Man oh man. After serving us chapter after chapter of deep plot and epic story, the show has taken on a very dark yet outstanding feel. The characters are like good friends, the overarching story is very engaging, and the future will bring many untold surprises and great new development. A lot of this is smashed in this episode.
There is a lot of unnecessary silliness permeating this episode, mostly from Aang and Sokka. The beginning especially contains way too much weirdness and exaggermation to fit the serious note this show has taken. The things that irked me the most were the wack sound effects and the stupid music when the gang first enters the city.
Along with this, a lot of the scenes in the Fire Nation school are also too goofy. Although it is very interesting to see some aspects of the Fire Nation and explore the "enemy", it could have done with fewer jokes.
There are three things that redeem this episode and save it from a worse grade. The first one is the same point as above, getting to know the Fire Nation. Up to now, that part of the world was just some hostile place where the bad guys live. But through the introduction of the school children, there is a line of hope and innocence that does the Fire Nation, already rigged with prejudice, good.
The second one is Zuko's side of the story. While the gang is going through happy and zany times, Zuko is becoming darker and darker as time goes by. His slow descend into madness, his relationship with Mai, and his visits to his uncle are not only powerful character development, but are also accompanied with good music. These scenes are very forlorn, and when we first get to see Iroh again, we are brought to ask: Good Lord, Iroh, what have you become?
Thirdly, there is the further development of Aang's and Katara's relationship. I don't want to push any Kataang shipping here, but their dance at the party is very beautiful, both emotionally and artistically, and holds a lot of unspoken messages and feelings. Kataang is not official, but it might be getting there. Only further episodes will tell whether or not this aspect of the show will be enhanced.
The ending is again a lead on for further action. A desperate and unhinged Zuko hires an assassin to hunt and take out Aang. Not only will this create plenty of future conflict, but allow for the two nemeses, if indirectly, to clash once more.
This episode came very close to being a utter disappointment, but narrowly missed that dreaded grade and instead managed to save itself partially. The art and music were mediocre, considering where this show has been, and only by including some hefty bit of character development did the episode garner a better grade than a D (or worse). It has some great parts, but overall, it's almost sub-standard.
After a slightly disappointing season opener, I came into this episode with some measure of trepidation. It was clear to me that the writers were carrying a large burden of plot on their collective backs, and so the season opener was almost entirely exposition in order to bring us up to speed. In my mind, I plotted one of two courses: either this would be an exception, or the new rule of Book Three to squeeze in all the plot necessary. Thankfully, this episode proves The Awakening was indeed an exception.
Many may charge that this is a "filler" episode, but I find the plot advances somewhat. Most notably, the very end of the episode introduces us to a new villain whom the creators have stated will be present throughout the book, in a similar fashion to Book One's Admiral Zhao (one can only hope is voice actor is as brilliant). But beyond that, this episode was very revealing of character. Aang's expressed wish to be a normal child, touched upon in The Storm, is brought to the forefront here with his wish to continue schooling (there is a very funny moment where he presents Sokka with a portrait of Fire Lord Ozai he made with noodles). Shippers will be citing this episode as evidence to their cause for years to come, as there are most definitely some interesting character beats concerning the dynamic of Aang and Katara ("Ignore them. It's just you and me.").
Toph has a disappointingly small role in this episode. She has more dialogue than she did in the last episode, but isn't as integral to the plot. While Sokka and Katara have a very funny scene in which they imitate "Kuzon's" parents, Toph, Appa, and Momo sit back for most of the episode, throwing in the occasional quip (or sound effect) here or there. I hope this will not be the case throughout Book Three, as she has come a long way from her debut and I would enjoy seeing additional character development. I was also disappointed that we were not able to hear Greg Baldwin's rendition of Iroh, but for story purposes it was important for him to remain silent. I sense Iroh as the "character to watch" this season. I believe we will be seeing a lot from him in episodes to come, and I eagerly await what the writers have in store for him.
Finally, I was pleased to catch an insight into how life is in the Fire Nation. The history books in their schools are falsified-Aang's history teacher claims the pacifistic Air Nomads had a standing army. The "rigid discipline" trope is a little expected and overplayed, but I was pleased to see the schoolchildren portrayed as real people and not little monsters in the making. There was one particular student who struck me as a young Zhao, but he was a minor factor and Aang ably took care of him (in a beautifully-animated schoolyard fight that very bluntly showcases the difference in philosophies between the Fire Nation and Air Nomads).
In closing, a strong episode and a much better follow-up to the stellar conclusion of Book Two. The Headband's overall message of being free to express oneself comes across as a little forced in that "Captain Planet" sort of fashion, but we have such a good time getting to that point that it doesn't matter. If the rest of Book Three is anything like this episode, I say bring it on.
Now let's think this over a second, Aang and the Gang have lost Ba-Sing-Se to the hands of Azula and the Fire Nation, Aang was at Death's door, and the Fire Nation now has nearly the entire world in its iron grip. Our heroes, in desperation, have decided to make a last-ditch effort to infiltrate enemy territory incognito to finally stop Ozai once and for all. Now what do you think they do once they get there; plan a strategy, gather up allies, find a Firebending teacher for Aang? No, they decide to throw a dance party. Now to me that plot reminds me of a plot straight out of the filler episodes of Naruto, and that's just terrible.
The biggest problem I'm seeing with Avatar lately is they just don't take things seriously enough, now this isn't really Nick's fault, it's the crew's fault. Why? Because Aang and the Gang are in the heart of enemy territory with Sozin's Comet looming ever closer and they decide to play, it's simply absurd. The Gaang just prance into the Fire Nation with no planning or strategy and just decide to play with a bunch of kids when the Fire Nation is one step closer to complete victory. The only thinking the Gaang made in the entire episode was going incognito, that's it. Now Aang learning things about the Fire Nation through the school was a rather shrewd strategy, which could have amounted to a lot, but Aang doesn't actually seem to us it to his advantage and just goofs off instead.
Also the Gaang besides Aang was completely shafted, not to mention Aang is contradicting his attitude from last episode badly. Sure Aang was always optimistic before but in "The Awakening" you can see him become more cynical and brooding, the exact opposite of his character in "The Headband". This episode just seemed like the crew didn't care about continuity so they can just mess around and throw a bone to the Kataang shippers.
Another problem is this episode was practically pure shipper fluff and nothing more. Zuko's scenes and the introduction of the Assassin, whom may prove to be a very interesting antagonist, are practically the only scenes that were productive. This episode did bring up the idea of how far the Fire Nation's nationalism has gone, but they still made light of it, not really bringing up the fact that Ozai and the government are brain-washing the children into patriotic drones for the regime. Overall, "The Headband" was the kind of an episode we don't really need in the final season and with the addition of the future fan-service heavy episode, "The Beach", gives Book Three a rather shaky start, hopefully "Sokka's Master" and "The Painted Lady" will prove me wrong.