The third season, or book, of Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on September 21, 2007. The show was always on Nickelodeon on Friday nights. It was in the prime time slot of 8pm. The general demographic were kids six to eleven, however the show exceeded this immensely. Parents would watch with their children, and actually enjoy it. Teenagers and young adults also got into it. If you watch any video from their slots at different comic cons, you will see the wide age variety. The mythology and narrative attracted so many people.
According to the Nielsen ratings, the show was averaging 3.1 million viewers per new episode. The four-part series finale had the highest ratings of all the episodes. Its premiere averaged 5.6 million viewers, 95% more viewers than Nickelodeon had received in mid-July 2007. During the week of July 14, 2008, it ranked as the most-viewed program for the under-14 demographic.
When the third season aired, there was a lot happening in the world: North Korea agreed to disable nuclear fuel plants, Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq, Bin Laden released a new video in over three years, and much more.
The show was not based off of any real world events, Mike and Bryan literally came up with it after Bryan doodled this picture:
The episode that I will be discussing that will help best describe the representations of reality is the third episode of the season, “The Painted Lady”.
In this particular episode, the show hails for Katara. Since this is early on in the season, the “gaang” are looking for safe places to make camp and train for the big invasion of the Fire Nation. Katara is a strong female character, she is the reason why so many little girls watched the show because they had someone to identify with. Katara is an excellent role model. The kids discover a small village that is built on top of an extremely polluted river.
They go down because they are low on supplies and figure polluted food is better than no food. They learn that the river is polluted because the Fire Nation has been dumping waste into it from a near by factory. They also learn that the people in the village are sick and the Fire Nation keep taking all of their medicine. Katara has the ability to heal others through the use of her water bending. She wants to help, but Sokka says that can’t stay long. She makes Appa, Aang’s flying bison, eat purple berries to turn his tongue a different color to make it seem like he is sick, and thus, make it so they have to stay a little longer.
In the dead of night Katara goes down to the village and heals a bunch of their sick. In the morning, everyone is much happier. They think the spirit whom they call the Painted Lady had come and healed everyone. Katara continues to heal the sick people, but now she does it dressed as the Painted Lady.
She comes back very early in the morning, and Aang spots her.
She feels bad about it, but after she explains everything to him, he understands. They then devise a plan to destroy the Fire Nation factory so it will stop polluting the river. When they come back in the morning, Sokka scolds Katara because he found out that Appa wasn’t actually sick. Toph had eaten the same berries and her tongue turned purple, and she was just fine.
They see that the Fire Nation soldiers are coming for the people in the village and Sokka says they have to leave. This makes Katara very upset.
Sokka gives in and decides to help because he could never turn his back on his sister. Katara dresses as the Painted Lady again, and they help her wreck the soldiers.
After the soldiers leave, the villagers are extremely grateful, but realize that Katara is not the real Painted Lady after they see her makeup all smudged.
Sokka and Aang are quick to defend her.
She apologizes for impersonating their idol, but she explains to them that they needed help and this was the only way she could give it to them without giving away her identity, or more importantly, Aang’s. Toph then suggests that they should clean up the river. The whole rest of the day the kids and the villagers bend all of the nasty pollutions out of the water. They leave it clean, and they leave the villagers happy and healthy.
Later that night Katara goes down to the river because she sensed a calling. It gets foggy and Katara gets her first visit from a spirit. The Painted Lady floats before her and says “thank you”.
Because this is the third season, a few years have gone by for the devoted fans, so the demographic group honestly ranges from middle school to college, even parents watched it. It was also watched equally by boys and girls. A lot of the characters can be seen as strong role models. Katara is a strong female character who is constantly breaking stereotypes. In the pilot episode she literally calls Sokka a sexist pig. I didn’t know you could say the word sexist on a kids show. I think that is one of the many things I love about this series is that even though it was on Nickelodeon, it was not just an average cartoon. The characters laughed and cried with each other, and had to deal with real emotions and loss.
Since this is a cartoon set in a time before technology really came into place, there is no product placement seen, especially not in this episode.
Katara is constantly preaching about hope and doing her best to help others, she doesn’t always get the support she needs, but in the end she always does what is right. I think this is helpful for anyone who is struggling with something to watch. She made me want to go out and get the things that I want. Since Sokka is the only non-bender in their group, he feels like he doesn’t belong and isn’t special. His friends boost him up and make sure to make him feel like he is important to them. This happens all the time in friend groups, especially if you’re still trying to find your place within a friend group.
This episode definitely shows how poverty and lower-class societies try to survive under the rule of a tyrant. When the kids get to the village they have a total culture shock about how these people have been living. And these kids have seen some really bad ways of living before, so the fact that this shocked them was a big deal. It shows that people are different than you, but you should try to help them if they are in need.
As far as challenging mainstream cultural values goes, this episode challenges the authority of the Fire Nation. Katara knows that it’s wrong for the factory to be polluting crap into the river, and she takes a stand because the villagers are too afraid to do so. She goes against the grain, and I guess she could be seen as a deviant, and does what she thinks is best.
Once again, since this show is animated, it is hard to pinpoint certain fads that were going on at the time. Episodes are written almost a year in advance to production. The animation itself is a long process, so by the time an episode is produced and aired a fad has most likely gone by. Now, a show like Family Guy can whip out episodes a little faster because the production value is not has high as Avatar‘s. Also, Avatar is not set in our time period so current events are not as easily talked about. Furthermore, the kids have their own stuff going on, they are trying to train Aang and get him ready to defeat the Fire Lord. They themselves have no idea what is going on in the societies around them. That is why in almost every town they stop in they tend to break some kind of social norm.
As a side note, the next series that Mike and Bryan made as a follow up to this one, The Legend of Korra, is set in the early 1900’s, so there is a lot of intertextuality with the music and props that are seen within certain households.
The moral of this particular episode is be kind to mother Earth. Don’t pollute because here are the effects of dumping waste into the water that people need. I think the audiences reaction is “oh shit” not only does it effect the Earth, but now people don’t have clean water and they can’t eat the fish that live in the water as well. It might even get people to want to recycle more. Nickelodeon used to be very big on being green and trying to get their audience to be green.
What I love a lot about this show is that a lot of the outdoor backgrounds are based off of places in Asia that Bryan has gone to. He will scout locations and take pictures and then will paint them, and they use that as the background images for the wide open spaces in certain shots. This gives everything outside a much more realistic feel.
Since this season is about the Fire Nation, there is a lot of reds, oranges, and yellows. Since the villagers are down in the dumps, the village itself looks dingy. It does not look bright and colorful until the river is cleaned up. The clothing goes along perfectly with the time period. Each nation has its own culture and style of clothing.
I have referred to these characters as my children several times in other posts. I have never seen such amazing character development in a cartoon before. Even though he’s not in this episode, Zuko has the most depth because he has gone through the most. His voice actor, Dante Basco, does an incredible job putting the emotion that is needed in his voice. All of the voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the characters to life. The narrative in the writing helps as well. In this episode, you really get to see how passionate Katara is about helping others. She went from a home-maker in the making (not that there is anything wrong with being a home-maker) who could barely bend her element, to a master who would never back down from a struggle. Aang went from a goofy little kid to a kid who knew he had to grow up and face his destiny. Sokka went from a sexist jerk to a leader and well rounded young man. Toph went from being an individual to learning to work as a member of a team.
The dialogue is extremely realistic. It is really easy to pick up on their lingo, and they all talk to each other pretty casually. The audience gets suspicious when Katara says that Appa is sick because Appa has never been so sick that they couldn’t fly to their next destination. There is always a lot of subtext in the episodes and you can tell when you look at the characters that they are deep in thought or not saying entirely what they want to.
There is music throughout the program. The intended purpose for this is to add in suspense before Katara gets found out by Aang. There is serious music used when Katara yells at Sokka, also when they take down the factory and the soldiers. They also play more upbeat music when they are cleaning up the river. It helps you feel the emotions that the characters are feeling. The sound effects are pretty basic. You hear booms and explosions when they destroy the factory. Whenever they bend a specific element there are sound effects for that. Nothing too drastic, very basic.
The show is full of different types of shots. There are long shots, medium shots, and close-ups. It really makes you feel like you are watching something that is live action because it so intricate. The cuts are usually pretty quick because you get to see the reaction shot of each character when someone is talking. Any time a villager complains it cuts to a concerned Katara. Sokka and Aang make fun of the painted lady spirit and Katara defends her. At this point it is pretty obvious that its her, but she doesn’t come right out and say it.
Mike and Bryan do an incredible job with creating a lot of emotion for their characters, and this is what makes things seem real. Obviously the idea of being able to bend the four elements is ludicrous, but somehow they find a way to make it seem plausible. As I mentioned in a previous post, they hired Sifu Kisu and other martial art experts to give each style of bending its own form of martial arts. So really, anyone can learn to “bend” a specific element if they look up what style was used for each one. I feel for these characters whenever they are going through something major. I’ve laughed for them and I’ve cried for them. If by me showing real emotions for a cartoon doesn’t make it real, then I don’t know what real is anymore.