I know I told you I was taking today off, but I meant to have this ready on Thursday. Today’s been my first day off since I wrote the last commentary, so I caught up on my episodes, and I thought I’d grace you with another commentary.
Book III of Avatar starts off as well as any season I’ve ever seen. Okay, it’s not perfect- I’m not a fan of the “you thought we were going to pick up the next day, but it’s actually weeks later” scenario myself- but it’s pretty damned good. We get the whole scenario behind this season: The Earth Kingdom has fallen, and its senior leadership is not taking up the mantle of the guerilla war leaders necessary to prevent the Fire Nation from ruling the planet. Neither is the North Pole, the last remaining stronghold able to resist the Fire Nation. Instead, Sokka and Katara’s father is in charge, which puts Sokka and Katara in a very important position. They take Aang, explain to him the scenario (including who from Book I is still around- not everybody from Book II is), and take off to infiltrate the Fire Nation on their own.
The cast this season is pretty much what you’d expect. Sokka, Katara, Toph, Appa, Momo and Aang take the major part of the plot. The rest of the screentime is split between their Fire Nation counterparts- Zuko, Azula, Mai and Ty Lee- and short, ongoing segments about Iroh.
At this point it all seems well and good, but you’re wondering why in the world I named Sokka first. Well, Sokka’s characterization has hit its peak here. I often harp on this, but that’s because when I first met Sokka, I expected him to be the Jar Jar Binks of Avatar. If the film version was from anyone other than M Night Shyamalan, I would still be expecting him to take that role in the film version. Contrast that with the beginning of Book III: Sokka is effectively an Admiral’s advisor, a position comparable to second in command of Earth and Water (and, as we see during the two-parter that closes out this commentary, Air… or rather, Steampunk) forces. He’s the one who planned out their role in all this, as well as many of the general ideas of the invasion. He’s no longer bumbling, but an effective warrior. Finally, his no-nonsense attitude returns as he’s constantly focusing on what they need to do to meet the war itinerary. Contrast yet again, this time with the midpoint of the season. Sokka is not only responsible for the entirety of the invasion plan, but he’s also had his own training montage- not as a bender, but under the Fire Nation’s premier swordmaster and smith. Sokka has crafted his own sword out of a black meteorite, giving him effective badass status, and has invented the submarine. Oh, and all of his talk about armor for Appa finally paid off (though I don’t think he took much account of the fact that armor is heavy and Appa is a flying bison).
Katara hasn’t had much progress to make, as she effectively attained Master status during Book II. She does have some interesting episodes where she proves her character, first by delaying the mission to play Robin Hood, and then by turning down an invitation to join the Dark Side and become a Blood Bender. During the latter episode, she’s also recognized out loud as a Master, which I guess is a landmark for her character.
Aang and Toph don’t really progress much per se. Toph was already crazy powerful and self-assured, almost to the point of being a Mary Sue. She does talk about her parents with Katara a little bit, but that’s about it here. I don’t think she learned to bend metal in this season, did she? Someone would have noticed that she was in the Fire Nation if that episode was in this season. Aang deals with anxiety issues that are addressed in the same sort of quick fix manner that the Chakras were dealt with in Book II.
The Fire Nation are the really interesting characters here. In fact, a good deal of filler is dedicated to the three girls (and Zuko). The relationship between Zuko and Mai gets some screen time here, but nothing really memorable. There’s not really much interesting here you couldn’t already deduce- Mai is gothic, Zuko is angsty, Ty Lee is cheerful, and Azula is a sociopath who’s unable to relate to normal people her own age.
The smallest plot, screen-time was, does come to something of a conclusion at the series midpoint. Throughout the season, you can see Iroh working out, getting buff, and at the same time cultivating an image as a washed up old man who’s lost his touch on reality. By the time Chapter 10 comes around, it’s obvious he has something planned for the Day of Black Sun, which we’ll see in the next commentary.
This entire half season isn’t exactly filler, but it’s not needed. Stretching it to ten episodes feels as forced as Book I did- something else certainly could have been placed in some of these slots, although there’s really only one episode that screamed “Filler” at me. The other downside is a plot that presumably will come to a climax in the second half of the season where Zuko hires a Firebending mercenary to kill Aang. He appears a couple of times, and he fights the protagonists, but then he just disappears for large stretches of time- even when the crew takes four days to sit down and wait for the invasion. Maybe if the nameless (although Sokka comes up with a couple of names for him) guy was utilized a bit more, this wouldn’t feel so much like filler.
As for the impending climax (as much of a climax as it can be when you know you’re only halfway through the season), this was pulled off about as well as Chapter 1. In other words, it was pretty good. The cast is assembled- a few redshirts, and a bunch of people from the first two seasons. It’s a well done reunion scene, and a prelude to invasion that showcases all the planning, strengths and weaknesses of the characters involved. Pretty well done, but nothing really to comment on, except that once again, Sokka is the only one with noteworthy character growth. Aang shaves his hair off in a slightly badass scene.
And now, on to the Day of Black Sun.