Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Beach   Rewatch 
August 31, 2015 7:29 AM - Season 3, Episode 5 - Subscribe

Saved by the Bell's teens Zuko, Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai, are ordered on a vacation to Ember Island where they're forced to confront their short comings and personal turmoils against the idyllic sandy background of the island paradise. Elsewhere, Team Avatar in the midst of aquatic recreation of their own encounter for the first time the assassin hired by Zuko.
posted by Atreides (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ugh, Azula and co., you are horrible. (I do not need reminders of life as a teenager.) The metal man is horrible too.

(Ty Lee's dude impression is solid, though.)

Best animal goes to the sea lion pulling the fire nation boat at the beginning. Chan's bird of overwhelmed feelings is a distant second.

At least Lo and Li are getting something out of going to the beach.
posted by minsies at 9:56 AM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Downside: heavily armored assassin with ability to burn and blow up things with his mind is hot on the trail of the gaang.

Upside: word hasn't reached the Fire Lord that the Avatar is still alive.

It was nice to see Azula having problems communicating with people her own age, but a shame that her focus was on talking to boys, not just talking to her peers in general . (Then again, she is a teen-ager, so it's not wholly unrealistic that she wishes for some attention from boys, similar to how they fawn over Ty Lee.)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:55 AM on August 31, 2015

Speaking of Ty Lee, why does she hang out with Azula and Mai? She seems at odds with them in so many ways. Is it because she's so much more powerful than everyone else around her that they are in some ways her only true peers?
posted by filthy light thief at 11:56 AM on August 31, 2015

I watched this yesterday and the first thing that struck me was the fact that I had absolutely no recollection of the Gaang even being in this episode, just the Azula & co story. I wonder if this is the episode where they have the least screen time. (I did remember the general running-from-Combustion-Man thing, but associated it with other episodes.)

This episode serves two purposes, I think: a window into the psyches of Azula's crew (has anyone in fandom ever come up with a cute name for them as a group?) and a setup for things to come, since all of the character beats in this episode pay off in pretty significant ways later. Ozai is not a very complex villain, more of a force of nature, but I appreciate that they spend a few moments here and there giving Azula's character a little more subtlety than you might have expected at first glance, since for all intents and purposes she is the chief representative of the opposing side, both for the Gaang and for the viewers.

I remember when I first watched Crossroads of Destiny I thought Zuko's heel turn seemed kind of forced, but on this rewatch I'm really liking the more gradual arc of this season's follow-up to it, enough that I don't think I would have wanted it to happen in a different way.

It's a good example, too, of the show's ability to balance pathos with humor. This episode made me laugh out loud at several points but the sadness in a few of the scenes (Zuko at the old family house, the campfire conversation) is palpable.
posted by Kosh at 12:49 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Extremely long thoughts here, much shorter below...

"The Beach" simply stands as one of my favorite of the series, because of the decision to make the climax of the episode an emotional one around four teenagers sharing the turmoil within them, while at the same time, shunting off the incredible action to the B-story, where Team Avatar first encounters Zuko's assassin. I love the decision to focus on the four main characters and even the underlying more subtle message about the difficulties that women face as teenagers (and as adults) expressed through Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai.

The principle theme of both Avatar shows is family, often resolving around parents and father figures. Virtually every major character has a backstory that connects to a dysfunction or some impact the parent had on the character as a child, and "The Beach" simply zeroes in on it and blows i up, like Zuko expressing his feelings.

Ty Lee's parents failed to recognize her as an individual among six sisters, forcing her to live a life where she was essentially replaceable and simply one part of a set. She yearns so much for an identity which she claim as her own, she embraces the insult 'circus freak.'

Mai's parents, concerned more about her father's political career than raising a happy child, forced her into the mold of the perfect child - seen, not heard, well behaved, and doing nothing to risk her father's career. Forced to walk a narrow tightrope to avoid the discipline of her parents, she found the only safe way to please her parents was to be stoic and emotionless.

Zuko. Well. That's pretty obvious. But what's great about Zuko's turn is that we have the benefit of knowing what his life has been like for the last year or more, as the Zuko who wanted the world he now has was deconstructed and a new Zuko emerged, one that Zuko himself still doesn't quite grasp. He's angry because he has the rewards that his former self wanted, and the guy who was essentially his true father figure, he betrayed...and he can't process it quite yet.

Azula. Accepts that she's the monster her mother believed her to be (but I'm not sure her mother ever quite called her that - just expressed disbelief at her daughter's behavior). This means that Azula knows everything she has done, and will do, is wrong, but doesn't bother to change who she is. She owns every bad act.

Then you have the issues with being a teenage girl in a social setting. The pressure of not having the attention of teenage guys, being jealous of the girls who do, and then changing yourself to please a guy, versus being yourself. You have Ty Lee literally cornered by a gang of guys, all demanding to be repaid romantically for the 'nice' things they did for her at the beach ("Who do you LIKE LIKE?"), and being so threatened, she fights her way out. Then conversely, Mai the female role model here, who breaks up with her boyfriend when he insults her, and only gets back with him when she's ready to do so, on her terms. Who doesn't tolerate Zuko trying to take ownership over her, when he screams at the guy for talking to her.

It also stands as this flip side to "The Headband," where Aang pretends to be a nobody to experience being normal and has this positive experience, where his own nature betters everyone else. Here, Azula, Zuko, Mai, and Ty Lee, do the same, but with disastrous results as they discover they're outsiders among their peers, and things go horribly.

ARgh, so much good stuff in this episode.

Also, yeah, the assassin finds the gang and attacks them.
posted by Atreides at 1:02 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Ty Lee, why does she hang out with Azula and Mai? She seems at odds with them in so many ways. Is it because she's so much more powerful than everyone else around her that they are in some ways her only true peers?

The trio went to school together and arguably, were the most popular girls in the Fire Nation academy or whatever it was, they attended (where everyone knew who they were).
posted by Atreides at 1:04 PM on August 31, 2015

Also, Ty Lee would prefer not to hang out with Azula, as we saw in her first episode, but Azula gets her way!
posted by chaiminda at 1:11 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

People tend to love or hate this episode, and I am firmly in the former category. Somehow Katie Mattila makes the travails and misdeeds of four teenage war veterans who are poorly readjusting to civilian society really, really funny without trivializing anything they've gone through. Stray thoughts:

- I remembered Combustion Man as being kind of "meh," villain-wise, but he sends three bending masters on the run! Iroh said in book 1 that firebending power comes from the breath, and he wasn't kidding.

- The Warriors of Kyoshi and The Waterbending Master are great girl-power episodes, but I think this episode might have been most useful to me were I watching as a kid. Yes, women can be warriors too, etc etc, but most real-life women aren't. But lots of real-life teenage girls deal with slut-shaming and controlling partners/friends. While Mai is hardly an ethical paragon I think it's really, really important that we see her (and to a lesser extent Ty Lee) modelling the idea that you don't have to put up with shitty behavior, even from people you deeply care about.

- Zuko has clearly not learned this lesson yet -- like, I almost don't want to point this moment out because it's serious ouch, but the way Dante Basco plays his genuine distress at the mere suggestion that he could be mad at his father was so well done that I have to. Ouch.

- Grey DeLisle is MVP for Azula. There's the comedy, and then her tone of voice in the scenes with Ty Lee and Zuko that make it clear she does have genuine affection for them -- it's just that it's always mediated through her need for dominance and control.

- The "Zuko alone in the beach house" scene is just gorgeously lit.
posted by bettafish at 4:13 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, I was going to add that I was pretty :/ about the "Li and Lo's old lady bodies are gross" gags -- the "Azulon's concubines" theory makes it a bit better because no one wants to think about their grandpa having sex, at least, but still. The way Iroh's sexuality is handled is sketchy (in terms his harassment of June the bounty hunter) but his body isn't treated as literally nauseating just because his nephew is grossed out by the idea of him having a sex life.
posted by bettafish at 4:20 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ugh. Beach volleyball? I appreciate the character development, and the need for it, but...$@&*^ing beach volleyball? Ugh. Could the writers have done, well, anything else? Make up a Fire Nation game? I dunno, something about beach volleyball in the context of this show just bothers me.

Spoilers follow, but this is a rewatch thread, so I guess it's okay for me to observe:

Zuko (as of this episode) and Azula (near the end of the series) get what they want, but can't handle it. Azula is absolutely ruined, but Zuko manages. At the end of this episode, he hasn't resolved his anger at himself, but sometime in the next few episodes -- and this is kinda a note to myself to remember to watch for it -- he navigates his way through. Azula at a comparable point ends up utterly broken. I want to remember to watch for the point where she, so to speak, misses the "bridge out ahead" sign and drives on.

(I might be forgetting key details that make this comparison silly; if so, nothing to see here, move on...)
posted by dsquared at 7:08 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

No, from what I remember I think you're bang on target. Both siblings have a pivotal moment where they make a mistaken sacrifice for something they think they want even more, but because of their personalities and life experiences their trajectories diverge after that.
posted by bettafish at 4:27 AM on September 1, 2015

Beach volleyball feels like both a call-back to Teen Beach Movies, along with Coolest Teens on the Beach, and beach volleyball is used in anime for fan service.

More generally, "Spring Break at the Beach" and the Beach Episode are a well-run tropes, so the inclusion of this episode felt like a nod to all that. I think there's a balance between making a unique world, and making everything different from our world (see Anathem).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:10 AM on September 1, 2015

If it helps, the sport they play (Volleyball without hands) is a real sport that seems to have developed independently in both Brazil and Southeast Asia. In the latter, it's known by a variety of names, like Sepak Takraw, and has a history that some trace back to the 1400s. I don't doubt they may have initially thought about volleyball, but opted for something more historic and based in Asian culture.

Azula at a comparable point ends up utterly broken. I want to remember to watch for the point where she, so to speak, misses the "bridge out ahead" sign and drives on.

I don't want to give too much away, but I think this pretty much starts after she's betrayed by certain individuals during a prison escape.
posted by Atreides at 7:46 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Kosh: (has anyone in fandom ever come up with a cute name for them as a group?)

I saw them called 'Ozai's Angels' a lot.
posted by Ashenmote at 9:50 AM on September 1, 2015

Yeah, that's definitely the point, Atreides. She ends up in a very, very dark place.

(I finished my march through the episodes over the weekend, so I am finally free from the constraints of Netflix UK.)
posted by minsies at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2015

I prefer Sokka's coinage of "the Dangerous Ladies."
posted by bettafish at 10:34 AM on September 1, 2015

(I finished my march through the episodes over the weekend, so I am finally free from the constraints of Netflix UK.)

I hope you kept notes for your best animal awards!
posted by Atreides at 11:51 AM on September 1, 2015

I have so many notes.
posted by minsies at 12:44 PM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Fire Nation soldiers seeing Aang pop out of the water slide seems like a callback to the Omashu delivery system.

The Gaang get into various awkward situations traveling among regular folks, but Azula's crowd is absolutely incapable of functioning in the world. The character building gets crammed in here, and I like seeing that there's something they're not good at. (I mean, we already knew that Zuko was a dork, but Azula's attempts at flirting are amazing.)

>Sepak Takraw
Hey, now I know the name of that impossible-looking game I saw being played earlier this summer!

AAH HOW DOES EYEBALL FIRE MAN DO THE THING. I think it was Koh that a bunch of folks were noping out with, this guy is it for me.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:40 AM on September 2, 2015

AAH HOW DOES EYEBALL FIRE MAN DO THE THING. I think it was Koh that a bunch of folks were noping out with, this guy is it for me.

Someone with the same ability (with a twist) appears in Korra, but not here and not there, do we ever really learn about this particular art of bending other than it's a form of fire bending. If it helps, the eyeball is just a tattoo?
posted by Atreides at 11:36 AM on September 2, 2015

I think that's the piece of it that freaks me out, the fact that his abilities are kind of outside the known Avatar universe. It's like he stepped over from the FMA canon, which is a considerably darker place.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:02 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I hadn't thought about it, but you're absolutely right about the FMA thing.
posted by Atreides at 12:58 PM on September 2, 2015

"Hi, my name is Scar, and you seem like my kind of guy. What's your name?"
"I'm Sparky Boom Man. I guess."
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:32 PM on September 2, 2015

So many times I just laughed out loud during this episode. Azula's comment on the "sharp" outfit and her later claim of being the most powerful couple in the world... Sigh. Poor Azula. One day you will find a partner who LIKES your intensities and smart, strategic mind. They won't all run away in fear, I promise! (At least, not unless you want them to.)

Chikka chikka boom boom guy is so scary because there is no reasoning with him at all. He is a one-minded explody-uppy metal man machine!
posted by jillithd at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, that's NOT his name, but...
posted by chaiminda at 12:03 PM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I think of villains like Combustion Man, I wonder what HIS childhood was like. Are fire-benders born that way or do they come into it at puberty or at least around age 7? Can you imagine a toddler with chikka chikka boom boom explodey powers when you give them the wrong colored sippy cup?

It makes me think of the movie Looper and how much work that mom had to do. Whew! I'm exhausted with my OWN stubborn toddler, and he doesn't even have explodey powers.
posted by jillithd at 1:04 PM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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