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.
8. Winter Solstice Part 2: Avatar Roku
Well, that happened.
In last week’s recap of The Spirit World – the first part of a double episode called The Winter Solstice – I wrote about the first-part syndrome that most shows get: no matter how interesting your set-up episode is going to be for the viewer, it’s ultimately set-up for the decidedly more exciting action to come. I wrote this in the hope that part two, Avatar Roku, would deliver on part one’s promise. And it pretty much did.
Thanks to this episode, we now have a solid story arc instead of the (still fun!) misadventures of traipsing from village to village until the North Pole comes into sight. Aang’s visions of the comet has led to him entering the Fire Nation to converse with the spirit of Avatar Roku.
Turns out the comet was responsible for starting the war when, a hundred years ago, then-Fire Lord Sozin and his army harnessed their Firebending energy on the night of the comet crashing. The comet gives Firebenders great power, and this is exactly what’s going to happen when the same comet appears in, say, a few months. Summertime, even.
With the power given by the comet, the new Fire Lord (and Zuko’s dad) Ozai could easily shape the world in his own image. He’ll be incredibly powerful, so much so that the Avatar’s actions to stop peace could be rendered pointless. So, now Team Avatar are working on a deadline to stop this from happening, and we have something driving the main timeframe of the show.
Avatar Roku was pretty full-pelt from the start, only allowing itself some awkward early references to the previous episode (no “Previously on Avatar” yet, which would have been neat), like the non-drama of Sokka and Katara momentarily not going with Aang to the Fire Nation.
Once they had left – and Zuko had done some off-screen interrogating with one of the elders of Senlin Village – the episode wasted no time pitting Zuko’s warship against our heroes, then pitting the two of them against a Fire Nation blockade led by Commander Zhao (hello!). After a battle/evasion, both groups successfully run the blockade and enter the Fire Nation, with Zhao allowing Zuko through to lead him to the Avatar. “This must be my lucky day,” drips Zhao in his biggest, baddest baddie voice.
Team Avatar arrive at the Fire Nation temple from Aang’s vision, guarded by the Fire Sages, who promptly attack the team. While escaping, they are found by a sympathetic Sage, Shyu, who helps them escape the attacks and leads them towards the statue of Avatar Roku.
The history of the Sages is pretty interesting: they are the elders to whomever becomes the Avatar, but were weakened by two things, the unfruitful wait for Roku’s reincarnation, and the start of the war, from which point they were forced into becoming aides to the Fire Lord.
Shyu betrayed the rest of the Sages – and the Fire Nation – by supporting the Avatar for what he sees as the greater good, keeping his spiritual and moral boundaries.
Along with Katara’s comment that the temple seems abandoned since Roku’s death, the question is raised of whether or not the Fire Nation has truly abandoned their spiritual beliefs in times of war. It’s heavy stuff, to reject all this despite the fact that, with the Avatar being reincarnated, it is all the world can see. (There are a few Fire Nation characters that seem spiritually fulfilled, such as Shyu and Iroh, who saw Aang’s vision of Roku’s dragon in part one.) This gives us an idea of what’s truly at stake with this war – the rekindling or loss of capital-F faith.
With Zuko’s warship billowing smoke from Zhao’s attack, the ship keeps on heading towards the temple using the smoke as a cover. Meanwhile, the team find their way up to the sanctuary where Avatar Roku’s statue is, held back by a door that only Firebenders can open.
The Fire Sages are tricked into opening the door, but Zuko has made his way to the Temple, putting a dampener on the Team’s plan. Needless to say, Aang escapes from Zuko (although Sokka and Katara do not) and makes his way into the sanctuary.
While in the sanctuary, he learns from Avatar Roku about the comet, and he lends Aang the power he needs to face the Fire Nation offensive on the other side of the doors (Zhao having foiled Zuko’s plan and made it to the temple).
It’s interesting, given Avatar‘s seemingly endless supply of calm, wisened old men, that one such type could unleash as much power as Roku, who destroys the Temple.
Once the Fire Nation forces abandon the Temple, Aang leaves the manifestation of Roku, and Team Avatar escape.
So, where are we left at the end of this two-parter? Not only do we have a time limit in which Aang has to realize his destiny, but we see Zuko following him on a smaller ship. His obsessive quest for redemption has led him to abandon the Fire Nation ship, and, seemingly Iroh as well. And Zhao has the sages in prison, another example of the Fire Nation throwing away their spiritual connections in order to win the war.
Despite the hand-wringing on my part of the slight disappointments of the first part of Winter Solstice, the connections between the two make sense. Where the first part is about spirituality in nature and the surrounding world, this week’s is about spirituality challenged in wartime. Is keeping it worth the struggle?
There’s one line of dialogue that stuck with me this week, and it’s Zuko telling his uncle that “if Zhao wants to follow a trail of smoke, then that’s exactly what I’ll let him do”. Take a second, marinate on that one, and I’ll see you next week.
“Let’s run this blockade!” is the closest we got to quotable dialogue this week, but it got me pretty excited.
That Senlin Village guy was a bit of a stooge, wasn’t he?
Nobody ever talks about how the Millenium Falcon is always responsible for getting everyone to safety. Appa is the Falcon of the show and he deserves (and gets) all the credit!
Speaking of Appa, the little montage of him flying and growing more tired was a neat detail showing just how vast the world in Avatar is, which makes Aang’s quest seem way grander.
Sokka’s fall was one of those moments where I suspended disbelief of the cartoon rules and found myself fearing for him, meaning this was a very good episode if I never over thought things
Aang’s airbending ruled in this episode. Win!
Matter of fact, that entire opening battle was just brilliant, wasn’t it?
“Unleash all your firepower!” (the PG version of “Unleash hell!”)
Read our recap and review of episode 7 here.