Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Avatar State
May 18, 2015 6:09 AM - Season 2, Episode 1 - Subscribe

The trio of heroes, Sokka, Aang, and Katara, depart from the Northern Water Tribe for the Earth Kingdom, where Aang will learn earth bending from his old friend Bumi, King of Omashu. Elsewhere, Iroh and Zuko receive a message from Zuko's sister, Princess Azula, that the Firelord has decided to lift the exile and welcome his son home. In the Earth Kingdom, Aang encounters a general who wants to train Aang to master the Avatar State and is willing to do anything necessary to help Aang achieve control over the incredible power.

Trivia Point! The Earth Kingdom general is voiced by Daniel Dae Kim of Lost and Hawaii 5-0. After the Last Airbender, Kim went on to voice Hiroshi Sato in Legend of Korra!
posted by Atreides (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This episode made me so uncomfortable! All of the previous interactions with people who find out Aang is the Avatar, they treat him with awe and respect (or hate and respect), but respect! This general just treats Aang like a means to an end, with complete disregard for the actual human beings that Aang and Katara are. Just, the utter disrespect for Aang as anything other than potential Weapon. Gross gross gross.

And they did that on purpose! Which is good, because it made for a very interesting plotline, even if it did make me mad.

And poor Zuko, thinking he'd finally get to go home and Azula just knows his weak spots. I imagine their childhood together was much of the same.

What was the significance of cutting off their hair?
posted by jillithd at 7:15 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

What was the significance of cutting off their hair?

It's the royal (or at least noble) hairstyle; they needed to look like peasants, plus it symbolizes that they've given up on their high-status position in the Fire Nation.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:00 AM on May 18, 2015

Oh thank God you remembered to do this. I was about to do it.

Poor Aang. General Fong only sees him as a weapon and not as the force of balance he was meant to be. And who is going to listen to a bunch of kids about the Avatar State when generals have seen the force unleashed?

I love seeing the other Avatars and the feats they've accomplished. Kyoshi, Kuruk, Yangchen...they all have such neat moves. And Fang!

I also secretly love how Katara gets magic spirit water, Aang gets waterbending scrolls, and Sokka gets...a pat on the shoulder. Poor Sokka, gonna have to show them Sokka style!
posted by Katemonkey at 8:31 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Zuko's hair is dead! Long live Zuko's hair!

Lots of men in both the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom wear topknots (in different styles), but by cutting off theirs Zuko and Iroh are symbolically cutting ties with the Fire Nation -- at least according to the wiki! Jeong Jeong is another topknotless Fire Nation exile.
posted by bettafish at 10:50 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

speaking of hair, who else loves how 90's Sokka's hair is when down
posted by bettafish at 10:52 AM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yay! We're back!

And not so yay, because, yeah, discomfort city. At least Iroh had several moments of comic relief. (He likes seashells! Why? Why not!) I did think that it was a little surprising that no one had tried Fong's weaponised Avatar plan earlier, but I guess the word needed to spread about what Aang had done during the siege of the north, since his other Avatar State experiences had been in much less visible circumstances.

At least Sokka got "Brave Sokka!" once they arrived in General Fongsville.

Best animal goes to Momo (and Sokka) when trying to scare Aang into the Avatar state. Sokka's trip on the chocobo was good, too.

bettafish - yup! 90s Sokka hair forever.
posted by minsies at 11:19 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sokka has a good bit at the end when he rides up on the ostrich horse and konks out the general to make him shut up. Then asks if any of the traumatized soldiers have any problem with it, and they shake their heads.

Also, the hair-cutting-off thing shows up again in Korra. What you do with your hair is pretty important in this world.
posted by emjaybee at 1:33 PM on May 18, 2015

Longer thoughts here, shorter thoughts below!

Favorite line of the episode, "Anyone got a problem with that?"

I forgot we were taking a break and actually watched this a month ago, so my memory is a little scanter than it should be.

As for the hair cutting, it's a Japanese thing (Princess Mononoke has a scene where one of the main characters does the same - and of course, Korra famously does this in Season Four - mirroring this scene in the original series) and generally, it indicates that the cutter is cutting their ties to their community and home. Obviously, where as hair is a status symbol, as mentioned above, it also carries with it the rejection of that status. So in short, as also noted, the hair cutting serves a very important emotional purpose, severing their ties to the Fire Nation, but also the practical purpose of helping to conceal their identity.

I saw this episode as pushing Aang and Zuko down their own personal journeys. Aang still needs to come to term with what it means to be the Avatar in terms of the responsibility of the Avatar State and being this source of awesome power and destruction (and later, his attachment to things). It's also fascinating because Aang, after months of having only Katara and Sokka for support, found himself with an entire nation (Northern Water Tribe) for help and the appearances that the Earth Kingdom, too, would be there to make his life easier. Instead, everything is reset to just him and Team Avatar.

Zuko, meanwhile, has to undergo a journey now to understand who he is, if he isn't the heir to the Fire Nation kingdom. His entire identity was wiped away by the end of the episode. Azula's own flawed journey is begun, but only so far as she's truly introduced with her real development coming in Season Three.

The episode also served as a very simple tool by the writers to explain why Aang cannot or should not break out the Avatar State in every situation. His own personal Deus Ex Machina is not something to be used lightly, particularly if he gets himself killed, and ends the Avatar cycle forever.
posted by Atreides at 1:39 PM on May 18, 2015

So glad these discussions are back! Book 2 is where the show really hits its stride and I'm looking forward to seeing how the first-time watchers receive it. (The other nice thing about getting into book 2 is that the DVD masters that they used for all the subsequent streaming sources are so much better than those for book 1. All that annoying artifacting is gone.)

I think this episode neatly foreshadows and bookends the incident with the sandbenders later this season ("I'm sorry, Katara... I hope you never have to see me that way again."), and also really cements a theme that continues through the show: the Avatar State is a fearsome thing, especially for Aang, and its use is situational at best. Not just because it makes him incredibly vulnerable, but also because his will seems to be partly subsumed into the collective will of his predecessors, not all of whom share his strict moral code, and thus the things he does in the Avatar State are not necessarily things he would have been willing to do on his own. (I am assuming this is a reflection of his inexperience, since we see other avatars, including the older Aang that features in Korra flashbacks, entering the Avatar State quite intentionally and seeming to be completely in control.) The music cue associated with it supports this, too: it's not some badass heroic theme, it's the sign of something great and terrible, and often transitions into other themes that sound almost regretful.
posted by Kosh at 4:31 PM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I do love that this ep explores the psychological consequences of the Koiju, and doesn't just leave it as a literal deus ex machina.

Another thing I fiund interesting is that both of the Fire kids are initially characterized as much by how their family responds to them as anything they actually do or say directly. Our first hint that Zuko has potential to be better than he is was Iroh's obvious regard for him; in this episode the fact that Zuko, exiled for three years and shipwrecked for three weeks, responds to Azula's arrival with immediate anger and fear is a big, big hint for anyone who didn't pick up on her appearance in the Agni Kai flashback.

And yet there's this faint thread of disgusted affection for Zuko underneath Azula's, well, disgust? It's subtle and it doesn't stop her from trying to kill him, but I think it's there, and it makes their dynamic both even more dysfuntional and a lot more interesting. And it's pretty much all in tone of voice, so kudos to Grey DeLisle.
posted by bettafish at 4:43 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Book 2 is where the show really hits its stride and I'm looking forward to seeing how the first-time watchers receive it.

Well, I guess I have a confession to make here. I was intending to more or less keep pace with the rewatch here, so I could post thoughts from time to time as I watched the episodes as a first-timer, in relative ignorance of what was ahead. (Not strictly avoiding spoilers, but not deliberately seeking them out either.) In fact, during the season 1 rewatch I had fallen behind a bit, but eventually caught up during our hiatus.

I had a bit of free time last week, and I thought I'd watch a few episodes of season 2 to get a bit ahead—not too much—of the rewatch.

Instead, I binge-watched the entire rest of the series last weekend. Does that give you an answer to how good I thought it was? Especially once I got up to about S2E06, I could not stop watching the rest of season 2. An absolute roller coaster, one that I could not get off of and did not want to. In fairness, the first third or so of season 3 slowed down a bit and I might have paused somewhere in there, but I figured as long as I had come that far I might as well keep going. And then the last two-thirds of season three were just as gripping as the last two-thirds of season 2.

So I'll comment here and there as the FanFare posts come along, but I won't be able to give the perspective of someone who is mostly ignorant of what's ahead. And thank you thank you thank you to the MeFites who turned me on to the show via this rewatch.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:20 PM on May 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

I had a bit of free time last week, and I thought I'd watch a few episodes of season 2 to get a bit ahead—not too much—of the rewatch.

These will always remain some of the most dangerous words in the English language.
posted by Atreides at 6:56 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

>Does that give you an answer to how good I thought it was?

It's an excellent balm to not getting to read about your head exploding in real time.

I forgot we were coming back to it this week, which is a shame because I have many feelings about Azula, one of the least sympathetic characters in the show who I nonetheless feel great sympathy towards.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:25 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Azula, one of the least sympathetic characters in the show

Most of the time she's almost as lacking in nuance as Ozai, but I would say she gets some nice sort of tragicomic moments later in the show (and just straight up sad, like the finale), especially once her crew shows up. One nice touch in this episode is when Zuko is fighting her she doesn't even bother to bend until she's ready to execute him with the lightning. (I don't think we've seen her blue fire yet at all, have we? It's orange in the intro, and we otherwise haven't seen her except for the couple of short, unnamed cameos in Book 1.)

And as a fan of the Badass Old People trope, I like how calmly Iroh both dispatches an entire squad of soldiers and saves Zuko from Azula at the end.
posted by Kosh at 9:44 AM on May 19, 2015

Team Iroh 4Eva!

As Kosh noted, he's so calm in the face of some potentially terrifying odds, and such a way with words!

Zuko: Three years ago today, I was banished. I lost it all. I want it back. I want the Avatar, I want my honor, my throne. I want my father not to think I'm worthless.
Iroh: I'm sure he doesn't. Why would he banish you if he didn't care? Uh, that came out wrong, didn't it?

Azula has some calm confidence that Ozai actually lacks, and it really comes across when she she menaces people:

Captain: Princess, I'm afraid the tides will not allow us to bring the ship into port before nightfall.
Azula: I'm sorry, captain, but I do not know much about the tides. Could you explain something to me?
Captain: Of course, Your Highness.
Azula: Do the tides command this ship?
Captain: I'm afraid I don't understand.
Azula: You said the tides would not allow us to bring the ship in. Do the tides command this ship?
Captain: No, princess.
Azula: And if I were to have you thrown overboard, would the tides think twice about smashing you against the rocky shore?
Captain: [Worried.] No, princess.
Azula: Well then, maybe you should worry less about the tides who have already made up their mind about killing you, and worry more about me, who's still mulling it over.

And she has some seriously tough nails. Plus, there are her menacing elderly advisers, Lo and Li.

I realize there's only so much time in an episode of Avatar, but it's interesting that Fong went from trying to make Aang glow by over-caffinating him, scaring him with the Momo-faced Man gag, and throwing warm mud on him, to putting him in physical danger. I guess slapping him repeatedly would not be something for the general (younger) TV viewing public, whereas the bending battles are more surreal and separated from reality.

Last thought for this episode: the scenery artwork was, once again, beautiful.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:02 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

One blogger, A:TLA Annotated (a fun and insightful blog that translates a lot of the language and Asian culture in Avatar), argues that Lo and Li are actually retired concubines. Note, that link contains some limited spoilers due to discussing their appearances further down the line.
posted by Atreides at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

On rewatch, I'm noticing a couple reoccurring themes that show up later in Korra, like the short-sightedness of politicians and their willingness to misuse the Avatar. And of course the necessity to cut ties to make progress.
posted by happyroach at 3:35 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

It was more that he manipulated Aang by putting Katara in danger, and that is one guaranteed way to make Aang lose his shit (as we learn later you must never threaten his air bison either).

It's fun to rewatch these and picture Korra handling this scenario. She would just straight-up beat the crap out of you for such treatment, Avatar state or not. I love that the Avatar directly after the Nonviolence Always Avatar is the FUCK YOU IMMA PUNCH ALL THE THINGS Avatar.
posted by emjaybee at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I always thought Lo and Li were Azulon's sisters. Now that there's this retired concubine theory, I am delighted.

Also, I got a friend of mine hooked on Avatar, and he compared the books to the Star Wars movies. Book 1 was a little silly, but really got you hooked. Book 2 was amaaaaaazing. And Book 3 went back to the silliness sometimes, but still kept everything fantastic.

Which works really well for Airbender. I just need to find a four-film series to match Korra with.
posted by Katemonkey at 12:52 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's not surprising how Bryke stepped it up in Korra with the backgrounds becoming even more incredible.

Which works really well for Airbender. I just need to find a four-film series to match Korra with.

posted by Atreides at 11:57 AM on May 22, 2015

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