A:tLA Re-Watch: Fine-Toothed Comb Edition
As promised! A third update next week is unlikely, but I’m aiming for the weekend after.
Book 1, Chapter 9 - The Waterbending Scroll
(0:55) Previously, on Avatar, Katara is kind of a waterbender. Aang is also kind of a waterbender. Katara lost her necklace, her one remaining memento of her mother, and Zuko picked it up. Aang learned that he has to learn three bending disciplines in, oh, seven and a half months, or bad things will happen.
(1:50) Sokka worries that if the flying bison hits a bump, the airbender might suffer a dangerous fall. I think we just chalk this one up to Sokka being worried that Aang’s panicky, and like his sister, expressing that in maybe a bit of nagging.
(1:56) We pick up with Aang panicking and having told the others what happened in Roku’s sanctuary already, offscreen. Good call - Katara and Sokka needed to hear the details, but the viewer saw the details and don’t need to hear them again secondhand. Instead, Aang just gives the high level recap to spark the viewer’s memory and also establish what’s on his mind.
(2:11) The party’s still weeks away from the North Pole, apparently.
(2:14) The scope of the task is apparently sinking into Aang. Seven and a half months to learn three disciplines that usually take years to learn. However, this is what I mean about the protagonists being proactive. The details are a bit fuzzy at the moment, but their reaction to learning about a specific Fire Nation threat is to make their own plans to deal. This in turn gets broken down into smaller chunks - step one is learning waterbending, and for that they need to get to the North Pole.
(2:19) Katara also offers to teach Aang the little she knows in the meantime.
(2:28) After Sokka suggests that they find a nice puddle for Aang and Katara to splash around in, even he has to admit that the forest waterfall the group finds is a nice puddle. There’s real pleasure in the work here from the production team, who drew this pretty setting for a one-off joke at Sokka’s expense.
(2:35) Likewise, I’m just going to continue to point out how the animators put a lot into giving Appa and Momo actual personalities. (And they’re doing most of the work, since no dialogue.) Appa doesn’t just land, he flops dramatically into the water and rolls over with every sign of enjoyment, while Momo screeches over being splashed.
(2:45) Aang’s first instinct here is to join Appa in a fun swim, but Katara gets him back on task.
(2:56) Sokka asks what he’s supposed to do while Katara and Aang practice waterbending, and Aang suggests grooming Appa. Again, a simple joke at Sokka’s expense, but this sort of thing grows into a longer-running and deeper issue. What does Sokka do while the benders in the group develop steadily more impressive superpowers? What can Sokka contribute, and how does Sokka feel that he’s making a meaningful contribution (as opposed to feeling like he’s relegated to camp chores)? We’ll see a bit more of this issue next episode.
(3:12) Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Zuko’s also practicing, until he’s knocked off balance by a sudden change in course.
(3:22) Exhibit #837 in ‘Zuko has no chill’ - when asking about the change in course, Zuko immediately characterises it as “mutiny”. Word choice used to show how insecure of his authority he is, perceiving everything as a threat and taking everything personally.
(3:27) Our first sighting of pai sho, and another small thing that grows into something greater. From what we learn later, Iroh losing his lotus tile was serious business. But for now it’s just one of those little humanising details we get for Zuko, as despite his irritation and poor grace, he humours his uncle’s desire to turn the ship to the nearest port and pick up a game piece.
(4:26) Katara starts with teaching Aang a basic move that she says took her weeks to perfect. Which shows how important teaching is - fumbling around by herself without any sort of guidance at all, Katara’s progress is painfully slow. And the group’s just learned that they’re on a deadline.
That said, Katara’s worked out the basic principle of waterbending herself: push and pull.
(4:46) Aang gets the move Katara took weeks to work out within ten seconds. When Katara’s a little upset, Aang soothes her ego, accurately pointing out that Katara had to work it out herself, from scratch.
(5:10) Then Aang immediately does Katara’s more difficult move, with a panache she doesn’t have (at this point). On Aang’s part, that sort of flair shows how he enjoys bending. He likes it for its own sake and wants to have fun with it. This is one of the things that helps Aang improve so fast.
But this leads him into a bit of completely innocent insensitivity. The series explores natural talent vs hard work in a couple of ways, over a couple of relationships. In this case, Aang doesn’t understand that for all her own talent, Katara doesn’t have his advantages. Aang has Katara now to point him in vaguely the right direction. He’s got the benefit of already having mastered one bending style; even if the movements and philosophy don’t translate from airbending, he’s almost certainly got a better idea about how to go about learning bending in general than Katara does at this point (even if he’s got other maturity issues that hinder him). He’s got whatever subconscious influence of his past lives. Aang just wants to do the cool thing with water, with Katara.
Another thing Aang doesn’t fully understand how waterbending is so wound into Katara’s identity. She’s the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. Waterbending is how she’s set apart from most of her tribe, but also a connection to her culture, which has been so badly affected by the war. So Aang just doing her thing and doing it better, effortlessly, is a real challenge to her understanding of herself that she has to actually deal with. That’s on top of the natural frustration and jealousy of someone being better than she is, instantly.
(6:05) Aang’s issues with controlling his bending show up here, in a more mundane and less overtly threatening way than going into the Avatar state and blasting whole temples apart. He got so carried away with doing cool things with water that he accidentally washes the group’s supplies away. We’ll come back to this issue with firebending. More than once.
(6:18) Establishing shot of the town, which lacks both obvious Earth Kingdom architecture, including earthbent structures, and obvious Fire Nation architecture, including metalwork. Red sails in the harbour.
(6:23) And in this establishing shot of the streets, we see people in green Earth Kingdom dress, and in the background, others in red clothes. There are green hangings on some houses and red lanterns across the street. In the shot afterwards, there are even a few people in Water Tribe blue. Here we have a free port, controlled by neither Earth Kingdom nor Fire Nation, and from the looks of things, not much in the way of law enforcement…
(6:44) With only three copper pieces between the group, Aang buys a bison whistle on impulse and without any consultation. This turns out to be arguably the best purchase the group makes all series, but the way Aang went about this was horribly irresponsible.
(7:40) The party is ushered inside a suspicious ship by a suspicious hawker to see some ‘exotic curios’.
(7:55) With the appearance of the captain, it becomes pretty apparent that these are pirates. And assholes, because they’re suggesting Aang sell Momo.
(8:05) Katara finds the titular scroll.
(8:38) Sokka’s the one who puts together that the pirates’ goods were perhaps not obtained with utmost legality. Amusingly, he finds the pet reptile-bird as damning as the stolen merchandise, but that’s Sokka for you.
(8:50) Neat worldbuilding detail that Earth Kingdom nobles are participating in the trade of stolen cultural artefacts.
(9:04) Katara ducks out of frame while Aang ‘haggles’ with the pirate captain.
(9:21) And Katara’s back in frame, now insisting they leave.
(9:44) Here, Katara starts backing away before the boys realise that the pirates are an actual danger.
(10:18) For all she’s still inexperienced and untaught, Katara has definitely improved as a waterbender since episode one, managing to bend water out of a bowl and ice it over while running.
(10:36) Poor, poor cabbage merchant.
(11:00) Aang is also getting more comfortable with hitting back at people attacking him. Because this is a kid’s show, he still very much prefers to blind people and escape, but that was an air blast aimed directly at his opponents, carrying a whole bunch of rocks, with a firm “no, thanks”.
(11:26) And here Katara reveals that she stole the waterbending scroll. Which was worth 200 gold pieces, so not a small amount of money.
(11:47) Here’s a refreshing take. When Katara says that stealing from thieves is okay, Sokka’s objection isn’t that stealing is wrong, but that stealing like that was too much risk for too little reward. Katara responds to her brother’s line of argument, saying that they know it’s vital that Aang learn waterbending, which Sokka doesn’t have a convicing rebuttal for (even though he’s still clearly ticked about being put in danger like that). And Aang, who’s very much against violence, doesn’t mind stealing from pirates either. Nobody cares about the property rights of thieves here.
(12:08) We know that compared to a lot of other Fire Nation ships, Zuko’s is small and battered. In this port, however, it’s back to being large and menacing by comparison. It’s always a matter of context.
(12:34) Music night on Zuko’s ship, another joke we’ll see again.
(12:57) Zuko’s luck is in for once, as he overhears the pirates discussing Katara and Aang’s escape.
(13:16) Training accidents happen, as Katara accidentally smacks herself in the face with a water whip.
(13:24) Sokka is still pissed, rightly suspecting Katara’s motives in stealing the scroll were more selfish than selfless.
(13:40) Meanwhile, Aang just does the water whip without visible effort. This is one of the things I mean about Aang’s previous training in airbending likely being an invisible benefit to him (that neither he nor Katara fully appreciates) on top of his natural talent; he’s learned off other people before. He may have even had exposure to scrolls like that one before, even if he didn’t have to rely on them. It’s like reading those furniture set-up diagrams. Aang’s never assembled this particular table, but he’s built other bits of furniture off other instructions, where Katara’s having her first try now. Aang’s just trying to learn waterbending, where Katara’s learning waterbending and learning how to study.
(13:53) And here’s where Katara really crosses the line. Because the show does explore natural talent vs hard work with Zuko and Azula, we do see that Katara’s jealousy is a pretty expected, normal feeling. But normal as it is, it’s also her own issue, for her to work through. Her emotions aren’t the problem, how she’s been treating others is - endangering Aang and Sokka for primarily selfish reasons, and then lashing out at Aang.
Katara realises that she’s been an asshole almost immediately and apologises. She also promises that she won’t use the scroll anymore, which is not a sensible promise. Her desire to learn is not the problem. The scroll is not the problem. Dealing effectively with that jealousy is the problem.
(14:36) Back with the antagonists, Zuko’s got his brain turned on for this episode, as he correctly anticipates that people desperate to steal a waterbending scroll will be near a reliable and plentiful source of water.
(14:52) Sure enough, because Katara is still desperate to learn waterbending, she takes the scroll and goes to practice. Alone. Putting herself in danger. Interestingly, it looks like the group camped a decent way back from the waterline.
(15:42) Katara’s starting to use waterbending in combat more in this brief struggle. Unfortunately, it’s just her versus Zuko and a bunch of pirates. A fair fight in season two, but not in season one.
(16:08) This episode, in shots that focus on one half of Zuko’s face, we’ve got the burn scar. This time the mark of violence is meant to emphasise the threat Zuko poses, even as he offers to let Katara and Sokka go free and Katara’s necklace back.
However, notice what Zuko does not do - threaten Katara (or Sokka, if/when found) with further physical harm. He’s happy to threaten to burn the scroll, but not Katara. Zuko’s wrong to be trying to capture the Avatar and wrong to have assaulted and chained up Katara in the first place. But when you compare his actions to Zhao or Azula, it’s also clear that he’s reluctant to hurt others in a way that they aren’t.
(16:50) Sokka knows his sister. As soon as he realises she’s gone, he checks for the scroll.
(17:00) I do like how this show gives us a variety of weapons in fight scenes.
(17:08) There’s a problem with relying on air as a means of attack - it’s not actually solid. So it’s very difficult to deflect a weighted net, as Aang discovers to his cost.
(17:30) Iroh saying that the situation is, in fact, Katara’s fault is as funny as it is true.
(17:40) Sokka using his wits to get the Gaang out of this one. Doesn’t even miss a beat before pointing out that Zuko’s proposing a pretty uneven trade. For his part, Zuko’s real quick to realise what Sokka’s doing, not that he can stop it.
What follows isn’t one of Avatar’s great fight scenes, since it’s mostly a bunch of one-off villains fighting Zuko’s crew in the middle of a smoke cloud (which also saves on animation). Our heroes aren’t trying to win, just to escape in the confusion. The scroll is definitely lost in the confusion, though a cut in the middle suggests it lands near Sokka.
(19:49) Katara, freed by Momo early in the fight, is busy trying to steal the pirates’ boat. It’s beached, requiring waterbenders to free it. Two, as Aang says. Katara’s realisation that Aang respects her and her skills is what she needs to get her act together.
(20:21) Iroh breaks up the fight between Zuko and the pirate captain without much effort, pointing out that they’ve all been distracted and the pirates’ ship is sailing away. In what is definitely a rare occurrence, Zuko laughs.
…until the pirates steal his boat.
(21:00) When the pirates catch up to the Gaang, Aang uses waterbending on some scale to get rid of most of the pirates, but Katara uses the water whip. Aang recognises what she’s done, Katara says she couldn’t have done it without Aang’s help. Another thing to help community- and relationship-minded Katara through her jealousy, because learning together with Aang makes them both better. It’s not a competition but a collaborative effort.
(21:51) Aang blows the bison whistle.
(22:12) Then Katara and Aang get in a fight with physics, using waterbending to create a whirlpool in front of the waterfall they’re heading towards. (Speaking of, minor continuity error - if Zuko and the pirates came upstream from the ocean, they would have had to sail up this waterfall, unless there was a fork in the river and the Gaang is currently sailing down a different branch.)
(22:32) Appa ex machina, now justfied via bison whistle!
(23:05) Iroh reveals to Zuko that his missing lotus tile was in his sleeve the whole time. Zuko then grabs the tile and throws it in the river. Poor kid just imposed a shaggy dog story on himself.
(23:25) Katara’s full apology to Aang spells out the moral of the story, which also shows that Katara knows exactly what she did wrong that episode. She doesn’t repeat her mistakes, either.
(23:35) With her lesson learned, Sokka returns the scroll so Katara and Aang can both learn - albeit not without a bit more ribbing.
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