[9.4/10] I like Team Avatar. The group dynamic is fun, and the way the connections between them have been tested and strengthened over the series has been endlessly impressive. I like Aang, with the weight of the world on his shoulders despite his carefree personality. I like Katara, trying to hold everyone together despite impossible odds and omnipresent obstacles. I like Sokka, full of irreconcilable insecurity and overconfidence, coupled with sarcastic wit. I like Toph, who’s curt and non-nonsense in a way I appreciate. And I like the animal sidekicks, who provide physical comedy and adorable charm to the group.
But in the end, I’m most invested in Zuko’s story. Despite Aang growing and changing as he masters the four elements and trains to face Ozai, Zuko has the largest and most significant arc across the series. I’m not sure I would have believed it if you’d told me that’s how I’d feel after the first couple of episodes, where Zuko seemed like a generic evil prince with as much depth as a pancake. And yet here we are, where I’m not only glad that he is a regular presence in the show, but more excited and compelled by his turn to good than the course of any other character in the series.
Which is part of why it is so engaging, so endearing, to see him struggle to figure out how to be good, and also to convince others that he has changed. The way that Zuko practices his speech to Team Avatar on a frog, stumbling over his words and trying to apologize for his past misdeeds, state his intentions, and account for a gradual transformation that took fifty episodes is endearing. As Aang often does, Zuko seems like a real kid -- unsure of himself, plagued with self-doubt, and trying to encapsulate feelings and history that he doesn’t fully understand himself. Zuko is trying to outrun his own past, to make amends for it, and that is not and should not be an easy process.
That’s why I particularly love who is resistant and who is more open to embracing Zuko as a part of the group. Each has their reasons for being mistrustful or more welcoming to him. Sokka has the most generalized reasons, noting the laundry list of things Zuko’s done to them over the past weeks and months. Katara’s are more direct, with the events of Ba Sing Se leaving her feeling betrayed after she trusted and felt sorry for Zuko in the crystal caves, only to see him turn on her and Aang at the moment of truth.
And Aang himself harbors the sort of mistrust from being the object of Zuko’s pursuit, but there’s also a moment when Aang betrays his true motivations, or at least, feelings that muddy the water. Zuko rightly points out that Aang once said they might be friends in other circumstances, and both recently learned that the connection between the Avatar and Fire Nation royalty used to be much closer. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but there’s a sense that Aang might want to forgive Zuko, to believe that there is good and him and help it flourish, but that doing so would mean that Aang has a mechanism to learn firebending, and that he must continue on this quest and face his destiny, something he seems very ready to avoid at all costs here.
But Toph is the perfect person to understand and be more willing to give Zuko a chance. For one thing, she hasn’t been with Team Avatar as long, and for much of her tenure, Zuko was figuring himself out rather than attacking the Aang gang, so she has witnessed less of the harm he is capable of inflicting. More to the point,.Toph understands what its like to have a family that doesn’t understand you, that tries to fit you into boxes and punishes you when you act outside of them. She is uniquely positioned to be a bridge between him and her friends, and it’s a nice use of the character.
It also doesn’t hurt that Appa licks Zuko with little-to-no resistance. It serves as a reminder that whatever ill Zuko’s done, he’s also done some good, including freeing the flying bison from Long Feng. It also speaks to a sort of instinctive endorsement from Appa, a sense that if this noble creature likes Zuko, he can’t be all bad.
Of course, it can’t be as simple as that. This is an action show and the people demand action. So beyond a simple, humanizing plea for forgiveness for the terrible things he’s done and for acceptance for the corrective things he hopes to do, we see Zuko lay himself on the line to try to stop Combustion Man even after he’s been rebuked.
It’s a nice sequence. I’ve come around on Combustion Man as getting by on presence and the coolness of his powers, and his (seeming) demise here plays to several things that have been previously set up. For one thing, it represents a present example of Zuko trying to correct for his mistakes, attempting to call off his goon, pay him double to stop, and then fight him when his efforts to implore his henchmen to relent fail, nearly plummeting to his doom in the process. If he were fully accepted after that, it would be too much too fast, but it works as a demonstration of the change he’s trying to convince Team Avatar of, and Katara’s continued mistrust prevents it from being too easy or convenient.
But it’s also a win for Sokka! It’s nice that this provides a unique opportunity for his boomerang to truly come in handy. At the same time, it shows off the incredible “set” of the Western Air Temple. The upside down buildings carved into the underside of a canyon shows great imagination, and it makes for a great playground for Aang and company to fly around in, but also a great setting in which to do battle, which heightens the thrill of the fight.
The funniest part of “The Western Air Temple” is Zuko’s impressions of his uncle and sister. Dante Basco outdoes himself here, not only capturing the affect of Zuko’s mentor and tormentor, but conveying the inner turmoil and abject hope the character has at this crossroads. Those impersonations are humorous in the moment, but call back to those dragons in his fever dream which spoke with the voices of Iroh and Azula, representing the battle of good and evil within him. We hope that this battle has been won and that Zuko is walking down the path of good, but it is an uneasy path, one where he must constantly account for his past mistakes and make assurances that his next steps will be different. That journey has been long, but it’s resulted in AtLA’s most complicated, interesting, and well-developed character, whose induction into Team Avatar is a cause for celebration.
Zuko is so adorable!! I could literally listen to him being awkward and complain for hours!! :heart_eyes::heart_eyes::heart_eyes:
The temple itself is the best part of this episode. O, yeah and that moment everyone has been waiting for.