Monday, August 28, 2023

The Truth Hurts with the Ember Island Players

Welcome again to an unnecessary and bizarre reflection on obscure geek culture references.

This week my reference isn’t too obscure. I’m told the memes directly drawn from this episode of Avatar the Last Airbender are pretty bounteous. We’re talking about “The Ember Island Players,” season 3, episode 17 of AtLA.

In the episode, the Fire Nation acting troupe put on the play that featured all the members of the Avatar squad with very entertaining portrayals. Aang’s carefree and wholesome nature are captured with a high-pitched female actress ala theatrical castings of Peter Pan. Katara is portrayed as overly emotional and desperately clinging to hope, and making sure everyone knows it. Sokka is played as a goofy jokester who is always hungry. Each of these three, and other members of the team are all in denial and disbelief about any resemblance they have to their on-stage counterpart.

Toph and Suki are the only two people who aren’t completely disgusted by what they see on the stage. The characters insist that their personality was completely misunderstood.

Of course, caricatures are hilarious, and snap judgment is something that creates a sort of common language that we can at times understand collectively as a group. Therefore it can be an effective strategy for creating a piece of popular media. I remember going to a dinner theater near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. If you’re from eastern Idaho, you might have heard of Mack’s Inn. The production we saw was “The Phantom of the Grand ol’ Opry.” I loved it, but I’m a sucker comedy musicals. In this show, at one point the phantom sang a ridiculous parody of the popularly stalking-themed classic by The Police, “Every Breath You Take.” He also wore a mask because his face got stuck in a weird position, not because he was born with any unusual condition, or splashed in the face with acid, or whatever the original phantom’s reason was for covering his face.

Anyway, parody and caricature are fun and funny. But what about when it gets personal?

Toph loves every minute of the play, and declares to the team that the truth hurts. She has the sort of concrete thinking that validates the caricatures, and only works in her favor because the actor in her role is a totally stacked dude the size of a tank. Toph is lucky enough to not have any identity issues, although her ability to empathize with the rest of the team, reach a compromise with others is at times impeded by her fiercely rational and stubborn perspective.

People want to be seen in the way they want, although what we want is not always the reality. Our most noticeable characteristics make more sense in the context of our lives, and yet only we are capable of being fully aware of that context. When they are taken out of context, our mannerisms and choices can be made to seem ridiculous and even humiliating. 

Our brains like to make snap judgments. They save energy, and make use of our ability to process a lot of information quickly. Body language, tone of voice, word choice, and overall appearance say things about a person that create an overall impression that we carry without putting in much effort. These are all the building blocks we need to have a caricature for a person. Imagine the theme park portraits that exaggerate a pronounced chin to proportions grown absurdly cartoonish. 

It takes so much more effort to develop a deeper understanding of a person. The Ember Island Players episode works so well because we can see both sides very clearly. The AtLA story is told in such a way that the whole Avatar squad is made up of three-dimensional characters that have their catchphrases and consistent personality quirks, but who also have surprised us, and grown through the challenges of following the Avatar and getting past their hang-ups and weaknesses. 

Katara has good reason to depend heavily upon hope, as she was forced to grow up prematurely after the death of her mom, and the absence of her father in her life. Her mentions of hope are courageous and useful to help keep herself and her team from becoming hopeless in the face of ongoing war. Aang does have a carefree and wholesome personality, but that doesn’t prevent him from challenging his fears and rising up to the call of taking down Fire Lord Ozai. His trickster tendencies are a mask at times that provide a release valve from the weight of his responsibilities of mastering the four elements, and using them to prevent world domination.

Zuko turns out to be one of the most vulnerable characters, in proportion to how outrageously tough he forced himself to be throughout the first two episodes of the show. His dynamic transformation through the series works so well because he is given sufficient attention to set up his descent from the throne of the Fire Nation, to abandoning his father by choice, and finally realizing that he was meant to be Aang’s firebending teacher.

To wrap things up without going into further details of the episode, the play reveals many details and insights into the Avatar team that are not only cringeworthy, but which the team purposely avoids talking about, including unrequited love, and fears about how things might end up at the final battle. The truth does indeed hurt, as there is always chance you will lose the fight. Yet the team’s ability to stay and watch the whole thing says something about their tolerance for discomfort, and their hope that the way things will end will turn out okay. Luckily for them, the show did not follow suit with the play. It was a play put on by the Fire Nation, so of course the Fire Lord had to win in the end.

This episode is wildly creative and fun to watch. I love it when media like stage shows and cartoons mix together. This episode had a lot of moving parts in it that came together really beautifully. What was your favorite moment from the Ember Island Players?

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