“The Guru” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 12/1/2006)/“The Crossroads Of Destiny” (season 2, episode 20; originally aired 12/1/2006)
As we head into the final moments of season two, it becomes apparent that this season was about defeat. In season one, almost every episode involved the Aang Gang overcoming adversity through their own skill or, at the very least, blind luck. In season two, Aang has failed to tell Katara his feelings, failed to free Bumi, failed to defeat Azula, lost Appa for seven out of 20 episodes, failed to defeat the Dai Li, failed to protect the Earth King, failed to secure the Earth Kingdom’s armies for their planned invasion of the Fire Nation, failed to master his chakras, and, most importantly, failed to draw breath for a good long number of minutes. Yes, the Aang Gang has survived and occasionally won a few victories along the way, but the main story in the Book of Earth has been one of setbacks and limitations. The Fire Nation has struck back.
Sorry to go straight to the largest and most obvious cultural reference here, but is there a better analog for Guru Pathik than Yoda? Pathik is old, wise, and weird, and he knew Aang’s dead mentor. He trains the young Avatar, but the chosen one is impetuous, rushing off to protect his friends before his training is complete. Is this a direct Star Wars reference or are there other examples of the impulsive young hero rushing off ill-prepared and half-cocked? If I could remember where I shelved my copy of The Power Of Myth, I might have a few more examples, but I can’t seem to find it.
Anyway, “The Guru” is written and edited to emphasize the separation of the Aang Gang. Each scene is short and cuts quickly to another one of the revolving storylines. The overall effect is zippy for viewers, but the quick cuts make this episode hard to recap and review coherently. Every sentence would need to start with the word “meanwhile.” To combat this, let’s break the stories down to the extent that we can.
“The Earth King” ended with the suggestion of impending doom, but “The Guru” opens with Zuko being cheerful in a most un-Zuko-like way. Even Iroh, who predicted this change, is a little suspicious. However, Zuko maintains his positive outlook for the rest of this episode as Iroh’s new tea shop opens and they receive an invitation to serve tea to the Earth King.
For Sokka’s part, after Aang drops him off near the Water Tribe camp, he is greeted warmly after a long moment of uncertainty and ushered into a tent where he finds Bato and his father, Hakoda, in conference. Hakoda is thrilled to see his son. Later, while he is proudly showing Sokka a weapon that he has created that demonstrates how alike Sokka and Hakoda are in both strategy and humor, a report about Fire Navy ships leads him to tell his men to prepare for battle. Sokka is uncertain what he supposed to do, but his father reiterates that his order was for all of the men to prepare for battle, which includes Sokka. Sokka is ecstatic with the validation.
Meanwhile, back in the Forbidden City, the Earth King is blabbing away to his bear, Azula, and the Teen Girl Squad, who are still in Kyoshi Warrior gear. (Well, the bear is not.) The Earth King spills the beans about the plans to invade the Fire Nation on the day of the eclipse. Azula’s eyes widen. Later, she will explain to Ty Lee and Mai that she has figured out that the Dai Li are the key to controlling Ba Sing Se. While a bloodless coup is not really her style, she seems excited enough by the prospect of taking the city for the Fire Nation that she will forget about all of the innocent lives that she doesn’t get to take. Her plan is for the Teen Girl Squad to have a conversation within earshot of Dai Li spies about how they are not really Kyoshi Warriors and how Azula is really a Fire Nation princess.
Elsewhere in Ba Sing Se, Katara is in conference with the Council Of Five, made of the top five Earth Kingdom generals. Since their plan seems to be the same as Sokka’s—namely, to put Earth Kingdom soldiers on the ground at the time of the eclipse—it is unclear why the Earth King needs five of them, but their part in this story is brief, anyway. All they need to execute their plan is for Katara to take a scroll across town for the Earth King’s signature. For some unknown reason, Katara takes this responsibility quite lightly and decides to stop for some tea on the way. Of course the tea shop is Iroh’s, and she is shocked to see Zuko and Iroh at work in the Inner Loop of Ba Sing Se. She rushes back to the throne room in the Forbidden City, where Azula and Ozai’s Angels await her in their Kyoshi Warrior gear. Katara apparently cannot tell Suki from Azula in full make-up. Because she’s racist! No, I kid. It’s a big throne room and that make-up is designed to mask features. Anyway, Katara tells them that Iroh and Zuko are in the city before Azula reveals herself. Ty Lee paralyzes Katara with a well-placed jab. Cut to an overhead shot of Katara splayed out on the floor, a puddle of water spread around her like blood.
Aang arrives at the Eastern Air Temple and lands before Guru Pathik. Since sentences he doesn’t turn around for wacky otherness to display, Pathik opts to give Aang some banana-onion juice instead. Yum yum! He explains to Aang about chakras, because in our Pan-Asian Avatar universe, Pathik is somehow the only Indian Yogic master, regardless of what the motion picture spectacular implies. Chakras are, of course, a major school of thought in certain Far Eastern belief systems and Alan Moore comics, and Pathik’s definition is a fairly straightforward primer in what the major chakras are and do with a great visualization in the cascading pools.
The first chakra is the earth chakra, located at the base of the spine. Pathik explains that it is concerned with survival and blocked by fear. Aang’s fears are, in order, the Blue Spirit, losing Katara, losing control while in the Avatar State, and the Fire Lord. He is able to give up those fears with minimal effort, though. Perhaps it is easier for 12-year-old monks to open chakras? The next chakra is defined as the water chakra, which Pathik defines as associated with pleasure and blocked by guilt. Aang blames himself for running away and hurting people while in the Avatar State, but he is also able to forgive himself quickly and move on. Next is the fire chakra, associated with willpower and blocked by shame. Aang is ashamed of burning Katara while trying to firebend. Pathik tells him to accept that he is a firebender. The fourth one is the heart chakra, concerned with love and blocked by grief. This one is quite poignant. Aang grieves for the loss of his people. Pathik tells him that the airbenders’ love for him is still in Aang’s heart and, somewhat cheesily, can be reborn in new love, meaning Katara.
The fifth chakra is not handled well. It is the sound chakra, which deals with truth and is blocked by lies. Aang flashes on not telling Sokka and Katara about being the Avatar way back in the pilot. Although he didn’t want to be the Avatar, it feels like this is a lie that he has gotten over many, many, many episodes ago. The next one is the light chakra, associated with insight and blocked by illusion, which is located in the center of the forehead. As Pathik explains, the greatest illusion is separation. The four nations, he explains, are actually all one people. Even the four elements are basically the same. This may be a good point for three of the elements, but fire is a form of energy rather than matter. This viewpoint is only one reason why no one calls me Guru Hayden. As Pathik talks about how metal is only purified and refined earth, we pan to Toph in her metal cage, banging the walls and feeling for earth. Previously, Xin Fu and Master Yu gave her the idea when they told her that even the greatest earthbender could not bend metal, which Toph took as a challenge. At this point Toph is so powerful that it is a little frightening. We’ll come back to her in a minute.
Aang reaches the last chakra, which will allow him to go in and out of Avatar State at will. This is the thought chakra, located at the crown of his head, which deals with pure cosmic energy and is blocked by earthly attachments. Aang realizes that Katara is his main attachment to the world, but he refuses to let go of her at first. When he tries, he sees this pure cosmic energy in the form of a space bridge to a giant Avatar State Aang. Aang tries to become one with this image, but he has a vision of Katara in chains and dashes off instead, Skywalker-style. Pathik tells him that by choosing attachment, locked the chakra he has. The Avatar State is off the table for the time being.
After a horrible crunching noise, Xin Fu and Master Yu find that Toph has torn a hole in the metal cage. With some amazing earthbending moves, she locks them in the cage and then runs off, hills rising to form beneath her feet. I am a little troubled by the fate of Xin Fu and Yu, who are probably going to die in that cage. Fortunately, we do not know for sure. On another side of the continent, Aang swoops in to collect Sokka before he can go into battle with the Water Tribe men. This is quite disappointing for Sokka.
As the episode closes, Long Feng has Azula brought to his cell in the middle of the night. He offers her a deal: in exchange for the Avatar, she will conduct a coup in his name. As Dai Li walk Azula back to her room, she smiles knowingly. All of this intrigue will pay off in the finale, which starts NOW.
The Book Two finale opens with Aang and Sokka flying towards Ba Sing Se. They see Toph, still racing to the city on her waves of earth, and offer her a ride, which throws her off. Back in the city, Azula gives a speech to the Dai Li about the upcoming coup. Ty Lee is exactly as fawning towards her as she was in the last episode. It’s hard to tell, but there’s a hint that she might be being a little sarcastic. Back on Appa, Aang lies to Sokka and Toph about his experience with Guru Pathik. It’s a little cute that Toph is gripping Sokka’s arm tightly during this scene.
At the Forbidden City, Iroh and Zuko have arrived to serve tea to the Earth King, but they are rightly worried when the Dai Li enter the room and surround them. Azula arrives to taunt them about their capture, but Iroh provides her with an unexpected and utterly incredible demonstration of why people call him The Dragon Of The West. Iroh escapes by blowing a hole in the wall, but Zuko wants to face Azula. Iroh still cannot believe what an idiot his nephew is.
At the Aang Gang House, the side that Toph blew out is covered with a tarp outside and there is scaffolding inside. The Earth King, still ignorant about the coup and Azula, led the Gang to believe that they would find Katara there, but she is not home. Toph, whose powers are growing exponentially in every episode, realizes that Iroh is on the porch right before he knocks. Sokka and Aang are shocked that Iroh would come to them for help, but Aang immediately agrees to team up with him. Sokka is reluctant, but he trusts Aang’s instincts. Iroh has brought along a scarred member of the Dai Li for questioning. This isn’t the same guy who Zuko questioned for details about Appa and Lake Laogai, is it? Because he is the same guy who Azula terrorized in “The Guru” during her speech. Anyway, the Dai Li guy tells the Gang and Iroh that Zuko and Katara are in crystal catacombs underneath the palace. In said catacombs, Katara is busy ripping Zuko a new one. They bond, however, over the Fire Nation taking their mothers away. I gotta say, they have some sexual tension in this scene.
At the palace, the fan service continues as Aang and Iroh team up to go rescue Katara and Zuko (a.k.a. “the angry jerk, no offense”) while Sokka and Toph head off to warn the Earth King about the coup. Aang, somewhat nervously, asks Iroh for advice as they create tunnel into the earth. This is great. The first time I watched this sequence, I speculated that not only would Katara and Zuko wind up a couple, but that Iroh would be Aang’s firebending teacher. Both of these prospects seemed promising, even though, as we shall see in a moment, they are both impossible. As the story actually progresses, however, I rather like Zuko’s choice to turn back to the dark side. Zuko needs this fulfillment of what he supposedly wants to figure himself out.
Sokka and Toph stumble onto the coup. There are scenes of generals being swiped by Dai Li agents, with chains flying out of grates and dark alleys and from the very ceiling of the war room. Although Sokka and Toph reach the Earth King and tussle with Mai and Ty Lee, Azula and the Dai Li arrive and bring things to a quick stop. At this point Long Feng walks in and tries to double-cross Azula, but she has already earned the Dai Li’s loyalty. In fact, she sees right through Long Feng for his rise from poverty and desperate need to cling to power. I do not care for the suggestion that Azula makes here about birthright, divine right, destiny, and power. It is hard to separate authorial voice from the character in this case. In one sense, it follows that Azula will beat Long Feng for the right to command the Dai Li and the throne of the Earth Kingdom because Azula has an iron will and leadership skills to match. However, she believes that she has these traits because of her divine right as a member of a royal family. Long Feng ultimately believes this, too. I might be somewhat sensitive to this point after re-watching some of the Lord Of The Rings movies recently, but I do not like that one cannot really argue against this viewpoint within the confines of the show. The Northern Water Tribe is led by a royal family, but the Southern Water Tribe has no apparent leader. We do not know how the Air Nomads were led, but from all available evidence, their system was deeply involved in their religion rather than any royal family. And yet they were wiped out by a nation with a king. The Earth Kingdom has a central ruler and at least one other king in Bumi. We do not know if Bumi was from a royal family. The Fire Nation is definitely a patrilineal monarchy, although they seem to have no problem with the Fire Lord being female, too. But there is a clear notion that the royal family alone is fit to rule. The Avatar himself is some evidence against the notion of divine right because the Avatar could be any bender, but he also is not a ruler but a pontiff of sorts. I am sure that none of the creators of this show believe in divine right, but I do find the lack of counterexamples to be uncomfortable.
Down in the Crystal Dungeon Of Teenage Sexual Tension, Katara is offering to cure Zuko, if you know what I mean, using her magic yin-yang water, if you know what I mean, when Aang and Iroh burst through the wall, if you know what I mean. That last one was more of a sexual frustration thing, I think. After respective hugging, Zuko makes to rage-grab at Aang, but Iroh sends Aang and Katara ahead so that he can talk with his nephew. Katara is still all aflutter and can’t even walk out without looking back at Zuko. Iroh tells his nephew, “You are not the man you used to be, Zuko. You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been. And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny. It’s time for you to choose. It’s time for you to choose Good.” While I like this speech and think that Zuko needs to hear it, I do not much care for the idea that Iroh has identified the Fire Nation as Evil and the Aang Gang as Good. That’s a bit too much on the nose. Yes, I know that this is a children’s show and I should let this sort of thing go. However, in the next moment, Azula bursts in, too, sparking a figurative good-angel/bad-devil tug on Zuko’s soul. Azula offers Zuko his honor, his father’s love, and everything he wants. Iroh can only ask Zuko to look into his heart and figure out what he truly wants. This is a big moment for Zuko. He looks a little constipated.
As Aang and Katara try to escape, Azula attacks them. As good as she is, however, she should be no match by herself against both the Avatar and a master waterbender. Zuko appears and lobs a fireball right in the midst of them. For a long moment, no one knows which side he is on, but he suddenly attacks Aang. Teenagers! Always swayed by the delayed gratification of honor and a distant father’s love. There’s a great moment where Aang sends an Aang-shaped air blast at Zuko. Meanwhile, Toph metalbends out of the cell holding her, Sokka, Momo, and the Earth King. Katara nearly captures Azula with waterbending, but Zuko frees his sister with some fire whips. Azula launches herself at Aang with blue jet flame behind her. Aang makes a crystal suit and flies towards Azula. Azula is faster, though, and Aang goes flying.
Up in the throne room, Ty Lee is trying to train Bosco the Bear to walk on his front legs when Toph traps her with earth. Toph and Sokka are prepared to fight Mai, but she just waves them away with the bear. I think her heart is no longer in this.
When Zuko and Azula knock Katara down, a very pissed-off Aang rides towards them on an earth wave. Hundreds of Dai Li agents arrive just then and disrupt his wave. Seeing that he and Katara are badly outnumbered, Aang shields himself in a crystal and connects with his cosmic consciousness. He knows that he has to let go of Katara to enter the Avatar State, so he reluctantly does. Glowy Aang flies out of the crystal shell, and things are about to get serious in this room when Azula shoots him with lightning. Aang falls. Aang’s spirit falls. Katara, with tears in her eyes, floods the room and catches his limp body, forming a visual Pietà metaphor. She’s in the role of the Virgin Mother here, though, which is not helping the notion that she should be Aang’s love interest. As Zuko and Azula advance on her, Iroh leaps to the rescue, sacrificing his freedom so that the Aang Gang could get away. The Gang and the Earth King fly off on Appa, while Katara uses her spirit water on Aang’s wound. His tattoos glow for a second and then he opens his eyes, alive. There is now a literal connection between Aang’s life and Zuko’s scar. If Katara had used her spirit water to heal Zuko, Aang would be dead now. Although it is also possible that making Zuko’s face whole again would have swayed him against Azula. I was going to make a joke about Two-Face and Batman here, but I think that I may have burnt up my daily allotment of nerdy pop-culture references now.
As Azula lounges on the Earth Kingdom throne, Zuko approaches her about whether Ozai will restore his honor. Even Azula knows that this line of inquiry is bullshit, but she feeds her brother’s unhealthy obsession by telling him that either way, he has restored his honor that day. As Appa flies over the Inner Wall and leaves Ba Sing Se behind, the Earth King intones, “The Earth Kingdom has fallen.” I suppose that someone had to say it.
Clearly, this is a major blow for not just Team Avatar, but the rest of the Avatar world. With Ba Sing Se and Omashu captured, the Fire Nation has effectively taken control of the vast majority of the habitable area of the world. One might wonder why Ozai does not just declare victory now, but the fact that he does not speaks to the mass psychosis of the Fire Nation. Even when the war is won, they are unprepared to stop waging war because war is all that any living citizen of the Fire Nation has ever known. Giving up war would be the same as giving up purpose. We shall see much more of the Fire Nation as we pick up season three coverage in a few weeks.
- But first! We are going to briefly pause in the Avatar coverage between seasons to discuss one of its major influences, the mindwarpingly crazy anime FLCL. FLCL! FOOLY COOLY! If you are unfamiliar with this anime, I suggest you give it a try, although I must warn you that first, it is not a children’s show and second, it is possibly a regulated substance in your state and/or country. It is available on Netflix Instant Viewing and, I’m sure, several other places out there on the Internets. FLCL has more sexual tension and cool and angst and heady twists than most anything out there that wasn’t written by Grant Morrison. If you are familiar with it, then I assume that you are as excited about this development as I am. Check out the incredible end credits!
- Bato: “You are definitely your father’s son.”
- “The Guru” was written by the show’s creators Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko. Previous episodes written by them include the two-part pilot, “The Blue Spirit,” and “The Drill,” although DiMartino has written several episodes by himself. These episodes are all fairly strong ones, but there does not appear to be an overall theme to the episodes written by these guys. Leaving aside the pilot, which has a lot to do in short order, “The Blue Spirit” and “The Drill” have some excellent action sequences and a number of quotable jokes. Most of the jokes in this episode were situational, and it was an idea-heavy episode with very little action, more or less the opposite of the other two. The only season-three episodes written by this team are the final two. It makes sense that the show’s creators will write the first and last episodes, but other ones appear to be somewhat random. No point to all of this speculation, really. Just a line of inquiry that did not go anywhere.
- “It would be nice if your Avatar powers could be a little more specific from time to time.”
- “Nice speech, Azula! It was pretty and poetic but also scary in a good way.”
- Iroh: “Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname ‘The Dragon Of The West?’” Azula: “I’m not interested in a lengthy anecdote, Uncle.” Iroh: “It’s more of a demonstration, really.”
- “Whoa, there. You lost me at Zuko.”
- “Good inside him isn’t enough! Why don’t you come back when it’s outside him, too, okay?”
- “Toph thinks you give pretty good advice. And great tea.” “The key to both is proper aging. What’s on your mind?”
- Long Feng: “You’ve beaten me at my own game.” Azula: “Don’t flatter yourself. You were never even a player.”
- “Protection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love.”
- “Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you can just keep moving. You will come to a better place.”