A couple of notes on the format:
1. In the home stretch, I've decided to do two episodes at a time, so that I can really dwell on all of my favorite moments from the series' dénouement.
2. I’m also going to write about each episode in the style of a review, rather than just doing a drive-by reaction the way I used to. (This is the main reason why this post has been held up for TWO YEARS.)
3. Just a reminder: I will do one spoiler-free review that only contains info through the current episode, and then I will do a second post with anything I may have to say that relates to later episodes. Please keep comments to *this* post spoiler-free.
4. I'll still include info from the commentary tracks, as appropriate, but I'm going to put all commentary info in the spoiler post.
Chapter 12: The Western Air Temple
To lighten up the serious subject matter—a former enemy changing sides and attempting to gain the Gaang's trust—this episode relies on the dramatic irony between what the Gaang knows vs. what the audience knows about Zuko. This dramatic irony begins with the early scenes when the Gaang discusses finding Aang a firebending teacher. Aang is carefree at first, then apathetic, then angry. He clearly wants to avoid the subject of learning firebending, especially when he had thought until recently that the Day of Black Sun invasion plan would give him a reprieve. He's still coming to terms with the need to return to "the old plan". Meanwhile, the audience is aware that Zuko is nearby and is seeking to join the Avatar. It's clear at this point that Zuko will be Aang's teacher, but the Gaang has yet to learn this. And they don't "learn" it very easily.
Zuko's entrance at the Western Air Temple occurs twice. Early in the episode, he enters alone and unnoticed by the Gaang. He gracefully descends a rope and lands catlike on the platform. He seems relaxed, confident, at home with his "ninja skills". But as he reflects on his past short-sightedness, in a flashback to an earlier visit to this temple with Iroh, just one week after his banishment, his awkwardness starts to come through. In most of the following scenes, awkwardness dominates. Later, at his second entrance, when he reveals himself to the Gaang, he walks up with a cheesy "Hello. Zuko here." Alone with himself and his physical skills he is confident, refined, and cool; but with others, he is unsure, inexperienced, and dorky.
One of the best scenes in this episode is Zuko's monologue as he prepares himself to face the Gaang. At first, he gives a terribly awkward speech about his change of heart and his new intentions, apparently to the Gaang, but at the last minute it's revealed to be the old "talking to the mirror" gag. (In this case, the mirror is a badger frog.) He goes on to solicit the imaginary advice of his uncle and his sister by doing impersonations of them. A few scenes later, his actual speech to the Gaang is almost as awkward as his practice run. It's easy to feel affection for Zuko in these scenes, but it's also just as easy to understand why his attempts are so ineffective at winning over the others.
The episode also draws humor from having Zuko talk about "good" and "bad" in a way that reflects the fans' perspective more than the characters'—not exactly breaking the fourth wall, but at least opening a little porthole through it. For example, after one failure he yells, "Why am I so bad at being good?!" At this point the audience has seen him go through all kinds of suffering and doubt and finally come to the right decision. He is clearly a "good guy" now. But the other "good guys" don't know this yet, and it makes sense to see them reject the idea at first, not just once but a few times before the episode is over.
The greatest discrepancy between what the audience senses and what the characters sense is in Katara. Katara is often compassionate and magnanimous, and has shown compassion to Zuko in the past—not just when they were in prison in Ba Sing Se, but also when she offered to heal Iroh's lightening wound early in Season 2. She is also easy to identify with, especially for female fans, who are usually inclined to like Zuko. Yet, Katara is the least accepting of the group. From the perspective of the audience, it seems incongruous, but from her point of view within the story, she has good reason not to trust him, as she is the one who was betrayed by him in Ba Sing Se.
The Gaang starts to get closer to the truth about Zuko as they pool their info, Aang offering the story of his rescue in "The Blue Spirit", Katara telling why she started to feel compassion for him in Ba Sing Se, and Toph offering that he didn't lie to them when he claimed to have set Appa free from the Dai Li. Still, it's hard for them to overcome their emotions; Toph, with her down-to-earth personality and her relative lack of bias, is the only one who is willing to give him much of a chance.
Even at the end, when Zuko finally pulls himself together well enough to effectively express what he means to do ("[Honor] is something you earn for yourself by choosing to do what's right…I know it's my destiny to help you restore balance to the world."), there is no warm embrace. He has earned their cool acceptance, but the much-anticipated friendship between Zuko and the Gaang is still inchoate.
Chapter 13: The Firebending Masters
The episode begins with Aang facing the problem of overcoming his fear of firebending, and Zuko discovering that his bending has suddenly become noticeably weaker. To seek a solution, the two embark on a journey to learn more about the origins of firebending from the ruins of the ancient Sun Warriors.
The scenes with the Gaang at the beginning evoke a fair amount of humor, mostly thanks to Sokka. As in “The Western Air Temple”, we see a comedic side to Zuko here, even though he's mainly acting as a “straight man” to Sokka's and Aang's jokes. Shared laughter is starting to build some affection between the Gaang and Zuko. The exception is Katara, who doesn't share her laughter with the group, but instead laughs cruelly at Zuko.
Zuko's problem brings to light the origins of bending, and the observation that bending is most powerful when it's a way of life, not just a means of fighting or destruction. Toph reveals that the badger moles, who taught her to earthbend, were the original earthbenders, and that earthbending is essential to their being. In the same way, firebending is more powerful when it comes from a sense of purpose, rather than mere anger and hatred. As the episode progresses, and the true nature of firebending is revealed, it seems to symbolize the deeply buried passions, or the Id, of the bender. Whatever the bender's deep, unseen drive is, it is reflected in the fire.
When the boys arrive at the Sun Warriors' city, they find a mural of a man in the midst of fire-breathing dragons, which foreshadows what they will soon experience. The Sun Warrior culture seems to be based on Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs or the Mayans. The part where the boys learn that the Sun Warriors are still alive particularly reminds me of the Mayans, a people whose civilization has essentially disappeared—yet Maya people are still living in Mesoamerica, and many still practice some of the ancient customs to this day.
This quest allows Zuko and Aang to bond over their common appreciation for bending and their need to grow powerful. It also allows Zuko to learn from Aang's carefree attitude, compassion, and desire to do right by everyone, and Aang to learn from Zuko's inner drive, perseverance, and brazen sort of courage. The differences between them are signified by the Chief's words to them when he gives them the eternal flame. To Aang: "The flame will go out if you make it too small." To Zuko: "Make it too big, and you might lose control."
Later, when the time to face the masters arrives, the Sun Warriors begin to play the familiar theme music for the show. I sense that the use of the theme music signifies the importance of this scene to the series as a whole. Throughout the show, we've been watching two protagonists, Aang and Zuko, on separate but parallel journeys. In the previous episode, their stories were nominally joined, but it is here that the true joining takes place, when they share this deeply spiritual and life-changing experience.
I love the dragon sequence the best—in fact, it is among my favorite scenes in the series. The dread and anticipation as the Sun Warriors' music crescendoes; the humor in Aang and Zuko's banter over possession of Zuko's flame; the wonderful sense of shock at the masters' identity; the beautiful, graceful "dancing" by both dragons and boys; the brilliantly colorful display of fire; the boys' awe at what they are seeing and learning, exemplified by Zuko's breathless, "I understand".
Facing the dragons becomes for them a "trial by fire". I am reminded of the imagery of alchemy—which I learned about from Harry Potter commentator John Granger—in which the process of turning lead into gold is a complex spiritual metaphor. The Bible also uses the language of purifying metal as an analogy for spiritual purification. God is described as a “refiner's fire”, burning away impurities to produce precious silver or gold—that is, a soul that is worthy to face Him. Here, when Aang and Zuko face the dragons, they also face their own sins: for Zuko, his family's bloody history and his complicity in it; for Aang, his disappearance and failure to face his duty. Both led to the dragons' demise. But the dragons' fire, like the refiner's fire, burns away their sins, as well as their delusions. (“Still think we can take them?” “Shut up! I never said that!”)
In the end, they are renewed. They return to the Chief as pure gold. Aang understands how fear has suffocated his agency, keeping him both from fully embracing his destiny as Avatar and from mastering the most dangerous element. Zuko understands that it is not enough to rid himself of his anger and hate—he has to fill the void with a new sense of purpose, with his desire to help Aang and restore balance to the world.
Earlier in the episode, when Aang first takes hold of a tongue of the eternal fire, he compares it to “a little heartbeat,” and the chief responds, “Fire is life, not just destruction.” Later, Zuko observes, “It's like the sun, only inside of you.” (I admit, I am reminded of the Holy Spirit here. I don't think it's what the writer(s) of this episode intended, but my faith is the lens through which I see the world, so that is what I see.) Ultimately, Aang and Zuko learn that firebending is most powerful when it comes from the energy of life. But more than that, they learn to let go of the hinderances that have kept them from tapping in to that energy.
P.S. Remember to keep comments to this post SPOILER-FREE. Spoiler-y comments can go on the next post.