Avatar The Last Airbender: Season 3

"Firelord Ozai, you and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world, and now you shall pay the ultimate price!"

Avatar: The Last Airbender comes to an end as Aang learns to master firebending and prepares to finally face Fire Lord Ozai.

BOOK THREE: FIRE

(Warning: This review contains spoilers)

I've always liked that Avatar didn't overstay its welcome. After three seasons, one for each of the elements Aang had to master, the show was over and done with. The creators had a three year plan for the show and they stuck to it, not letting its massive success trick them into thinking this story needed to be dragged out for a few more seasons. Sure, the comics have shown that there are still a lot of great stories to tell about these characters, but none of them come even close to matching the scope and scale of this story. Fighting the Firelord and ending the Hundred Year War was the biggest challenge these characters were ever going to face. Any attempt to continue the series beyond that would've just felt anticlimactic.

It's been a few weeks since the Gaang was forced to flee Ba Sing Se at the end of season 2. Aang, who has been unconscious since Azula's lightning blast nearly killed him, awakens to find the Earth Kingdom now under the control of Fire Nation, the war effectively over, and the entire world thinking he's dead. Oh, and he's got a full head of hair. Not sure what he's more freaked out about. Meanwhile, Zuko has returned home a hero. After betraying his uncle (now voiced by Greg Baldwin following Mako's untimely passing) and helping Azula take down the Avatar, he's finally accepted by his father, Firelord Asshole Ozai. He's even credited with killing the Avatar, thanks to Azula's scheming. If Avatar is alive she wants to make sure it will be Zuko who suffers their father's wrath instead of her.

Aang with hair takes some serious getting used to.
Season 3 is split evenly into two story arcs. The first sees the Gaang hiding out in the Fire Nation while they wait for the invasion to kick off during the solar eclipse, when all the Firebenders will be powerless. At the same time, they are hunted by an assassin sent by Zuko to make sure the Avatar is really dead: Sparky Sparky Boom Man. That's not his real name, but I'm using it because it is so much better than his actual name. The invasion is covered in the mid-season two-parter, 'Day of Black Sun'. Suffice it to say, it does not go well for Team Avatar. The second arc deals with the fallout from the failed invasion and Zuko's decision to turn against his family and join Team Avatar, becoming Aang's Firebending master in the process. This leads us all the way up to the series finale 'Sozin's Comet', where Aang finally faces Ozai.

Of the two arcs, the first is undoubtedly the weakest. It's not by any means terrible. In fact, there's some bloody great episodes here. 'The Headband' is a fun twist on Footloose where Aang accidentally gets enrolled in a Fire Nation school and teaches the kids to rebel via dance. 'Sokka's Master' sees everyone's favourite non-bender get tired of being the team Zeppo and deciding to find a way to better contribute to the team. Since cars haven't been invented yet he decides to become a sword master instead. 'The Beach' is a hilarious, and surprisingly moving, episode that shows what happens when Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee all go on a beach vacation together. Yes, you read that right. Finally, there's 'The Avatar and the Firelord', a terrific flashback episode that reveals the history of Avatar Roku and how his friendship with Firelord Sozin turned sour and ultimately lead to the Hundred Year War.

The problem with this first arc is that hardly anything really happens. The writers were obviously in no rush to get to the invasion and more than happy to just kill time. So we end up with half a season of the Gaang just hanging out in the Fire Nation not really doing much. Not since the first season has Team Avatar indulged in this much procrastination. While we did get some great episodes out of this it also resulted in too many pointless filler episodes like 'The Painted Lady', 'The Runaway' and 'Nightmares and Daydreams'.

Douche Phoenix King Ozai.
Another thing that bothered me about the first half of the season, and the second for that matter, is how little we actually see of the big bad himself, Firelord Ozai, voiced by the king of animated villains, Mark Hamill. You'd think with Zuko back home we'd get to spend some quality time with the Fire Nation Royal Family. They are, in many ways, the Lannisters of this series, with Ozai the Tywin of this incredibly dysfunctional dynasty. But Ozai barely features. He appears in only a handful of scenes before his final big fight with Aang. He's also, well, not really that interesting. Ozai is crazy and evil, and that is really all there is to him. He's a bad guy who does bad things because he's bad. After so many great and complex villains, it is rather disappointing that the series' main antagonist is not only criminally underused, but shockingly one note.

Fortunately, there's still Azula. I don't think there has ever been a villain on a children's cartoon series who is as multifaceted as Azula. Starting with 'The Beach' we get to see the insecurities she tries to hide from everyone, especially those closest to her. Her eventual decent into madness after her only friends betray her and her father all but abandons her is one of the most compelling character arcs the show has ever done. It really is a testament to how good the writing was on this show that you really do feel sympathy for her, despite everything she's done or planned to do.


One of the best things about the first half of the season, hell the entire season overall, is seeing Zuko, after much soul searching, finally decide once and for all which side he wants to be on. I like that there were no external factors pushing Zuko towards the light. He realised on his own that he'd made a mistake by siding with Azula in Ba Sing Se and the best thing for him to do was join Team Avatar, become Aang's Firebending master, and help them defeat his father. I don't think I have ever been more proud of a fictional character than I was when Zuko confronted his father during 'Day of Back Sun' and finally let him have it. Redirecting his lighting back at him was pretty badass too.

The only problem I had with Zuko's acceptance into the Gaang is that it comes far too late in the game that, by the time he is finally accepted by the entire team, the show is virtually over. Because there were so many filler episodes in the first half of the season the second half kind of has to rush through things. This also means that we get barely any time with what is the definitive Team Avatar line-up; Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko and Suki. Two episodes (or five if you count the finale as four different episodes) of these six working together was not enough.

Air, water, earth, fire, fan and sword. 
Much of the back half is dominated by "life changing field trips with Zuko" episodes. These involve each of the original trio (sorry Toph) going off on a mission alone with Zuko that changes them and their relationship with him. 'The Firebending Masters' is a fun tale that sees Aang and Zuko seek out the original firebenders: dragons to help Aang better master firebending. 'The Southern Raiders' builds on the dark turn Katara took in 'The Puppet Master' as she goes searching for the man who killed her mother. But the best of the bunch is 'The Boiling Rock' two-parter where Sokka and Zuko (proving to be an exceptional double act) infiltrate a Fire Nation prison so they can rescue Sokka and Katara's father, and later Suki. There are far too many reasons why I love this two-parter to list here, so I'll just settle for one of the greatest exchanges in television history:


As the show got closer and closer to the finale it became blindingly obvious that the writers didn't have the foggiest idea what to do with Aang and Katara's relationship. Before I continue I'd just like to stress that I'm not passionately opposed to this coupling like many fans are. Aang and Katara are, at worst, a disappointingly predictable pairing. He's the hero, she's the main female character, of course they were going to end up together. And I'll admit that sometimes they did make a cute couple. But this season bungles the development of their relationship by throwing in a lot of unnecessary angst and indecision towards the end of the season just to put the brakes on the whole thing until the finale, where the two characters barely interact until their big kiss at the end.

In fact, Aang barely interacts with anyone in 'Sozin's Comet', the series' four-part finale. It's an insanely epic episode that not only sees Aang finally fight Fatherlord Firelord Ozai (who is all jacked up with magical comet energy), but also has Zuko and Katara battling a completely insane Azula; Sokka, Toph and Suki taking down an entire fleet of Fire Nation airships; and the Order of the White Lotus, a sort of club for OAP badasses led by Iroh, retaking Ba Sing Se. It's an episode big on action, but frustrating short on quality Team Avatar time. Aang leaves the team early on to do some soul searching and by the time everyone is reunited we only gets a quick heart to heart between him and Zuko, where they reflect on how far they have both come since they first met, and no one else. It would've been nice if there'd been a moment or two between the original trio after the dust had settled, if only so the very last words that Aang says to Katara in the entire show aren't said in anger.

Even though it kept him away from the rest of the Gaang, I did like that Aang sought another way to defeat Ozai. Respect for all life, even those of his enemies, is not just at the core of who Aang is as a person, it was one of his people's central beliefs. And since he is the sole living embodiment of the Air Nomads it is important that he honour those beliefs. If he didn't, then his people would truly be extinct. It just wouldn't have felt right, both morally and thematically, if he had ended the war by killing someone. Mind you, that giant lion turtle showing up out of nowhere and teaching him the secret of energybending so he could take away Ozai's firebending was a bit of a deus ex machina, wasn't it? I mean, it was awesome, but a giant lion turtle? Really?


BEST EPISODE


There are so many to choose from, but I'm going to go with 'The Avatar and the Fire Lord' because I'm a sucker for a good flashback episode and this is a bloody good flashback episode.

WORST EPISODE

'Nightmares and Daydreams'. Not terrible, just a completely pointless time waster.

BEST CHARACTER 


I was tempted to go with either Zuko, Azula or Aang, who all have compelling arcs this season, but in the end I decided to go with Sokka. He really comes into his own this season, as both a warrior and a leader, proving to everyone that he is so much more than just the team's resident joker.

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


Thinking his uncle hates him for betraying him in Ba Sing Se, Zuko drops down on his knees and starts to beg for his forgiveness, only for Iroh to grab hold of him, give him the best hug in the entire history of hugs, and tell him that he never hated him, he was just sad that he seemed to lose his way (*sniff*).

BEST ACTION SCENE 


This is a tough one. I mean, Aang's battle with Ozai is the fight the entire series has been building towards and it's as epic and amazing as we hoped it would be. But Zuko and Azula's Agni Kai... damn, that thing is a work of art.

FUNNIEST MOMENT 


Has to be every last second of 'The Ember Island Players', a side-splitting recap/loving piss take of the entire series in the form of a not completely accurate stage play the Gaang go to see. There is not one moment I can single out, the whole thing is a laugh riot from beginning to end.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

During their wanderings around the Fire Nation this season, the Gaang encounter:

Iguana seals
Toucan puffins
Badgerfrogs
Aardvark sloths
Dragon moose
Hippo cows
Koala sheep
A BRIEF WORD ON THE AVATAR COMICS


Four years after ATLA ended, Dark Horse Comics started publishing a series of graphic novel trilogies written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru that act as an official continuation of the series as well as a bridge between it and the spin-off series, The Legend of Korra. Yang and Gurihiru produced five trilogies between 2012 and 2017: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. Faith Erin Hicks, Peter Wartman and Ryan Hill took over the series in October with Imbalance. If you love the show and enjoying reading comics I highly recommend that you give these a go. The Search, which was originally meant to be a TV movie, is probably the most essential as it finally answers the one question that was left dangling at the end of the show: whatever happened to Zuko's mom?

Three and a half out of four things that are rough, buddy.

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

2 comments:

sunbunny said...

I can't believe you didn't pick Ember Island Players for your best ep. I am shocked and dismayed. The more I think about it the more I realize how much more I like Korra than Avatar. It's...I don't know. I mean it definitely had its missteps but I guess there was less...time wasting? Is that too cruel? ATLA definitely wins on the animals though. APPA FOREVER!!!

Mark Greig said...


Korra probably benefited from employing the Buffy method (new story and villain each season) and for having shorter season. That said, there sure was a lot of time wasting in season 2.