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Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Painted Lady”/“Sokka’s Master”

Illustration for article titled Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Painted Lady”/“Sokka’s Master”
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The Painted Lady (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 10/5/2007)

“The Painted Lady” is a continuation of the main theme from “The Headband,” with the Aang Gang winning the hearts and minds of regular Fire Nation citizens, except it is not executed with the same sense of fun or, sadly, intelligence. While the episode is partially about industrial waste and official disregard for the welfare of poor communities, it is also about Katara’s sense of righteousness, which comes to play in a way that seems almost selfish, more like the Katara of season one than the Katara who has learned so much during her travels. Her sudden desire to right a wrong that is peanuts compared to the overriding mission leads Katara to sabotage the crew’s plans and possibly expose everyone in enemy territory. Rather than pointing out the foolishness of her behavior, the Aang Gang winds up supporting her bad, bad decisions. Like “Avatar Day” or “The Great Divide,” “The Painted Lady” has some wacky elements that seem especially directed towards children, although it never quite reaches the earlier episodes’ level of over-the-top hijinks. It shares with those episodes a tendency to bend the characters slightly out of shape for the sake of a village of the week story, and it never pauses to consider the consequences to the greater arc of the show.  

One of the most admirable aspects of Avatar is that is doesn’t sugarcoat crimes and atrocities for the sake of the children who watch it. While some elements are slightly simplified or simply never dwelt upon, the show allows themes of genocide, domestic terrorism, authoritarian secret police, and other real-life horrors to fuel the storylines, which is why this show works so well for adults as well as children. With this in mind, it makes no sense that this episode visualizes water pollution as a thick toxic sludge that can be bent like earth or metal out of water. Most of the runoff from a steel mill would be a different type of element, the kind that poisons people slowly in their food and drink, which, to be fair, is probably why there are so many sick people in the village. The invisible pollution would not make for as arresting an image as the toxic sludge of the river—nor would it be as easily solvable—but it would be more honest.

It is also cheating to have Katara get away with sabotaging the mission. While it is completely in keeping with her character for Katara to be concerned with the plight of the villagers, it is stretching her characterization to have her sabotage their plan without a second thought. The episode should have highlighted her dilemma in wanting to help the villagers while still recognizing the importance of keeping to Sokka’s schedule and the need to maintain their low profile, but instead it skips to the aftermath, when she is pretending that Appa is sick and learning that the villagers are attributing her actions to the Painted Lady spirit. While her behavior is altruistic in one sense, the episode is aware that she is also being selfish and egotistical, as Katara rapturously exclaims before the Painted Lady statue about how one lady can affect an entire village. At this point, it appears that she will receive some sort of comeuppance when the jig is finally up. Instead, though, first Aang and then Sokka and the strangely unengaged Toph are swayed by her passion.

Perhaps that scene would have worked better if Katara had spoken about what drives her or even drew a more clear connection between her actions and her conflict with Hakoda, but instead she just shouts that she will never turn her back on people who need her. As is, guessing that this is about Hakoda leaving her to go off to war is the best that we can do. It is not like she has spent any time connecting with the villagers, of whom only two have speaking roles, anyway. Why it sways Sokka is similarly unexplained, and when he leaps forward to defend her after she drives off the Fire Nation Army, it almost sounds like self-serving fanfiction. Worse is the admission that she is a waterbender traveling in the Fire Nation, which is akin to potentially blowing the Aang Gang’s cover right then and there. All in all, this episode makes less sense the more one considers it.

“Sokka’s Master” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 10/12/2007)

Sokka is an example of an archetype that’s become common in recent fantasy fiction, a variant on characters like Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Xander or the Harry Potter series’ Ron Weasley: the quippy regular guy who turns out to be surprisingly skilled at combat and planning. Each of these examples has their own, unique personality, of course, but all play comic-relief roles to some extent and all are meant to be the audience surrogate in the face of all the magic derring-do of the other characters. In “Sokka’s Master,” Sokka grows tired of being the Zeppo and decides to train at the feet of a local sword-master, Piandao, who turns out to be exactly the right master for Sokka to take. Like “The Painted Lady,” “Sokka’s Master” is an opportunity for one of the characters to shine on a private mission. Unlike “The Painted Lady,” this episode lets each character retain their own personality while emphasizing how central Sokka is to the group dynamic, unbeknownst to him.

Sokka’s training montage is delightful, and the reveal that it all takes place over the course of a single day is actually rather hilarious. The episode is right to have Piandao see something special in Sokka right away, but even better for withholding what exactly the master likes about his chaotic pupil until the end. The show has been short on good and wise masters besides Iroh and Bumi. While the point may be that older people have been warped by the long years of war, it makes sense that there are more than two people who are powerful and still maintain some vision for the world beyond the current strife. Even old Pakku was a grumpy old prune until the prospect of getting laid changed his mind. The connection of the White Lotus Society emphasizes that there are groups other than Aang’s ragtag collection of friends and acquaintances who are thinking about a better future. It is right that Piandao would see through the Aang Gang immediately, although this does suggest that their deception about Aang’s death is less effective than they believe.

This episode is much like any cinematic segment where a character must learn and grow in short order: It’s long on action and short on subtext. After the training montage, there’s a sword-building montage and then a climactic battle with the master. The fact that the master turns out to be decidedly in Sokka’s favor is a small twist on the formula, but certainly one that is foreshadowed. In the B-plot, Iroh decides to use his time in prison to better himself by sculpting his doughy body into a powerhouse befitting the Dragon Of The West, deceiving his guard about his mental state all the while. These scenes, small though they might be, are excellent, showing how Iroh turns even imprisonment into an opportunity, his mind always working through the next steps. While it makes narrative sense that he would not seek to usurp Ozai and take the crown, it is obvious that he would have been a finer Fire Lord than even the one who will succeed Ozai.

Stray observations:

  • I didn’t mention the villagers much because I don’t have much to say about them. The Doc/Xu/Bushi guy was wacky but un-amusing, while the kid with the creepy “she’s here” sing-song was only there for sympathy.
  • Fire Nation jet skis? Really?
  • I do love the shark jaws on Xu’s roof, but if there are fish that big in the river, I would certainly feel nervous about living on a floating settlement in the middle of it.
  • Piandao points out that a sword is less like an extra head and more like an extra-long, really sharp arm. Ha!
  • Sokka has a heart as strong as a lion-turtle and twice as big. Perhaps it is time to make special note of any lion turtle-references.
  • Robert Patrick really kills Piandao’s line, “It wasn’t your skills that impressed me. No, it certainly wasn’t your skills.” Ha!
  • Katara: “Space earth? If it’s from space, it’s not really earth!” Sokka: “Must you ruin everything?”