Avatar The Last Airbender: Season 2

"There is no war in Ba Sing Se."

Improving and building on what came before, season two is where Avatar: The Last Airbender cemented its place as not just one of the greatest animated series of all time, but one of the greatest TV series full stop.

BOOK TWO: EARTH

(Warning: This review contains spoilers)

If I had to pick a favourite season of ATLA it would be this one. This is the season where, for me, the show finally feels complete, where everything that I love about it finally falls into place. This is also the season where everything starts to go pear shaped for our heroes. They begin to suffer serious losses and people actually start to die.

Well, maybe. Possibly. You know, it really wasn't clear.

This season starts with the Gaang back in the Earth Kingdom and on the lookout for an Earthbending master for Aang. Fortunately, the writers have learnt from the mistakes of season 1 and don't make us wait forever for them to find one. But before that we do have to endure a few tiresome filler episodes like 'The Swamp' and 'Avatar Day', although, to be fair, none are as dire as 'The Great Divide'. In fact, I will readily admit to loving Sokka's Sherlock Holmes act in 'Avatar Day' as well as Avatar Kyoshi's spirit showing up during Aang's trial to prove that he really did kill that guy in a past life. Sort of. It was really an accident, but try telling that to Kyoshi.

The Gaang's (mercifully brief) search for an Earthbending master comes to an end in 'The Blind Bandit', which is a ridiculously brilliant episode for two good reasons. First, it is a side-splitting piss take of the absurd world of professional wrestling. Second, it introduces us to the brilliant, the amazing, the wonderful, the fantastic, the great Toph Beifong. You know how in some shows you have that one characters who shows up two or three seasons in and fits in so perfectly that when you go back and watch the episodes before they turned up all you can do is notice that they aren't there?

Toph is one such a character.


The writers' original plan for Aang's Earthbender master was for them to be a muscular sixteen-year-old boy, a jock-type who would clash with Sokka. That all changed when one of the writers (Aaron Ehasz, I believe) thought it would be more interesting, not to mention more fun, to have this great Earthbender be a 12-year-old blind girl with the personality of a cocky pro-wrestler and the manners of a pro-wrestling fan (at least the ones I work with). And they were right. A male Toph would've been the most boring thing imaginable, not to mention it would've made the gender imbalance in Team Avatar even worse than it already was.

Toph wasn't the only fantastic new addition this season. After being branded as traitors by the Fire Lord, Zuko and Iroh are forced to go on the run and get new hairdos. Farewell Zuko's ponytail of angst. Replacing them as the show's primary antagonist is Zuko's younger sister, Azula. You know how during the first season, the show went to great lengths to show us that, despite being a regular thorn in Team Avatar's side, Zuko wasn't really all that bad. Well, Azula is all that bad. She’s double-decker psycho crazy. And I absolutely bloody love her for it.

Where her brother was hot tempered and impulsive, Azula is cool and calculating. She rarely loses her temper, but when she does you run and hide. As well as being a cunning strategist, Azula is also a fearsome firebender, one who is capable of bending lightning, which is my favourite sub-form of bending. What's also great about having Azula as the season's central villain is that she's accompanied on her mission by her two best friends; sunny Ty Lee and sullen Mai. I just love that the three most dangerous individuals in the entire Fire Nation, the ones tasked with tracking down the all powerful Avatar, are three teenage girls, two of whom aren't even benders.


While Azula and her besties are off chasing the Avatar and causing general mayhem, their predecessors are having something of a rough time. With no Avatar to chase, and now hunted by their own people, Zuko and Iroh spend most the season struggling to survive as they wander around the Earth Kingdom. Zuko even resorts to assuming his Blue Spirit alias to steal food for them. Iroh doesn't approve, causing Zuko (ever the broody teenager) to go off on his own and try being Clint Eastwood for a bit in the excellent 'Zuko Alone'. But fear not, the show's best double-act are quickly reunited when they (all too briefly) join forces with Team Avatar to fight Azula in 'The Chase', another standout episode in a season full of 'em.

The season reaches a major turning point in 'The Library'. Looking for an edge over the Fire Nation, Team Avatar journeys to a lost Spirit Library in the desert ruled over by a very grumpy owl. While there, Sokka discovers that a solar eclipse is coming that will rob Firebenders of their ability to firebend. With this knowledge, the Gaang plan to travel to the Earth Kingdom capital to enlist the help of the Earth King in attacking the Fire Nation on the day of the eclipse. This is where all the storylines begin to converge as everyone, including Zuko, Iroh and Jet (the cocky freedom fighter from season 1), makes their way to the Earth Kingdom capital in the belief that it will solve all their problems.

Boy, are they in for a surprise.

Repeat after me, "There is no war in Ba Sing Se." 
This is the season where the line between good and bad starts to become more of a squiggle. From the very first episode the writers begin to show us that just because the Earth Kingdom is fighting the Fire Nation it doesn't mean they are automatically the good guys. By the time the Gaang finally reach the capital city, Ba Sing Se, they discover that it's nothing more than a totalitarian police state where even mentioning the war is forbidden and will get you a one way ticket to Lake Laogai for some serious brainwashing. The Earth King himself is nothing more than a powerless figurehead, kept isolated and ignorant by his Grand Secretary, Long Feng (Clancy Brown), who is also the leader of the Dai Li, the city's elite secret police.

The Ba Sing Se episodes are some of the best the series produced, featuring many of its best scenes and most shocking twists. As I said at the start, this is where things start to go seriously wrong for our heroes. Jet is killed while helping the Gaang fight Long Feng (I think, it really wasn't clear). They manage to overthrow the crooked politician and get the Earth King's help to invade the Fire Nation, but this just allows Azula to take control of the Dai Li and bring about the fall of the Earth Kingdom. And after a season of heading away from the darkness and towards to the light, Zuko threw it all away to help Azula fight the Avatar on the slim chance he could return home. The season ends with our heroes in retreat, Aang barely clinging to life after his fight with Azula, and the Earth Kingdom now in the hands of the Fire Nation.

Wow, talk about a downer.


BEST EPISODE


'Zuko Alone' is a simply outstanding episode, one of the series's all time best. As its title suggest, it follows Zuko as he sets off on his own across the Earth Kingdom to find himself, helping some villagers along the way, all mixed with flashbacks to his seriously troubled childhood.

WORST EPISODE

There are weaker episodes this season, but I can’t think of an ATLA episode more painful to sit through than ‘Appa’s Lost Days’, which shows us what happened to the poor bison after he was kidnapped by sandbenders at the end of 'The Library'.

BEST CHARACTER


Has to be Zuko. He has one hell of an arc this season. With no Avatar to chase, the exiled prince goes in search of something far more important: himself. After many ups and downs (and a few different hairstyles), it finally looked like he'd decided what kind of man he wanted to be and was willing to settle for a simple life working in his uncle's new tea shop in Ba Sing Se, which was such a shock to his system that it literally put him into a coma. And then he threw it all away in the season finale by siding with Azula.

Oh Zuko, why are you so bad at being good?

BEST "THERE'S JUST SOMETHING IN MY EYE" MOMENT


I could go with Jet's death, but certain future episodes have made it impossible for me to watch that scene without giggling. So I'm going with the ending of Iroh's story from 'The Tales of Ba Sing Se' where he sits on that little hilltop, tearfully singing 'Leaves From the Vine' for his late son on his birthday. The story was dedicated to Iroh's voice actor, Mako, who sadly passed away after completing work on season 2.

BEST ACTION SCENE


Probably all of the 'The Drill', which is just one big action sequence as Team Avatar take on Azula, Ty Lee and Mai in order to destroy a Fire Nation super weapon.

FUNNIEST MOMENT


All the wrestling, I mean Earth Rumble, scenes in 'The Blind Bandit', especially any with Rock tribute the Boulder. They actually tried to get Dwayne Johnson to voice him, but it didn't work out.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

This season introduces us to the most fantastical creature of all – Bosco, the Earth King's pet bear. He's just a regular, normal bear, which is so unusual for this world that the Gaang have a hard time believing it.


Four out of four wars not in Ba Sing Se.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

1 comment:

sunbunny said...

Warning: this is going to be long and rambling.

I agree that this is AtLa's best season but it HURTS ME, like PHYSICALLY PAINS ME when Appa is stolen. Aang's anguish is so hard to watch and Appa's Lost Days only makes it worse seeing how abused and mistreated poor Appa was.

Zuko's arc was great. He finally comes to grips with who he could be, his "best self" (I'm rewatching The Good Place right now) but throws it all away when he's offered his dream of being accepted by his family again. And I mean his family is AWFUL but, to the show's credit, it's a choice you understand. Not one you celebrate, but one that makes narrative sense.

Iroh's story in The Tales of Ba Sing Se is a MAJOR TEAR JERKER. I love Iroh so much. So much love for Iroh. I almost wish we had a prequel series where we could see him being a war mongering jerk like his brother and father and how he's son's death reshaped him.

One thing that's great about AtLA is that it shows that there are non-benders just as formidable as benders. Sokka, Suki, Tylee, and Mai are great examples of this.

The episodes in Ba Sing Se are really dark and I love that the show was willing to go there and doesn't treat its kid audience with kid gloves.