The Waterbending Scroll: AtLA Rewatch

Welcome to the second episode in a review that directly builds off the unanswered questions from last episode.

In my theory of AtLA and storytelling, this should mean things are about to get more awesome as the writers give us more material to chew over. In my memory, this kinda fits. The second half of season one is where things took off, if I remember right. This is episode 9 for the forgetful ones out there.

The introduction is Aang stressing out about learning the four elements. Should I read something to all these introductions up on Appa i.e. in Aang’s element? Maybe. Sokka is sarcastic unhelpful – at least on the surface – but Katara has an idea. She can teach Aang Waterbending. All they need is some water.

This find this very pretty waterfall and we get an amusing little reminder of who everyone is. Aang forgets why they’re there and is about to play with Appa and Momo, until Katara reminds him they’ve got work to do. Sokka, without work, asks what he’s meant to do. Aang suggests cleaning out Appa’s toes. Sokka complains, Aang is his usual bright happy “everything’s no problem” thing in response, and Sokka then goes “yeah, fair enough”. It’s fun, it primes us to remember who the characters are (no small thing in episodic TV), and it feels organic. Of course this is how things would go down here. Some of the humour so far has been forced, but not this time.

But then, maybe it’s easier for humour to feel part of the story when there’s more story?

Speaking of story, the writers are about to plant a big seed. Zuko’s Firebending practice is disturbed when the ship alters course. Why? Iroh wants to go to the local market to find a replacement for a missing Pi Shao tile. His White Lotus tile. Zuko breathes fire in frustration, but he doesn’t challenge Iroh. Note too the change in dynamic. Usually Iroh offers unheeded advice to Zuko. This is the second time he has been firm over what will happen, and Zuko goes along with it. It helps shed a light on all the times it looks like Iroh is beaten down by Zuko’s passion and drive. I don’t want to dismiss the idea that Zuko can change Iroh’s mind, or perhaps make Iroh hold his tongue when he otherwise wouldn’t, but at the same time, if Iroh really really disagreed, he could clearly do something. Likely explanation? Letting Zuko be Zuko is very important to Iroh.

Switch to Katara teaching Aang. She talks him through a few moves, talking a little about waterbending as we go, and Aang gets them effortlessly to her annoyance. So effortlessly he washes their supplies down the river. There’s a few things to talk about here so let’s touch them all quick:

  1. We get a taste of Aang’s power and potential as the Avatar, cementing what we learned from Roku. Once he picks things up, he’s very powerful very quickly.
  2. We’re reminded of Katara’s tendency to flare up when things don’t go her way
  3. We’ve got a very smooth piece of story logic to take us to the next step of the story
  4. Why is Aang learning so much faster than Katara? Is it because he’s the Avatar? We might think so now, but when we see Aang struggle with other elements, we’ll rethink that. My theory is that ability with an element to no small extent comes from being it in your personality, as I’ve said before. We know from a speech that Iroh gives down the line, that Water:

    “Is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribes are capable of adapting to many things. They have a sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.”

    Aang gets Airbending because he gets Freedom. He’ll struggle with Fire and Earth because he struggles with Power and Substance. But Change? Aang gets change. He has already undergone titanic changes since waking up, and is still the same Aang. He’s arguably moved on from his big life-changing events better than Katara, who is still very much stuck on her trauma. The article talks about skills and yeah, you need the skills to express yourself, but inside, Aang and Katara get Water and Change about the same. That’s why he’s picking up the skills she can share and using them just as well or better immediately. At least in my universe.

Back to the market town. It’s got everything going on. Aang is being his usual impulsive self, spending one of their three remaining copper pieces on a bison whistle, and then being lured in by a dodgy looking type’s offer of exotic curios. Fun stuff before substance, right Aang? Amid all the exotic stuff, Katara finds a Waterbending scroll. The traders’ leader reveals he got it up north for free, which leads Sokka to the obvious conclusion.

They’re pirates.

They get out of there quickly on Katara’s say-so after Aang strikes out haggling. I’ve got to say his complete lack of common sense is beginning to wear thin here. The pirates come out after them with a bunch of weapons and a great chase scene occurs, with wanton destruction of cabbages. Of course it’s a little illogical as shown when cornered and Aang decides to start bending. They escape effortlessly then. I guess they don’t want to reveal the Avatar is there? Possibly worth lampshading earlier on.

In fact, now I’m thinking this way, the rest of the episode is kind of a giant plot hole. Because once Katara reveals she stole the Waterbending scroll, why on earth would they stay in the area where a bunch of pirates want to kill them? A place where people know the Avatar is about too? It’s no big because I want the ensuing events to happen too, but it’s kinda fun to think about.

Notice too Katara’s complete lack of contrition when Sokka accuses her of putting all their lives in danger (correct). I mean, of course she doesn’t say sorry with Sokka being deliberately provocative in his anger (“fancy water splashes”). I probably wouldn’t say sorry then either. But we’ll see how it plays out.

Back to town. Of course it’s the town Iroh and Zuko visit. Iroh can’t find his tile, but he does compensate with a shopping trip. A shopping trip with a pirate ship. A pirate ship with loose lips.

Back to the gang, and Katara insists on trying one move before teaching Aang. Her behaviour is pretty poor here, even allowing for Sokka’s once again provocative comments. I mean, he does appear to be right that Katara is more interested in teaching herself than Aang, but how does that help matters? It doesn’t really excuse Katara flying off the handle at Aang when he gets the move Katara is trying to master though. To her credit, Katara does immediately apologise to Aang and give him the scroll. She knows she’s in the wrong. She apologises to Momo too for accidentally hitting him. Sokka doesn’t get an apology though when he presses for one. Siblings, eh?

Incidentally, I’m reminded of something I picked up recently in a Jack Han hockey column. On the subject of coaching kids with bad attitudes, he talks about a coach who had to deal with a kid with a bad attitude – himself. I’ll quote direct:

“My coach let me know what I did wrong, right away. But then he did something smart.

He didn’t constantly remind a kid with a bad attitude, that he had a bad attitude.

To me, this is on the money. You want someone to change? Constantly rubbing their nose in the fact you don’t like how they are is frequently counter-productive. This is what Sokka’s doing here. Yeah, Katara does have a bad attitude on some stuff. Sokka’s attitude does nothing to help. To a certain extent, it’s probably reversed on Sokka’s sexism. We saw Katara constantly remind him he had a bad attitude there. Result? Continuing bad attitude. Suki doesn’t let it slide either, but she doesn’t keep bringing it up. She recognised when he was doing well and reinforced that.

Shows aimed at younger audiences often contain stuff about teaching and learning, whether they mean to or not (you suspect this case is possibly a means to). Which means stuff about life, as we never stop teaching and learning.

I am possibly reading too much into this but part of why Katara and Sokka are locked into who they are is they only really have each other, and they can’t teach each other because they get on each other’s nerves too much. They can’t change with just the two of them. Them going out into the big wide world is their chance to meet people who see them in different lights and change and grow.

Back to the story. Zuko and pirates are busy looking for the kids. Katara wakes up in the middle of the night to try doing some Waterbending despite what she said about it being Aang’s scroll. Bad Katara! Notice how she asks the water “Why won’t you work with me”? Katara doesn’t get it. Change doesn’t work with you until you work with change.

Anyhoo, her loud frustrations leads Strike Force Dickhead right to them. She stumbles backwards into a pirate, waterbends her way out of that, but

This is some 10/10 sinister dickheadery here. Applause.

That this moment seemed to mainly bring up hits for Zutara (i.e. the Zuko-Katara ship) interests me. I haven’t looked so I can’t comment that much. Let’s see what the rest of the episode brings.

Honestly, Zuko’s just a great sinister overconfident villain here. One moment he’s trying to sweet talk Katara into a trade – Aang’s whereabouts for her mother’s necklace. The next he’s threatening to burn the Waterbending scroll unless the pirates co-operate. It’s all very smooth, very dramatic… and quite stupid. He has much to learn. Perfectly Zuko!

Sokka and Aang wake up to discover no Katara, no scroll, and plenty of pirates. Aang tries to airbend a net out of the way and is captured that way (feels a little out of character not to evade instead but whatevs). The pirates go back with Aang, leaving Sokka to wonder why he hasn’t been kidnapped too. Classic Sokka. The pirates oblige.

What follows is a tense stand-off over exchanging the boy for the scroll. Should be simple, but not a lot of trust here. I also love Katara insisting it’s all her fault, Aang assuring her otherwise, and Iroh weighing in “yeah, it kind of is”. The stand-off gets tenser when Sokka starts talking, and appeals to the pirates’ business sense. One Avatar for one scroll? Just doesn’t make sense. It’s enough to get a fight going. It’s one of the more entertaining fights so far for my money, although I struggle to pick out a highlight.

The kids make it free and decide to escape in a pirate boat. Three kids can’t budge it. But two Waterbenders? Cue emotional moment, and:

Literal question and future proverb.

So what happens next? The kids in the pirates’ boat get caught by the pirates in Zuko’s boat. Katara masters the water whip in the ensuing fight and tells Aang she couldn’t have done it without his help. Messianic Katara being willing to accept help? Change! Change equals better Waterbending. Unfortunately they’re about to go over a waterfall, but between Aang and Katara’s Waterbending, and Aang blowing the bison whistle to call Appa, they escape.

The ending with its emotional beat is them back up in the sky again. Katara apologises sincerely for getting over-competitive about Waterbending and putting them all in danger, which Aang accepts. Sokka reveals he recovered the scroll, and gives it to Katara after making her say she’s learned a lesson.

Katara: “That it’s wrong to steal” *takes scroll* “Unless it’s from pirates.”
Aang: “Good one, Katara.”

Today I learnt that learning a lesson is that it’s okay to do exactly what you were doing before you learnt the lesson. That seems quite counter-intuitive, no? It doesn’t help the whole “the writers don’t think Katara’s mistakes are the same as Aang’s and Sokka’s”. The mistake I see is “endangering friends due to impulsive decisions” and that’s just not addressed at all. When it comes down to it, a cycle of constantly lashing out at others in anger and having to apologise is something most people would do well to learn not to do.

It’s a sour note to end a great episode on. You know what? I enjoyed Katara’s role her a lot. Her impulsiveness made it happen. Just I think if the writers are going to call out her behaviour, they actually need to call it out rather than just pretend to. That’s something I’ve thought about a couple of times before writing as it’s very easy to take a harder line on girls being assertive than boys, but there’s a good parallel to draw here in AtLA itself. When Toph took to stealing to help the cause despite the danger in Series 3, it feels like the writers went a lot further to show it being a mistake and Toph feeling that and changing. I guess the closest in season parallel is Aang getting them in danger in Omashu because he wanted to do crazy stuff and that getting laughed off? Aang has stopped doing dangerous stuff just for fun though and hasn’t overtly rejected the lesson.

I don’t know. I think at this point the writers are generally quite patchy on the kids recognising their mistakes, which to a certain extent is fine. I’m here for entertainment, not my moral lesson. Entertain me and leave the lesson out and it’s cool. Entertain me with a lesson and that’s pretty sweet. Tell me there’ll be a lesson but refuse to teach it though and I think that’s an eyebrow raiser. Sokka’s main flaw has been rightly taken to task as promised. Aang’s flaws and mistakes are mostly played very quietly as they’re part of a long arc. Katara is mostly in an uncanny valley in the middle that does her no favours, and I think the writers’ lampshading of it here is what really makes it a sticking point. I’ll just be hoping the writers handle the negative effects of Katara’s conventional old school heroism better from here.

And for more great episodes.

4 thoughts on “The Waterbending Scroll: AtLA Rewatch

  1. Easily my favourite so far, tightly structured with some good comedy moments. I wasn’t sure why Zuko and Iroh took the pirates along on their search, since the pirates had no better idea where Aang was, and Zuko had his whole ship’s crew at his disposal, but I guess you could argue he wanted to take no chances.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I never thought to argue with taking them along – more forces, why not – although you could argue he didn’t need them.

      Once there – why he’s playing silly buggers with Katara and threatening the scroll when he can just comb the forest, get the boy, make the exchange and win – well, it’s a bit beyond me to be honest. But a lot of fun!


  2. “Letting Zuko be Zuko is very important to Iroh.” << I agree, and also letting Zuko find his own way and learn from his mistakes. I think Iroh is very encouraging and realizes that it’s important to give people room to grow.

    “Why is Aang learning so much faster than Katara?” << I used to think it’s because he’s a reborn soul, so he has learned this stuff before in a previous life, which is probably why it comes easier now. But now I think it’s related to the elements the avatar is familiar with. Water is more similar to air than the other elements, so maybe that’s why Aang is able to quickly pick it up. But I like your theory about personality as well. I’ve always found it interesting that benders’ personalities seem to closely match the elements they bend. I wonder if that’s something that develops over time, or if a person develops an affinity for a particular element based on their personality.

    Anyway, thanks for making me start rewatching Avatar. I’ve been following along as I get the chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nail on the head for me with Iroh and Zuko. I’d add that it seems even more important with Zuko as he’s spent his whole life on someone else’s way. He can’t grow without finding his own way.

      I think for me, the whole related elements and personality thing seems intertwined-ish. Bending seems to be genetic (except for the Avatar), but success does seem to rest on finding an understanding of the element. If that understanding is the case, then it makes sense that elements closer to their own are more easily understood, right?

      And sweet! My good deed of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

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