Darius is a former high school literary and feature writer that loves reading books, listening to music, and watching movies.
You've got to keep an open mind, Katara. There's water in places you never think about.
— Hama to Katara, The Puppetmaster, ATLA
A Master of Water and Puppets
Perhaps one of the most intriguing, daunting, tragic, and often overlooked episodes of Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series was its Book Three: Fire, Episode 8 named "The Puppetmaster." It was initially released on November 9, 2007, as a Halloween Special episode. It became one of the most memorable episodes in the whole span of the animated series.
In this episode, we've uncovered a new, specialized technique for waterbending called bloodbending. Special techniques in the four base element bending had always been prevalent in the series: the power of flight, lightness, and levitation for airbenders, metalbending for earthbenders, and lightningbending for firebenders. And if you haven't got any idea of what bending an element means, it's basically an elemental magic system in the series that makes an individual control, or "bend," a certain element. These elements are notably air, water, earth, and fire.
We've also met a mysterious, tragic, and perhaps one of the most memorable side characters in the series named Hama. Hama is a Southern Water Tribe waterbender residing (or hiding) in a Fire Nation village. She believed that she was the only waterbender that is alive until she met Katara, a Southern Water Tribe waterbender and the main character of the series.
This is a deep dive into the episode, it addition to an overarching plot, how it affected our main characters, and theories about anything related.
Into the Rabbit Hole of the Episode
The episode begins with Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph sitting around a campfire on the outskirts of a Fire Nation village, within a forest, all while telling campfire scary stories. Their scary storytelling spearheads the episode's overall tone of being ominous and creepy. This was made worst Toph suddenly heard "screams coming from under mountains" and when a mysterious woman suddenly shows up asks if they would be her company.
The episode went on to introducing her as Hama and as a Southern Water Tribe waterbender in plain hiding within a Fire Nation village. She an old, frail, and seemingly one of the weirdest side characters our main characters have ever met throughout the series. We then learn that Hama is also a master in waterbending and a master in a new specialized waterbending technique called bloodblending, the ability to control someone against their will only during a full moon.
As Hama put Katara under her wing as her student while the rest of the gang went on a side quest-ish mission to solve the mystery of the disappearances of people during, coincidentally, a full moon within the village. We would then realize the episode's twist by having Hama as the captor of innocent Fire Nation civilians, hiding them under a hidden mountain on the far outskirts of the village.
Katara and Hama battled due to their differences in moral standpoints and points of view as the episode ends with Katara forcing herself to learn how to bloodbend.
At the beginning of the series, it was implied that the hundred-year war was started by the Fire Nation. They imperialized most nations in the Avatar world and committed atrocities along the way, with one notable crime is their genocide of the Air Nomads due to the Avatar being born in the nation (which was Aang, the last airbender). They were framed as a nation that has an extreme ideology of ruling and changing the world as they see fit, conquering massive chunks of lands, territories, and people that they do not own in the first place. But as we follow our main characters in their journey, we would then realize that little pockets within victim nations and some of their people would carry this disease from the war. The disease I'm talking about is taking an ideology to an extreme, typically a severe hunger for vengeance instead of justice. One example is the political and militarized control within the Earth Kingdom and their continuous propaganda that there was no war happening outside their borders. Another example is the conventionally authoritarian and conservative methods of the Northern Water Tribe; people like Jet (a nonbender revolutionary) who has a severe hatred for all firebenders to the point that he would kill one, and Hama who has a more benevolent and insidious way of dealing with one.
Now, these are the results of war inflicted by the Fire Nation. The Fire Nation themselves are also responsible for other horrific things, inside and outside their nation. The nation as a collective whole is not far off from being the criminals they are. Although, several firebenders who saw their horrors revolted and denounced their horrific ways and tried their best to never adhere to their nation's extreme ideologies. Some of these firebenders were Jeong Jeong (from Book 1, a member of the White Lotus), Pian Dao (from Book 3, a nonbender from the Fire Nation and Sokka's blade master, also a member of the White Lotus), Iroh, and, probably the most notable, Zuko.
Hama is a product of one of their crimes. The Fire Nation, namely the Southern Raiders, raided and kidnapped most waterbenders (and only the waterbenders) from the Southern Water Tribe. And, as to her words, Hama was one of them that happened around more than 60 years ago from her age. They tried to fight the intermittent and recurring raids until no more waterbender was left (all were taken by the raiders) within the Southern Water Tribe. She escaped by unlocking, in her own words, a "Southern Tradition" or a specialized waterbending technique of controlling the water within a living being's body called bloodbending.
Bloodbending can be an allegory to nonconsensual rape from a writing standpoint since it is a means of controlling someone or making them suffer, against their will. It forces someone controlled by bloodbending to do unimaginable and horrific things, the reason why the practice was criminalized during an in-between timeline from the first and second series (Legend of Korra). Bloodending can also be an allegory to people who are power-hungry and are addicted to it, the thought of absolute control and power without any way to revolt. If you would compare it in real life, it would be a thing in the Geneva Conventions (four treaties, and three additional protocols, that establish international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war).
Why Was the Fire Nation Capturing Waterbenders?
In Hama's flashback, it was theorized that she once knew Katara's mother (during her capture). This time, the knowledge of bloodbending didn't actually come into form until Hama escaped from one of the raiders' ships. Katara would often recount the memories of her and her mother during a specific Fire Nation raid, and that the soldiers had "gathered intel that there was a remaining waterbender" in the Southern Water Tribe. This lead to Katara's mother's apparent death in the hands of a general, to whom he believed that she was the last remaining waterbender from the tribe (when Katara's mother lied to the soldier that it was her that they were looking for).
Let us tie the knots for a second. First and foremost, this happened during the hundred-year war of the series. These things happen in war.
The Southern Water Tribe was established because they prefer to separate from the mother tribe, the Northern Water Tribe, before the hundred-year war. During the war, waterbenders are seen as a prioritized threat to the Fire Nation's imperialism due to their elements being the total opposites. A masterful waterbender could wipe out entire armies of firebenders if given the necessary water sources. This could be another reason why they took so long in almost conquering the Nothern Water Tribe since it's a vast nation filled with skilled waterbenders. The threat was severely heightened when a Southern Water Tribe waterbender escaped from a high-level prison of a ship by "controlling people" against their will. The hypothesis is that the captured waterbenders were not only imprisoned from then on but also tortured or killed due to the fear of bloodbending especially if they came from the Southern Water Tribe (in the series' lore, only Southerners can unlock the power of bloodbending).
And I hope you're putting two-in-two together in this theory of why the Fire Nation was so adamant in capturing waterbenders, and probably killing those from the Southern Water Tribe. If they could commit genocide towards the Air Nomads, they could also almost commit genocide on any bending nations.
Character Motivations and Analysis
Hama's method of capturing and imprisonment of innocent Fire Nation civilians, those who had no business or correlation to the ones that actually raided the Southern Water Tribe, was fueled by an intense and extreme case of isolation and hunger for revenge. Her primordial motivations to use bloodbend and kidnap civilians and left them to die while imprisoned, was a product of years of benevolent hostility towards those that had wronged her. Even though she could've gone back to the Southern Water Tribe during her escape, she intended to stay in a Fire Nation village and do her horrifying deeds towards innocent civilians.
What made it worse is that she was introduced as a seemingly old woman from the tribe with waterbending powers. She took Katara under her wings and taught her how to manipulate the environment under her will, notably by bending water out of virtually nothing. And then Hama tried to teach her the ways of bloodbending, of which Katara refused until she was forced to learn it (due to Hama controlling Sokka and Aang and almost killing them both).
Hama's motivations are justifiable under her own twisted perspective due to the years of isolation and trauma she faced under the oppression of the Fire Nation. She learned to use her powers in an extreme, dark way that made her nothing better than the ones she calls her criminals. Her tragic fate leads her to this way, a path of no return, and a path she chose to thread. A path that is seemingly in contrast to those of our main characters' ideals and morals, especially Katara.
Katara, having a joyful and always grounded in morals, always viewed waterbending more positively and progressively. Her views on her people were continually challenged by the same people she was taught to love and protect. Hama, a pivotal antagonist of the episode, created such a rift in her moral standpoints that she finally accepted that some of her people have decided to succumb to their dark sides. And now, she even learned to bloodbend and even used it during her conquest of finding her mother's killer. The difference between them is that Hama chose violence and vengeance and used her powers for purely evil purposes because of the scars inflicted by her pas. Katara accepted what had happened in the past despite having a hard and tumultuous background, and decided that revenge would never answer to anything but creating another monster.
You're not the only one who draws power from the moon.
— Katara to Hama
The Puppetmaster recounted and reinstated details that had never been told in other episodes despite being a Halloween Special episode. It showed how a well-written character would move the main character in a certain direction. It showed various depictions of where their plots and subplots would lead depending on their decisions. It showed the moral ambiguities of war and the complicated complexities of being an individual in a war-torn, conflict-driven environment. And it was probably one of those episodes that kept young people awake at night, an episode worth returning to due to its memorable storyline, and an episode worth thinking about due to its addition to the show's lore. I have made a series review of the show a while back and episodes like this prove to be one of the best-animated series out there.
Book One focuses on the worldbuilding aspect and the effects of the hundred-year war, all the while instigating the beginning the overarching plots of the main characters. Book Two focuses on the political and social corruption within the Earth Kingdom and the critical decisions that has to be made and its effects all the while still implying the heavy burdens of the results of war. Book Three focuses the within the Fire Nation, its indoctrination of its citizens, the humanization of the so-called "enemies," and of course titular climax and ending of the series.
If you haven't yet watched or finished the whole series, I implore you to do so right now.
© 2021 Darius Razzle Paciente