Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Beach

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“The Beach,” is an episode that’s inside out.  Four teenagers going to a beach and talking
between themselves would normally be delegated to the B-story of any episode,
if included at all past the waste bin of a writer’s room.  The story should have been exclusively
focused on Aang and the gang encountering and dealing with the assassin sent
after him by Zuko.  This is how normal
animated television would have handled this episode, but Avatar: The Last
Airbender
is not normal animated television.
It’s not even normal television.
It’s something better.

 The movement of the overall ‘plot’ is glacial in
“The Beach,” and almost as an afterthought, as the episode instead chooses to
focus on the internal turmoil of our four Fire Nation teenagers, Zuko, Mai,
Azula, and Ty Lee, which is drawn out by their immersion into a world that’s at
once alien and should be familiar: teenagerdom.
For as much as “The Headband,” drew a comparison of what life was like
for Fire Nation kids of the same age as Aang, Katara, Toph, and Sokka, this
episode offers a glimpse of what your average Fire Nation teenager’s life is
like, and it’s something that seems quite familiar.  Yet, whereas our heroes, with the exception
of their incredible bending powers, flare for dancing, and adventures, are not
that much different from their Fire Nation counterparts, Zuko, Mai, Azula and
to a lesser degree, Ty Lee, stand apart as outsiders.

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 Their outsider status, which has granted them all
incredible adventures, skills and experiences beyond what any normal teenager
would expect to have undergone, has also built a wall between them and the
general ability to socialize with their peers.
It also brings into consideration the role of parents for every major
character under twenty in Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Perhaps the greatest theme in the show is
family, it underpins and connects virtually every character and dynamic, and
for our non-adult characters, the most important members of the family are
their parents.

 Concerning Team Avatar, the most obvious character
with parent issues is Toph Beifong.  She
lived a lie to please them and to have the freedom to pursue her earth bending,
that is, until she made the decision to run away from home premised on their
complete failure to recognize her as a person to understand than a child to
control.  As poignantly expressed in “The
Awakening,” the departure of Sokka’s and Katara’s father had a significant
impact on both of the siblings, and the very motherly nature of Katara, a
dominant aspect of her personality, exists in part because of her father’s
absence.  In a minor degree, Sokka also
suffered, such as being unable to participate in an important Water Tribe
coming of age ritual because his father and the men of the village were gone (“Bato
of the Water Tribe”).  Then we have Aang,
who had a father figure in the monk Gyatso, and when faced with the threat of
being sent away from him, chose to runaway himself – an act which precipitated
the absence of the Avatar for one hundred years.  The absence or failure of parenting played a
significant role in our hero’s lives, and now we receive an excellent primer on
the parenting of our loosely defined ‘villains.’

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 Azula, Zuko, Ty Lee, and Mai, all reveal the inner
damage done by their parents in the emotional climax of the episode, a scene
which is based entirely on four people gathered around a campfire on a
beach.  Yes, in the same episode where a
man blows stuff up with his mind, this is the climax.  Also, awesomely snuck into the episode is an
exploration of the pressures of the dating world on women. Let’s get to it.

 It begins with the group arriving at Ember Island,
which despite sounding like a Pokemon destination, is actually the Fire Nation
equivalent of what the Ryukyu Islands are to Japan, a sunny, sandy paradise for
vacations.  While the number of times Ty
Lee and Mai have been to the island is not truly clear, we are told that Azula
and Zuko’s family did vacation there often when they were young.  The twins Li and Lo greet the group and
escort them to their small vacation home, sandwiched between giant luxurious
homes along the island’s beach dotted cliffs.
Inside said home, we are greeted with an image of the twins as young
women in two piece swimsuits, before offered a glimpse of them in swimsuits
that don’t quite cover nearly enough of them up (Mai covers Zuko’s eyes, but it
may have been too late – also, the photograph is used in an excellent, if short, discussion by ATLA: Annotations on the two women being imperial consorts – read it
here!
).  Disregarding the discussion of
the twins’ beach bodies, both insist that Ember Island is a special place
because it has the ability to strip away the superficial layers to help people
come face to face with who they truly are.

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 A trip to the beach follows, where absent Fire
Nation guards or royal attendants, the four have the appearance of being just
your normal Fire Nation teens.  Ty Lee,
in a white bikini, is quickly overwhelmed with admirers who go out of their way
to earn her favor.  Azula, meanwhile,
discovers herself ignored by the same lot, the first example of her beginning
to understand her outsider status amongst her peers.  Mai and Zuko park themselves under an
umbrella where Zuko repeatedly fails to understand Mai, be it offering her an
unwanted sea shell or spilling unrequested ice cream over her lap.  It’s a dissonance between them, foreshadowing
relationship issues later in the episode.
Absent attention, Azula notices a game based on either Brazillian
footvolley or the Southeast Asian games of sepak raga or sepak takraw – in
short, volleyball played without the use of hands, but every other body part.

 In quick fashion, the woman who undertook a coup of
the Earth Kingdom’s mightiest city and conquered it for the Fire Nation,
analyzed the competition and ordered her brother and friends into the field to
crush them.  For a brief moment, Azula’s
identity as the competitive military/strategic mind is allowed to flourish,
perhaps as a coping mechanism to find something enjoyable on a beach where
she’s quickly realized she’s no one important to the uninformed around
her.  Given the physical skills, which
arguably came at a cost of time spent socializing with others their age, the
group dominates the match, which ends with the net literally burning to
pieces.   It’s the sports equivalent of
defeating your enemy and sowing their fields with salt, very Azula. The victory
also gains the attention of two teenagers hanging out on the beach.

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 The pair, one the son of a Fire Nation admiral and
the other, presumably of someone just as important or wealthy, invite Ty Lee to
a party they’re holding that night, and then reluctantly, also invite Azula,
Zuko and Mai.  Advertised as the party
where “the most important teenagers in the Fire Nation” will be in attendance
and with complete obliviousness to the ‘importance’ of those inviting, Azula jumps
at the chance to attend the gathering incognito.  Her choice underlined by a desire to see what
it’s like to be a normal person.  This is
a direct callback to “The Headband,” where Aang argues that he wants to go back
to the Fire Nation school because he wants to know what it’s like to be a normal
kid.  The results between the avatar and
the Fire Lord’s daughter immersion into the sea of normalcy are anything but
similar.

 Azula, Zuko, Mai and Ty Lee, make their first social
blunder, arguably on Azula’s shoulders, by appearing early for the party, and
are awkwardly invited in with warnings not to damage a thing.  The party is under the radar of the parental
units, after all.  Zuko and Mai quickly
wallflower themselves on a bench with little inclination to actually involve
themselves in the party and Ty Lee is swarmed by the same boys from the beach
before, all wanting her to anoint one of them as “the” guy she likes.  Each, also argues that they have essentially
earned the position based on what they did for her, be it provide shade or get
her a drink.  Ty Lee, worried and under
pressure, and perhaps illustrative of how a woman might feel in a similar
dynamic of being surrounded by increasingly aggressive men, lashes out with her
martial arts and flatten the creepy admirers to make her escape.  Elsewhere, Azula finds herself ignored, a
somewhat crushing experience for an individual who has been the center of
attention from at least someone her entire life.

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 In frustration, she lashes out at Ty Lee,
essentially calling her out as a flirt and a tease.  The harsh words hit home and while Ty Lee
begins to respond to the hateful words with teary eyes, Azula surprises probably
everyone and herself by apologizing and explaining that she was jealous of the
attention Ty Lee received.  This
surprising twist is followed by another wherein she asks Ty Lee for help.  This may be the last time in the entire
series that Azula legitimately asks for help from anyone.  Under Ty Lee’s advice, Azula manages to find
herself alone with one of the party’s host and everything goes smoothly up
until the moment after a kiss.  At which
point, Azula’s personality, unrestrained, leaps into a blue-flamed exclamation
that she and the guy will become a power couple which will dominate the
world.  In short, she came on WAY too
strong, and the potential romantic partner makes a quick getaway.

 Inside, Zuko and Mai fare little better.  After an attempt to find Mai something to eat
results in Zuko threatening others for knocking the food out of his hands, the
Fire Nation prince nearly explodes when he sees another guy chatting to
Mai.  Full into ownership mode, Zuko
warns the guy to stop talking to her, at which point Mai tells him to cool it,
chastising him for having a hot temper and being angry at everything.  Unsurprisingly, Zuko loses his temper and
complains that it’s better than being Mai, who feels nothing.  It’s enough for Mai to call off their
relationship, at least temporarily.  In
this state, Zuko storms out and heads to a place much more familiar to him, the
old royal family vacation home.

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 Neglected, if not abandoned, Zuko forces his way
through locked doors and finds a painted portrait of his family in the entry
way.  It’s the depiction of a family, one
that no longer exists with his mother gone and his father a patriarch in name
only.  Some attention is given to a small
plaster mold with his hand print in it as a small child, before Azula
finds him and convinces him to come down to the beach where Ty Lee and Mai are
waiting.  What follows next is the
exposure of the raw emotional cores of the four teenagers, as they gaze into a
fire fed by literal memories of Zuko’s family past, including the portrait.   The teenagers, led by Zuko, begin to almost
cruelly call out each other, criticizing each other for their apparent flaws or
lack thereof.  This leads to a number of
confessions.

 First, we learn that Ty Lee was one of six sisters
who all looked alike, and her wild diversion to the circus life was done
entirely to find a place where she was unique and not “part of a set.” It
speaks of a family life where her personality was crushed by being one of many
children and a failure by her parents to pull each child up to be recognized as
individuals and not as the children.
Zuko calls her a circus freak, but in tears, Ty Lee claims the insult
because at least it’s something that separates her from her sisters.  The ball then passes on to Mai.

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 After Zuko declares he wishes Mai at least felt
something or reacted to something, Mai fires back her childhood which crafted
her personality.  An only child of
wealthy parents, Mai starts by saying she wanted for nothing and got everything,
but at a price.  That price was to be the
perfect child, spoken when spoken to, behaving always, and threatened not to do
anything to affect her father’s political career.  Azula quickly diagnoses the result, a child
who out of fear shut everything down or risk reprimand from her mother.  Mai finally expresses herself by yelling at
Zuko to leave her alone, warning him that she’s still mad at him.  The torch then passes onto Zuko.

 Of the four gathered, Zuko is the only character
whom we have been really granted insight into in terms of emotional
development.  Only a short time ago, he
had elected to let go of his life as a Fire Nation prince and assume a life
working with his uncle Iroh in a tea shop, and almost as instantly, was
convinced by Azula to turn his back on Iroh due to that royal life being
tangled within reach for the first time in years.  Zuko’s breakdown of his problem is worth
quoting since we’ve followed our anti-hero so closely, “For so long I thought
that if my dad accepted me, I’d be happy. I’m back home now, my dad talks to
me. Ha! He even thinks I’m a hero. Everything should be perfect, right?  I should be happy now, but I’m not. I’m
angrier than ever and I don’t know why!”
It’s the fall out of what Iroh called Zuko’s metamorphosis.  Subconsciously, it’s a change that Zuko has
not quite grasped, and it’s only when the world that once would have been
perfect for him is cast large across his life does he, knowingly or not,
finally begin to realize that it’s not the life he wants to live.  His inability to grasp as much, however,
leaves him furious.

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 In a way, Zuko stands in for a lot of teenagers, who
find themselves caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood, when the
expectations of the former clash with the desires of the latter.  His frustration is real, but bubbling up from
places that he simply cannot quite grasp yet.
His pain is this intersection of the aforementioned parts of his life,
while the three women struggle more with their pasts than their present.  Azula questions Zuko, if he’s so mad, then he
must be mad at someone, and in Zuko’s fire ridden response, he exclaims he
doesn’t know and then admits, he’s not sure if he even knows what’s right and
what’s wrong.  In that final admission,
it’s clear he is a different person than the Fire Nation prince who once
pursued the Avatar to regain his honor and his place at home in the Fire
Nation.  To that Zuko, it should have
been very clear what’s right and what’s wrong, but that Zuko arguably died on
the path he began at the start of Season Two and ended in Ba Sing Se.  Coincidentally, in a moment where nearly
every problem can be taken back to the teenager’s parents, part of Zuko’s pain
comes from the fact that he’s starting to realize he betrayed his figurative
father, Iroh.

 Azula, meanwhile, the last of the four to divulge
their secrets, and possibly out of a desire not to be excluded one more time
that evening, admits that her life hasn’t been peaches and roses, either.  She notes her mother liked Zuko more and
thought she was a monster, but then importantly, agreed with the monstrous
assessment, despite the pain of doing so.
It’s a window into Azula’s personality, she knows she’s terrible and
simply accepts it.  Instantly, it makes
Azula responsible for every bad act taken and every mean word uttered, in the
past, and going into the future.  With
Azula, the sharing is complete, each of the teenagers having bared their souls
to one another.  Despite being together,
the four are still haunted by the party, ongoing yet, and make the decision to
go wreck the house either in final therapeutic efforts to solidify their
feelings or to punish the party for bringing them to do so in the first
place.  The destruction also serves the
purpose of enforcing their privileged status onto the assembled, something that
their previous anonymity had prevented them from doing.  It allowed them to reclaim their comfort
zone.  The end of the episode concludes
with a stylized painted portrait of the four with a giant blaze behind
them.  It’s unclear whether they set the
house on fire or not, but that question isn’t one that truly needs answering.

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 In the quite short B-story of “The Beach,” the gang
is in a lake within what appears to be the caldera of a dormant volcano or some
type of enclosed area.  Toph quickly
waves a flag of forewarning by questioning Aang’s decision to swim around in
just his briefs, exposing his air nomad tattoos.  Aang shrugs it off, saying no one can see
them where they are, and then promptly leaves.
GOOD ONE AANG.  Aang follows a
natural water slide out of the enclosed space and falls into a pool of water
under the surveillance of bored Fire Nation soldiers, who instantly recognize
him and send a message hawk to warn the Fire Lord that the Avatar is still
alive.  Thankfully, or not, the message
hawk is intercepted by a larger, meaner looking bird who we soon learn works
for the assassin hired by Zuko.  This
leads to him attacking the group and the gang barely getting away, wandering
who their attacker was and how they found them.
And…that’s about it for the real action of the show.

 Going back to the dedicated story of “The Beach,” we
can spot a subtle message about women in dating/romantic situations, as well
general self worth.  There are several
instances which pop up.  First, Azula
several times become jealous of the attentions bestowed upon Ty Lee by guys at
the beach and later, at the party.  In
her confession to Ty Lee, for as much as we can take it on her word, Azula is
definitely attributing a certain sense of worth to her own ability to attract
boys and this causes friction between her and Ty Lee.  Second, going forward with Azula, she
ultimately changes her behavior to conform to something ideal for the guy she’s
interested in, and when she reveals her true self, he instantly turns and
run.  Third, we have Ty Lee’s experience
with the boys from the beach, who all believe that since they did something
nice to her, she owes them some kind of romantic payback – going so far as to
corner her and increasingly invade her personal space.  One can only imagine what the experience
would be like for a woman without her martial art abilities.  

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 Finally, we have the scene in which Zuko takes
possession of Mai by yelling at the guy talking to her at the party.  Mai is in control and comfortable, it’s not
Zuko’s place to say who can speak to her, but he intrudes regardless to her
anger.  Incidentally, Mai stands up as a
wonderful role model for women by her willingness not to stand for a
relationship with a boyfriend yelling insults at her, but also by not feeling
as she cannot talk to other guys other than Zuko.  She recognizes her independence at all times
in the relationship.  Her later
reconciliation with Zuko comes on her terms, as she initially rejects his
attempt to return to her, “Don’t touch me! I’m still mad at you.”  She only allows Zuko back when she’s ready
for him to be back.

 “The Beach,” exists as a beautiful examination of
teenage angst, and to a lesser degree, a commentary on the difficulties women
must face in romantic and social situations.
At the core for all our teens are their parents, who purposefully or
not, have affected their children.   The
theme of family runs central to the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender,
for our heroes, but for also our antagonists.
It’s not a coincidence that while Zuko burned the portrait of his family
from the past, one which was no longer accurate, the show ended with a new
portrait, Azula, Zuko, Ty Lee and Mai.

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