“Sozin’s Comet” (season three, episodes 18-21; originally aired July 19, 2008)
Ending a long story well is no easy feat. Even venerable TV series such as The Wire and The Sopranos have stumbled at the end with preposterous or frustratingly oblique storylines. The trick to a good ending is to build all of the elements into a cathartic climax without losing any of the threads, all while topping earlier season-ending climaxes. Long-form TV narratives are particularly susceptible to this trap, mostly for the same reason that they are so enjoyable over their run: After ramping the story up and drawing it back down so many times, the final capper cannot compete with the previous, stunning season-ending moments, and there are yet too many rabbit holes left to close. Fortunately for us, Avatar: The Last Airbender manages to end its story with a four-part movie that hits all of the right notes.
Last week, I criticized the sudden appearance of Aang’s moral dilemma in “The Southern Raiders.” He is a child who was raised by monks to embrace life, so why has it not occurred to anyone in the Aang Gang, let alone any of the adults who have fought by their side, that Aang does not want to be responsible for snatching a life away? However, as Sozin’s Comet approaches, Aang seems to have no choice other than to kill Ozai. While the dilemma seemed to come too late last week, by the time of “Sozin’s Comet,” it makes perfect sense. Aang and Sokka are not quite master strategists. Sokka’s plans, in particular, often have a logistic hole in the center where something major must happen. In “The Invasion,” for instance, neither understood that terminating Ozai’s command might require the price of extreme prejudice. It takes Zuko, son of a mass murderer and brother to a sociopath, to point out that Ozai will simply not give up. As long as he has power, he will use it against Aang.
The solution offered by the lion turtle comes seemingly as far out of left field as the turtle itself, but the story handles both fairly well. On rewatch, the show has scattered images of lion turtles about, most notably in the buried spirit library and around Piandao’s house. However, Aang’s ability to take Ozai’s bending away is truly out of nowhere, although it does seem to be the right answer to Aang’s dilemma, allowing him to neutralize Ozai without violating his morals. It raises questions, though, which is not the ideal scenario for a show’s surprise solution. If it can be taken away, what, exactly, is bending? Why are some people benders and some not? If the lion turtle is meant to be the oldest being on earth, as the Internet tells us that it is, could the show not spare a moment to establish this? As such, would the lion turtle not have a unique perspective on the very being of the Avatar? Could no previous Avatar be summoned to offer wisdom that might do more to suggest the existence of this energybending? Avatar: The Last Airbender has no answers to these questions. The Legend Of Korra might clear things up, but I hope that it instead leaves alone the unanswered questions from Avatar. Mysteries are better than unsatisfactory answers.
Brushing Avatar’s final mysteries aside, let us focus on its wisdom. The show deserves all accolades for its final, fearless refusal to sugarcoat what all of this violence means. There are many children’s shows that feature some sort of martial art or hand-to-hand fighting. This is one of a small number of kids’ shows (or adult shows, for that matter) to gently point out how such violence is tied to killing, and killing has real consequences, even when it may be justified. Aang seeks wisdom from his past lives, all of them Avatars who lived to see much, but their advice is unclear. Aang believes they are telling him to kill Ozai, but what they are saying is less specific: be decisive, be just, take charge, and put the needs of others first. It is curious that Kyoshi’s advice to be just is the most useful and insightful to Aang’s dilemma, although Aang misreads it because he is still in shock about her indifference to killing Chin. How the show frames Aang’s dilemma is also curious. While Aang doesn’t want to kill Ozai (even an effigy of Ozai with a melon head), Sokka coolly slices the melon in half. It’s a brutal moment, made even more difficult by the fact that both are right. Killing Ozai would destroy the sweetness and innocence in Aang. However, without the deus ex machina that Aang eventually employs, killing Ozai is his only choice. In season three of The Wire, when Stringer and Avon argue over the right time to take a life, Stringer’s point bears a resemblance to Sokka’s: You take a life when it is necessary. (I point this out only because a hero on a children’s show with one of the more compelling villains in an epic street drama is, from a critical standpoint, utterly delicious.)
In the final battle, Ozai is portrayed as huge and muscular, towering over the tiny Aang. At the turning point, he throws everything he has at Aang, who is wrapped up in an egg-shaped rock. Here the iconography of the show is at its finest. We are all shaped by our beliefs and our experiences. Someone who has been brought up to be an egomaniacal monster may have power, but that power will be transient. Massive Ozai calls himself the Phoenix King, but it is little Aang who emerges from the fiery shell and is transformed. It is Aang, trained in all of the types of bending, who enters the Avatar State (yip yip) and becomes a nucleus of elemental power. It is Aang, brought up to believe in the sanctity of life in all of its forms, who puts aside the power of the Avatar State to neutralize Ozai with some quick earthbending moves on his own steam. It is Aang who risks his own life to spare Ozai’s, all on the centennial of his people’s genocide. That’s why this ending is a great one. The answer to Aang’s problem may pop out of a deus ex machina, but the question itself, late starter though it may be, is built on solid characterization. Aang is a recognizable human being, a gentle and sweet child. Having him murder Ozai would betray everything we know about him.
The finale doesn’t shortchange the other characters, either. Azula’s madness becomes her, and her final image as a feral, trapped animal is a neat twist on her previous grace. It is her conversation with her mother in the mirror that pushes Avatar into its darkest place, though, because while Ozai may be straight-up evil, poor Azula is crazy and sad and hates herself. The subtleties are lost on the kiddos, but they can understand that she is a tragic figure, not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. It is right that Katara, her exact opposite in temperament and bending skill, should be the one who captures her. While Zuko’s finest moment should be either his apology to Iroh or his self-sacrifice to save Katara, it is actually his battle with Azula, which is colored in vibrant reds and blues and scored to amazingly intense music. It is the animated children’s show version of the final battle scene in Ran. Toph’s taking of the airship command is a visual treat, although her metal armor seems quite dangerous around a bunch of firebenders. (Her crawl across the ceiling is amazingly creative, nonetheless.) Sokka’s airship slice is also brilliant. In the grittier HBO version of the show—which I just made up this very second—Sokka’s foolhardy heroics performed while crashing enormous balloons into each other leads to his untimely death. For the real-life version of the show, though, it is a sign of greatness that he walks away from his toughest moments. Possibly the best character moment, though, is when the episode stops to shoehorn in the awkward chatter between the firebenders and the engineers while Sokka commandeers the ship using nothing but his blustery Wang Fire voice. Lesser shows are about action for the sake of action, but Avatar’s finale puts the action in service to the character.
- At several points during the opening sequences, the show provides glimpses of the red burns on the bottom of Aang’s feet where Azula’s lightning left his body.
- When Aang swims out to the mystery island that turns out to be a magic turtle, I had horrible Lost flashbacks. Are there polar bear dogs on the island? And Hurley? We have to go baaaaack!
- Toph’s excitement over her life-changing field trip with Zuko quickly turns to disappointment. Worst field trip ever!
- Ozai’s kind of a drama king. He holds his Phoenix King reveal to impress no one but his teenage daughter and then makes a supervillain speech to himself when he launches his air fleet. Also his Phoenix King robes are ridiculous, impractical, and unnecessarily reminiscent of Magneto’s favored garb.
- Prince Pouty: Why couldn’t I remember to call Zuko this before now?
- The White Lotus, besides being an intercultural secret society bent on improving the world, was housing the Legion of Aged Superheroes: Bumi, Jeong Jeong, Piandao, Pakku, and especially Iroh.
- Bumi: “All old people know each other. Don’t you know that?”
- Avatar Kuruk describes himself as “a go-with-the-flow kind of Avatar.” I wonder if there has ever been a Pope who describes himself the same way.
- Aang (to Momo): “I know you can’t really talk. Pretending you can just helps me think.” My dog and I hear you, man.
- Zuko’s Freudian slip: The Fatherlord.
- Azula: “I won’t have my first day as Fire Lord marred by poor foot hygiene.”
- Random firebender: “I can’t believe the captain remembered my birthday! He really does care!”
- At the end, when Zuko and Aang are greeted by the applause of a ragtag group of rebels, my wife said, “These guys love Star Wars soooo much.” That’s a fact.
- This has been a blast, people! Thanks for reading and thanks for your smart comments! I hope that y’all enjoy Emily’s Legend Of Korra reviews as much as I do. Yip yip!