“Nightmares And Daydreams” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired November 16, 2007)
While Sokka was in hysterics over his carefully detailed invasion plan back in “The Painted Lady,” the rush toward the invasion was sidelined. Meanwhile the Aang Gang has paused its relentless march to the rendezvous point so it could make a sword for Sokka, research Roku’s history, scam a bunch of villagers, and get to the bottom of The Case Of The Creepy Old Lady Who Was Secretly A Waterbender Driven Mad By The War. Despite these frequent adventures, there must have been relentless off-screen marching because the gang arrives at the rendezvous point, an island inhabited only by koala-sheep, four days early. Perhaps because of all of these crazy pit stops, though, Aang is surprised and dismayed to learn that the day he has been dreading, his destined conflict with Fire Lord Ozai, is at hand. “Nightmares And Daydreams” takes place in the maddening calm before the storm, when Aang’s fear and feelings of inadequacy overwhelm him. While this may be a frustrating episode for some because it delays the long-promised action, it is an episode necessary to show Aang’s inner life in the lead-up to his destined conflict. The writer of this episode is John O’Bryan, the guy behind the silliest and most kid-friendly Avatar episodes, and here O’Bryan uses his goofy humor to its best effect.
There’s not really any action in this episode. In the A-plot, Aang stresses out, unable to sleep without terrifying nightmares, until his friends finally prevail upon him to rest. In the B-plot, Zuko stresses out about not being invited to a war council meeting until he learns that not only was he actually invited but that living his life to please his father will never make him happy. Many Avatar: The Last Airbender stories bounce between the parallel stories of Aang and Zuko, showing that despite their adversity, their lives are intertwined. Here, they both prepare for the destinies they pursued throughout the earlier seasons, only to find that the reality is simply unacceptable.
Aang has known that he needs to prepare for a battle with Ozai since Sokka discovered the date of the eclipse back in “The Library,” but he has let himself be distracted by immediate concerns, a big one of which was dying in “The Crossroads Of Destiny.” The threat of dying can put anyone off their game, and considering some of Aang’s other worries—such as being frozen for a hundred years while his people were systematically slaughtered—it is a testament to his spirit that this little boy can find room in himself for love and friendship, let alone honoring his commitment to the entire world. The uncertainty he feels about his destiny is both a running theme to the show and a key component of his character, and it would be wrong to have him plunge into a long-planned invasion without taking account of his fears.
Those fears come in the forms of nightmares, many of which involve a allusions to other anime. In the early ones, Dream-Ozai defeats Aang by playing on his adolescent insecurities. One has Ozai waking Aang rather kindly before telling him that he slept through the invasion. That one features a flying, fire-breathing hippo-cow. The key nightmare has amazing imagery: Aang and Appa flying through a storm around a giant Momo, the Fire Nation palace lit like the Dark Tower from the Lord Of The Rings, eyeless Toph buried in earth, Sokka drowning in a collapsed tunnel, Katara engulfed in flames, and Aang himself frozen and then plunged into deep water, left to gaze up at Zuko through the ice while Sozin’s comet streaks through the sky behind him. As the comet strikes the earth, the whole world bursts into flames. The major question for first-time viewers is whether this is a vision of things to come or a representation of Aang’s fears.
In his daydreams, Aang first confesses his love to Katara with all the cheese of a 12-year-old trying to be smooth. Later, after three days of insomnia, Aang’s daydream blossoms into a full-scale hallucination in which Momo and Appa both talk and then do battle while sheep cheer, Guru Pathik floats by on a cloud, rocks snake along the ground, and a stump bearing Aang’s noodle-art of Ozai’s face from “The Headband” performs a little dance. There’s no deeper significance to this daydream, but it is wacky fun. Similarly, this episode has no real bearing on the rest of the greater arc of the story, but it is a worthwhile breath of air.
More important to the greater arc is Zuko’s little journey of self-discovery, which progresses in little discrete moments from him basking in the glow of the cheering throngs and sycophantic servants to his realization that he can never be the person that his father wants him to be. This progression has been building throughout the season and will culminate in an excellent scene next week, but it is worth mentioning that the moment of catharsis arrives in this episode. This catharsis is handled quite well, having Zuko talk about his realization to Mai in a quiet moment rather than with some big outburst of drama.
- In the first dream, Aang is dressed as Goku from Dragon Ball Z. In the second, Aang appears to be a cross between Trigun’s Vash The Stampede and Naruto. In the last, he looks like Ozai more than anyone, but I recognize that this may be an anime reference that I simply don’t get.
- Aang’s dream-Toph says “We died because of your tiny bladder!”
- I’m pretty sure that the yoga Katara teaches Aang in this episode is the only example of yoga in Avatar.
- This episode’s voice-acting award goes to Dee Bradley Baker for his perfect voicing of Momo and Appa, although Jack De Sena’s rendition of Sokka turning into Wang Fire in mid-spin is a contender.
- In their battle, Appa’s armor looks familiar but I cannot place it. Momo is dressed in the style of Edo-era samurais, although his blue kimono most strongly resembles Jin’s from Samurai Champloo.
- The influence of FLCL on the depiction of Aang is strongest in this episode, as Aang often resembles Naota during his many, many freakouts.
- The humor in “Nightmares And Dreams” is more visual than linguistic, but I love Mark Hamill’s reading of Dream-Ozai’s plaintive cry, “My royal parts are showing!”