"Avatar the Last Airbender" The Complete Book 3's Flawed Triumph
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. If you already own the first two boxed sets of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender, you don’t really need me to tell you that the Avatar the Last Airbender Complete Book 3 Collection is an obligatory purchase. If nothing else, you need to know how the story ends. For those who haven’t been following Avatar up to now, your best bet is to start with Book 1 and come back here when you catch up. (And, if you have any taste at all, you will be back).
As a DVD set, this latest season set has all of the same strengths and weaknesses of its two predecessors. It is essentially a repackage of the single-disc releases in a space-saving triptych case with an exclusive bonus feature DVD, but without the exclusive comics that came with the single-discs. While we get the series in sharp full-frame video and stereo sound with no ads or network bugs on screen, we still get forced trailers at the start of each disc and no chapter stops within each episode. The latter omission gets increasingly irritating as the season rolls on and the “Previously On…” segments get longer. The four-part finale “Sozin’s Comet” is also broken into four individual episodes, complete with opening and closing credits and “Previously On” segments, which trips up the story’s momentum and makes the lack of sensible chapter stops even more keenly felt. The special features on each individual volume are limited to commentary tracks, which is fine since many of the earlier DVD features were so trivial that they might as well not have been included.
The one major difference between the third season box and earlier ones is that the final disc in the boxed set contains commentary tracks for all six episodes, including “Sozin’s Comet,” while the single-disc release only contained commentaries for the first two. Like the earlier releases, the commentary tracks throughout the season are fairly lightweight, and sometimes slip into clowning and in-jokes when something really interesting is happening on screen. However, the commentary for the finale is excellent and informative, as co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko discuss how the three-part finale became four, the difficulties that the ambitious animation caused in production, the rationale behind a few plot twists that they knew would cause contention among the fans, and the many on-screen references to earlier events.
The featurettes on the bonus disc are interesting, although none are truly essential. “The Women of Avatar” focuses on Katara, Toph, and Azula, with select clips from the show interspersed between comments from Konietzko and DiMartino; voice actors Mae Whitman, Jessie Flower, and Grey Delisle; and Avatar fans “Avatar Mom” and “Isaia.” The featurette is a lot more substantial than one might expect, and it’s fun to see what the voice actors really look like (and how Whitman has grown up from the little girl in Independence Day and Hope Floats). The second featurette is about 11 minutes of pencil test animation from the finale (introduced by funny pencil test versions of the creators), which will be interesting for serious animation fans and nearly incomprehensible to almost anyone else. Still, it’s nice to see some recognition for the countless hours of “pencil mileage” that went into the finale. The final featurette is a recording of the Avatar panel at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con, which is interesting mostly for some behind-the-scenes artwork and voice actor Dee Bradley Baker making sounds that shouldn’t come out of a human being in a live voice-over session for the audience. Personally, I was hoping this bonus disc would also include the two marvelous trailers for the third season (available here and here at the extraordinary fan site AvatarSpirit.net). Serious collectors were trained way back to wait for the boxed sets, and for this box, their patience is clearly rewarded. Even if the bonus disc still feels light, the extra commentary is definitely worth it, and may even be worth a double-dip for the really hardcore fans.
With the mechanical stuff out of the way, we are left with the harder task of assessing the mixed bag that was the last season of Avatar. Make no mistake—each individual episode of the season is a high-quality, entertaining half-hour of TV animation. Taken in total, Avatar the Last Airbender is still one of the best animated series ever made, and can easily stake a claim next to The Simpsons, Cowboy Bebop, and Batman: The Animated Series as one of the defining cartoons of its time. It’s the kind of cartoon that draws fans who normally pooh-pooh cartoons as “kid stuff,” even though it is, at heart, a children’s show. “This one’s different.” However, this last season is still the most uneven of the three, stumbling noticeably in its first half.
Looking back at my reviews for the start, midpoint, and finale of Book 3, I find I wouldn’t really change much other than the egregiously wrong predictions. After re-watching the entire season in a short span of time, it really seems that the decision to use “Day of Black Sun” as the midpoint of the season left too little substantial story material for the first half, while leaving far, far too much for the back half. There isn’t a truly bad episode of Avatar throughout its 61-episode run, but the real achievement of the show was the way every episode built on what came before to create a solid foundation for what would come after. Each episode flowed directly into the next, but even in the earliest episodes of season 1, the show was setting up plot threads and tensions or creating things worth revisiting, and many of these story elements would cast shadows all the way to the end of the series. While creating a show so heavily dependent on continuity risks alienating newer viewers, it also allows for real dramatic payoffs in the long run. The second season of the show balanced both small- and large-scale storytelling absolutely perfectly, making it one of the best single seasons of any serialized television show ever made, animated or not.
It would be hard for any show to match a high point like that, but the first half of Book 3 still feels rather disappointing. Individually, each episode is still exceptionally well done, and it’s worth pointing out that any single episode in Book 3 features animation that’s markedly better and more daring than the spectacle of the first season finale. The show also becomes much more ambitious in staging its martial arts battles, with the real stand-out in the first half being the elaborate sword fight in the third act of “Sokka’s Master.” It’s too easy to take the show’s superb sound design and music for granted, but they all really take it to the next level in this season, with the work in establishing the show’s many musical themes making it almost impossibly easy for the show to trigger powerful emotional responses with just a snippet of song. The stories are solid as well, although Aang’s explorations of the Fire Nation are mostly frivolous, while Prince Zuko’s growing sense of disquiet after a triumphant homecoming feels way too drawn out.
The real problem is that too few of these first 10 episodes are genuinely important to the larger plot, frittering away the dramatic momentum built up by the last season’s explosive conclusion. No matter how enjoyable they are as single episodes, they just don’t add up to a lot by the end. Some, like “The Painted Lady” and “The Runaway,” are redundant, telling us little that we don’t already know. Other than a few minutes here and there, they can be rearranged or removed entirely with little to no impact, while this was not true for most of season 1 and almost all of season 2. Other episodes, like “Sokka’s Master” and “The Puppetmaster,” look like they’re setting up something really important, but none of that potential gets fully realized. There are other plot elements that are brought up only to vanish without a trace, such as Katara’s antagonism towards her father in the premiere and Toph’s little space rock bracelet. Finally, this half of the season also has a nasty habit of delivering information by telling rather than showing. Extended speeches about feelings is understandable in the third act of the teen-angst episode “The Beach” as a tribute to teen movies, especially those of the 1980′s. However, it seems exceptionally odd to go purely for comedy in an episode about Aang’s stress on the eve of “Day of Black Sun,” only to communicate a critical plot point (“I can’t enter the Avatar State”) in a purely expository line in the next episode. The benefit of hindsight makes it easier to spot the season’s running theme of reconciliation, which is even spelled out explicitly in Aang’s last lines of “The Avatar and the Firelord.” Most episodes involve at least one character making a wildly impractical decision to reach out to ostensible enemies to try and turn them into friends, or at least neutralize conflict with a minimum of violence. Other episodes, like “The Avatar and the Firelord” and “The Puppetmaster,” illustrate the poisonous consequences when attempts at reconciliation fail or are never undertaken. However, recognizing this theme merely explains the episodes rather than excusing their flaws.
Luckily, the show comes roaring back to top form with “Day of Black Sun,” turning in a string of episodes each of which tops the one before it. “The Firebending Masters” is a simply glorious episode from beginning to end, starting with a mystery and ending with a moment of transcendent beauty and awe-inspiring majesty. It is also a testament to the show’s character development over time that the show could ditch its lead character for the two-part episode “The Boiling Rock,” producing a wildly entertaining tale centering on numerous secondary characters. Even the “clip show” episode of “The Ember Island Players” manages to be a hilarious love letter to the fans while still pushing narrative threads forward. It all comes to a head in the truly spectacular conclusion of “Sozin’s Comet.” While I have already raved about the season finale, it bears repeating that “Sozin’s Comet” is a near-perfect ending to Aang’s story, filled with jaw-droppingly great animation, a palpable sense of power, and a strong sense of consistency with Aang’s character and the recurrent theme of the season.
In the end, whatever criticisms I may have about Avatar‘s third season pale in comparison to the show’s towering achievements. Indeed, there are precious few other shows on television that would inspire or withstand such critical scrutiny. In the show, the Avatar is reborn again and again to inspire new generations, and I fully expect that the show will do the same.