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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Flow Through The Pools: Avatar, Star Wars, and Narrative Weight

Let's talk about the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender's second season. Specifically, let's talk about how it's basically lifted completely from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I mean, point for point it's a strikingly similar set of characters and events mapping almost directly onto each other. The last two episodes of this season, as well as the last part of Empire, encompass:

  • The end of the second major narrative arc--
  • Concluding with the protagonist's attempt to reach a higher level of control over his superpowers--
  • Which are tied to a cosmic "force," if you will--
  • During his training, however, he sees a vision of his friends in danger, conveyed through that universal force--
  • He rushes off, despite the warnings of his master, to rescue his friends--
  • Leaving his training incomplete--
  • And placing a hard limit on the power he needs to defeat the evil emperor's most powerful servant.
  • While he succeeds in rescuing (some of) his friends--
  • An entire previous safe haven is lost--
  • The villains gain an advantage over the hero--
  • For a time, the hero seems to have been killed in a literal fall from grace--
  • And the second arc ends with a general downturn as the position of the hero and the villain are reversed substantially.
  • And Azula turns out to be Aang's fath--oh wait that was just in my fanfiction, never mind.


Now, before you click away in disgust, let me say this clearly:

This is not a criticism of Avatar.

In fact, their use of this narrative structure is actually a masterstroke, because it perfectly resolves a number of themes woven deep into the fabric of the second season. And, in turn, it's this resolution and summation of theme that allows the narrative structure to come off not as hackneyed or a ripoff but as a strong, emotionally truthful conclusion.

This is important to understand, I think, because it helps us understand when the use of an iconic narrative (the Hero's Journey, for example) falls flat. Look at the backlash against Avatar: The Blue Furbender, for example. I've seen it being criticized as "just being" Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (Weirdly, I have never seen any of those three films criticized for being like one another, which perhaps suggests that the claims are weaker than they might at first appear... but I digress). Or, if you want to strike a bit closer to what The Last Airbender draws from, look at Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle Trilogy Tetralilogy Pentalology?. That series, starting with Eragon, has been repeatedly hammered for rehashing Star Wars in a Tolkien-derived setting.

Yet, Avatar gets away with it. In part this is because the series uses the form sparingly--only the last two episodes of the second season, despite how strongly they borrow from Empire, really make use of the narrative. It's not overwhelmingly present anywhere else that I can see (feel free to prove me wrong, though). But as I mentioned above, I think there's a deeper, more visceral reason why it works so well here, and seems so natural. That's because much of the season was dedicated to making it natural.

Like, look at the growing relationship between Aang and Katara. I've actually seen this criticized (although not, in my opinion, very credibly) as a relationship shoehorned in due to some perceived narrative need for a romantic interest. I would agree, actually, that the development of their friendship and relationship could have been more effectively paced throughout the first season, but then, so could many plot elements--the first season was kind of rough overall.

It's in The Guru, though, that the relationship clearly is revealed as integral to Aang's character. It's easy to note, first of all, that most of the chakras and Aang's limitations involve Katara in some way--his fear of hurting her, his fear of losing her, his love for her, and so on--all leading up to the final moment when Aang must let go of his attachment to Katara to realize his full, transcendent potential. One of the most powerful moments of the series is Aang's--and our--confrontation with the sheer staggering magnitude of his grief, represented as the entire slaughtered population of Air Nomads arrayed in a triangle out into the hazy distance. As the spirits ascend into the sky the clouds reveal Katara as the new manifestation, according to the Guru, of the love that remained after the deaths of Aang's people. This in turn builds upon earlier moments in the series, some of which are wisely revisited in this episode--the attempt to force Aang into the Avatar State that endangers Katara, for example. The series has slowly allowed us to understand the deep importance of Katara to Aang, and now we are presented with the psychological reasoning behind this attachment: Katara, for Aang, has come to fill the horrible, gaping hole left by the death of an entire people.

Which... upon reflection probably isn't really a healthy foundation for a relationship. "Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but my people were slaughtered, can you replace them for me maybe?" Oy. That's just bound to go bad places. But really, isn't that part of the reason why the release of Katara is so important?

It's actually really interesting to me, if you'll forgive the brief aside, how important Katara's standing as an equal partner to Aang is in all of this. If she wasn't such a skilled bender, if she wasn't forced to put herself in harm's way by her value as both a warrior and a healer, the urgency of Aang's fears would be far less palpable. The relationship between Katara and Aang works because it is a relationship of peers, not one of hero and emotional support, and the show often can't make up its mind whether it wants Aang or Katara to be the real Main Character. It's the very fact that Katara is not reduced to an object of Aang's affection that makes the affection so powerful. Just something worth considering for aspiring authors who can't seem to bring themselves to flesh out their female characters.

Hey! This article is ostensibly about why the blatant lifting of the plot of Star Wars works so well here! Let's get back to that, huh?

All of this building up of the Aang/Katara relationship is leading to that last, sudden, climactic choice to leave the Guru and return to Ba Sing Se. It's the moment in Empire when Luke senses Leia and Han in pain in the future on Bespin and decides to leave Yoda to rescue them. By now you should have a pretty good idea of why it works:

It's because to Aang, Katara truly does represent a replacement for all that he has lost, and the thought of losing her is absolutely unbearable.

Without this grounding in Aang's loss, his anxiety, his guilt, his pain... without, in short, an almost overly comprehensive grounding in character, this moment plays out like the weakest of cliches. Of course the hero goes off and saves the fair maiden. That's what heroes do! What an utter bore. The story just becomes a bunch of cardboard cutouts carrying out mindless orders. But because the series has spent so much time establishing exactly what Katara means to Aang, and then positioning Katara as a balm for Aang's grief directly before he has to suddenly, tangibly confront his fears of losing her, it comes off not as the hero doing what a hero does, but a boy struggling to balance what is right, what is necessary, and what he can permit without psychologically breaking. Much of this is, of course, on the surface: it is expository. But remember the line I used in my first article on Avatar: "as an author you have to use empathy as well as exposition." They're not just "telling"--giving us exposition--they're also "showing"--providing an emotional core for the exposition.

So, alright, it's clear that grounded character motivation can keep a pre-chewed plot point looking fresh. And I think that does, to some extent, help us explain where a movie like Avatar: The Blue Furbender falls a bit flat. Although I am not as critical of the film as some, plot elements like the rejection of Sully by the Na'vi feels contrived, and not driven by honest, consistent characterization. Such a moment should seem inevitable because the characters can make no other emotional choice, not because the plot calls for it.

But there's still something missing. So far we've talked about choices. But what about narrative events that don't involve choices? Why, for example, does the main character's mentor die in Eragon? It's not exactly what we would call wrong from a character perspective, but the move feels rote rather than earned. Why?

I think we can find the answer to this in an element not present in The Empire Strikes Back: the parallel development of Aang and Zuko.

Actually, I'm going to cheat a bit here and return to an idea I covered in Suffering Will Be Your Teacher. See, I've already talked about the two characters as connected through the lens of Zuko's failures before:

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. ... It takes someone superhuman like Aang to push against such tides, and even Aang is brought low in this second season.

Now, in the last article my point was that Avatar was addressing topics of war, suffering, cruelty, and powerlessness in a way that was profound and conscious of its audience's--and its character's--needs. I want to return to that idea of the scars of the conflict in a different sense here: there are lasting marks on both Zuko and Aang that the two must navigate, grapple with, and finally move beyond to progress as people. That's what I was hinting at with the last sentence there: Aang seems, as the Avatar, positioned to transcend the scars of the past, but he cannot release himself from his own past burdens, and this ultimately prevents all the other wounds from being healed at this point in the series.

Consider the line of the Guru during the opening of the Water Chakra, the chakra of pleasure, blocked by guilt: "Accept the reality that these things happened, but do not let them cloud and poison your energy. If you are to be a positive influence on the world, you need to forgive yourself." Although this is applied directly to Aang, it serves just as well to explain literally the core of Zuko's conflict in the second season: he is caught between the guilt he feels over his banishment and Iroh's assertions that he can move on and find redemption not through his father but through his transformation into a new person. In fact, Aang's attempts to move beyond his past--whether his past lives (Avatar Day), his recent losses and failures (The Avatar State, The Desert and The Serpent's Pass), his more distant dodging of responsibilities (present in many episodes briefly and The Guru extensively) and his own mental limitations (Bitter Work)--is often paralleled by a similar sort of stumbling progress by Zuko (most notably in episodes like Bitter Work where the two characters are directly juxtaposed).

Interestingly, Aang often is shown to move forward while Zuko remains chained to his fear, his shame, his grief, and so on.

And yet, in this episode we see Zuko move ahead without Aang. Zuko, having chosen to help the Avatar, has already gone through a transformative experience and seems to have moved on. He has let go of the past and accepted the possibility of a new life. And, for a while, it seems like Aang will follow.

And then the dominoes start to fall.

We actually see the beginning of the season's catastrophic conclusion not in Aang's vision but in the tragically accidental discovery of Zuko and Iroh by Katara. This is the first moment when the chains of the past reassert themselves, but there is still a chance of redemption here. In fact, it is strongly suggested in The Crossroads of Destiny that the backslide for Zuko is actually, paradoxically, another way forward. After all, his imprisonment with Katara affords him the opportunity to reconcile with his enemy and cooperate in order to escape, defeat his disturbed sister, and literally be free of the scar of the past by way of Katara's healing.

All of that and much more is destroyed when Aang decides to leave the Guru and save Katara.

Observe:

In that moment, Aang is tempted with his earthly attachments again, and chooses to be controlled by his fear, his guilt, and his grief once more. He begins a kind of cascading slide back down the chakras, closing them up once more. Again, it's the beginning of a domino effect.

The next one to fall is Sokka's domino. The episode sets up Sokka's experience as a movement beyond his own fears, self doubts, and need to be accepted by his father, giving him the chance to finally prove himself worthy. Despite what his father says, it is clear that Sokka still wants to participate in the battle--he still needs to prove himself for himself, if that makes sense. Aang's arrival makes that an impossibility.

Then, his arrival once more in Ba Sing Se interrupts the reconciliation between Zuko and Katara, and, with the help of Azula's prodding (sidenote: I spent this entire scene thinking desperately to my self, "No, Zuko, Azula always lies, AZULA ALWAYS LIES!") fails his own chakra test: he sees a chance to mollify his guilt and shame the easy way and grabs it. Another pool darkens, another domino falls, another plot chakra is closed.

In turn, this forces Aang to finally attempt to unlock the last chakra. This seems to contradict what the Guru tells him about being unable to stop the process, but remember that messages from old, bald men are not always to be taken literally. Aang has already made his choice, and by attempting to open the seventh Chakra while in the middle of a battle with the Darth Vader of the Avatar universe he opens himself to the outcome repeatedly hinted at in the series: he is struck by Azula's lightening and is killed in the Avatar State. The Guru is right--just taking that step backward was all Aang needed to do to destroy all forward progress, Azula's lightening is merely the tangible manifestation of that mistake, a cosmic afterthought.

This is not the final domino, though--this is not the final pool to be closed. No, the last pool to darken is Zuko's once more, when Katara is forced to use the powerful blessed water from the North Pole to heal Aang rather than to heal Zuko's scar. The possibility of redemption is sealed off, and the messiness of life prevents the flow of the plot forward. In fact, at this point all the progress made in the second season is stalled and, in some cases, outright reversed, just as the Guru warned would happen. The Avatar State, the representation of a balance between the four elements and a transcendence above the scars of the war, is locked, not to return until Aang uses a type of bending that transcends the four elements entirely at the end of the series.

So, let's pull back again and look at what this means for our overall examination. What this suggests is that it's not enough to just have character meaning, you also have to have a thematic reason for things to happen. Everything in The Guru and The Crossroads of Destiny occurs in a way that resolves the major thematic question of the entire second season, which is: can we find a way to reconcile with the past in order to move forward, and what are the consequences of failure? The conclusion, simply put, is that if we DON'T find a way to move past our hangups our growth is stunted, our progress toward happiness is stalled, and perhaps we even stall the growth of our loved ones.

Wow.

It's exactly this kind of thematic weight that moments like Brom's death or Sully's expulsion from the Na'vi lack. They are archetypal elements (a phrase you can see peppered all over in Paolini's discussion of his work) that don't actually add up to a thematic argument. But Avatar manages to take a familiar narrative and transform it into an integral part of both its mythology and its thematic progress.

In fact, since you're all probably drooling and nearly unconscious after all this blather, let me go out on a limb here with a statement bound to piss at least a few people off:

Avatar uses this element better than The Empire Strikes Back does. It's an improvement on the original.

Why? Well, because the results of the hero's failure are so much more tangible. Yoda and Ben SAY that Luke's attempt at heroism will result in disaster, which is true in that it leads to the stunning revelation about Luke's relationship with Darth Vader, but Avatar ratchets up the stakes by showing how Katara, Zuko, and even Sokka and arguably Iroh all suffer and are stunted in some way by Aang's choice. What's more, Avatar has the advantage of an entire season of episodes to highlight the theme of struggling with past failures, which adds further weight to Aang's decision. I find, in revisiting The Empire Strikes Back, that Luke's decision does not have the same agony to it. We cannot already foresee, from a thematic standpoint, where such a decision will inevitably lead given the logic of the text.

So, if there's anything we can take away from this it's that no choice--least of all the choice to draw overtly upon another text's narrative beats--can afford to be neutral. You can't do something just because it fits the archetype, it has to have a meaning unique to the story you are telling.

Avatar manages not only to do this but also to address, through its narrative, questions that I think we all struggle with as we mature. The question of how we reconcile our past with our need to move forward is one I still struggle with personally, and one that I think many people my age grapple with as they move from college to work, further education, new relationships, and so on. Another good counterargument to those who mock the lovers of media ostensibly for children, no? Once more we see Avatar moving beyond the narrow confines of the Target Audience to say something profound. And, what's more, it takes the constraints of a narrative formula and moves beyond that, too, finding a way to adapt and accept the formula while still moving forward.

On every level, then, Avatar finds a way to move us up and out through the pools.

And the animation continues to be fantastic, too!

Speaking of moving beyond the messyness of life to progress forward, it's been over a month since I last posted! Hey, yeah, uh, sorry about that everyone. What was a part time job unexpectedly became a very labor intensive, exhausting full time job, and on top of that I've been working on a number of scholarship applications for graduate level study. Things have been a bit crazy around here. I'm actually planning on doing an article on just what kept me so busy, but before that I want to do another Avatar article (and probably a fourth one at some point) and an article on the crazy successful Homestuck Kickstarter.

I'm hoping that we won't have too many more delays for a while, but at this point I think we can all accept that the Two Posts A Week thing--a challenge that was always more about forcing myself to become a stronger writer, anyway--is basically done. When I first started I was posting three articles a week, which was great, wowie zowie, I had so much content! Except that this article you just read is more than three times as long as those articles were. Basically, I just can't shut up. What's more, I'm spending a lot of time rewriting these articles before they go out to make sure they're up to my own standard of quality. So, I'm doing WAY more work now than when I first started, on top of a full time job, looking for other work for when this job ends, looking for grad school programs, working on my own art, sleep, and...

Look, what I'm getting at is that I still love you dearly but we're going to have to see less of each other, darling. I know, I know, you've grown so accustomed to your chair, and Abraxas the Hideous Armrest Rat, and your terrible beer, but I shall have to [sigh] vacate my seat. No, no, don't get up right now, I'm not leaving for a few more minutes, it's ok. But as of now I'll be posting articles when they are done, not based on some sort of stupid webcomic-style update schedule.

Want to keep abreast of article developments? As always, You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. I really recommend following me, as that way you can always keep up to date without having to constantly reload this damn page. And of course, 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.

6 comments:

  1. In response to your method of getting the word out, I recommend setting up an RSS feed. I for one never got into them, but I do know a lot of people did. Maybe it's not worth the effort, but I have a feeling Google (who owns blogspot) would make it easy.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, not a bad idea. I couldn't quite figure out how to do that last time I looked into it, but that was a few months ago now when I had a lot of other things distracting me.

      Delete
  2. Actually, I think there's another thing that really works in Avatar's favor that you didn't mention: the Hindsight factor. It's been a while for me since Empire, but if I recall correctly, if Luke had not gone to save them, things probably would have been worse. Whatever claims Yoda & Obi-wan made, it can't really stand up to the reality that, frankly, he helped.

    Now look at Avatar. What happens if Aang does not go back? Honestly, I think Azula never makes her offer to Zuko. She severely underestimates the main characters besides Aang, and would not consider them a threat. And, considering how effective Katara was against Azula in that fight, it may very well have gone better as Katara & Zuko vs Azula + Dai-Li as opposed to Katara & Aang vs Azula, Zuko, and the Dai-Li.

    I think that really helps hammer home the theme here. Not only did Aang's backslide stunt the character growth, but, in fact, made everything worse for the group in the short term.

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  3. I... I have nothing constructive to say. This was an absolutely phenomenal post. Well done, and glad you're back.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Several weeks late, but I was just linked to your site and I've enjoyed everything I've read so far.

    There's one thing you didn't mention that I found to be an interesting, alternative take on Aang's decision not to unlock the final chakra. When Aang and Iroh are searching for Katara and Zuko, Aang describes his decision and Iroh agrees with him, saying that it was a wise decision to choose happiness and love over power and perfection. He follows with a philosophical one-liner, "Sometimes, life is like this dark tunnel. You can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving, you will come to a better place."

    This introduces an alternate theme for the series that doing the right thing may be more difficult but worthwhile in the end. This theme is a significant one in season 3 all the way up to Aang's reluctance to kill Ozai, though that would have easily brought the war to an end. You mention that Zuko fell to the 'easy way' when he sided with Azula, but wouldn't Aang releasing his earthly attachments to attain the power of the Avatar State be just as much of an easy out?

    This actually somewhat matches what happens in Empire Strikes Back, as isaic16 said, where Luke's decision to return to Cloud City turned out to be the better choice. With knowledge of what happens in season 3, the setbacks caused by Aang's return turn out to be temporary and the good guys win. This brings up the question of whether such a good end-result was because of or inspite of Aang's decision and whether or not Aang's decision was actually the better one, though it made the immediate situation take a turn for the worse.

    We could ask ourselves what might have happened had Aang made the different decision. Zuko might not have backslid under Azula's influence, but he might never have had the chance to confront his father and fully reject the darker path. Aang would have had the power of the Avatar State; would he have been as hesitant to fight Ozai in season 3 with that power? Would he have sought out the alternative spirit-bending method if the easy path of overpowering him with the Avatar State was available?

    It's a 'what if' scenario of a fictional story, so there's no right answer. I suppose I would simply say that it is not so easy to say that Aang's decision was the wrong one, as your analysis suggests that the show implied.

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    1. Congratulations, you have discovered the secret of Close Reading: there's always something left out, usually by deliberate choice. Really, understand that and you understand a HUGE part of what makes Formalism tick, because Formalism is, at its core, about smoothing the text into a neat, organized argument.

      It's like Euclid: if you start with a different set of given statements than he does, you end up with Non-Euclidean Geometry. What you've done to my analysis is added another postulate back in, if that makes sense, and arrived at a very different set of structures.

      Which is a super long and pretentious way of saying that I really dig your analysis here, and I think you have a great point. :D Cheers!

      Delete

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