"Avatar the Last Airbender: The Awakening" Gets Season 3 Off to a Rough Start
If a serialized television show attempts to build a larger continuous narrative, sooner or later it will pass a point when the writers stop writing for new audience members and start writing for the existing fanbase. This is not necessarily an obstacle to acquiring new viewers, since a quality television series will be good enough to get new viewers interested a show’s backstory. Also, some story elements can acquire far more meaning with the weight of history behind them. Besides, with the triumverate of video-on-demand, TV-on-DVD, and cable syndication, it is a more viable strategy to write for the larger narrative and let any interested newcomers seek out the older material on their own.
It’s questionable whether Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender crossed that boundary by the end of season 2, but with the third season premiere, “The Awakening,” it is clear that this bridge has been crossed. At best, a new viewer attempting to enter the Avatar world with this episode will be slightly lost. Even the fans who have been rabidly anticipating the new season since the surprising events that ended the last one will feel a mixture of excitement and disappointment with the premiere. The excitement comes from the prospect of seeing the story to its end and the tantalizing hints at what might be coming next, but the disappointment will be because this episode feels like an extended setup for the rest of the season. It’s a half-hour that goes by all too quickly and with too little movement to be truly satisfying on its own merits.
Fans who don’t want to be spoiled should stop reading right here and come back after watching the episode when it airs. I’m fairly certain that “The Awakening” will trigger all kinds of arguments among fandom about what the episode meant or whether it was all sizzle and no steak.
The last season ended with a stunning reversal of fortune for Aang, the title character, and his allies. The Fire Nation’s Princess Azula finally conquered the Earth Kingdom through subterfuge, and nearly killed Aang in the process. She was aided by her brother, longtime Avatar antagonist Prince Zuko, who surprised many fans of the show by turning on the Avatar at a key moment. “The Awakening” begins with Aang and Zuko on Fire Nation ships. Recovering from his grevious wounds, Aang awakens at the start of the episode to find that he and his friends are engaging in some subterfuge of their own, while Zuko is finally returning home from exile with mixed feelings about his own actions.
As stated, much of the episode is clearly setting up threads that will play out for the remainder of season 3. The side-effect is that not very much truly happens in this episode. We discover that the inner conflict that Zuko struggled with all season long is still raging inside him, despite whatever choices he has made. We also get to see that Azula has not changed at all, continuing to manipulate people and situations to her own advantage. Parallels between Aang and Zuko are brought forward in explicit detail as Aang grapples with his abject failure to protect the Earth Kingdom, declaring that he must face the Firelord to wipe away the shame of his failure and restore his honor.
This brings up one of the bigger flaws of the episode: it insists on drawing explicit parallels between characters and events. The parallel hero’s journey of Aang and Zuko was always a running subtext of the show, but when Aang drops a line that sounds like it came from Zuko’s script and is even given a horrible scar to remind him of his failure, the subtext becomes text with a heavy-handedness that has been largely avoided up to now. Another parallel track of the episode involves disappointing reunions with fathers. Zuko’s confrontation with his father, the Firelord Ozai, does not quite go as he had hoped, while Katara’s reunion with her father Hakoda ultimately reveals a different rift that parallels a plot twist involving another character. Her feelings toward her father have real-world resonance and the scene is genuinely moving, but it also seems incredibly forced because there was little or no indication of these feelings in past episodes. At best, one seemingly throwaway event at the end of season 2 can be viewed in an entirely different light, but this plot element still seems to exist for the sake of wringing some extra drama out of a forced parallel rather than out of any organic growth of the story.
There are also two extended exposition dumps that take up a bit too much time. One is artfully hidden as a “hail the conquering hero” stump speech while the other is hidden as filling in Aang on recent events while he was unconscious, but they are still fairly obvious plot devices. A moment of doubt is ultimately resolved through not one but two deus ex machina, at least one of which seems like overkill. Combine all these flaws and the storytelling seams are showing more than they ever have in past episodes of the show. One of Avatar‘s strengths is that it is very good at leaving some things unsaid and trusting the audience to figure them out on their own. It would be a shame if that trust were dropped in this season for the sake of pushing the plot forward.
This is not to say that the episode doesn’t have a lot to offer the many fans who have been eagerly awaiting its debut. Many revelations will no doubt catch fans off-guard, and there is a powerful “anything goes” sense for the remainder of the season. All of the characters, new and old, continue to be endearingly flawed, except for the Machiavellian Azula who is still a delightfully malevolent presence that viewers will love to hate. Despite the more somber and serious direction the show is taking, the staff doesn’t forget to inject a bit of humor into the episode. As always, the animation and the voice acting are superb, even if one questions whether a scene or a plot twist really makes sense in the larger context. Finally, the closing scene is laden with both symbolic and emotional heft that could only be achieved with the past 40 episodes as prologue — an elegant argument for how continuity can be something to build on rather than an obstacle to be overcome.
“The Awakening” will both please and infuriate the long-time Avatar fans, but there can be no question that this episode and probably this entire season has been written for them. Avatar has always made the half-hours whip by far too quickly and leaving its fans hungry for more, and in that regard this episode is the same as it ever was.
“The Awakening” debuts on Nickelodeon on Friday, September 21, 2007, at 8:30 PM (Eastern/Pacific). Check local listings for details.