avatar the last airbender turning point

When Avatar: The Last Airbender debuted on Nickelodeon in 2005, there were no signs to indicate it was anything other than a silly kid’s cartoon beyond its richly imaginative world and the painstaking research that went into preserving the east and southeast Asian cultural influences. It was goofy, wacky, with a broad humor and even broader characters that were easy to categorize: the mother figure, the kid, the comic relief. The low-stakes adventures that the main trio went on were often neatly wrapped up in a bow by the end of the first episode, despite the looming presence of the great evil represented by the conquering Fire Nation.

But then, everything changed.

How “The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit” Changed Everything

There were subtle bits of more involved character writing nestled within the early fantasy-adventure hijinks of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which celebrates the 15th anniversary of its debut today. The carefree Aang, the prophesied Avatar who had been missing for 100 years, returns to the world after having been frozen in ice and finds it totally, devastatingly changed. And his two eventual friends who discovered him, brother and sister duo Katara and Sokka, are victims of war, their mother killed in a village raid by the Fire Nation and their father off to fight in the war. The show often saw the main trio running into people made refugees by the war, or who had suffered at the hands of the Fire Nation. But the darker elements of the series could be easily brushed past, and often were. It takes until the 12th and 13th episodes of season 1, a pseudo two-parter titled “The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit,” that we see the potential for greatness in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit” aren’t written as a two-parter, even though the events of “The Storm” lead straight into the inciting incident of “The Blue Spirit.” But the two perfectly complement each other in what they achieve and how they play out. Both episodes are pretty slim on plot and barely feature the main trio together, instead digging deep into nuances and parallels of the show’s main foils: Aang and the villainous Zuko.

A Perfect Storm

Written by Aaron Ehasz and directed by Lauren MacMullan, “The Storm” sees the gang arrive at a fishing village where a fisherman’s wife is frantically predicting the arrival of a terrible storm, despite the clear weather. Aang senses something wrong as well, and gently tries to discourage Sokka from joining the stubborn fisherman on his expedition. But the fisherman recognizes Aang as the Avatar, and berates him for turning “his back on the world.” Guilt-ridden, Aang flies off while Sokka and the fisherman get caught in the raging storm — a storm not unlike the one that was raging when Aang got frozen in ice, he later reveals to Katara.

A few miles away, Prince Zuko and his crew are weathering the storm, with Zuko pushing his irritated crew past their limits in his obsessive search for the Avatar. But just as it seems like mutiny would be on his hands, his Uncle Iroh takes the crew aside to explain Zuko’s fixation on the Avatar. As the storm reaches dangerous heights in the present, the episode flashes back and forth between Aang and Zuko’s respective backstories. Aang had run away from home after he had learned that his newly revealed identity as the Avatar would rip him away from his longtime friend and mentor, Monk Gyatso. Meanwhile, the idealistic Zuko had been burned and banished by his father after he had spoken out in the war room against plans to sacrifice soldiers, granted the slim hope of return with the fool’s errand of capturing the long-missing Avatar.

With “The Storm,” we learn that Aang isn’t as heroic or pure-intentioned as we thought, nor is Zuko as much the buffoonish villain as presented (this episode also marks the clear starting point for Zuko’s ascent to tragic antihero). They’re opposing revelations that play out elegantly over the course of the episode, whose main story arc is, again, pretty barebones. Aang swoops in to save Sokka and the fisherman, briefly encountering Zuko, who instead of chasing his target, opts to bring his men to safety by sailing into the heart of the storm. It’s apt that the writers chose to frame their stormiest revelations about the show’s two main foils in an episode titled “The Storm” — the new insights into these characters, and the speed at which we come to accept them, are awe-inspiring.

Dual Storylines, Dual Swords

Where “The Storm” was about adding nuance to long-static characters through flashback, “The Blue Spirit” moves the needle forward on the character development that can come from it. The parallels between Aang and Zuko are a little more subtle here, but no less important.

Dave Filoni directs the story written by series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko — an all-star team that would help craft one of the best early episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The premise of “The Blue Spirit” is so striking that even the film adaptation that must not be named, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, made it a central set piece. Shortly after the group had weathered the terrible storm, Sokka comes down with a bad cold, which soon spreads to Katara. Both of his friends incapacitated, Aang sets off to find a nearby herbalist who can whip up a cure for them, but is captured by the Fire Nation, led by season 1 Big Bad Admiral Zhao. With his friends out for the count and no apparent hope for escape, Aang finds himself rescued by a mysterious warrior wearing a blue mask. The two fight their way out of the heavily guarded fort, with the Blue Spirit proving a compatible fighter with Aang, but showing glimmers of unpredictable ruthlessness.

They finally escape after the Blue Spirit threatens to kill the Avatar, but a targeted arrow knocks out the warrior, revealing him to be…Zuko. The banished prince had sprung the Avatar out of desperation to beat Zhao to the capture. But as we see through the episode, and through Aang’s tormented reaction upon realizing his rescuer’s identity, not everything is so simple. Aang brings Zuko to safety and as the prince wakes up, Aang muses on whether the two could have been friends in a different life. “If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends, too?” Aang asks sadly. But he is violently rebuffed by Zuko, who answers only with a fiery blast from his fist.

“The Blue Spirit” is kind of a strange, low-key episode for the most part, with Aang’s central mission being to gather frozen frogs as the remedy for his friends, his capture and eventual rescue appearing to be more of an annoyance to him. But its intentionally unsatisfying ending is what brings it all home — with the new character revelations and the subtle shifting of the status quo all still swirling around the characters as they ponder their separate fates and the seemingly haphazard circumstances that brought them here.

Some may raise their eyebrows at my calling these two episodes the turning point for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sure, they’re followed by a string of mostly-okay episodes, none of which really pick up on the potential introduced in “The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit.” And most would probably say it was the season 1 finale two-parter, “The Siege of the North” that changed the game — the plot finally kicks in and leads the way to a perfect run of episodes in season 2 that wholly transforms the show and its characters. But “The Storm” and “The Blue Spirit” laid the groundwork for the big game-changer that would be the season 1 finale: it broke up the early episodes’ modus operandi of neatly wrapped-up storylines and changed our perceptions of the broad, archetypes of our main characters.

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