The Real Deal: Season One

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; Part Two.]

So anyway, to pick up where we left off: Our Heroes have set off on their quest, with Our Villains right on their heels. Before we start off after them, I'd like to admit up front that this season talks the talk much better than it walks the walk. Katara holds her own quite well, but she's the only female Regular. Sure, some strong and vivid women make appearances (I'll get to them), but Aang, Sokka, Zuko and Iroh are there every damn episode.

Now. For some highlights of the trip that are particularly interesting for our purposes, in order of occurrence. Beware, spoilers abound…

Boy in the Iceberg – Three things I noticed upon re-watching that I forgot to mention in my introductory review:

1) Sokka, as the closest thing to a man and warrior in the village, is genuinely in charge, even to the point of banishing unwanted visitors on his own authority. Theoretically, Gran-Gran could veto his edicts, but she chooses to support his authority.

2) Katara and Aang go sledding together, and Katara glees: "I haven't done this since I was a kid!" Aang's reply: "You still are a kid!" He's wrong. In his time, she would have been a kid. But the world's at war, her mother is dead, and she hasn't been a kid for a long time. If you blink, you'll miss it, and if you think about it too much it'll break your heart.

3) We see a scene where Sokka and Zuko are both preparing for battle, creating a clear parallel between the two – another point where the idea of a "bad guy" nation is undermined. Both look faintly awkward in their battle dress – it's absurd that these teenage boys are at war, especially with each other – but it's still deadly serious. Sokka's spear and boomerang aren't toys, and Zuko's fire isn't a harmless lightshow.

The Southern Air Temple – Aang visits the place that used to be his home. The fact that it's an empty ruin is the first thing to really bring it home to him that the world has changed. When he discovers the skeleton of his adoptive father figure surrounded by the skeletons of Fire Nation soldiers, an important aspect of his relationship with Katara is established.

You see, when an Avatar needs an extra power boost, they can enter the Avatar State. This is a state wherein they can tap into the power of all of their previous incarnations. An experienced, fully-trained Avatar (i.e. not Aang) can enter it at will, though they tend to do so sparingly, while someone like Aang enters it involuntarily when they're seriously endangered or deeply upset – as one might become, for example, upon finding the corpse of one's murdered father.

Now, it was established in the first episode that Katara's relationship with Aang is going to be at least partially motherly – as is her relationship with just about everyone since she took that role on herself when her mother died (whereas Aang is one of the few people who can get her to open up, have fun and be a kid again) – but it's at this point we learn that Katara is pretty much the only person in the world who can get through to Aang and calm him down when he's in the Avatar State.

"A woman acting as the emotional anchor, calming the hero down when he gets all upset? A man teaching an uptight woman how to loosen up and have fun? Woo hoo, extra hoo!" I hear you say. And you're not wrong to say it. Still, it's a bit more impressive when the man is bringing joy to a victim of a world war and the woman in question walks through a berserk demigod's personal tornado to deliver that cooldown hug (though in this case she actually talks him down – she knows what it feels like to lose a parent, after all). It's all about context.

The Warriors of Kyoshi – This is one of the two episodes where the series confronts sexism directly, rather than simply proving it wrong by example. We open with Our Heroes riding along on Appa, just killing time as they fly over featureless ocean. Katara is mending Sokka's pants while Aang does what he's going to spend the rest of the episode doing: trying to impress Katara. Sokka tells Aang to leave Katara alone: girls need to concentrate when they're sewing. Katara demands to know what her being a girl has to do with sewing, and Sokka – missing the warning signs – explains that certain people are better at certain things: girls are better at sewing, while men are better at fighting and hunting. Katara responds by saying "You're right! Look what a good job I did!" and throwing his half-mended pants back in his face.

They stop at the Earth Kingdom island of Kyoshi because Aang wants to (show off for Katara) ride their famous Elephant Koi. Yes, these are forty-foot-long koi. Just go with it. Unfortunately, the bay where he found the elephant koi also contains the Unagi, whose name must mean "Sea Serpent Big Enough to Make a Friggin' Blue Whale Piss Its Knickers." Aang's surfboard becomes lunch, and he just barely escapes the same fate. Our Heroes have just decided that the giant sea monster is a good reason to leave when they're attacked and captured by the titular Kyoshi Warriors – much to Sokka's disgust when their blindfolds are removed and it turns out the Warriors are all teenage girls.

The Gaang is accused of being Fire Nation spies, but Aang is able to prove their innocence by proving himself to be the Avatar. This has even more of an impact on Kyoshi than it might have elsewhere, as the island was created by, lived on, and named for Avatar Kyoshi, the second-to-last Avatar before Aang.

Aang becomes an instant celebrity, which of course goes instantly to his head. He spends the rest of the episode milking this, trying to either impress Katara or make her jealous. He may have some success at the latter, but it could just be annoyance. She even has to rescue him from the Unagi when one of his stunts goes awry. In the end, of course, it's when he does something selfless that she's finally impressed.

While all this is going on, Sokka is learning more about women than he has in his whole life prior to this, and getting the sexism knocked out of him in the process.

Still nursing his wounded pride, he goes to the Warriors' dojo, apologizes for interrupting their "dance class," and asks where a man can go to get a workout around here. The leader of the Warriors, Suki (you'll learn to love Suki. Quickly.) tells him this is the place, and apologizes for attacking companions of the Avatar. Quite all right, Sokka tells her – they're just lucky he didn't mistake them for an actual threat. Like men.

Suki adds the part that even he isn't jackass enough to speak aloud – of course they're lucky, they wouldn't have stood a chance against a big, strong man like Sokka (of course he agrees) – then asks him to teach them some moves. He doesn't take the sparring match seriously at first, but even when he does, it doesn't help. He ends up on the floor, hogtied in a manner that both we and the Warriors find extremely amusing.

Some time later he comes back, having had time to ponder his humiliation. He confronts a (noticeably less patient) Suki again, and…gets down on his knees, apologizes, and begs her to teach him.

She agrees, on the grounds that he follow their traditions…all of their traditions. He whines a little about the battle-dress and face paint, but he feels better about it when she points out that they're actually a military uniform and warpaint (still wilts a little when Aang pops in and says "nice dress," though). She spends the rest of the episode giving him one-on-one – no doubt remedial – lessons, and he learns quickly. It must've been a bonding experience, because that's my best explanation of the last scene.

Zuko is attacking Kyoshi (imagine that – he found them in a place that's announcing to the world that the Avatar is there), and the Gaang decides to flee. Not because they're losing the fight, but because the fight itself is burning the village down. Before they leave, Sokka apologizes to Suki for treating her like a girl, instead of a warrior. Suki agrees that she's a warrior…but she's also a girl. She kisses him, then runs off into battle.

And to his credit, Sokka never has a problem making a connection between the two again.

The King of Omashu – For those of you who have a particular concern about ageism. Let's just say that elemental bending must be very good for the health.

Imprisoned – Ever seen or read a story where the hero sees a bad situation and just has to interfere, because hey: they're the hero, it's in their nature? And the interference only makes matters worse at first, so the Hero gets more deeply involved trying to fix their fuckup, a few Inspiring SpeechesTM are made, but mostly ignored until one – just one – person finally Believes, and that makes all the difference? Of course you have. Well, Katara gets one of those here. Not Aang, Katara. It won't be the last time, either.

An important note: the reason the earthbenders are helpless on the Fire Nation prison ship is because it's made of metal. Earthbenders can do nothing with metal. Remember that; it's important later.

Also, I'd like to introduce Ms. Random Background Female P.O.W. Fighting For Her Freedom. I think you'll like each other.

Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice Part 2) – Not much to look at here through a political lens. Aang meets his spirit-mentor, Avatar Roku, who warns him that Sozin's Comet (the comet that enhanced the firebenders' powers and allowed them cause so much damage with their first strike 100 years ago) will be returning by the end of summer. That'll be important later.

The Waterbending Scroll – And this week, it's finally Katara's turn to be the asshole. Had to happen, if the characters are supposed to be humans. Personally, I like how even Katara's turn as asshole was handled in a non-stereotypical way. It's not about jealousy over a guy or rivalry with the head cheerleader. No, for Katara, it's all about her desperation to learn her superpowered martial art.

We open with Aang freaking out. He has to learn all four elements – a task that usually takes years – by the end of the summer. To calm him down, Katara offers to teach him what she can about waterbending, an offer he eagerly accepts. Five minutes later, he knows everything she does, better than she knows it. Now, he's the Avatar and he's already mastered a sympathetic element, so perhaps Katara should have expected this, but I still can't blame her for being annoyed.

Not long after, the Gaang is shopping in town, and they come upon a pirate ship selling their stolen goods on the wharfside – stolen goods which include a rare, genuine scroll of waterbending forms. Unfortunately, Our Heroes don't have the two hundred gold pieces required to purchase it…which is how they end up fleeing town, pirates hot on their heels, with the scroll in Katara's pocket. Sokka is not amused.

When they get back to camp, Katara immediately wants to try the simplest of the forms: the single water whip. Once she's done that, she promises, she'll help Aang learn the various forms on the scroll. After all, that's why she stole it, so the Avatar could learn waterbending, yep yep yep! That's the ticket. She has trouble getting it, so Aang steps forward, shows her how it's done, and makes some suggestions.


Katara finally snaps and gives Aang a rather long and quite nasty dressing-down that essentially translates to: "Waterbending is part of my identity and I work really hard at it, but I still can't get this. How dare you show up here and do it so effortlessly?"

As soon as the words leave her mouth, she's sorry for them, and she promptly overcompensates by giving the scroll to Aang and swearing that it's all his now, she wants no part of it.

Yeah. That's gonna last.

Once the boys are asleep, she takes the scroll and sneaks to the riverside, determined to get the water whip right. Unfortunately, the splashing and shouts of frustration catch the attention of the pirates, who are still following them, as well as Prince Zuko, who has teamed up with the pirates.

The rest can be summed up in these lines:
Katara: "This is all my fault."

Aang: "No, Katara. It's not your fault."

Iroh: "Actually, it kind of is."
They escape, of course, and even get to keep the scroll. No Disney-esque finger-shaking about how Stealing Is Always Bad (in fact, the lesson learned is: "Stealing is bad…unless it's from pirates.").

You know, if they keep giving these episodes where Katara shows traditional Hero flaws, which result in the sort of complications that only heroes usually have to deal with, which are overcome with a combination of cleverness, kickassery and teamwork, we might actually start to think the writers take Katara seriously as a hero in her own right, rather than as the traditional girly sidekick/rescue subject.

Jet – Katara's first crush. Too bad he turns out to be a terrorist. There's three things I really appreciate about this episode: 1) Sokka is arrogantly wrong often enough to make the idea that he's wrong again plausible (although of course he's vindicated in the end); 2) Jet is charming, charismatic, and always knows the right thing to say. Extremely convincing – to someone who wasn't there to see him in action; and 3) Aang got foxed just as completely as Katara. Add it up, and it just means Our Heroes gave their trust to the wrong person because they had every reason to believe he was a hero himself. Leave them out, and this story becomes like too many others like it, where Katara's silly little lady-brain is too overwhelmed by her foolish emotions to see the obvious truth.

The Great Divide – Widely agreed to be the worst episode in the series and largely ignored by fans and writers alike, there are only two interesting things in this episode: 1) We finally see Aang, in his role as the Avatar, acting as a negotiator and peacemaker. We'd only heard about it before. 2) The leader of one of the Earth Kingdom tribes is a woman. No sign of a male co-leader. No one thinks this is unusual. Even more interesting, she's the leader of the "Slob" tribe (the rival tribe consists of extreme neat-freaks).

And what's this? Why, hello Random Tribeswomen Defending Yourselves and Your Tribespeople from Monsters! I met your cousins back in Imprisoned.

The Blue Spirit – Sokka and Katara fall ill in this episode, and Aang has to seek out an herbalist (a somewhat dotty older woman) for help. He's captured by Zhao, and needs to be rescued by Zuko (who will never return from his exile if he isn't the one to capture the Avatar). Aang takes the (very brief) opportunity to talk to Zuko about his Fire Nation friend from 100 years ago, Kuzon. Zuko is violently disinterested, but we get yet another reminder that the Fire Nation isn't evil by nature.

While he has Aang prisoner, Zhao gives a victory speech to his assembled troops, whom he addresses as "the sons and daughters of Fire." Until that point, I'd assumed that the bulky armor and face-concealing masks hid only men, but that drove the point home – once again, by simple example, without fanfare – that it was just that: my assumption. Apparently the Fire Nation sees no reason to keep someone who can shoot fire out of her fingertips out of combat just because she has a uterus.

The Fortuneteller – Katara gets to be the goofball this week. Our Heroes come across a Random Peasant being attacked by a platypus bear (yes, platypus bear. Just go with it. You will also meet turtle-seals, turtle-ducks, rabbaroos, tigerdillos…it's a running gag.) who's ducking and dodging paw-swipes without the slightest sign of concern (thus making himself the most awesome Random Peasant in the history of the world). You see, "Auntie Wu" told him that his journey today would be safe, so obviously, this platypus bear won't hurt him! And it doesn't.

He takes the Gaang to his village, which is apparently ruled by "Auntie Wu" – the titular fortuneteller. Now, Auntie Wu is a good person, a good leader, and even a good fortuneteller (many of her prophecies create the conditions for their own fulfillment, Matrix Oracle-style, like the confident peasant in the woods who ducked and dodged instead of panicked and ran; still, her reading with Aang reveals genuine magical ability). None of that is the problem. The problem is that everyone is totally dependent on her counsel, ignoring anything that contradicts her predictions.

Katara quickly joins them in this, to the point of asking Auntie Wu what she should have for breakfast ("Aw, but I don't like mangoes."). This problem becomes much more serious when the villagers (though not, to her credit, Katara) ignore the signs of a volcanic eruption because Auntie Wu predicted they would be safe from volcanic eruption this year. Which they are, once they organize and dig trenches around the village to divert the lava.

Oh, hey! Glad to meet you, Random Peasant Women Defending Your Homes! I think I've met some of your relatives!

Bato of the Water Tribe – It's Aang's turn to be the jerk this week, but that's not what we're worried about here. Our interest is in the title character, who Our Heroes find at an Earth Kingdom abbey, recovering from a serious wound. The reason we're interested is because he seems to be evidence that grown men among the Southern Water Tribe aren't quite as chauvinistic – or at least not quite as jerkass about it – as an anxious adolescent like Sokka.

Bato is Sokka and Katara's father's best friend (incidentally, I believe this is when we learn that Dad's given name is Hakoda), and upon seeing them he realizes that Sokka is well past due for the rite of passage known as "Ice Dodging," a test of courage and sailing skill. They're too far north for ice floes, but they're able to improvise something suitable with a section of shoreline that has jagged rocks and tricky currents, and Bato doesn't think twice about giving Katara a key role in her brother's ritual.

On the other hand, we hear nothing about Katara getting her turn at the helm in a few years, nor do we hear anything to suggest that everyone involved in an Ice Dodging rite has made the rite of passage to the same degree. Is Ice Dodging a general rite of passage, or is it a Rite of Manhood? If so, does the Southern Water Tribe have a Rite of Womanhood? I'm not sure I want to know, as I'm terribly afraid it might involve an igloo version of a Red Tent.

Oh, and there's a flashback where Dad tells Sokka "Being a man is knowing where you're needed the most, and for you right now, that's here, protecting your sister." Telling a sad boy being left behind by his father what he needs to hear (with a genuinely important lesson involved), or patriarchal Water Tribe belief that a (admittedly untrained) martial artist/magic user needs protection from an ordinary boy a mere two years her senior?

There's a second plot to this episode, but it's one where I'm afraid neither the writers nor the characters do very well for themselves, at least not by our standards. After catching a chance look at her in action, Zuko and Iroh hire the (fan favorite) bounty hunter June to help them hunt down the Avatar.

Now, I'm sure that, if asked, the creators could come up with some kind of handwave about how all that Baroness-style black leather that June is sporting is practical somehow, but let's not kid ourselves. In any case, June's advantage for the task is her riding animal, a mole-like creature called a Shirshu, which (though blind) can track anyone anywhere in the world by smell, and which has a paralyzing sting in its tongue.

Upon confronting Our Heroes, the hunters do well at first – it takes several dozen stings to put Appa down, but down he eventually goes – but then Katara waterbends several casks of perfume all over everything, "blinding" the shirshu and sending it into a stinging frenzy. Zuko and June are both paralyzed. Iroh (who had been hitting on June from the first and informed in no uncertain terms that the attraction wasn't mutual) merely pretends to be so he can enjoy the experience of having June lay across him.


I suspect it never even occurred to the writers that someone might read this scene like I just did. Surely Iroh is too clownish and harmless for anyone to see him as threatening in any way! And usually they'd be right – we've only caught the barest glimpses of the badassery that Iroh will later display at this point – but this cartoon was done in anime style. The white-bearded old guy is never harmless. And even if he was, she's paralyzed. This is what I meant when I said this season talks the talk better than it walks the walk.

The Deserter – a very Aang-centric episode. Aang finds his first firebending teacher, a deserter from (the high command of) the Fire Nation military named Jeong-Jeong. Unfortunately, Aang gets impatient and careless (even Sokka is held up as an example of concentration), and ends up burning Katara's hands (which were held up to shield her face, so it could have been even worse). She puts her hands in a nearby river to soothe them, and discovers that she can use her waterbending to heal (a talent Jeong-Jeong greatly envies). This becomes important later.

The Northern Air Temple – This one's for those of you who were interested in how a show about superhuman martial artists treats the differently-abled. Here's how: we meet Teo, a 13-year-old Earth Kingdom boy, in mid-air: his father, a genius mechanist, has built a glider attachment for his (Teo's) wheelchair. He gives Aang a serious run for his money in an impromptu flying competition (something that annoys Aang quite a bit, as the kid isn't even an airbender), volunteers to act as Our Heroes' tour guide throughout most of the rest of the episode, then takes his own place in the defenses when the Fire Nation shows up. No one even thinks to suggest that such an able flyer should retreat into the Temple just because his legs don't work. Personally, I think this all adds up to a better lesson than the Very Special Episode where Kim Possible learned that the kid in the wheelchair can take care of himself just fine.

The Waterbending Master – This is the second episode where the show confronts sexism directly, and it's much more serious than a teenage boy's macho posturing this time.

Our Heroes finally arrive at the Northern Water Tribe, and it's everything they hoped it would be: dozens, maybe hundreds of waterbenders. Grand buildings sculpted out of ice. A waterbending-operated gate in the seawall with a lock beyond it; waterbending-powered boats traversing the canals; even exhibitions of waterbending as dance/performance art.

Then they meet Master Pakku, the tribe's waterbending teacher, and it all goes to hell.

Pakku is glad – well, willing – to teach Aang, but refuses to teach Katara. It's against the customs of the Northern Water Tribe to teach women how to fight – get your ass over to the Healing Huts with the rest of the girls and learn how to use your waterbending in a proper womanly way.

Aang is ready to walk out over this, but Katara doesn't let him. The world needs the Avatar at full strength.

Katara does, in fact, go to the Healing Huts – any waterbending she can learn is better than none – and she does, in fact, learn a great deal. After class, she speaks with the (much nicer than Pakku) teacher, who asks her who the lucky boy is. Apparently, the heirloom necklace that Katara wears as a keepsake of her mother is a betrothal necklace. What's more, the teacher recognizes it: it belonged to her childhood friend Kanna…Katara's Gran-Gran.

At Sokka's suggestion, Aang starts teaching Katara whatever he learns from Pakku during the day. Unfortunately, Pakku catches them at it, and considers it such an insult to himself, his teachings, and his entire culture that he refuses to teach Aang anymore. Think about that a minute. He'll leave the world's agent of balance, the only real hope against the Fire Nation, untrained because Aang dared to teach a girl combat waterbending.

They appeal to the Chief, but he either can't or won't order Pakku to teach Aang against his will…unless Katara gives a suitably humble apology. She's about to, but Pakku's smugness finally pushes her over the edge, and she challenges him to a fight instead. He ignores her challenge…her insults…her impugning his manhood…but when she smacks him in the back of the head with a water whip, she finally gets her fight.

She loses, of course. What did you expect? She's enormously talented – a prodigy, really – but he's enormously talented, too, and he's been doing this his whole life. It's like a fourth-level character with all 18s in the relevant stats going up against a 20th-level character, or a 14-year-old Michael Jordan going up against whoever was the NBA MVP that year. Thing is, to judge by Pakku's reactions – and those of the watching crowd – no one has ever given him this much of a fight, let alone some half-taught teenage girl. She actually puts him on the defensive once or twice.

When the fight is over, he notices Katara's necklace lying on the snow, it having been knocked off during the fight. Like the healing teacher, he recognizes it immediately: he made it himself sixty years ago, for the great love of his life. Katara – softie that she is – immediately offers her sympathies, and suggests that Kanna left because she refused to let her birth tribe's restrictive traditions (in this case an arranged marriage) rule her life.

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Master Pakku of the Northern Water Tribe: Poster Child for Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too.

And he seems to realize it, too, because the next morning we see Aang and Katara both running into his class, where he asks what they think they're doing…getting there so late.

The Siege of the North – This is the epic finale of the first season, and everybody – male and female, young and old – kicks truly astounding amounts of ass (well, Katara only kicks one ass, but it's an extremely challenging ass. Quality instead of quantity). But there are only a couple points that are of interest to us here.

First is the follow-up to the Pakku storyline. The first thing we see in this episode is Katara taking one of her classmates down with a cocky grin on her face. No, his wasn't the high-quality ass I was talking about. Then we see that she's done much the same to the entire rest of the class. Pakku steps up and – after confirming that no one else wants to face her again – praises her as the greatest student he's ever taught, a fine example of what hard work and fierce determination can do. Give the man credit: once you convince him he's wrong, he changes wholeheartedly. He then goes on to say that raw talent isn't enough, with a significant glance at Aang, who's sitting off to the side playing with Momo.

This establishes a pattern for the rest of the series: Aang will always be more powerful by far than Katara (as the Avatar is always more powerful by far than every other bender on the planet), but she will always be the more skilled, because she works harder at it. Indeed, from the beginning of next season on, she's his teacher.

The other thing we need to look at is a subplot that I neglected in last episode that comes to the fore in this episode: Sokka's whirlwind romance with Princess Yue.

Now, for one thing, it's a bit odd that the Northern Water Tribe even has a princess. Sokka and Katara are the children of the chief of the Southern Water Tribe, and they're neither treated nor addressed as royalty. They're honored guests in the Northern Water Tribe, heroes (or anonymous travelers) in the Earth Kingdom and "filthy peasants" in the Fire Nation, but wherever they may go, they're commoners. So whence comes this "princess" business?

Anyway, Yue is every inch the proper, well-behaved young lady that the Northern Water Tribe could wish for in a princess. That's the problem. Sokka, with his goofy charm and his eagerness to – y'know – actually spend time and do activities (yes, that's exactly what he invites her to do) with her wins her over quite quickly.

Thing is, she's already engaged to a Grade A doucehnozzle named Hahn – arranged marriage. When we – and Sokka – meet Hahn, he's talking about all the girls he's "courted" (judging by the leer and the tone of voice, he's not boasting about how many bouquets of flowers he's bought over the years), but that Yue has the best "perks." Sokka, as we'd all like to do at that moment, promptly clocks him. Be that as it may, Yue won't break off her engagement (if she even can)…it's all for the good of her people.

No, don't ask me why her people need her to marry such an asshole. The best I can come up with is that Chief Arnook isn't a strong leader (he certainly doesn't have the personal force of Hakoda of the Southern Tribe), and needs a political alliance with Hahn's family to prevent a schism in the tribe. Or maybe the Northern Tribe would be demoralized if their princess broke their traditions so.

Sokka is horrified at the very idea. Apparently, patriarchal as the Southern Water Tribe is, marriage is still about love instead of duty, and is freely chosen by those involved.

Man. You're talking something serious in the way of sexism when you manage to shock a Water Tribesman, aren't you?

In the end, the situation is rendered moot. Yue is a quiet girl, not powerful and brash like Katara, nor highly-trained and professional like Suki, but she ends up doing a service for her tribe far greater than a political marriage could ever have been.

Which brings us to the end of this leg of our trip. Join me next time for Season 2, and the introduction of all the female characters who bring some actual balance to this show – in particular, everybody's favorite mini-Starbuck and the most terrifying 14-year-old you will ever meet.

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