mine: atla

vine

probably the best vine ive made so far

Meanwhile...
  • Doof Warrior:There they are!
  • War Parties:*look excitedly into the distance to see nothing, turning back perplexed*
  • Doof Warrior:That's what it'll sound like when you find them :3 *waves hand in front of face*
  • War Parties:<_<;
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 show.

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 insignificant.

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.