Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Waterbending Scroll

The “WaterbendingScroll” sets out to show us that our heroes are not perfect, particularly,Katara, who exhibits frustration and borderline pettiness, and not to mention,
a propensity for theft.  It’s a fascinating show that is not afraid to
pull back the curtain to make one of the heroes look bad, especially in the
wake of “Imprisoned” when Katara’s optimism buoyed others quite literally to
freedom. 

 The episode opens with
Aang pacing back and forth on Appa’s back, already and understandably worried
about the current state of his Avatar training.  He’s only mastered one
element and only has approximately a year to learn the other three, water, earth
and fire.  Katara offers to start teaching him some waterbending moves and
the gang descends to a scenic waterfall and river.  Enter Katara’s ugly
side. 

 While Sokka opts to
help groom Appa, Aang becomes Katara’s apt student.  With almost every
technique, Katara introduces it with a statement of how long it took her to
grasp or how she was still trying to master it.  And, with almost every
technique, Aang quickly learns and masters it.  Instead of elating
his teacher, Katara quickly is overcome with a mixture of jealousy and
frustration.  The lesson ends abruptly
when Aang exceeds Katara’s abilities and sends a tidal wave crashing down on
Sokka and washes away the group’s supplies.
Minus food, the group heads for the nearest town. 

In our B-storyline,
Zuko angrily storms onto the bridge of his ship and demands to know why the
ship had changed course.  In a bad spot
of writing, Zuko actually demands to know who’s responsible for this “mutiny”
which is a bit over the top and more reminiscent of the much more shallow
character from the start of the season.
We quickly learn, however, that the ship was ordered to the nearest port
because Uncle Iroh had lost something precious.
His white lotus tile had gone missing, a game piece for the Go or Chess
stand in of the Avatar universe, Pai-Sho.
Iroh claims the piece is essential to a unique strategy of his and that
he needs a new one as soon as possible.
This is another clue that Iroh is more than simply a retired Fire Nation
general and prince, but just a germ of a seed that will eventually be explored
in season two.  While the rules of
Pai-Sho will not be formalized for decades to come, it does appear that Iroh is
playing against three opponents at once, also revealing the level of his
ability at the game and corresponding wisdom.

 Wisdom does not initially
seem to have been at play, however, when we return to our heroes, now in town,
and discover that Aang has used one of the last three copper pieces to buy a
sky bison shaped whistle.  Like the White
Lotus tile, the whistle will end up being more than it appears, if on a much
lesser scale.  At a lost for buying
anything, the group spot a ship moored nearby and board it to look for
supplies.  It’s not very long that they
discover the ship belongs to pirates selling ill-gotten goods.

 The design of the
pirates is an interesting one.  First,
they do not wear any of the costumes or outfits that we have already identified
as Earth Kingdom or even Fire Nation, really.
They have their own style.
Second, they wear their clothes differently, as well, be it going
without a shirt or wearing earrings.
Third, one character in particular, while obviously a man, has long hair
and large red lips, either naturally red or wearing lipstick.   In essence, everything about the design of the
pirates is to indicate their rejection of the social norms of the dominant
culture.  They dwell on the fringe of
society and law and their design wonderfully represents it.

 A browsing Katara
notices a scroll with the symbol for the element of water on it and discovers
it’s essentially a guide to the art of waterbending.  It’s quickly established that the pirates
likely stole the scroll from someone up north, possibly even from the Northern
Water Tribe and since they already have a buyer lined up, refuse to sell it for
one copper piece, or even to Aang’s dismay, two copper pieces.  Transactions aside, it’s fascinating that somewhere
out there is someone who collects bending scrolls.  Faced with the lack of funds, Katara steals
the scroll, which leads to a pirate lead pursuit of the gang through the
streets of the town until Aang flies Katara and Sokka away on his glider.  Oh, and that darn cabbage merchant, recently
removed from the cabbage unfriendly city of Omashu unfortunately ends up in the
middle of the chase, with Aang, his nemesis from before, sending his cabbage
laden cart flying towards the pirates.  I
want to believe some day, the adult Aang hunted down the merchant and paid him
for all these ruined cabbages.  Cause,
well, Aang is a good guy and he has so far refused to take any steps that we’ve
seen to compensate the cabbage man for any of his damage!    None the less, it’s incredible that a show
would bother to have such a reoccurring character and bother to even give him
dialogue.  It makes the world more fun
and enjoyable, hands down.

 By chance, the same
village that Aang and company just left, is the one where Zuko’s ship calls to
port. The B-story is now beginning to merge into the A-story, as Iroh and Zuko
investigate the pirate ship’s wares.
Unlike Katara, Iroh has plenty of cash and walks away with handfuls,
including a ruby eye monkey statue that delightfully reappears later as a
decoration on the ship, and also a horn that Iroh will also play in the
future.  Again, these are all signs of
writers who care about their characters and the show, recalling past events
because they want to, not because they have to.
It raises the level of quality for the show and helps to make it come
more alive.

 Zuko is not long on
the ship before he discovers the pirates complaining about a small monk and
soon a partnership is established.  The
pirates and Zuko will work together to find the Avatar and the stolen waterbending
scroll.  The scroll, of course, is not
done causing problems back at the figurative ranch.

 Both Sokka and Aang
criticize Katara for stealing the scroll, a definite requirement for any show
with children viewers in mind, but at the same time, an asterisk is slapped on
the warning.  Don’t steal kids, unless
you’re stealing stolen property from pirates.
And stay in school.  Okay, so
maybe just don’t steal.  Despite the
asterisk, the danger now exists that someone could be looking for them and the
group beds down for the night out of sight from the river.  Katara, who promised she would leave the
scroll alone for now, instead takes it from Sokka’s bag and sneaks away under
the cover of darkness to read and practice the forms, undoubtedly motivated by
feelings of inferiority to Aang’s earlier display of waterbending
expertise.  Once again, Katara’s negative
emotions lead to problems, as she is spotted waterbending by Zuko and company,
who capture the young waterbender.

 Katara, tied to a
tree, is interrogated by Zuko, who attempts to exchange Katara’s lost necklance
(found by Zuko in “Imprisoned”) for the whereabouts of the Avatar.  This is the start of a personal relationship
between Katara and Zuko that will be touched upon again and again throughout
the show.  Elementally speaking, the two
are opposites, one is fire and the other is water.  It’s also an uneven dynamic, as Zuko sees
Katara as simply a water tribe member, while Katara sees Zuko as the embodiment
of the people who have terrorized her tribe and are responsible for her mother’s
death; the same mother who the necklace belonged to, currently being dangled
before her by a Fire Nation soldier.
Needless to say, Katara is rather uncooperative.  The pirates, however, waste no time, find and
capture Aang and Sokka.  A stand off
ensues, the pirates want the waterbending scroll, which Zuko found when
capturing Katara, and Zuko wants Aang whom the pirates possess.  What could go wrong when a symbol of a rigid
structural culture (Zuko) is forced to deal with a group who symbolize the
absolute rejection of societal norm (pirates)?
Everything.

A fight breaks out
between the Fire Nation troops and the pirates with Sokka, Aang, and Katara
using it to their advantage to escape.
In the midst of doing so, Aang and Katara cooperate and waterbend the
tide up to sweep the pirate’s ship away from shore, and then later, to keep it
from going over a waterfall thanks to a whistle summoned Appa.  In short, Katara accepts that Aang is gifted
and sets aside her negative feelings, and thus, works with him, rather than not
at all.  The result is victory and as
Sokka reveals, a waterbending scroll stolen once again in the thick of the
fighting.  The episode ends with Zuko on
the losing end, once again, and our heroes continuing their journey.  

The important aspects
to take away from the episode revolve generally around Katara and her
acceptance of Aang’s waterbending abilities.
Her personal arc defined the episode, from her frustration and envy of
seeing others excel at something she held dear to what that frustration
motivated her to do, steal and place her friends in danger, and it wasn’t until
she set those emotions aside that she’s rewarded with the much desired
scroll.  Likewise, as noted, the episode
established the dynamic relationship between her and Zuko that will only grow
as the show proceeds to the literal end of the series.  Much of this relationship will be based on
Katara’s innate sense of optimism and anger over the Fire Nation’s actions and
Zuko’s drive to find the Avatar or himself.
Incidentally, Iroh’s discovery of the White Lotus tile in his sleeve at
the end of the episode, hints that sometimes what you’re looking for is already
present, you just need to be more aware of your surroundings, figuratively and
in this case, literally.  

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