The Real Deal: Introductions

by Shaker Seraph, a shameless geek who's getting through the bad times in New York City by doing temp work, playing Dungeons & Dragons, watching lots of movies, and splitting rent with an amiable soon-to-be-ex.

[Part One in this ongoing series is here.]

You know, as I started out with my review of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I found myself faced with an interesting problem. I think the saying is "too much of a good thing" – I wanted to review the show season-by-season (I don't have the stamina for a proper Fred Clarkian episode-by-episode treatment), but then I realized that simply introducing the characters and themes I wanted to talk about would make the Season 1 entry longer than I had any right to expect anyone to read. I ended up having to break it up a little, so here we are: Welcome to Avatar: The Intro Chapter.

We open with a brother and sister out fishing in Antarctic waters. The brother, Sokka (16 years old), is spear fishing, while his sister Katara (14) uses waterbending to pull a fish out of the water. Unfortunately, they get in each other's way (it's a small canoe), and both fish are lost. This leads to an argument, during which they fail to pay attention to the icebergs around them, and their canoe is crushed. The argument continues, and we discover several important things: 1) Their mother is dead, and Katara has taken on her responsibilities, a dangerous thing when it comes to washing Sokka's socks; 2) their father, chief of the Southern Water Tribe, has taken all of the able-bodied men and gone off to war, leaving them in charge of the tribe. This is not an in-name-only situation: The world is at war and children grow up fast.

In any case, while we later learn that Sokka takes his duty to defend the tribe 100% seriously, no Fire Nation troops have been spotted in the area for years, so his "defensive preparations" have mostly been excuses to avoid chores, and Katara is sick of it. The argument grows heated (as responders to the first thread noted, kudos to Katara here for explicitly calling Sokka out on his sexism), and Katara starts waving her arms around – not the best idea for an untrained waterbender. She breaks a nearby iceberg, revealing someone sealed inside. She uses Sokka's war-club to finish breaking open the ice chamber, which releases a rush of air, a column of light, a twelve-year-old boy named Aang, and his trusty flying bison Appa. Yes. Flying bison. Just go with it.

Aang has been trapped in the ice for 100 years since getting caught in a storm while out flying on Appa. That makes him the Last Airbender referred to in the title – he just plain slept through the Fire Nation's genocide of the Air Nomads.

It takes a while – pretty much all of this season – for that to sink in. For a good long time, he continues to think and behave like the person he was 100 years ago (which, from his perspective, was last night): A cheerful, friendly, extremely hyper and somewhat goofy kid with friends among all four peoples – including the Fire Nation.

He's also – although he's reluctant to admit it, at first – the Avatar. If he hadn't been, he wouldn't have survived: He used waterbending to seal himself in that iceberg back when he and Appa crashed into the ocean during that storm.

In any case, Aang falls instantly in crush with Katara, and it isn't long before the three of them (with the blessing of Gran-Gran, Sokka and Katara's only remaining relative in the village) set off on a journey to the Northern Water Tribe. Aang needs to learn more than airbending if he's going to fulfill his duties as the Avatar and restore balance to the world, and Katara is desperate to find a waterbending teacher. She's the last waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe – the others were all killed or captured by the Fire Nation back in Gran-Gran's youth, a fact that has largely killed the idea of women warriors in the tribe – and while she's very talented, she's completely untrained and very frustrated by it.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the flare that was released when Aang's iceberg broke open has been spotted by two of this season's antagonists: Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, and his uncle, General Iroh.

Zuko is your standard angry young (16 y.o.) man, out to prove himself by finding and capturing the Avatar (something generations of Firelords have striven to do). Iroh was once the crown prince of the Fire Nation and its greatest general, but he gave up both positions when his son was killed during the (failed) siege of the Earth Kingdom capitol of Ba Sing Se, which is why Zuko's father Ozai is now Firelord (incidentally, the difference in the brothers' ages – canonically, Ozai is 43 while Iroh is 64 – makes me wonder if the Fire Nation has either effective – but not foolproof – contraceptives or effective fertility treatments). Now Iroh travels the world with Zuko in disgraced retirement, doing his best to teach his nephew what he can and not giving a damn what anyone thinks as long as he has enough tea and roast duck, and he can see the sights, go shopping, and play Pai Sho.

I'd like to take the opportunity to discuss the brave, unusual thing the creators of Avatar have done here. Most of the time, when writers, cartoonists, filmmakers – storytellers in general – create a war story, they make the protagonists' side the "good guys," and completely dehumanize the "bad guys." Sometimes this is done by making the bad guys actually nonhuman – robots, aliens and Tolkien orcs, for example. Other times, they cover up the bad guys' faces so we don't connect with them as human beings as they're being massacred. After all, how bad did you really feel for the Storm Troopers on the Death Star? This is especially true in entertainment for kids. Here I'm thinking of the Disney Movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire, where villainous mooks wear gas masks for no other reason than they're going to die, and Disney doesn't want that to impinge on the Happy Ending. If nothing else, the bad guys are portrayed as entirely and irredeemably evil (except perhaps for a few with speaking roles who end up switching sides), who deserve what they get.

None of that happens here. It's true that the average Fire Nation soldier wears a face-concealing mask with their armor (more on that in the next post), but officers and the sailors on Zuko's ship do not (especially not on music night – it gets in the way of playing the soongi horn), and get this: They occasionally take them off. What's more, we get to meet civilians. Whole villages of 'em. Doing happy, harmless, human things like putting on a festival with puppets, firebending shows, and way-too-spicy food ("Ahh! Hot! Hot!" "Flaming fire flakes. Hot. What do you know." – Note that the wiseass who gives us the second line is Katara).

Of our main antagonists, Zuko is hot-tempered enough to challenge a man to an Agni Kai (a firebending duel) over the right to hunt the Avatar, but too merciful to deliver a finishing blast when he wins. Iroh is only along to help his nephew. The true bad guy of the season, Admiral Zhao (the man Zuko challenged) is more genuinely villainous – all ambition and self-destructive bad temper – but we meet equally unpleasant people in the "good guy" nations as well.

Meanwhile, the "good guy" Water tribes are macho, sexist cultures (the "civilized" Northern tribe to a degree that shocks even Sokka, and he's a Southern tribesman in full teenage macho-insecurity mode), while the Earth Kingdom has its share of Fire Nation collaborators – not to mention pirates and other folk who are unpleasant in their own right.

So what is it that makes the Fire Nation the bad guys? Well, the fact that those pleasant villages are colonies in the Earth Kingdom doesn't help. And we get a chilling hint of what those nice, friendly people have been brought up to believe when we see that the puppet show at the festival is about Firelord Ozai defending his people by incinerating an earthbender. It's not unlike the scene in Cabaret where the beautiful boys with their angelic voices are singing "The Future Belongs to Me" and it's all very moving and inspirational until you realize that they're Hitler Youth.

But it's only when we learn the story of that nasty burn scar over Zuko's left eye that we get a glimpse of the true rot at the heart of the Fire Nation: When he was thirteen, Zuko attended his first war meeting (Iroh let him in), and is horrified to hear his father's generals callously planning to throw away the lives of novice troops purely for the sake of drawing a stubborn group of earthbenders out into a vulnerable position. Zuko – speaking entirely out of turn – argues against it so vehemently that he ends up challenging one general to an Agni Kai. When the time of the duel rolls around, however, Zuko finds himself facing his own father. Apparently, Ozai felt that Zuko had shown him disrespect by speaking out of turn at the meeting. Zuko immediately starts begging for mercy and forgiveness; even if he was willing to fight his own father (and he's not), he couldn't win. Ozai proceeds to teach Zuko a lesson by burning his face and banishing him until he can return with the Avatar (as far as he knew at the time, never).

So, in sum, the Fire Nation are essentially good people who do terrible things to other, essentially good (but definitely flawed) people because they have bad-but-popular leaders who teach them to be afraid of those other good-but-flawed people. Hmm. That strikes a little close to home – as does the abused child who blames himself for the abuse, and who seeks desperately to earn the abusive parent's love. Kids could actually learn something real from this. Is that even legal?

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