Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Season Three

Okay, so Monday was my introducing people to this random series I started watching.  It was the blog post equivalent of telling my friends, "hey, I met this woman, and we sorta hit it off a bit, so we might hang out a bit more.  She seems all right."  Tuesday was my going, "Wow, guys, you won't believe this woman.  She's funny, smart, gorgeous, athletic, and just knows the perfect thing to say or do at any time.  I mean, I'm -looking- for flaws, but I think this might be the one!"  Now it's Wednesday.  Does the fixation remain, or have things cooled off a bit in this weird metaphor of relationships?

With season two ending in a dramatic Empire Strikes Back fashion with things looking their bleakest, season three (sorry, sorry, Book Three) begins the heavy task of rebuilding.  It sets up the final conflict for what it is, a battle between nations spanning an entire world, not just one kid battling one man.  It has a set time table to work with, and a ticking clock you sense in many scenes.  It has characters examining their lives to this point, figuring out what went right and what went wrong, and coming to be the people they were meant to (or, in some cases, destined) to be.

It has so much going right for it, but it's juuuuuuust not quite as good as Book Two (sorry, Season T- wait).

Character-wise, the series does everything right.  Every character who meant anything to the series (and isn't dead) comes back in force, bringing their "A" game.  Side characters like Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai all get crowning moments of awesomeness, and formerly strong relationships strain and snap under the actions of a select few people.  Iroh, King Bumi, and characters that were background political figures all show up to do massive actions that alter the path of the story by themselves.

However, the show doesn't lose sight of the main cast.  Aang, Katara, and Sokka all grow immensely in this final season, gaining new abilities or taking on training to better themselves.  Aang spends a lot of the season worried about needing to take a life (as in "seeking out someone to kill him" as opposed to "defending himself or others.")  Katara increasing her powers by learning the ancient art of "bloodbending," which is just as terrifying as it sounds.  Sokka finally takes on a master swordsman as a tutor, determined to be more than just "tactics and jokes."  Toph doesn't get as much development, but there really isn't much she can't already do with her Earth powers, and she gets to use them in creative ways in the end, so it works out.

But the real character growth, once again, comes from the Fire Nation siblings, Zuko and Azula.  Zuko truly comes into his own this season, seeing what his family has become, what his home country has become, and what the future holds for everybody, and rejecting it (spoiler alert!) to help the Avatar finally master the last element he needs to face Zuko's father.  It's a fascinating, engaging journey as Zuko gets spotlight episodes with every character, showing him rebuilding relationships previously thought ruined and helping others complete their own journeys.

Azula, on the other hand, is the opposite.  She so embraces the madness of what her father is doing that it starts to unravel her, and we watch someone who was clearly a sociopath to begin with begin to completely break down when things don't go her way.  Her friendships crumble, madness sets in, and after a while she's paranoid and delusional, assuming that even her own hair is acting against her.

It leads up to a final confrontation between the two siblings, with Zuko finally completely in control of himself and who he is, and Azula almost gibbering as madness has completely set in, lashing out wildly in a panic as she tries to destroy Zuko.

The fight between Aang and the Fire Lord (voiced by Mark Fricking Hamill) is also appropriately epic, with Aang taking everything he's been taught so far and applying it to his struggle against someone who, with the help of a comet streaking past the planet (for....reasons?) is even more powerful than he already was.  It even ends well when Aang has to face the decision he's been struggling with for much of the season and coming to a very final conclusion regarding it.

Again, the fight scenes are a thing of beauty, and the animation really kicks it up as we have city battles, mountain battles, and even fights taking place on air ships (and if you know anything about me, you know I love me some giant impractical air ships).  Character animation remains smooth and crisp, and looking back to the first season and then to this season, you see how each character has grown and how their movements have altered slightly with their appearance.  Much of the wildness of youth is gone from the characters, and they're now a determined team (or G'Aang.  Sorry) of soldiers facing an army.

Oh, and there's a recap episode where the characters watch a stage production of their lives "so far" that gets almost everything wrong, but is so perfect for so many reasons.  I'll go into that in a future post.

Buuuuuuuut I did say that it wasn't as good as the second season.  There are a few weak points in the plot, involving the sudden appearance of what I can only describe as a Deus Ex Machina that fixes Aang's problems just in time for his final confrontation.  It's completely out of left field aside from someone going "hey, look, it's a picture of a random thing" some episodes before that.  

The show is also rather afraid of being defining the word "kill" during important scenes.  I realize it's a cartoon children are going to watch, but there's a scene where Aang is seeking guidance from the spirits of previous Avatars to see if he needs to kill the Fire Lord, and none of them really say "he needs to be killed."  They say things like "you need to be decisive!" instead, and it just feels weird when you have random background enemy soldiers yelling "kill the Avatar!" a lot.

Finally, the last three episodes feel a little rushed.  They spend a lot of time getting to the point where they're almost ready to take on the Fire Lord and his forces, and then suddenly it's all happening extremely quickly and everybody needs to rush into position.  Toph even complains at one point that she hasn't yet had her "special trip" with Zuko that everybody else had, though it's probably meant more for humor.

But with all that in mind, the series came to an extremely satisfying conclusion, and I left it feeling that while there were still stories to tell in this world (and they do, both in comic book form and in the sequel The Legend of Korra), this story was definitively over with each character getting their own great ending.

If I was using that five star scale thing to judge this series, I give the third season 4.5 out of 5 stars.  A few weak points that were noticeable, but it holds up with some of the best final series of a show I've seen.

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