The tension in the room was stronger than in the courtroom as the jury files back in to read the verdict. It was a small room with one door and no windows, empty except for a computer and printer, a coffee pot, and two men sitting at a round table overflowing with papers; most were letters (as many unopened as were opened), some were printouts from certain websites they had been secretly consulting for weeks, and on top was a book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and two yellow legal notepads, the first pages conspicuously blank.
One of the men stood up and began pacing as his partner leaned back and stuck his pen behind his ear. “What are we gonna do, Mike?” Bryan asked as he walked past the other artist. “We put the best of everything into the first season finale: tragic love, trip to the underworld, crazy amazing spirit attack, a heroic victory against all odds...”
Mike interrupted him with, “Yeah, and everyone loved it. They’re bound to love the next finale, too."
Bryan stopped across the table and turned to face his partner. “But how are we supposed to top all that? Do we want ‘The Siege of Ba Sing Se,’ where we just rewrite the first season finale with thwarting Azula’s attack on the Earth Kingdom capital instead of thwarting Zhao’s attack on the North Pole?”
Mike quickly answered, “Definitely not. We know that’s the one thing we can’t do. We want this finale to be bigger, more intense, more everything than the first. We don’t want to lose the ‘Wow!’ factor.”
“Which means we’ve gotta do something new, unpredictable, something they’ll never forget,” Bryan said as he seated himself before his notepad again and took up his pen. “But what?”
“We just need a lot of tension and a good twist at the end,” Mike said matter-of-factly.
Bryan shook his head.” We try to build up to a dramatic twist, I guarantee it’ll blow up in our faces. We want ‘unpredictable.’ “ He sighed and continued, “That’s the problem. A surprise death, a new power, someone coming back from the dead, bad guy- or even good guy- switching sides- they’re all ‘twists,’ but they’ve all been done before. Do you realize that every twist we could think of, everybody’s expecting?”
“Except for... what is it, ‘Zutara’? That’s the one twist everybody would expect that we’d never have thought of,” Mike said with a laugh.
“As great a shout out as some dragon and rose entendres would be to our friends at Disney,” said Bryan, “we can’t just retcon in two episodes all the romance between Aang and Katara.”
“I know, but you’ve gotta admit, it would sure get people to watch,” Mike responded.
“Well,” Bryan said thoughtfully, “we could still use Zutara to get their fans to watch.”
“Do I sense a misleading trailer coming on?” Mike said with a cruel smile.
“You do,” Bryan assured him. “We’ll lock them in a room somewhere, say they share some time, mention their mothers...” In response to Mike’s weird look, he suddenly added, “It’s the only thing they have in common... anyway, just show them interacting. It doesn’t matter what we have them doing, you know they’ll jump on it.”
“I can see the forum posts now,” Mike said, taking notes. “EXTRA EXTRA: Zutara now canon!”
“Psyche!” the partners finished together.
“So, anything else we’re absolutely not going to do?” Mike said next.
“Well, since we don’t want to just repeat the first finale, let’s not have an army invade Ba Sing Se. We’ll get Azula into the city some other way,” Bryan decided as he wrote. “Just think ‘unpredictable.’ ”
“I wouldn’t predict Zuko joining the Aang Gang. Hey, why didn’t we come up with a team name like that?” Mike added offhandedly at the end.
“No,” Bryan agreed, ignoring the comment and focusing on a major problem, “but everyone else is.”
Mike finally said what had to be said. “It’s what everyone wants. You know, it could lead to some great possibilities...”
“I don’t care,” Bryan insisted. “Can you imagine Zuko as a good guy... smiling, talking, socializing, enjoying life... it’s just not him. I can’t even bear to picture a mellowed-good-guy Zuko.”
“So, let’s show them our point,” Mike suggested.
“What do you mean?” Bryan asked.
“We show them in the first episode what Zuko would act like as a good guy. Think, what Iroh would have been as a teenager.”
Bryan shuddered at the thought. “I just told you, that would look so wrong...”
“Exactly,” Mike agreed.
Bryan finally understood what he was getting at. “Of course! We show them an outspoken, happy, perky, chipper Zuko, and after five minutes, it’ll be so painful, they’ll be begging for the old angry, angsty, silent, confused warrior prince back.”
“No one will ever want to see Zuko like this again,” Mike said confidently.
“We should do just the opposite of what everyone’s pushing for and end it once and for all,” Bryan said next. “Zuko hasn’t been with the enemy- the Fire Nation- for all of Season 2. Now, if he joined that side at the last minute... nobody would see that coming.”
“Sounds a lot like Anakin Skywalker... crossing over to the dark side...” Mike mused.
“Well, his father is Luke Skywalker,” Bryan admitted. “We can’t fight Star Wars parallels anyway.”
“But, the on-the-fence anti-hero siding with the villains?” Mike said skeptically. “Joining the good guys, you can do that. Good guys joining the bad guys, you can even do that. But...”
“It wouldn’t be out of character,” Bryan persuaded. “Not if he doesn’t enjoy it and still remains more confused and headstrong than malicious.”
“But The Storm, The Blue Spirit, Zuko Alone, the painful metamorphosis we’re giving him in The Earth King,” Mike listed, “You have to admit, all the evidence has been in favor of Zuko joining the good guys, if he chooses a side at all.”
“Exactly. If we tried to build that up as the twist, everyone would be ready for it, meaning no twist at all. But Zuko joining the Fire Nation, on good terms, no one would ever see it coming. Unpredictable!” Bryan finished.
“Even though it defies every outcome we’ve seen in such cases before,” Mike replied, “I can’t think of a better ending to maximize the ‘Wow!’ factor. We’ll probably be the first show to ever have an antagonist main character join the antagonists again.”
Bryan thought about that as Mike took notes, when a great idea came over him. “That’s it!”
“What’s what?” Mike asked, looking up.
“What you just said about defying everything that’s been done before. That’s what we should do: break every possible trope, every tradition, every well-known plot device that we can.”
“Now that would be fun to write,” Mike laughed, not taking him seriously.
“Seriously, you couldn’t get any more unpredictable,” Bryan said more calmly. “It would blow kids out of the water. Sites will jam, sleep will be lost... why didn’t we think of this before? Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?"
“If someone had done it before, you wouldn’t want to do it,” Mike reminded him.
“Exactly,” Bryan replied. “We’ve been trying to think of what hasn’t been done. Let’s think of what has been done, and then do the opposite.”
“It’s so crazy, it could either work or... mean the death of the fandom as we know it,” Mike said before taking a deep breath. After a moment of quiet as both men braced themselves for the risk they were about to take, Mike propped his pen point against the paper and said, “So, we make a list of every rule in television and animation and fantasy, and break them all.”
Bryan got up and began walking and rubbing his hands together as he dictated. “So, we already decided Aang would get training to master the Avatar State. As the hero, the rule is he would succeed.”
“We’ll have him not,” Mike said, writing.
“We also already decided he would have to face the issue of how his love for Katara always pulls him back out of the Avatar State,” Bryan continued. “As the hero who has to choose between love and duty, the rule is he would selflessly decide his duty is more important than his feelings and nobly let go of his love both to protect her and do his job."
“Let’s have him choose love,” Mike wrote next.
“Toph’s still the new member of the team,” Bryan said when he saw he’d finished. “The rule for all shows with teams is the power of friendship saves everybody.”
“Let’s put her in some situation where she has to rely on herself and save herself,” said Mike. “No rescue by friends.”
“Like we did in the first season finale, as a rule, big finishes contain massive, violent, extensive battles with armies of nameless soldiers on either side...” Bryan began.
Mike finished, “So let’s leave the armies out of it. A few Dai Lee to make the threat, uh, threatening, but let’s keep the battles one-on-one and personal. Main characters only.”
“That’s gonna make the issue of death hard,” mentioned Bryan. “As a rule, main characters don’t die; nameless soldiers or recently minor characters do.”
“Let’s kill a main character,” said Mike. “Sokka, right?” Bryan stared at him as if he he had an extra foot growing out of his nose. “What? Remember when we decided to make him the fall guy?”
“Death’s a little more long-term than getting trapped in a tunnel with hippies and attacked by a swamp... and paralyzed by an assassin with a crush on you... and stuck in a hole... for an entire episode...” Bryan trailed off and finally said, “Maybe we pick on Sokka too much.”
“So, in the spirit of breaking rules, let’s show him some mercy,” Mike offered.
“Reunite him with his dad,” Bryan decided. “That’s got to be the best thing that could happen to him right now."
“That still doesn’t solve our ‘Who should die?’ problem,” said Mike. “But a season finale with no deaths would be a bit of a let down.”
“Remember, we’re breaking as many traditions as possible,” Bryan said, considering the best way to handle this. “Heroes never die.”
“Kind of hard to have a third season of Avatar without an Avatar,” Mike reminded his friend.
“Come on, like death ever meant the end for a character. Just ask Jason Todd. Just ask Avatar Roku,” Bryan said smiling.
“Coming back from the dead’s a stretch,” Mike thought out loud. “Spending the rest of the show’s run as a ghost would be limiting. We could do an almost-dead situation.”
“Yeah,” Bryan agreed. “Kill him or almost-but-looks-as-bad-as-the-real-thing, then save him at the last minute. But that’s been done... a lot...”
“Not if we wait long enough before reviving him to make people worry,” Mike proposed.
“It’ll be dramatic, unforgettable...” Bryan pondered. “Let’s try it. Now, this is a kid’s show, so the rule is: never say or show death, but if you must, keep it clean.”
“So, naturally, we’ll make it graphic,” Mike rightly guessed. “Bloody?”
“Nah, lightning shooting a hole in his back would be graphic enough for me,” Bryan advised. “Moving on. Now, we need to get Katara and Zuko together for the preview. The rule is all enemies need is a few moments to pour their hearts out, and BANG! they become best buddies.”
“We’ll include a vicious, hard core fight scene just to let everyone know they’re still enemies,” Mike wrote and underlined for importance.
“Now, we’ve got two enemy forces: Long Feng and the Dai Lee, and Ozai’s Angels.”
“We have been reading too many fan site posts,” Mike warned him, before Bryan continued, “The rule is they would team up to take down the hero.”
“Azula would never offer someone her alliance anyway, unless she was lying,” said Mike.
“So let’s have a false team up: Azula plays Long Feng,” said Bryan. “Even Aang and the others will think they’re working together.”
“Got it.” Mike finally put his pen down. “I don’t think there’s another custom we can defy.”
“We haven’t even addressed the biggest one yet,” said Bryan, taking his seat. “The most important rule of all: the good guys always win.”
“Are you suggesting the bad guys win in the end? Of a season finale?” Mike asked, stunned.
“Hey, it’s unpredictable,” was all Bryan said.
“Is there such a thing as ‘too unpredictable?’ ” responded Mike.
“Not in this finale,” Bryan answered.
“Bad guys win. Hope lost. World doomed,” Mike listed out loud as he wrote. “So noted. This is gonna blow everyone away, no matter what they ship, no matter which characters they like, whether they like the magic or action more. We don’t want everyone to like it, we just want it to get everyone to that catharsis of emotion and leave them feeling breathless at the end and begging for more. This’ll do it.”
“So what are we waiting for?” Bryan said, jumping up and heading for the door. “Let’s call the staff and get started.”
Mike joined him. “Yeah, let’s break some rules!”