Something that made me want to keep watching Avatar every week was its narrative structure. Over time you could tell the characters had formed certain bonds with each other by the way that they spoke to one another. By the third book, or season, the show had taken on a more serious tone. However, the creators never failed to add in a little comedy and humility. Something Mike and Bryan did that I had never really seen before was humanize the villains.
This show always starts off with the opening credits, and then a man’s voice says,
and we either see clips from the week’s before episode, or we see clips from a bunch of different episodes to give us an idea of what to expect in the current episode. There is always a beginning, middle, and end. The end is usually either a resolution of some kind, or a cliff hanger.
There are many genres that this show can be considered under because there are so many elements to it. This show is obviously an animation, but it is also an action, adventure, and a comedy.
An episode that really shows all of these qualities is the fifth episode of the third season, “The Beach“.
The episode starts out with a boat in the ocean, and the camera pans up to our Fire Nation villains. Zuko is sulking because he and Azula and their friends have been forced to spend the weekend on Ember Island. Azula brings her friends Ty-Lee and Mai, who is also Zuko’s girlfriend. Not only are they forced to be away from home, but they are also forced to stay with Azula’s mentors, Lo and Lee. This has greatly disrupted their equilibrium because they are used to spending their days at the palace not being told what to do.
What is interesting about this episode is that our main characters in the “gaang”, are the B story line. They are having their own day soaking up the sun, but a man that can fire bend with his mind that Zuko hired to assassinate Aang finds them. This is where the show goes along with Propp‘s Narrative Theory. The kids were just going about their day when the disequilibrium of the man attacking them kicks in. They are able to escape him in the end, which causes an equilibrium for the viewer, but it leaves the kids with an enigma of their own. The audience knows this man was hired by Zuko and for what purpose, but the kids have no idea who he is or what he wants.
While Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph are trying not to get killed, Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty-Lee head for a day at the beach.
Ty-Lee begins to unpack her things while many boys notice her. A bunch volunteer to offer her shade and other things that will be helpful to her. Azula can’t help but be jealous because this is the first time she has really had the chance to act like a normal teenager, and be around boys her own age. Zuko and Mai sit together under an umbrella, and are trying to make the best of the day. This does not go so well, however. Mai has been extra moody with Zuko, and that adds to his even worse mood.
Azula gets fed up with all of the attention that Ty-Lee is getting, and tells everyone that they are going to play beach volleyball. They all prepare themselves for this act; Zuko is probably the most dramatic about it.
Since these teens have never really been able to be normal and have been off fighting a war, they take the game a little too seriously. Azula notices that one of the players on the other team had an old injury, and creates a game plan to take the other team down. They completely annihilate the other team, and Azula gives a little victory speech.
While they were playing, two boys Chan and Ron Jon noticed Mai and Ty-Lee. They ask the girls if they want to come to a party later that night at Chan’s house. Azula gets herself and Zuko invited as well. Chan and Ron Jon do not realize that Zuko and Azula are Fire Nation royalty.
Zuko later asks why Azula did not tell the boys who they were, and she said she wanted to see what it would be like to be treated like normal people. The four get ready for the party, and arrive right on time. Azula explains that they are all punctual. The scene cuts to later in the party, and more guests have arrived. A giant group of boys try to get Ty-Lee to decide who she likes the most, and she can’t decide. She beats all of them up, and cartwheels over to Azula. Azula basically calls Ty-Lee promiscuous and this makes her cry. Azula apologizes and explains that she is jealous of the attention. Ty-Lee takes a couple minutes to teach Azula how to talk to boys.
While this is happening, Zuko and Mai are just sitting on a couch doing nothing. She asks Zuko to get her some food, and when he comes back Ron Jon is flirting with Mai. Zuko gets really mad. This causes a lack. Up until this episode, we never really see Zuko and Mai argue. There is a subtext here because we don’t exactly know what is going on between them.
He ends up flicking Ron Jon across the room, and Mai yells at him. He calls her “a big blah” and she breaks up with him. He is then thrown out of the party for breaking a vase.
Azula asks Chan for a tour of the house, and they end up outside. She does her best to take Ty-Lee’s boy advice, and just laughs at everything he says. Chan gets close to her and Azula gets her first kiss.
She then ruins everything by doing this:
And Chan just sort of:
He then runs away, leaving Azula alone on the deck. Zuko has gone for a walk, and find his family’s old vacation home. The same music plays that usually does when he is sad or thinking.
We see a bunch of flashback images from when he was boy, and they are pretty heart wrenching. These were from a time where not only he was happy, but his whole family was happy. A couple of these had been used in an episode in the first season of the show when we saw how Zuko got his scar. It was nostalgic to see them again.
His cousin was still alive, and his mother was still around. We also see a very chilling family photo hanging on the wall. We are left thinking, what happened to this family that made things so messed up? Could any of this hatred been prevented? Was his mother’s disappearance the reason for the loss of happiness?
Azula finds him there and tells him to join her back on the beach. Mai and Ty-Lee are waiting for them. Zuko makes a fire in the pit they are sitting around with the family portrait. Ty-Lee questions him about this, and he says he does not care. He says that she does not know what she is talking about because she doesn’t know him. Under her breath she says, “I do know you”. Zuko then lashes out at Ty-Lee and says how everything is perfect in her world and calls her a “circus freak”. This is where another huge disequilibrium happens among the group.
Ty-Lee gets angry and explains why she joined the circus. She had six sisters who look just like her, and she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life as a part of a matched set. She then screams that “circus freak” is a compliment. Mai then interjects that this is why she needs so much attention, because she didn’t get enough as a kid. Ty-Lee calls her out by saying that Mai got all of the attention in the world since she was an only child for most of her life. Ty-Lee then calls Mai’s aura dingy. Mai brushes it off like she does not care, then Zuko yells at her because she doesn’t feel anything. Mai explains that she had a great childhood, as long as she followed the rules. Azula then says that this is why she is afraid to feel things or show emotions, because she was so used to getting shot down when she showed too much excitement. Mai stands up and yells at Azula to leave her alone. Zuko then tells Mai that he likes it when she expresses herself. Mai yells at him because she is sick of how angry he has been. Zuko explains that his life hasn’t been easy either, and Mai says that that does not excuse how he has been acting. The big question comes up: who is Zuko angry at? The camera quickly shows each girl asking him different questions to get him to answer. He finally explodes and screams, “I’m angry at myself”. Zuko explains that he’s not sure if he knows the difference between right and wrong anymore. Mai goes over to him and tells him that he’s the one thing she cares about. They kiss each other, and now we can safely assume that they are back together. Resolution complete.
Ty-Lee expresses her joy that everyone knows each other much better now, and that she’ll always remember the trip. Azula looks at them all and asks them, “You know what will really make this trip memorable”. They all go back to Chan’s house, and he looks confused when he sees the four standing there. Azula says, “Sorry to break the news Chan”, and Zuko gets a dramatic close up and says, “Party’s over”.
As you can see, they destroy the house, and Chan is doomed to get in trouble with his parents. It cuts to this picture:
Then it cuts like it usually does to the closing end credits.
This episode gives closure about this particular conflict. The show does not show what to expect in the following week’s episode. You are left with a sense of asking yourself why did Mike and Bryan dedicate a whole episode to the villains. It humanized them. They have done this many times with Zuko throughout the series, but this particular episode got into all four them. You really get to see the dynamics between all of them. We learned in a previous season that the four grew up together, and now we see what that has done to them. They finally got a chance to be teenagers, but it wasn’t easy for them. I also think it is important that Zuko questioned whether he knows the difference between right and wrong. This is not the first time he has mentioned this in an episode. He is constantly battling between the good and evil inside of himself. We are on the edge of our seats to see if he will finally make the right decisions or not, and I think this episode foreshadows what he does later on in the season.
This episode is unique because the A story line is usually focused on the heroes. In fact, sometimes there isn’t even a B story line. Every few episodes, the story is solely focused on the heroes. The episodes that do have a B story line are usually about Zuko and his struggle between good and evil, and right and wrong. This episode also used many cool low angle shots, showing the power of these characters among other characters. There are close ups, medium shots, and long shots. The creators did everything they could to give this show different types of lenses and depth. The audience usually expects something emotional, yet quirky to happen to the heroes, but this time it happened to the villains. Although, at this point I personally have considered Zuko to be an antihero. At the end, you can’t help but say, “awwwww”, because of how cute the episode ended up being. You go from sulking teens, to a blow out between friends, to a resolution that they all can live with. In between all of this we see our heroes fight a man they have never seen before. Honestly when I watch this episode, I cannot stand when they cut to the “gaang” because I am just so interested in what the kids are doing at the beach. I can’t help but think, “Okay I get it, they’ve finally met the mind guy, now let’s get back to my son and his friends”. I like that they get “real” with each other, and that they speak to each other on such an informal manner that I had never really seen before with them.