“Avatar Day” (book 2, chapter 5; originally aired April 28, 2006)
“The Blind Bandit” (book 2, chapter 6; originally aired May 5, 2006)
It will surprise few Avatar viewers to learn that both “Avatar Day” and “The Great Divide” were written by the same person. Both feature villagers-of-the-week who are stupid, boorish, selfish, and wholly unworthy of the help and kindness that Aang offers them. Both push characters out of their carefully written personalities into broad strokes. Neither bothers with internal consistency nor adds much to our understanding of Aang or the richness of the Avatar world. These episodes are quite kid-friendly, but both feature too much—well, I’m trying to find a kinder word, but let’s stick with the obvious—bullshit for adult viewers. This writer was responsible for other episodes that are better than these. Not even Lauren MacMullan in the director’s seat can lift this story from the morass of stupidity sucking it down.
Six weeks back, I asked if “The Great Divide” was the worst Avatar episode. At this point, I’m ready to call it a tie. “Avatar Day” is just as bad as “The Great Divide.” This decision feels right. Everything is uphill from here.
Having damned it, let’s divide what works from what doesn’t. The Zuko and Iroh story, for instance, works quite well. Zuko, in the guise of the Blue Spirit, is stealing from honest peasants, which is about as dishonorable as Zuko can get. Being raised a prince means that he doesn’t really understand want and need, at least not in terms of basic economics. Iroh is ashamed of Zuko’s theft and tries to get him to understand the error of his ways without alienating his beloved nephew. Iroh is also an older man who is hungry most of the time, which makes it hard for him to take a firmer stance. But, as he tells Zuko, “There is a simple honor in poverty.” When Zuko breaks his uncle’s heart, it’s a bit worse because he is right. Zuko needs to learn something on his own. As a father, though, I could barely stand Iroh’s pain, especially when Zuko leaves without a word of thanks or goodbye. That story, free of wackiness and stupidity, is quite well-written.
On the other hand, there’s the A-plot. We start the episode with the Aang Gang under attack by Fire Nation baddies. There are only five of these super-bad dudes, although they are riding rhino lizards. While Aang and Katara spring into action to save their valuables, the story forgets about Sokka until Aang and Katara are finished. Only then does Sokka realize that he, too, has agency and should be trying to retrieve his valuable boomerang, but it’s too late. Sad trombones all around. Soon we are at our oh-so-stupid village-of-the-week, which has combined the theatrics of Burning Man with Olympian athleticism for its Avatar Day ceremony. However, instead of celebrating the most powerful and important person in the world, a child who is destined to defeat Fire Lord Ozai and free everybody, this ceremony is actually excoriating him for some perceived slight from 350 years before. Why must we stick around? I should mention that we’ve already had a super-obvious fart joke from the villagers, which admittedly plays well with the kids.
Anyway, suddenly Sokka is buffoonishly proud of his detective skills, complete with a silly hat and pipe. This was funny the first time around, but on repeat viewings, it's just so far out of left field that it's less and less fun. His investigation includes a jump to Kyoshi Island, which we suppose is nearby. There he is told not to touch the sacred relics of Avatar Kyoshi, although they could prove Aang’s innocence. However, the village’s version of justice is anything but impartial, which is more reason to just offer them a flying yip yip at the moon and take off. Aang cannot remember his defense. Although they’ve just made it clear that no one else will be allowed to speak at the trial, suddenly Katara is calling Avatar Kyoshi to defend herself. Aang pops out, dressed in those sacred relics which no one should touch, a point made only minutes before. We, the viewers with functioning brains, wonder when Katara and Sokka had time to fly back to the island and steal these relics. Then the same Fire Nation bad dudes, who are called, ugh, the “Rough Rhinos” or some such nonsense, show up. Instead of trying to nab Aang, who is, remember, Fire Nation public enemy number one (and let me say that even in Kyoshi’s makeup, it’s pretty clear that he’s the Avatar), the Rhino Ridin’ Roughnecks decide to destroy the town. Only Aang and his pals can save this village! Freeing them to dole out their skewed form of justice again! Wait. That can’t be right.
The theme of this story isn’t that bad, actually. History and memory rarely align. That’s a fair assessment of both, and important enough to the Avatar story to pop up every now and then. While we’re on history, Avatar Kyoshi preceded Roku, right? The Internets agree that she was more than 200 years old when she died. Between this and Bumi’s incredible long life, should we assume that earthbending somehow extends life? Also annoying: the village didn't exist when Kyoshi ripped her peninsula from the mainland. Chin's forces were blown away, and he fell into the sea. So where did the village come from? And why do they revere Chin?
The scene where the tough-looking inmates give Aang love advice is ripped straight out of the ironic situational comedy playbook, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad scene. I laughed. The little community service icon on the town’s Wheel of Punishment was funny, although I suspect that a tougher Avatar would have blown the whole village out to sea just for having a Wheel of Punishment in their stupid justice system. Sokka hits it on the head when he says that this is, by far, the worst town they’ve ever been to. That it is, and it’s a shame that the writing staff couldn’t have achieved their narrative goals with a better story.
Let’s just leave that unstable mess behind and turn back to the fantastic, well-written, subtle, and sometimes profound kid’s-show-that-ain’t that we signed on for. “The Blind Bandit” truly excels in its action sequences, which first parody wrestling matches and later turn into full-on wuxia magic, as thrilling as anything you might see in a Shaw Brothers film. There’s a reason for this. Earthbending is based on Hung Ga kung fu. One of the major practitioners of this martial art is one Lau Kar-leung, who directed or choreographed a number of major wuxia films (from which sprang the Wu-Tang—which is for the children—and at least one-half of Quentin Tarantino). Among Lau Kar-leung’s films are One-Armed Swordsman, 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, Master Of The Flying Guillotine, and Drunken Master II, also called Legend Of Drunken Master. Every one of these features some absolutely top-notch Hung Ga kung fu. When Toph takes her master stances in that final battle, they are so perfectly choreographed that it gives me chills.
The episode starts with a parody of martial arts studios that run like belt factories. Aang tries to sign on as a student to Master Yu, but he is soon on the receiving end of the hard sell, which comes with a boulder to his gut. Aang tries again at Earth Rumble Six, hosted by one Xin Fu and symbolized by a fist shattering a rock. We see the meteoric rise of an earthbender who calls himself “The Boulder,” in third-person and often. He’s voiced by wrestler Mick Foley, which is, like this whole wrestling homage/parody, absolutely wonderful. We have a wrestler in the garb of the Fire Nation trying to sing his national anthem in a thick Russian accent. I was unable to explain to my children why this was so funny, and I wonder if references to big, bad Russians have gone the way of cassette mix tapes and Rambo movies. It doesn’t help that my kids are aware of neither Sylvester Stallone nor Vladimir Putin. The Boulder defeats all contenders handily, as illustrated in stylish comic-book art. Finally we reach The Blind Bandit. Hi, Toph! We’ve been waiting for you. She is, of course, the girl in Aang’s swamp vision.
She makes short work of The Boulder with an amazing visualization of her ability to perceive shock waves in the earth. Later, she will explain to Aang that she sees with her earthbending. In fact, let’s skip the whole subplot of Toph’s initial hostility to Aang. The gist is that she has overprotective parents and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. After their ambush by Xin Fu, a villain so craven that he would turn Aang over to the Fire Nation for a buck, we get to the wuxia action. I’m afraid my notes deteriorate here to repeats of the word “awesome” over and over again without much substance to back them up. Suffice it to say that there is fighting. And it is, to the best of my memory, awesome. Sometimes words don’t help. If this were more profound stuff, I might even go with the word “ineffable,” but, as is, I’ll just admit that I like martial arts flicks and sometimes go overboard with my enthusiasms.
There’s a lovely character note in Toph’s father’s response to her display of awesome power. He decides to batten down the hatches and be even more restrictive. So desperate are her parents to control her that they will even contract with her kidnapper and ineffective teacher when she runs away. What’s important here, though, is that the Aang Gang has a new player, one independent enough to walk away from her cushy prison and one tough enough to beat a gang of grown earthbenders without breaking a sweat.
- Grocer: “Here’s your produce, Ponytail Guy.” Sokka: “I used to be Boomerang Guy!”
- Since when is there Water Tribe money? Why mention it here and then never again?
- Iroh: “Never give in to despair. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”
- “That’s why we call it justice. ’Cuz it’s just us.”
- “Boomerang! You do always come back!”
- Katara: “This is just going to be a bunch of guys chucking rocks at each other, isn’t it?” Sokka: “That’s what I paid for!”
- Sokka: “Don’t answer to ‘Twinkletoes!’ It’s not manly!” Katara: “You’re the one whose bag matches his belt.”
- Toph: “You think you’re so tough? Why don’t you come up here so I can smack that grin off your face?” Xin Fu (grimly): “I’m not smiling.”