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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (2/21/11) 4:52pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Avatar:  The Last Airbender [2x18-2x20]
Books:  <none>

Avatar:  The Last Airbender [2x18-2x20] [spoilers]
Okay, yes, I played hooky from noir films long enough to watch the last three episodes of Avatar's second season:  "The Earth King", "The Guru", and "The Crossroads of Destiny".

Every time I talk about this show's 'influences', or talk about what it's 'borrowing from', I'm half-convinced I'm just full of it.  Odds are, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have never watched LOST, never watched Battlestar Galactica, and never watched any of the other things that I'm convinced they're tipping their hats to or rummaging through for parts.

But surely, surely they've seen Star Wars.

Because I look at the end of season one, and compare it to the end of season two, and I think I see some Star Wars going on there.  The first season ends with a single, clear confrontation:  the Fire Nation is going to take out the Northern Water Tribe.  It comes down to a single fight, where the intervention of an unexpected party (Iroh) tips the balance.  And then it's a clear victory for the good guys!  Oh, this may not have decided the war, but it would still be an apposite time to give our heroes some medals.

Then, when we look at the end of season two, we see something less like the end of Star Wars and more like the end of The Empire Strikes Back.  The plot is less summarize-able.  Nobody's sure who to trust.  And it ends in a way that's very, very bad for the good guys.

What's more, everybody is screwed in their own unique way.  Aang has abandoned his feelings for Katara.  Zhou has relapsed into the miserable, monomaniacal pursuer he was in season one.  Uncle Iroh is trapped in carbonite crystals and due for a courtmartial.

And, oh right, the Earth Kingdom fell to the Fire Nation.  Our heroes get to live with the fact that, powerful as they are, they weren't sophisticated enough to see Asuna's coup d'etat coming.

On the other hand, I could still be full of hooey.  It's far more likely that Star Wars is just an exemplar of how trilogies generally work:  you keep the first volume simple and straightforward.  You end it on a victory for the good guys.  You keep it self-contained, so audiences are satisfied that you can tell a complete story.  Once you hit the end of the second volume, once your audience has stuck around for a while, you can be riskier.  You can be darker.  You can be more complicated.  You can end on more of a cliffhanger.  It's not just a Star Wars thing -- "The bars of iron fell into place.  Clang." from The Two Towers[1] springs to mind.

Regardless of what they're drawing from, it feels like the right choice for the show at this point.  It made sense for season one to end with, essentially, a "race to get the magic whatsit" and a massive "superhero destroys a fleet" battle.  Season one was, essentially, one big chase, so of *course* it ends like that.

Similarly, it makes sense for season two to end with something quieter and more sophisticated.  Season two felt like the season where they deepened the characters, putting them in new situations to show other facets and to force them to change.  (I'm thinking mainly of Iroh and Zhou here.)  So it makes sense that it ends on a contest that's not about fighting, but about how well our heroes and our villains can maneuver and manipulate people in a foreign environment.  (Result:  Asula wins; our heroes lose.)

That said, these three episodes were nowhere near as good as the previous three.  Yes, it was curious, bringing court intrigue into a children's adventure show -- I was reminded of A Game of Thrones, of all things.  But in order to do that, they had to make a sophisticated political story with a lot of players very clear and comprehensible.  That they accomplished this is commendable, but it in turn meant that they had to go into the opposite direction from "Tales of Ba Sing Se" -- instead of character moments or emotional beats, they had to breathlessly keep the plot mechanics going.  Okay, now Aang has to find out about Katara.  Now Long Feng has to double-cross the Fire Nation spies.  Now Iroh and Zhou have to get to the palace.

It was a lot of moves.  By the time we get a genuine emotional beat, like Zhou betraying Sokka to side with Asula, it is shattering.  And that's not just because Zhou's arc has been set up so well -- it's also because the story hasn't provided us with a moment like that so far.  It's a relief to see something that firmly yanks us out of plot-logistics for a moment.

There were some other dud moments in these last few eps.  The procession of chakra-clearings in "The Guru" was flat exposition, pure and simple.  While I commend them on bringing in Indian spirituality into the show's expanding smörgåsbord of cultural references, this wasn't a story.  It felt a bit like a clip show -- and while it's good to give us nods to what has come before as we barrel towards the season's end, the segments stopped the show cold.

I actually got bored during the extended "breaking into the Earth Palace" sequence in "The Earth King".  It seemed pretty certain that our heroes *had* to successfully get in for the plot to move forward, so after a while I felt like I was watching someone else play "Avatar:  The Video Game".

All in all, this wasn't a breathtaking end to season two -- but it was the *right* ending for it:  downbeat, troubling, and uncertain.  Our heroes have entered a more subtle world, one where great power over the elements just isn't enough, and for the moment, it's got the better of them.

For next time:  more noir!  I'm still watching Kansas City Confidential and taking my usual notes.  I'm finally listening to that Teaching Company course about sentence construction.  And I've been reading Sex at Dawn, but I have to return it to the library tomorrow, so that might go on hold for the near future.

[1] ... which technically comprised books three and four of a sexology -- work with me here, okay?

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (2/21/11) 6:42pm
That's funny - if you're talking about the same sequence that I think you are, that "breaking into the palace of the Earth King" bit was one of my stand-out favorite moments from the entire series. It felt like it did a couple of things: First, it gave them a chance to just totally unleash the collected badassery that's been collected up in the group in a single "push to the next essential plot point", like, okay, we've seen them kick a good bit of ass here and there, but this is really important, and we're tired of dicking around, so we're just going to burn all of our fate points and knock heads together until we get to see the King. And then, once they get in there, they get the rug pulled by basically being told that it doesn't matter how strong they are, they're still not going to get what they want because of X, where X is some new thing that they have to learn how to do. (Work out the political intrigue bits, etc, etc.)

But even just as a bending-fest of a fight piece alone, hell yeah.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/22/11) 12:47am
Yeah, I'm with Marc on this one. Watching that sequence I was actually kinda touched... Look how far they've come, and how friggin' bad-ass they are now. They're finally, truly stepping into their own destinies.
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