This episode is one I have been expecting in some form or another for a long time, yet it did not fail to dazzle me.
Though the episode gives a little "Gaang" development (and some physical development on Iroh's part), the focus of this episode is clearly Sokka. The premise is simple enough: Sokka experiences a loss of confidence from his inability to bend, and seeks out a master who can help build him back up. The episode is triggered by a personal growth on Sokka's part; he is no longer in denial about his jealousy of bending which was set up in the very first episode of the series when Sokka criticizes Katara for using her "magic." The realization of this inferiority complex is set up quite nicely through the first scene of the episode, which builds Sokka's helplessness. This episode portrays a side of Sokka we have not yet seen, hidden behind the sarcasm.
Piandao was a great choice of teacher to fill this void in Sokka. His artistic and ultimately open-minded persona was perfect to teach the lesson that creativity ultimately is more important than skill. He is able to show Sokka (and the viewer) that his uniqueness and imagination are his key strengths. This was done very well through the comedic training montage, and the brilliantly choreographed fight scene. Even Sokka's choice of sword material (an extension of himself) gets across this message; the meteorite mirrors his personality well because like the meteorite, he is not bound to this world's conceptions. He is, so to speak, made of an otherworldly material.
As Sokka is the center of character development, the role of the rest of the Gaang seems to be mostly comic relief, a role they are generally successful at, ironically through their failure to be funny. There is a bit of relationship growth as well, for example in their realization that they need Sokka perhaps more than they initially realize. Toph's development is portrayed through her complete support of Sokka when he feels down about his inability to bend, when she once chided this deficiency in season two's "The Chase."
The major themes of this episode might seem at first clichÃ©: that creativity trumps skill, humility is a virtue, and hard work pays off. However, these morals are given so subtly and pictorially, rather than voiced outright, that the episode never felt corny or preachy (unlike "The Painted Lady"). The last of these morals also plays into the cohesiveness of this episode as it ties in Sokka's development with the Uncle Iroh's development.
The Iroh piece is key in opening up future plot. For example, it opens the question of what sort of realization he comes to just before he begins training when his eyes widen. The White Lotus Society (through the White Lotus tile gift and a few more subtle parallels) is also reopened as another future plot piece. I was very impressed by the creators' decision to bring it back up, as prior to this episode, I had simply assumed the Society's only role was a device to get Iroh and Zuko into Ba Sing Se. This episode again stresses the connection of the White Lotus Society to the importance of knowledge ("knowledge of the arts belongs to us all") and the idea of interracial commonality and connection.
My major criticism of this episode is some confusion and unlikelihood surrounding certain timeframes. For example, I felt Sokka cheered up a little too quickly after his confession of inferiority. Also, Sokka's swordsmanship in fighting the master in the final scene (not to mention his never-before-seen acrobatics) seemed a little much for just two days of training, most of which dealt with the arts. Yet on the other hand, his inexperience is definitely portrayed in the fight as he is on the defensive virtually the whole time and at one point is brought to the point of running away screaming. Finally, there is some ambiguity about how the Uncle Iroh timeline fits into Sokka's timeline as it is virtually impossible to become as ripped as he does within a two day time period. Given the episode's strengths however, I'm willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Overall, I was very pleased with this episode's development after the relatively weak "Painted Lady" and the very light "The Headband." It cohesively managed to put Sokka in well deserved limelight, give major character development, open up new plot paths, and mature key series themes. And of course, it made me laugh.
Finally, after two seasons with great character development, this episode addresses an issue that is long overdue: Sokka's inability to bend while traveling with a group of benders. Very powerful benders at that. While there have been references and jokes made to this fact, this time, it's taken seriously. The end result is a brilliant episode that allows Sokka to outgrow himself.
The episode opens with the gang enjoying a beautiful meteor shower, which quickly turns into them trying to save a town by putting out a big fire. Even though this scene contained a lot of action, I think the true star, as it was meant, is Sokka doing nothing. Indeed, his confession to the gang the next day reveals that he views himself as inferior to the rest of them, and is a very powerful moment in Sokka's character development. I also like how Katara came up to try and comfort him.
Sokka's training period brings out the best in him, in every aspect. We simply get Sokka being himself, a perfect blend of staying serious and doing goofy stuff. Not only are the various different skills that Piandao tries to teach him very interesting, but they are accompanied by very fluid animations and extremely stunning background art. I especially like the waterfall that Sokka has to paint.
Even though this episode is about Sokka, I also liked how the rest of the gang was displayed while he was off training. Their moods are pretty cliché, and a direct consequence of the comments with which they were trying to cheer Sokka up with, but the whole situation is done tastefully. Of course, when Sokka returns, that's when things become silly, even though all the hints of Toph liking Sokka are finally confirmed.
Next to Sokka and the gang, Iroh also makes a prominent appearance in this episode. Most of the scenes are of him training in his cell and fooling the guards. Indeed, he fooled me as well the first time he's shown, but I'm glad to know that Iroh still has his strong will and optimism after how he was portrayed in 'The Headband'. Still, seeing Iroh all buffed up is creepy, it's like he's lost his good-natured self with his belly.
Up to here, this episode would already have been great, but the ending fight serves up a good portion of well animated action, with Sokka being the protagonist, no less. Even though I already had a hunch that Piandao was just testing Sokka with the last fight, it's the fight itself that is the true beauty of this scene. The animation and choreography are stunning, and the many different tactics make this a very awesome battle even without any bending involved.
I kept wondering why the Society of the White Lotus was mentioned in the recap. In the end, Piandao gets revealed to be a member of it, something that completely ran against my predictions. It makes sense, and explains his motivations for teaching Sokka, as well as him knowing about Aang. But I had always thought that the Society would come and rescue Iroh. Guess that'll have to wait.
Overall, this is a very good episode that has some true character development, and allows Sokka to grow up a great deal. Next to the story, the animation and truly breathtaking background art make this episode awesome. The only thing I didn't quite like was Piandao's breathy speaking style. But other than that, "Sokka's Master" really makes the show shine again.