From the South Pole Iceberg to the Republic City Portal: A Critical Study of the Avatar Franchise: Part Seven
ATLA Book One: Water
Chapter Eight: Winter Solstice Part Two: Avatar Roku
In which Momo catches
a fish, Sokka tries to fly, and Iroh strokes his beard thoughtfully.
“Avatar Roku” is the second part of the loosely connected “Winter
Solstice” two-parter, and is noticeably more arc intensive than “The Spirit
World”. It gives big roles for Zhao and Zuko, with Zhao appearing for the first
time since “The Southern Air Temple”. Furthermore, this is the first episode
Zhao is directly presented as an antagonist to the Gaang, and the first time
Zuko is presented in the same way since “The Avatar Returns”. It is also, as
the title suggests, the audience’s introduction to Roku.
Meeting Roku is, of course, a crucial stage in Aang’s hero’s
journey, as he is introduced to his mentor figure. Roku has been flitting
around the edges of the show since the beginning, appearing with his face in
shadow in the title sequence as Katara mentions the disappearance of the
Avatar, and first being named when Aang sees his statue. Thus far, Roku has
largely been defined by the mystery surrounding his character: note how the
title sequence associates him with the disappearance of the Avatar even though
Aang was the Avatar who vanished from the world for one hundred years, and the
curious fact that, even after this episode, at this point in the show we arguably
know more about Kyoshi’s lifetime as the Avatar than we do about Roku’s.
Instead fleshing out Roku as character, which comes later on in the show, the
episode introduces him as both a mentor and a character who can change the shape
of the series.
Roku changes the shape of the series in two major ways over
the course of the episode. Firstly, his warning gives the show a definite
endpoint in the form of Sozin’s comet, providing a timeframe within which Aang
must learn all four elements in order to become a fully-fledged Avatar. Roku’s
brief appearance in Avatar state also gives an idea of where Aang’s journey is
going to end, as for the first time we see what a fully-fledged Avatar with
mastery over the Avatar state and all four elements looks like. The show has
undeniably been changed by these things: the journey so far has been relatively
relaxed and undefined so far, but Roku’s introduction offers a clear endpoint
for Aang’s journey and a ticking clock to inject a sense of urgency into
proceedings. Ultimately, Roku’s introduction changes the shape of the series
because he is a character who makes its ending inevitable.
The episode also offers a major change to the series through
the nuance it adds to the conflict of the hundred year war. This nuance comes
from the introduction of good Fire Nation Characters in Roku and Shyu: for the
first time, we are presented with Fire Nation characters who are unquestionably
on the same side as our heroes, moving the series away from a model where one
nation is straightforwardly the evil nation, instead having good and bad people
on all sides of the war. Both Shyu and Roku serve different purposes in
introducing good Fire Nation characters. Roku represents a time before the war,
when the Fire Nation was a good and vibrant culture, before falling from grace
after his time, a portrayal of the Fire Nation made clearer in “The Avatar and
the Fire Lord”. By contrast, Shyu shows the Fire Nation still has ordinary people
who can make it redeemable in its present, and bring it back to the place in
the world it occupied in Roku’s time, a fact that is crucial to the resolution
of the series.
Zuko and Iroh fit strangely into this shifting image of the
Fire Nation. It is increasingly apparent both are on redemption arcs, but as
this episode shows, they are still both antagonists to the Gaang. After Zuko’s
potential as a character worth rooting for was explored when he and Iroh faced
off against Zhao and Earth kingdom soldiers, here he is introduced in a
straightforwardly antagonistic role, bullying innocent bystanders into telling
him where he can find Aang. This introduction serves as a reminder that in
order to properly start his redemption arc, Zuko needs to be separated from the
Gaang, as at the moment, whenever his storyline comes into contact with theirs,
he becomes an antagonist. Once again, however, there is an intriguing parallel
between Zuko and Aang, as heading into Fire Nation territory is a dangerous
move for both characters: Zhao even compares the value of capturing the two of
them, and is once again just as much of a threat to Zuko as he is to Aang. Zhao’s
presence is once again crucial to Zuko’s redemption arc, as it allows Zuko to
be a threat to Aang while still being separated from the true villains of the
Iroh’s actions in this episode are a classic example of the
show subtly hiding his redemption arc in plain sight, which is the way his
character is handled throughout the course of the first book. He hasn’t once attacked
the Gaang so far in the show, and during the chase through the blockade he
repeatedly tries to stop Zuko from trying to capture or attack Aang. However, because
this advice is hidden behind his attempts to keep Zuko safe (which is, in
fairness, Iroh’s main priority), it is still far from explicit that he has
abandoned the Fire Nation’s cause, even though he hasn’t truly been working for
the Fire Lord at any point in the show.
Ultimately, while Iroh and Zuko don’t yet join Roku and Shyu
on the list of Fire Nation characters fighting for the side of good, their
presence is incredibly useful in an episode that aims to add nuance to the
portrayal of the Fire Nation. The episode does much to widen the spectrum of
morality of Fire Nation characters: some are straightforwardly evil like Zhao,
but others, like Roku and Shyu, are genuinely on the side of good. Zuko and
Iroh both currently occupy spaces somewhere in the middle of that spectrum,
with both obviously not being evil, but both having been more of a threat to
the Gaang than the Fire Nation so far in the show.
Also: oh yeah, Zhao’s in this episode. And as is so often
the case in this season, there really is very little that is interesting that I
can say about his characterisation: this is a problem that will be explored in
a later post. For now, it is worth noting that his presence does signal a more
arc-heavy episode that will have more of an effect on the overall plot the
series. Otherwise, his first encounter with Aang and the Gaang is relatively
The Gaang, meanwhile, get some nice development, as Katara
and Sokka show their support for Aang by following him into the fire nation.
This support is crucial to Aang meeting Roku, as a combination of ingenuity
from Sokka and Katara allows Aang to enter Roku’s room and speak to his mentor.
This little thread highlights one of the central themes of the series: the need
to accept help from the people who love us. Aang is always better off when he
accepts that his friends have his back.
Ultimately, the episode is not clearly about anything in the
way “The Warriors of Kyoshi” is about gender roles, “Imprisoned” is about war
and oppression, or “The Spirit World” is about the intersection of the
spiritual and material, and the effect war has on the environment. Instead, the
episode changes the shape of the series. It changes the viewer’s understanding
of the nature of the hundred year war by adding complexity to the villainous
nation, and reworks Aang’s hero’s journey, giving it a sense of urgency through
Sozin’s comet, and an endpoint in the form of Roku acting as a fully-fledged
Avatar. The show goes on, but the rules for how it will operate going forward
have been made much clearer.
End of Part Seven.