26 March 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book Two: Earth

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book Two: Earth

Starring the voices of Zack Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Jessie Flower, Dee Bradley Baker, Dante Basco, Mako, Grey DeLise, Cricket Leigh, Olivia Hack.
Created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko.
First transmission date: 17 March 2006.
Nickelodeon, 20 episodes, 24 mins.

Plot: With Katara as his water-bending teacher, Aang and Co. set out to find a earth-bending teacher, and he rather needs to do this quick for time is running out quite quickly as new information is revealed that could lead to the Fire Lord's destruction.

Whenever there are seconds of something, natural progression states that the second helping must have more, must be more complex, darker, with higher stakes. This has happened with multiple franchises, like The Empire Strikes Back and The Temple of Doom. It’s a natural order the creators and producers of The Last Airbender adhere to.

At the end of Book One, Aang was successful in saving the Northern Water Tribe, but it came at a cost – entering his Avatar State, he has no control of his choices or power, his entire self completely given over to this raw power, and it terrifies him. As a result, throughout this Book and the following third and final Book, Aang is petrified of losing himself. And with threats facing him and his friends at every corner, the need for entering the Avatar State becomes bigger and bigger.

As Zuko and Iroh are on their own once again, trying to craft lives for themselves outside of the Fire Nation, the villains of this piece is Zuko’s sadistic sister Azula and her two friends Mai and Ty Lee. Together, the three girls are make for a terrifying opponent, and just might bring Aang down to size. Azula is often described as a “monster”, at least by those who have the misforune of being her victims, and she completely lives up to that description. She is ruthless, merciless, without compassion or anything that doesn’t expressely concern victory for the Fire Nation – or whatever fits her needs at the time. The strongest and most sadistic opponent Aang has yet to face, she will continue to hunt him, and in the end, Aang will be stronger for it. Azula’s ‘friends’, Mai and Ty Lee, are not as evil – although with their talents, they are still quite deadly.

Next to Aang, the single character to gain the most development this volume is Zuko, who is engaging in a battle within himself. He can’t decide where his loyalties ly, what his destiny is – if he even has any – and most importantly, who he wants to be. The end result is something completely unexpected and tragic for the character, but watching Zuko undergo this crisis is riveting storytelling, brought to life masterfully by the animation studio and voice actor Dante Basco.

Katara and Sokka continue their journeys from Book One “Water”, still intent on finding their father, helping Aang, and overall providing the comic relief and tension to the group. “Earth” isn’t their strongest season from a character standpoint – although Katara does have some strong scenes with Zuko later on – but they are nonetheless a integral and funny part of the team and show.

But here's the most important aspect of season two: Toph! The blind Earthbender, Toph is awesome, hilarious, kickass, insatiably quotable, strong willed, well rounded, and never fails to grab our attention. Plus she's interesting, the blind girl who runs away from her tight, protective parts to embark on a journey of excitement and inevitable danger. Thanks to clever scripts, awesome character design and brilliant voice over work, I can't fathom another awesome and strong female character on the tele matching Toph at all. Oh Toph.

This season is all about character development, and characters making choices that will impact the outcome of the upcoming war. Life and humanity is brutal - but there's still hope, seems to be the closing sentiment of the season. Toph may overshadow Zuko and Aang cos, y'know, she's awesome, but this is undeniably their season, and it is riveting.

Book Two: Earth
As expected from a season where I have already given plenty of accolades, “Earth” has no shortage of stellar episodes. First, I want to point out “The Chase”, which features the best animated fight sequence of all time. Hell, maybe the best fight sequence of all time. It’s a eight-way battle in a western setting as the elements literally clash with each other. Staggering, and I was hooked as hell watching it. “The Cave of Two Lovers” is a fun episode that gives greater hints of the Katara/Aang relationship that is a slow time coming; “The Blind Bandit” is nothing short of terrific, and a splendid introduction of Toph; “Zuko Alone” is fantastic, following the titular character as he searches for his place in a world that won’t receive him; “Bitter Work” has Toph hammering in some Earthbending skills, which Aang completely sucks at; “The Library” is a wonderful ep that is important to the shows mythology and really starts the ticking clock of the series; “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a nifty anthology episode with several stories going on simultaneously with our lead characters – not overall important to the narrative, but it’s fun and gives greater emphasis on character; and the last three episodes of the season, “The Earth King”, “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny” together make some of the most compelling television I have ever seen…and I’ve seen a lot.

There’s no one episode that is rubbish. They all end up serving some greater purpose later in the series or at least provides us with some character detail we didn’t have before. I can’t say enough good things about LAST AIRBENDER, and season two is a particularly prime example of its awesomeness. The writing is top material, the animation continues to push the boundaries and is nothing short of startling, the music is extraordinarily engaging and beautiful, and the overall story is a sweeping epic not unlike the above mentioned Empire Strikes Back.

A few episodes on, the season is noticeably tighter. No longer interested in multiple standalone episodes in successive order, “Earth” feels very much like one volume that has a beginning, middle and end…that just happens to pick up again in a third volume. Tight, satisfying narrative, and full of tension and excitement and drama, “Earth” is, in my opinion, the best of the three-Book saga. Plus it doesn’t hurt that I love Toph, the coolest female character in the universe.

Toph’s journey and Zuko’s inner struggle make “Earth” must-see television, and elevates AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER from a intriguing children s show with adult themes to something unforgettable and recommendable to everyone of all ages.

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