Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Spirit World / Winter Solstice: Part One

The bridge between two worlds, ours and the spirit
world, is the description of job duties that Aang learns not long into part one
of the “Winter Solstice” story arc, specifically in “The Spirit World.”  For those who have already watched through Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, the role of the
Avatar and the spiritual realm has been well defined, but at this point in the
first series, Aang and the viewers know very little about the counterpart
existence.  Thus, the “Winter Solstice”
story arc serves two purposes, introducing us to spirits and the idea of the
spirit world, and the idea that the former Avatar Roku can still assist Aang
via Force ghost spiritual presence.
We also learn a couple things about Zuko and Iroh on the side, too.

Our first episode opens up on Team Avatar gazing
upon the ruined burnt scar of a forest, evidence of the Fire Nation’s passage
and a reminder to Aang that such destruction happened because he had
disappeared for a century.  Aang is
reminded by Katara, who places an acorn in his hands, that the forest will
return, which comforts the Avatar somewhat.
As a minor criticism, Katara either had a very good education in the
Southern Water Tribe or some excellent cramming on her journey with Aang, to
enable her to not only identify the acorn but what type of tree it came
from.  Quibble aside, the team is met by
an old man who correctly identifies Aang by his air nomad clothes and beseeches
the Avatar to come to his village to help it.
Naturally, Aang agrees and we are whisked away to a walled Earth Kingdom
village partially in ruin.

An angry spirit, we are told by the head of the
village, has recently been appearing at sunset, damaging the town and
kidnapping its inhabitants.   He pleads
to Aang to stop the spirit beast because he is the intermediary between the
material world and the spirit world.
Again Aang agrees, but quickly turns to Katara and confesses he knows
nothing about spirits, having disappeared before he received any training.  In this instance, Aang’s training, at least
in spiritual matters, is starting to resemble the forest from the beginning of
the episode and his knowledge will have to start from a kernel of
experience.   In the background, we also
learn that the Winter’s Solstice is only a couple days away, when the
connection between the Spirit World and ours will be at its strongest.

The sun sets, dusk sets in, and darkness descends outside of the town.  The angry spirit
suddenly emerges, a hulking four legged and two armed black and white creature,
which angrily and immediately begins attacking the village with a spirit blast
from its mouth.  One is immediately
reminded of the influence of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki in the creature’s
smooth design and mixture of fascinating with horrifying.  Miyazaki’s influence on the show was immediately
visible in Appa’s six legged design, reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro’s multi-legged cat bus creature, and going
forward in this season, we will see it again.

Aang’s attempt to communicate with the spirit fail
dramatically to the point that Sokka feels the need to enter the fray with his
trusted boomerang.  That also fails
dramatically.  The one thing that Sokka
does accomplish is to be captured by the spirit which turns around with its
prize and runs away, Aang in hot pursuit on his glider.   In
line with recent events, Aang’s rescue attempt also fails dramatically, as the
spirit disappears at a stone bear totem.
Upset at his ignorance and failure to save Sokka, Aang returns to the
village unaware that something has changed.
He has entered the spirit world by accident while following the Sokka
kidnapper.  As we continue on Aang’s
journey, and later on Korra’s, we learn visual cues, such as the importance of
color.  

In both series, blue has a significant role
concerning all things spiritual and the Avatar.
In Legend of Korra, when Korra
assumes the form of a giant spirit Korra, she’s blue, as is the energy she
unleashes at her opponent in the epic season two finale.  Later in The
Last Airbender
, Aang will perform a spiritual technique which will be
illustrated in screen encompassing blue.
Now that Aang has entered the
spirit world, in spirit form, he has become a shade of blue.  A later reference to this could be the last
episode of Korra when Korra is shown
in all blue before entering the Spirit World with Kuvira.  However, this is our earliest reference to
the Spirit World and not one that we ever truly see again.

In this introduction, Aang does not enter the spirit
world as we know it later on in this show or in Legend of Korra.  Instead, he
remains in our world, but apart from everything in it, which he learns when
trying to speak to Katara and Appa after he returns to the village.  He also learns, when a giant “blue” spirit
dragon comes soaring toward him, that he cannot air bend in spirit form – a rule
that is carried over when our characters actually enter the Spirit World (in
spirit form).  So this episode is both an
entry into everyone’s knowledge of spirits and the Spirit World, but also
evidence that the writers were not quite ready to reveal an actual alternate
world where spirits reside.  But back to
that dragon, which convinces Aang to join it for a ride.  At this point, let’s return to the other
story occurring, the b-plot, concerning Zuko and Iroh.

As happy as Iroh in a hot spring could definitely be
used as a euphemism for someone completely comfortable and sated, as we learn
seeing Iroh for the first time in this episode.
It will not be the last time we encounter Iroh enjoying a hot spring, an
onsen in Japan, or as the Fire Nation landscape was inspired by Iceland,
perhaps we should just call it an outdoor sauna?  Zuko finds his uncle and requests he join
them at the ship so they can continue their search for the Avatar.  It’s a contrast in the priorities for both
men, one who makes sure to enjoy simple luxuries when they appear and the other
determined to follow his mission at all times.

Iroh begs Zuko for a few more minutes, which is
granted, then promptly falls asleep, only to wake up later and find himself
captured by Earth Kingdom troops.  In the
presence of his enemies, we learn a few things.
First, Iroh had the nickname, ‘Dragon of the West,’ that there is a
great walled Earth Kingdom city by the name of Ba Sing Se, and that as a Fire Nation
general, Iroh had besieged it for over 600 days before giving up and returning
home.  Later on, we learn a bit more as
to why Iroh lost hope in his mission to conquer the city, but for now, it’s enough
that his actions have earned the scorn and enmity of the Earth Kingdom
soldiers, who plan to take him back to Ba Sing Se to pay for his crimes.  Not long after his capture, Zuko discovers
his uncle’s absence and begins his own rescue mission in a parallel to Aang’s.

While the Earth Kingdom soldiers haul Iroh along,
the Fire Nation general drops a sandal as a clue to Zuko, whom he astutely
expects to be following.  Also in the
process, our two storylines crossover for the first time with spirit Aang
aboard the spirit dragon express soaring overhead the soldiers and Iroh.  Surprisingly, Iroh sees them, while they remain
invisible to the soldiers.  One more
facet of Iroh’s character has been revealed, he is much closer to the Spirit
World than your average person, perhaps in terms of personal spirituality.  Back at the village, Katara worried over the
absence of both Aang and Sokka, hops on Appa and flies off in search of
them.  This results in the second
crossover of storylines as Zuko spots the flying bison, which he identifies as
the presence of the Avatar.  

However, instead of pursuing the Avatar who he
believes to be just before his eyes, Zuko chooses to continue his rescue of his
uncle.  This is a momentous decision for the
Fire Nation prince and the most significant character development in the “Winter
Solstice” story arc, even if it’s a fleeting moment.  The capture of the Avatar has been the
defining character trait for Zuko so far into The Last Airbender.  His capture
represents a restoration of honor and the freedom to return home after an exile
that has lasted over two years.  But, he chose
his uncle and the central conflict within Zuko’s character is revealed, one
that will guide Zuko over the rest of the series.  The capture of the Avatar represents
everything he believes he wants, but his uncle Iroh represents an alternative to
the world such a capture would return him.
It makes Zuko a much more complicated character, much less a much more
fascinating ‘bad guy.’  One could even
argue that Zuko ceases to be the bad guy at this point in the show, he just
doesn’t know it.

Zuko does catch up to his uncle, seconds before the
Earth Kingdom soldiers attempt to literally crush his ability to bend to make
his imprisoned return to Ba Sing Se easier.
In a line that only Iroh could make it work, as he stands back to back
with just Zuko as his ally, he scolds the five soldiers, “We may be
outnumbered, but you are outmatched!”  In
short, they were, indeed, outmatched and Zuko and Iroh escape.

Back now to Aang and his spirit journey, or journey
with a spirit, it might be better said.
The dragon, it turns out, was Roku’s spiritual animal companion, much
like Appa to Aang, and the creature delivers Aang to a Fire Nation temple
dedicated to the previous Avatar.  There,
before a statue of Roku, Aang learns he must physically return by the Winter Solstice,
if he wants to communicate with the spirit of his previous incarnation. Armed
with this knowledge, Aang returns to his physical body by the bear totem, and
then to the village, where the spirit beast once more appears.  This time, rather than shouting at the beast
or fighting it, Aang touches its forehead and instantly communicates with it,
understanding why it’s angry.  It’s a
bear spirit, the same whom the totem was dedicated to, and it’s upset over the
destruction of its woods.  Aang assures
the spirit, using the acorn provided by Katara earlier, that the forest will
regrow and the villagers will help it do so.

Satisfied, the spirit changes form to a giant panda
bear and then exits the town.  As it does
so, a grove of bamboo miraculously appears and from it exits everyone who was
kidnapped, including Sokka.   Incidentally,
this is our first, but not last experience with the transformative properties
of angry spirits that will be refined in Legend
of Korra
.  We are also left to wonder
where Sokka and the others had been taken by the spirit, but are offered clues
and a possible answer, also from Legend
of Korra
.

In Book 2 of Legend of Korra, we learn about the Fog of Lost Souls, a prison for humans, where they are cast into an impenetrable fog and forced to relive their worst memories forever.  Those who escape from it, a very short list of Tenzin, Jinora, Bumi and Kya, appeared to be confused or disoriented at first (Tenzin excepted).  Thus, one hazard guess would be that the villagers and Sokka were taken to this place, but there’s never a mention of reliving terrible memories.  So it’s a mystery that will likely remain as much.

The village saved, Sokka allowed to use the
restroom, Aang tells everyone he needs to be at the temple to Roku in the Fire
Nation within a day.  It’s a dangerous
mission, one Aang would like to take on alone, but ultimately, our Southern
Water Tribe heroes refuse to be left behind.
In a nice touch and reminder of the urgent timing, as Aang is thanking
the head of the village for supplies, he abruptly cuts Aang off, “Go!”  

The team flies away the Fire Nation on the horizon and we must now turn to the next episode in the two parter.  The village behind, we are left with another episode where Aang feels anguish over his absence and his relative lack of training as an Avatar.  At the same time, Zuko’s own personal motivations appear to be much more conflicted.  One character knows who he is supposed to be and why he falls short, the other believes he knows who he is supposed to be, but is starting a path that will make him doubt that assumption. 

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