Often referred to as "The Breakfast Club" episode, "The Beach" generated more posts in the ASN Episode Discussion forum than any other installment except the season two finale. Why the controversy? Well, the main complaint seems to be that some of the Fire Nation kids felt out of character and that in particular the confession scene on the beach felt contrived - and all for the sake of delivering a whopping, "in your face" load of fan service. While I can see that point of view, I don't share it. I enjoyed this episode and I got some good laughs out of it to boot.
Up until this episode "Ozai's Angels" and Zuko have all been portrayed against the harsh, formal backdrop of a world war, Fire Nation imperial politics, and the pursuit of the Avatar in its various incarnations. "The Beach" departs radically from this backdrop and for the first few minutes I almost felt like I was watching an alternate universe edition of Avatar. Once I got over that, I decided to just enjoy seeing some of my favorite characters in what the creators deliberately told the audience is a very different environment. I found this surprisingly easy to do.
I suppose the main source of my own enjoyment of this episode is Azula's behavior. For some reason the idea of Azula trying to seduce someone just makes me grin. Long before this episode was broadcast I remember talking about this very plot idea with some other ASN staff members. We thought there would be two possibilities, either Azula would be as cool, efficient and successful in her pursuit of a mate as she was in everything else she did, or she'd be a bloody, clueless disaster! We all agreed that the latter would be a hilarious opportunity for all sorts of mayhem, and all of us promised to write fanfiction about it, which, to my knowledge none of us ever did. It's just as well, though, since the writers did better a job than we ever could have with this idea.
The behavior of the other kids in this episode was perhaps harder to cast as "out of character" than Azula's might be. Ty Lee's insecurity, Mai's disgust with her upbringing, and Zuko's self loathing have all been touched upon or demonstrated earlier in the show. I had less interest in the other kids' personal problems, though, precisely because they are run of the mill, boring teenage complaints, unlike Azula's.
The only piece of "The Beach" that I did find cheesy was the rushed and all too articulate recitations of each other's problems around the campfire. For a group of people who have learned the necessity of keeping secrets and hiding weaknesses in order to survive to just suddenly confess their innermost demons (in front of Azula no less) isn't really all that believable. Of course, part of the enjoyment here is knowing that this episode is a bit out of the main continuity. Yes, it's an episode of Avatar, so yes it did happen in the Avatar universe, but, for some reason, I have no problem partitioning this installment from the rest of the series in my mind.
In the end, this episode is a guilty pleasure which I grade more kindly than perhaps I should, probably because I just can't take it too seriously. Of course, the common charge of "gratuitous fanservice" lodged by this episode's numerous detractors must be acknowledged and as such this installment can't be legitimately characterized as much more than eye candy. That said, if you like eye candy, "The Beach" is tough to beat.
Ah yes, the beach: sand, sun, surf... and loads of in-depth character development. If that were the main thing, this episode would be very good. But alas, it is also chock full of fan service, a hint of plot (which is not bad), and so much silliness that it becomes downright awkward to watch. The only time I was able to sit through the episode in its entirety was the very first time I watched it. Afterwards, the quirkiness made me stop every so often just to shake off that feeling of inevitable weirdness that permeates the first part of this episode.
Indeed, if I could, I would rip this episode in half, disregard the first part, and just watch the second part. But that is not what the show has given us, so instead we are treated with some of the strangest moments in 'Avatar' history. The only nice thing about this whole fiasco is that the stars of this episode are Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, as opposed to our usual gang.
Under some random premise, the kids are sent to Ember Island, where they can just be themselves, without titles or people who know them. And indeed, there are wonderful bits and pieces of character revelation, mostly for Azula, spread out over the first part, from her magnificent study of opponents, her competitiveness, and her awkwardness around boys. But things really become interesting after Zuko leaves the party.
If anybody had thought that adding even more depth to Zuko's character was impossible, this episode proves them wrong. We see some great sibling relationship between Zuko and Azula, showing us that they did spend their childhoods together as brother and sister, something that is easily forgotten. And the scene around the campfire was written very masterfully. Even though every character literally tells their life story, it doesn't seem forced or staged, and the action flows very naturally. This all in addition to finally learning more about those four kids.
Looking over at the gang, their appearance in this episode is minor, but still significant. They finally meet up with Combustion Man, and all of us get to see what he is actually about. I find that shooting explosive fire from your forehead to be quite a strange thing that has the ability to seriously break any consistency of the setting by introducing "Superhero" powers. But since his ability is so awesome, and his character so mysterious, it doesn't do much harm as of yet.
The gang also features most of this episode's action, and Aang's battle with Combustion Man includes some very sweet animation. The one part I really like is Aang using airbending to block off an explosive charge, in slow motion. The lack of music only makes the whole scene more intense.
With this all being said, for me, it is near impossible to just give this episode a simple grade. Instead, I will split it into three parts and grade them individually. I will give the gang's portion a B+, everything from Azula's gang in the first half a D-, and the second half an A+. Averaging these out evenly nets this episode a B-. But then again, that's doesn't encompass this episode clearly.
In summary, while being a very weird chapter full of fan service, 'The Beach' also contained loads of character development, maybe not much needed, but much appreciated nonetheless. It is refreshing to see the "bad kids" finally open up to us, and knowing the show, this will carry repercussions, as any minute detail mentioned in the first half of the season will hopefully return to bear importance. Something I can't wait for.