Updated: Oct 30, 2021
I have long held the belief that episodes centred around Katara are the best ones in Avatar. Episodes like The Waterbending scroll, a dive into jealousy and pride over your own skills and The Waterbending Master, Katara’s struggle between necessity, righteousness and identity, she is, in my opinion, one of the best written characters in this show, and that means something in this ensemble.
Part of the reason definitely has to be Katara acting uncharacteristically. Every time we see a rational, calm and understanding woman on screen, we forget that she isn't immune to losing her demeanour.
Another thing I should mention about the show: Elizabeth Welch. When you look at the writing history of ATLA, you notice that she is one of the most all-round skilled writers. Some of her episodes include Zuko Alone, Appa’s Lost Days, The Avatar and the Fire Lord and The Western Air Temple. That is a writer’s resumé that one would want.
These two highly underrated elements of the show collide to give us, what I believe to be, some of the best 20 minutes television has to offer. This, alongside Ozymandias from Breaking Bad, Remedial Chaos Theory from Community and The View from Halfway Down from Bojack, in my opinion, make up the platinum television experience.
In the struggle to rush towards Sozin’s Comet, it might be easy to ignore how brilliant the protagonistic focus from Aang to Zuko was for these few episodes. The Southern Raiders was the final episode devoted almost entirely to Zuko as the driving force.
It starts with a chaotic ambush from Azula. As Aang attempts to deflect any blasts that head their way, a ceiling collapses over Katara and, this hero we have come to accept as a selfless individual saves her from it, but her spiteful reaction, for a moment at least, throws us off before we remember she does not trust him at all, and the last few episodes have had the two in entirely different locations for the most part.
Zuko comes face to face with the sister. His sister who was recently humiliated and told that the one thing she always believed she had, her sociopathic, uncaring analysis of the human condition, cannot even read the people closest to her. The woman she believed to be completely apathetic betrayed her because she is not what Azula believed her to be. And Ty Lee loves Mai more than she fears Azula.
As the fight rages on and the adults have to split up again, the Gaang ends up returning their loyalty to Zuko by saving him from plummeting to his death, all the while Azula escapes her fate through her monstrously powerful skills.
As the reminiscence of the old days makes the rest of the kids appreciate Zuko for who he is now, Katara isn’t a part of the celebration. She does not see the hero everyone thinks he is.
In the crystal catacombs, Katara let a moment of weakness lead to Zuko being… humanised, another victim of the same monsters she has seen. This is what led to her almost “wasting” the miracle from the spirits to beautify a monster, the same one who later wilfully participated in murdering Aang. There are few people who get to walk away after being weak in front of the enemy, and she was not about to take another chance on luck. When dealing with Zuko, she cannot be weak.
This time, every moment of humanity from Zuko was reflected back at him, and she makes a damn good argument for why he shouldn’t be trusted. These last few days, sitting in front of the man who betrayed her as everyone she loved cheered for him was too painful.
Given the heavy, morally-conflicted and traumatic nature of this episode, it was also important to lighten us up with, and I swear on this, some of the best gags in the show, the most hilarious of which has to be Zuko disrupting Sokka’s hookup with Suki.
With that out of the way, you are ready to begin learning about this one event in the past told through three people. Each person subsequently reveals the story more clearly, and brings a more personal and brutal element. Sokka remembers how the brave soldiers fought this army, Katara remembers how… weak she was, when that towering figure looked down on her, with her mother on the floor, as if thrown by this man.
The dialogue after this, involving Katara, Zuko, Aang and Sokka, is amazingly well-written. Not only does it feel like a realistic conflict, the quickfire nature of this argument, the moral implications of what she is thinking about, how Aang, without losing his calm, tells Katara that she cannot claim that no one else suffers through this hatred, and the difference between forgiveness and doing nothing… It even brings up Jet’s role in the show as it will tragically be remembered, not as the redeemed freedom fighter.
As the story pushes onwards, Katara reveals how she saw this conflict. She does have a confrontation plan. She wants to show this sick murderer that the helpless little girl from that one raid can now crush him and his entire army, letting him feel a fear worse than what she ever did.
This led to, perhaps the most shocking event in Katara’s arc. You see, there was an entire episode about how nightmarishly horrifying it feels to exert your own will over someone else, to watch your enemy confused and dreadful over this, and how much of a monster you have to be to make someone go through that. The episode even ended with Katara, crying over her own actions, that she will now forever be burdened with this “power”, one that requires her to be… well, not her.
“Congratulations, Katara. You're a bloodbender.”
But this, here, a desire for revenge so strong, pushed her out of the limitations on morality, on temptations that she set for herself. As she twisted this man’s arm in an attempt to pin him down as painfully as she could, she looked him dead in the eye to see the fear in them, the eyes that have haunted her for too long. Now, she is a master waterbender. She is one of the best waterbenders out there. She is a bloodbender.
But… this is not him. These are not those eyes. Just… think about what Katara did here. She let loose of a monster she wished to bury forever and ever, used a power that may push her to be the next Hama, and she did it to the wrong man. There is no way she was not just filled with unfathomable self-hatred. The implications of selling your identity away for revenge aside, she saw herself as a devastating force who can victimise anyone.
The story pushes on to its final act, with a pathetic old Yon Rha who takes his mother’s abuse like it's a regular conversation. Showing a slice of life for this murderer, we see he is really living a life that is as mediocre as can be. He is not exorbitantly rich or has any power over anyone, he has no beliefs, no passion, no drive.
As Zuko corners this old man flexing his power and wits, they push him to do one last thing before the end comes: remember the face in front of him. As the lightning flashes behind her, we are brought to experience the final piece to this haunting tale. As the little girl ran back outside, Yon Rha pressured Kya into giving up the final waterbender of the South. Yon Rha, the man who brought down the Southern Water Tribe. Now that’s a legacy to leave behind.
Kya prepared to take the blame and be taken to prison. Away from her husband, her children, her people. Maybe one day, she can be free, the Avatar could return, Hakoda could rescue her… She probably just wants to see Katara and Sokka again one day.
He was not looking to take prisoners, however. A few years after my first watch, I wondered why it happened so often that Fire Nation mostly took prisoners instead of ending these people’s lives, as with most wars. But with this brutal reality, it started to make sense, that most of these people have a real belief in the Avatar, that if they endure prison, they can see their families again, making them likelier to surrender, but as it would seem, there is probably nothing that stops the Fire Nation soldiers from… ignoring the white flags.
As the face of the cold-blooded killer shifted to one of a scared insect, Katara was left there to comprehend her role in her mother’s death. Her most precious talent, her identity, led Yon Rha’s hands down her mother’s neck, and the only closure she can get is to use that same power to stab him with a score of sharp icicles.
This was about as rage-driven as Katara can ever be. She was pretty much prepared to kill a defenseless man, and were she any weaker, or maybe a bit stronger, she absolutely would have. She just… cannot kill an empty vessel of a human being, or maybe one of a monster, one who suggests bartering his life for that of his nagging mother. Y’know, the opposite of a sacrificial hero. The opposite of Kya.
This was such an important experience for her. Before this, the idea of your rage, your temptations… your worst self pushing you into doing increasingly horrible things was distant. This was something Zuko constantly faced over the past year. However, she had to believe that this is not who she was, this was just a weak moment of the person she knows herself to be. If that is true, then it also stands true for Zuko.
As the baton of screen time is taken away from Zuko and is set up to be shared once again with Aang, the episode leaves us with the final dilemma of Avatar: The Last Airbender. If Aang doesn’t believe in violence, how will he end the horrible tyrant Ozai?