The second part of Winter Solstice packs a lot of good actions and a healthy dose of (maybe overdue) seriousness. The gang travel to the Avatar temple in the Fire Nation so that Aang can speak to his former incarnation, closely pursued by their nemesis Zuko.
Artistically, this episode is one of the best. The use of hues sets the mood for the different areas visited by the gang. The blue for outside, the red for the temple, and the gold for Aang's meeting with Roku. This very atmospheric coloring is vital in such an action-packed episode, because it tells the viewer in broad strokes, amidst all the action, what is going on, and when the mood relaxes.
This episode includes a face-to-face encounter with all three sides of the season one struggle: Aang and his friends, Zuko, and Zhao. Such happenstances are always a great event, for no matter how much I like the constant scheming and maneuvering, actually seeing all three parties clash is truly exciting. It makes all the enmity between the characters personal, and allows a chance for a stand-off between them. Exchange words, get to know the enemy up close.
Another plus of this episode is also seeing Avatar Roku in person (or as close to that as it gets) for the first time. The message of the comet brings a sense of an underlying story and big plot to the series, ultimately tying all the episodes together in this common goal. It also reveals some information about the past and gives Aang something to work for, removing any fuzziness concerning what must happen.
A few words on Roku himself. His appearance is accompanied with a certain tranquility, and the viewers can instinctively know that he is a 'good guy', albeit being Fire Nation. This character trait brings in a fresh air in terms of perspective. Not all hope is lost, and even the previous Avatar, who was born into the enemy's empire, is indeed Aang's mentor and helper.
The next move of Avatar Roku is plain awesomeness. He says that he'll help Aang defend himself against Zhao, and Aang thusly enters the Avatar State. But when the sanctuary doors open and the firebenders attack the Avatar, it is Roku himself who repels them. A fully realized Avatar facing off against a handful of puny mortals is just the blow Zhao needed, even if only in the eyes of the viewers. The destruction of the fire temple and the resulting punishment of the traitorous fire sages brings a bit of justice into the otherwise cruel war. I guess the Avatar is starting to do his job.
The ending scene is very interesting. The style is very much like anime, with the gang riding on Appa towards a large and bright full moon. Although only the silhouettes of the characters are visible, it is just this lack of detail that brings out the true emotion of the scene: that Aang's friends are there to help him. They've made it into the Fire Nation, they've made it back out, and they'll stick to Aang, every one of them.
This episode was devoid of many jokes, but it is just what the show needed: focus on the plot (and what a plot it is!), after seven episodes of a more light-hearted feel. The end especially brings down the weight upon the characters' (and maybe even the viewers') shoulders. With a story like this, 'Avatar Roku' was the correct solution to show it to the viewers.
One of the things I love most about this show is the consistent Edgar Allen Poe-esque attention to mood. Perhaps the most obvious way Poe manifests himself in the Avatar is in the use of color to create and sustain a mood. Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice Part 2 is a particularly fantastic example of this usage. Every sequence that takes place in the Fire Temple is made of layer upon layer of shades of red. The rocks are red, both the sea and sky are red from the setting sun, the Temple is red - inside and out, the Fire Sages are dressed in red, there is red magma everywhere, even Sokka, Katara and Aang take on a reddish hue as the episode unfurls. Everywhere your eye rests in the Fire Temple sequences, there is the color red. Red tends translate into a signal of danger, a warning, a conflict, an obstacle. This backdrop of red heightens the tension we are already experienceing as Aang races to get to the Sanctuary before the sun sets. That is, however, not the only source of strife in the episode. We also end up smack in the middle of Zuko's conflict with Zhao, Zhao's conflict with the Avatar, Shyu's conflict with the Fire Sages and the Fire Lord's conflict with, well, everyone.The use of contrasts in color to signal a change in mood becomes readily apparent when Aang and Roku meet in the Spirit World. Suddenly, no more red. Those sequences are done in shades of gold - a welcome respot from the red onslaught of previous scenes. Aang and his past life greet each other in a calm and quiet oasis away from the mayhem ensuing in the Fire Temple. And despite the serious nature of their discussion, both of them manage to exude an air of peace. (I have noticed that those same shades of gold seem to appear frequently in connection with the Spirit World. We saw them again in the Spirit World sequence from the premiere episode of Season 2.)
But perhaps the most brilliant change of color comes at the very end of the episode. Aang/Roku has destroyed the Fire Temple. The volcano on which the temple sat is erupting, the sun is fully setting in a blaze of crimson, the bay, full of Zhao's ships, has turned red. We see Appa flying away from the eruption and destruction, the camera follows him high into the sky. Now, the predominant color is blue.....the early twilight shades of blue that quickly fade into midnight. And, in the background is the bright white full moon. The entire scene is bathed in calm colors, blue and white. Appa is flying ahead, steady as he goes, tail rising and falling rhythmically. And as Aang begins to feel the weight of Roku's revelations, Katara, Sokka and Momo gather around him to give him support and keep him safe. I could feel an almost audible sigh of relief and release rising as I watched the very peaceful end to an other wise conflict driven, fraught with obstacles, tense episode. Perhaps, just perhaps, were he around today, the author of The Raven and The Pit and the Pendulum would tip his hat to the creators of Avatar.