Ahead of 2010’s blockbuster-to-be, The Last Airbender, we’re revisiting the Peabody-winning cartoon serial from which it got its name, Avatar.
7. Winter Solstice Part One: The Spirit World
Two-part episodes in TV shows are pretty good ideas as the fans usually geek out over them. Where will the show go with two closely related episodes? What effect will this have on the characters? What will lead us into the second part? This week’s episode, Winter Solstice Part One: The Spirit World, answered those questions to some degree, while also reminding the viewers of the problem with two-parters: the first half is usually not much more than set up.
You could say that I’m being a bit too harsh on Avatar, which did introduce us to various important parts in the show’s mythology with this episode… but then proceeded to underplay them. There were two big character stories with incredibly dramatic incidents galore, and both were more or less wrapped up by the end of the episode. The Spirit World was an odd episode. Much of it was spent creating space between the characters, creating a slightly languid, yet haunting atmosphere, something that’s still a surprise coming from a Nickelodeon cartoon.
At the start of the episode, our heroes touch down to see the remains of an Earth Kingdom forest (burnt down by the Fire Nation), and Aang finds himself depressed. As the Avatar, he is responsible for all the life around him as well as the spirits that we cannot see. As another character says later in the episode, he is the “great bridge” between human and spirit worlds.
Katara cheers him up by showing him that acorns have grown all over the forest, meaning it will sustain new life. Shortly afterwards, they are approached by an elderly gentleman from the nearby Senlin Village (as is per usual with Avatar episodes) and the team goes to solve whatever problem the villagers have.
Turns out that it’s a spirit! One that eats/abducts people back to the spirit world! Aang – having no idea what to do because nobody is about to mentor him in how to be the Avatar – reluctantly agrees, finding his will to help others butting heads with his inexperience in being the One Who Will Save The World.
As one would expect, he doesn’t have the faintest clue how to tame the spirit, called Hei Bai, and Sokka runs to assist his friend. His reward: being captured.
Unable to find him, Aang returns to Senlin Village to break the news to Katara, only to find out that he has also passed into the spirit world. Unable to use his powers or communicate with the living, he seems trapped in the spirit world until met by Fang, the dragon of Avatar Roku (previously talked about in The Southern Air Temple). Fang shows him the relevance of the Winter Solstice in a Fire Nation temple – to know what to do next in his quest as the Avatar, Aang must talk with Avatar Roku on the day of the Solstice.
Aang is returned to his human body and sets about stopping the Hei Bai spirit with the knowledge that it is a forest spirit. After telling the spirit that the forest will regrow one day despite the damage wreaked on it (acorns!), Hei Bai leaves, reverting to its original form of a panda bear, and the captured villagers, Sokka included, are freed.
Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh (hello! Where have you guys been?) are still tracking the Avatar. Well, Zuko is, but Iroh’s relaxing in some hot springs. While relaxing, he falls asleep and also ends up getting captured, only this time by Earth Kingdom soldiers. They plan to take him back as prisoner to Ba Sing Se, the Earth Kingdom capital that played a part in Iroh’s life – he lay siege to it for six hundred days before finally giving up the ghost. To cut a long story short, Zuko ambushes the Earth Kingdom soldiers and rescues his uncle, who still needs some post-relaxation clothing.
There’s a little twinge of disappointment with this episode, as I said above, all to do with just how quickly all the plotlines are wrapped up. Both the spirit world and Iroh’s capture could have easily bled over into another episode, but we were given plenty of little glimpses into the show’s future.
We are told of Ba Sing Se for the first time, a location that becomes of great importance in the second season, as does Iroh’s past in the Fire Nation. We learn a little more about Avatar Roku through his pet dragon. (How did he get this pet?) And, most importantly, Aang sees visions of a mysterious comet while in the spirit world, leading us to the cliffhanger. Aang must talk to Avatar Roku about what it means. However, that means going into Fire Nation territory.
Like I said, part ones are usually doing all the groundwork. Let’s see how part two lets its freak flag fly.
Very Miyazaki with all the forest spirits, particularly Princess Mononoke.
Personally, I’m glad that Sokka asked for food and money when offered by the people of Senlin Village. I know I would have!
Some gorgeous animation here, particularly in the spirit world scenes and also when Aang jumps through the clouds. Momo’s fur blowing away was a lovely little touch. I’m beginning to be a real fanboy of these tiny details that work their way into the show!
So… What was that all about with Iroh seeing a spirit? That was supposed to happen, right?
Read our recap and review of episode 6 here.