This episode holds a very special place in my heart for several reasons. First, it is yet another Katara episode, and with her being my favorite character, I can only approve. Second, we finally learn more about the Southern Water Tribe. Since a scene from the very first episode appears in the recap, it's nice to see the setting come together. And, waterbending is finally made more versatile and powerful. But most important of all, to me, this is the episode with which 'Avatar' finally grows up.
During the course of the episode, various elements are combined for great effect. There are the ghost stories in the beginning, the enigmatic nature of the town and, especially, Hama, Katara's emotional bond to the waterbender, and the violent history of the Southern Water Tribe. It's all about misdirection, dropping hints, and powerful revelations. But this episode contains so much more.
A big part of this episode is the history of the Southern Water Tribe, not long after the war began, when it was first attacked. While probably not crucial to the story as a whole, it's always nice to find out more about the wonderfully crafted setting, and to see that the Southern Tribe was not a dinky little village the whole time. Along with that, we also, and finally, get to see the long lost Southern waterbenders. Ever since waterbending lost its significance and urgency at the start of season two, there has been very little mention of it. And because of the show's setting, there are seldom opportunities to demonstrate a great deal of waterbending. Which is why Katara's and Hama's fight is a truly spectacular display of it, especially with the newly introduced techniques.
The relationship of those two characters as a whole is a very interesting deal on its own. It is a very unique form of bonding that can't be found between any of the other characters in the show. And Hama herself is a wonderfully designed character. When she first appears, she seems to be a nice old lady, but there is already a certain sense of foreboding connected to her. To be honest, I had suspected her to be the one who makes people disappear right when Sokka opened that puppet cabinet, but that didn't stop the impact this revelation had, because of what else is revealed along with it.
I'll start by talking about the whole waterbending issue. I have to admit, when Hama said that she'd teach Katara the Southern Tradition, I was expecting new moves, unique techniques, things that make Southern bending different from Northern bending. That didn't happen, but instead waterbending was taken to a whole new level of awesomeness, and it confirmed so many speculations about what waterbending should be able to do at once: Draw water out of thin air, use the water inside plants, cut rocks with water, and what not. The only thing missing was the ultimate, most hopeful, but also most outrageous technique: Bloodbending. When that little word was uttered, my heart rate must have doubled.
Put together, this episode is a real treat, and bending itself, an essential part of the setting, becomes much more mature, suddenly making the entire show more serious and tense. The comedic parts were kept to a minimum, which keeps the tone intact. However, even after such a wonderful storyline, 'The Puppetmaster' remains a horror episode, and no horror story is complete without a creepy ending that brings back that feeling of inevitable despair, that feeling that things have gone so very wrong, and a confirmation is just waiting to burst out. And indeed, when Hama congratulates Katara on becoming a bloodbender, I stared at the screen in pure amazement. And when the screen faded to the credits, I was reeling in my chair and hyperventilating. Any episode of a kids' show that can do this to me deserves an A+.
The Puppetmaster is the darkest episode in the series yet. The main purpose of this episode is to use horror-movie motifs to instill in the minds of the audience the perversion of 'bloodbending'. This could conceivably be a response to the various fan discussions related to gory bending moves (like drawing the air out of the enemy's lungs, or evaporating all water in the enemy's body). The only reason for the low grade is the lack of development of the main plot. Everything else - characterization, setting, mood, themes, music - is topnotch.
The horror-movie motifs occur throughout the show, starting with the opening scene where the setting (thick forest under moonlight), music and Katara's story about Nini, establish the mood. The tension rises with Toph's comment on "people screaming under the mountain" and climaxes with the appearance of Hama. Thus, from the beginning, one can tell that Hama's presence does not bode well.
There are other elements that also foreshadow the later events and raise suspicion about Hama: the puppets, the ice nails and her unflinching destruction of the fire lilies.
Hama herself is another one of Avatar's finely crafted characters. Like most other characters, Hama is very real. In her, more than in any other character in the series, we see how circumstances can drive a good person to take morally repugnant actions. In the beginning she was a hero to her people. There are even parallels drawn between Hama and Aang: "the last waterbender [of the southern tribe]" and the capture scene when she climbs aboard the Fire navy ship surrounded by Fire nation troops just like Aang. However, unlike Aang, her friends do not come to rescue her and as the time passes, her morality gets convoluted in isolation. This is indicated by the music and we can hear a disharmony when she starts waterbending the rats. It is such characterization that distinguishes Avatar from other shows because it is very hard to find such a 3 dimensionality in a single episode character.
Because of the seriousness of the episode's theme and the dark mood, there is not much humor in the story although most fans probably appreciate Sokka's outburst on the 'lunar goodness' of the moon spirit.
The full moon, of course, is a well-known horror cliche but the writers play with this to show that the moon itself does not imply wickedness. Both Katara and Hama can channel its power but it is their purpose in channeling the power that defines who they are.
In many horror movies, the rising of the sun after a long dark night signifies the coming of hope. In this episode, however, Hama succeeds in teaching Katara 'bloodbending' and thus that form of wickedness lives on through Katara. Therefore, the final scene is still dark night, with our despondent protagonists surrounding a crying Katara and Hama laughing maniacally.
The ending ensures in the audiences' mind that bloodbending (and other gory bending moves) are NOT cool. Bending is a way to interact with nature and is a physical manifestation of different human behavior (as Iroh explains in "Bitter Work"). It would take someone with a really twisted morality like Hama to use their bending solely for controlling or killing others. It is even more disturbing to think of what this bodes for the future. The fans can only hope that just like Katara is able to control her own body against Hama, she is also able to control her will and never be tempted to use this power again. But if push comes to shove, who can tell?