By Matthew Moocroft
Chapter 3: Return to Omashu – Strong Recommendation
Chapter 4: The Swamp – Strong Recommendation
- Directed by Ethan Spaulding (Episode 3), Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 4)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
I didn’t talk about her during my last writeup, but let’s talk Azula. Season 2’s biggest contributions comes in the new characters they add to the ensemble, and two characters in particular stand out among the bunch. The first one has yet to be introduced (though is teased during the events of The Swamp), and the second one is the Fire Princess herself. Unlike Zuko, Azula is something of a force of nature – while you can talk your way out of a fight with Zuko, a talk with Azula is only delaying the inevitable. Zuko will leave you alive to give you a warning, Azula’s warning is simply throwing you overboard.
This change up in villains is necessary for Season 2’s effectiveness, and while Return to Omashu does kind of feel like two separate episodes combined into one – switching gears from a rescue story to a hostage story halfway through and never really bridging the two – it’s a really, really great two separate episodes and it’s enough to allow the episode to take the time to showcase Azula’s effectiveness as an antagonist and as well as flesh out her own inner circle. Ty Lee and Mai are their own complicated characters, and while future episodes will focus on them more heavily, I really like what they do here with them. Both of their characters are given solid introductions, particularly Ty Lee, and while you question their friendship with Azula it’s clear on rewatch that she rules with fear and manipulation first and foremost. This isn’t like Team Avatar, a friend group based on mutual trust and respect, this is a single person overlording over her pawns.
And once the teams are together, they explode in a flurry of the spectacular animation we’ve come to expect from this show. Azula’s fire abilities being blue flame is a great visual showcase of how powerful she actually is over simply stating it is, and the brief showcase of Ty Lee’s unique chi blocking abilities is a great “holy shit” moment for the audience. For all of the faults of the episode, it ultimately works as a great spectacle episode even amidst all of the setup. Aang’s own storyline isn’t as interesting – it’s mostly him learning the value of patience – but seeing Bumi again is nice and it adds some unique layers to his character and how he thinks.
The Swamp, at least in my mind, features the far more interesting storyline for the Team Avatar crew. It’s no secret that the writing staff took a lot of cues from The Empire Strikes Back for Book 2 and it’s never been more obvious then here. All of Team Avatar faces their own fears and dilemmas in what appears to be an exceptionally spiritual swamp, and all of them are related to their greatest fears and losses. Katara sees her mom, Sokka sees Yue, and Aang sees a girl of which he has yet to meet. It’s a brief segment of the episode, but it informs the rest of the story as we the swamp and how it functions.
ATLA tends to be at it’s best when it isn’t giving full explanations to it’s spiritual side and there isn’t any definite answer here for the world. The most we learn is that the swamp itself is exceptionally old and has spirit world connections, but in the end where it comes from is unimportant. The role of the Avatar has always been one of spiritual balance first and foremost and as the world descend further and further into chaos it’s hard to see just how everything is ultimately connected. But the world is connected – every living thing, every piece of it. It’s all one big swamp.
Plus it just has some great lore expansions that are super clever. Seeing waterbenders outside the North and South is really fun, and the fact their culture and personalities are so different from either of them is a fun bit of texture to the world at large. The usage of waterbending in the vines is a great way of also showing the true versatility of waterbending beyond that of just bodies of water – and a clever foreshadow of some of the darker parts of waterbending the show would eventually explore in it’s next season. Momo and Appa’s own small subplot is a ton of fun as well, giving insight into their personalities and making them more then simply just “animal sidekicks” like many of these shows sometimes risk doing.
While the best is yet still to come for the second season, it’s clear that the table has been set for future episodes with ease. And while it will another couple of episodes to fully get to the consistent bombardment of brilliant episodes that the show would eventually become famous for, as it stands, ATLA remains as strong as ever. Even in it’s weaker bits, it’s still among the best on TV and exceptional fantasy.