Since this is the first ever blog post on the Secret Tunnel blog, allow me to quickly give a walk through of what I expect from this blog and what you, the reader, can expect. I have watched the entire Avatar series once. Watching these episodes again brings to light many elements that I never noticed before. My goal is to list out the things I noticed on my second/third watch of this amazing show and then give an overall statement of the episode itself at the end of the blog. As stated on the front page of this blog, these are not spoiler free. If you are new to this universe, please watch the series as a whole before continuing. These blogs will still be here when you get back. While I don’t plan to spoil the Legend of Korra (Avatar‘s spin-off show), I may mention it sometimes and will make sure to put a warning should I spoil anything. With that said, let’s begin!
- As first episodes go, this is a very strong opening to a TV show. I know I carry some bias, this being my favorite TV show of all time, but it is rare to see a pilot lead a show on such a high note. There is a unique energy to this episode that seems to surpass simple introduction tactics. For example, most if not all of the many pieces of this story introduced carry weight and significance. No element is introduced by accident. Some of these elements aren’t even touched upon until later episodes in Books 2 and 3. Pilots are known for their clumsiness in understanding where the plot is going and the characters. Clearly, a lot of time and effort went into doing this right which says a lot because TV, especially for kids, is often times very commercialized and designed to meet requirements of a certain demographic. In a crunch for time, showrunners often conform to these tactics and therefore sink to a lower quality. Take a show like Rocket Power for example. While I greatly enjoyed this show as a kid and still have fun watching it as an adult, I am aware of the blatantly obvious conformance to culture at the time. It doesn’t age well, nor does it create memorable or likable characters. Avatar is different, creating plots and characters that are timeless and real. The show is setting itself up as an adventure story and will later prove that each adventure has value to the plot. Each character not only grows after an episode but takes that growth with them from then on. Many kids shows do not do this but have their characters remain stagnant, unable to change from their past experiences. Then there are shows like Adventure Time that purposely have random adventures every episode and it is the randomness that makes it so interesting. Avatar clearly sets itself a high bar in this first episode and holds itself above the hindrances of a kids show. The purpose is to tell a story, making it enjoyable for audiences of all ages.
- The Introduction/Theme gives us Katara as the narrator. I wonder why the showrunners thought she would be the right narrator vs. Aang? Perhaps it is a perception thing. Katara’s narration gives us a real world perspective. She is not some special god or Avatar; she is a normal girl like the viewer. This reminds me of the novel the Great Gatsby, told from the point of view of passive Nick instead of Gatsby himself. Having Katara narrate also seems to emit the feeling that this tale is being retold or is a legend being passed down. In some regions, the show is known as the Legend of Aang vs. how we know it as the Last Airbender. This makes sense as the Avatar is seen as a legend at this point in the show to many people. At one point, Zuko sees a bright blue jet of light into the sky and proclaims it symbolizes the return of the Avatar while Uncle (the name we know him by currently) claims it is the light playing tricks.
- Only minutes into the show, sexism shows itself to be a big theme. We see Sokka trying to teach Katara how to catch fish and outdo her (an action that is not only sexist but moves beyond the bounds of sexism, showing Sokka trying to outdo his little sister and revealing his older sibling syndrome. Also, he is self-conscious about the fact that he cannot Bend the elements). Sokka shows evidence of being sexist a lot in Book 1 of the series, constantly questioning the validity of girls being better at things than boys (specifically himself). At one point in the episode, Sokka says, “Leave it to a girl to screw things up,” and Katara even calls him sexist.
- Bending is very different than magic like many may expect. It requires actual technique. Sokka explains Waterbending is an “ancient art unique to [the Water Tribe] culture.” Uncle tells Zuko later in the episode that “power in Firebending comes from the breath, not the muscles. The breath becomes energy in the body. The energy extends past your limbs and becomes fire.”
- We will later see in the show that each form of Bending has clear attachments to many ancient arts in Asian cultures. This is another important element to the show. Since it is American made, it is important to recognize that the average American child isn’t watching shows about Asian culture or really any cultures other than their own. Kids shows are doing a lot better these days, giving us plenty more diversity than existed ever before. But it still needs work…a lot of work. This show existed in a time when kids TV was dominated by white characters or animal characters and if there was a character of color, it was rare they were the main character of a show. But it isn’t like they did not exist. Dora the Explorer is the first that comes to mind but also Little Bill, That’s So Raven, The Proud Family, and a few other shows that really didn’t get far past the first season. Avatar features two main characters of color. This is in contrast to the terrible movie that committed several atrocities, race being a big contribution as Sokka and Katara became whitewashed and the bad guys went from having light skin to dark skin.
- As sibling relationships go, I think Sokka and Katara’s is a bit cliche but still has a lot of importance. We are introduced to their rivalry but also their bond. In any other TV show, Sokka would be nothing but comic relief. In Avatar, Sokka is a character that is very capable and is a protective older brother.
- I have to address the blooming romance that is introduced between Aang and Katara. Right off the bat let me state, I’m not a fan. Sorry to all of the Aang/Katara shippers out there. I won’t say my personal ship until it comes to fruition. Anyway, the romance is clearly introduced as Aang first opens his eyes and he sees Katara whose braids are blowing in the breeze. Aang then takes a deep breath in awe of her beauty. It isn’t that I don’t find their romance believable, I just don’t buy that they have any chemistry. But more on that at a more relevant time.
- I really like how the show lets us know about the war beyond what we know already. It doesn’t give us long ended info dumps (think Harry Potter) but gracefully inserts plot elements through character interaction and dialogue. For example, when Aang and Katara come across the old fire navy ship and Katara exclaims that it holds bad memories for her people. Katara then explains to Aang, after being asked, that this ship came when her grandmother (referred to as Gran-Gran) was a little girl and the Fire Nation first attacked. Earlier in the episode we see Sokka coaching some young boys and telling them that their fathers’ away at war are depending on them to be the men of the tribe. This is another look at the war and how it has impacted the Southern Water Tribe specifically, as well as reveals a bit of Sokka’s relationship with his father and the manliness he believes he needs to live up to. Another conversation about the war occurs even earlier when Gran-Gran first meets Aang and explains that the village is shocked to see him because they believed Airbenders were extinct and that they had been destroyed for 100 years. This is another outcome of the war that will be explored more in a few episodes.
- Focusing on characters now, let’s first talk about Aang. This episode reveals so much about his character in brief meaningful glimpses. We see Aang as the Avatar but also the Airbender and the child.
- Aang the Avatar – Although it is not said, it is pretty much a given that Aang is the Avatar that everyone speaks of but when asked by Katara if he is the Avatar, he says no and says he didn’t even know him. This comes right before we see Aang looking off in the distance with a look of anxiety, suggesting he has something to hide. Of course, we know he is hiding his identity as the Avatar, leaving us to wonder why. We are also given clues when we see a nightmare Aang has, evident by the sepia tone, of him and Appa plunging into the sea and Aang’s eyes and tattoos suddenly glowing as he encapsulates the two of them in ice using what we will learn to be advanced Waterbending techniques. This shows us how Aang ended up in the title card iceberg. While Aang is an Airbender, we now see he can also Waterbend. The Avatar is the only person who can master all four elements.
- Aang the Airbender – Aang has many traits that reveal his culture and identity as an Airbender. The most obvious are his tattoos on his arms, legs, feet, neck, and head seen by Katara as Aang dresses in the morning. What these tattoos symbolize is not yet known to us. Aang is also very light on his feet. His movements are very fluid and…well, airy. He also carries a glider with him, used to fly and assist in further Airbending techniques.
- Aang the child – Many kids shows often portray the hero as a serious and much smarter character vs. those around him/her. Aang is realistically a kid and the show lets us know this by his silly actions and dialogue. The show even goes as far as having Aang himself make a statement about still being a kid to Katara who seems to view herself as much older than she really is. This is very interesting because this once again seems to hint at the war. Katara does not feel like a child because she has experienced a lot of trauma and war has made her grow up quickly and take on responsibilities that children traditionally do not carry. Aang, however, has not been touched by the war and has a relatively simple outlook on the world which is evident by his carefree nature.
- I know I am not the only person who views Zuko as their favorite character. While I would love to start gushing about my reasons, I will keep my commentary to the episode at hand. I find his introduction to be very interesting. Many elements seen in this first episode did not even phase me on the first watch. I remember just seeing Zuko as the bad guy and nothing more. This is a fault of my own as I can sometimes be a very passive viewer (a habit I am trying to break). But we learn a few things during our time with Zuko. We know he is a member of the Fire Nation. We also know he is a Prince as Uncle calls him “Prince Zuko.” We see a red scar on the side of his face, suggesting an ingury or perhaps a birth defect. He is hunting the Avatar and is desperate to catch him/her in order to restore his honor. Once again, this show is surpassing typical kids TV tropes. Zuko isn’t just the villain. He is a character with a backstory and his own motivations. This will become more apparent as the series continues. It is also clear that while Zuko is a skilled Firebender, he still has a lot to learn as told by Uncle. Zuko is hindered by worldly ideas as exemplified when he sees Aang and Katara fleeing the old fire navy ship and he makes a comment that the Avatar is very agile for his old age. It doesn’t occur to him that the Avatar could still be young. And I guess I should also mention angst. Zuko is extremely angsty. Personally, I love this. My favorite Harry Potter book is Order of the Phoenix with angsty Harry. This speaks for itself.
- Uncle is another character I absolutely adore. This first episode does his character beautiful justice, showing him playing a game of Pai Sho (which will become super important as the show continues) and drinking tea. We also see Uncle teaching Zuko about Firebending as quoted earlier, revealing a wise and skilled man behind the relaxed attitude.
- Sokka’s comedic character trait is immediately apparent in this first episode. Despite his serious façade, it is his insecurities that often make us laugh. We see this when Sokka struts his muscles in the boat with Katara. Sokka also makes several snide comments throughout the episode, usually saying what the audience is thinking. But we also see a bit of Sokka the warrior as he tries to train the young boys to be soldiers so they can take their fathers’ place while they fight in the war and when he is very protective of Katara early in the episode.
- Katara is not a character I grew to love throughout the series but I still think she is an awesome character. For one, she is extremely well rounded. The show does a great job at making her capable yet also has many flaws. She can be a badass but also has a temper. She will risk her life for her friends but has a lot of pride. But most importantly, Katara stands on firm ethics. She stands for what she believes and this is vagely apparent in the first episode after Sokka’s sexist comments and Katara correcting him. Plus, Katara is a very good Waterbender. She is the last Waterbender in the South Pole. In this first episode she is still learning but it is clear she has a lot of potential and it is apparent that we will see her potential in later episodes. Despite the fact that I don’t think she and Aang have chemistry on a romantic level, I do think they share a special bond as friends but I will talk about that more in the future.
- My final thoughts on this episode…I believe that this is a very strong opening episode. It introduces a ton of content that foreshadows character moments more than anything else. But what is most important to me after viewing the first episode is that the show already knows what it is about. It clearly has a story to tell and it isn’t simply on a season by season basis (one reason why I like Avatar better than Korra). The creators worked perfectly with what they had at their disposal and they introduced enough information to keep me interested and wanting more.
That is it for my thoughts on Book 1, Episode 1 of the Last Airbender. If you like what you read and want more, be sure to click the follow button on the right for email updates when new content is posted. I also invite you, dear reader, to let me know what you loved about this first episode! Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading and here we exit The Secret Tunnel for this week of September 5th 2016.