Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Season Two

Yesterday I talked about season one (sorry, "book one") of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  I said I liked it, but that it had a bunch of problems.  The primary villain wasn't that interesting, the story ran slow, and it jumped around a lot before it managed to pull stuff together towards the end.

Now it's time for season two ("book two"), and I'm going to take each one of those complaints, hold them up to the light, and tear them into pieces.  They have no place here, because this season of the show is quite possibly my absolute favorite in terms of second seasons, placing it above some of my favorite television shows of all time.

And a lot of it has to do with this crazy girl right here:

Spoilers follow after the cut, needless to say, so if you haven't watched season one yet (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE, BUDDY) then go do that.

Remember how I talked about how Prince Zuko made one of the most interesting characters of the first season?  The conflict between his desire to earn respect, what he felt was his duty to his people, and the teachings of his uncle all come to a head in this season, but it leaves us without a really great counterpoint for Aang.

Thus, we get Azula (voiced by Grey Delisle with a voice that's equal parts sultry and terrifying), Zuko's sister and my pick for "character of the year."  I spent the entire season either loving or hating her manipulative and cruel ways, and she came across just as nuanced and interesting in a single season as it took most of the rest of the main cast two seasons to get to.  She even has a visually distinctive fighting style, as her fire is blue compared to everybody else's red.

If Zuko has the problem of being too "soft," Azula is his exact counterpoint.  With her initial appearance being there to actually arrest her brother and uncle for failing to take over the Northern Water Tribe, one of the first times we really see the depths of Azula's cruelty is when she's trying to recruit a friend of hers who works at a circus to help her hunt down the Avatar.  The friend initially declines, at which point Azula starts attending the shows.

Azula watches Ty Lee's acrobatics for a bit, then casually "suggests" to the man running the circus that it might be more interesting if the safety net under the tightrope was on fire.  This is done.  Then Azula suggests all of the dangerous animals be set free as well.  She essentially bullies Ty Lee into joining without once saying a single threatening thing to her.

Speaking of which, we also get Ty Lee and Mai, two more fascinating characters, as Azula's helpers.  Ty Lee doesn't have any bending abilities, but knows where to strike pressure points to take away the bending talents of others.  Mai is essentially a walking Ginzu factory, with small knives and daggers stashed all over that she can throw with deadly accuracy.

The story of season two is Aang attempting to continue his training so he can defeat the Fire Lord and stop the war that's been ravaging the world for the past hundred years.  He's determined to find someone who can teach him how to bend ("control") earth, and his hunt leads him to a young girl named Toph.

Toph...is interesting.  She's headstrong, arrogant, brash, has difficulty getting along with others, is a ridiculously powerful fighter with her earth abilities...and is blind.  She "sees" by detecting vibrations in the ground with her feet, and can stomp a foot to see things touching the ground around her sort of like sonar, only more precise.

I...wasn't a big fan of Toph to begin with.  I think part of it was that something that drives me nuts about a lot of the animation that comes from Japan is how children are innately better than adults that have done something their whole lives.  The greatest at something is never the person who devoted 40 years of their life to mastering every single aspect of their chosen profession or hobby, it's the kid who is just a "natural" at it who saves the world or wins the tournament or gets the girl/boy.

To introduce a character even younger than the main cast who was simply so superior to everybody else smacked straight into that zone of "perfect child around a bunch of loser adults."  However, the show had her grow on me by constantly exploiting the fact she was blind to show why she wasn't, in fact, perfect.  Being able to see everything when you're touching the ground doesn't help against large flying wasps, or in sand when everything is "fuzzy."

There are great spotlight moments for every character that help flesh them out.  Besides the extensive growth Zuko gets, we see strong development of Aang, Jet, Suki, and others.  There's particularly amazing bits and episodes that provide us more insight into Iroh's past and one of my favorite episodes of the whole series is a spotlight on Appa, the giant sky-bison that Aang rides.  It's heartbreaking to see what he goes through to try to be reunited with Aang after they're separated.

The story leads up to a huge confrontation between Aang, Azula, and Zuko, where character motivations are explored and sides are picked, and the whole thing ends with a strong hint that someone watched The Empire Strikes Back a few times to make sure to get the impact right.

The fight scenes, again, are amazing, especially with the addition of earth powers into the mix.  We start to see the G'Aang (y'know, that phrase gets more fun when I use it) really work together to become a tight little unit, and the addition of a group of uniquely powered opponents really makes things interesting as characters face off in different ways.

I've talked a few times before about the importance of there being strong characters for both boys and girls, and from interviews I've read it doesn't appear that the creators expected a strong female following for the series.  Once they realized that girls liked it as much as boys did, they started filling in as many holes as they could with interesting female characters, and it shows.  Azula, Ty Lee, Mai, Katara, Suki, and Toph are all strong characters.  They're flawed, but not in "oh, well, they're girls" ways.  They're able to stand up to the males of the series without needing to "out-butch them" (well, okay, Toph is easily more manly than anybody else in the series, but that's just because of- well, that would be a spoiler).  They simply use their own strengths to succeed while still having their own depth.  Heck, they even pass the bechdel test, which, to be fair, isn't a great test, but still makes an important point.

As for flaws in the series?  Honestly, I've got nothing.  Seriously.  Nothing.  This season had me hooked from the get-go and didn't let go.

I mean, if I suppose I had to nitpick...

Mai was a bit flat for a lot of the series, but she's supposed to essentially be "emotionally dead except for a torch she carries for Zuko."  Some of the wackiness felt a little forced, like the ruler of the city Ba Sing Se being so fixated on his pet that he ignores a lot of basic stuff around him.   Toph was rough at first, but quickly grew on me as a character.

That's it.  That's all I can come up with unless I start going to Cinemasins levels of nitpicking, but I just can't bring myself to do it.

If I was reviewing the series using that star-rating system, I'd give it 4.9 stars out of 5, if just because I really wish more series would let there be capable adults who didn't wind up being villains.  As someone I know put it "in Avatar, if they're under the age of 16 or older than 50, they're dangerous.  Beyond that, pretty much not."

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