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When we started Lady Business Renay might have mentioned that this blog was part of her not so secret plan to get Ana and I to write more delicious media reviews for her. What with school eating Ana and my terrible year of blogging we haven’t been able to keep up our end of this Faustian contract bargain. So for January, our birthday month, we offer a huge co-review of the first series of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, a program that Renay suggested we watch. We hope she enjoys it and we really hope tons of other fans have fun reading our thoughts too.

There was no way we were going to get through this whole discussion without spoilers, so we advise medium caution if you haven’t seen the first series of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. We don’t reveal any big plot points, but we do talk in detail about character development and mention some of the things that happen in specific episodes.

Aang, Katara, Sokka, Appa and Momo

Ana: First things first: Aang and Zuko are totally going to grow up to fall in love and live HAPPILY EVER AFTER, right? :P

Jodie: What?! That is honestly a ship I had not even considered. Is there fic for that? I could be persuaded to read it. I do love Zuko, poor boy, trying to gain his father’s approval by performing evil deeds, but he’s too full of honour to ever please his father’s twisted idea of what a Fire Kingdom prince should be.

Ana: I didn’t occur to me either until episodes 12 and 13, “The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit”. I loved the way “The Storm” showed Aang and Zuko’s stories in parallel, making it clear that they had a lot more in common than what we might have guessed at first glance. And then, in “The Blue Spirit”, they kind of realise it themselves, and there are so many feelings being held back on top of everything else that’s going on (in my head anyway). Plus there’s that heartbreaking “maybe we could have been friends” scene - I just about exploded. This marks the moment, by the way, when I made the full transition from “Hey, this series is pretty cool” to “HEARTS FOREVER”.

I love Zuko too, and his uncle Iroh. Although my dreams for the series may never come true, I have no doubt that they’ll side with Aang and his friends before everything is over. The way their characters and motivations were slowly illuminated and they went from your average cartoon villains, there to provide the narrative with some tension, to fully fleshed-out characters with ethical conundrums of their own was just so satisfying.

But since this post is not titled “Ana forces Jodie to write a 5000 word essay on Zuko with her”, I guess we should begin at the beginning. What did you think of the worldbuilding?

Aang and The Blue Spirit

Jodie: And now I will have fun reinterpreting every Zuko/Aang interaction through your lens ;) I bet we totally could write a huge essay on Zuko (Jodie + crazy dangerous boy characters = love after all) but let us put on our serious faces. *AHEM*

So, the world building. I really liked that the fantasy structure of ‘Avatar’ is built around a really simple, familiar idea - the world is made up of four elements, each with their own special strengths. That idea is personified by the four tribes and the various characters who appear with bending abilities, which makes it much less abstract and therefore much easier to really invest in/to understand the significance of.

I also really enjoyed the idea that all four elements must be kept in balance in order to keep the world healthy. I have a theory, I don’t know if you agree, but I feel like that idea of balance is one we see explored less frequently in fantasy. As the traditional good defeats evil narrative enjoys a new resurgence through the film adaptations of many classic novels (Lord of the Rings, Narnia) and maybe through the popularity of other big name fantasy series (Harry Potter etc) it is interesting to find a series that has other ideas about how justice and peace can be achieved. I love that Aang isn’t there to destroy the Fire Nation. Instead he’s appeared to defeat the Fire King, an individual who throws the world out of balance and to restore the natural order, bringing peace in the process. Fire, in Aang’s world, isn’t automatically evil, but it has been turned to evil purposes (although isn’t it interesting that they chose to make the element that has been used for bad ends fire, an element many of us naturally associate with bad things?) and I really enjoyed seeing that perspective.

Ana: I love what you said about balance and how that's not a very common concept in epic fantasy. I can think of a few exceptions, actually - first of all, there's Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, which I know you weren't a fan of. But! The more recent books in particular, the ones she wrote after the 70's, are very much about balance, compromise, pacifism, and harmony between different peoples and between people and the natural world (The Other Wind is one of my favourite novels ever, and it saddens me that I can't recommend it more because people need to read five other books first for it to make sense).

Then there are also Miyazaki's fantasy epics, especially Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. They're conflict-based stories in which both sides are humanised, even though there's one the viewer sympathises with from the beginning - which is the direction in which Avatar seems to be going as well. And the idea of harmony and balance also plays a key role in these stories. (The Winter Solstice episodes of Avatar seemed to include a deliberate nod to Princess Mononoke, which made me really happy).

Jodie: *Butts in*. Maybe Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Leviathan’ series is another example? Readers are encouraged to cheer on both Clanker and Darwinist groups in that series (although in my opinion the books encourage readers to be a bit more sympathetic to the Darwinists) and the Alec/Deryan relationship hints at balance, or combined technologies.

Ana: It's probably no coincidence that Avatar is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy universe, Miyazaki is a Japanese filmmaker, and Ursula Le Guin has frequently discussed the influence of Taoism in her work. I don't want to enter stereotypical cultural generalisation territory here, especially when dealing with cultures I know so little about, but I thought this was a good example of why diversity in fantasy is so important - in addition to everything else, making room for universes other than the traditional Medieval Europe-inspired ones also opens up the genre to new ideas, solutions and perspectives that all those dominant series you mentioned are lacking.

The Asian inspiration was actually one of my favourite things about the world-building. Like I said, I know too little about the history and cultures in question to offer any in-depth commentary, but I read that each of the four nations was inspired by different Asian cultures. I love all the detail and diversity included in the series - clearly a lot of thought and research was put into everything from food to dress codes to martial arts styles to tea ceremonies to calligraphy. There's no exoticisation or use of lazy stereotypes about uniform magical Asian worlds - the four nations all have a clear and very rich cultural identity, and like you said none is presented as inherently good or evil.

Jodie: YES! And I just want to mention how interesting it is to see an Asian inspired fantasy series that is (so far) completely about the culture of countries that aren’t in Europe. There are an awful lot of stories about Asia/Asian inspired lands that revolve around Western characters and their feelings on visiting this ‘strange’ new land and there are plenty of potential story lines that could be pulled from historical conflicts between China, or Japan and the West. I like that the creators don’t include Western involvement of any kind (positive, or negative) and instead focused entirely on the people who were born in the Four Kingdoms. It does kind of show up how easy it is to avoid some of the major, problematic ways of writing a story that features Asian characters/is set in Asian inspired territories like the exoticisation you mentioned above.

Ana: Last but not least, I also loved the fact that the enemy is an individual rather than a whole nation. Like I said, I'm completely convinced Zuko and his uncle will join Aang before the series is over (and my heart will do somersaults when that happens) and that we'll see much more of the good side of the Fire Nation. I do think it's interesting that it was fire, the traditionally "bad" element, that was chosen to play this role, but perhaps this too is something that the series will explicitly address.

Jodie: Ana are you Team Fire Nation by any chance?;) Seriously, which is your favourite tribe so far and which of the bending powers do you think is the coolest?

Ana: I *might* by Team Fire Nation ;) I mean, I don’t want them to win the war, of course, but I do find them the most intriguing so far. I can’t help but want to know more about the culture, about what things were like in the time of Avatar Roku, before it all went so terribly wrong. I also can’t help but dream of a wonderful future for them under the wise and pacifist leadership of non-imperialist Firelord Zuko ;) This reminds of something else I wanted to highlight - how the series draws attention to the political aspects of the Fire Nation’s imperialistic ambitions. This is something the “nation x is just plain bad” approach of many fantasy series completely erases, but in the case of Avatar, they very clearly have a political agenda that is being implicitly critiqued.

As for bending powers, so far we’ve only seen the destructive side of Fire, so I’m going to go with Water. It was so awesome to see Katara master it in those final episodes and learn to do all sorts of amazing things. I also love that she has both traditionally feminine caring and healing abilities and the ability to kick ass in a fight.

What about you? Favourite nation and bending ability so far?

Katara fights Master Pakku

Jodie: Katara’s fight with Master Pakku in ‘The Waterbending Master’ is amazing isn’t it? I really enjoy seeing all the bending abilities used to their full potential in the fight scenes. I’m weird, so I have favourite fight scenes more than a favourite bending ability, like the duel between Zhao (boo) and Zuko (cautious hurray) in ‘The Southern Air Temple’ and the fight that allows Aang to escape Zuko in ‘The Avatar Returns’ (omg I’m using the episode guide to get the titles right and I want to talk about each individual one in turn - this series was soooo good), but Katara’s fight has to be my absolute favourite.

I love Katara (we must talk about her later, at length), her brother Sokka and just find the whole culture of both Northern and Southern water tribes fascinating. The Southern tribe seem to resemble groups of people who live in the Arctic and their settlement is kind of basic and homely. The Northern tribe has so much architectural and cultural sophistication, but is much more rigidly structured socially (probably because the men of the Northern tribe haven’t had to leave, while the women of the Southern tribe have had much more freedom to develop without adult men around). This difference shows diversity within like a micro-culture. The whole series shows that there is a range of cultures within the Asian inspired fantasy world, which as you said above knocks out simplistic ideas about homogeneous Asian fantasy, but I like that it goes even further and shows that there could be different cultures and customs within a tribe, if the tribe is geographically split. Plus, it’s way more interesting from a pure entertainment viewpoint.

I have to say though Aang’s air bending looks the most fun and a fun power is perfect for him, as despite his great power he’s really just a little kid. His character actually reminds me a tiny bit of Sieh from ‘The Thousand Kingdoms’, although Aang is more care free. Y’know not that I’m hinting that you should read it or anything.

It’s so hard to know what to concentrate on when talking about this series, because there are so many interesting aspects. What do you want to talk about next?

Ana: Yes! Great point about how the series highlights the fact that there's plenty of diversity even within each culture.

I think we should focus on the characters now - like you said there's so much to discuss about Katara and Sokka and Aang, and we haven't touched on any of that at all yet. As much as I loved the worldbuilding and the concept behind Avatar, I usually need in-depth characterisation in order to really love something. So if the series hadn't provided that as well, I wouldn't be this enthusiastic. I'll start with a few quick remarks about each of the main characters:

First, I love that Aang is both incredibly powerful and very, very vulnerable - like you said, he's just an ordinary kid in many ways, and that's a huge part of what makes his character so appealing. I suspect that in the end, his humanity will play as big a part in his bringing positive change to the world as will his avatar powers.

Sokka really grew on me over the course of the first season. Initially he's there mostly to bring comic relief, and he has his sexist douche moments - but he learns and grows and reveals new sides of himself. Plus I really love his sarcasm.

Jodie: Sokka is such a cool character. When I watched his first interaction with his sister, where sexism and its wrongness is presented head on, I knew ‘Avatar’ was going to be something special. Like Zuko he takes a while to warm up to (although Sokka’s not trying to bring down the Avatar - just saying :P) but he also becomes such a human, relatable character over the course of the series. One of my favourite things about his character construction is that although he can be sexist, pompous, a bit of an unintentional buffoon and he’s often advising the others to go around dangerous situations, he’s never made into a character the audience is encouraged to ridicule. He may want to avoid trouble, but at heart he’s a warrior for justice who is shown to be smart and he fights alongside his friends when they need him.

Ana:And Katara! How amazing is she? Like I was saying earlier, I love that she combines traditional feminine abilities with traits that are thought of as masculine. Her being a great fighter doesn't mean she has to be a tomboy. Not that there's anything wrong with being a tomboy, of course, but the series rejects the either/or approach we so often see in fiction. Plus she's thoughtful, kind, and compassionate - but like we see in "The Waterbending Scrolls" episode, she's also very human. She doesn't like the fact that waterbending seems to come so much more easily to Aang, but she's not afraid to admit that she was wrong and to reach out to others.

Jodie: That episode is so brilliant. Up until then Katara has been the sensible one of the three and she appears less normally flawed that Sokka, but there she temporarily loses all control like any other person might when confronted by a friend who makes everything you’ve struggled for look so easy. As we see throughout the series every main young character has times where their usual good instincts and intentions lose out to human foibles. It really wouldn’t have been right for Katara to be the one exception and I think her character is better for being much more a person than a role model.

Got to admit though, Katara as ass kicker is super :) Like in ‘Imprisoned’ where she breaks into the floating prison and convinces the Earthbenders to fight back, even though her rousing speech seems to have failed. I was ready to mount the battlements.

Ana: Yes! That was such a great episode. And you’re absolutely right about her humanity making her a much better character.

Other characters I really liked include Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors (LOVE), the King of Omashu, Teo from the Northern Air Temple (how often to you find a series where a disabled character takes centre stage like that, with no fanfare?), and of course, Zuko and Iroh (I'm trying not to go on and on about them ;) ). I also liked Yue, although I had mixed feelings about her storyline. I've had my fill of sacrificial ladies, thank you very much - but I think there are enough other women in a variety of roles in the series that this isn't as much of a problem here as it can be in other stories.

The Kyoshi Warriors

Jodie: I was so sad about Yue. Sokka and Yue forever :(

My one quibble with ‘Avatar’ so far is that it only has one female character who appears in more than two episodes (Katara) and I was hoping Yue would end up being a recurring character in Series Two. Sadly it was not to be and she does end up being the sacrificial maiden, but like you I thought that her death was made less gendered by the appearance of a whole heap of other ladies who don’t die. I’m really excited for Zuko’s sister to start making appearances in Series Two though and I hope that we might see some of the women from Series One turn up again. I want to see Suki and her band of warriors again for sure, but also June the wicked tracker.


I do just want to quickly mention one other little niggle I had before we talk about other things. As progressive as this series is in regards to gender (no joke I shed spontaneous tears at the end of ‘The Warriors of Kyoshi’, when Suki says she is a warrior AND a girl) the problem of the missing mother that we talked about before still seems to turn up in Series One. When we look at the parent/child relationships where fathers play an active part in informing the story Katara and Sokka’s mother is dead, Zuko’s isn’t mentioned as far as I remember and I think Yue’s is absent from the story. As much as I enjoy father/child relationships (and Sokka’s flashback episode really tugged at my heart) I really want this old tradition of removing just the mother to go away.

Ana: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Like we discussed before, getting mothers out of the way is generally perceived as a much more effective way of making characters seem lost and vulnerable and like “true” orphans - which of course ties in with sexist expectations about gender roles and parenthood. The series does a wonderful job of challenging several gender stereotypes, but sadly not this one.

I would also love to see more female character who appear regularly, but hopefully the next two seasons will deliver in this regard - I’m really curious about Zuko’s sister (and not just because her presence signals that Zuko will no longer really be an antagonist). I think that would be a good way to wrap up our discussion, actually: closing remarks followed by our hopes and dreams for seasons two and three. Want to go first?

Jodie:Sure. You know how when you’re a media geek you’re always hoping for a story that feels so new and beautiful to you, like it is made out of the raw clay of imagination and spirit? I feel like ‘Avatar’ is one of those stories for me. There’s just so much in this series that makes it different from other fantasy stories. Although obviously I love fantasy and there are a lot of original authors in the genre ‘Avatar’ is just so special, possibly because even though its world is based on real life cultures it’s also a very independent fictional creation. I was constantly amazed when each episode managed to produce something new, interesting and (important!) fun: the mail shoot ride through the Earth Kingdom; the flying inventions of Teo and his father; fish riding. I could go on forever talking about the original, details of this world that made me clap with glee.

The program’s obvious commitment to expanding who gets to be in stories and be heroic made me so happy as well. I know I’ve picked on a couple of gender quibbles, but in the grand scheme of things this series stands as such a clear example of how to subvert default story telling norms. In my opinion it’s a prime example of one of the points that you made recently in ‘On Reading Important Books’:
‘overall, we don’t need to make concessions – there are more stories out there than we know; enough that to seek them out does not have to require us to give up anything else that we also value.’

‘Avatar’ is both creatively awesome and progressively awesome - that’s a perfect combination really.

My dreams for the next series definitely include Zuko’s sister turning up, trailing evil in her wake and then like Zuko becoming a complex, partly sympathetic character. I’d like to see some of the secondary characters from this series reappear including Teo, June and Suki. I want to find out more about the air benders and A’ang’s history. And a bit of a small detail I know, but I’d like to hear more about what has led Iroh, the Fire Lord’s brother and a famous warrior to adopt a less war like attitude. Mostly I just want this program to keep being fantastic.

So, Ana tell me your dreams. ;)

Zuko and Iroh

Ana: First of all, even MOAR ladies please. I completely agree that overall the series does a great job of subverting the kind of gender roles you tend to find in stories like this, but there's room to go even further with just a few small steps, like the inclusion of more female characters.

Secondly, I really want more background story and complexity for both Zuko and Iroh. I see so much potential in both characters that I refuse to believe they won't take full advantage of it. I know all my hopes and dreams for Aang and Zuko in love won't come true (the inclusion of glbtq characters seems to be the one place where the series won't go - hopefully I'm wrong, but I see no hints of it so far), but I hope we get at least a friendly hug at some point ;) And since Aang and Katara will probably end up together, I want to really believe in their relationship by the time that happens - like we were saying on Twitter at one point, I just don't feel it. I mean, I love them both, and obviously they care about each other, but so far I don’t perceive it as romantic.

I'm also very curious to see what kind of antagonist Zuko's sister will be - and the Fire Lord as well, once we learn more about him. Avatar is the kind of series where the villains are humanised, but how do you do that without undermining them as antagonists and compromising narrative tension? Obviously Zuko's role as the bad guy was deliberately undermined, but they probably won't keep doing that with every Fire Nation character. Can then make his sister complex while maintaining her role in the series? I really hope so. Also, I don't think this is the kind of series that will fail to take its core themes to their last consequences - it's just too good for that. So what role will Aang's pacifism and conciliatory nature play in his final confrontation with the Fire Lord? How does someone who believes in balance, harmony and peace rather than violence fight a battle like that? Will the fight be presented as a means to an end? Will the philosophical and political implications of this be fully explored? THERE'S SO MUCH POTENTIAL I could just burst.

Finally, I hope we get to see more of the good and bad side of all nations: good Fire benders, bad Earth benders, so-so Water benders, etc. More ambiguous characters to complicate the picture even further, please.

But really, most of all I want much more Zuko ;) And I want more lovely moments between him and Iroh, like when Zuko is about to leave for the North Pole in his Blue Spirit mask and Iroh tells him to cover up his ears because it's cold. I know it's meant to be funny, but I might have teared up in addition to laughing :P

So... see you here soon for a discussion of series two and three?

Jodie: Absolutely and then we can start waiting for the spin off and follow up comic book to come out. Thanks so much to Renay for convincing us both to bump this program up our to be watched lists - I think we can safely say we are now both committed fans.

Date: 2012-01-02 01:42 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dastevens
This post. I'm in love. I'm in love. I'm in love.

Soooooooo many things I want to say...but I'm so afraid of spoiling. :( Do let me say, your dreams of more ladies will definitely come true. :D (And you'll hear a bit about Zuko's mom.) But yep, lots more awesome ladies...

Date: 2012-01-02 02:01 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Um, Mathie and I may have gone through the whole of seasons two and three in the past week and a half, like the greedy fanboy and fangirl that we are :P And I think Jodie is far enough into season two to know we got our wish :D But thanks for being careful anyway! I can't say much about Zuko to avoid spoilers but I will say this: MY HEART. I LOVE HIM FOREVER.

Date: 2012-01-03 12:24 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Six episodes in to Series Two now (in case anyone wants to know for spoilers) and I will watch 'Zuko Alone' tomorrow night, so we can talk again :D

Date: 2012-01-02 01:43 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dastevens

Date: 2012-01-02 04:03 pm (UTC)
zachariah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zachariah
And I want more lovely moments between [Zuko] and Iroh...

OH HO HO! *wraps arms around self and bites tongue*

Date: 2012-01-02 04:23 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I have watched ALL THE EPISODES in the past week and a half. SO MANY FEELINGS. (<-- Don't click, Jodie. Or anyone else who wants to avoid spoilers.)

Date: 2012-01-02 04:31 pm (UTC)
zachariah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zachariah
OH YES. I had legit tears in my eyes watching that scene.

Date: 2012-01-02 05:01 pm (UTC)
chaila: by me (katara)
From: [personal profile] chaila
*sits on hands and is quiet*

Except, this was so fun to read and I hope you review more as you go through it, because I'd love to hear more thoughts! Especially because I don't think I was properly sucked in until after season 1.

And yes, it does have a missing mothers problem, and kind of has an entire problem with not knowing what to do with a woman over the age of 16. Which is a shame. Though it's doing so many other great things with ladies and gender roles. And Katara ♥.

And you know about the (forthcoming, at some point) Korra sequel, right??
Edited Date: 2012-01-02 05:01 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-01-03 12:25 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I've seen it mentioned, but haven't yet investigated because of spoilers. It looks cool though, maybe Ana knows more...


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