By Matthew Moorcroft
Chapter 19: The Siege of the North – Part 1 – Highest Recommendation
Chapter 20: The Siege of the North – Part 2 – Highest Recommendation
- Directed by Lauren MacMullan (Episode 19), Dave Filoni (Episode 20)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
And we’re here! Avatar‘s first season is coming to a close. There is a palpable sense of anticipation already going into this, especially as the show laid the groundwork exceptionally well prior to this moment. And you feel that immediately as the episode opens – it wastes very little time getting into the action, with the self-titled siege starting almost immediately after some quick recaps of where our characters are at emotionally. Katara is proving to be an exceptional waterbender, Sokka is hitting it off with Yue, and Aang? Well, Aang is Aang, and that’s the issue here.
Aang’s ultimate test throughout Book 1 has not been learning waterbending, though that has happened. No, Book 1 is ultimately about taking his responsibilities seriously as the Avatar, and that’s a lesson that has time and time again proven to be difficult for him. After all, he is still a kid and sees the world differently then the older Katara or Sokka, especially since they grew up in this war. And just like everywhere else, the war follows them everywhere they go. And for the first time the war genuinely feels like a war – the large scale, the huge armies, it’s all there and the stakes have never been higher.
Both Lauren MacMullan and Dave Filoni, both who have helmed some of the strongest episodes of the show up to this point, are tasked with delivering this finale and they bring their A-game here. MacMullan and Filoni both have distinct styles to their direction that compliment one another perfectly – MacMullan leaning more into the physical world stuff and Filoni excelling in the spiritual portions of the tale. And it’s not surprising the show goes for a more spiritualistic approach by the end of it, as while it’s indeed a Deus Ex Machina it’s done in such a way that is consistent with the lore already setup earlier in the season with Hei Bai and the rest of the spirits. When the red filter shows up Filoni especially is really able to flex his skills, but then comes the grey filter when the Moon Spirit is killed entirely and suddenly the show becomes this beautiful, monocoloured painting. It’s some of the most striking imagery of the show and some of the best animation of the show thus far.
And that’s ultimately why The Siege of the North is such a great two-parter. It’s a payoff to end all payoffs, hell in terms of overall payoff it might be among the best in the series as also wraps up character arcs cleanly (or mostly cleanly) in a way that if the show was cancelled after a single season that it wouldn’t feel completely a waste. Brief cliffhanger stinger aside, of course, which is a sublime tease that gives you a ton of great questions. Zuko has a sister? What is she like? She’s clearly evil, but how evil? Is she worse then Zuko? Stronger? The best season enders always tantalize and this gives a great final moment to chew on.
Zuko himself once again serves as a highlight here. While firmly on an antagonistic side, the villainous role has firmly been placed on Zhao this time, as his diabolical plans come to fruition and we see just how unhinged and dangerous he can be when left to his own devices. Zuko is something of a third party mostly in this and it works for his character; his ultimate differences from the rest of the Fire Nation is what makes you root for him, by the end of the episode you want him to succeed and make it out alive. And Zhao’s refusal to even admit defeat even in his last moments is what the Fire Nation has become, a twisted version of the honor and pride that it so claims to have.
I’ve barely touched on the other side of the story mainly cause it’s all payoff, but there are great moments here worth mentioning. Yue’s sacrifice could have felt forced for a character we don’t really know as well as the rest but it works, having the suitable build up and the emotional connection from Sokka to work. And the entire finale with Aang merging into a being with the Ocean Spirit is both visually stunning but also a great setpiece in of itself that asks questions of it’s own. Was the Ocean Spirit raging simply against the Fire Nation? Or was it destroying anything that wasn’t bowing in reverence towards it – it only ignored the Water Tribe after they surrendered to it, so it’s likely they would have suffered the same fate. It’s a great blue-and-orange morality that makes the spirits these unknowable, almost impossible to understand beings and it keeps the world mythic and interesting.
The fact they nailed the landing this hard and were able to make this great on the first try is to be commended though. Finales are hard to do, and there is something special about a show that gets it so right so early on, and Avatar: The Last Airbender’s ultimate success was nailing the landing. That’s when we knew it would be special. And the real good stuff was only just starting.