The Great Divide: AtLA Rewatch

I like to use gifs. Screenshots. I could do this entire article out of memes about how much the community feels distress regarding The Great Divide.

I mean, hell, here’s the writers’ own contribution.

I don’t dislike it as much as some. Possibly because I’ve not been chewing over it for as long. But I definitely agree with a lot of the criticisms so this might be a fairly short post.

Even the set up doesn’t make sense. Why are they at the Great Divide anyway? They had to fly out of their way to begin with (look at the map) and maybe never needed to land. Not like it answers any burning questions either.

Anyway, two tribes turn up wanting to get across the Great Divide (a dirty big canyon which requires an Earthbender to cross). They’re having a quite big row over who’s going over as the two tribes hate each others guts. Aang decides that if he can handle a feuding Katara and Sokka, he can handle these two tribes. Sure, one’s slobby and savage, and the other elitist snobs. It’s all good. The guide tells them they can’t bring food as it attracts monsters, and off we go.

First we get a monster attack that stops the Earthbending guide from doing his stuff. Sokka and Katara both get to hang around with the tribe they most resemble as they try to march out. Things keep going from bad to worse, with Aang unravelling more and more. The big ignition moment is when the tribes finally come to blows and Aang airbends them away in great anger. Revealing all the food they’d been smuggling.

I’ve got to say, Aang’s arc through this is the best thing. As someone who’s coming to the opinion that Aang’s at his most cheerful when he’s putting a brave face over his incredible anxieties, this episode is definitely some good evidence. I think it also points out his fundemental loneliness. Sokka and Katara have a tribe here, just like back home. Aang has a guide who goes to sleep. But I think it goes deeper than Sokka and Katara having a tribe back home. It feels like from the flashbacks, Aang’s always been lonely. Maybe he’s developed a people pleasing personality to try and be less lonely?

Anyway, Aang comes up with the idea of mounting the horrible wall crawling monsters to get out of there. Food’s involved. They reach the top, the two tribes are nice to each other and get back to wrasslin’… and Aang snaps. And tells a wonderful big porkie to convince the two tribes they’re historically not enemies after all. Brilliant.

That the lesson of the story is “it’s alright to lie to people about their culture” does rub some people up the wrong way. I’ve been talking a lot about how this show seems uneven about how learns lessons, who doesn’t, and so on. I think it’s quite possible I’ve reading too much into this. Yeah, shows for the young often feature lessons – particularly American shows – and some endings do feel like lessons, but I feel like maybe the writers weren’t trying to do that. Maybe they just wanted to do a mimetic approach to how the kids would react. Sokka’s willing to accept blame. Katara can make effusive apologies, but is generally quite stubborn.

And Aang? Aang is somewhat easy come, easy go. But only somewhat. He’s very strong on the sanctity of life. He’s super pro-Freedom. He feels his responsibilities heavily. You take all of those things and to me, you definitely get a person where if you press him hard enough, he’ll act quite shockingly to prevent violence. Then act like he did nothing all that exciting. The ending is perfectly Aang. That’s more important than a lesson.

Is this a milestone of Aang’ness? It could have been but as I’ve seen pointed out elsewhere, if you removed this episode, there wouldn’t be a single reverberation on the series save that one line in Ember Island Players. This is never referenced as a milestone in Aang, so it’s really hard to feel like it counts.

And I guess that’s the main thing wrong with this episode. The writers don’t like it and don’t want to build on it.

And sure, it’s a fairly rough episode as AtLA episodes go. It’s a bit disjointed and 2D, although no more disjointed than Winter Solstice One for me, and perhaps no more 2D than Jet. A lot of the jokes are ho-hum. But those episodes build things and this one doesn’t. I don’t know if they planned to, but it’s like they cut it out with a knife.

There’s often a limit to how much it’s worth talking about something the creators want to ignore and I think I’ve hit it here.

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