The Serpent’s Pass (book 2, chapter 12; originally aired September 15, 2006)
The Drill (book 2, chapter 13; originally aired September 15, 2006)
Oh, yip to the yip, the Avatar coverage is back! When we left off way back in early September, Aang was falling to pieces over the loss of Appa. The group had decided to head to the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se to look for their lost companion. Unbeknownst to the Aang Gang, Zuko and Uncle Iroh were also on their way to Ba Sing Se, thanks to the intervention of the mysterious White Lotus Society. In the first of this week’s episodes, these two lines intersect with the surprise return of a few characters from season—ahem, book—one. The second of these episodes is more action-packed, picking up immediately after the end of the first. Nickelodeon originally packaged these episodes together as “The Secret Of The Fire Nation,” which is how one might find them on Netflix today.
We open with the Gang looking at the maps they stole from the spirit library. Large bodies of water prevent an easy passage to Ba Sing Se from where they are, only passable by foot over a tiny sliver of land called the Serpent’s Pass. The Gang decides to take the pass, but as soon as the words “no more distractions” leave Sokka’s mouth, a group of refugees—which includes the pregnant couple that Zuko did not steal from in “Zuko Alone”—greet them. They tell the Gang that the Serpent’s Pass is notoriously dangerous, but that there are ferries carrying refugees across the water from a certain bay. Just as the Gang arrives at the bay, a ferry pulls away with Zuko and Iroh on board. They are approached by fellow passenger Jet, a straw still between his teeth, who wants Zuko to join him and his two remaining gang members in a raid on the ferry captain’s larders. Zuko is in.
Back at the docks, the cabbage man is, as usual, seeing his wares destroyed. (Where does the guy keep finding more cabbages to sell? Just to be clear, this is a question I don’t really want answered.) The ticket lady is unimpressed by Aang, but Toph is carrying documents that signify her noble heritage. These wow the lady into four tickets. A young female security guard harasses Sokka teasingly before revealing that she is the Kyoshi Warrior Suki, sans make-up. As they catch each other up on the story to date, the pregnant couple seek out Aang to tell him that they have been robbed of their belongings and tickets. The ticket lady will neither give them more nor allow the Gang to transfer their tickets to the couple or their third party, who is either a relative or a particularly determined hanger-on. She has no lines, so it could go either way. Anyway, for some reason instead of having Toph negotiate with the ticket lady, Aang goes to talk with her, and so the plot determines that he will decide to lead the pregnant couple through the Serpent’s Pass. A re-made-up Suki joins them, much to Sokka’s overprotective concern.
The Pass comes complete with an archway telling them to “abandon hope.” Aang, still in a dark place without Appa, is down with that idea. As night falls, Aang and Katara talk about his emotions while Sokka and Suki nearly make out. On the ship, it is unclear whether Jet and Zuko shared their stolen food with the other refugees, but there are a lot of people about while they are eating. Iroh looks a bit guilty when he speaks of visiting Ba Sing Se once before. He is adamant, however, about his belief in second chances.
Katara is undaunted when the Pass heads underwater, and she makes an air bubble for the group to continue forward. Unfortunately, the Serpent’s Pass is so named because of an enormous sea serpent who chooses to make himself known at this point. Aang and Katara distract the monster while the rest of the party crosses on an ice bridge made by Katara. Toph is reluctant to walk on the ice, and she ends up flailing in the water when the monster destroys the bridge. Suki is faster than Sokka, though, and she saves Toph, who apparently, like so many other girls in this show, has a little crush on Sokka. This fight is a little silly in the context of the show. First, the serpent is more or less the same thing as the water monsters near Kyoshi Island. To the script’s credit, it mentions this. However, these three powerful benders would not be so easily thrown by a monster. If Toph could lift the earth underneath the party when the monster first attacked, what’s to stop her from lifting a bridge across the lake? Sure, they have to put some sorts of limits on her power, but it seemed odd to have her able to solve the immediate problem in one way but not able to follow through on the same thought.
Anyway, they cross the lake and just as Sokka makes a sweeping pronouncement about how they will soon be in Ba Sing Se, the woman goes into labor. You’d think he would have learned about ironic reversal by now. Katara is, naturally, quite competent when it comes to delivering babies, and soon the Gang is looking at the newborn Hope. Aang sets off for the city by air, hoping to find Appa fast while the Gang hoofs it in the slow way. Suki tells Sokka that she needs to return to the rest of the Kyoshi warriors before they get to the city. Since the only route behind them that is available is the Serpent’s Pass, it’s unclear how she means to get back to the bay because I’m pretty sure she don’t have no flying shoes. More importantly, though, she and Sokka finally make out. Meanwhile, Aang reaches the enormous wall of Ba Sing Se only to see—conveniently only a little ways down from where he lands—the Fire Nation’s secret plan for conquering the city: a massive drill.
Cut immediately to the second episode, where War Minister Ching is delivering a hubristic speech to Azula and the rest of Ozai’s Angels about the awesome, unstoppable power of the drill. It’s true that the drill is quite a bit more sophisticated than most of the Fire Nation’s machinery, but man, like Sokka and the ironic reversals immediately following his pronouncements, you’d think that someone who has risen to the rank of War Minister would lay off the tempting of fate. Aang collects the rest of his gang, but the guy in charge of defending the wall tells him that he is not needed. No one has ever broken through, says this guy. Interestingly, Toph immediately asks, “What about the Dragon of the West?” I like how defensive Toph is about Iroh, although I can’t remember if she actually knows that Iroh is the Dragon of the West at this point. We learn from the overconfident official that Ba Sing Se means “impenetrable city.” If it were a penetrable city, it would be Na Sing Se. Official guy’s elite band of earthbenders, the Terra Team, will be defending the city. Sokka likes their name. Unfortunately, Mai and Ty Lee dispatch this elite band all by themselves.
Meanwhile, Uncle Iroh sweet-talks an older lady to get faster passes into Ba Sing Se, much to Zuko’s embarrassment. Jet talks with Smellerbee (ugh to the name) and Longshot about recruiting Zuko as a freedom fighter. I haven’t really minded some of the more anime-like facial distortion in the artwork, but the way they draw Smellerbee’s eyes is rather disturbing. They are almost as large as the other characters’ mouths. She looks like a Wii icon. (I was going to say “a disturbing Wii icon,” but I’m trying to cut back on redundancies.) A bit later, Jet approaches Zuko about joining his team, but Zuko declines. Jet incidentally sees Iroh buy some tea that turns out to be cold. While Jet and Zuko are talking, Iroh is in the background, looking around suspiciously before huddling his tea in close to his body. When they return, the tea is steaming hot, which is enough to convince Jet that Iroh and Zuko are firebenders.
Back at the wall, Sokka comes up with an idea based on Ty Lee’s fighting style: they will take down the drill from the inside. Toph gets the Gang close enough to get inside, but she won’t go in herself. Sokka manages to trap an engineer and get hold of his schematics for the drill. We learn that Fire Nation engineers wear creepy gas masks that would not look out of place on Metalocalypse. Sokka’s plan is to use waterbending to cut through the enormous bracing beams that support the drill, but cutting all the way through the first of the huge braces proves to be utterly ineffectual and exhausting for Aang and Katara. Aang realizes that they need to make partial cuts instead.
Soon Azula and her pals are alerted to the presence of the Aang Gang. We learn that Ty Lee has a bit of a crush on Sokka before the inevitable chase scene. After escaping from the drill through a slurry pipe, Sokka and Katara come up with the idea of blocking the slurry to build up pressure throughout the drill. The fact that their plan also neutralizes Ty Lee is just icing on the cake. Aang and Azula face off on top of the drill, but Aang, master of three elements at this point, is only just slightly faster than her as he delivers the final blow to the drill. Notable is his use of a rock-encrusted fist that looks like he borrowed it from The Thing. Too bad he cannot yell, “It’s clobberin’ time!” As the episode closes, Katara lets Sokka know that they the name Team Avatar is not going to stick. He suggests The Boomeraang Squad, the Aang Gang, and the Fearsome Foursome, too, but Katara and Toph seem unimpressed. I like the Aang Gang, but most readers of these reviews know that by now.
Both of these episodes were second-tier for Avatar, which is to say that while neither was a bad episode, they lack the grand vision of the great episodes. They were quite a decent way to kick off the second half of this season, with plenty of action and plot mechanics that will not come into fruition for many episodes yet to come. The Aang story lacked the great depth of “The Desert,” but it was reasonable that he would be holding his emotions in. Being an Iroh partisan, I did not enjoy his characterization in these episodes. He comes across as thoughtless in most of his scenes, even though we know him to be one of the cleverest and most empathetic characters on the show. The re-introductions of Suki and Jet were handled well, and I am quite excited about where Jet’s story is headed. Next week we’ll tackle both “City Of Walls And Secrets”—which one of the most nakedly metaphorical episodes in the whole series—and the utterly astonishing “Tales Of Ba Sing Se.” Spoiler alert: The Iroh segment will probably make you cry.
- Iroh: “What sort of king is he eating like?” Jet: “The fat, happy kind.”
- Sokka: “You’re doing great! Just follow the sound of my voice!” Toph: “It’s hard to ignore.”
- Toph: “Oh Sokka, you saved me!” Suki: “Actually, it’s me.” Toph: “Oh. Well. You can go ahead and let me drown now.”
- The drill is an impressive piece of design, the most steampunk thing that Avatar has created thus far. I like that the screened holes in the front of the drill don’t make much sense until the slurry comes into play. The holes are there to collect the earth from the wall as the drill goes through. The control room seemed way too vulnerable to me, but hey, I’m no Fire Nation engineer. I mean, I do wear one of those face masks but that’s for other, perfectly legitimate reasons.
- Sokka: “Why are you all looking at me?” Aang: “You’re the idea guy.” Sokka: “So I’m the only one who can ever come up with a plan? That’s a lot of pressure.” Katara: “And also the complaining guy.” Sokka: “That part I can live with.”
- Sokka: “It’s so dark down here! I can’t see a thing!” Toph: “Oh no! What a nightmare!” Sokka: “Sorry.”
- “For a wise old man, that was a pretty stupid move.”
- “Look, I’m the plan guy. You two are the cut-stuff-up-with-water guys. Together, we’re Team Avatar!”
- Ty Lee: “Wow, Azula, you were right! It is the Avatar! And friends… ” Sokka: “Hey.”
- I’m assuming most of the commenters who were following the coverage in real time went ahead and watched forward, but if you didn’t, please sound off below.
- Because we took three episodes together before the break, one of the upcoming episodes should be a standalone so that we can end the season cleanly. I’m leaning towards “Appa’s Lost Days,” but if you have a strong opinion otherwise, please let me know.