Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Puppet Master

In “The Runaway,”
the previous episode, the moral question of the episode, is it okay to cheat
those who cheat, was completely abandoned in lieu of strengthening the bond
between Toph and Katara. The validity of doing wrong to those who have done
wrong returns in “The Puppet Master,” and in one of Avatar: The Last
Airbender’s darkest episodes, the moral is not abandoned by the writers, but
narrowed and defined resulting in our favorite water bender being left in
tears.  It’s the rare episode where the villain wins.

 In the absence of
Zuko’s assassin, “The Puppet Master,” completely ignores everything having to
do with Zuko and the events of Fire Nation 90210, but for the good purpose of
focusing entirely on the story which begins with the gang seated around a
campfire in the midst of woods while telling each other horror stories. 
While Sokka unsurprisingly falls flat, Katara offers a story that harkens back
to her mother’s younger days in the Southern Water Tribe and of a woman unable
to feel warmth despite standing next to a fire (she was dead).  This
somewhat scarier story is punctuated by Toph exclaiming she can feel/hear
people screaming under the ground.  The obvious tension this causes is
interrupted by the appearance of an old woman, who completely startles the
group and in the same breath, invites them to her inn to spend the night. 
The old woman also warns that people have been disappearing in the woods at
night under full moons. Unknown to Team Avatar and to us, the viewers, was the
connection between her and the screams of people below ground.

At the inn, the old
woman reveals herself to be named Hama, and has transitioned from a frightful
witch-like woman in the dark of the woods into an elderly grandmother
figure.  Not only does she offer a place to sleep, but the next day she
offers to make them a meal and takes the group to market, where Katara and her
begin to bond over a shared joke involving a vegetable merchant.   In
a world where something always seems to go wrong, Sokka is taken back by the surprising
kindness and informs the others he’s suspicious of their host and sets off to
investigate the inn for evidence of wrong doing.  Against the
protestations of Katara, who has now compared Hama to her and Sokka’s
grandmother (hint), the group explores their surroundings. 

 Not long into the
search, Sokka jerks open a cabinet and a half-dozen nearly life size puppets
tumble outward.  Like all puppets, they are a bit creepy, but again, we
are offered another clue to what horror we should truly be expecting further
into the episode.  Finally the search concludes before a locked door in
the attic of the inn beyond which is a single box.  Attics are historic
places for secrets in fiction, be it the location of a crazed aunt, children or
a photo album, and a locked door to or in an attic is tantamount to a giant
flashing neon sign saying, “SECRET HERE!!!” 

The door proves
little barrier to Sokka’s insatiable curiousity and soon Toph is attempting to
pick the box’s lock with her star metal bracelet and some careful earth
bending.  Before they can open the box, Hama appears from nowhere behind
them and the shame faced heroes apologize for intruding into her privacy. 
It’s left in the air whether they would have apologized had their activities
gone unnoticed, but Hama disregards their intrusive behavior by opening the box
herself to reveal an old Water Tribe comb.  Her comb and the last piece of
evidence she still possess that reveals her to be a member of the Southern
Water Tribe.

 Hama tells the
group she knew that Sokka and Katara were from the Southern Water Tribe and it
had been her intent to surprise them with a home cooked Southern Water Tribe
meal.  In the course of said meal, Hama water bends her five flavor soup
into the bowls of their astonished owners.  Katara is ecstatic to finally
meet a water bender of the Southern Water Tribe, previously convinced she was
the very last of her kind.  In addition to telling Katara they will need
to train, Hama tells the children of how she came to live in the Fire Nation.
Enter flashback.

Our first scene is of the Southern
Water Tribe decades ago and far more similar in appearance to its Northern
cousin than to the small village of Katara and Sokka in the first season of the
show.  It’s a striking difference which reveals the impact of the
continual raids by the Fire Nation on its southernmost neighbor.  It’s
also reflected in Hama’s story which narrates the decline and near destruction
of Southern Water Tribe water benders, as one by one they are captured and
hauled away by their enemy.  Ultimatley, Hama finds herself the last
and finally out numbered.  In chains, she was led aboard a Fire
Nation ship never to return.  The animation artfully performs two
things.  First, it literally vanishes other water benders who stand
in a pyramid formation behind Hama as they resist the Fire Nation highlighting
the physical effect of the raids on the tribe, and two, it distinctly shows an
initial expression of defiance evolve into one of defeat on Hama’s face. 

Thus, at the conclusion of her
story, Hama’s wrinkled visage exists as that of a survivor of something
horrible, a living witness to the gradual decimation of her culture and
people.  In a way, her own existence reflects Katara’s, both
believing they represent the last water bender of the Southern Water Tribe and
both directly affected by the Fire Nation on a personal level.  For
as much as they have in common, it will soon be revealed that they differ in
one very important manner.  On that, later, because now Katara leaves
with Hama to learn what she can from the living bridge between her and her
people’s water benders of the past.  Aang, Sokka, and Toph,
meanwhile, find their mission to follow.

 This is not the last time that
villagers have disappeared without a trace and the culprit then was a vengeful
spirit (see “The Spirit World”).  Quite logically, our heroes now
believe another angry spirit must be behind the disappearances and set out to
uncover what environmental harm or spiritual wrong has been perpetuated by the
villagers.  Their search turns up nothing, but a lead that one
villager had managed to escape to tell the tale.  An old man (who
despite his protests is an old man) tells Aang, Sokka, and Toph, of how he had
found himself unable to control his limbs and forced to travel toward the
mountain under a full moon.  Only when the moon began to set and the
sun rise did the controlling force dissipate and he was able to run to
safety.  Puzzled, the trio head toward the mountain.

Not too far, in a field of brilliant
blooming fire lilies, Hama begins an important lesson for Katara.  In
the cold and wet south, a water bender is surrounded by water with which to
access.  What then, when not in one’s element?  Hama begins
first by pointing out that water can be harvested from the moisture in the air
and slashes her hand in the space between her and Katara, ripping water out of
nowhere to form into icy spikes on her fingertips that she flings at a nearby
tree.  It should be noted that from this point on, Hama’s fingers
take on more the appearance of claws, rather than fingers, a shift in her
appearance to match our own understanding of her character.  Next,
Hama demonstrates that there is water in the flowers around them and in a
sweeping circular gesture draws water from the flowers which wilt and die in
the process.  Like before, the water is immediately turned into a
weapon with which she slashes a boulder into slices.  When Katara
mourns the loss of the flowers, Hama shrugs it off, taking little concern for
them. 

 Under a rising full moon, Hama
begins her final lesson to Katara with something of a rant akin to a drug
addict describing the wonderful effects of a full moon for a water
bender.  As one may recall from the conclusion of season one, water
benders are most powerful under a full moon and it’s this power that enables
Hama to execute a skill previously unknown to Katara, blood bending.  Hama
introduces her discovery of the art from her time in a Fire Nation prison,
where the captured water benders were held in wooden cages in an environment
completely dry of humidity.  There she realized that where there was
life, there was water, and confirmed her ability to bend blood on unfortunate
rats who ventured into her cage.  This finally lead to her blood
bending a Fire Nation guard and forcing him to unlock her cage to allow her
escape (notably, leaving the other water benders behind). Katara voices hers
own discomfort with the idea of controlling others from the inside (or at all),
and Hama dismisses her concerns.  Elsewhere, Aang, Toph and Sokka
make their to the mountain and discover one other secret of Hama’s.

Under the mountain, locked behind a
prison door, the gang find all the vanished villagers chained to the ceilings
and walls.  In the process of freeing them, they learn that there
never was a spirit, but simply the inn keeper, Hama, who had captured the
villagers.  Toph remains behind, but Sokka and Aang rush off to warn
Katara that she’s in the presence of a monster.  Unknownst to them,
she is already well aware of it.

 While Aang and Sokka make their way
to Katara, Hama argues with her over the justness of blood bending as a weapon
to use against the Fire Nation, noting the lives the Fire Nation took,
including Katara’s and how they imprisoned them for years.  The dots
rapidly connect in Katara’s mind and she makes the connection between Hama and
the villagers aloud, to which Hama freely admits and tells Katara that she must
continue such work when she’s gone.  Naturally, when confronted by an
evil crone who wants you to continue the tribal business, one turns it down,
and so does Katara.  Instead, Katara warns Hama that she will not be
allowed to harm anyone else and this sets up a tragic fight between the last
two remaining water benders of the Southern Water Tribe.

It almost ends before it begins, as
Katara falls to the ground unable to control her arms as she discovers what it
means to have one’s own blood bent by another.  Fortunately for us,
Katara is the more powerful bender and is able to shake off the attack.  Both
draw upon the moisture about them, wringing trees into splinters to draw out
their water, in dramatic attacks and Katara is not far from victory when her
two ‘saviors’ arrive to warn her of Hama.  Immediately, Hama takes
control of Sokka and Aang, forcing them to attack Katara and it becomes a
matter of one against three.  Katara quickly incapacitates them, but
not enough for Hama to change the game, mockingly asking Katara if she can stop
her friends from hurting each other.  Aang and Sokka find themselves
flung forward toward each other, Sokka’s sword point on level to spear the
avatar, when they come to a complete stop.  They pause only because
of one thing, Katara has bent Hama’s blood to stop and paralyze her. In
seconds, the freed villagers appear and take Hama into custody, who laughs with
callous wicked glee.  The last line of the episode belongs to Hama
who tells Katara, “My work is done. Congratulations, Katara. You’re a
bloodbender.”  Katara breaks down into tears and the scene cuts to
black.

 No one will point to Katara for her
blood bending of Hama, but no one will ever state that blood bending in any
form is a moral or ethical use of one’s bending abilities.  Unlike
any other form of bending yet revealed, blood bending rips away one’s own
conscious control over their body and turns them into living puppets.  “The
Puppet Master,” like “The Runaway,” sets up a situation where the victims are
allowed to inflict a wrong on those who wronged them.  In this case,
a woman was a witness and victim of a slow moving genocide of her people, and a
prisoner kept in beyond miserable conditions.  It’s definitely
arguable how damaged Hama’s psyche is from what she experienced, but in this
episode, regardless of the wrong that was inflicted by the Fire Nation upon the
Southern Water Tribe, it’s clear that revenge is inappropriate in the form of
blood bending villagers.  Likewise, even when Katara is forced to
blood bend Hama to save the lives of the two most important people to her in
the world, the action leaves her in pain and in tears.  It may be the
only episode which ends with one of our heroes in such obvious
anguish.   The moral of this episode, not ignored like the
previous one, is definitely that one wrong does not justify another.

There is also the interesting aspect
of the full moon.  In the Avatar
universe, not only is it associated with a spirit (and Yue, princess of the
Northern Water Tribe), but assigned the special ability to strengthen water
benders. Traditionally, full moons in at least Western culture, are nights
assigned to weird, if not bad things – be it a busy night for the emergency
room staff or the signal that a werewolf is on the prowl.  This aspect of a full moon is played up for
most of the episode under its connection to the disappearance of the villagers,
but it’s the former connection which comes into play for the final act of the
episode.  The water bender aspect of the
moon is mirrored by our two water benders, both who draw their greatest
strength from the lunar observer above.
In this particular incidence, a dichotomy is created between Katara and
Hama.  One represents the greatest good
and the other represents the greatest evil, and while good ‘triumphs’ over evil
in this instance, it’s tainted.  The last
time the moon was the focus of our episode, it too was tainted, made red with the
spilling of the Moon Spirit’s blood.

 “The Puppet Master,” refuses to
allow any satisfaction to be gained under the banner of vengeance and while “The
Runaway,” let slip its moral lesson into the opportunity to strengthen a bond
between two women, “The Puppet Master,” used an obvious bond between two women
to drive home its moral message.  The
darker moments of Avatar often exist on the fringe and in the shadows of the
viewer’s imagination.  In this case, like
a proper horror film, we are left to imagine the greater terror of the actions
of both the Fire Nation and of Hama.  One
which ruthlessly assaulted a people, driving them through murder and capture
from a thriving culture into one barely existing, and the other, a person so twisted
by suffering and imprisonment to the point of locking up innocents, people she
knows from a daily basis, and throwing away the proverbial key, to leave them
to a fate of slowly rotting away without ever being free or seeing the light of
day again.  We will not see an evil water
bender like Hama again until Legend of Korra.
She is Katara, in a world where she is not strengthened by her decision
to overcome and persevere, but ground by circumstances into something bitter,
incapable of appreciating life in any form.

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