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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Awakening”/“The Headband”

Illustration for article titled Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Awakening”/“The Headband”
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“The Awakening” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 9/21/2007)

While the most obvious definition of an awakening is simply to regain consciousness, it usually means a realization that strikes to the core of a person’s very being. For Aang, this realization is that he has to play dead, even though the guilt of his hundred-year absence is among the worst of his burdens and the possibility that it could happen again is among the greatest of his fears. For Zuko, the awakening will be a slow burn, but it starts with him receiving everything that he thought he wanted.

After the Fire Nation struck back in the second book, the next chapter starts with our heroes at great disadvantage, watching their odds continue to trickle away. As we quickly learn, the Fire Nation has taken Ba Sing Se, effectively winning the war. The entire world believes Aang to be dead and hope to be lost. Aang himself, still a 12-year-old boy and the only survivor of the genocide of his people, has been traumatized by Azula’s attack at the end of the second season. The violence left him momentarily dead and cut off from the Avatar State. For him to accept his role in Sokka’s plan, he needs to address his pain, fight through the trauma of death, and forgive himself for his perceived failure. His behavior is not rational, but it is understandable. All of his chakras are blocked again, just as Guru Pathik warned him, by his attachments, illusions, lies, grief, shame, guilt, and fear. Thus he runs away again, just as he did 100 years prior. His flight is blind, as he apparently even forgets that he is a powerful waterbender until Yue, the spirit of the moon, comes to him with words of comfort. Better yet are Roku’s words, accepting responsibility for the shortcomings that Aang perceives and offering him wisdom when the child needs it most. These visits are indicative of the wisdom that Aang has already gained in his travels, and they lead to Aang’s awakening to the tough spot that he is in. He symbolizes his acceptance of this role by burning his cherished glider.

Meanwhile, Zuko finds himself in the adoring eye of his people again, his banishment surely being written out of the history books even as Azula’s creepy, elderly twins proclaim him a prodigal hero. He spends time by the turtle-duck pond beloved by his mother, still obsessing over his honor, and then finally goes to see his old man. While we have seen Ozai before in Zuko’s memories, this is the first time he has appeared on camera since his ascent to Fire Lord—and Ozai is actually not that much older. Anyway, the episode contrasts Zuko’s meeting with his father with Katara’s confrontation with Hakoda. If Ozai has any regret at all about scarring and banishing his teenaged son, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he talks about how proud he is that Zuko conquered Ba Sing Se, betrayed his uncle, and killed the Avatar. This is what it means to a man of the Fire Nation to Ozai: self-interest, conquest, and murder. Hakoda, on the other hand, has the wisdom to apologize to his daughter for leaving her, even to go fight a just war. Hakoda is far from my favorite character and this confrontation with Katara comes seemingly out of nowhere, but still, the show is right to always remind viewers that Ozai is not just a megalomaniac hell-bent on sowing fear and destruction throughout the world—he’s also a a truly shitty dad.

“The Headband” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 9/28/2007)

“The Headband,” a.k.a. “the Footloose episode,” was written by John O’Bryan, a writer previously singled out as the most kid-friendly writer on the Avatar staff, the author of all of the silliest episodes. He is at his best when he has to incorporate major plot points into his scripts, and “The Headband” is one of the best glimpses into the psychology of ordinary Fire Nation citizens.

They are citizens of a nation run by an authoritarian regime that has raised nationalism and strict adherence to rules to a near-religious fervor. Although he spent most of the 20th century finding new and fascinating ways to be discredited, it is worth mentioning that Wilhelm Reich’s 1933 book The Mass Psychology Of Fascism postulates that sexual repression is at the heart of why people accept authoritarian governments. While it is fair to say that this is a reductive viewpoint that misses any number of other causes, it also contains more than a kernel of truth. The very idea was so controversial at the time that Reich was drummed out of both the Communist Party and the International Psychoanalytical Association, fled Germany with the Nazis at his heels, and arrived in the United States to find his books subject to public burning. However, pop psychology has more or less embraced his idea, starting with The Crucible and continuing through any entertainment where authority is tied to sexual constraints, such as a prohibition on dancing. In summary, Footloose is a popularization of the controversial theories of one of the 20th century’s wackiest psychoanalysts, as is “The Headband.” You’re welcome.

Because O’Bryan’s scripts must include moments that are ridiculously over-the-top, Aang and Katara have a dance number that is part-capoeira and part-Fred-and-Ginger. Since the point is that Aang is supposed to be liberating the other kids, why would it be important for everyone to watch him making time with an older girl, let alone an older girl who was pretending to be his mother only two scenes ago? The conclusion, with the “I am Spartacus” headband, is even more contrived and silly. It’s clearly meant to be metaphor for freethinking and how Aang has won the hearts and minds of his classmates, but the execution is absurd. What’s stopping the headmaster and truant officers from simply grabbing any and all of the kids?

Another little delight that builds on Zuko’s slow awakening from the previous episode are his guilty monologues to Iroh, who has become his silent, angry conscience. While I miss Iroh’s wisdom, having him mute in the face of his nephew’s inner turmoil is a good way to compensate for Mako’s untimely passing. A small Zuko moment that characterizes how unaware he is of his own motives is that he brings Iroh some kimono chicken as an offering, pausing to point out that he knows that Iroh doesn’t care for it, but it beats prison food. I’m no expert on the privileges of princes in authoritarian regimes, but I suspect that Zuko could have found someone willing to provide him with a meal that Iroh might have actually enjoyed. However, Zuko wants to punish himself, and Iroh just happens to represent the part of himself that Zuko is most desperate to destroy and deny, even as it is slowly becoming the most central fact of his life.

Stray observations:

  • In the battle with the Fire Navy ship, the spike-missile they send through the hull is both brilliant and terrifying. Is that a real weapon? Also, I have no idea how Toph is able to hit firebombs in midair.
  • Sokka: “Things couldn’t get much worse.” (The sea serpent bursts out of the water.) “The universe just loves proving me wrong, doesn’t it?” Toph: “You make it too easy!” Sokka: (As the sea serpent attacks the other ship) “Thank you, The Universe!”
  • Zuko: “Why’d you do it?” Azula: “You’re going to have to be more specific.”
  • “I already have a picture of Fire Lord Ozai. And here’s one I made out of noodles!”
  • The music teacher—who strikes me as a decent sort, even though he is as brainwashed as any other Fire Nation citizen—is voiced by Phil Proctor of The Firesign Theatre. This observation brought to you by the People for Shoes for Industry.
  • Wang Fire and Saffire Fire. Nice, Sokka.
  • Mei’s little side-glance at Azula is another indication that Azula is pushing her too far.
  • “Flameo, sir. Fla-me-o.”