Season three is a heady combination of long-awaited character development, moral quandaries, power-ups, globe-trotting, and wacky, time-wasting nonsense. When it has its act together, this season has some of the best drama, animation, storytelling, and humor I’ve seen in an American cartoon. But when it’s off, it completely falls apart.
Season three didn’t have as many outright terrible episodes as the first two seasons did, which is always a win in my book. “The Painted Lady” and “Nightmares and Daydreams” were the only real duds. (And were they ever terrible.) “The Runaway,” “The Puppetmaster,” and “The Ember Island Players” all got tied into the continuity at least, which kept them from falling into the completely skippable category—plus, they were all entertaining in their own right.
This actually leaves the season with sixteen solid, entertaining, and important episodes—an impressive number, considering the previous two seasons. There are so many awesome things crammed into these episodes, and this is easily the most mature and ambitious of the three seasons. The show got to cover topics like revenge and violence (“The Puppetmaster,” “The Southern Raiders,” and the finale), parental estrangement (“Awakening,” “The Runaway,” and “The Beach”), destiny (“The Avatar and the Fire Lord” and the finale), and a host of other issues that weren’t part of my Saturday Morning Cartoon experience. And the awesomeness isn’t restricted just to the subject matter—there were gorgeous action scenes scattered liberally throughout the season, like Sokka’s training under Piandao, the bloodbending fight with Hama, the Day of Black Sun invasion, all the fights against Combustion Man, the tangled mess at the Boiling Rock, Katara’s rampage to find the man that killed her mother, and pretty much every moment in the finale
that did not involve the lion turtle.
Beyond the themes and the spectacle, what really made season three shine were the characters. It’s not even that Zuko finally got his act together and joined up with our heroes or Mai’s magnificent decision to love Zuko more than she feared Azula—this was the season where everyone really connected to each other. Katara got to deal with the issues she had about Hakoda’s abandonment and Kya’s death, Sokka finally got to believe that he was the kind of man his dad could be proud of, Katara and Toph learned to understand and respect one another, and Zuko finally realized that Iroh really did love him. Plus, there was romance all over the place, though I really do wish we’d gotten a better look at Mai and Zuko’s relationship and hadn’t brushed Katara and Aang’s issues aside for the sake of an uncomplicated happy ending. Sokka and Suki, though—they were lovely.
And yet for all these brilliant, wonderful things, it’s the structure of this final season that keeps it from surpassing season two for me. It’s like watching a beautiful gymnastics floor routine only for the athlete to do a faceplant ten seconds from the ending. Sure, you can get up afterward and stick that final tumbling pass, but you can bet that the bit that’s going to get gif’d is your face hitting the mat and your butt in the air.
The lion turtle was a game-changer, and the awkward way it was handled turned it into a deus ex machina instead of a surprising-but-inevitable shift in our perception of the ATLA world. Aang’s reluctance to kill Ozai was also framed poorly, as it ended up with him lying to Yangchen and not having to deal with his decision to use lethal force for more than five minutes. Azula’s dramatic breakdown needed more breathing room, and so did Mai and Zuko’s romance. Ozai was a megalomaniac that was never allowed to be anything other than a caricature, worthy of nothing more than contempt.
The structure of season three is so frustrating because the show had all the moves it needed for that perfect floor routine. All it would have taken was a little rearranging, the removal of “The Painted Lady” and “Nightmares and Daydreams” to make room for better things, and a few scenes added in here or there to support the underperforming plots, and it all could have been astounding. Instead, the less ambitious but better executed Ba Sing Se arc in season two holds onto the title of best part of the entire show.
And that breaks my heart a little. After the end of season two, my expectations were set so high that it’s almost unfair to judge season three as harshly as I have—but the flaws in season three really do interfere with my enjoyment of the season and the series as a whole. Make no mistake—Avatar: The Last Airbender is still one of my favorite shows, and one of the few I’ve loved enough to purchase and watch again.
I just wish the ending hadn’t left such a sour aftertaste.
I’ve spent over a year working on this rewatch, and looking back, there are a lot of things I would change. Most significantly, I would not opt for a blow-by-blow summary—it just took too much time. Summarizing easily took two to three hours for each episode. If I had to do it over, I’d opt for a more concise summary (a thousand words at most) with far fewer screecaps. It would have left me with more time to spend on my commentary, which was the most interesting part of the project for me.
I also would have been better at maintaining a buffer. I easily spent two-thirds of this year without any appreciable buffer, which often meant that I was scrambling on Sunday night or early Monday morning to get that week’s posts up on time. The quality of my commentary would have consistently been higher if I had been able to spend more time on what I wrote. Still, despite my frantic pace, I managed to have a post up every Monday
even if it wasn’t always in the morning. Not bad for my first time doing a project like this, huh?
I’d also revoke my Legend of Korra spoilers rule. I instituted it at first because I had to wait for Nick.com to put the episodes up, which meant I was several days behind the live broadcast. I didn’t want to be spoiled by my commenters, and I didn’t want to spoil anyone else who was even further behind than I was. However, I do think the rewatch suffered for not being able to talk about the connections and information we got from LoK.
Seriously, though. Buffer maintenance will save your sanity.
And here’s the sappy, sentimental part where I thank all of you who followed along on this crazy rewatch. When I first thought about doing this rewatch in the fall of 2011, my biggest worry was that I’d just end up talking into a void and no one would care what I had to say about the show. I put my first post up in January 2012, desperately hoping that at least a couple people would show up and be entertained for a while.
And you were! Whether or not you ever commented, my analytics program saw you arrive—and keep coming back, every week. I don’t know how to thank you guys enough for that. You probably don’t realize it, but if you’ve read the rewatch from beginning to end, you’ve read over 310,000
mostly coherent words of summary and commentary on the show. That is a crazy amount of time to spend on some random internet person’s thinky thoughts about a children’s cartoon.
So thank you.
Thank you for reading, whether you were a lurker or a commenter. And those of you that did comment—to agree with me or tell me I was an idiot or to propose pet theories of your own—I really appreciated hearing from you. It was always fun to see what other people had to say about one of my favorite shows, and the small discussions we got into have been a highlight of 2012 for me.
But 2012 is almost over now, and it’s time for me to wrap this up for good. Here’s hoping that 2013 will be a great year for you and yours. Maybe we’ll run into each other again someday.
All the best,