t actually flirting with On Ji?) When Hide tries to do exactly what he’s expected to do (beat people up), Aang manages to avoid every single blow, frustrating Hide so badly that he eventually plunges into the ground in anger.
In terms of absurd silliness, I’m pressed to think of a more grand moment than Aang’s meeting with The Headmaster of this Fire Nation school. I believed initially that Aang would admit that he is an orphan and that this episode would get really depressing. I’m glad I didn’t because SOKKA WITH A BEARD. SOKKA WITH A BEARD. And his name is WANG FIRE. And Katara is SAPPHIRE FIRE. How the Headmaster didn’t immediately realize this was total bullshit is beyond me, but it doesn’t matter because IT IS SO GLORIOUS. Oh my god, I love this show so much. Could Sokka just wear this beard for the rest of the series? I would totally be ok with it.
All of this humor, though, leads to something quite redemptive and inspiring. Honestly, I didn’t buy Aang’s idea when he suggested it to Katara and Sokka. A dance party? Look, I know I am awful at dancing and I rarely do it, but I’m not opposed to the idea. But how would a dance party teach the students of the Fire Nation about freedom of expression? How would he find a way to inspire them to break from a culture they’d spent their whole lives living in? It’s ambitious, for sure, but what would be the ultimate point?
I must then admit that despite being skeptical of this all, I actually watched the Fire Nation dance party with the biggest smile on my face. That word comes up again: charming. I wanted to give this episode a hug. I could not believe how well the final scenes were pulled off. Aang not only gives these children a taste of freedom, but the dance between him and Katara was mesmerizing. (Not surprising, considering their chemistry.) It was a chance to see these kids cut loose a bit, and to see probably the most affection between Katara and Aang yet. (I saw some capoeira in their dancing, but it was mixed with something else? Do you know what it was, Watchers?)
It all leads to one of my favorite moments in the whole series: Hide tattles on the group because he is a truly awful person who does not know joy, and the Headmaster confronts everyone and demands that Aang be captured. I expected a chase of sorts, but the Headmaster and his guards become confused when a few students are wearing the same headband as Aang. This is when the title of this episode suddenly transforms into a powerful statement: In a sign of solidarity and thanks, every student dons the same headband, allowing Aang to escape. I was shocked at how a silly situation suddenly became so touching to me within thirty seconds or so. Aang escapes out of the back of the cave because of what these kids did for him.
Seriously, think about this message, broadcast on a children’s show. this show.
You’ll notice one plot is conspicuously absent from this post. Am I saving the best for last? BUT OF COURSE. I’m at a point where I can’t possibly believe that any other character on Avatar is going to get a better story than Zuko. Contrasting the innate silliness of “The Headband,” we find out that Iroh has been locked in a giant Fire Nation prison. Over the course of the episode, Zuko makes attempts to get closer to his uncle, who seems to have taken to giving his nephew the silent treatment out of heartbreak. (WHICH IS 100% UNDERSTANDABLE.) Zuko starts off with anger and pride when he first visits his uncle, but he slowly begins to break down the façade that he keeps giving us uncle. He brings food. He admits that he is confused. He even outright begs his uncle to give him the advice that he needs.
Iroh responds with more silence. This enrages Zuko, who now knows that he is completely alone on this journey, and he storms out of his uncle’s cell in a fiery fury. Iroh starts to cry and seriously my heart cannot handle this much longer.
I was hoping that this would all lead to some sort of epiphany on Zuko’s behalf, but in the final scene of the episode, we see him standing with some unnamed man who has a metal arm and leg, admitting that he thinks the Avatar is alive and asking him to keep a secret. He tasks him with eliminating the Avatar and the camera pans up to an angry face with a tattooed third eye. who the hell is this. Zuko, what are you doing???
oh god OH GOD
- I never do this, but at the end, when the face of that….man, was revealed, all I could think was that whenever I shave my head, I kind of look like him? JUST IN THE FACE. Obviously I am not a brick of muscle, but I was like IF I SCOWL REAL HARD I DO SORT OF LOOK LIKE HIM. what is my brain
- “Who knew Twinkle Toes could dance?” RIGHT??? And he’s REALLY GOOD!
- Was that a….cow hippo????
- “This is incredible! It’s like my inhibitions just disappear!……..Okay… they’re back again.”
- Mai and Zuko are kind of sweet together? I mean, I still need to get used to it, but part of me likes it?
- “I know. You’ve got fancier feet then anybody. And six of ’em!” APPA DANCE PARTY BETTER HAPPEN SOON.