"The Great Divide" (Book 1, Chapter 11; originally aired May 20, 2005)
"The Storm" (Book 1, Chapter 12; originally aired June 3, 2005)
The writers appear to regard the episode as a bit of a lark, but it seems to me that the unintentional lesson that Aang should have learned from "The Great Divide" is that some people do not deserve his help. The moment he discovered that those horrible, stupid people snuck food into the canyon, he should have abandoned them there to deal with the enormous snapping beetles on their own. Even the canyon guide turned out to be undeserving of Aang’s effort. The moment he was free, he quit his own post, leaving future travelers stranded to face invading Fire Nation forces.
Is it the worst Avatar episode? As we shall see, there will be others in future seasons that are also pretty lousy. This one, however, stands out in my memory as the one that not only features Villagers of the Week who are utterly without redeeming qualities but also contrives to have Katara and Sokka divided over a pretty ridiculous squabble. Still to call these villagers horrible and stupid is to let them off lightly. To accept this premise at face value is to accept that in one village, everyone is a slob, and in the other, everyone is meticulously neat. Their feud is one that will cause them to try to kill each other, but it is also only 100 years old, which is pretty slight for a blood feud. Also, their blood feud is so meaningless that it can be defused by the word of a 12-year-old making up a story that’s even more absurd than their respective origin tales.
My children are young. I watch a lot of kiddie tv, and most of it is fairly grating. Dora and Diego, for instance, are among the worst for adult viewers. The writers seem to have such contempt for their audience that they write whatever bullshit comes to mind without worrying about whether it makes sense or has a message worth writing about. The Great Divide, unfortunately, trips that same bullshit meter. First time viewers can skip it without missing an iota of the story or character development or anything worthwhile. It is simply a placeholder and not even very useful at that.
So, uh, I suppose that I should point out that when the villagers tell their respective origin stories, the artwork is visually striking. The neat-freak village leader is voiced by Rene Auberjonois, who was in Robert Altman’s stable as well as every show that has ever been on TV. I wish I could say he does a great job, but the material is pretty stiff, and he’s mostly wasted. I’m at a loss about what other moments are not also a waste of time. When Dora or Diego produce a poorly-written, dull episode, it doesn’t offend me. I expect their shows to be painful, and I try to encourage my kids to find better entertainments. But when Avatar does something this painfully dumb? That really hurts. I was a fan of Battlestar Galactica, so I should be immune to great shows filling time with stupid crap. But it hits me fresh every time. So let’s move on from the worst episode of the first season (and perhaps the series) to one of its highlights.
"The Storm" (helmed by Avatar’s most ambitious director, Lauren MacMullan) opens with Aang in a dream. He is flying with his friends (Katara is on a tremendous Momo), but as they fly into a storm, he finds himself alone. Monk Gyatso appears before him, asking why he disappeared, and then blows away like a pillar of dust. Voices rise from everywhere as Aang and Appa are blown into wild seas, saying, “We need you, Aang.” There is a flash of the Fire Lord’s silhouette, and then Aang wakes, screaming.
After the Aang Gang loads up to head to a village for supplies the next day, we cut to the SS Li’l Angry Prince, where Iroh can smell a storm on the wind. Zuko seems especially bratty, commenting within earshot of one of his men that he is unconcerned with the safety of the crew while the Avatar is still out there. The episode will continue to cut back and forth between the Aang story and Zuko story, edited to explicitly set up their parallel arcs.
When the Aang Gang drops into the Village of the Week for supplies, they quickly realize that they have no money. Sokka takes a job with a strangely well-informed fisherman, who lets Aang have both barrels about his long disappearance. Aang runs away, and it is already raining by the time Katara finds him in a cave high above the village. Aang is distraught, sharing with Katara about the day he learned he was the Avatar. We flash back to the Southern Air Temple, which is, as always, glowing a vibrant yellow. Aang is playing with some other airbender children. None of them have the arrow tattoos. A group of older monks, including Gyatso, call Aang into a chamber where the ceiling is made of hanging wisteria vines. The detail is exquisite, from the carvings on the monks’ perches to the signs of decay on the umbrella over the head monk. They tell him that he is the Avatar, which they have known since he was a child, and that the troubling signs of war have led them to telling him about his destiny earlier than they would have preferred. “We need you, Aang,” says Monk Gyatso.
Back on the SS L.A.P., Iroh tells the crew that Prince Zuko is a complicated young man. (But no one understands him but his wo-man! This interjection was brought to you by the Committee To Reference Shaft In Inappropriate Situations.) Iroh shares a story about how he brought Zuko into a war meeting against his better judgment. Although Iroh instructed him to remain quiet throughout, Zuko speaks out against a plan to use new recruits as a distraction (after the general uses the words “fresh meat,” which, yeah, more evil in the Fire Nation’s upper ranks). Iroh tells his men that there were dire consequences for Zuko speaking out.
Switching back to Aang’s past, he finds that the other kids won’t play with him now that they know he is the Avatar. Gyatso tries to cheer him up with a game of Pai Sho (notable: there’s a white lotus tile in close-up during their game). The crabbier-looking monk from the elders is upset to see Aang playing and demands that he demonstrate his training, but Gyatso says no. Because Gyatso is Aang’s guardian, the decision of when Aang trains and when Aang plays is his.
Iroh tells his men that the Fire Lord was upset that Zuko had spoken out of turn. The only way to proceed was Agni Kai. Zuko agreed, thinking he would have to duel the general whose plan he had spoken out against. However, on the day of the duel, his opponent is his father, Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko is completely unmanned.
Meanwhile, 100 years ago, after overhearing a meeting where the head monk decides to send him away from Gyatso to the Eastern Air Temple, Aang runs away. “I never saw Gyatso again,” he says to Katara. As sorry and guilty as Aang is, as a father, my heart breaks for Gyatso when he finds Aang's note. While Aang will eventually learn Gyatso’s fate, Gyatso died without knowing what had happened to the little boy he had raised as his own son. We see Aang and Appa in the storm again, as in his dream. They plunge into the water. When it looks as if they are going to drown, Aang enters the Avatar State and creates the frozen time bubble. “The next thing I knew,” says Aang to Katara,” I was waking up in your arms.”
Back on the ship, Iroh describes how Zuko prostrated himself with apologies to his father for his behavior, but the monstrous Ozai demands that he stand and fight for his honor. This is the first time we’ve heard Ozai speak, and he doesn’t sound like Luke Skywalker at all. We still have yet to see his face, though. “You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher,” he says to Zuko just before he gives his young son (who is what?, 13?) his iconic scar. Cut to Zhao and a young woman in the audience (note her well, first time viewers), both looking strangely pleased to see Zuko maimed by his father. The other faces in the crowd are grim, and Iroh is looking away. In the present, Zuko is alone in his chamber remembering the hopeful child he was, and the transition from his optimistic young face to the wretched, scarred face of present Zuko is a horrible moment.
All of this explains Iroh’s presence to some degree. Iroh feels responsible because he brought Zuko into the war meeting. I don’t believe that he was prepared for the enormity of his little brother Ozai’s behavior. I do have to say that it seems unlikely, given that we we learn in the future that Zuko’s story is well-known in this world, that his men have not heard about the Agni Kai where Fire Lord Ozai scarred his own son. However, given how well this episode doles out the exposition, I’m willing to forgive it just about anything.
There is much that is great about the next sequence, when the storm hits Zuko’s ship while Aang and Katara race into the storm to find the fisherman and Sokka. Iroh redirects lightning. Zuko risks his life to save his helmsman’s life. Aang blows a hole through a giant wave. The Aang Gang is pulled underwater, which triggers the Avatar State. Aang uses the State not to freeze them this time, but to surround them with a protective air bubble and to guide them out of the water into the eye of the storm. The SS Li’l Angry Prince is already there, and the show pauses to capture a fantastically ambiguous look between Aang and Zuko, a look that will play into our next episode, "The Blue Spirit."
I love the parallels between Zuko and Aang. I love that the show is telling children that sometimes life will thrust important moments upon you so quickly that you have no time to prepare or try to understand, and that the best one can do is to learn to live with the changes. I love the unspoken tragedy of Monk Gyatso, a story of great depth that happens mostly in the margins of Aang’s memories.
- Lovely touch: the same birds that fly over the Aang Gang as they prepare to leave are flying over the SS Li'l Angry Prince as Iroh is smelling the storm on the wind.
- “I guess I must have imagined that last hundred years of war and suffering.”
- Aang, looking determined: “I’m going to find them.” Katara, looking determined: “I’m going with you.” Fisherman’s wife, looking even more determined: “I’m staying here!”
- Sokka: “I’m too young to die!” Fisherman: “I’m not, but I still don’t wanna!”
- Another nice touch: the crabbier old airbender monk is shown as being grumpy, but not unkind. He has a legitimate concern, which the head monk validates by agreeing to move Aang. It is also right that Aang would not understand their decision and that Gyatso would resist, too. But it is a sign of great storytelling when even the minor characters are shown as fully realized with comprehensible motives of their own.