Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Waterbending Master

Fresh on the heels of Aang discovering the new iteration
of defying gravity in “The Northern Air Temple,” Katara discovers the old
traditions of waterbending in “The Water Bending Master.”  It’s not surprising that a water bending
focused episode will heavily involve our water bender from the Southern Water
Tribe, but the episode impressively juggles a number of plot points and
character developments without dropping a single ball.  In the same time frame, Sokka’s affections
for Yue, a Water Tribe princess are explored, as well an attempt by General
Zhao to assassinate Zuko.  In it’s final
episode before the two part finale of Book 1, Avatar: The Last Airbender rushes all the pieces into place without
making anything feel rushed.

The episode opens with the gang arriving at the north
pole, Appa exhausted from days of flying, and everyone ready for a break.  A quick run in with waterbenders who strike
from boats hidden by icebergs alerts them to their arrival and they are
escorted to the massive wall that stands between the artic waters and teeming
metropolis, in comparison to the Southern Water tribe, that is the Northern
Water Tribe’s capitol.  It’s an inventive
design of a city full of running water, canals and bridges, all extending from
a palace at its center.  As Appa swims
his way inward, a beautiful white haired girl floats by and into Sokka’s
gaze.  Poor Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors
is at least temporarily erased from the Southern Water tribe member’s mind as
Sokka quickly develops a crush.

Elsewhere, it’s music night aboard Zuko’s ship and Uncle
Iroh serenades as two crewman dance together.
The song is short, “Winter and Spring, Summer and Fall, Four seasons,
four loves…four seasons, four loves…”
The tune is simple but sweet and is played in the background multiple
times when Sokka is with Yue.  The night
is interrupted by Zhao appearing and informing Iroh (a little later) that the
crew will be joining his invasion force.  Zhao later returns to speak directly to Zuko, visiting him in his quarters, where he notices the twin swords on display.  Zhao’s mind immediately connects the swords to the Blue Spirit and he attempts to trick Zuko into betraying himself by asking the Fire Nation Prince if he was a swordsman.  Zuko cleverly denies any skill and claims they are simply wall decorations.  Nonetheless, informed, Zhao hires the same pirates from “The Water Scroll” to assassinate Zuko.

Back in the Northern Water Tribe, the chief of the tribe
puts out a feast for the Avatar and master water benders are brought in to
entertain, including one Master Pakku.
While Katara and Aang’s eyes gaze adoringly at the water bending, Sokka
attempts to impress Princess Yue with varying, all right, very little
success.  He does convince her, however,
to go on an “activity” with him the next day.
Also the next day, Aang and Katara show up for their first lesson with
Pakku.  It’s only then that Katara learns
that in the Northern Water Tribe, tradition dictates that only men learn water
bending fighting and women learn water bending’s healing art. Rejected, Katara heads to the healing lesson to discover
she’s twice as a tall as the rest of the students.  However, she learns to her surprise from the
matronly instructor that her grandmother had been a member of the Northern
Water Tribe and had left for the South rather than go through a forced arranged
marriage.

Sokka continues to attempt to spend time with Yue several
times before eventually learning that she’s engaged to an unknown Northern
Water Tribe member.  For much of the
episode, Yue’s coy nature is a little bit of a setback to the usual
characterization of Avatar, and
partly because she’s been written to be a love interest to Sokka and to serve
another purpose in the next episode.
Suki, contrastingly, revealed much more character in “The Kyoshi
Warriors,” where she served first as a warrior and then by the end, was
revealed to be a potential romantic partner for Sokka.  As Sokka ponders his problems, Katara grumbles about her
inability to train with Pakku.  Sokka
immediately suggests that Aang simply teach Katara what he learns and the duo
rush out into the night to do so.  The
lesson is short lived as Pakku crashes the course and Aang is forced to stand
in front of the water tribe chief who informs him that Pakku refuses to teach
him any further water bending. 

Angered,
Katara challenges Pakku to a duel to prove that women can be waterbenders and
Pakku arrogantly agrees.  The duel
follows the next morning and is one of the two best displays of water benders
facing off against each other.  While
Pakku wins the fight, Katara does manage to impress him and wins over the
crowd.  In the process, Pakku also
notices Katara’s necklace, which we learned was an engagement necklace that
belonged to Katara’s sister.  Here, the
puzzle pieces fall into place and Pakku announces that he was fiancé who was to
marry Sokka and Katara’s grandmother.
The clash of tradition with emotion finally convinces Pakku that perhaps
tradition isn’t always the right way to do things and he accepts Katara as a
student. 

Katara’s barrier to advancement was exciting, but not as
explosive as the plot development for Zuko, who narrowly survives an attempt by
the pirates to blow him up with the same blasting jelly used by Jett to blow up
a dam episodes earlier.  Zuko uses his
presumed death to slip undercover into the invasion force under Zhao and plans
with Iroh to capture the Avatar before Zhao has the opportunity to do so.  The episode concludes with Zhao surveying his
countless fleet of Fire Nation ships. 

 “The Water Bending Master” is a straight forward and
heavily packed episode.  It contained
romance for Sokka, overcoming gender inequality for Katara, and an
assassination attempt on Zuko.  With the
exception of Katara’s storyline, a lot of the episode was designed to setup the
characters for the season finale.  Katara’s
strong and resolute defiance against the bigoted opinion of Pakku stand in an
odd contrast to Yue’s weak characterization, and as a result, it undermines the
message of female empowerment.  Yue’s own
problems do connect to that plot line, but in the theme of tradition binding
people to their roles.  Tradition kept
Katara from training as a water bender and similarly, tradition kept Yue from
exploring her feelings for Sokka.  One
woman overcame the burden of tradition, but the episode ends with the other
still suffering under it.

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