Season Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender opens very similarly to Season Two’s “Avatar State,” in that it exists to establish the direction of the rest of the season. Season Two involved the travel to Ba Sing Se, and “The Awakening,” concludes by informing the goal of our heroes, defeating the Fire Nation and situating them in the Fire Nation. Ironically, given that Season One involved Aang struggling to come to terms with being the Avatar and Season Two concerned Aang choosing to become Aang the Avatar (savior), Season Three establishes the premise that Aang must hide his identity as the Avatar to succeed.
In the same vein, “The Awakening,” is both a literal and figurative title to describe what happens to Aang, but also what happens to Zuko. Fresh off his betrayal of his Uncle Iroh, Zuko will proceed to realize what he did, who he truly is, and what he must do to redeem himself. The episode therefore focuses on the duo and sets the course for both.
It opens with Aang awaking in the room of a Fire Nation ship. His commonly shaved head is covered in a black fuzz instantly informing the viewer that Aang has been asleep for quite a while. Which, in turn, explains his instant confusion and fear as he tries to escape the ship, only to run into his friends in disguise. From Katara, we learn that Aang had been unconscious for a couple weeks, and from Sokka, we learn that the strategy of attacking the Fire Nation during a solar eclipse has survived in modified form. Instead of a grand Earth Kingdom army marching on the enemy, a specific strike force made up of all the friends Team Avatar has accrued over the last couple years will make a go at the capital instead. The ultimate goal being to give Aang a chance to take down Fire Lord Ozai. With glee, Sokka also informs Aang they have one big advantage, everyone believes Aang was killed at Ba Sing Se.
One problem that quickly arises for Aang is the premise that not only must he keep his head down, but that the world believes he failed at Ba Sing Se and is dead. To a degree, Aang’s angst makes sense because the Avatar represents hope in a world out of balance, which this one definitely is. Without the Avatar, the world has lost hope. Further, to keep his identity secret, Aang is forced to reject every identifier of who he is as an individual, as an air nomad, as well. In a swift stroke, virtually every element except his friends, that represented Aang’s personality, has been stripped away. He does not take this fact happily.
Another unhappy passenger on the Fire Nation trip is Katara, who delighted by Aang’s awakening, repeatedly lashes out at her father, who’s men are helping to run the captured Fire Nation ship. Her antagonism comes out of no where and we’re forced to let the story unfold itself to better understand why she’s so angry toward her father. In contrast, when Sokka saw his father for the first time, he enraptured with joy. Yet, the number of unhappy individuals extends beyond the ship to the Fire Nation capital.
In front of thousands, from a castle parapet, we see Azula and Zuko cheered for their capture and defeat of Ba Sing Se and the Avatar. The Fire Nation prince has returned home after years of exile and is greeted as a hero, but the same self doubt that was reflected on his face at the end of Season Two seems ingrained in the discomfort he shows throughout the adulations of his people.
In short time, his presence is requested before his father within the Fire Nation throne room. It’s a tense moment and one of surprise for Zuko, when his father congratulates him, alone, for killing the Avatar. No credit is given to Azula for this feat. This instantly sends Zuko off to find his sister, asleep in her chambers. It’s a parallel, oddly enough, of Azula waking Zuko in his bed when they were children, as seen in flashbacks. Except, unlike Zuko, Azula is unfazed by her brother’s intrusion, especially when she reveals that on the off chance that Zuko somehow lied about knowing Aang might still be alive, he will be the one who suffers the consequences, not herself. Well played, Azula.
In another scene, an earlier scene, we find Zuko gazing at a night sky filled with a bright moon and clouds. One particular cloud seems to catch his attention, shaped like a dragon, and a water based stand in for the uncle on Zuko’s mind.
What it all boils down to for Zuko and his “awakening,” is the slow realization by our Fire Nation prince that he made the wrong choice in Ba Sing Se. He is no longer the teenager who wanted nothing but to regain his honor and his home. He’s the teenager who came to the conclusion that he’s free to be whomever he wishes, independent of the demands of his father and family. As the third season continues, Zuko will continue down this path regardless of the consequences.
Back on the Fire Nation ship, Aang finally has enough of the secrecy and the burden of feeling himself a failure. In an incredible flip of personality traits, he angrily brings up his own honor, a very Zuko trait, to describe his motivations. Intent on being the Avatar the world expects, or at least the one he believes it expects, he launches into the air on his glider for the Fire Nation, to take on the Fire Lord on his own. His flight takes him over oceans and under the Fire Nation line of ships that guard its territorial waters, and into the midst of a storm. Yes, another storm reflecting the inner turmoil of our character, but fascinatingly mirroring the storm of “The Storm,” in which Aang flew away to escape his destiny as the Avatar. Here, he’s doing the exact opposite.
His flight ends about as well with him floundering in high waves, clinging to his glider. It’s then he has his Luke lost in the snows of Hoth moment in The Empire Strikes Back, when Obi-Wan Kenobi-like Avatar Roku appears and gives our avatar a pep talk to keep him going. In short, Roku takes on the blame and sense of failure that has weighed down Aang, saying he’s at fault, not Aang. Furthermore, a rather out of nowhere Spirit Yue appearance occurs, in which she reminds Aang he has already saved the world before, he will do it again. Reinvigorated, Aang sailboards himself to land and promptly passes out from the exertion. In his absence, his flight stirs up painful memories for Katara.
Her angry is finally explained when she dissolves in frustrated tears in her father’s embrace, as she tells him the hard impact his departure to fight the Fire Nation caused on herself and Sokka. It’s a wound that has failed to heal for years and only does so, most likely, as he apologizes to his daughter. Presumably, thereafter, Team Avatar boards Appa and flies off in search for him and find him lying on the sands of Avatar Roku’s island (seen in Season One’s “Avatar Roku,” episode). Aang, in part thanks to his watery chat with his past incarnation and Sokka’s spiritfied crush, realizes the importance of the solar eclipse strategy and is content to go along with it. Thus, he and the rest of Team Avatar move off to bide their time to the fateful day.
“The Awakening,” sets the stage for Season Three. It prepares Zuko to continue down the path of full redemption, now that he’s truly realizing the ramifications of his bad choices, and also sets Aang along the path that will take him to face the Fire Lord. It’s the final period, game’s on.