Book Three: Fire || Chapter Seventeen: The Ember Island Players

Posted on Posted in Rewatch

Welcome to the fifty-seventh installment of the Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Episode 3.17 breaks the fourth wall all over the place, provides us with a heartwarming moment between Zuko and Toph, and reminds everyone exactly how high the stakes are for the finale.

Please note that while the summary will remain spoiler free (aside for everything up to and including the current episode, of course), the subsequent commentary (and comments) will not be. If you haven’t already seen the series, go do it now. This post will be waiting for you when you come back.

Note: I would like this rewatch to remain spoiler free for The Legend of Korra. Please choose your comments wisely. If you wish to discuss Korra, you can do so on these posts.

Summary
Aang and Zuko finish practicing their firebending forms. Katara is uncertain about their choice to hide in the Fire Lord’s home on Ember Island, though Zuko reassures her that Ozai hasn’t come to this place since their family was actually happy. This is the last place anyone would think to look for them, too.

Suki and Sokka arrive, and Sokka informs everyone that there is a play about them. Sokka shows off the poster for The Boy in the Iceberg and reads the description. The playwright scoured the globe for information on the Avatar, and some of his major sources of information include singing nomads, pirates, prisoners of war, and a “surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbage.” The critically acclaimed Ember Island Players are putting on a performance, and Zuko is not thrilled to hear that. Zuko claims that Ursa used to take them to see their productions and that the Ember Island Players always butchered Love Amongst the Dragons

Katara questions whether or not they should go attend a play about themselves, but Sokka insists that this is exactly the kind of wacky, timewasting nonsense he has been missing.


I love that Zuko is cultured enough that he can recognize terrible performances.

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Our heroes slip into the half-empty theater just before the play starts. Zuko sits down next to Katara. Aang tries to get Zuko to switch seats with him, but he can’t provide a good reason why Zuko ought to switch seats, so he ends up sitting on Zuko’s other side. Toph complains about being in the nosebleed section because her seismic sense can’t tell what’s happening on stage. Katara promises to tell Toph what’s going on.

The curtain rises on Fake Katara and Fake Sokka canoeing in the South Pole. Real Sokka gets very excited to see himself onstage, and Real Katara seems happy as well—at least until the actors speak. F!Katara whines about how she never finds anything fulfilling, and F!Sokka delivers a lame joke about just wanting a full stomach since he’s starving. R!Sokka is annoyed when the delivers the same joke again and insists that his jokes are funnier, though R!Toph seems to think they’re spot-on.

F!Katara gives a terribly sappy speech about how they can never relinquish hope and then collapses in tears. R!Katara is annoyed as she doesn’t sound like that, though R!Suki and R!Sokka giggle behind her and R!Toph claims that the writer is a genius.


…at least this lady is enthusiastic about her role?

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A light appears on stage, and F!Katara and F!Sokka spot someone frozen in an iceberg. R!Aang gets excited for F!Aang’s appearance, and F!Katara uses her (incredibly cheesy) waterbending to split open the iceberg. F!Aang leaps out, claiming to be the Avatar and wanting to spread joy and fun. R!Aang is taken aback to realize that the person portraying him is a woman.

F!Appa leaps out from the iceberg as well, and F!Katara is so overwhelmed by hope that she collapses and “tearbends.” F!Sokka is so overwhelmed by his hunger that he joins her in tearbending. F!Aang then claims to spy a platter of food, though she’s quick to dash F!Sokka’s hopes by pointing out that she is an incurable prankster.

The audience roars with laughter. R!Aang insists that he is nothing like that, but R!Toph is too busy cracking up to listen to his protests.


I’m dying here. So terrible.

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F!Zuko and F!Iroh arrive on stage, and F!Iroh tries to get F!Zuko to relax and have some cake. However, F!Zuko claims he doesn’t have time for cake as he needs to capture the Avatar and regain his honor. R!Zuko is annoyed that the actor is portraying him as stiff and humorless, though R!Katara says that the F!Zuko is pretty spot on. R!Zuko asks R!Katara how she could say that, only for F!Zuko to echo that exact same line on stage.

F!Aang spots a creature in the bushes and emerges with a flying rabbit monkey she names Momo. Apparently F!Momo can also talk, because he proclaims that he loves everyone. R!Aang is not amused.

F!Sokka, dressed as a Kyoshi Warrior, asks F!Suki if the dress makes his butt look fat. R!Sokka looks embarrassed while R!Suki covers her mouth and giggles.

F!Bumi speaks in rhyme about challenges while F!Aang dodges boulders, F!Sokka gets chased by F!Flopsie, and F!Katara makes dramatic noises and gets covered by crystals. R!Katara sticks out her tongue at the display.


Why is this even—I don’t know. But yes, it does. For the record.

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The fake heroes are attacked by pirates, though they manage to escape by crawling between the pirates’ legs. When F!Sokka asks why F!Katara had to steal the waterbending scroll, F!Katara said it just gave her so much hope. R!Katara is not amused.

On stage, F!Zuko has captured the Avatar. Then the F!Blue Spirit arrives, proclaiming himself to be the scourge of the Fire Nation, and takes down all the guards and chases off F!Zuko. F!Aang calls the F!Blue Spirit her hero, and they ride off together. R!Zuko and R!Aang look at each other uncomfortably.

F!Katara cries in F!Jet’s arms, but F!Jet promises he will wipe out that nasty town for her. As water rushes over the town, F!Katara admires F!Jet for how bad he is. R!Katara is horribly embarrassed while R!Toph laughs hysterically.

F!Aang points out the Great Divide to the fake siblings, and they all look down at the biggest canyon in the Earth Kingdom. Ultimately, F!Sokka tells F!Aang to keep flying.


That little foot pop slays me.

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F!Sokka begs F!Yue to stay as she is the only woman who has ever taken his mind off of food. They kiss, and F!Sokka asks if she had pickled fish for dinner. F!Yue bids him farewell as she has important moon duties to take care of. While she ascends to a higher plane of existence, she confirms that she did indeed have pickled fish for dinner. R!Suki laughs and says that R!Sokka never told her that he made out with the moon spirit. R!Sokka, with tears in his eyes, hushes her because he’s trying to watch. R!Suki gets a bit huffy and looks away.

F!Aang in ocean spirit form proclaims she is back to save the day. She gleefully stomps all over the Fire Nation ships, and the curtain closes for the intermission. R!Aang collapses in frustration, R!Zuko pulls his hood up over his head, R!Toph laughs hysterically (again), and everyone else looks either uncomfortable, exasperated, confused, or a mix of all three.


Uh, prop guy? Shouldn’t the snow be falling on the couple and not to the side?

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Our heroes head outside for a breath of fresh air. Zuko announces that the intermission is the best part of the play so far. Sokka is annoyed that the playwright thinks he’s an idiot who only tells bad jokes about meat. When Suki mentions that he tells bad jokes about a lot of other topics, Sokka agrees.

Aang despairs that the actress playing him doesn’t look anything like him, though Toph teases that Aang is more in touch with his feminine side than most guys. Katara urges him to relax as none of the portrayals are accurate anyway—she’s not a preachy crybaby who gives overemotional speeches about hope all the time. No one immediately agrees with her, though Aang eventually, and unconvincingly, mutters that she’s not like that at all.

Toph tells everyone that while it might hurt to see the portrayals, what they’re seeing on stage is the truth.


You tell ‘em, Sokka.

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On stage, our fake heroes arrive in an Earth Kingdom town. F!Aang goes flying to see if she can find an earthbending master. R!Toph gets excited as this must be the part of the play where she appears. F!Aang returns, unable to find a teacher.

That when F!Toph—a giant, muscly man—appears from under a rock. He tells F!Aang that she can’t find an earthbending master in the sky. F!Toph tosses the rock aside and claims that you have to look underground. All of our real heroes giggle (except for Toph and Zuko, who drops his poster in surprise).

When F!Aang asks who he is, F!Toph spits and reveals that his name is Toph, because it sounds like tough–and that’s just what he is. R!Toph is astounded that she’s being portrayed as a really buff guy, and R!Katara throws back her words about the true portrayals hurting. However, R!Toph is thrilled and proclaims she wouldn’t have cast herself any other way. At least she’s not a flying bald lady!

F!Aang confirms that F!Toph is blind, and F!Toph explains that he sees differently from everyone else by releasing a sonic wave from his mouth. He screams in the fake heroes’ faces—much to everyone but R!Toph’s confusion—to demonstrate.


I’m still glad you’re a twelve-year-old girl, though this is hilarious.

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F!Iroh tells F!Zuko that they need to talk about his absurd hair, and F!Zuko decides that means they need to split up.

Our fake heroes, plus F!Iroh and F!Zuko, corner F!Azula in the deserted town. F!Azula says she surrenders—and then points off in the distance at what she claims to be F!Zuko’s honor. When everyone turns to look, she slips through a door and disappears. F!Katara is dumbfounded at how the fake princess could have escaped.

F!Azula rides on top of the giant drill that’s trying to break through Ba Sing Se’s outer wall. F!Aang throws rocks at her, but she deflects them easily. Members of the audience start to doze off.

F!Jet spasms on stage like a crazy brainwashed person, ranting about how he must serve the Earth King and destroy stuff. A fake rock falls out of nowhere (it drifts so the actor has to scramble to be in the right place) and squishes him. R!Zuko is confused and asks if F!Jet just died, and R!Sokka admits that it was very unclear.


I feel terrible for laughing at this, but I can’t help it.

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F!Katara confesses to F!Zuko that she really finds him attractive. F!Zuko says she doesn’t have to make fun of him, though she insists that she means it. F!Katara confesses that she’s had eyes for him since they day he first captured her, which makes R!Zuko and R!Katara eye each other and scoot away. R!Aang is not happy with what’s happening on the stage.

F!Zuko says he thought that F!Katara was the Avatar’s girl, which has R!Aang nodding in agreement. F!Katara laughs at that and claims that F!Aang is like a little brother to her and that she doesn’t think of him in a romantic way. (R!Aang looks anxious about this development.) She further reminds F!Zuko that there’s no way that F!Aang could find out about this and poses with him romantically.

R!Aang gets to his feet. As he walks out of the theater, R!Sokka asks if he could get him fire flakes and fire gummies.


Zutara shippers, this is as close as you’re ever going to get. Sorry.

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F!Zuko is caught between F!Azula and F!Iroh, who are trying to get him to choose a side. F!Azula asks if he will choose his nation or a life of treachery, and F!Iroh urges him to choose treachery as it’s more fun. F!Zuko walks over to F!Iroh and shoves him over before going back to F!Azula’s side. He yells that F!Iroh smells and that he will hate him for all time. The Earth Kingdom banner falls on F!Iroh and the fake siblings walk away.

R!Katara is shocked by the scene and asks R!Zuko if he really said those things. R!Zuko looks away and confesses that he might as well have said them.

F!Mai and F!Ty Lee take down a bunch of Earth Kingdom soldiers, which pleases the audience. F!Aang arrives and activates her Avatar State only to be taken down by F!Azula’s lightning. Our fake villains pose in front of F!Aang’s body while F!Azula proclaims the Avatar’s death. Our real heroes are displeased by this.


I never noticed the little yellow bored face on her clothes, but that is amazing.

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During the second intermission, Suki comments on how it seems like our heroes barely make it out alive when there are conflicts and that they lose a lot. Sokka reminds her that she was the one that was taken captive by Azula, and Suki asks if he’s trying to get on her bad side. Katara wonders where Aang has gone to. Sokka says that Aang went to get snacks but hasn’t come back, so Katara goes to search outside for him.

Katara finds Aang brooding on the balcony and asks if he’s all right. Aang says he’s not and that he hates the play. Katara acknowledges that their portrayals are upsetting but suggests that Aang might be overreacting. Aang claims that if he hadn’t blocked his chakra he would probably in the Avatar State right now.

Sokka asks Suki if she can get him backstage as he wants to give F!Sokka some new jokes. Suki quotes a line from the play about being an elite warrior who has trained in the art of stealth for many years and says she can get him backstage.


At least Suki’s enjoying the play, too.

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Toph is amused by how upset everyone is getting about their characters, and Zuko points out that Toph gets a muscly version of herself taking down ten bad guys at once while making sassy remarks. Instead, he gets to have all of the mistakes he’s made in his life shoved back in his face. Zuko explains how Iroh was always on his side and taught him so much—and he stabbed him in the back. That is his greatest regret, and Zuko knows that he might never get the chance to redeem himself.

Toph sits beside Zuko and tells him that he has redeemed himself as far as Iroh is concerned. When he asks how she knows, Toph explains that she once had a long conversation with Iroh wherein all he talked about was Zuko. Zuko is happy to hear this, though he deflates a little when Toph points out how annoying that was.

However, Toph reassures him that it was very sweet and that all Iroh wanted was for Zuko to find his own path and see the light. Since Zuko is now part of Aang’s group, Toph thinks that Iroh would be proud. She punches Zuko in the shoulder, and when he asks why she did that, Toph reveals that that is how she shows affection.

A kid comes by and compliments Zuko on his costume, though he points out that the scar is on the wrong side. Zuko shouts at the kid that his scar is not on the wrong side and then pulls up his hood.


That’s how I show affection.

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Backstage, Suki and Sokka find F!Sokka. R!Sokka ambushes the actor and says that, as a big Sokka fan, he doesn’t think F!Sokka is portraying him as well as he could be. F!Sokka is annoyed at encountering another fan with “ideas,” though R!Sokka presents him with several notecards filled with jokes. R!Sokka recites a cabbage-themed joke, which has Suki facepalming, though F!Sokka thinks it’s funny. F!Sokka accepts the notecards and laughs at what he sees, and R!Sokka gives him additional advice about making up phrases before attacking. When F!Sokka asks who he is, R!Sokka only says that he is a man that enjoys comedy.

Aang suddenly asks Katara if she really meant what she said on stage—about how Aang was like a little brother and she didn’t have romantic feelings for him. Katara reminds him that an actor said that, but Aang still thinks it’s true. Aang reminds her that they kissed on the Day of Black Sun invasion, which made him think they were going to be together—but they’re not.

Katara turns away and admits that she doesn’t know, and Aang asks why she doesn’t know. She points out that they’re in the middle of a war and that they have other things to worry about. Katara says this isn’t the right time, which gets Aang asking when the right time will be. She apologizes and says that she’s confused right now.

Aang decides this means it would be the perfect time to kiss her.

Katara pulls back, upset, and tells him that she just said she was confused. After a moment, she runs back inside. Aang stares after her and then hits himself in the head, realizing how much of an idiot he is.


*headdesks*

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Aang returns after the play has already started, and Sokka fills him in on everything he missed: sneaking into the Fire Nation, Katara being the Painted Lady, Sokka getting a sword, and Combustion Man possibly dying. He tells Aang that the invasion is about to start.

F!Katara tells F!Aang she will always love him like a brother, and F!Aang proclaims he wouldn’t have it any other way. They shake on their mutual sibling-like affection before F!Aang flies off to confront the Fire Lord. R!Aang quietly dies of embarrassment.

While the fake heroes wait for F!Aang’s return, F!Sokka starts pulling out the jokes R!Sokka gave him, much to the latter’s delight. The audience laughs uproariously at the new jokes, and so does R!Sokka.

The fake heroes arrive at the royal palace only to find it empty. F!Zuko appears and announces that he wishes to join them, and the fake heroes, having no choice, allow him to tag along.


Please excuse me while I go snicker in the corner.

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R!Sokka stands up, thinking that the play is over since they’ve caught up to the present. R!Suki pulls him back down as the play is still going, and R!Sokka wonders if the play is now going to depict the future.

F!Ozai announces that the harnessed energy of Sozin’s Comet will make him unstoppable. F!Azula arrives and informs her father that the Avatar and Zuko have arrived at the palace to try to stop him. He orders her to handle her brother and decides he will handle the Avatar by himself.

F!Zuko tells F!Aang to deal with F!Ozai while he holds off his sister. F!Azula declares that he is an enemy now and no longer her brother, but F!Zuko insists that he is still the rightful heir to the throne. The two of them square off in a ribbon firebending battle. F!Zuko eventually dies in flames, screaming about honor, and F!Azula bows to the audience.

The crowd erupts into cheers while R!Zuko looks on in shock.


I…did not see that coming either.

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F!Aang finds F!Ozai in the palace. He asks if she has mastered all four elements, and she confirms it before saying that she will take him down. However, F!Ozai points out that she is too late—the comet has arrived, and he is unstoppable now. R!Aang is disturbed by this announcement.

F!Aang and F!Ozai battle each other, and F!Aang is ultimately taken down by a giant blast of fire. F!Azula arrives to congratulate her father on defeating the Avatar. F!Ozai announces that the dreams of his father and grandfather have been realized and that the world is his.

The audience leaps to their feet, shouting and clapping, while our heroes look shocked and disturbed.

Our heroes leave the theater, and Zuko mutters about how The Boy in the Iceberg was not a good play. Everyone agrees with that sentiment, though Sokka points out that the effects were at least decent.


That was a little horrifying.

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Commentary
On the one hand, “The Ember Island Players” is a brilliant parody of the entire show and is filled with all sorts of delightful breaking-the-fourth wall jokes. It references a ton of episodes on top of sprinkling in liberal amounts of genuine character moments and preparing some of our heroes for their roles in the finale. This episode gets so many things right, and I love it for that.

On the other hand, “The Ember Island Players,” is wacky, time-wasting nonsense that squanders the last episode before the finale (minus the aforementioned character moments) and entirely fails to handle the fallout of “The Southern Raiders,” in particular Zuko’s question to Aang about what he’s going to do about Fire Lord Ozai if violence is never the answer. And I hate it for that.

Now, before all of you get up in arms, I’d just like to point out that I can and do acknowledge that almost all the problems I have with “The Ember Island Players” have nothing to do with the episode itself. Rather, all of my problems can all be traced back to the pacing issues season three has had since “The Painted Lady.” Season three has so many good moments in it that it’s a shame the story structure is so out of whack. I’ve ranted about this in previous posts, and I’ll probably rant about it again in the finale and in the season three wrap up, so I’ll leave that topic for now in order not to bore you. Let’s just say that if the show had handled the first half of the season better than it did, I would probably embrace “The Ember Island Players” with open arms and without reservation.

Well, except for two major problems: the eponymous acting troupe and The Boy in the Iceberg.

I know that the joke is that the Ember Island Players are a terrible acting troupe—Zuko told us that—but that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch. I’m really good at getting embarrassed for other people, even fictional people, so watching these horrible actors cavorting about onstage meant I wanted to look at anything but the screen half the time just so I wouldn’t die of shame.

(And can I just say that it was adorable that Zuko is cultured enough that he knows what a good play production is like? There’s something incredibly endearing about Zuko being put out that the Ember Island Players always butchered Love Amongst the Dragons and how at the very end of the episode he seemed to be struggling to come to terms with just how poorly The Boy in the Iceberg was done. Also, I love it whenever a universe is so well developed that it has its own literature/plays/movies/etc. The way Zuko name drops Love Amongst the Dragons implies that the play is famous enough that he expects everyone else to know what it is, like it’s the equivalent of one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays.)

Now, half the problem with the actors is their absolute inability to act, but the other half firmly lies with the script. Once you strip away the rotten delivery, most of the play is an absolute, uninspiring mess. Clearly, this is also part of the joke, but I cannot believe that they actually had lines like Zuko telling Iroh he hates him, then telling him he stinks, and then—again—saying that he hates him. Welcome to the Department of Redundancy Department, folks.

But the most universe-breaking part of The Boy in the Iceberg for me was the fact that the playwright somehow knew things he should never have been able to discover. Like the romantic entanglement thing that was Jet and Katara or Yue’s ascension as the new moon spirit and her relationship with Sokka or Zuko and Katara’s conversation in Ba Sing Se or Sokka’s sword acquisition or Combustion Man’s death or Aang and Katara’s conversation prior to the invasion. I can totally get behind the show making fun of itself, but when it breaks itself in-universe in order to do so, I spend most of my time trying to figure out how on earth the playwright could have discovered these details instead of laughing about it all.

That said, I love how many episodes they manage to reference in such a short time. By my count, The Boy in the Iceberg touched upon “The Boy in the Iceberg,” “The Southern Air Temple,” “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The King of Omashu,” “The Waterbending Scroll,” “Jet,” “The Great Divide,” “The Blue Spirit,” “The Siege of the North, Part 2,” “The Blind Bandit,” “The Drill,” “Lake Laogai,” “The Crossroads of Destiny,” “The Painted Lady,” “Sokka’s Master,” “The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: The Invasion,” “The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse,” and “The Western Air Temple.” That’s nearly a third of the episodes so far, and I’m impressed by everything they were able to cover. Did I miss any? Let me know in comments!

As for the portrayals of our heroes on stage, I don’t have much to say about that. It was all pretty hilarious, and I loved our heroes’ differing reactions about it all. Toph’s absolute glee about being portrayed as a beefy man capable of taking down ten foes at a time and making sassy comments all the while was definitely my favorite part. Otherwise everyone else pretty much just went through the same cycle: laugh about someone else’s portrayal and how accurate it seems, then get upset about their own portrayal. Rehashing that cycle with every one of our heroes doesn’t interest me, but you’re free to talk about that in the comments!

I was amused when Suki (from what I inferred) quoted one of her lines from the play about being a master of stealth or whatever. Her observation about how often our heroes either barely escaped alive or barely won was apt, though I think that was played up in The Boy in the Iceberg—it is a propaganda play, after all. And knowing that makes me question—only a little—if the portrayals of Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and Iroh were intentionally made worse than Azula and Ozai because it was designed to appeal to the Fire Nation audiences. After all, the playwright has no reason to portray our heroes sympathetically or anything short of buffoonish when they’re ultimately meant to die in flames at the hands of Princess Azula and Fire Lord Ozai.

The last minutes of the play—the parts Sokka called the future—were the best part. While the recap of the show thus far did kick off the Aang/Katara scene and the Zuko and Toph scene, the speculation on the future was what saved this episode for me. The stark reminder of what was at stake (the Fire Nation’s dominance of the world) and the comet’s impending arrival were crucial for getting us ready for the finale. It has been a long time since Sozin’s Comet was mentioned with any significance as the thrust of season three was focused squarely on the Day of Black Sun instead. This reminder that our heroes missed their best chance at stopping the Fire Lord and that the comet’s arrival is going to give him a huge boost in power was a necessary—if unpleasant—thing to watch.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it wasn’t the hilariously over-the-top deaths for Zuko and Aang but how the audience reacted to those deaths. They cheered and clapped and (for Aang) jumped to their feet in joy. That’s both horrifying and terrifying for our heroes, as they’re suddenly very much reminded that they are in the middle of enemy territory and that everyone around them would celebrate if they died terrible deaths. That said, Zuko’s O.o face was a thing of beauty. Especially when the rest of our heroes looked at him uncomfortably.

As for the non-play scenes, I’m going to limit myself to talking about Aang and Katara’s DtR (Define the Relationship) conversation and Zuko’s conversation with Toph. We’ll start with Aang and Katara because I’d rather end the recap on warm fuzzy feelings instead of headdesking.

And man, does Aang earn a lot of headdesking from me. Look, Aang, I know you’re twelve and all, but you’re a smart twelve-year-old. Surely you can realize that if the play is wildly inaccurate about basic things like Toph’s age and gender, the chances of the playwright somehow being right about the real Katara’s feelings toward you are less than zero. And yet you take this mysterious playwright and his sources of singing nomads, pirates, prisoners of war, and a surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbages as speaking gospel truth. Where did your logic go?

It probably went on vacation with your listening skills in order to make room for your entitlement issues. I’ve been annoyed at characters in the past, but Aang makes me want to punt him off the balcony in his scene with Katara. Aang, just because you ninja a kiss on Katara—and then fly off to possible death straight afterward and never talk to her about it until now—doesn’t mean she automatically has to like you back. You can’t call dibs on a human being like that, moron.

He compounds his stupidity by demanding to know why Katara isn’t sure about the prospect of dating a prepubescent idiot him. When she rightly points out that she’s unsure this is the right time to prioritize her love life what with them being in the middle of a war right now, Aang has the gall to demand to know when the right time will be. Gee, Aang, somehow I think she just said talk to me after I’m done freaking out about this war we’re engaged in and how we have no allies and Sozin’s comet is coming in a couple days. What part of her saying that she’s confused and not able or willing to have this conversation right now don’t you understand?

All of it, clearly, because seconds after she says she’s confused you decide it’s your job to unconfuse her by ninjaing a kiss again. I’m glad you beat your head on the railing after Katara left as it saved me the trouble of wishing that very thing upon you. You might be the Avatar, Aang, but that doesn’t entitle you to anyone’s affections. At least you realized you were in the wrong in the end. In the meantime, go headdesk yourself into a concussion or nine until Katara’s willing to speak to you again and I’m done fuming.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, Zuko’s discussion with Toph was as heartbreaking as it was endearing. I love that Zuko has actually realized just how much he betrayed Iroh despite the kindness his uncle always showed him. Zuko has made many mistakes in his life, and yet he names his betrayal of Iroh as his greatest regret. The fact that Zuko knows he may never get a chance to apologize or redeem himself in Iroh’s eyes is crushing, but it is also uplifting in a way—Zuko’s character has come so far in this series that he is actually capable of having this discussion. I can’t imagine season one Zuko understanding himself enough to verbalize or even experience these feelings.

What makes Zuko’s confession even better is that Toph reaches out to reassure Zuko that he has redeemed himself. She’s the only one that doesn’t get a life-changing fieldtrip with Zuko (likely because Toph’s character arc was finished all the way back in “The Runaway”), but I think this scene goes a long way to making up for that. Zuko is so happy he smiles when Toph relates the conversation she had with Iroh back in “The Chase,” and it clearly means the world for him to know that Iroh would be proud of him for finding his own pathway to good. It will do until Zuko can hear those words from Iroh himself.

Besides, it’s adorable when Toph punches Zuko and explains that that is how she shows her affection. That puts Zuko in good company and, oddly, makes him finally seem like an official part of the group. Toph punched Katara in “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” Sokka in “The Runaway,” and I swear she’s knocked Aang around a couple times outside of training, but I can’t remember it. Oh well. At this point, the only person Toph hasn’t punched affectionately is Suki, and I’m sure that’s just a matter of time.

  • Was anyone else a little sad when Zuko revealed that Ozai hasn’t been to Ember Island since before their family was happy? I know I was.
  • Even though we haven’t seen the Cabbage Man in ages, I was beyond delighted that he was mentioned as a source for The Boy in the Iceberg.
  • I must admit that I was charmed by Sokka’s glee when the actor portraying him started using his jokes and suggestions. Suki gave Sokka this look that was all I love you, but you are an idiot and it was wonderful.
  • Perhaps my favorite joke in the entire episode was when the little kid told Zuko that his scar was on the wrong side. Zuko was just so indignant about it and then he pulled up his hood like he was throwing a fit and it was just beautiful.
  • I actually really liked the use of ribbons in place of firebending. I bet that would look cool in real life. Perhaps I can persuade some rhythmic gymnasts to put together a demonstration…
  • I was charmed by the little couple-y things Suki and Sokka kept doing during the play, like cuddling or whispering to each other or just sitting by themselves. So cute.

With the breather episode out of the way, it’s time to head straight into the finale. Come back next Monday for Book Three: Fire || Chapter Eighteen: Sozin’s Comet, Part 1: The Phoenix King. From here on out we’re going full speed, so I’ll be posting the finale on December 10, 12, 17, and 19. On December 21 I’ll finish with a commentary on season three as a whole and the rewatch in general. Only two more weeks to go!

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6 thoughts on “Book Three: Fire || Chapter Seventeen: The Ember Island Players

  1. First, I have to point out a mistake in the recap: In the “The King of Omashu” scene, F!Sokka was being chased by F!Flopsie, not F!Foo Foo Cuddlypoops.

    One of the things that I really like about this episode is that all of the effects used in the play are very realistic in terms of what might have been used in a world with the level of technology we’ve seen.

    1. …that’s what I get for not looking things up. XD Too many cute animal names!

      Yes! I loved the elderly guy backstage doing things. He seemed very bored most of the time, and he was a lovely detail for the show to throw in.

  2. Yeah, the effects look like a very natural outgrowth of kabuki-style playmaking, and I totally loved them. Especially considering what appeared to be a fairly low budget (almost no crew – a few stage ninja and the old guy).

    I think it’s clear (to me) that the play is intended as propaganda, and that all of Our Gaang’s characters are intended to be belittling in some manner or another. Katara’s puling wet-eyed soppiness (instead of what we know is her steely determination and highly competent bending), Sokka’s foolish focus on meat and sarcasm (and not on his qualities as a warrior or planner), Aang portrayed as “an incurable prankster”, and as not much of a male icon of masculine manliness.

    Toph is the only one who wasn’t annoyed by her portrayal, and I adore the show for giving that sneaky little trans-positive note, of having Toph be so enthusiastic about her portrayer being “a really buff guy”. But they were definitely trying to make them all look bad, this is in no way just a feature of it being a “bad play”; it’s intentional (and apparently successful, given audience reaction) agitprop.

    I think it’s not as badly placed or paced as you, but that’s because I think for a kids’ show, the next few eps are going to be pretty intense. Ozai’s plan to burn All The Things is terrifying and not a little reminiscent of the prospect facing us in a slower way as our home burns up around us and our descendants. I like that they chose to have a lightweight, let’s have some fun with ourselves (“The Great Divide” joke made me laugh so hard I had to stop the DVD for a while the first time I saw it, as did Toph’s glee) kind of show, before that enormous, complex, and let’s-see-how-many-loose-ends-we-can-tie-off finale.

    In the first viewing, remember, they were making a serial TV show, and one aimed at kids; putting in a big recap of what the loose plot threads are (or some, anyway *cough*Zuko’sMOM*cough*) is a big help before a two-hour-long gigantor of a finale when you’re biewing it serially/weekly.

    This is one of the last big multi-season-arc shows to have been planned and produced before the major shift in TV watching which has occurred in the last five years or so. Now, it’s much easier for them to plan for people who will watch shows over and over to get all the goodies out; then, they were still at the tail end of “most viewings of our show will be people who will be seeing it for the first time”. So what feels like a hiccough now might, in the context, have felt like a useful pause for breath before a lot of threads get picked up.

    So while I agree that the third season overall has some definite pacing issues, I think some of them are attributable to it being a slightly different era in TV, one in which people weren’t as used to season-long arcs with great amounts of detail as they are becoming now. It’s a fairly big shift in how TV is made, and is perhaps more apparent to old geezerettes like me because I spent such a large part of my viewing life under the old style. Part of what used to make season-long arcs difficult was the simple difficulty of getting shows for rewatch: when you had to get them on (often years slow in arriving) DVD, or wait for syndication over-the-air and hope to record the ones you wanted, it was a lot harder to track that kind of information.

    Now, a show is available to be purchased often within hours of its broadcast, and will be available free and off-copyright before that. That really changes how TV is put together, what things are emphasized, the weight of long arcs of all sorts, so many things. No longer is it sort of necessary to have either a reset button at ep’s end or an occasional catch-up/clip show/explainer show, we can expect that people will access the media repeatedly to get the full info from it. There’s also the growing participation in reacting to TV in ways that the TV makers can themselves easily access and aggregate, meaning fan feedback is a much, much greater element than it used to be (embryonically, we see that here with the jokes about Jet’s ambiguous end, and the dismissiveness over the Great Divide, reflecting fan-reaction right in the show itself).

    So that’s my defence of this episode, based largely on the foundation of “It makes me laugh, a LOT”. :)

    1. I have never heard of agitprop before, so thank you for that link! Knowing about it now, you’re right–the play is definitely meant to mock and belittle our heroes. Toph’s enthusiasm for her portrayal was adorable. (And clearly she was too awesome for even the playwright to mock her very much.)

      You make good points for this episode in the context of the television landscape in 2008, when this episode first aired, particularly for an animated children’s show of American origin. One of the reasons I fell in love with anime in high school and college (though I haven’t watched it consistently in years) was the dedication to multi-episode story arcs. I loved that they not only believed I could demand good storytelling from a cartoon but actually counted on my ability to remember what happened before in order to tell the story.

      That said, I still reserve the right to be a little disappointed in the series for the end of season three. The Ba Sing Se arc in season two was masterfully done in my opinion–which just makes the end of the series that much more of a letdown. With better planning, I honestly think they would have been able to pull off a much better ending than they did. It’s not as if they didn’t know when the series would end and had to hurriedly wrap everything up.

      Ultimately, “The Ember Island Players” is a really fun episode, provided I don’t get hung up on all the problems that happen outside of this episode. It’s one of the funnier episodes, though nothing can beat “The Cave of Two Lovers” for me.

  3. With regards to the letdown of the end of the series, I’d like to quote the ATLA analysis that I linked you to sometime during Season Two:

    Season Three is easily the most ambitious of the seasons. I can hear the howls of disagreement already, in insistence of Season Two’s superiority. The problem with these hypothetical complaints is that whether Season Two is more beloved or not, ambition is not necessarily the equal of quality. It’s just that Season Two set out to achieve certain goals, and it bullseyed almost all of them. Season Three, in comparison, set out to achieve many more goals, and was able to bullseye many of them but not all of them. I would say, in quality, Season Three is the equal of Season Two, but because it has a few more unmatched goals than Season Two, people consider it a comparable letdown.

    I also have to agree with CaitieCat about this episode’s placement and pacing. I’ve read a thread on a forum somewhere that chronicles the first-time reactions of someone who started ATLA from Season One, Episode One in May 2008, and it took the guy basically until the Ba Sing Se arc to really get it through his head that ATLA had a multi-season story arc.

    1. That’s a valid opinion, but I’d argue that the inability to achieve your ambitions to the degree that it affects people’s satisfaction with the overall work, coupled with serious pacing issues and a terrible deus ex machina means that you’re going to end up taking a significant quality hit. If you’re talking in terms of animation or voice acting, yeah, the quality is on par–if not better than–season two. But from a storytelling perspective? Season three’s season-long arc suffers terribly because of their inability to properly plan for and achieve their ambitions. Season three was amazingly ambitious, and it achieved many things, but I think it ultimately failed in properly setting up its greatest ambition: ending the story satisfactorily without having their twelve-year-old hero resort to killing the villain.

      …eh, I got it from the first episode I saw. XD Which, granted, was “The Avatar State,” but I would think that most people would figure out that this was a show with a multi-season story arc at least from the winter solstice episodes, in which Roku told Aang that he would need to master all the elements and defeat the Fire Lord before the comet’s arrival. That’s clearly something that couldn’t be accomplished in one season given the pacing of the show.

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