Avatar: The Last Airbender – Bato of the Water Tribe

The most interesting heroes are often flawed.  A flawed hero reflects reality in which very
few can claim to be without their problems or quirks, and so make them more
believable and relatable to everyone else.
In “Bato of the Water Tribe”’ we have the opportunity to see Aang behave
poorly, acting out to prevent something from happening and in the same
instance, making it happen because of this attempt.  It’s a fascinating follow up to “The Fortuneteller”
which wrestled with self-fulfilling prophecies with fortunes replaced with
fears.  It’s also a subtle reflection on
the pain and damage that loss creates and can motivate the worse in all of
us.  

The episode begins in medias res, our heroes walking
through a forest with Aang discovering a Southern Water Tribe weapon, and then
Sokka discovering evidence of a battle between the Southern Water Tribe
warriors and Fire Nation soldiers.  The
path of the fight leads them to a beach where they spot a water tribe boat and
then encounter an injured Bato, a member of Sokka’s and Katara’s tribe who had
left with their father to fight the Fire Nation.  Overjoyed, the siblings begin asking a
multitude of questions and Bato invites them back to a perfume creating
monastery where he’s been recuperating from his wounds.  

Elsewhere, aboard Zuko’s ship, Iroh is attempting to
teach Zuko to appreciate the calming effects of tea (unsuccessfully) when an
intruder appears on the deck sitting astride a horse sized beast that appears
half mole, half badger and something else.
While we later learn her name is June, the bounty hunter successfully
locates a stowaway in the hold of the ship, bragging about her ride’s ability
to track anyone by scent across a continent.
With her prize, she disappears, but leaves Zuko with an idea on how to
hunt down the Avatar.  The Fire Nation
prince and his uncle later track down June at a tavern, engaged in an arm
wrestling match with a man who can only be described as Ryu, a main character
from Street Fighter.  She finishes him off, and only accepts the
job of working for Zuko after a somewhat infatuated Iroh promises her his
weight in gold as payment.  Zuko produces
Katara’s necklace, still in his possession, and away the trio go on the back of
June’s creature.

Back at the monastery, Bato has decorated the interior of
a room to resemble the interior of a Southern Water Tribe dwelling.  Sokka and Katara are overwhelmed with
nostalgia for home and pepper Bato about events and jokes that only serve to
ostracize Aang, privy to none of the in-jokes of the tribe.  Aang immediately begins to demonstrate his
outsider status in the room, slowly moving himself farther and farther away
from everyone else until he’s virtually out the door.  He’s provided no space to participate in the
conversations and kindly chastised by Bato when he picks up a ceremonial
mask.  Glum, he makes an excuse to leave,
hardly noticed by everyone, after Katara and Sokka both express a desire to see
their father again.  Critically unheard
by Aang, both siblings tell Bato that before they can leave to see their
father, they need to get Aang to the north pole.  They have no intention of leaving him.

However, it’s their loss that overwhelms Aang’s mind as
he makes his way back to the beach.  At
this point in the episode, it could almost seem as if Aang is simply jealous of
the attention that Katara and Sokka shower on Bato.  For the first time since he’s encountered the
two, he’s a fifth wheel with nothing to due and practically excluded.  Yet, we are given a sign post by the writers
as to what’s really driving Aang in this moment, separation anxiety.  His departure is hinged on one side of a
conversation that begins with the two wanting to see their father, and his
absence on the other side of the same conversation about Katara and Sokka
reaffirming their intention not to leave
Aang’s side.  Aang doesn’t know this, and
as someone who has been searching for a family and place to belong since
discovering his entire people and culture wiped out, the idea of being abandoned
has to be terrifying, even for an Avatar.
Thus, when a messenger appears on the beach with a map showing the
location of Katara’s and Sokka’s father, a symbol of their likely departure
from his life, he crumples it up and hides it in his pocket.  Aang is prepared to lie to keep his new
family together.

The next day, Bato learns that Sokka failed to experience
a coming of age trial involving the navigation of waters strewn with ice bergs
due to his father leaving before he was fourteen (this places Sokka at least 14
for season 1).  He elects to use jagged
rocks off shore in place of the chunks of ice and places Sokka at the helm of
his boat.  Critical to Sokka’s success
will be his reliance on his crew, Katara and Aang, both manning different parts
of the ship’s sail.  Aang is placed in a
position of trust, an issue which will be hit upon again in short time, and one
that weighs heavily on him because of the increasingly heavy letter in his pocket.  Sokka successfully navigates the rocks that
Bato had in mind, but then sails headlong toward a set of ragged stone protrusions,
to which Bato quickly informed Sokka he could sail away from.  Enter in Sokka’s ability to plan and he orders
Katara to water bend a large wave and Aang to fill the sails with wind.   The result is the ship lifted over the rocks
to a safe spot on the other side.  

On the beach, Bato awards Sokka with face paint markings
telling him he’s now a man, then awards Katara for her bravery, and finally,
paints the symbol for trust and honorary membership in the tribe on Aang’s
forehead.  It’s simply too much for our
hero and he breaks down, handing over the map and spilling out the truth of its
concealment.  Predictably, Katara and
Sokka are outraged and declare that they’re leaving to find their father.  Aang is left alone as a result of his own
actions.  However, thankfully for him, he
has very forgiving friends, who soon turn back from their solo path to head
back to the monastery where Aang is packing up Appa to depart.  Aang is just out of sight when June, Zuko and
Iroh show up having tracked Katara by her necklace to the location and capture
the brother and sister.

In between Aang’s separation anxiety based actions, the
episode was split by the trio tracking the gang through the locations of their
last two adventures, the Fortuneteller’s village and the healing station where
Aang learned about the frozen frogs in “The Blue Spirit.”  Both moments have their own jewels of
wonderfulness, with Iroh turning down a fortune telling by remarking that only
one big surprise awaits him (death) and he would rather it be a mystery.  This calmness and acceptance of death is a beautiful
touch of characterization executed in seconds and by just a few spoken
lines.  At the healing station, we get
the levity of the crazy healer woman turning to her cat and asking, “Miyuki, you’re
not in trouble with the Fire Nation again,
are you?”   One must wonder what
misadventures Miyuki has been up to all her life.  

Back at the monastery, Aang returns to save Katara and
Sokka with Appa performing a skull crunching head smash to June’s furry blind
friend, setting the stage for an air bison versus mole creature duel that stays
on par with the ensuing duel between Zuko and Aang.  The fight is longer than the last time and
perhaps Aang’s most extended fight since Jet with both appearing to be the
other’s equal, though arguably, Aang may have the upper hand based on cooler
mind.  In the midst of the fight, Aang
spots and steals back Katara’s necklace, which he later returns to her.  Iroh, the only one not involved in the
battle, idly smells some perfume and then sneakily slips a vial into his
pocket.  One of the top qualities of this
episode is its ability to nudge Iroh to the side, but offer multiple extremely
short scenes that provide a lot of insight about who Iroh is as a person.  He may have the least amount of screen time in
the episode, but arguably, we learn the most about him than anyone else.

Going back to the fight, Appa is finally knocked out by
the mole creature’s barbed tongue (which paralyzes its victims) and Aang is
cornered by everyone not on his side.  At
the moment, Katara uses her water bending to splash perfume from large vats
over everyone including the poor mole creature, which absolutely goes
bonkers.  In sensory overload stressed
out mind, it lashes out, paralyzing Zuko, June (who falls on top of Iroh
feigning paralysis just to enjoy June laying across his chest) and runs
away.  Our heroes then escape while
everyone else is incapacitated and Aang returns the necklace for the happy ending.

“Bato of the Water Tribe” is definitely a crucial moment
in understanding how much the horrible fate of the Air Nomads has weighed on
Aang, as well how sensitive he is to the loss of those he loves, and belongs in
at least a trio of episodes from “The Southern Air Temple” to “The Storm.”  His fears of being alone, his anxiety over
separation, which drove him away a century ago from the Southern Air Temple,
drove him to conceal something of utmost important nature to the two people he
loves the most, Sokka and Katara.  Like
most lies, as that’s what we’ll call it, eventually they will surface and cause
pain.  In this case, it made happen what
Aang was desperately trying to avoid happen, and it’s only Katara and Sokka’s
feelings for Aang which turns them back around to return.  

Part of Aang’s growing up in the show revolves around him
overcoming this need to be with others and will boil down to the Avatar
realizing that he has the strength to be alone.

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