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I’m finally on the home stretch, with the first part of the four-part finale. Yay!

The episode begins with a humorous set, as the Gaang enjoys some down time at the Ember Island Beach House. Zuko is the only one who can’t relax, impatient that no one seems concerned about what to do next. The audience may identify with Zuko’s impatience—I certainly did. This is the finale—get on with it!

Zuko interrupts the beach party with a sudden, aggressive attack against Aang, trying to shock him into action. Zuko’s attack is reminiscent of his prior antagonism against the Gaang. In fact, a couple of elements in this episode give a sense of “coming full circle”, especially for Zuko. By the end, Aang has been separated from the group, and it is Zuko that the rest of the group looks to to lead them, since he is so experienced in tracking Aang.

When the dust settles on Aang and Zuko’s battle, we learn that there is a crucial misunderstanding between Zuko and the rest of the group. With Ba Sing Se fallen, they consider the war lost, and so they see no point in confronting Ozai on the old schedule—trying to beat Sozin’s comet—when it would be better to allow Aang to have more time to train. But Zuko knows that the stakes are higher than the others realize: Ozai plans to use the comet to destroy the Earth Kingdom.

For many fans, Zuko’s turn-around came much later than expected. But for the sake of this plot point, the timing of Zuko’s defection was crucial—he would not have known Ozai’s plan (or indeed, had an unwitting hand in it) if he had not gone back to his father after Ba Sing Se fell. (On the other hand, who knows if the city still would have fallen if he hadn’t joined his sister then? There’s an interesting AU idea in there somewhere.)

Zuko’s flashback to the war council provides an important connection to episode 9 (“Nightmares and Daydreams”) by filling in the blank of what happened in that meeting that so upset him. This event, along with the knowledge he learned from Iroh about his connection to Avatar Roku, were what finally pushed him to decide to defect during the eclipse.

This scene also plays into the idea of coming full circle. Here, we get to see him achieve what he had been seeking for so long. His father not only invites him to the war council and waits for him to arrive before starting the meeting, he actually invites him to speak on a crucial dilemma for the Fire Nation—how to subdue Earth Kingdom rebellion in occupied areas. This creates an interesting reversal of the event that precipitated Zuko’s banishment. In the first war council, he spoke out of turn, displeased his father, but gained the opportunity to earn real honor. In the second, he speaks at his father’s invitation, pleases his father, but the conflict he feels over the planned destruction of the Earth Kingdom helps him to finally decide how to regain his honor.

At the war council we see a brief appearance of General Shinu, who provides some intelligence on the Earth Kingdom uprising. He was previously seen in “The Blue Spirit” as the commander of the Yuyan Archers and a rival to Zhao.

Zuko’s revelation of his father’s plan shifts the episode to a darker tone, but we have another brief lighthearted moment when Team Avatar comes together for a group hug. It’s a favorite scene of mine. *points to icon*

This episode sets up an important internal conflict for Aang—the question of whether or not to kill the Fire Lord. We may have had hints of this issue before, but I believe it’s not until this episode that it’s made explicit that Aang wishes to avoid killing Ozai.

At one point Aang makes an interesting statement about his conflict. He says that when he closed in for the kill on Melon Lord, “I didn’t feel like myself.” This is an important theme of the series—maybe the most important: the theme of maintaining (or defining) one’s own identity (or destiny, or honor—it’s stated different ways, but the idea is the same) in light of the sometimes conflicting needs imposed by one’s community. A few years ago [livejournal.com profile] angua9 made an interesting post trying to capture the overarching theme of several popular series, including ATLA. She suggested that the main theme of ATLA was balancing one’s personal identity with the needs of the community, or building a community that works for all it's members. At the time, I argued with her about this (as you’ll see if you read the comments). But in my re-watch of the series, I’ve thought a lot about that post, and I’ve come around to thinking she was right. The way Aang’s personal conflict is set up in the finale is a big part of the reason why.

One of the most memorable scenes in this episode is when Katara discovers the baby picture of Ozai—who she mistakes for Zuko—which allows the group to hash out Aang’s dilemma. I like how the scene begins with Aang looking dejectedly at his vegetarian meal, highlighting his commitment to do no harm and showing how troubled he is that his role as Avatar has given him this seemingly impossible choice.

In the conversation that follows, Aang tries to find a practical way out, and ends up suggesting the use of “gluebending” to stick Ozai’s limbs together and prevent him from bending. It’s an interesting bit of foreshadowing--more on this when we get to the commentary notes.

Zuko also makes a sarcastic suggestion to show Ozai his baby pictures and make him good again. As an anime fan, I couldn’t help but see this as a jab at a common anime trope (a ridiculously overused one in some cases *coughNarutocough*) in which a villain remembers his innocent childhood—usually at the hero’s urging—and either joins the hero’s side or dies heroically to help the hero in some way. One thing I love about ATLA is that it doesn’t make the concept of redemption too cheap. The characters who switch sides in ATLA do so as the result of a series of events that lead them to make an internal, deeply personal decision—not because the hero talks them into it through near-supernatural powers of persuasion. And some of the characters who do bad things don’t redeem themselves, but genuinely have to be neutralized and held accountable in some other way.

The last section of this episode is focused on Aang’s mysterious disappearance and the Gaang’s search for him. (Poor Toph, with her failed “field trip” with Zuko!) I love the Lion Turtle’s hypnotic call—a vocal line of chanting in the background music—that draws Aang to it.

We also have a brief scene that updates us on what Ozai and Azula are up to. Here, Ozai tells Azula that she is to remain behind and be crowned Fire Lord, while he proceeds with his destruction of the Earth Kingdom. He promotes himself to the title of Phoenix King, based on his notion that the world will be reborn from the Earth Kingdom’s ashes. It’s an interesting scene for a number of reasons. First, it seems clear that Ozai’s real purpose in giving Azula the title of Fire Lord is to take her out of the action. Has he noticed, like Zuko will when he meets her later on, that she has become unhinged? Or does he see her as a failure because of what happened at the Boiling Rock? Azula senses this, too, when she says, “You can’t treat me like Zuko!” Oh yes, Azula, he can. Really, it was always a matter of time. And so the seed of her downfall, which was planted when her friends betrayed her, now grows in the light of her father’s disappointment.

It is also this scene where we learn the significance of the episode’s title. I’ve always found it so deliciously conceited that Ozai creates this pretentious title for himself. But the best part is the irony of it. A “phoenix king” does not sound like a ruler who destroys the world in order to “re-birth” a new one from the ashes. If that were the case, it would be the world that is the phoenix, and the ruler just a despot who burned the old world. A true phoenix king is one who goes through the fire himself and comes out of it re-born—perhaps renewing his realm along with him.

So who, then, is the real “phoenix king”? ;)

Commentary:

Michael DiMartino
Bryan Konietzko
  • The seasons were named after the elements Aang was learning, so since he already knew air, there was never going to be a Book 4: Air.

  • They had planned on making the finale into a three-part movie, but the third part ended up being too long, so it had to be split, for a total of four parts. The whole set of four episodes was always conceived of as one story.

  • Many elements of the finale they had planned since early on in the series, others shaped themselves over time. For example, Suki being a part of the group at this point was a later development.

  • They wanted to increase the conflict leading into the finale by having Zuko be unaware of the rest of the team’s idea that Aang could wait until after the comet. Also, they wanted to up Ozai’s evilness and make him a more dynamic, aggressive villain by giving him a worse goal than simply winning the war. The content of the war meeting was actually decided after “Nightmares and Daydreams” was scripted. It was challenging to write this moment, so that they could raise the stakes high enough, but not cross the line of what was appropriate to mention in a kid’s show.

  • They explain that they always intended the story to have a good ending, and that they didn’t want to write the kind of series that would go on perpetually. The world of ATLA is an interesting world that can go on in different directions, but this story had to come to an end.

  • They had debated whether or not it would go over well to have the characters wearing their beach party swim suits while having this serious discussion about the war, but they ultimately decided that it gave the characters an appropriate vulnerability. “They’re caught with their pants down.”

  • The scene where Zuko teaches Aang lightning re-direction shows a nice progression of the lineage of styles (from Iroh, to Zuko, to Aang), and how Zuko is now much more willing to embrace a technique based on waterbending. In a lot of ways, Zuko learned more from his uncle after his uncle was gone.

  • They mention how Aang’s joke pitch of gluebending turns out to sort of describe what turns out to be the real solution. Something similar happens in “The Seige of the North” when Aang suggests unleashing a spirit power to turn back the siege. This plays in to Aang’s role as “the trickster” archetype, and shows how he approaches his heroic role in an offbeat, mischievous way that somehow produces a positive result.

  • They note the interesting chanting going on in the background music that “calls” Aang to the island. In the score for the four-part finale, the sound budget was upped a bit and they were able to use a 16-piece chamber orchestra, with real strings instead of synthesized.

  • They talk about the benefits of writing the show using the talents of so many people coming together, such that they don’t even always remember who wrote which episode. [Legend of Korra wasn’t written as collaboratively, I believe, and IMO the story may have suffered a bit as a result.]

  • They attribute Azula’s downfall to starting with Mai’s rebellion (“You miscalculated…”). [Not, as some fans have suggested, at her gaining more power as Fire Lord.]

  • They had discussed bringing Jun back in during this season. At first, they thought they might use her as a way for the team to find people like Teo and his father to help during the Day of Black Sun invasion, but they ended up deciding to use her here instead.


Joie

caught by the sound of her own name ...

Date: 2012-09-06 06:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] angua9.livejournal.com
This is a very interesting/insightful discussion of the Avatar finale. I wasn't familiar with all those tidbits from the commentary (or maybe I forgot them, not sure).

Of course I followed your link and read all the discussion on my own post, and of course it made me think of the series I've read/watched/loved since then and whether they have an overarching theme. I seem to have returned to my original stance of Theme is Hard because I'm having difficulty with it, or maybe I'm just lazier now than I was three years ago.

But, for instance, Korra is an obvious one. I LOVED The Legend of Korra - more than most people, I think. I responded to it faster and it was more insistently addictive for me than Avatar, but I'm really not sure what the theme is. (Maybe you could say that's because it's not finished yet, but this season was supposed to be complete, before they got the go-ahead for more (and then even more!).)

Is it true self vs. community, like I thought (still think) Avatar was? I dunno, maybe? That doesn't feel quite right, though. I don't feel like I can get a handle on it, and that might be the fault of the show, little though I like that idea.

And then I'm going over some of the other things I've loved since 2009: Slings and Arrows, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and The Good Wife leap to my mind.

Okay, the theme of Slings and Arrows is actually pretty easy (and awesome), come to think of it, but I don't think you've watched it (?) so I won't elaborate.

Downton Abbey - I shudder to think. Probably something deeply disturbing like "know your place."

Sherlock ought to be "Truth" but somehow I don't think it is. I feel it probably does have a particular theme, though, and that if I thought about it really hard I could come up with it (though not necessarily admire it or agree with it).

The Good Wife was deliberately written to explore a quite specific theme, which is reflected somewhat in its title. But it's also (like The West Wing) very much about power. I'd have to think for a while to pin it down, but it's definitely somewhere in there and anyway, I don't think it's one of your shows.


But Korra, that one bothers me a lot. Do you know what its theme is?
Edited Date: 2012-09-06 06:51 pm (UTC)

Re: caught by the sound of her own name ...

Date: 2012-09-07 04:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hymnia.livejournal.com
But Korra, that one bothers me a lot. Do you know what its theme is?

I'm probably not the best person to ask, since I was pretty disappointed in it. I love the first three episodes or so, but the show started to gradually go downhill for me, and by the time we got to the climax, I was feeling very meh about it. (Although I'm still hopeful that later seasons will improve!) Anyway, that probably affects my ability to pick out the theme. I can't resist at least trying, though! I've cataloged in my mind the elements that might indicate what the theme is:
  • Korra's problem with airbending and the spiritual side of being the Avatar
  • The bender vs. non-bender division in Republic City and similar issues of privilege/status (think Mako and Bolin's backstory vs. Asami’s)
  • Asami's conflict with her father
  • Korra’s early conflicts with Lin and Tenzin
  • The love quandrangle
  • What it means for a character to lose their bending
  • Tarlock and Amon's history/mistakes (I think a lot of times you can pick out a pretty good idea of the theme by looking at what the villain's mistakes or flaws are.)

Much as I turn those over and over in my mind, I can't come up with a thread that ties them together. But maybe listing them out will help you get a step closer.

Downton Abbey, though, I can immediately think of a possible theme for, and IMO it's not at all disturbing. It's something like, "Define what really matters most to you and take hold of it while you can" with a side dish of "Life is brief and ever-changing and you may not get a second chance." Like POTC, it's set against a backdrop of an era and a way of life in decline, and a lot of the conflicts in the show revolve around change and death and loss. But what really drives most of the show is the relationship between Mary and Matthew who, like another fictional couple we know, have this problem of "taking it in turns to look at each other". In doing so, they nearly miss out on their chance to be together. Anna and John, Daisy and William, and maybe even Sybil and Branson have similar issues with taking vs. not-quite-taking the chance at happiness when they can. But it's not just in the romance---you can see similar patterns at work in, say, Mrs. O'Brien's relationship with Cora, Daisy’s relationship with her father-in-law, Mrs. Hughes prioritizing marriage vs. her job, or the maid who wanted to become a secretary. You can even see it in Thomas’s failed attempts to define what matters to him (because he almost always chooses such poor definitions of what really matters—with one exception, that I can think of, and that one brings us back to the brevity of life).

Sherlock does deal with truth vs. falsehood, but that doesn’t seem to be the theme, does it? If I try to pick out, as I did with LOK, what I think are the thematic elements, they would probably be: 1) the dynamic between Sherlock and Watson, and 2) the dynamic between Sherlock and Moriarity. Again, it may be useful to look at the villain’s flaws—and in this case, what sets the hero apart from the villain, despite the many ways in which they are similar. Sherlock calls himself a “high-functioning psychopath” in the first episode, and by the end, everyone, even (almost) Watson, wonders if he really is a psychopath, but the point is that he’s NOT. He does have empathy, he does have a conscience, and he does have people he trusts and cares about (even poor Molly!). I’m not sure quite how to state that as a theme, but I think whatever the theme is, it’s something along the lines of *what makes Sherlock who he is*--what sets him apart from his nemesis, and what makes him not just a good friend to Watson, but the person who truly saved him, not by physically saving his life, but by pulling him from the brink of depression.

Whew! Yep, you’re right. Theme is Hard. But it’s pretty fun to think about.

(I haven’t seen the other shows you’ve mentioned, although The Good Wife has been sitting on my Netflix queue for a while, and I may get around to it yet.)

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