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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Runaway”/“The Puppetmaster”

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“The Runaway” (season 3, episode 7; originally aired 11/2/2007)

Exaggerating the characters to make a point is usually a sign that an episode will have major problems, but “The Runaway,” for the most part, gets away with this trope by keeping its exaggerations slight and playing up the emotional truth behind them. The heart of the episode is the scene where Sokka and Toph sit on a ledge and discuss their feelings about Katara while she listens in from below. This episode has brought back the simmering tension between Toph and Katara that they supposedly left behind during their visit to the Fancy Lady Day Spa back in Tales Of Ba Sing Se.” The return to their Felix-and-Oscar-like bickering is unwelcome, despite the narrative logic behind it, but it is justified by this scene. Sokka and Toph are both forthcoming about their feelings in the way of close friends who have been reflecting on their own lives, and the moment that they share deepens our understanding not only of each but of Katara, too. Katara, drawn to look especially vulnerable and child-like in the water, can only listen as her brother and friend talk about how much they love her and why, even as both admit that they find her very annoying. It’s a scene that carries more weight with repeated viewings, as it gets easier to wave away the jarring return of the girls’ spat in favor of the deeper connection it leaves in its wake.

Another interesting aspect of this episode is the cold open, where we find ourselves in media res during what appears to be Katara’s betrayal of Toph to the Fire Nation. It is striking because it is unusual for an Avatar: The Last Airbender episode to manipulate time like this—although as a fake-out, it is completely unconvincing, given Katara’s character and the importance of their mission. My theory on first watch was that it was part of their invasion plan, but when it turns out to be a scheme to make money, it seems unnecessarily reckless, although the aforementioned eavesdropping scene goes a long way toward explaining how the Aang Gang adopted such a plan.

Unfortunately, the whole idea of scamming the scammers doesn’t hold up so well. For one thing, the opening shot of the village establishes that it is not very large, as most of the buildings nearby are dwarfed by the statue of Fire Lord Ozai. Since Toph’s plan involves scamming multiple people over multiple days in this mid-sized village, even after she learns of the wanted poster and the nickname, it is really only a matter of time before she runs afoul of the authorities. It’s unclear what she’s been charged with, assuming that most con artists are going to be unwilling to admit to the authorities that someone is beating their crooked games. It is also unclear how the authorities knew to put her in a wooden cell. If the authorities know that she is an earthbender and they know that Combustion Man, who doesn’t speak, somehow persuaded them to evacuate so he could capture her dangerous friend, how long could it take for them to put everything together and realize that Combustion Man is after the Avatar? Wouldn’t this jeopardize not just the Aang Gang’s mission, but Combustion Man’s mission, as well?

Two other interesting points about this episode are Katara’s creativity in using her sweat to escape and Combustion Man losing his powers when the pebble hits him smack in the third eye. Both foreshadow future events: Combustion Man’s inability to fire his unique light explosion—which does not return until later in the season—is visualized beautifully, as the very air around him appears to explode. Katara’s use of her own sweat is a reminder that, unlike the other three elements, water is an essential component of living things, a fact that comes into play in the very next episode.

“The Puppetmaster” (season 3, episode 8; originally aired 11/9/2007)

It is yet another credit to the excellent writing staff of Avatar: The Last Airbender that they built this episode around the horror implicit in the realization that water can be found in almost all organic life. If a powerful earthbender like Toph can create metalbending out of the impurities in steel, then a powerful waterbender should be able to control the watery liquids inside a person. The creepy staging adds to the story’s impact. It should surprise no Avatar fans to learn that “The Puppetmaster” was written by Tim Hedrick, who also wrote season two’s spooky waterbender episode The Swamp.” Like “The Swamp,” this episode focuses on another of the heretofore unexplored possibilities of waterbending and the sinister waterbenders who develop it. Unfortunately, also like “The Swamp,” it sacrifices common sense in favor of its mood, which is not the worst thing that an episode can do, but it does blunt its impact.

Hama, the creator of bloodbending, is a tragic figure of sorts, driven mad by the war and determined to make ordinary citizens pay for her capture and imprisonment. However, there are some inconsistencies in her story, but they are most likely the fault of the writer rather than the character. For one, she was at least a teenager when captured 60 years prior, and she was a young woman when she escaped. How long was she a prisoner and what has she been doing since she escaped? Does she simply move from town to town, trapping people in the mountains during full moons and then setting up an inn in a new place when she hits some sort of critical mass? Shouldn’t that have come up? And where did she get her hands on that Southern Water Tribe comb, anyway? She didn’t have it in the prison and wasn’t carrying it during her escape.

The worst oversight of the episode is that the Aang Gang, in their need to bring justice, have opted to merely send her back to prison, where, once they realize that she is a waterbender, she will most likely be returned to the Fire Nation Army for further torture. Justice is a tricky issue at best when a victim of a terrible crime, a crime against humanity in this case, responds by perpetrating their own brand of terror on others, but Hama’s fate seems unjust in the extreme. It is as if she had escaped from Auschwitz in 1943, only to have the French Resistance give her back to the Nazis for killing some random German citizens. This question of justice for Hama might be a bit weighty for a show for children, but the cop-out we are given hardly seems fair to anybody.

These objections are tough ones, but the episode is quite successful and memorable in establishing and maintaining its tone. Hama’s reveal of how she created and mastered bloodbending is one of the more shocking moments in the entire third season. Her pleasure in corrupting Katara is also quite surprising. Despite her madness, the story indicates that she does not mean to hurt Katara so much as to pass along something that she has learned that she believes will help defeat the Fire Nation. The fact that this involves ripping water from plants and controlling the bodies of sentient human beings pales in comparison to moral depths to which the Fire Nation has stooped in committing genocide against the Air Nomads and robbing the Southern Water Tribe of their benders and, incidentally, their strength and culture. While the show paints Hama as evil, her brand of resistance is terrorism, a tactic employed by besieged peoples against greater forces in every armed conflict in history. The show turns from her because the Avatar plans to try to win over the citizenry of the Fire Nation peacefully, and yet she deserves more pity and healing than she will receive. Despite the strength of the ideas and imagery in this episode, it is ultimately a misstep.

Stray observations:

  • Aang: “Sokka, sneak attacks don’t work if you yell it aloud.”
  • When Sokka sees the wanted poster of Toph, his new hawk poops on his hand.
  • Katara: “Really? What’s this?” (She whips out the wanted poster.) Toph: “I don’t know! I mean, seriously, what’s with you people? I’m blind!”
  • Aang is sidelined for much of “The Runaway,” but I like his deadpan delivery: “I gotta say, Sokka. You continue to impress me with your ideas.”
  • Aang: “It’s Sparky Sparky Boom Man! Sokka: “You know, I’m starting to think that name doesn’t quite fit.”
  • Toph: “Katara! You’re a genius! A sweaty, stinky genius!”
  • If Gran-Gran was a little girl when the ship that Aang and Katara explore at the beginning of the series was trapped, this means that Hama is way older than either Gran-Gran or Pakku. But wait a second! Gran-Gran lived in the Northern Water Tribe when she was a little girl. Maybe she made up a story to keep Katara and Sokka from exploring the ship.
  • In Hama’s memories, the Southern Water Tribe city is much larger than the sad collection of igloos in the first episodes.
  • Toph, responding to Sokka’s lame ghost story: “Water Tribe slumber parties must stink!”
  • Old Man Dig: “Why does everyone call me that? I’m not so old.”
  • When the villagers arrest Hama, wouldn’t they notice the evidence of Katara’s waterbending? Or think something about Hama’s proclamation that Katara is a bloodbender now? Seriously, the Fire Nation citizens are just blind to the evidence right before their eyes. I guess that’s what brainwashing your citizens will do for you.