"Avatar: The Day of Black Sun" Burns Bright and Hits Hard
Fans of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender have been a bit puzzled by the first half of the show’s third season. The end of the second season left Avatar Aang and his friends on their own after a crushing Fire Nation victory that nearly took Aang’s life. Their last remaining hope was the Day of Black Sun: a solar eclipse that will rob Firebenders of their powers. After losing the support of the Earth Kingdom armies at the end of season 2, the Avatar and his allies could only prepare a ragtag strike force, hoping to defeat the Firelord during the eclipse and return the world to peace.
The first nine episodes of the third season mostly seemed to fritter away the momentum built up in season 2. While the first half of Book 2 showed that not everyone in the Earth Kingdom was an ally of the Avatar, the second half of Book 3 wanted to show that not everyone in the Fire Nation was an enemy. Unfortunately, this concept simply doesn’t have the same dramatic potential. Many episodes, such as “The Awakening,” “Sokka’s Master,” “The Runaway,” and “The Beach,” served mostly to give added depth and backstory to cast members. Others, such as “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” and “The Puppetmaster,” positioned new plot dominoes for a future payoff. No matter how entertaining they may have been, the remaining episodes this season have mostly felt like filler material, with no sense of urgency. At times, it almost seemed like the show was trying to pad out ten episodes’ worth of story into a twenty-episode season, which was especially disappointing given the masterful, epic storytelling of the earlier two books.
With the two-part episode “The Day of Black Sun,” though, Avatar returns to the form its fans have come to expect, going far enough to suggest there was a method to the madness of the season’s first half. “Day of Black Sun” resolves many outstanding plot points while sending the story off in another unexpected direction, leaving Avatar fans with an all-too familiar burning desire to know what will come next. To say much more would give away the entire episode, robbing the assorted twists of their impact, so stop reading now if you don’t want things spoiled for you.
The invasion on the Day of Black Sun creates an opportunity to reunite the cast with a number of old friends from the first two seasons of the show. But there’s little time for catching up before the start of the invasion, which is highly reminiscent of World War II D-Day invasion movies. Grim-faced soldiers packed onto Waterbender-powered submarines wait nervously to storm the Fire Nation capital from the sea. These creative submarines penetrate the capital’s outer defenses and plow onto the docks to disgorge ground troops and giant, Earthbender-powered stone tanks. As usual, the vehicles are done in CGI while the people are hand-drawn, but the integration between the two is especially smooth in these battle sequences.
Unfortunately, the World War II echoes undermine the episode slightly at this point. Until now, the larger battle sequences have been staged to make casualties an abstraction (in “The Siege of the North” that concluded Book 1) or something avoided deliberately (in the assault on the Earth King’s palace in “The Earth King” near the end of Book 2). Here, there is little reason for either side to hold back, but the episode ends up reminding us more of G.I. Joe and its curiously non-lethal combat than the Longest Day combat we were led to expect. There is plenty of action, as rocks and rockets fly, but most soldiers leap out of vehicles or battlements moments before they are destroyed, draining the moment of any real sense of danger. Even so, the episode is quite effective at building tension by keeping the success of the invasion balanced precariously on a razor’s edge.
While the invasion progresses, Aang’s former antagonist Prince Zuko seems to have finally come to the momentous decision to break with his father, Firelord Ozai, and join forces with the Avatar. The change has been a long time coming, with longtime viewers of the show expecting it since the end of season 2. The show has done a fairly good job at playing a “will he/won’t he” game this season, but by now his dissatisfaction was becoming a little too drawn out. Even now, this episode tries to be coy about what Zuko is really doing, but the outcome will be evident to anybody who’s been paying attention. The real payoff from this plot twist is the tense and venomous confrontation between Zuko and Firelord Ozai, which re-introduces a nearly forgotten plot point. It also incorporates character development through combat, as Zuko counters an attack in a way that will subtly remind viewers of something raised midway through season 2. The exchange between Zuko and Ozai also echoes the confrontations between Luke Skywalker and the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi; the fact that it’s Mark Hamill providing the voice of the villain this time gooses the moment that much more.
There really ought to be a word for the moment when you realize that a story won’t have an expected result simply because it is emphasizing that result so heavily. This combined with the knowledge that the third season is only half over pretty much gives away that the invasion fizzles, turning out to be mostly a Fire Nation trap orchestrated by Azula, the sociopathic sister of Prince Zuko. She is as malevolent as ever, proving to be incredibly formidable even when she has no bending abilities during the eclipse. Instead, she pulls at least three different aces out of her sleeves, all of which are logical outgrowths of past events on the show and none of which I would dare reveal, since the plot twists they provide are so wonderfully done. As at the end of Book 2, the battle ends in a rout, with Aang and a small group of his friends fleeing the scene with their last hope of victory seemingly squandered.
Even if one anticipated the outcome of “Day of Black Sun,” the episode is still incredibly effective, managing to nearly duplicate the desperation and anticipation from the season finale of Book 2. For every question that is answered, another is raised. Again, the creators of the show have left the situation in a state where we are left with many unanswered questions and a tantalizing sense that anything can happen from here.
The quality of “Day of Black Sun” is unquestionable, but if anything it makes even more puzzling the purpose of the first half of the season. Unlike earlier seasons, there is no overt connection between the early episodes of season 3 and this pivotal episode. However, I believe that Prince Zuko’s actions are the key to understanding both the first half of the season, as well as giving a hint as to how the second half will unfold. No amount of coercion or force could compel Zuko to turn away from the Fire Nation. It was only when he had to come into contact with people of the other nations that he realized they were not the enemies he was told to expect. He only spurns the Fire Nation’s war when he can truly internalize the realization that his perspective has been wrong for his entire life. Nobody is as fervent a believer as the converted.
In this light, the early episodes of Book 3 may be important not for the glimpse it gives Aang (and, by extension, us) of the Fire Nation, but rather for the glimpse that it gives the Fire Nation to Aang and other outsiders. Consistently, Aang and his friends have shown more concern for the well-being of the Fire Nation’s citizens than the Fire Nation armies do. In so doing, Aang has inadvertently sowed the seeds of a Fire Nation insurrection against the ruling authorities. Even if the invasion had succeeded, nobody likes a foreign power stomping in and dictating terms through force, and the war would have continued. Zuko’s conversion is a demonstration on an individal scale of what must happen throughout the Fire Nation to achieve true victory over the Firelord and return peace throughout the world. Zuko may even be the catalyst to start such an insurrection, since his royal lineage could give him far more stature than even the Avatar within the hierarchical Fire Nation society.
Of course, I could be wrong about all this. The beauty of Avatar is that it continually manages to confound all of our expectations. “Day of Black Sun” is exactly the kind of episode that fans have been anxious for since the end of season 2, and hopefully it’s a harbinger of more great things to come in the home stretch.