Avatar: The Last Airbender – “The Storm”

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we are told up front that
the good guy is Aang, the Avatar, and the bad guy is Zuko, the prince of the
Fire Nation.  This setup lasts barely
half the first season as Zuko is slowly developed to be a sympathetic character
and the true villain is revealed to be Zuko’s father, Fire Lord Ozai..  The Storm cements Ozai’s place as the
narrative bad guy and finishes the reorientation of Zuko’s character from bad
guy to the other hero of our story.
Sokka, Katara, and Toph, all have character arcs and developments, but
none truly are given the same focus and attention as Zuko receives for the rest
of the show as his heroic journey is undertaken.  Ozai becomes the enemy that Aang must defeat
to save the world, but also the enemy that Zuko must defeat to save his own
soul.  

‘The Storm’ outlines these dual paths for each of our
heroes by contrasting their pasts and mirroring their outcomes.  Aang runs away to avoid responsibility, to avoid
being pushed into the very adult role of Avatar, and Zuko is correspondingly
exiled because he wanted to begin the process of assuming the adult role of
leader of the Fire Nation.
Interestingly, the physical storm then exists to allow Aang to overcome
his fears from a century ago, but then also, to reaffirm that the sympathy and
care that got Zuko in trouble in the first place remains still in his
heart.  Now let’s get into this episode!

We open with Aang experiencing a nightmare which ends
with a sudden, blink and you miss it, silhouette of Ozai.  Ozai has been specifically framed as the
nemesis for Aang since ‘Avatar Roku’ and the enemy for Aang has morphed from
the Fire Nation into the Fire Lord.
Awaken, the gang realizes two things: first, no one cares what Sokka had
to dream about and two, they are out of money and out of food.  They set off to find one or the other or
hopefully both.  It’s a nice touch of
realism that our heroes do not always have food at their beck and call.  And, as noted before, food is often either
the instigator of events in Avatar or eating it the setting for things to
happen.  While Team Avatar departs in
search of a tasty morsel, we cut away to the other storyline of the episode,
Zuko.

Zuko and Iroh are both on the deck of their ship, when
Iroh notices a flock of birds flying overhead (which were also seen in the last
scene with Aang) and claims a bad storm is on its way and they should change
direction.  Cue Zuko’s over the top
response to deviation from the quest for the Avatar, and he dismisses his uncle’s
advice, even after the uncle tries to get his nephew to think of the safety of
his crew.  For Zuko, at that moment, the
Avatar is the only important thing and he’s not afraid to say it, which is
heard by one of the officers on the crew who lets Zuko know that he’s just a
spoiled brat.  Iroh the peacemaker sooths
tensions before tempers literally flare into flames and suggests it’s time for
a meal.  Yep, a meal.   Speaking of food, the episode then returns
back to Aang, Sokka and Katara.

The group are inexplicably shopping for food when Katara
remembers they have nothing to buy it with.
Her odd lapse in memory serves only to let Sokka receive a kick in the
pants from an irritated old woman and prophet of the “sloshing around means its
ripe” world of fruit pedantry.  The trio
then witness a dispute between a fisherman and his wife over the possibility of
an oncoming storm.  The wife swears a
nasty one is coming, the old man dismisses her and states he will hire anyone
else for double her pay.  Sokka jumps at
the chance to earn some cash (after Katara suggested he find a job) and
volunteers.  Sokka’s new employer then
notices Aang and his appearance and correctly guesses Aang’s identity.

The fisherman’s reaction to Aang is not kind.  Here we have another parallel between Zuko
and Aang’s stories in this episode with another character questioning the
character of one of the heroes.  Zuko had
the Fire Nation lieutenant aboard his ship, now Aang has an Earth Kingdom fisherman
berating him for disappearing and being responsible for a hundred years of war
and death.  While Katara defends Aang’s
honor, Aang is busy slipping away and flies off, obviously affected by the
weight of the guilt upon his shoulders.
Katara chases after him and finds him in a cave, where we learn more
about Aang’s past as the Avatar and a monk at the Southern Air Temple.

Aang is the popular kid, so to speak, and a prodigy
amongst his peers, the only one with air bending tattoos and also demonstrates
a new air bending technique he invented.
He is taken away to stand before several important air bending masters,
his old master, Gyatso.  As a note on
Gyatso, it’s a Tibetan name and one carried by every Dalai Lama since the
second Dalai Lama.(as an aside, our current Dalai Lama is named Tenzin
Gyatso).  Ironically, it means ‘ocean.’  Gyatso serves as Aang’s mentor and truly, as
a surrogate father or grandfather.  We
learn from this council of air bending masters that they knew Aang was the
Avatar from an early age due to him picking out objects that had belonged to
past Avatars, and in a break from tradition, informed Aang he was the Avatar
before his sixteenth birthday.  Why this
early acknowledgment? “Storm Clouds are gathering.”  Aang is faced with metaphorical storm clouds
and we are offered description of the impending Fire Nation aggression against
the world.

The label of Avatar does not rest easy on Aang.  The other air nomad kids now no longer want
to play games with Aang due to the unfair advantage his Avatar powers could
cause and he’s pressed by the other air bending masters to learn and master
advanced air bending techniques.  The
final straw comes when Gyatso is informed that Aang will be sent away to the
Eastern Air Temple to continue his training.
Aang eavesdrop on this conversation and is overwhelmed by the idea of
losing his mentor.  He flees, and
tragically, perhaps guarantees he will never see Gyatso again.  

Back on Zuko’s ship, the lieutenant from before, some of
the men, and Iroh sit down for noodles.
It’s a meal so something will be advanced and it’s the story of Zuko’s
past as told by Iroh.  A young , but
eager prince, Zuko receives permission from his uncle to sit in on a war
council meeting with the higher echelon of the Fire Nation’s military and the
Fire Lord, himself.  Here, in contrast to
Aang, is a boy (approximately the same age as Aang now) wanting to learn how to
be the leader that he knows is his birth right and destiny.  However, when he hears one Fire Nation
general suggest sacrificing inexperienced troops as part of a battle strategy,
he objects out of concern for their lives.
His father, Ozai, outraged by his son’s behavior declares there must be
an agni kai and Zuko accepts, believing it’s with the old general.  Instead, in the dueling arena, surrounded by
thousands, Zuko discovers that his opponent is actually his father.  

Family is important in the world of the Avatar and when a
family does not operate under the boundaries of love and friendship, we are
either notified that those individuals are the villains or that bad things
happen.  In this instance, a son is
ordered by his father to attack him, an outrageous act by any loving son.  Ozai, however, see’s Zuko’s emotional
attachment as a weakness and teaches him a lesson through pain, scarring his
face.  The writers could not have hung a
blinking neon sign in all caps saying, “UBER VILLAIN,” to make it more clear
where Ozai stands in the values of the world and in the viewers’ hearts.  He banishes Zuko, telling his young tween son
to find the Avatar or never return to the Fire Nation, to never return home.

This mission or quest alone is Ozai’s reflection of his
son.  The Avatar has been missing for a
century and while common knowledge would indicate he or she should have been
born again, even passed away and born once more, there should be an Avatar, but
Avatar has risen up to stop the Fire Nation.
In all practical sense, the Fire Lord has ordered his son not to return
home until he has captured the Easter Bunny or caught a leprechaun.  He has no desire to see Zuko return.  This creates a conflict in the quest for the
Avatar.  Zuko desperately seeks for
something that may not exist so he can return home and his father purposefully
chose something that may not exist to keep his son from ever returning home.  Fascinatingly, this episode also continues a
trend of never showing the Fire Lord’s face.
He remains an anonymous monster for much of the series, which adds to
tension of never quite being identifiable and alien.  As an aside, when Iroh mentions the scarring,
he admits he could not watch.  Seated
beside him, however, unnamed is a young girl.
We later learn this is Zuko’s sister, Azula, and she watches gleefully (along
with Commander Zhao, incidentally).

Back at the cave, Aang’s story elicits the Avatar state
momentarily as he remembers Appa and himself sinking in the waves, cast into
the ocean by a terrible storm that both had run into as they fled from the Southern
Air Temple.  Katara talks Aang out of it,
noting that perhaps he was meant to sleep for a century and that he may have
been killed had he not run away.  The
fisherman’s wife appears, begging for help and stating the storm has shifted
into a typhoon.  Without hesitation, Aang
and Katara both volunteer and fly Appa out into the storm.  They soon find the floundering fishing boat
and rescue Sokka and the fisherman, only to be swept underwater by a giant
wave.

On Zuko’s ship, a lightning bolt strikes the ship and
everyone rushes onto the deck to see the extent of the damage.  A crewmember is left hanging perilously over
the deck and seas and we have our second act of selfless courage, Zuko immediately
climbs a ladder and saves the sailor, revealing that the sympathies and concern
for others that resulted in his exile still exist within his heart.  The sailor saved, Zuko orders the ship to
safer waters even though it will take them off the hunt for the Avatar.  In an instant, he unwittingly has sealed the
devotion of his crew with the combination of his background, his motivation for
hunting the Avatar, and his decision to put their lives over his own desires.
Of note, we see uncle Iroh redirect a lightning strike, an advanced fire
bending technique we will soon know more of later in the season.

However, Aang and everyone else are sinking beneath the
waves, eerily reminiscent of the last time he and Appa flew headlong into a
storm.  The Avatar state activates, but
instead of freezing up again in a sphere of ice, Aang guides everyone up and
out of the water.  Similarly to the
episode ‘Imprisoned’ our two stories cross paths, but this time at the same
time, with Aang emerging out of the water and flying away just off the bow of the
Fire Nation ship.  Zuko and Aang share a
momentary gaze.

The gaze in the middle of the storm, the eye of the storm
where the winds are calm and the waves peaceful, further helps to bond the two
heroes.  One can point out that Zuko and
Aang have had a connection since the beginning of the show, given the size of
the coincidence needed to bring the Fire Nation Prince to the South Pole at
just the right time when Katara and Sokka discover Aang in the iceberg.  But in ‘The Storm’ we learn they are very
much mirror reflections of each other with the same ultimate enemy, Fire Lord
Ozai.  Both have lost their homes, one to
history and the other to exile, and that loss is directly related to their decisions
to either embrace responsibility or avoid it based on an inheritance of
birth.  The story of Avatar will revolve around
their shared quest to overcome Ozai, be it as Avatar versus Fire Lord or son
versus father.

Lastly, Momo said some very unkind things.

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