Season One of the Last Airbender concluded with Aang entering the Avatar State and combining with the Ocean Spirit to annihilate the Fire Nation army that was invading the Northern Water Tribe. It was the most awesome display of Aang’s power as the Avatar so far, appropriate for the season finale, but it left Aang and we, the viewers with questions. Throughout Season One, the Avatar State existed as a little defined power that existed within every Avatar, and with Aang it often appeared when triggered by great emotion, such as the discovery of the genocide of his people and former friend and mentor. It is as much an escape mechanism from reality for Aang, as it is the ultimate weapon, an incredible mirroring of the air nomad’s gentle nature and view of the world.
Season Two immediately moves to better explain the Avatar State and to explain to us why it cannot simply be the Deus Ex Machina for every solution. In “Avatar State” an Earth Kingdom general, Fong, stands in for the view with the very question above on why cannot Aang simply use the power of his ability to end the 100 Year War now, instead of mastering the four elements first. Indeed, as we learn that the Avatar State is not the easy answer, we are told that Aang must master earth bending, a point that will guide Aang and our heroes through the rest of Season Two.
Not to be forgotten, the anti-hero established in Season One’s “The Storm,” Prince Zuko, has his own journey to take this season. In the first season, Zuko was quickly rehabilitated from simple bad guy chasing Aang, into a complex character driven by a desire to return home, please his father, and to live up to the role expected of a Fire Nation Prince. His pursuit of Aang is not out of a personal vendetta against the Avatar, but of a symbolic chase to reclaim his own identity. In the process, the show established that even the Fire Nation is not a singular evil creation. There was and still is a part of the Fire Nation that is good and not completely wrapped up in the world conquering efforts of the last four successive Fire Lords. As Season One progressed to its conclusion, it established this dynamic between the ill-fated Admiral Zhou and Zuko and his uncle, Iroh. When the well fan named “Koizilla” wiped out the Fire Nation invasion force, the only Fire Nation citizens that were not obviously swept up in its hatred were the uncle and nephew.
Season Two thus begins also touching upon the story of Iroh and Zuko, but most importantly, on the Fire Nation prince. Iroh has already undergone his own character development prior to our adventure with Aang and we get the benefit of learning who he became as the show rolls along. Zuko, however, is in the process of understanding his own place in the world and what truly matters most to him. “Avatar State” sets that ball rolling with the introduction of his sister, Princess Azula, and the mission she was sent to accomplish regarding her uncle and brother. Azula’s own appearance begins her own story, but as a parallel to Zuko’s with each sibling coming to different conclusions on their lives.
Speaking of beginnings, the episode starts with a farewell at the Northern Water Tribe. Master Paaku provides Aang with water bending scrolls to help complete his mastery of the art and gives Katara water from the spirit pool so heavily featured in the previous episode. Sokka gets nothing but a farewell. The scene establishes a couple noteworthy things. First, Katara is officially considered a master of water bending by Master Paaku. Our Southern Water Tribe waterbender has officially leveled up. Second, Paaku and others are going to head to the Southern Water Tribe to help get the much meager sister tribe back on its feet. As viewers of The Legend of Korra will know, this helps considerably. Incidentally, in that show, when we find Katara again, her expertise at healing is how she’s mainly identified, the training she originally was reluctant to learn when she arrived at the Northern Water Tribe.
We also learn that Aang has an appointment with King Bumi of Omashu in the Earth Kingdom, the first earthbending master introduced on the show. In Omashu, Aang will learn the art of earth bending so he can continue to master the four elements in preparation to stop the Fire Lord. However, to reach Omashu, Aang must travel through the Earth Kingdom and he is sent to General Fong (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) who will provide him an escort to get him safely to the distant Earth Kingdom city. Everything goes to plan up to Aang’s arrival at an Earth Kingdom military outpost, where we meet General Fong.
General Fong, however, has different ideas as to what Aang should do with his time and mastering earthbending is not among them. Fong is a stand in for the viewer asking why Aang doesn’t unwrap his powerful weapon on the Fire Nation, but to a degree, he also represents a stereotype of the military brass who always yearn for the decisive weapon with which to overcome his enemy. Fong doesn’t want the biggest tank or the largest bomb, but he does want the Avatar State. Prior to Aang’s arrival, our avatar had suffered a nightmare of his own destructive abilities with this special power. He was afraid of its capacity for damage and the possibility of hurting others with it. When confronted with an authority figure rather forcefully suggesting that he learn to control it, Aang reluctantly agrees.
What follows is a great example of the show’s ability to find humor in what
might be taken seriously in other shows. In a lot of shows and movies, a character’s quest to achieve that next level of power, that new technique, is often accompanied by a montage of serious training, and of scenes that are almost solemn in their determination to convey to the viewer that something important is happening. The corresponding montage in “Avatar State” upends this idea with the attempts to help Aang enter the Avatar State growing continually sillier. The pinnacle of these attempts has Aang dressed in ceremonial regalia of all four nations and then splattered with a messy concoction of all four elements. It fails. Had the episode left these attempts as the only way the determined Earth Kingdom general sought to incite the Avatar State, the show would have remained a fine season opener, but the writers elected to take things much darker.
Fong, faced with the failure of the previous
attempts to induce the Avatar State, decides to directly threaten Aang and
orders his troops to attack the avatar.
It’s the equivalent of hitting your gadget when every other remedy has
failed, risking the chance of damaging it out of frustration. This, too, proves insufficient and the Earth
Kingdom general turns to one last idea – physically threatening Katara. It’s a darker reflection of Bumi’s own plan
to force Aang to face the three challenges when he threatened both Sokka and
Katara with crystalline encasement and it works. Enraged over what appears to be Katara’s
death by Fong’s own earthbending, Aang enters the Avatar State and destruction
is rained down upon the Earth Kingdom outpost.
In the midst of the Avatar fueled demolition, Aang’s spirit form rises
from his body and Spirit Roku upon his dragon swoops down and picks up the
Roku quickly explains the basics of the Avatar
State, standing in for the writers and creators of the Avatar world. It’s the power built upon the combined
knowledge and strengths of all the previous Avatars and allows every Avatar
incredible abilities. However, and this
is the point we get when we learn it shouldn’t be used in every situation, if
Aang were to die in the Avatar State, then the line of Avatars will permanently
be broken. Thus, the unstoppable power
is handicapped by the risk of removing from the world the source of peace and
balance forever. Treating the Avatar
State as a power boost comes up later in Legend
of Korra as does the line of Avatars and the Avatar Cycle, but that’s
another show for another time. Aang,
armed with this knowledge, returns to his body and comes out of the Avatar State, surrounded by destruction.
Fong, for his part, isn’t humbled by the power he
unleashed and learns only that a club to the head causes unconsciousness, a lesson courtesy of Sokka. For obvious reasons, the trio opt
not to accept an Earth Kingdom escort and set off on their own for Omashu,
where Aang’s hopes of becoming an earthbending master await.
In the midst of Fong’s dabbling with the Avatar
State, we had the secondary story of Zuko and Iroh. We find them at a Fire Nation sauna and spa,
Iroh enjoying a massage after several weeks of the two being on the open ocean
with little to no food or water.
Unmentioned, is that for there to be a Fire Nation sauna and spa for the
two to visit, the duo must be at a Fire Nation colony in the Earth
Kingdom. It’s our second with the first
being in the “The Deserter.”
Coincidentally, that episode involved Aang trying to harness a power he
was not ready to use with bad results (fire bending) and this episode involves someone trying to
harness Aang’s power with bad results.
While at the spa, Iroh and Zuko receive a notification that Princess
Azula has been ordered to bring them home.
Azula was introduced briefly as a young girl in Zuko’s
flashbacks and then at her current age at the end of the season finale. Here, she is glimpsed taking a palanquin from
one part of her ship to the next (really?) and also practicing the advanced
fire bending technique of lightning.
This instantly tells us that Azula is a more advanced fire bender than
Zuko, which will come to a head in the show’s finale at the end of Season
Three. The dynamic between Zuko and
Azula was also expressed in the Fire Lord’s own words, as quoted by Zuko in
Season One, “My father always said that Azula was born lucky and I was lucky to
be born at all.” She’s the favorite and
the child that Fire Lord Ozai wants, not Zuko.
Worse, Azula knows this. (As an
odd observation, in terms of names, Azula and Zuko could literally not be named
farther apart on the alphabet in the letter their first names begin with.)
The news that home beckons is enticing, though Iroh
wisely admits his brother is not one to usually change his mind. Regardless, Zuko, filled with a desire to
return to the life he once knew, decides to accept Azula on her offer. The resulting trap almost sprang shut on Zuko
if not for the slip of the tongue of Azula’s ship’s captain. Alerted, Iroh and Zuko fight their way free
of Azula and her soldiers, but not before Azula attempts to strike Zuko with
lightning. Only Iroh’s greater bending
ability, diverting the lightning bolt to the bridge of Azula’s ship, saves Zuko’s
The question remains, how much of Zuko’s life was
saved? Well away from Azula and informed
that not only does Zuko’s exile remain in effect, but the order from the Fire
Lord has been modified to obtain and imprison the Fire Nation prince. Home is not an avatar away, home is a prison
cell awaiting an occupant. Both Zuko and
Iroh wordlessly kneel beside a river and cut their top knots and cast them into
the water. It’s a Japanese tradition,
perhaps best illustrated in Princess
Mononoke, signifying that the two have cut all their ties with their family
and community. From this point on, Zuko’s
journey has changed from capturing the avatar and returning home, to trying to
understand who he is if he is no longer a Fire Nation prince. It’s a path that will take two seasons to
The two stories of the “Avatar State” share one
trait, the removal of a stability from our hero and anti-hero. Aang found he could not trust the Earth
Kingdom military which was supposed to safely take him back to Omashu, and
after enjoyed the support system of the Northern Water Tribe, is once again
cast back onto a journey helped only by Katara, Sokka, a flying lemur and an
air bison. Zuko, meanwhile, lost the
support of the dream of returning home and gaining the approval of his
father. His exile was buoyed only by the
burning desire to return home and by the end of the first episode of the
season, that hope was apparently crushed with his own sister sent to trick him
Furthermore, the episode set both characters on a
journey of understanding and accepting their identities. Aang’s journey now involves accepting who he
is as the Avatar and coming to grips with the awesome power that resides within
himself. Zuko, as we just mentioned,
must find out who he is if he is no longer Fire Nation royalty. As the season progresses, both characters
will struggle with accepting who they are and what their destiny is.