By Matthew Moorcroft
Chapter 1: The Avatar State – Highest Recommendation
Chapter 2: The Cave of Two Lovers – Highest Recommendation
- Directed by Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 1), Lauren MacMullan (Episode 2)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
The first thing you notice about Book 2 is an immediate jump in animation quality across the board. While Avatar has always looked great, especially for the time, it’s this second season that really starts to showcase what the show is capable of. The lines and colours are more vibrant, the movement more fluid, and the action scenes have more layers and complicated choreography. It’s a pretty massive jump, frankly, and it also showcases how confident the animators have gotten in their craft while also how well Mike and Bryan, our showrunners, have built this story up to get to this point.
I bring this up now cause while it’s the most noticeable thing about these first two episodes, it’s not the only thing that’s bumped up in quality. In fact, pretty much everything has been raised up to the point where it’s almost a completely different show, one that it far more nuanced in it’s tone and characters while also retaining the same level of childlike wonder that the first season managed to capture. This is especially reflected in how the first episode, The Avatar State, handles it’s respective storylines.
Both Aang and Zuko are at crossroads. The end of the first season has left them in positions where they can’t really run from their destinies anymore and because of that stakes have gotten much more real. Aang is still haunted by his actions and fear of his own destiny, while Zuko feels unsure about his own place in the grand scheme. Both characters must make a choice. Out of the two, Zuko’s has the bigger plot revelations, mainly thanks to the introduction of his sister Azula who is an immediately great presence, but it’s honestly Aang’s side of the story that has the more interesting thematic material.
Aang gets an opportunity to end the war quickly. It obviously ends up being too good to be true, but it’s understandable as to why not only Aang would fall for it, but the person who proposes the idea in the first place. The war has been dragging on for so long, countless lives lost, and Aang’s own guilt at leaving from back in the day puts him in a really complicated position. Of course, he doesn’t know this until the end of the episode, but dying in the Avatar state means breaking the cycle forever which immediately changes how we view this mode. Suddenly, it’s no longer a catch all – it’s now a last resort, and a risky one at that.
Azula is mostly here as an introduction and her great stuff doesn’t come until a bit later, but her first couple of scenes serve as a quality start to her character. Her line about “considering the tides” is just chilling and perfectly encapsulates why she is a force to be reckoned with. It also serves to highlight Zuko’s character more then anything else; somebody who was initially a spoiled brat to the audience is now given the image of somebody who really IS a spoiled brat, and now Zuko suddenly seems timid in comparison. It’s a fantastic switch-a-roo and it’s at the perfect point too, one where Zuko has had the necessary development to have the audience on his side while also skeptical of him.
The Avatar State‘s dramatic stakes and thematic undertones are contrasted nicely with The Cave of Two Lovers‘ more comedic, light-hearted vibes, though that episode still shines what else Book 2 does better then the first – the comedy. ATLA has always been very funny but The Cave of Two Lovers is one of the comedic highlights of the show thanks to the introduction of the nomads, who are a goldmine of memes and one-liners. Sokka’s own frustrations with them are a great character beat, and everything out of their mouths is just pure gold, frankly, and some of the hardest times you’ll laugh during this show.
But it’s also a quietly important one, as it still manages to further both sides of the story is new ways. Zuko’s story is more of a transitional period for him and Iroh, having dealt with the fact they are mostly on their own now and away from the Fire Nation. Zuko confronting the now very real realities of what the Fire Nation has done in their conquests is powerful, and the simple act of showing each other scars (both internal and external) is an act of trust that is sadly broken after Zuko steals their mounts. It’s a morally grey action that still reminds you of the road Zuko needs to take himself in terms of his path to good.
Aang’s end is a little different but also has to do with trust, but this time we are faced with the show actually starting to take his crush on Katara seriously. Up to this point it was treated as mostly a comedic thing, but here there is a very real sense of romantic tension that’s starting to develop between the two characters. Romance in the Avatar franchise has always been… how do I put it, controversial? My personal opinion is that Mike and Bryan’s strong suit has never been romance so it’s good that for the most part in ATLA they keep most it simple so that the cracks don’t show. And it’s cute! Katara’s own feelings are starting to develop and I love how this is clearly Aang’s first rodeo in that regard so he fumbles. A lot. It’s relatable and funny, and I love the ambiguity on whether or not they actually kissed. A great, sweet moment.
And then, of course, the episode ends on a killer cliffhanger, hell arguably one of the best in the show. It’s a testament to how well these episodes are paced tonally that the sudden, jarring shift into shock and horror really works and makes you desperate to hit the “next episode” button on your TV. Just a delight across the board, and that can said for the entire bit of these two episodes. A fantastic debut to the season.