The Avatar State (Book 2, Chapter 1; originally aired March 17, 2006)
The Cave Of Two Lovers (Book 2, Chapter 2; originally aired March 24, 2006)
Book One ended with a turn toward the mythic and spiritual (which is fitting for a season based on the unpredictable ebb and flow of water) but Book Two, subtitled “Earth,” quickly places the Aang Gang back on solid ground. After saying their goodbyes to Pakku and the other waterbenders who are journeying to the South Pole, the Aang Gang flies to an Earth Kingdom outpost under the command of General Fong (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim). Fong’s mission is to escort the Gang to Omashu for Aang to start learning earthbending with King Bumi, but Fong has other plans. He has heard about Aang’s transformation into a giant fish monster at the North Pole, and he is impatient to end the war by harnessing the power of the Avatar State. Aang is apprehensive about trying to defeat the Fire Lord before mastering the four elements and with good cause: pretty much every responsible adult that he has encountered has affirmed that this is the proper way for him to defeat Ozai. He has also had a dream about the Avatar State that indicates how dangerous it is. However, Fong is able to manipulate Aang easily by showing him the hurt soldiers in his infirmary.
This is where we get into more earthbound concerns. Fong doesn’t want to use Aang for evil or selfish reasons but to end a 100-year war that has killed a countless number of people. He knows about Aang’s access to power and wants to learn how to harness that power to end the conflict as soon as possible. What general wouldn’t want to explore this option, especially given the information that Fong has? For most of the episode, he hasn’t seen the Avatar State personally, and even when he finally brings it about, he is still trying to make it fit into his plans after Aang has shown how unpredictable the Avatar State can be. In short, Fong is a fairly good and responsible leader, even if he does tend to see Aang as a big gun and the rest of the Aang Gang more in terms of collateral than as human assets. However, his plans backfire, and that’s pretty much the last we see of him. I half expected that he would chase the gang into the next episode, but nope.
Meanwhile, Azula finds Iroh and Zuko right away. As those of you watching for the first time will see, it is a bit of an understatement to label her clever, evil, and utterly ruthless because those words fail to capture her particular genius. We get our first glimpse at how scary Azula can be as she casually threatens to murder the captain of her ship for delaying her arrival over a little thing like the movement of the sea. Upon finding Zuko, she immediately hones in on his obvious raw need and tells him exactly what he wants to hear: Ozai has forgiven him and wants him back home. Zu-zu falls for it hook, line, and sinker, and his face becomes, momentarily, a boy’s face. Hilariously, given what is about to happen, Azula demands that Iroh and Zuko thank her. Despite Iroh’s misgivings, Zuko wants to believe in this dream so badly that he makes to board the ship, even though later events will show that he clearly knows who Azula is and what she is capable of. A fortunate errant word tips them off (and once again, I want to contrast how lucky Zuko is with how much self-pity he carries around), and Iroh rather easily takes down a dockful of Imperial Guards while Zuko foolishly and angrily attacks his sister. Azula is never far from her worst impulses, and she starts to pull lightning from the air, meaning to kill Zuko right away. Luckily for Zuko (see?), Iroh is swifter, and he demonstrates his rather breathtaking ability to redirect lightning.
Both of the episodes we’re covering this week are heavy on funny quotes and moments. (“Physical humor” seems like the wrong term for a cartoon show.) Fong’s attempts to bring out the Avatar State are particularly funny, from the revelation that “chi-enhancing” is the same as “over-caffeinating” to the Sokka-and-Momo Follies to the realization that combining all four elements into one makes mud. Fong finally brings on the Avatar State by burying Katara alive, which is yes, an extreme action to take on a 14-year-old kid, but also effective. Earthbenders are nothing if not practical. The Avatar State, naturally, is devastating for the fort, and Spirit Aang is whisked away by Roku to learn that the Avatar State allows him to draw on the learning and power of all previous Avatars (meaning, I assume, that the state has grown in power over time), but if Aang is killed while in the state, the Avatar cycle will be broken. It is no accident that we are opening this season with more information about the Avatar State.
The episode ends with Zuko and Iroh cutting off their topknots. Even without an explanation, the implication is clear: The topknots are a sign of Fire Nation royalty, and Zuko and Iroh are on the run. Kudos for the wordless storytelling here.
And now we turn to: hippies! With the oblivious (and clearly high) Chong and his band of free-flowing, short term memory-averse nomads, “The Cave of Two Lovers” is one of the clearest instances of drug humor inserted into a kid show since Sid and Marty Krofft were handing out the brown acid in Lidsville back in the early ’70s. It’s hard not to just quote every line out of Chong’s mouth. Chong is, incidentally, voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, who typically voices Momo and Appa, so let’s give him some credit as well as the script by first-time Avatar writer Josh Hamilton. The editing and direction (by Lauren McMullan, natch) is top-notch, as well. The story is simple: After stumbling onto the Chong Gong, the Aang Gang finds that the Fire Nation has set up a blockade on the mountain to Omashu, thanks to one of the greatest smash cuts on this show. The Chong Gong knows of a secret tunnel under the mountain carved out by earthbending lovers many years before. They only gradually reveal that the tunnel is actually a cursed labyrinth. The Aang Gang goes through the tunnel, becoming separated along the way. Aang and Katara learn about the origins of earthbending (and possible share a kiss in the dark), while Sokka and the Chongos learn that badger moles really like music.
In our B-plot, Zuko and Iroh are both really, really bad at being fugitives living off of the land. Iroh makes tea from a flower that could either be an exquisite and rare flavor or poison. Turns out it’s poison. After deciding that possible death at the hands of the Earth Kingdom is preferable to dealing with Azula, they seek help from a local Earth village. The young woman who cares for Iroh is delightfully hospitable and invites them back to her house for dinner. She tries to bond with Zuko over her burn scars. Zuko rewards her kindness by stealing their horse/bird thingy.
That’s all fairly straightforward, but there’s just so much fun in this script that it is among my favorite Avatar episodes. I love how the fat guy in Chong’s gaggle, Moku, becomes the Jerry right away, taking blame for things going wrong and getting special attention despite saying very little of consequence. I love how the wordless couple with the Chongos leap up to do the hippie doggie-paddle dance when he plays one of his song. I love how Moku lazily taps his drum without moving any unnecessary muscles. I love the artwork in the story of the lovers. I like how Chong is not exactly wrong about the importance of the journey over the rush to the destination, but it’s a point that is doomed to be lost on Sokka. I love how at the beginning of “The Avatar State,” Sokka wants Pakku’s blessing but gets only a pat on the shoulder, while at the end of “The Cave Of Two Lovers,” Sokka cannot wait to be done with Chong, but Chong gives him a big affectionate hug. And I like the cliffhanger where we end, this being one of the few Avatar episodes that does not wrap up neatly.
Stray observations and quotable quotes:
- Pakku’s indifference to Sokka: Ha!
- “Who knew floating on a piece of driftwood for three weeks with no food or water and sea vultures waiting to pluck out your liver could make one so tense?”
- “Why would he banish you if he didn’t care? Oooh, that came out wrong, didn’t it?”
- Azula’s imperial destroyer is clearly the way that the royal family travels in style. Heads and tails above Zuko’s old Dinghy of Doom.
- The Aang Gang rubbing their butts while Fong welcomes them: excellent touch.
- “Mighty Katara? I like that.”
- “Good horse… bird... thingy!”
- There are worlds of greatness in Zuko’s monochrome flashback to childhood while Iroh pats him on the shoulder and says that family sticks together.
- Aang: “You guys are nomads? That’s great! I’m a nomad.” Chong: “Hey! Me too.” Aang: “I know. You just said that.” Chong: “Oh. [To Sokka] Niiice underwear.”
- “I hate to be the wet blanket here, but since Katara is busy, I guess it’s up to me.”
- “I forget the next couple lines but then it goes... SECRET TUNNEL! SECRET TUNNEL! THROUGH THE MOUNTAIN! SECRET, SECRET, SECRET, SECRET TUNNEL!”
- “Secret Love Cave. Let’s go.”
- “Oh yeah, and die. Hey, I just remembered the rest of that song. AND DIEEEEE!”
- Chong: “The tunnels, they’re a-changing. It must be the curse! I knew we shouldn’t have come down here.” Sokka: “Right. If we’d only listened to you.”
- Aang: “Just like the legend says, we let love lead the way.” Sokka: “Really? We let huge ferocious beasts lead our way.”
- Chong: “Nobody react to what I’m about to tell you: I think that kid might be the Avatar.” Sokka: [face slap.]
- “The journey was long and annoying , but now you get to see what it’s really about: the destination.”