The Blue Spirit (Book 1, Chapter 13; originally aired June 17, 2005)
The Fortuneteller (Book 1, Chapter 14; originally aired September 23, 2005)
It is a testament to The Blue Spirit’s master storycraft that in three separate viewings this past week, my notes trail off each time at the moment when Zuko sneaks into the prison wearing the Blue Spirit mask. If I were employed by some of the other sites out there, I could simply point out that what follows is nothing but awesomeness and leave it at that. However, at the AV Club, we have higher standards. Therefore I will point out that what follows does indeed strike awe in this viewer, but I will also tell you why: the choreography and direction during the escape sequence is both believable for this world and madly inventive and the reveal that the Blue Spirit is actually Zuko leads to one of the most emotionally rich moment of the series to date.
But let’s go back and talk about the episode first. Notice that The Blue Spirit originally aired in mid-June 2005 and The Fortuneteller not until late September 2005. Those of you who were watching in real time: how could you stand it? Season one started in February 2005, aired 2-3 episodes a month until June, and then took three months off and did not conclude until early December. That’s a cruel schedule. What’s more, each season does the same, taking a long hiatus shortly after the mid-point. It does explain why each season hits a crescendo in the middle and then slows down before building back up to the end. The punch of The Blue Spirit must have made those months without new episodes seem like an eternity.
Fortunately for those of us who came later, we can enjoy our season in Big Gulp size. That’s a one part blessing, one part curse fact of life in this mediated Internet age. Those who get in on the ground floor of some great new entertainment have only their bragging rights in later years, and those are worth almost nothing. Everyone who arrives late to the party has the benefit of being able to mainline this creative series (or album or whatever) that originally trickled out drop by drop. Except, of course, if there are no original fans, there is no trickle of creativity. Instant access: it ruins us even as it saves us.
Half-drunken musing aside, we open with a hawk flying over a Fire Nation prison. Down below the Yu Yin archers are demonstrating their considerable prowess. Their commanding officer, voiced by a man who used to play bass in Foghat, points out that they can not only pin a fly to a tree from a hundred yards away without killing it, but they can also nail the lead to “Strutter” in high heels while blind drunk. (That’s two KISS jokes in two weeks, y’all! One more, and I get a free copy of Music From "The Elder".)
Up above the Archers in Satan’s Service, their commander is refusing to release them to Zhao (he calls Zhao’s hunt for the Avatar a vanity project) when the hawk from the first scene arrives with a notice that Zhao has been promoted to Admiral. Oops! Zhao’s stupid vanity project is now an important mission. Pan up to a guy in a horrible blue demon mask. I like the reveal here, but considering that Zuko will be on his ship somewhere that doesn’t seem too nearby after the next scene, it seems like an Ain’t It Cool moment. Perhaps we should pretend that it didn’t happen.
So, anyway, Sokka is sick, which makes sense after the events of The Storm. Katara starts coughing, too. Aang runs really, really fast (something we haven’t seen to this point) to a crazy local herbalist, who tells him that he needs to find some frozen wood frogs for his friends to suck on. As Aang leaves, the Yu Yin archers, whose face paint looks a little more Batman in this light, ambush him. Despite his powerful airbending juju, the archers soon capture young Aang as he stops to pick up some frozen frogs. There is a wonderful scene reminiscent of the shower of arrows scene found in many a wushu flick, but Aang then blows away the arrows and asks if someone dropped the one pinning his leg to the ground.
In the meantime, Zuko is frustrated, and Uncle Iroh, unperturbed by the news of Zhao’s promotion, encourages him not to give up hope.
After his capture, Aang is chained between two pillars in an upper floor of the Fire Nation prison. Zhao arrives to taunt him about the genocide of his people. Not cool, man. After a brief interlude to establish that Momo still doesn’t understand people language, there’s a lovely and poetic overhead shot of Aang in a circle chained to the pillars.
Here’s where my notes start to run out. The Blue Spirit infiltrates the prison, where Zhao is giving a speech about the superiority of the Fire Nation to the assembled troops. In my favorite scene, the four guards outside of Aang’s cell are baffled by the half-frozen frogs that suddenly crawl out from under the door just before Zuko takes them out in ones and twos. The scene is shot and paced like something out of a horror film: as each goes to investigate the noises around the corner, there are strange sounds and flashes of fire, and no one ever comes back.
Which leads us to the extraordinarily well-assembled escape sequence. I don’t mean that it’s good for Avatar. I mean that it’s good for cinema. The angles are composed for maximum tension, the editing is excellent, and it’s easy to follow the action at all times. Well done, Avatar! I should note here that this episode was directed by Dave Filoni, who handles many of more important episodes for the show (thus far he’s directed the first two, the mediocre Imprisoned, and the excellent Jet), and written by show creators Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko.
After Aang and the Blue Spirit (we’re not going to call him Zuko just yet) are cut down while climbing a rope up a wall, Aang returns from sure escape to rescue the embattled Blue Spirit. Aang uses a staff to helicopter them to an outer wall. The bamboo ladders that the Fire Nation uses are like nothing I’ve ever seen before, with the soldiers bending them (not magic-bending, but just regular bending) to push one of their number up to the top of the ladder. However, Aang’s use of them as stilts is even more surprising and delightful. But then there’s the kicker. When Zhao tells his men to capture the Avatar alive, the Blue Spirit, without a moment to react, puts his swords to Aang’s neck and turns him from accomplice to hostage. Then, after the archers knock the Blue Spirit out, there’s Aang’s partial view of Zuko’s scar under the mask. It has been a long while since I first saw this episode, but I seem to remember being taken by surprise here. I had thought we were dealing with a new player. Aang hesitates before rescuing Zuko but he does. The emotional notes in the past have been quite rich: Aang’s devastation over the genocide of his people, Aang’s guilt over leaving Monk Gyatso, Iroh’s tenderness towards his headstrong nephew. This moment ranks among the best thus far, though. Aang shares memories of a long-dead friend from the Fire Nation with Zuko, only to be repaid with a flame blast. This may be a metaphor for our crazy mediated age, too.
Aang collects some frozen frogs and saves his Gang. Did he make a friend?, asks Katara, a little incongruously. I don’t think so, says Aang.
Three months later, we’re back to a Village of the Week in The Fortuneteller. This village is dominated by one Aunt Wu, a fortuneteller who appears to be correct in all of her predictions. Sokka is skeptical, though, for good reason: while Aunt Wu is right about the outcomes, many of her prophesies are of the self-fulfilling type. And, as she reveals at the end of the episode, she’s perfectly aware of this. The main thrust of this story is that Aang is pining for Katara again, even though because of their age difference (she’s 14, remember, and he’s only 12, for all practical purposes), she doesn’t have any romantic interest in him. Aang’s unrequited crush is mirrored by the crush that Aunt Wu’s assistant Meng has on Aang.
So it’s a comedy of errors as Aang tries to impress Katara and Meng tries to impress Aang. In the meantime, Katara is smitten with Aunt Wu’s fortunes while Sokka tries to convince her and the villagers that they are all bunk. As far as farces go, it’s decent for a half-hour interlude in an epic adventure, but this one isn’t going to convince any naysayers. There are some funny moments, though, and I’ll drop some of my favorites into the Stray Observations.
- Sokka: “You know what I love about Appa the most? His sense of humor.” Appa: (growl.) Sokka: “Ha ha! Classic Appa.”
- The switch from Katara explaining how to get water to Momo’s perspective of the lady speaking gibberish: excellent.
- Platypus bear: evolution GONE WILD!
- The music cues between Aunt Wu’s dramatic prediction about Aang’s coming battle between good and evil and Aang’s nonchalant, “yeah yeah.”: also excellent.
- Good on the writers for pausing so that Aang and the duck can exchange looks.
- “Can your fortunetelling explain that?” “Can your science explain why it rains?” “Yes! Yes, it can!”
- “She’s sweet, she’s a bender, and her hair seems so manageable.”
- Aang fighting the volcano: remember this when we get to Roku’s story.
- “Take care, Meng!” “Take care... floozy.”