By Matthew Moorcroft
Chapter 5: Avatar Day – Strong Recommendation
Chapter 6: The Blind Bandit – Highest Recommendation
- Directed by Lauren MacMullan (Episode 5), Ethan Spaulding (Episode 6)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
In doing my standard research for this writeup, I was a little shocked to discover that Avatar Day isn’t exactly an episode held in high regard by fans. This is a little odd to me considering the love that many of the fans have for other comedic minded episodes, and especially since Avatar Day isn’t just that in the long run. In fact, Avatar Day has a ton on it’s mind narratively and thematically, and I feel dismissing it is a bit harsh.
I do get where they are coming from, at least on the surface. On paper, Avatar Day seems like something of a throwaway episode – the Avatar comes to a town that doesn’t like him, he’s put on trial, they end up liking him after saving the day – and even an episode meant to buy time until the show can introduce it’s next member of the ensemble. But in execution the episode ends up working as a comment on itself and doing some pretty important worldbuilding in exploring the negative effects that past Avatars may have had. It’s sometimes hard to remember, but Aang’s nature as the Avatar means he not only has to deal with the repercussions of his own actions but also the actions of his predecessors. So if one of the past Avatars screws up, that’s going to bite him back in the ass, and it very nearly does here.
Though it’s not without comedy, of course. This is an exceptionally funny episode, particularly in regards to Sokka, who has really been showing his comedic chops lately in both this and The Cave of Two Lovers earlier in the season. It’s also a great piece of unsubtle satire about the justice system, and while it’s definitely simplified you can definitely see parallels between the modern day American justice system and the bonkers one we see in here. A lot of the comedy is going to be overshadowed though the appearance of Kyoshi, who pretty much steals the episode in 1 minute of screentime.
While Kyoshi wouldn’t be a truly, fully fleshed out character until the excellent Kyoshi novels by F.C. Yee, here we are given some really tantalizing glimpses of her methods. She’s a force to be reckoned with – tall, powerful, strong, and most of all, unrepentant. While Aang has always struggled with his duties when compared to his teachings, Kyoshi fully embraced the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, making her an effective if brutal Avatar. This conflict foreshadows much of the ending sections of the series well, and it’s impressive on early Mike and Bryan were already planning on dealing with that dilemma.
All of this is, unsurprisingly, overshadowed by it’s followup episode The Blind Bandit, which is simply incredible. The best thing ATLA ever did was introduce Toph to the main cast – a hot-headed, tough, stubborn, and formidable Earthbender who is, without a doubt, the most powerful bender in the show and a dynamic showcase for how truly nutty the series can get with it’s bending abilities. Toph’s actual introduction might be the absolute best in the show for any character, showcasing her strength and her personality quickly and decisively while also letting the audience know what her priorities are in life almost instantly.
The entire episode, in fact, works as an elongated introduction to the character, giving her more and more layers the further you go. Once she’s revealed to be nobility, this immediately makes her an interesting character to put on the team as it contrasts immensely with the group at large, who have been mostly working class or lesser class. Toph’s different worldview, mainly that of a sheltered girl looking for some kind of adventure, gives Team Avatar a much needed push and makes the show feel alive again.
Not like it ever needed to feel alive again. The animation here is as vibrant as ever, hell maybe even better, as the animators really go all out in making sure you really buy into the idea that yes, Toph is the best bender in this damn show. And while her blindness could have fallen into tropey territory, it’s handled exceptionally well particularly from that animation side. Beyond the whole way Toph views the world which is just super cool, but also the subtle details like how she is never looking directly at characters or is sometimes seemingly staring off into space makes it clear they did their research. It’s a great portrayal of blindness and one of the best in animation history, I’d argue, for being both sensitively handled while also simply being a character feature and not a gimmick or bug.
And with the said new cast member introduced – along with some tantalizing plot developments with her family that up the stakes once again – the show is making headway into newfound territory. Avatar Day brought in some smaller changes in the background involving Zuko that aren’t important until next episode, but those changes are clearly part of something grander at play here. The show is slowly but surely moving into a new kind of storytelling, and it’s ambitions are only going to grow from here.