Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Great Divide

‘The Great Divide’ isn’t a terrible episode of Avatar:
The Last Airbender, there really are no terrible episodes of the show, but it
fails by comparison to previous episodes, such as ‘Jet’ or ‘Kyoshi Warriors.’  Why does it fail? Beyond contributing nothing
to the greater storyline (mastering the elements, evading the Fire Nation, and
failing to even mention Zuko and Iroh), the world building that can make up for
the former was dismally lacking.   In ‘Jet,’
Zuko and Iroh’s absence is overlooked because of the introduction of Jet and
his merry band, and the dark overtones of Jet’s actions to sacrifice an entire
village of innocents simply to gain a victory over the Fire Nation.  In the ‘Great Divide’ we are introduced to
the Grand Canyon of the Avatar world and then to two bickering tribes, designed
to be as opposite to each other as possible, contributing nothing to the
inventiveness or fascinating world eagerly look forward to with every episode.

Our scene opens with Katara and Sokka fighting.  Katara criticizes Sokka for not putting the
rain tarp on over the tent, while Sokka ridicules her firewood collecting
duties.  Aang appears before blood is
drawn and suggests the two trade jobs and states his mantra which he tries to
apply later in the episode, strong actions are always better than strong words;
i.e. don’t argue over a problem, constructively solve the problem.  His solution works and brings peace among the
Southern Water Tribe siblings and the next day, the gang approaches the rim of
the Great Divide, our aforementioned Grand Canyon stand in.  Their enjoyment of the view, and plans to fly
over the canyon lands, is interrupted by the appearance of a meticulously dressed
individual, who announces that he is there to reserve a trip with the canyon’s
guide, an earth bender.   The gang is not
left alone for very long with this fellow before an entire company of others
appear, but dressed completely opposite to the first fellow.  

This is the Zhang, dressed as if they had recently
stepped out of an exhibit on the Paleolithic, one would not be wrong to
consider them caveman’esque.  The first
arrival, we learn, is of the Gan-Jin.  Incidentally,
Ganjin is the name of the monk who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Japan,
and one must wonder if we are supposed to consider the Gan-Jin as the “enlightened”
tribe.  There have been a lot of
Zhang-named individuals in the world and in history, so it’s hard to say that
Zhang was used to imply anything or anyone.
It is, though, an extremely common name in China.  The Gan-Jin’s appearance reflects a very
courtly and classical Chinese appearance, contrastingly greatly with the ‘savage’
appearance of the Zhang. The two tribes have been at each other’s throats for
nearly a hundred years and continue to do so now, while both flee the Fire
Nation’s destruction of their villages.

The earth bending guide, also finally appears, and a
dispute arises over who will get to go first with the guide and who will have
to wait their time.  Aang, motivated by
resolving the bickering of a brother and sister, steps up and decides he will
try and solve the problem between.  His
solution, to Sokka’s feet’s despair, is to allow the sick and elderly of both
tribes to ride Appa over the Great Divide, while everyone will go
together.  The guide, who does not seem
to care very much about who he takes, has but one simple rule, “No food!”  The food will attract nasty creatures, which
we meet very soon.

The trip down into the canyon goes without any major
incident, though the guide is forced to earth bend a bridge here or shelter the
group from rockslides there.  At the
bottom, he destroys the bridge with a hurled boulder, and while he claims he
does it in case the Fire Nation follows, it seems more out of an odd habit
(though the National Park Service motto concerning visiting national parks is
to leave it as you find it!).  Almost immediately
after, a weird creature called a ‘canyon crawler’ appears, giant half ant and giant
half something else, it attacks the party and succeeds in injuring the
guide.  The appearance of the crawler
implies it may have smelled forbidden food, but more on that later.  However, both groups immediately begin
arguing that the other had brought food and Aang, in frustration, breaks them
up and have them take two parallel paths to the other side of the canyon.  Sokka accompanies the Zhang and Katara the
Gan-Jin, both are tasked at finding out the root of the conflict between the
two tribes.

As darkness falls, the two groups setup camp,
conveniently mirroring the rain tarp philosophies of either sibling.  Then, it’s dinner time.  It shouldn’t be dinner time, but it is.  The Gan-Jin produce food because they knew
the Zhang would lie to the guide and bring their own.  The Zhang brought food because they knew the
Gan-Jin would bring food thinking the Zhang would  and it wouldn’t be fair to the Zhang if the
Gan-Jin brought their own meal and they didn’t.
It’s a weird circular argument and a major missed opportunity for the
Zhang, dressed as barbarians, to one up the “civilized” Gan-Jin.  But that would mean their conflict was based
in something more than something more superficial than a redemption ritual gone
awry.  Also, Katara acquiesces to the
moral truth that it’s okay to break the rules if everyone else is already doing
it.  Way to go, Katara!

Both tribes tell Sokka and Katara, the same basic story
with obvious biases, but creatively, the flashbacks to each are animated
differently to reflect the preferences of either group.  It’s a fleeting moment of the episode trying
to rise above its mediocrity, but the tale within each flashback is a bit
silly.  It involves a hero of the Gan-Jin
taking a spiritual heirloom, shaped like a sphere, from one gate in the east to
another in the west in a ‘redemption ritual’.
In every story, a hero of the Zhang appears and intercepts the sphere,
be it by theft or trying to help out the Gan-Jin hero.  In either case, the Zhang hero is imprisoned
for his efforts by the Gan-Jin.

The idea of a redemption ritual being at the center of
the conflict is intriguing.  Redemption generally
can either mean regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for
payment or clearing one’s debt or it can mean the action of being saved from
evil or error.  In the context of the
Gan-Jin telling, it would seem that their tribe believed that by ritually
reflecting the passage of the sun from east to west would redeem their tribe in
some manner.  In the context of the
actual story, we ultimately see both tribes redeemed by their future
cooperation and acceptance of Aang’s version of the story which will come later.  More on this theme later, but first back to
the trip through the canyon and the Southern Water Tribe siblings’ report to
Aang on the irreconcilable differences.

Each tells Aang the story to Aang and each takes the side
of their respective host tribe, in a way, reigniting their argument from
earlier in the episode.  Things are brought
to a head by the group hitting the wall that separates them bottom of the
canyon to the top of the other side.
Anger flares between the Zhang and the Gan-Jin over who was responsible
for the guide being hurt (unable to earthbend) and Aang asserts his mantra of
strong action, not strong talk.
Unfortunately for Aang, both leaders see the action involving edged
weapons directed at the other.  In
another parallel of ‘savage’ versus ‘civilized’ the leader of the Zhang draws a
crazy looking blade, while the leader of the Gan-Jin (played by the way by René
Auberjonois) draws a proper Chinese sword and slips into a martial art position
to use it.  Blood shed is averted by the
appearance of a canyon crawler, which Aang knocks away with a blast of air that
also knocks away all the food that the two groups had been carrying.  

The food summons a horde of crawlers, but a now
frustrated Aang realizes that they can slip food bags over the crawler heads
and ride them up the canyon wall to safety.
The plan works and soon everyone is on the rim of the Great Divide’s
other side, reunited with their sick, their old and Appa.  Despite this, both groups are ready to pick
up where they left off until Aang claims to know the true story of what
happened a century ago between the heroes of both tribes and the Redemption
ritual.  In the Avatar’s story, the
heroes are brothers playing a game and nothing more, a historic example of
telephone exaggerating the true events of the past.

This telling of the story also plays back to how the episode began, an argument between siblings, a theme which was carried through to the end by Sokka and Katara’s fighting over the facts of the story.  it does touch upon one of Avatar’s major themes, family.  When the family is one, good things happen, when the family is broken bad things happen.  Redemption can have a sacrificial purpose, and making a game between two brothers where one or the other shouts, “Redemption!” and one ultimately ends up on the outs, makes a reference to the original biblical sibling spout, Cain and Able.  Indeed, one brother was accused of a crime and punished, even.  

Surprisingly, since the Gan-Jin have elderly people
(being clean promotes old age!), it’s entirely possible those people knew
someone who knew the true story, and it would make it difficult for such an
exaggeration in retellings to happen…but let’s not focus on that, both groups
accept Aang’s version of events.  They
even laugh it off and decide to head to Ba Sing Se together, as one tribe.  When Aang is later questioned by his friends
about the matter, Aang admits he lied.
Yes, we can add “It’s okay to lie to promote peace,” to our moral
imperatives that the ‘Great Divide’ is teaching this episode.

The only real strength of the story can be placed on Aang’s
continuing growth as the Avatar, a responsibility that we will learn next
episode, was one he was originally unprepared and unwilling to accept.  Perhaps that’s the usefulness of what really
is a weak episode in a very strong show, to contrast Aang’s growing acceptance
and eagerness to be the savior he will be shown originally rejecting.  As a strength, it’s not much of one, and
coincidentally, it was also book ended by the ‘Spirit World’ and ‘Avatar Roku’
in which also Aang’s readiness and training to be the Avatar are put front and
center.  Aang becoming the Avatar and
understanding what that truly means is one of the core storylines of the show,
and in essence, represents Aang simply coming into terms with who he is as a
child transgressing into the more serious and responsible world of an
adult.  

Unfortunately, the ‘Great Divide’ simply is one of the
weaker links in the chain that stretches from ‘The Boy in the Iceberg’ to ‘Sozin’s
Comet: Avatar Aang.’

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