“The Western Air Temple” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 7/14/2008)/“The Firebending Masters” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 7/15/2008)
There are many fictions where a truly compelling antihero rights his course, but none has made this journey more awkward or hilarious than Avatar: The Last Airbender has for Zuko. After two seasons of visiting life-threatening attacks upon the Aang Gang while fighting his demons in private, Zuko hopes to smooth it all over with a smile and a casual “Hello, Zuko here.” As always, he is not quite wrong but he is still miles from being on target. Other than Katara, however, the Gang hasn’t been privy to his internal struggle, and they are as surprised and confused by his offer as they would have been if Ozai had dropped in for a friendly cup of tea.
In the stellar “The Western Air Temple”—one of the highlights of the whole series—Zuko tries to share with the Gang how his world has turned around, but he cannot escape his essential Zuko-ness. He remains impulsive, shortsighted, and a cauldron of frustration because the kind of change that he has been through is not a change of personality but a change of perspective. He is a slow learner, trudging in fits and starts away from the destiny he has imagined for himself to the role that he has earned in the Avatar’s ragtag group, one that happens to be at war with everything that he has internalized as truth. His change in perspective has flipped the context for his entire sense of being, which he clumsily tries to describe in terms of good and bad, but all that he’s really done is shed a few illusions. Compare him to Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, who subtly evolves from a profit-mad child-murdering thug in season one to the defiant and bloody heart of the community by the end of season three. Like Zuko, Swearengen retains his essential being, with all of the darkness that comes of being haunted by demons of childhood trauma. The illusion that each sheds, however, is that of selfish independence. Both start out indifferent to the problems of others, and both are brought around to the side of progress and goodness by their unease with a larger evil and a slowly realized sense of common purpose. The slow awakening of their consciences manifests with a physical ailment representing the moral conflict within, but the ensuing change is small in comparison with the strife of their lives. This little light of conscience, though, illuminates their differences with the greater evil. In Swearengen’s case, that evil is the uncaring power from without of Yankton and then Hearst. For Zuko, it is his father and his perspective on the evil of the Fire Nation’s war.
The problem with expressing inner struggle is that it isn’t immediately apparent to others. Only Katara has seen Zuko wrestling with his conscience, but she has also seen him lose. She is still furious about his betrayal of her in Ba Sing Se, which is more acute because (although this is a funny thing to say about a cartoon) she has quite a bit of chemistry with him. Even as she ends the episode with a threat to kill him if he steps out of line, her anger recalls Roku’s similar line to Sozin, a threat made more powerful by the bond between the men. Katara’s anger continues to boil over into the next episode, where she makes an icy comment about his lack of firebending skills that subtly indicates how her anger with Zuko comports with her attraction to him. Her fury with him mirrors her fury with Jet from season one.
Meanwhile the episode nails the little details of the rest of the Aang Gang, especially how utterly lost Aang is. He believes that their half-assed attack on the Fire Lord was his only shot, and he spends much of the episode skirting the issue of their next step, let alone his guilt at the imprisonment of his army. When Zuko appears, Aang’s unsure emotional state leaves him at his least forgiving and most dependent on the opinions of the rest of the Gang. Toph is rightly shown to be the voice of cold reason when it comes to Zuko and the voice of sympathy, as she fully understands how difficult it is to escape a warped family. Sokka is more wary than his sister but more strategic, too. When Zuko makes his big appeal at the end of the episode, it makes sense that while Aang would buy Zuko’s call for balance, Sokka would buy that Zuko’s abilities could be an asset to them. Zuko’s speech is wonderfully written, showing Iroh’s influence in his plainspoken truths much more than his earlier Iroh impression.
Iroh haunts Zuko’s journey in “The Firebending Masters,” too. Although Iroh could not have mastered the two-man Dancing Dragons form by himself, he also made the same trip to find the Sun Warriors and faced judgment by the same two dragons. While the title “Dragon Of The West” was bestowed upon him because he claimed that he slew those dragons, this story illuminates that Iroh deserves that title because he alone was wise enough to preserve the dragons and learn from them. Between the war, the genocide of the Air Nomads, and the idea of hunting the very animals at the root of their magic firebending, Sozin was a unique source of rot at the core of the Fire Nation. Although George Lucas has made it abundantly clear why one should never ask for prequels, the story of how Sozin went so wrong is an interesting missing chapter. We can extrapolate from “The Avatar And The Firelord” that Sozin’s maniacal insanity was due to being overshadowed and humiliated by Roku, but the step between the presentation of his idea at Roku’s wedding and the furious battle between them in their middle age is a large step indeed.
“The Firebending Masters” was written by John O’Bryan, a guy mentioned often in these articles for being the author of the most kid-friendly episodes, but it has been clear from the beginning that he is at his best when developing the arc. This is the first of the Zuko-plus-one missions that will make up the bulk of the episodes until the finale. While the idea of splitting the Aang Gang up to have individual adventures with Zuko may seem more like a series of one-offs than an arc, there is the sense that the Aang Gang needs to reach closure on some issues before they will truly be ready to shut down the Fire Nation War for good. Also, considering that the Avatar staff made Raiders Of The Lost Ark references with Zuko in both of the episodes reviewed this week, there is a certain sense in which they have realized that Zuko may be more fun as a hero and that he deserves his chance to shine in the good-guy seat.
- The last great thing about these episodes is that Native Americans are added to the pan-Asian mix of the Avatar world. The influence of Anasazi cliff dwellings and the Buddhas of Bamiyan on the design of the Western Air Temple is one of the most appealing original ideas that the show produced, and the reveal that the Sun Warriors are a ziggurat-building Mayan civilization is surprising. It’s a good thing that Zuko comments on how the Sun Warrior village has influenced the Fire Nation architecture because they look as dissimilar to me as Mexico City and Tokyo. Combustion Man’s destruction of the Temple is a horrifying echo of the Taliban’s real-world destruction of the Buddhas. Someone should teach that guy a lesson by blowing him up.
- Let us here stop to appreciate Dante Basco’s voice acting in this episode. Not only does he convey Zuko’s struggle, but his impressions of Iroh and Azula are a pip, and his squeakier youthful Zuko voice a nice touch.
- Sokka: “You sent Combustion Man after us?” Zuko: “Well, that’s not his name, but… ”
- Sokka’s description of his tonsils as his “throat-hole flap”: priceless. In an episode as jam-packed with unhurried plot development, it is lovely that they could find a moment for this.
- Katara: “Let’s go find him and give him a medal. The Not-As-Much-Of-A-Jerk-As-You-Could-Have-Been Award!”
- Zuko: “Why am I so bad at being good?” That’s a tough question, son.
- Sifu Hotman! Aang is such an old man in some ways.
- Sokka: “Hey, jerks! Mind if I watch you two jerks do your jerkbending?” I chuckled. My 7-year-old laughed so hard he fell on the floor. John O’Bryan, you’ve still got it.
- Katara: “Maybe you’re just not as good as you think you are.” Toph: “Ouch!”
- Ham Ghao, the bitchy Sun Warrior second-in-command, is awesome. He’s the Truman Capote of a made-up civilization.
- The drums during the dragon-summoning ceremony are the same as the closing credit music. The more you know…
- Zuko: “It’s like the sun, but inside of you. Do you guys realize this?” Sun Warrior Chief: “Well, our civilization is called the Sun Warriors. So, yeah.”