Avatar: Did the Ember Island Players Blow the Gaang’s Biggest Secret?

Just before the epic series finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show found a clever way to recap the events of the last three seasons for its audience: the Ember Island Players, a theater troupe whose performance of a play called "The Boy in the Iceberg" reimagined the series' events with the show's cast as the audience. While the idea was clever from a meta-narrative perspective, it raises some concerns in the context of the story. Just look no further than the way it endangers the town Katara rescued as the Painted Lady.

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In the earlier episode "The Painted Lady," Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph stop in Jang Hui, a fishing village horribly polluted by a local Fire Nation factory producing materials for the war effort. Posing as the Painted Lady, a local spirit, Katara used her powerful waterbending to help the villagers. Realizing that the only way to help them in the long term was to get rid of the factory poisoning the Jang Hui River. Working together, the Gaang led the local Fire Nation officials to believe the spirit of the Painted Lady was driving them out with supernatural force.

Though their plan was successful, it hinged largely on the maintenance of Katara's ruse. Though the village at large is aware of the deception by the end of the episode, as the Gaang move along on their travels the audience is led to believe that the town is left for the better. Though the Fire Nation officials running the factory were prepared to threaten the helpless villagers when they did not know the spirit was present, it was only divine intervention that changed their minds. But the Ember Island Players blew that ruse out of the water.

Aang returns to his seat partway into the third act of "The Boy in the Iceberg" and Sokka fills him in on what he missed. "We went to the Fire Nation, and you got better, and Katara was the Painted Lady, and I got a sword, and I think Combustion Man died." He rattles off the plot points so quickly it's easy to miss the full implications of them, but the Painted Lady revelation is a bombshell. The village of Jang Hui is never seen again after Katara and her friends helped clean the town's river, and the Ember Island Players' advertising their vulnerability likely spells disaster for the town's fate thereafter.

This stands out only as the most salient example of various points throughout the play, which are curious once put into the larger context of the series. Various events, such as Aang's release from the iceberg, the Gaang's confrontation with Azula in "The Chase" and various pieces of "The Day of Black Sun" would have been impossible for the playwright Pu-on Tim to glean without interviewing the series' main cast. And while the crowd cheering Ozai's victory at the play's end seems to indicate their sympathies with Fire Nation propaganda, they cheer similarly at an earlier point in the story when Aang lays waste to Fire Nation forces at the North Pole.

The setup for the episode is clever and it remarkably performs its function of retelling the events of the story to the audience in an interesting way while simultaneously giving the characters a chance to reflect on its events and develop their own arcs. But such inattention to detail stands out when thinking about "Ember Island Players" in the larger context of the Avatar universe.

As that universe expands with Avatar Studios' production of ever more content in the franchise there could well be a need to go back and address such inconsistencies. At the very least there should be justice for Jang Hui, because as is the poor polluted town likely ended up with one of the saddest sendoffs in the series.

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