Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: "The Northern Air Temple"/"The Waterbending Master"

Illustration for article titled Avatar: The Last Airbender: "The Northern Air Temple"/"The Waterbending Master"
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

The Northern Air Temple (Book 1, Chapter 17; originally aired November 4, 2005)

The Waterbending Master (Book 1, Chapter 18; originally aired November 18, 2005)

Apologies for missing last week, Avatar fans. My last-minute change in plans was unexpected and if I could have avoided it, believe you me, I would have avoided it.

The two episodes we cover this week pace out the season, providing some relatively low-stakes action while setting the stage for the dramatic two-part season finale, which we will cover next week. Each has some storytelling issues that mar the episode without sinking it. The Northern Air Temple hearkens back to the character-defining third chapter in our story, The Southern Air Temple. There, Aang was confronted with evidence of the genocide of his people, which awoke the raging Avatar State within him. Here, Aang must face the fact that a place that was sacred to a virtually extinct culture is just a place for others. He is upset, briefly, but his moral objection is so slight that only Katara takes his concern even remotely seriously. This is disquieting on some levels, but the episode is not really about Aang’s suffering, but about the moral relativism of the leader of those who have taken over the Air Temple. The central conflict in The Waterbending Master is slight and the story deals with it quite arbitrarily, resolving the issue without explaining how it came to be resolved. However, the central conflict isn’t really the point of the episode. The point is to set in motion the events of the finale, and ultimately, this episode is more important as a prelude than it is on its own terms.

So we pick up the action when a chance tale leads the Aang Gang to the Northern Air Temple, where a group of Earth Kingdom refugees have taken up residence. The refugees fly about somewhat like airbenders with the use of gliders that were invented by a guy we only know as The Machinist. He looks nothing at all like an emaciated Christian Bale. Aang doesn’t like what he sees as the defacing of a sacred place of his people, but everyone more or less deflects his concerns. Even Katara shows only the barest interest in Aang’s fairly legitimate concern that one of the few remaining remnants of his people is being systematically destroyed and defaced by the people who are squatting in its ruins. I get the point: time is transitory, life is for the living, and so on. The execution is a little crude, though, which, in retrospect, sums up all of my problems with this episode. The Machinist and Sokka form a mutual appreciation society, interrupted only by the realization that the Machinist has made a deal with the Fire Nation to provide weapons to keep them from destroying the settlement.

Like Aang’s concern over the defacement of the temple, the battle sequence seems to be an okay idea that has been poorly executed. For one thing, the people of this settlement seem to think nothing of putting their children in harm’s way. I mean, it’s bad enough that they strap gliders to them and push them off mountains on a regular basis, but it struck me as more unconscionable than triumphant as they cheer while their children fly off to battle not just grown men but ruthless killers. I like the thought that went into the movement of the Fire Nation tanks, but as they flipped and spun, I thought about the mostly unprotected firebenders inside, who would in the real world be be suffering brain trauma the first time one of those things swiveled.

I understand that the battle sequence is not supposed to be a pure triumph. Even though the Air Temple squatters deflect the Fire Nation, they unwittingly give up the secret war dirigible, which was at least partially the reason they were fighting in the first place. The other reason for the battle is to free The Machinist and the settlement from the clutches of the Fire Nation, but with the Machinist’s work in the hands of the Fire Nation, the victory is symbolic and somewhat empty, as the Machinist himself seems aware. I didn’t mention the Machinist’s handicapped son Teo, who is far more annoying than a nonentity like Haru (think Wesley Crusher in early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation) but, thankfully, Teo proves to be the teenage boy who breaks Katara’s streak of crushes. Maybe she learned something valuable from Jet.


Turning to The Waterbending Master, we find the Aang Gang cranky after two days of looking for the Northern Water Tribe. Fortunately, they stumble into a few boatloads of waterbenders, so things are looking up! Meanwhile, Zhao has figured out where they are headed and is in the process of building a massive invasion force to crush the Northern Water Tribe for once and for all. I find myself wondering, not for the first time, how large the population of the Fire Nation actually is. They appear to have infinite resources, with the troops and ships and provisions ready to launch a new front in their war on an Admiral’s whim in mere days. It is quite possible that I am overthinking the show at this point.

As I am pondering the mundane and squashing the magic out of this delightful show, the Aang Gang arrives at the unnamed city of the Northern Water Tribe, which is a yet another masterpiece of design. It is a frozen Venice with elements of Indian architecture in the palace. The locks that bring the Aang Gang into the city are brilliantly conceived, with waterbenders using the very surface of the locks to provide the water that lifts travelers up to the city’s canals. It’s a little detail, but it has the sort of lived-in efficiency that gives the city life outside of our narrative. The Aang Gang are treated as honored visitors, with the Chief (voiced by Jon Polito!) throwing them a feast complete with a waterbending demonstration from Master Pakku. Sokka is smitten with the Chief’s daughter, Princess Yue, who seems at least half-smitten with him, too.


Back on Zuko’s Dinghy of Doom, we catch a glimpse of the lieutenant from The Storm playing a lute-like instrument (definitely not a shamisen, at any rate) before Zhao boards and commandeers the crew for his mission. Zhao notices twin swords on Zuko’s wall that are identical to those that the Blue Spirit used. Zuko stammers that they are antiques, purely decorative, but Zhao’s mind has been made. A scene or two later, he hires the pirates from The Waterbending Scroll to blow up Zuko’s ship and, incidentally, kill the young prince.  Boom.

Meanwhile, back in Ice Venice, Master Pakku turns out to be a real grumpy old turd (is that something that just happens to someone who masters an element? Because we could describe many of the master benders this way). Apparently, the Northern Water Tribe has a sacred custom of forbidding their women from learning to waterbend, and Pakku refuses to teach Katara. It seems forced that we’re only learning about this now. The Northern Water Tribe has, let’s say, a couple of thousand people living there, while the Southern Water Tribe has, at most, one hundred. Given that we learn that there is some transfer of people among them, it seems that the customs of the Northern Water Tribe would be, by sheer numbers, the dominant customs of Water Tribe people. I guess I’m saying that it seems that someone would have mentioned before now that the ways of the Northern Water Tribe include a bunch of sexist customs meant to keep their women-folks under control, including the training of waterbending. But okay, I’m willing to go along. It’s just never come up, not even among Katara and Sokka’s family members who might be quite aware of the customs of the Northern Water Tribe.

So where was I? Right. Even though there are many, many waterbenders in Ice Venice, apparently Master Pakku is the only one who can teach Aang. Unable to convince Pakku to teach her, Katara takes in a healing lesson and also learns that her necklace is a Northern Water Tribe betrothal insignia, part of their whole arranged marriage culture. The healing teacher, in fact, knew her Gran-gran, who left the tribe suddenly some 60 years prior. This teacher drops that she knows the man who carved it for Gran-gran, too, but instead of offering this information to Katara, she decides to take a cue from Lost and clams up. Katara, who seems to also believe that she is a character on Lost for the moment, does not ask the obvious follow-up question that would shortcut some of the drama to come.


So, the drama. Aang shows Katara some of his moves, offending Pakku. Pakku, more concerned with being an ass than with the fate of the world, refuses to teach Aang further until he can humiliate Katara a bit. Old guys who enjoy humiliating teenage girls aren’t generally the good guys. Katara challenges Pakku to a duel. Fighty splish splash fight fight. I mean, the waterbending is visually striking and all, but having seen this a few times, I’m a little annoyed at how it plays out. As one might predict, after defeating Katara, Pakku picks up her necklace and, sure enough, he’s the one who carved it for Gran-gran. The next day, Pakku is being far more genial and he has allowed Katara to join his class. So… all that stuff about their long traditions of keeping the ladyfolks down was just hot air? Now that he know that his true love ran off to the other side of the world and had kids and grandkids, Pakku is more at peace with himself? I don’t know. That seems awfully arbitrary, which is why I’m annoyed at how this plays out.

In other loose threads, Zuko escaped the explosion on his boat and is hiding out as a soldier in Zhao’s command. Iroh takes Zhao’s offer to serve as his general, but mainly so that he can keep an eye on Zuko. Yue tells Sokka that she’s blowing hot and cold towards him because she is betrothed in one of those zany arranged marriages. We end with an image of Zhao’s tremendous armada setting sail for the North Pole. That promises to be good.


Stray Observations (and Quotes):

  • Aang: “I laugh at gravity all the time! Ha ha. Gravity.”
  • Sokka: "You want me to be like you or totally honest?" Katara: "Are you saying I’m a liar?" Sokka: "I’m saying you’re an optimist. Same thing, basically."
  • The episode pausing to watch Katara swallow a bug: ha!
  • Koala seal?
  • "So, it looks like I’m going to be in town for a while. I’m thinking that maybe we could… do an activity together?"