Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 2, Vl.4 (US - DVD R1)
Gabe's done with season two, and would like season three now, please...
Here I go again, talking about more Avatar: The Last Airbender, a series I’ve grown to love unabashedly. Like last time, I’m going to rundown each episode on this disc since my thoughts on the series as a whole were expressed in my disc one review. There are heavy spoilers and much fan-boy dialogue to follow.
Appa's Lost Days
The Avatar writers follow up the last disc’s most sombre episode with an even sadder tale. We rewind to the Library, as Appa is bison-napped, and we follow his dark ordeal. First he’s taken, tied down, beaten and, worst of all, separated from Aang. Then he’s sold to a Fire Nation circus, where he’s starved, burned, and humiliated. After escaping that tragedy he finds himself lost, locked in battle with other creatures (very Princess Mononoke), starving, and succumbing to his injuries.
This episode is representative of what sets Avatar apart from so many other action series. Structurally it’s unnecessary, as the greater story is not Appa’s (at best he’s a third tier character), but it shows the extent to which the creators are willing to go in rounding out their universe and mythology. The episodes last act involves plot-thrusting information, as Appa is rescued by the good Kyoshi Warriors and meets the Guru before any of the other characters, but is short on dialogue and purpose. This is a side story about images, sounds, and base level emotions.
The episode ends on a downer, and after twenty minutes of Appa’s largely painful journey the lack of closure will probably shatter the expectations of younger and less demanding viewers. As an adult fan this dark finale made me smile, because it means that the creative forces behind the series aren’t here to placate an audience, they’re here to tell a story.
Aang and his friends continue their search for Appa by distributing flyers throughout Ba Sing Se. The evil Long Feng releases the 'reformed’ Jet in hopes of throwing them off the scent. Feng’s plan backfires when Jet’s friends find him and explain his kidnapping and brainwashing to our heroes. Using Jet’s hazy memories they track Appa to a hidden fortress beneath a lake. Meanwhile, Zuko has found one of Aang’s flyers, and made aware of his enemies presence takes off on his own bison search.
After two moving and sober episodes, Lake Laogai kicks the narrative back into gear. Most of our questions are answered, and Aang is finally reunited with Appa, meaning the story can plough to the end of the second act for the next three episodes. This is also the first episode involving a regular character death, or at least a heavily implied character death. As in the Harry Potter series, killing a member of the supporting cast is a good way to up the stakes and put your story above the level of simple children’s entertainment. Often a death at this point seems forced, and though this one doesn’t change the momentum of the story, it is a logical final act for this particular character.
Even more interesting than the A-story is Zuko’s B-story, where he takes his biggest step towards good with guidance from his uncle Iroh. In finding and releasing Appa, rather than using him as leverage against the Avatar, Zuko acknowledges his own capacity for change.
The Earth King
Our heroes fight their way into the Earth King’s palace to warn him of the war with the Fire Nation, and of his own status as Long Feng’s puppet. The King agrees to listen to their story, but Long Feng is a step ahead, and has destroyed all the evidence of his secret leadership and the century long war. Meanwhile, Prince Zuko has fallen spiritually ill as his decision to free Appa has set his destiny on a new course.
The Earth King features the single grandest action set piece in the series’ history. Aang, now 100% capable in his Earth Bending abilities, Toph, Katara, and Sokka ride the newly freed Appa into the heart of Ba Sing Se. Long Feng has warned the Earth Kingdom armada, and the gang’s entrance to the Earth King’s palace isn’t easy. This swift opening sequence is gigantic in scale, dynamically animated, and thanks to Sokka’s idiot charms, amusing as well. I openly and favourably compare this breathless scene to anything in Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo’s filmographies.
Beyond the bravado entrance the episode has a lot of ground to cover. This is where the writer’s easy pacing becomes a problem for them. There’s only three episodes left in the season, and only sixty minutes of storytelling left to get where we need to be for season three. Whether the writers planed to make their job difficult at the outset is irrelevant because the whiplash inducing change of pace is the perfect way to finish the second act.
Again, despite huge leaps in the narrative, and the fact that almost every one of Ba Sing Se’s secrets has been revealed, Zuko’s B-story is what sets the show apart from everything else. The character has a literal internal conflict due to his action in the previous episode, and in nearly kills him. In his mind he battles his own self-image, and in the end emerges a happy and changed man. We all know it won’t last.
The Fellowship of the Avatar splits, and Aang begins his training with Guru Pathik at the Eastern Air Temple. Sokka is reunited with his father, who is launching sneak attacks against Fire Nation supply boats. Toph, trapped by bounty hunters in a metal box, teaches herself the art of Metal Bending. Katara is left in the city to assist the Earth King’s generals in their planned invasion of the Fire Nation. Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh open their new teashop.
This is where the Empire Strikes Back comparisons start coming hard and fast. The entire series has a Star Wars vibe and structure (Aang is sort of a Luke Skywalker who knows his destiny, Zuko and Azula are both parts of Darth Vader, the Fire Lord doesn’t make a full appearance in the first two acts, bending is very much like the force, etc.), including the major victory at the end of act one, and the loss at the end of act two. In the episode previous the group is split, and Aang goes off with Appa (half R2-D2, half Chewbacca) to learn the ways of the force...um, I mean the Avatar State from a guru. In this episode we learn that Guru Pathik isn’t all that different from Yoda.
This and the following episode have a rather complex structure due to the fact that our heroes have been separated. Because these writers treat all of their characters with equal love, none of these B-storylines are throwaways. Sokka’s meeting with his father’s armada gives depth to a character in trouble of becoming the comic relief. Toph’s kidnapping isn’t entirely organic to the story, but reminds us of her power. Katara is thrown into a leadership role, which based on teaser trailers for the new season, is going to be very important to her character’s development.
And then there’s Zuko, who seems genuinely happy after surviving his existential crisis. Without knowing it his presence alerts Katara to the Fire Nation’s presence in the city, and his destiny is once again changed. Zuko’s is the one character that doesn’t quite fit into the Original Trilogy mold, but in some ways he is the Anakin Skywalker that George Lucas needed for the Prequel Trilogy—a character genuinely torn between good and evil throughout the entire series.
The Crossroads of Destiny
While training to let go of his emotional attachments, Aang has a vision of Katara’s imprisonment (just like Luke in Empire). He stops his training with the Guru and gathers Sokka, and Toph to rush back to Ba Sing Se. Meanwhile Azula makes her move at the Earth Kings thrown, and with the help of the Dai Le takes control of the city. When she realizes her brother and uncle have opened a teashop she arranges a sneak attack and captures Zuko. Iroh goes to our heroes for help, knowing that Katara and Zuko are hidden in the same prison.
The final episode of the second season plays against the expectations raised by the triumphant end of season one. When things looked their worst in the North Pole, Aang managed to rage himself into a semi-controlled version of the all powerful Avatar State and crush the invading Fire Nation army. This time it looks like the same thing is going to happen. Aang has finally let go of his emotional and earthly attachments, and is taken the final steps to a controlled Avatar state, but just as he approaches enlightenment he’s struck down by Azula’s lightning. The musical cue alone is enough to make a series fan choke up.
Not only is the Earth Kingdom in the hands of Azula, not only are our heroes utterly defeated (though not dead thanks to Katara), but Zuko, bereft of his uncle’s direct influence has fallen for Azula’s promises of redemption and taken his place at her side. After a season’s worth of coming to terms with himself Zuko is right back where he started, and worst of all he’s betrayed his spiritual guide and father figure in Iroh.
There isn't much to say about the video quality here that I haven't already said on my reviews of the other discs. Disc three had some inconsistent episodes, so I'm happy to say these episodes are all the same quality. On the good side of things the video here is bright and colourful, and details are relatively sharp. On the not so good side is the fact that the disc is interlaced, and sometimes it really shows. Combing and general noise are a little annoying, but pretty easily ignored. Only the occasional edge enhancement really bothered me.
Like the video, the audio is the same as the previous releases. There aren't any problems with distortion or sound levels, but like the other discs this one lacks punch. These episodes are pretty action packed, and a 5.1 mix would be ideal, barring that, the surround (listed as stereo on the box art) mix could have more oomph. It's really no different than watching the show on standard cable television, which is a little disappointing. Maybe there’s a plan for a special edition release after the end of season three, perhaps even an HD version with Dolby Digital sound.
As before this disc features a few solid commentaries with the creators and various crew members. Season one commentaries were pretty dry, but with a little practice these guys have developed a more engaging rapport with their listeners. There are plenty of facts, figures, and anecdotes are tossed around and manage to entertain. The disc also features a selection of cartoon trailers.
Some of you might want to wait a month for the Book Two collection to come out, but if you've already purchased discs one through three you might as well get this one too, because the collection release probably won't be very different. Animation fans that still haven't seen the show really should start at the beginning. Now I just have to wait until the end of September for the final season to première.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 14th August 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Creator and Crew Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Zach Tyler, Jack De Sena, Mako, Dante Basco, Mae Whitman
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy and Drama
Length: 122 minutes
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