Seeing Red… and Bending it Too
Today's post is by guest contributor Briana Hedlund. Briana explores the darker side of Katara's character and the role of forgiveness in the Avatar universe.
Sure, Katara might be the spirit of life....but what about death?
Over the past month, Avatar: The Last Airbender rocketed to the top of the Netflix charts. A decade-and-a-half after its release, the series seems to be undergoing a renaissance. Huge audiences, new and old, are more fascinated than ever with this mythic story of a war between four nations.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
Water bending was always my favorite growing up. Water is everywhere - In the earth, the sky, and even the trees.
And, oh yes, it’s also in your blood.
In “The Puppetmaster” episode, Katara is forced to harness an ability she didn’t even wish to possess: The ability to bend human blood. The secret waterbender Hama reveals to Katara that she has learned to control the very water that mingles with human plasma - an ability Hama eventually turns on the members of Team Avatar.
In a desperate attempt to save her friends from Hama, Katara uses the technique against her. Afterwards, Katara swears never to bloodbend again. A solemn promise. One she finds herself unable to keep.
In “The Southern Raiders,” Katara and Zuko set out to track down the man who killed Katara’s mom. Before they leave peace-loving Aang tries to persuade Katara to choose forgiveness rather than vengeance. Zuko calls her intent to murder closure and justice. Aang calls it revenge.
“The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed rat viper,” Aang explains, “while you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.”
Blinded by her rage, however, Katara refuses to listen. She even accuses her brother Sokka of loving their mother less than she did when he refuses to join her. Despite the fact that both siblings suffered immensely after their mother’s death, Katara can only see her own grief. Still not ready to give up on her, however, Aang offers some final advice:
“It’s easy to do nothing, but it’s hard to forgive,” Aang pleads, “…please don’t choose revenge. Let your anger out, and then let it go. Forgive him.”
Zuko and Katara assume their target is on the Southern Raiders ship. Once on board, they quickly find the Southern Raiders commander, the alleged killer. Katara mercilessly blood bends the man’s body to the ground, much to Zuko’s surprise and slight terror. Standing over him in a conqueror’s pose, Katara forces the captain to look up into her eyes. Katara’s eyes glare full of rage, but they soften when she realizes the man is not her mother’s murderer. The would-be revengers have captured the wrong firebender. Katara releases the man from her grip and walks away disheartened.
When Zuko and Katara encounter the real murderer, a retired Southern Raiders commander named Yon Rha, Katara is unable to kill the man. Moved by pity, Katara describes Rha as pathetic, sad, and empty, deeming him unworthy of the effort. Once back at camp, Aang tells Katara he is proud of her for not taking revenge and assumes she forgave him. Katara explains that she didn’t forgive him and that she never will. But she announces that she is ready to forgive Zuko, offering him an embrace to show that she means what she says.
Forgiveness, as Aang describes, is the first step on the path to begin healing. What’s more, this first step is not an easy one to take. Forgiveness, as unnatural as it is, often takes time. And it always takes effort and consistency. Zuko had threatened the survival of Team Avatar for months. It was hard for Katara to trust him, but once she did, Zuko was able to realize his full potential and assist his friends in restoring balance to the kingdoms. And while Katara’s wounded heart would never recover from the loss of her mother, forgiving Zuko enabled her to shed the shackles of grief’s bondage over her life.
Yet this story also contains a warning about uncontrolled emotion’s power to overturn values and shatter promises. Katara broke her promise never to bloodbend again. Her keen waterbending skills alone were enough to overpower the rest of the crew on the Southern Raiders ship. She did not need to use bloodbending in her encounter with the commander, but she used it anyways. In the grips of her single-minded thirst for vengeance, Katara nearly missed the fact that the man she was torturing was not guilty of her mother’s murder. Upon learning this, she did not bother with the man anymore; it was Zuko who pushed an interrogation to find the real murderer. Perhaps in that moment, she realized what she had done. In her rage, she broke her promise and used her power for an attempt at vengeance, for evil.
Why then, does she not utilize bloodbending against Yon Rha? Perhaps she regretted what she had done. Or maybe she didn’t think he was even worth the effort. She showed him her power by stopping the rain in mid-air and nearly killing him with hundreds of icicle shards. But she did not choose to blood bend the second time. Even though Katara did not forgive Yon Rha, she would not allow herself to kill him. It appears that she believed Yon Rha to be defenseless enough in his present state to have pity on.
Pity, though not mercy.
Her rage caused her to compromise her values with the Southern Raider commander, yet with Yon Rha she showed more control. Something reminded her about that piece of herself that was dedicated to using her powers for justice.
If we understand that Katara is closely linked with the experience of living itself, then we can see how her power over blood speaks to our own human experience. We too hold the terrible burden of power. Our words can speak life or speak destruction, shatter promises or bring them to fruition. How we use that power is the burden we, like Katara, bear each day.