(This is the eighteenth installment of my weekly recaps of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Nickelodeon animated series that ran from 2005 to 2008 to much critical acclaim. I’ve never seen it! These recaps are only available to paid subscribers, except for season premieres.)
“Chapter One: The Awakening” (originally aired September 21, 2007)
“Chapter Two: The Headband” (originally aired September 28, 2007)
“Chapter Three: The Painted Lady” (originally aired October 5, 2007)
For the first three episodes of its final season, Avatar: The Last Airbender returns to a very season one tone. These episodes are better than most comparable episodes from the first season, but it is a little surprising to have the show return to its travelogue roots after so much of season two was spent either inside the walls of Ba Sing Se or trying to get there. It's doubly surprising considering that, hey, Aang died at the end of last season.
Aang's death and secret resurrection actually change up the status quo of these episodes more than you'd expect. Since nobody but our crew knows that Aang is alive, that means that he can be the secret weapon in the battle against the Fire Nation. What's more, the remaining resistance is composed of a ragtag crew of warriors who are scattered among a few smaller groups. I love a ragtag band of freedom fighters, so this is a promising setup for the season.
What's more, I suspect that the return to "our kids travel around and visit a few smaller villages" as a structure is at least somewhat necessary to begin this final stretch of episodes. The back half of season two got super grim for a kids show, leaving behind some of the fun adventure vibe of the show's early going. If the series had simply pushed into even more emotionally fraught territory, it likely would have alienated at least some of its fanbase. What's more, because we know the end of the show is coming soon, we can invest in some silly adventures, simply because those silly adventures are preludes to something deeper and more complex. Probably.
But as an adult watching the show in 2021, at the rate of a few episodes per week, it's a little disappointing. Every time I think, "Heck, yeah, this show is really coming together," it taps the brakes a little bit. I always understand why it makes the choice to do that, but it always pushes me away just a little bit. (I would wager that I wouldn't have this issue as much were I binging the show, which might mean it was a bad choice to recap!)
Yet there's a single question vaguely unifying these three episodes that makes me appreciate them slightly more: What might these kids have been like if they hadn't become conscripted into a war to save the world from the Fire Nation? The premiere explores Aang's angst over the idea that he failed as its primary story, yes, but it also looks at Katara and Sokka's relationship with their dad, which has been hurt badly by the war. The second episode just puts Aang into a regular old Fire Nation school, where he pulls a Footloose. And the third episode shows us how Katara's desires to help people might have been channeled had she just stayed in the little village she was from. When I consider that the next episodes' descriptions on Netflix focus on Sokka and Zuko, it's not hard to imagine that there's a conscious choice being made here before entering the end game.
I like this choice both because it's an interesting question for the show to ask itself and because it's a great way for the series to show us just how far its characters have come across its run so far. When Aang sticks his glider in the middle of that volcanic island, only for it to be consumed by lava, the moment is a touch implausible — how did it manage to wind up on the same narrow spit of land that Aang did? — but also beautifully symbolic of these kids and where they've been.
It also nicely segues the show into its next two episodes. "The Headband" is my favorite of these three episodes, and I like how it teases Aang with the thing he's secretly wanted most: a normal childhood. Seeing him bluster his way through a few days at a school for Fire Nation kids — who just assume he's some Earth Kingdom refugee — is great fun, and watching his flirtation with On Ji, in particular, made me wonder just how many installments the show could have gotten out of the gang having to kill time until the big invasion by hiding out as normal Fire Nation kids.
These questions are the sort only a final season can ask. In, say, the second season, "What has Aang given up for his quest?" isn't as big of a question in terms of character stakes simply because we know there's so much more to come. Therefore, what he's giving up isn't going to seem as interesting as what he might have to sacrifice in the years to come. But getting a look at an Aang who's not as bogged down by the weight of his own heroism is welcome. If Aang didn't have to save the world, if he could just be a normal kid, he might be happier. What's more, the show doesn't really try to back away from this idea. Instead it says that, yeah, the Aang that saves the world needs to exist, and he probably ends up with Katara. But he doesn't get the chance to go to what amounts to a school dance.
"The Painted Lady" is the weakest of this trio of episodes, largely because Katara's motivations in it never make a lot of sense. I absolutely buy that she would make everybody stop to help a city full of sick and starving people; I'm not sure how she made the conceptual leap to "I have to impersonate their guardian spirit in the night to give them the realization that only they can save themselves." There are some good moments scattered throughout "The Painted Lady," and it's not a bad episode by any means, but it felt a little weak as the Katara installment of this loose quartet of episodes.
Similarly, the show's emphasis on how much Sokka and Katara miss their dad is one of those things the show keeps insisting is true without me ever quite buying that it's true. Like intellectually, yes, I get that these two kids miss their dad. Emotionally, however, so little time has been spent on making him a character and not an absence that devoting so much of their arc in the premiere to their feelings about him mostly ended up in some over-obvious moments (like when Katara, yelling at Aang, is actually yelling at her dad without realizing she is).
Fortunately, things are a bit more exciting over in Fire Nation World. Zuko is still paralyzed by guilt and certain the Avatar is alive, even as Mai is trying to get him to just let go and enjoy kissing. Azula is taking a well-earned victory throne sit. And Iroh is sitting alone in a cell, not saying anything. This corner of the show feels surprisingly vibrant for a bunch of characters who largely think their story is over, and I think it's all tied to Zuko, who constantly feels like there's some big piece of himself that he's missing — like how he's so obviously going to have to be the person to teach Aang firebending.
This trio of episodes is nowhere near as strong as the ones that opened season two, but they still felt a bit like being welcomed back after a long time away. When Aang woke up aboard that ship commandeered by Water Tribe rebels and said hi to all of his friends, I had the welcome feeling of being back with people I had missed. I'm not that sold on these episodes; I'm clearly sold on where the show is taking me eventually.
Other thoughts I thought:
Next time: Hey, look, it's a Sokka episode with "Sokka's Master." Then we're checking out Cassie's favorite episode by going to "The Beach" and getting what's sure to be a loredump in "The Avatar and the Fire Lord." See you next Friday!
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