There's a bright side to that, though, in that I have a far greater understanding of how the show works now. I liked Avatar back in 2005. I really did. But I didn't have a methodology that allowed me to dig below the surface and address whether or not the show fits together right. There's a greater insight that comes with both age and a greater understanding of media.
And what is my great insight?
This show is freaking brilliant.
Yeah, yeah, any other fan could have told you that, but like I said, it wasn't until recently that I could delve into just why I liked the show so much. Turns out the show not only has fun characters, cool action, and an interesting ongoing plotline, it also has carefully constructed and balanced motifs and themes that are supported by storytelling that invites empathy and emotional investment in the show's conflicts.
Let's focus on just theme for a moment, for example. Now, I've only just completed the second season, and I'm listing these off the top of my head, but so far some of the themes and motifs addressed include:
- The desperate hope for redemption and second chances
- The possibility that some people are simply too damaged or too sociopathic to be saved
- Severe animal cruelty
- The toll that an extended war takes upon civilians
- Fear of the loss--or the forced removal--of one's identity and memory
- The possibility that the enemies of an evil power may become a mirror of what they fight
- The danger of false utopias and Orwellian (or, arguably, Huxleyesque) totalitarianism
- Obsession and the personal inability to escape the past
- The inability to save the life of a loved one--whether a parent, a lover, a teacher, or, perhaps most devastatingly, a child.
- The lasting psychological consequences of that kind of loss
- The experience of being relentlessly and exhaustingly pursued with no chance of rest or respite
- The double edged sword of technological advancement
- Whether humans can be trusted with knowledge and power
- The pull between duty and the desire to determine one's own path in life
I could go on, I'm sure, but this list should be enough to at least start digging into how exceptional this material is. See, the show manages to address these ideas while still remaining fundamentally a children's show. That is, of course, no small feat--after all, some of these ideas are among the most classic of literary ideas. The struggle between duty and freedom? You might recognize that concept presented in Zuko's struggles... or in Hamlet's. False utopia and the horror of brainwashing? Jet might be accepting invitations from the Earth King to go to Lake Laogai, but he could just as easily be realizing that he loves Big Brother. Oh, and those dueling concepts of redemption and true evil? Well, between Zuko and his crazy sister, I guess A Good Man Is Hard To Find.
Which is all, you know, totally clever and all that I can pick all this out, really impressive, yadda yadda, but I'm not just showing off here. The point I'm making is that some of these themes are among the most central, most lauded, most profound themes in a great number of adult literary masterpieces.
But what's really interesting to me is that some of these themes also crop up in plenty of blockbuster movies, many of which are aimed at adults, and few of which manage to address the themes and motifs above nearly as successfully as these literary classics... or Avatar, for that matter.
This is even stranger when you consider the greater freedom afforded to media aimed at adults. After all, adult media can pretty freely address concepts like the brutality of war in a direct and visceral way--hence the success of works such as Apocalypse Now. Yet, Avatar manages to address these ideas in a way that is just as emotionally affecting in a context that is limited simply by the maturity of its audience.
And, what's more, it manages to do so in a way that addresses suffering without exploiting it.
Let me leave that last idea hanging for a moment, though. I promise I'll return to it later.
First, I want to look at two different episodes--the two episodes (along with the third episode that comes between them) that first signaled to me that the show was changing from just (hah! "Just," the man says!) a solid piece of storytelling into something much, much more profound. They are Zuko Alone and Bitter Work (with The Chase, an episode I want to discuss in a separate article, coming in between). They come halfway through the second season, one brutal episode after another, and, in fact, there's not really a relief from the darkness of this story arc until the episode The Serpent's Pass (which is fitting, as that episode very consciously deals with the theme of moving on from grief, pain, and failure--but that's an analysis for another day). I would argue that not only are they a turning point for the tone of the series, they also signal the maturation of the show's method of storytelling.
Let's take a look, shall we?
In particular, let's look at Zuko and Azula, and their characterization in Zuko Alone.
The characterization in this episode is really quite artful, actually. We slowly watch as the show divides the two characters from one another in personality and empathy. From the start, of course, we see that Azula is a cruel child, but we first discover that obliquely when Zuko throws a hunk of bread at an adorable baby turtle duck. What's interesting about this scene is that first of all, we are introduced to Zuko's relationship with his mother, who, unlike everyone else in the fire nation, is surprisingly NOT a complete jerk. This is important for Zuko's character because it establishes him as someone who can be innocently cruel but who is being taught a better way to live by his caring mother.
What fascinates me about this scene is that it also serves as an introduction to Azula, through Zuko's statement that the hurl-a-hunk-of-bread method is "how Azula feeds turtle ducks" (presumably Peeta also hung around Azula as a child). So, we already know that she has a destructive streak in her that Zuko innocently imitates.
This is reinforced when Azula tricks Zuko into propelling himself and Mai into the fountain, but I actually think it is more profoundly reinforced in a subtle moment earlier:
|My sister refers to her as "Azula the Raging Dick"|
This is a really interesting moment because it shows not just a cruelty but an inability to accept the achievements of others. Azula is shown, in that moment, to be not just sadistic but jealous of power as well. This subtle moment is the first hint at her darker nature, a nature that goes beyond cruelty and into actual sociopathy.
What's more, these first few scenes set the stage for the contemplation of cruelty within the main story of the episode. See, this episode isn't just about conflict or villainy, it's about a particular kind of villainy. This becomes apparent when Zuko has a second run in with a bunch of Earth Kingdom provisional soldiers while staying in an Earth Kingdom home. In this encounter, the soldiers gloat about the fact that son of the farmer Zuko is staying with has been captured by the Fire Nation.
And then, something very interesting happens.
The show decides to get very, very dark with this exchange between the leader of the brigand soldiers and one of his band:
"You boys hear what the fire nation did with their last group of Earth Kingdom prisoners?"
"Dressed them up in fire nation uniforms and put them on the front line unarmed, the way I heard it. [pause] Then they just watched."
That hit me like a ton of bricks when I first rewatched this episode. I mean, consider the sheer horror of that statement, the horror of being mercilessly mowed down by people on your own side because of the sheer cruelty of your enemies. Remember how I said this episode was a contemplation of cruelty? Well, this is what I was talking about.
But there's an important point to remember here:
It's not the Fire Nation that reveals the fate of the farmer's son. No, it's provisional Earth Kingdom soldiers. And the show has no qualms about the fact that this statement is just as cruel, just as malicious and spiteful and sociopathic, as the act of the Fire Nation itself. And, what's more, it's immediately followed by what I consider one of the most disturbing moments in the show: Azula smugly denouncing Iroh, a character that over the course of the series we have grown to love, respect, and empathize with, for being shattered by the death of the son that he commanded into battle.
Remember how I said that Azula was sociopathic? Well, I honestly think this, and the later scene where she gloatingly claims that Zuko's father is going to murder him, is all the evidence we need to support that claim. Azula is just a fundamentally warped individual, and the Fire Nation has not just accepted her mental disorder but encouraged it, and happily given her the most powerful weapons in the world to play with.
|Evil grin at your grandfather's funeral? Classy, Azula. Real classy. I love how this image sums up the children's relationship, too--poor Zuko looks downright terrified.|
What we come to understand through that parallel is that while one might try to push against the monstrosity of war as Zuko does, some people are, by training or inclination, monstrous, simply put. And, what's more, they can't simply be explained with a childish explanation that they are just... evil, like, evil, you know? They're just a bit more disturbingly human than that, and their humanity makes the problem they present far more difficult to tangle with.
None of this would be nearly so meaningful, however, if Avatar didn't know exactly how to play each moment and how to give their characters weight. It would not be so significant to us that Azula mocks Iroh's weakness if we hadn't already grown to empathize with him and his loss. And, what's more, it invites us to become further alienated from Azula when, in the later episode Bitter Work, we see the brief sequence of juxtaposed memories--Iroh playing with his son, and Iroh mourning at his son's memorial. Iroh never directly states "I am haunted by the death of my son," but we feel that loss tangibly, we feel how broken he is.
And we understand that when Iroh contradicts Zuko's expectations that he will encourage reconciliation and sibling understanding, when he simply says, "No, she's crazy, and she needs to go down"...
Well, in that moment, we are primed to understand that he's right, he's absolutely right, Azula is totally out of her gourd and she's a danger to literally everyone she comes into contact with because she has no compassion.
Oh, and then the show does one last brilliant thing.
A lesser show would play Iroh's line for laughs, and I honestly almost laughed myself when I saw it from sheer surprise.
But then it shows us Zuko's reaction:
Ouch. That, right there, is deeply tangible pain. Iroh has just told Zuko that he has to defeat, and possibly kill, his sister, because of what a monster she has become, and he reacts the way any sane person would to such a grim proposal: he reacts with deeply pained resolve.
What I find so compelling about this moment, from the perspective of my broader argument, is that the show is establishing Azula not as the disturbing entity of evil that she is through gratuitous violence but through focusing on the pain that her sociopathy causes those around her. And, what's more, while it relies on overt statements declaring her to be a villain, it also grounds those statements in our empathy towards those affected characters.
It's that old saw about "showing, not telling" that everyone has heard far to many times doing it's thing, here. And listen, I can't stand that phrase. It's a cliche, trotted out so often that it's lost all meaning, and is now tossed out to bored students by teachers unwilling to expand on what it stands for metaphorically.
But the sentiment behind that dreadfully trite phrase is an important one, even if it is poorly articulated in the phrase itself. Let's try a different one: as an author you have to use empathy as well as exposition. What is considered "telling" is really just exposition--direct pieces of evidence provided by the medium to the audience, simple facts. So, Iroh telling Zuko that his sister is crazy is exposition--it is a direct statement of analysis that we don't have to dig into the show to find. We don't feel exposition, we simply know exposition.
But where this really gets tricky, and where I think a lot of stories get that damn cliche disasterously wrong, is that showing is equated to action--you have to have your characters do things so that the audience feels the information that exposition allows us to know.
Except what Avatar shows is that it isn't just action alone, it is not just characters doing thing, that fills in that feeling. It is, more precisely, empathy or antipathy toward actions. We either understand and appreciate the action, or we dislike the action and either feel pain on behalf of the actor who makes a bad decision, or anger at an actor who we have antipathy towards.
That's where so many films fall flat on their face. It's not enough to show an evil action, we have to really feel the impact. I apologize for harping on about this again, but there's a reason why Rachel Dawson's death in The Dark Knight is so much more meaningful than the destruction of a whole football field in The Dark Knight Rises--we have empathy for the individuals affected in the Joker's simple, cruel game than we do for that eyeroll-inducing nine year old warbling his way through the National Anthem. It is exposition and action without empathy, and it falls flat, just like any art without empathy will.
So, all that is well and good, but where's that exploitation thing I talked about earlier?
I actually think it's pretty simple. There's a difference between pain that is sensationalized--pain that is induced through this sort of action without empathy, call it pain for pain's sake, pain that serves as exposition but does not actually build character--and pain that is inflicted upon the consumer of media via bonds of compassion. The former is, in my estimation, exploitative, alienating, and, in some ways, just as disturbing to me as Azula's sociopathy. It shows that the creator has no interest in conveying the experiences of the characters--no interest in treating the characters as analogous to real humans, in other words--to the consumer.
That's just... ugh. That's just gross. And you know, it's probably not conscious, it's probably not intentional, but man it sure is sloppy. And it's particularly frustrating to me, in this Era of the Dark and Gritty Reboot, to see artists mistaking actions of cruelty for profound artistic statements.
If you want a tangible example of this behavior, consider the new backstory of Laura Croft as of the most recent game. Where previously Laura Croft was a badass because, well, she was a determined individual with an adventurous spirit and deep curiosity, paired with (as of The Last Revelation) some near brushes with death and interactions with people who she learned not to emulate.
And what's her new backstory?
Uh, being tortured and sexually assaulted.
Yes, in an effort to make Laura Croft darker, and gritter, and more "realistic" presumably, the creators relied on making the story's content as dark and edgy and Rated M For Mature as possible. They confused action and exposition for empathy, and the most socially conscious gaming critics rightfully raked them over the coals for it.
So, what I hope we can do with Avatar is see it as an example of how you can make profound statements about serious, adult themes without being cruel, without exploiting pain for sensation.
I mean, if nothing else, you have to at least consider the fact that Avatar is wildly successful with a strong, loyal fanbase. That's what you get when you decide to treat your characters--and your audience--as beings worthy of emotional consideration.
Oh, and there's one more thing. I know, I know, I've rambled long enough, but there's one last element to these two episodes that's worth considering. See, I talked earlier about the themes in the show and their profundity. One of the things that I always loved about the show was that it did not talk down to its audience. These two episodes, for example, have a deeper thematic focus than just the struggles of the individual characters.
Remember how I said Zuko Alone repeatedly places the jerk "soldiers" in parallel juxtaposition with Azula, how it compares their cruelty? Well, that ties in with a few other interesting elements from these episodes. There's the fact that Zuko, despite his attempts to do good is repeatedly rejected and unable to achieve his full potential. The guy can't even manage to get hit by lightening, for goodness sake. And then there's the odd way that neither the fate of the farmer's son nor Zuko's mother are resolved in the episode itself--both are left ultimately blank. And, of course, there is the overall blurring of sides in the conflict, with Earth Kingdom "soldiers" behaving in cruel and vile ways, and the former prince of the Fire Nation turning against his country and his sister.
All of this adds up, to my mind at least, to a commentary on powerlessness and helplessness in the face of both war and evil. When the village Zuko has just saved rejects him, we come to understand that some scars (a fitting motif, really) cannot be forgotten or forgiven, especially scars received during a war that, let's not forget, has already lasted a century. I doubt a French village would be too pleased to be rescued by English knights toward the end of the Hundred Years War, if you want a real, historical example. And Zuko, in the face of that, in the face of his driven, consciousless sister's power, in the face of a conflict that has slowly warped all the combatants to the point where reconciliation seems impossible... in the face of that Zuko is pathetic, for all his strength and fighting prowess. It takes someone superhuman like Aang to push against such tides, and even Aang is brought low in this second season.
That's a heavy message for a kid's show, to be sure, but it's an important one to at least be made aware of, and the show does, through Iroh and other such characters, provide a potential way of finding meaning even within that powerlessness and a path towards a kind of enlightenment.
There's a profundity to these episodes that most media in general, let alone media aimed at children, never approach, and seldom is it approached in such a nuanced and respectful way as it is here. That's a gift, it truly is.
I have quite a bit more to say about this show, so I think I'm going to cut this particular article here and make this the first of a series. Sound good? Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I dig into some of the ways that Avatar works structurally, and what it can tell us about art, media, and the Liberal Arts in general. Oh, and as always, feel free to tell me what a nutjob I am in the comments. Cheers!
You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.