Remember the good old days when Team Avatar lazily made their way from village to village, resolving problems like errant spirits and misinformed villagers without significant deeper meaning? Then the third episode of Season Three is the episode for you, “The Painted Lady.” It’s an undersell of the episode, but only so much, as “The Painted Lady,” is a much less complicated episode than the one preceding it and less character oriented than the one ahead of it. Its most redeeming feature is the decision to let Katara step forward and out of the gang be the hero. It’s not the first time that Katara has been allowed the spotlight, such as her time fighting gender discrimination in the Northern Water Tribe, but it’s really one of the few instances where she hasn’t shared the stage.
The episode opens with Appa trudging up a heavily polluted river and the failure to catch any fish leads the group to seek something to eat in a fishing village located in the center of the river. They’re escorted to the village by an eccentric, if not mad, old man who will routinely swap hats and personalities throughout the episode. Once there, they learn several things: first, the village is polluted by a Fire Nation metal plant upriver, which second, has essentially been taking their medicine and destroying their ability to feed themselves. The result is a village of broken and sick people who have generally given up hope.
Faced with the plight of the villagers, Katara suggests that the group do something to help. This runs straight into an impressive color coded scrolled up time sheet of many feet designed by Sokka to get the group to where they need to be in time for the solar eclipse and the attack on the Fire Lord. Sokka argues any time spent helping the village jeopardizes their schedule and it’s far more important to defeat the Fire Lord than help the villagers. It’s a practical argument, but one that’s somewhat unusually harsh for Team Avatar. It’s also one that Aang and Toph also agree to, leaving the fate of the small town out of luck and a promise of departure away from it in the morning.
Morning comes and Appa appears sick with a dark purple tongue, the symptom of some unknown malady. The sick and suffering people of a nearby village may not stand a chance against Sokka’s schedule, but Appa trumps it every time. The decision is made to allow the air bison time to improve and to head back to the village to see if they have any medicine. Upon arrival, the spirit and mood of the village is dramatically different with news that the local river spirit, the Painted Lady, had appeared the night before and brought help. The villagers all seem to have their own small idols to the spirit and are also in the process of raising a large statue in her honor. It turns out not to be the only time the spirit appears to help the village.
Come night fall, we’re privileged with the information unknown to Aang, Sokka and Toph, that the Painted Lady is actually Katara, who dons an entire costume and water bends out to the village to heal the sick and try and improve its circumstances. It’s a disguise that works so long until Aang spots Katara in her getup and chases her down in an attempt to communicate with the person he believes to be the Painted Lady. The chase ends with a burst of air, courtesy our air nomad, and the reveal to the Avatar that Katara is the real culprit. After it’s explained that Appa isn’t truly sick (the cause of their continuing delay), Aang joins Katara in destroying the river polluting factory. This has ramifications.
Unsurprisingly, Fire Nation soldiers appear in the village seeking revenge for their factory, as well the medicine and food that Katara apparently stole on previous nights. Team Avatar is faced with only one option and work together to provide a Painted Lady experience like no other. Through the use of boulder thumping courtesy of Toph, weird roaring from Appa, creative flute playing from Sokka, air bending from Aang, and water bending by Katara, the group successfully run off the Fire Nation soldiers. In the process, the villagers discover that Katara isn’t the Painted Lady, but the initial ire fades as Katara successfully argues that rather than wait for someone to help them, they should help themselves. We get a fast montage of the villagers, along with Team Avatar, cleaning the river back to its pristine blue self. The episode concludes with Katara going down to the river by herself to find the true Painted Lady spirit appearing before her and whispering a thank you before disappearing.
There are a few simplistic themes to the episode. We have the environmental problem, but surprisingly, for a show that’s progressive on a lot of points, there’s little to commentary on the pollution. It’s possible the writers opted to let the animation speak for itself and resolved this theme with the suggestion that we can all clean up the environment around us. We have the presentation and not too surprising revelation that the Fire Nation military complex is more than willing to do harm to its own people for the purpose of achieving its goals. The style of the river village might infer the plight of the Cham people of Cambodia, who live in floating villages and were persecuted under the military junta of the Khmer Rouge. It would a subtle nod, however. Beyond the self help message at the end, ultimately, it all returns to Katara.
Season Three has one of the most powerful episodes in the show and one made so by what happens to Katara and what she’s forced to do. This is something of a brighter side of the coin, where she’s allowed to perform good for others through the use of her water bending. Perhaps, with Katara as our messenger, the true message may be that we should not overlook the opportunity to do good on a small scale, even while trying to achieve a much greater good in the process. With nothing from Zuko’s story and little interactions other than the usual variety from the other members of Team Avatar, it truly is a straight forward episode full of the usual humor and in a season when things will become complex and daring, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.