Christmas sure kinda came early this year, in terms of Avatar: The Last Airbender. This past weekend, I received not one, but FOUR new episodes. It's like this- apparently Book of Fire has progressed up to episode 9 in the UK, and thanks to the universality of the web, it wasn't long before I got to watch them as well.
The Avatar and the Firelord, episode six, takes up not the present-day Avatar Aang and his nemesis Fire Lord Ozai, but their predecessors- Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin. Roku, of course, was the Avatar before Aang and a Firebender, while Sozin was the one for whom the upcoming Sozin's Comet is named- the man who started the Fire Nation's expansion in the first place. Incredibly enough, it is revealed that the two were once best friends, at least in their childhood to early adulthood. Conflict however soon came when Sozin revealed his plans for expanding the borders of his country to Roku, something that the Avatar could not allow, friend or no. What happens next is an expected betrayal and an Avatar's demise, and a surprise revelation that once again rocks the house of one scarred crown prince.
This episode was a ballsy installment, for it focuses not on the established cast but on characters so far only heard of in the world's history, or as side characters. Avatar though pulls it off well with a story that continues to reveal more of the plots and threads which make this series so compelling.
The Runaway, episode seven, involves (finally) a story centered on the girls, Toph and Katara. Once again, the rivalry between the two master benders comes to the fore, involving Toph's spate of money-making schemes and scams that fast gains Katara's ire and creates a rift between the two, leading to potential danger... Danger further made complicated by the return of the Combustion Man.
First of all, the Toph vs Katara fight at the start of the episode basically makes this episode AWESOME (I just wish it went on longer- Aang is such a Killjoy). The character interaction afterwards is very much welcome, and just goes to show why these characters are so loveable. My only complaint is that maybe the Gaang should just stand and fight the CB instead of running from him all the time- Aang doesn't have a very good showing in this ep, particularly, getting knocked out and having to be bailed out by the others. Aside from the CB's continued harrying of the heroes, this is mostly character building for Toph and Katara, which is never bad but kinda feels like filler at this point. At the very least, Katara's newly-discovered 'sweatbending' is pretty cool and really shows how the creators are really getting into the thick of their world's powers.
Deeper waterbending secrets continue in episode eight, The Puppetmaster. This is easily one of the most unique episodes in the whole series, both for the pronounced 'horror' or fright elements (this IS a Halloween special, I gather) and the presence of somewhat more mature elements. The Gaang encounters a seemingly kind old woman named Hamma, who takes them into her inn. They eventually discover that Hamma is a waterbender- the only other waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe aside from Katara. But not all is what it seems as a spate of mysterious disappearances has been striking the nearby village. Hamma soon reveals that she has a secret waterbending technique for Katara- something that the young master may not want to learn.
A very exceptional episode for many reasons, if only for the new and somewhat macabre aspect of waterbending revealed- BLOODBENDING- which allows a waterbender to control a living being like a puppet. My biggest gripe in the episode involve's Katara's unwillingness to use the technique. Certainly controlling a living thing against its will is something the just and heroic Katara wouldn't be easy with, but it's a very powerful and viable technique, obviously. In a more adult anime or series, the Bloodbending could perhaps either harm or kill it's victims... here, it doesn't seem to have any other effects than the possession. The lack of harmful effects lessens the believability of Katara's aversion to using the power and the inevitable duel with Hamma. I understand that given that this is a kid's show, they can't really go too far. But still, this was a pretty ballsy and relatively mature episode that features some impressive bending and combat animations.
Finally, episode nine, Nightmares and Daydreams takes a WILD turn as it has Aang suffering a period of total anxiety as he and the Gaang arrives at the Invasion Force rendezvous point ahead of schedule. The spare time gives Aang time to reflect on his coming destiny- and it scares the pants (literally) off him. What follows is an often hilarious series of dream/nightmare vignettes which have everything from cameos to singing and dancing sheep, references to anime and even a very teenage kissing scene which will have Avatar shippers giggling with glee. On the other side of the coin, Zuko appears to be adjusting well to his royal life- he's got a loving (if eternally bored) ninja girlfriend, the respect and adoration of his subjects and the attention of his father, the Fire Lord. But why is he STILL not happy?
The episode ends with Aang finally coming to grips with his fears, setting the stage for the long-awaited INVASION next episode. But with the series just at the Mid-point, it's quite obvious that it's a long way still before this battle is over- which is fine by me. Hopefully from here on in, there won't be any more fillers or sidetracks anymore. There's just one more episode left before the series goes on a little break (I think), then it's ten episodes to the end of the Avatar saga. Darn, on one hand I wish it would never end, on the other I can't freakin' wait. This is going to be HOT.
Perhaps the most incredible part of seeing all these Season 3 episodes is the realization of how the series has developed since the happy-go-lucky, bright and cheerful episodes from Season One and Two. Certainly it's a lot darker, more mature (though still not as jarringly mature as how the Harry Potter books did eventually). It's come a long way, and darn, just keeps on making me love this series all the more. This show has me to the end and beyond.