“Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
Long ago, the Four Nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed, and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar: an Airbender named Aang. And although his Airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone.
But I believe Aang can save the world.”
— From the opening to Avatar the Last Airbender
The middle part of a trilogy is a dangerous place. You have the weight of expectations from a successful first third and the anticipation of the last third. Many works nearly collapse in the middle section, producing a perfunctory or unsatisfying bridge that sags between two high points. Do the middle part badly enough and people will even abandon the conclusion. (See The Matrix trilogy of films). It’s the slow, middle movement of the sonata when the audience falls asleep.
However, through good fortune and good planning, the second season of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender avoids all these pitfalls. This season, now available in a five-disc DVD boxed set, builds on the successes of the first season to create a story of truly epic scope. It outdoes the first season in every dimension, adding great depth and color to the story and the characters and staging some of the wildest, most inventive martial-arts action sequences ever seen in animation. The great satisfaction that comes from watching this season of the show is even more remarkable when one considers that it essentially ends in a cliffhanger to set up the third and final section of the story.
As detailed in the opening narration, the world of Avatar has been at war for more than a century. The show follows the title character, the twelve-year old Aang, as he travels the world to learn all four of the elemental bending arts and acquire the wisdom he will need to stop the war and take on the role the world’s Avatar. He is aided by his friends: the young Waterbending master Katara, her older brother and would-be warrior Sokka, the giant flying bison Appa, and the tiny flying lemur Momo. The first season, “Water,” ended with Aang and his allies winning a tremendous victory against the Fire Nation navy at the frozen Water Tribe fortress at the North Pole.
The first season spent about a half-dozen episodes before initiating its larger story, no doubt because Nickelodeon didn’t order a full season of the show until it saw how the earliest episodes would be received. The second season, “Earth,” had no such constraints, so it could hit the ground running and commit its full twenty episodes to the larger narrative. The show wastes no time in violently upending the status quo in the first episode. Continually pursued by the forces of the Fire Nation, Aang journeys to the sanctuary of the Earth Kingdom to find an Earthbending teacher, only to find that some of his would-be allies are as bad or worse than his enemies. Meanwhile, Prince Zuko, the relentless exiled prince of the Fire Nation and Aang’s major antagonist of season 1, suddenly finds himself blamed for the defeat at the North Pole. He and his mentor, the kindly Uncle Iroh, soon find themselves fugitives from their own people and on the run in the Earth Kingdom as well.
Both Aang and Zuko are pursued by Zuko’s younger sister Princess Azula, who matches her brother’s determination with a ruthless cruelty, a gift for manipulation, and a devastating mastery of Firebending. Unlike all of the other characters in the show, Azula is an out-and-out villain with no redeeming qualities to speak of. Ironically, this makes her one of the most interesting characters on the show. A new regular cast member joins the heroes as well: Toph, a blind young Earthbending master who becomes Aang’s instructor. Her unparalleled prowess at Earthbending is matched only by her pungent sarcasm, which often produces some of the funniest one-liners of the season.
The addition of these new characters does not mean that the original cast members suffer a lack of development. Aang continues to be a charming and winning hero as he struggles through his problems of love and loss on top of the burden of being the Avatar. It is marvelous to chart his growth from the reluctant child in season 1 to the more confident hero in season 2. While Sokka continues in his role as the class clown, he also shows a growing sly, crafty intelligence that is often the deciding factor that gets his friends out of trouble. However, if there is a character who truly develops the most in this season, it is Prince Zuko. His new fate as a fugitive forces him to confront his own conflicted motivations and the consequences of the Fire Nation’s war, and leads to a major crisis of faith that provides substantial dramatic heft to the season. His spotlight episode, “Zuko Alone,” does much to explain his personality and is first among equals in a season jam-packed with excellent and memorable episodes.
The addition of these new characters also gives the crew more opportunities to engage in the magic kung-fu action that separates Avatar from other contemporary action cartoons. Each nation’s bending arts and fighting styles are modeled on different Chinese martial arts schools, and both Toph and Azula use rather esoteric and unusual styles to separate them from the rest of the benders. In the second season, Avatar goes for larger and more daring action sequences, often involving much larger casts and more complex fight choreography. A brilliant three-way duel between Aang, Azula, and Zuko in the eighth episode, “The Chase,” kicks off a growing game of fight scene one-upmanship. Before the season is done, we are treated to grand-scale combat with a giant sea serpent, a rematch between Azula and Aang atop a giant Fire Nation drilling machine, a dazzling nighttime duel between two swords masters wielding twin blades, and a grand battle of seven-against-many in an underground cave. One of the most dazzling scenes is an extended sequence where Aang and his friends force their way into a castle through a horde of soldiers and benders. This scene is soon followed by a no-holds barred underground bending battle full of dramatic twists and reversals that leads up to a shocking climax. At this moment, there are no shows on television that can do action better than Avatar, and it is astonishing to realize that the show can create such pulse-pounding action sequences and still remain within the constraints of children’s television.
In the new season, Avatar continues to be a gauntlet thrown in the face of detractors who claim that hand-drawn animation is dead. While the show does make heavy use of video reference, it is still definitely hand-made and crafted with exquisite skill. The design of the show alone would be worth raving about, but it is paired with truly beautiful animation that is nearly feature-film quality. The voice acting, directed by the unparalleled Andrea Romano, is also pitch perfect throughout the season. Zach Tyler Eisen gives a marvelously shaded performance as Aang, which is even more impressive when one considers that he’s barely into his teens. Similarly, the young Jessie Flower brings snarky sass and flawless comic timing to Toph. Grey DeLisle’s Azula is perfectly chilling and haughty; it’s unbelievable that this is the same voice actress who does Daphne in recent Scooby-Doo movies or Frankie in Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. As before, Dante Basco’s husky performance is a major factor in making Prince Zuko such a compelling character. For the late Mako, Uncle Iroh was the role of a lifetime—a perfect match between actor and role where excellent scripts and a marvelous performance combined to yield more than the sum of its parts.
Watching the entire second season in sequence also reveals how well planned out it was. There is only one episode (the entertaining but ultimately unnecessary “Avatar Day”) that does not advance the narrative. While the show was on the air, it seemed to bog down once the cast reached the enormous Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se. With all the episodes together, it becomes clear that the slower episodes are merely setting up a surprising and downbeat season finale that again radically changes the status quo. There isn’t a weak episode in the entire season, but special note must be made for “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” a daringly experimental anthology episode that serves as the bridge to the final third of the season. It is a digression where each of the major characters gets a brief story chronicling a day in the Earth Kingdom capital city. Most are harmless throwaways, but Prince Zuko’s segment neatly captures the character’s inner conflict while Momo’s story is a delightful, wordless pantomime that does ultimately push the main story forward. However, the real gem in the episode is Uncle Iroh’s segment, which is charming until its final moments, which are heartrending for the emotional punchline and for the closing dedication to Mako, who passed away shortly before the season was completed.
Re-watching the entire season also reveals a season-long theme: Don’t trust in appearances. At one time or another, every character on the show is violently disabused of a cherished assumption, or suffers from a gap between perception and reality. Would-be allies turn out to have agendas that are as damaging as the enemy’s, while characters that should be at odds often end up aiding each other. The great city of Ba Sing Se, long spoken of as an impregnable sanctuary, soon proves to be hiding deep-seated treachery and worse. The only character who seems immune to these delusions is Azula, and this aspect to her personality is ultimately more dangerous than her superior Firebending prowess. The show will also often use slower portions to explain Asian philosophies with surprising depth; the late-season episode “The Guru” is a virtual dissertation on the principles of chakras, but still manages to be entertaining. Seeing the deeper themes like this in what is ostensibly a children’s show makes it clear why Avatar has managed to gain so much traction outside its target demographic and why entire families can enjoy the show together.
The greatest fear any fan of a new TV show has is cancellation. The second biggest fear is sophomore slump, which can often be worse. A cancelled show can go out on a high note, but there is nothing worse than watching a show you like begin to repeat itself or slide into mediocrity and self-parody. Luckily, the crew behind Avatar the Last Airbender have avoided both, turning in a second season of the show that is even better than the first while still serving as a tantalizing bridge to the story’s conclusion in the third season.
Nickelodeon has released the entire second season of Avatar on four single-disc releases, each of which was packaged with a special comic book. The season 2 boxed set contains all four of the previously released DVDs, excluding the comics but adding an exclusive bonus features disc. The Complete Book 2 Collection is packaged in the same space-saving triptych case as season 1 with a beautiful “widescreen” painting of the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se.
On the whole, the new discs are a minor improvement over those of the first season. Each disc now contains five episodes instead of 4, reducing the total number of discs for the season by one without any loss in video or audio quality. There are two to three commentary tracks per disc; these are a little fluffy but still provide some interesting tidbits of information about the shows. The only disc lacking a commentary track is the first disc, which contains the full animatic for the first episode, “The Avatar State”; unfortunately, it isn’t quite as interesting as the animatic included with season 1 since it doesn’t have as many deleted or extended scenes. Unfortunately, Nickelodeon still includes forced trailers at the start of each disc that can only be skipped by hitting the “Next Track” button on the DVD player repeatedly, and there are still no chapter stops within each episode.
The bonus disc begins with a brief interview between director M. Night Shyamalan, who will write and direct live-action Avatar movies, and Avatar co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino. This ten-minute featurette is mostly fluff that reveals little except their mutual adulation for each other. Similarly, the “Essence of Bending” featurette with Bryan Konietzko and martial arts consultant Sifu Kisu repeats a lot of material from the very first Avatar DVD featurettes, with a little bit more on how the show creators work with Sifu Kisu during scripting and storyboarding, and how video reference is used.
More appealing is the “Escape from the Spirit World” animated graphic novel, which was originally a reward for an on-line game. The story follows Aang through the Spirit World after the conclusion of season 2, and reveals a little more history behind the four past Avatar incarnations. The real winners on the bonus disc are the three “super-deformed” short films, which were also originally posted on-line. “School Yard Shipping” is a loving wink at the many Avatar fans who argue over which characters should hook up with each other. “Bending Battle” answers the question “Which elemental bending style is best?” with good humor and a lot of silliness. “Swamp Skiin’ Throwdown” is mostly an extended joke at Sokka’s expense, co-starring the swamp benders from the season 2 episode “The Swamp.” All three shorts are hilarious, made more so by the super-deformed version of the end credits (and end music) and the use of all the original voice actors with the exception of the late Mako. However, Mako’s replacement voice actor Greg Baldwin does quite a credible job in the shorts, which suggests he will do well as Iroh in the third season.
From all reports, the comics with the single-disc DVDs were cute but not essential, and many fans opted to wait for the Book 2 boxed set from day 1. In the end, those who already own the single discs can probably skip the boxed set, although the super-deformed shorts on the bonus disc make this a very close call. It’s still a no-brainer to pick the Complete Book 2 Collection over the single discs if you don’t own either and are seeking entry into the Avatar world.