The Spirit World (Winter Solstice, Part 1) (Book 1, Chapter 7; originally aired April 8, 2005)
Avatar Roku (Winter Solstice, Part 2) (Book 1, Chapter 8; originally aired April 15, 2005)
I wish I could say that I planned to publish these reviews on the Summer Solstice, but it’s just a happy coincidence. Happy Summer Solstice, anyway (especially sending this out to my pagan readers, yo)! Considering the heat that many of you have already suffered through this year, aren't you happy to know that finally, at long last, summer has officially arrived?
So, this is the first time that they’ve mentioned the spirit world, right? When Aang went into the Air Temple a few weeks back, there was some suggestion of abiding consciousness or extradimensional power, but I don’t think that any of this spirit world talk comes to bear on the show until the first of this week’s chapters. The lead Villager Of The Week mentions that the Avatar is the bridge between the natural world and the spirit world, and everyone seems to accept this as common knowledge. It surprised me on first watch, though. The Avatar must balance the four nations and maintaining this balance throughout the world, but I was unprepared for the metaphysical aspect. I recall asking myself (and not answering) whether he was also the spiritual leader of the Four Nations, a Dalai Lama of this world and the next who happens to also be Bruce Lee and he can do magic. With all of the things that Aang has to be, it’s a testament to the writing on this show that he doesn’t turn into a blank everyman personality defined only by his roles and prescribed tics.
Aang’s role as Bridge Boy isn’t a spiritual leader type role, though, because the spirit world is not a moral afterlife. Well, not exactly. There do appear to be deceased prior Avatars and their animal guides roaming about, but this appears to be more of an Avatar duty than a reward. (Side note: isn’t this also the first time that Aang has referred to Appa as his animal guide?). The spirit world is literally metaphysical: a second layer of reality populated by spirits. It seems to overlap the natural world, although there are other locales, too.
In the A-plot of “The Spirit World,” the Aang Gang stumbles onto the burnt remains of a forest. Aang feels that proecting this forest was his responsibility, and that he has failed. Katara tries to cheer him up by pelting him with acorns, because acorns mean that the forest will grow back. A man from the nearby Village Of The Week arrives and asks Aang to intervene with the Hei Bai (black-white) Spirit, who has been wrecking the town and stealing people for the last three nights. The Villagers believe that the spirit will destroy the town when the Winter Solstice arrives in three nights. The Hei Bai Spirit, when he arrives, is a huge, six-legged monster straight out of a Miyazaki film. Interestingly, the spirit stands on four legs and uses his tiny black arms to destroy the town and smack the Avatar. Maybe that’s abusing the meaning of the word “interestingly,” but it seems significant somehow.
The spirit snatches Sokka and runs off, and just as Aang catches up, both disappear. Aang wanders back to the VOTW, dejected, only to find that no one can see him because he is in the spirit world. He runs into a coyote voiced by Johnny Cash, and... Wait, no. Different spirit world. He has an encounter with a dragon, who spirits him away to Avatar Roku’s temple on a volcanic island in the Fire Nation. There he learns that there is a comet he needs to know about and that he will be able to speak with Avatar Roku about it on the Winter Solstice, which is, remember, the day after tomorrow. He returns to find his body meditating on the top of a large statue of a bear surrounded, in a neat-o design touch, by smaller bear statues.
His experience in the spirit world gives him the knowledge of how to communicate with spirits: a touch on the forehead. Armed with this knowledge and the knowledge of the acorns that Katara found, he’s able to soothe the angry Hei Bai Spirit back into the form of a gentle panda who releases all of his captives from the spirit world. All of this leads into the A-plot of “Avatar Roku,” in which the Aang Gang runs a blockade into the Fire Nation to talk with the prior Avatar. But first, the B-plot.
Just two weeks ago, I was mentioning that I found Book One’s depiction of most Fire Nation soldiers to be rather flat, and here we are, not even halfway through this season, with two episodes in a row that are blatantly sympathetic to a few Fire Nation charactersfor reasons that are complicated and personal. This is particularly interesting in “The Spirit World” because the Fire Nation characters in question are Zuko and Iroh, no longer outright villains when compared to a nasty piece of work like Zhao, but nevertheless still the primary foils for our heroes.
“The Spirit World” rather brilliantly shifts viewer sympathy into their camp by having sweet old Iroh captured by earthbenders while at his most vulnerable, seeming less like the fearsome force of nature known as The Dragon Of The West and more like a sleepy, nearly naked old man relaxing in a homemade hot tub. Iroh is the break point in Zuko’s will, and Zuko abandons his obsessive quest to go rescue his uncle with concern that is both touching and humanizing. It doesn’t hurt their cause that the earthbenders are planning to crush Iroh’s hands with a giant rock, but the show cleverly shows that the earthbenders have a point: Iroh is both dangerous and, from their point of view, a war criminal. Zuko and the viewers are the only ones who know him as a fount of wisdom. Iroh also must have a connection to the spirit world, as he sees Aang riding Roku’s dragon, which he takes a sign to break free of his captors.
After Zuko rescues Iroh in an excellently choreographed fight scene, we’re ready to jump right into “Avatar Roku.” The Aang Gang, with a little confirmation of their group mission, run a naval blockade (commanded by Zhao, who gets around a lot) to head to the island where Avatar Roku’s temple stands. Zuko follows against his uncle’s advice. That part seems to happen a lot, too.
When they arrive at the temple, they are attacked by the Fire Sages, the monks who live there. Luckily, they are cornered by one Fire Sage Shyu, who claims that he’s a friend and bows low to Aang. He tells Aang that in Roku’s time, the Fire Sages were loyal to the Avatar instead of the Fire Lord, but when no Avatar appeared after Roku’s death, the Fire Lord replaced them with monks loyal to him. Shyu, however, has a family tradition of bucking this trend, and he helps Aang to get into Roku’s inner sanctuary at great personal risk. His character has a small but vital role: to show that some Fire Nation citizens have awakened from the nightmare of their recent history.
Despite the arrival of Zuko and then Zhao to throw spanners into the works, Aang gets into Roku’s inner sanctuary. Roku sets the long arc of the series into motion by explaining that Sozin’s Comet is returning. The comet gives firebenders power, and Fire Lord Ozai, who is shown in an excellent silhouette looking more like a demon than a man, will be able to use that power to win the war for good. Aang has less than a year to master all of the elements and defeat the Fire Lord. Cue the horn section of dramatic intent! As a final gesture of awesomeness, Roku puts Aang into the Avatar State, allows Aang to assume his form, and destroys the temple with lava, which has the desired result of driving away Zhao and allowing both the Aang Gang and Zuko to escape, while also having the perhaps undesired result of leaving all of the Fire Sages on the hook for Shyu’s betrayal. Thanks for your help, Shyu! Hope the Fire Lord isn't as advertised.
We close on the Aang Gang flying into a huge moon while Katara, Sokka, and Momo comfort the pensive and insecure Aang. It is more or less an Avatar Pietà, a beautiful scene of concern for the little boy who really does have to save world. There’s so much left to do and such little time to do it.
- Horse chickens. Those things give me the creeps.
- How is it that Uncle Iroh can see Spirit Aang and Roku’s dragon? Is this ever explained?
- I feel sorta bad about the Aang Gang asking for supplies from the destroyed town. Can those Villagers Of The Week really spare food in the shape they’re in?
- “Did the definition of genius change in the last 100 years?
- Design wows: the doors to Avatar Roku’s inner sanctuary are as fantastic as those at the Southern Air Temple. There is also an amazing dragon statue in the atrium to the inner sanctuary.