Thursday, August 07, 2008

Avatar: The Last Airbender Finale (spoilers)

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite television shows. It is the proper inheritor of Buffy (Sokka IS Xander Harris, part of the gang who follow the one chosen to save the world as they also learn to grow up). It airs alongside of shows like Kappa Mikey, but is a proper "adult" form narrative. Characters experience persuasive change (Zuko for example), and the series (rather than the episode or season) is the biggest plot arc. It can be very intimidating to just join in watching on TV: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Three: Fire, Volume 4, Sozin's Comet, Part Two, The Old Masters. While I am no anime expert, it seems to my untrained eye to take the best of the genre and ditch all the excesses (such as the 43 Hiroshimas that seem to follow everyone around every time I watch anime). (HC Duvall: did I steal that point from you?) In one of my favorite details on the show the various styles of fighting are closely modeled on real fighting styles, which lends the thing some weight and historical relevance.

(As a side bar to talking about the finale I want to say that the episode before the finale was my favorite episode of Avatar period, alongside the Beach and the one where Ang cannot sleep. It featured the gang going to a play that told the story of their adventures, unauthorized, for the fire nation. The comedy revolved around our character's reacting to the on stage versions of themselves, and the drama came out when Ang saw that Zuko and Kitara shared a moment together. For the audience it served as a massive series recap that was tons more exciting than the X-Files finale series recap, and also served as a dark reminder of what is at stake in the finale -- at the end of the play the Firelord beats Ang and takes over the world. But the best part was that the show sent up itself completely, making fun of itself with, for example, the scene in which Jet is defeated:"Did Jet just die?" someone asks. "It was kind of unclear" says Sokka. One imagines Jet's unclear defeat at the end of season three was the result of not being able to clearly kill a character on a kid's show). 

The finale was overall excellent and satisfying, and I still consider Avatar to be one of my favorite shows: Azula's final descent into madness was stunning, for example, and I was riveted the whole time. But the finale was also severely limited. For one thing it reminded me of something I had forgotten: Avatar is a kid's show. This seems silly, but if you have seen the show you will be surprised how easily you forget this, it is so well written. No one can die, which felt like the wrong kind of end for this show; someone will surely call me a sadist, but the journey needs to COST something -- Tolkin taught us that. 

But most egregious was that the finale completely compromised the ending that had been set up. Ang, in meditation with a guru, had given up many things of this world to unblock his ability to reach the Avatar state, but balked at the idea that earthly love for Katara should be one of those things. His chakra was blocked, and remained so for a while because (it seemed) he would someday have to make a choice between saving the world and having Katara, who clearly should have been with Zuko, the water to his fire. Ang, you will notice at the end, is a Monk. Either his boy hood pet goes the way of all flesh in an amazing tear filled sacrifice, allowing him to grow up into sexual love, or he stands above the earthly round, serene. In the end Ang's chakra becomes unblocked -- because the Fire Lord hits the small of his back against a rock. So the spiritual and thematic conflict is resolved through an accidental physical blow. That is the laziest storytelling move I have seen since James Franco developed amnesia in Spiderman 3 for no reason other than the screenwriters had too much going on to include him in the movie's second act. 

In the end the Avatar ending is a lot like the Sport's Night ending. The show is cancelled, and everyone gets their happy reward early and a little out of nowhere. It is very sweet; it does not really work, but you feel like such a grump begrudging them good feelings. 


James said...

How long is this show (in terms of number of seasons, episodes per season etc.)? I haven't seen any, and I'm wondering how much of a time investment it'd be.

Julian Lytle said...

His chakra was more so blocked by the almost fatal blast he took from Azula at the end of Book 2. If it wasn't for Katara and her special healing water he would've died. I also think that he didn't have to give up on Love, he had to make up the mistakes of the previous Avatar Roku.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

I cried my eyes out at Zuko's scene with Iroh. They had a wonderful Falstaff/Hal relationship and the writers ended it the way Shakespeare probably wished he had.

I'm sorry Doc Klock, but I just don't see Katara and Zuko (outside of Fan Fiction). Go Aang and Katara. ^-^

I think the cost was Azula's sanity. The final sight of her was that of a rejected and unloved child. She needed a mom and her father took that away from her.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog and I absolutely love Avatar the Last Airbender.

However, for the sake of clarity, the series isn't anime. It's a cartoon certainly but it isn't anime. The show has a lot of the trappings and comedic shortcuts found in a lot of anime, the creators have been quoted quite freely about one of their main influences being anime in general but the show originated fully in the USA. Produced by Americans for primarily an American audience, originally in English only, financed and aired first by an American television network.

James said...

It's one of those troublesome terms though, isn't it? Does anime refer exclusively to animation produced in Japan, or has it become a word that refers more to a visual/story-telling style?

Matthew J. Brady said...

43 Hiroshimas? What does that mean?

Geoff Klock said...

James: Avatar is three seasons of like maybe 20 episodes each. Each ep is 20 minutes, which makes it go by fast.

VoE: I meant the cost to the good guys. They good guys win but there has to be a cost. But see it is a kids show and I forgot about that.

GM: I did not say it was anime. I said it too the best of the genre (is genre the right word?)

43 Hiroshimas was supposed to mean stuff explodes in an apocalyptic was all the time.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Oh, okay. I guess it depends on what kind of anime you watch. I'm working my way through Paranoia Agent right now, and it's not like that at all. Maybe that's why I dig stuff by Satoshi Kon so much (he also did the movies Paprika, Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers): he's more cerebral than action-oriented. Really, I don't know if apocalyptic violence is especially prevalent, outside of stuff like Akira or Steamboy (maybe it's a Katsuhiro Otomo thing). Or maybe I just end up watching the quieter stuff.

Oh, and I would say that anime is not a genre, but a style of animation and storytelling, which fits what you were saying, I think.

James said...

Geoff: Sold. Avatar is something I had ignored because I had assumed it was (ha!) a translation of an anime based on a manga based on a myth, rather than something self-contained and original. Now I'll have to get to it after I finish Battlestar Galactica (Season 2, disc 2) and The Wire (Season 1 sits there, unopened. Judging me.)

j.liang said...

VoE: Yeah, the Zuko-Iroh reunion scene is fantastic.

Geoff: "No one can die, which felt like the wrong kind of end for this show; someone will surely call me a sadist, but the journey needs to COST something." I agree that the journey came at no real cost to the heroes (aside from Sokka losing Princess Yue), but are you setting the only acceptable price at death for one of the main characters?

I also thought the show's creators were heading towards a Katara-Zuko pairing at the end of the second season, and I give them credit for addressing that in "The Ember Island Players" (along with the rumor that Aang is actually voiced by a woman). Having Aang single and alone at the end of the series would have been more in keeping with the trope of The Chosen One (and might have addressed the cost issue) but would probably have been somewhat traumatic for a younger/more sensitive audience member. :)

Matthew: Paranoia Agent is awesome!

Geoff Klock said...

JL: But see they reversed Sokka's loss by giving him a girlfriend at the end. It does not have to be death, but it could be Ang as a Monk, alone, or someone not being able to bend anymore -- or hell, i thought a good ending to the series would have been Ang removed the bending powers from the WOLRD -- saving it, but also ushering in the age we live in.

But you are right. All if this is unfair. Because it is a kids show. It would have been traumatic for younger audience members. Is just felt suddenly toothless to me at the end.

j.liang said...

Geoff: Don't get me wrong, I agree with you on this — the endings you propose would have absolutely been more satisfying, traumatized kids be damned! I just wasn't sure, based on your post, whether you were saying death was a necessary price to pay.

Does Avatar really deserve a pass because it airs on Nickelodeon? Considering the level of maturity and sophistication of the show indepedent of its target demographic, I expected a more ambiguous/imperfect ending than the warm and fuzzy one we got. (I like the fact that Zuko's last question is never answered.)

For whatever reason, most TV and movie execs assume audiences of any age can't handle or even want finales which challenge them. Obviously, we can and do. Based on this site's comments threads, those endings seem to be the ones that have had the most lasting (presumably positive) impact on our young minds. The Dark Phoenix Saga is a good example for some of us. The ending of Robotech/Macross (and the death of Roy Fokker before that) is probably the biggest one from my early years.

Also — I know I'm quibbling here — I'd say Sokka's relationship with Suki mitigates the loss of Yue but doesn't completely reverse it, per his shushing Suki as they watched the reenactment. :)

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