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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Southern Raiders”/“The Ember Island Players”

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“The Southern Raiders” (season 3, episode 16; 7/17/2008)

There is a reason that Katara begins each episode by saying, “I believe Aang can save the world.” She is the essence of empathy, the waterbender who wears her heart on her sleeve throughout the series. She is the member of the Aang Gang who believes most strongly in the goodness of others and the one who has the most trouble forgiving those who cross her. Season three has pushed her into some dark places, but when Zuko gives her a chance to confront the man who killed her mother, she connects with her inner darkness in a big way and emerges a stronger person for it.

“The Southern Raiders,” one of the best episodes in the excellent buildup to the finale, is the culmination of the Zuko-plus-one field trips, as the two of them hunt the leader of the eponymous Fire Navy squad, only to find him a washed-up, henpecked retiree. The episode is full of “holy shit!” moments that showcase the imagination of the Avatar staff: Zuko running up a collapsing column to attack his sister, the explosion when their red and blue firebending techniques collide, and the Zukoitus Interruptus of the Sokka-Suki booty call. The most powerful of these moments involve Katara, though. When she bloodbends the leader of the Southern Raiders, the show stops to register the shock and horror in Zuko’s eyes. When she stops the rain, though, ready to strike down Yon Rha at last, she has a single tear in her eye that means a lot of things. She’s horrified by her own actions and devastated by her memories. Even as she prepares to throw razor-sharp ice at the man, she is terrified of how revenge is turning her into a murderer.

This story is ultimately about the horror that one person is capable of. The story of the murder of Kya is told three times, with each version providing a bit more information. Sokka remembers throwing a boomerang at the retreating Fire Navy soldiers. Katara remembers the man who towered over her mother and rushing back to her home only to find her mother dead. The man himself, Yon Rho, is the only one who knows that he taunted Kya before he killed her. His clear memory shows how deeply this one killing affected him, too, despite the many killings that Fire Nation soldiers must carry out in their duties. Katara bears the guilt of leaving her mother to die, but Yon Rho is just as she sees him, a miserable unrepentant man who deserves none of her mercy. She manages, however, to show him that mercy, perhaps wanting to escape the fate that the murderer Hama sought for her.

Aang tries to caution her against revenge because he is, after all, pretty wise for a kid. He points out that he does have a unique understanding of loss, not only because of the sandbenders who stole Appa, but, oh yeah, the genocide of his entire culture. Aang is using the wrong language, though. He tells Katara to forgive Yon Rho, but from her position, the firebender has done the unforgivable. Aang’s logic could only appeal to a spiritual and semi-detached Air Nomad. While he is right that forgiveness is more than doing nothing, he is too young to know that he should be telling her to forgive herself first. Violence may not be the answer, but Zuko is also right to ask how, then, he is planning to stop Ozai. It is a question that should have appeared before now. It should have come up before the invasion, even. The show’s creators have painted themselves into a corner with Aang’s character and his destiny, and while it is good that they’ve figured out a resolution, this is a late point for foreshadowing.

“The Ember Island Players” (season 3, episode 17; originally aired 7/18/2008)

The wacky, kid-friendly standalone episodes of the series reach their peak in “The Ember Island Players,” which raises fan service to an art form as the Aang Gang takes in a play-within-a-TV-show about themselves. It is an endlessly quotable installment for fans, but many of the jokes may be lost on those who haven’t watched or rewatched every episode. In the story outside of the play, the best moments are when Zuko insists on sitting between Katara and Aang because no one cockblocks a guy better than Zuko. Toph’s pleasure at the discomfort of her friends is perfect, as is the stoic old stagehand who we see making thunder and cranking the mechanism that works the stage-drill. The Aang and Katara romance is awkward and unfulfilling, as it should be when a 12-year-old boy attempts to make time with a 14-year-old girl. Aang’s lines about how he thought they would “be together” after the invasion is clunky, and it is unclear what he imagines this would entail. On the other hand, Suki’s bemused and just-barely-tolerant responses to Sokka’s odd enthusiasms are a realistic representation of teenage romance.


The play itself is an embarrassment of riches, from the callback to the surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbage to actor-Zuko’s princely long locks. The caricatures of the characters are generally spot-on, especially with how each embarrasses the character themselves (with the exception of Toph, natch) while making his or her friends laugh. Having the makers of the show mock themselves (the actors dismiss the “The Great Divide” with a curt “eh, let’s keep flying.”), the restrictions they work under (Zuko: “Did Jet just… die?” Sokka: “You know, it was really unclear.”), and their fan base (Actor-Sokka: “Oh no, another fan with ideas.”) is a blast.

This is overthinking a good thing, but the sudden reversal of the premise of the play at the end has always bothered me. The structure of “The Boy In The Iceberg” establishes Aang as the protagonist but winds up celebrating the victory of Fire Lord Ozai, who only appears in the last two scenes. Even Fire Nation citizens are not so brainwashed as to misunderstand basic narrative conventions. Their bloodlust indicates, though, that the regular citizens will have a very hard time accepting anyone on the throne who has different goals than Ozai and/or Azula. Winning over the hearts and minds of the regular citizenry is no simple task.

Stray observations:

  • Next week: drawing to a close!
  • After the escape from Azula’s war machines, Zuko tries to peer-pressure Katara into trusting him. Growing up in the royal family of the Fire Nation leaves one with the social skills of Nero.
  • Sokka: “Katara, she was my mother, too, but I think Aang might be right.” Katara: “Then you didn’t love her the way I did!” This calls back to the conversation she overheard in “The Runaway” where Sokka couldn’t remember his mother’s face.
  • Aang: “You do have a choice: forgiveness.” Zuko: “That’s the same as doing nothing.” Aang: “No, it’s not. It’s easy doing nothing. It’s hard to forgive.”
  • Katara, to Yon Rho: “I always wondered what kind of person could do that sort of thing, but now that I see you I think I understand. There’s just nothing inside of you, nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty.”
  • Sokka, representing a good portion of Avatar’s viewers: “A play! This is the kind of wacky time-wasting nonsense I’ve been missing!”
  • Actress-Yue, becoming the moon: “And yes, I did have pickled fish.”
  • Katara: “It’s not like I’m a preachy crybaby who can’t resist giving overemotional speeches about hope all the time. What?”
  • Actor-Toph: “My name’s Toph because it sounds like tough, and that’s just what I am!”