As the second season of Legend of Korra is slated to appear soon (I will do a later post on why that series has the potential to be better than the first later), I thought that I would go back and talk about the series that started it all. Avatar: The Last Airbender was an amazing series. It was a show that the young and the old could enjoy. It had amazing characters. The heroes were all likeable, the villains were all intriguing and often sympathetic and the side-characters always had a TON of personality. The setting for the series was fresh and different, which was a nice touch in a TV climate that is swamped with mediocrity. This was a show that was ahead of its time, teaching good lessons but also being a great character study. It was American anime at its finest. And I thought that I would give you my top 10 favorite episodes. Now, there are some two-part episodes on here, but I count them as one since they follow the same arc. With that said, here we go.
10. The Ember Island Players
I love this episode because it does something that few shows or movies do – it makes fun of itself. It is a feel-good episode looking back across the entire series and giving a comedic outlook on all of the characters. It points out Aang being in touch with his feminine side, Sokka being kind of an idiot, Toph being a complete thug and Katara being a preachy crybaby. But it isn’t mean-spirited about it. It plays it like a comedic roast, which is hilarious. It also looks at the villains in a pretty funny way too. It points out how Zuko has a habit of being over-dramatic and self-centered, and Iroh can sound like a buffoon, even though there is wisdom beneath it. It gives a lot of respect to the characters that it portrays and it is fun to watch. As the episode before the last episodes, it is a nice way to wrap things up. But it isn’t all comedic. They do have some character moments, like Aang and Katara confronting their feelings but having no resolution, and Toph and Zuko reaching an understanding about his uncle, at a time when Zuko is worried that his uncle hates him. All-in-all, this was a nice feel-good episode that made you all warm and fuzzy.
9. Zuko Alone
Zuko was probably the most developed character in the series. He was an awesome villain. Instead of him just being evil, you find out that his chasing the Avatar is because of some very powerful forces at work inside of him, trying to find peace. This episode encapsulated it perfectly. Zuko leaves his uncle to go off on his own, trying to find his own place in the world. Trying to come to terms with how his life has changed. He meets up with some kind farmers in a small village. But this village is being run by a detachment of the Earth Kingdom military who are nothing but thugs, using their power to lord over the people of that town. When a young boy that Zuko befriends is taken by the military as punishment for Zuko’s behavior, he goes after them. This episode gave a lot of insight into the forces at work within Zuko, along with some interesting back-story about his mother and how close the two of them were. You see how ugly his history was and how conflicted he is now. This was a quiet episode that kept things very tight, which was a nice change of place. And how Zuko stands tall against the thugs and defends who he is is a nice touch too.
8. Sokka’s Master
Of all the characters in the series, Sokka is another that I think is the most developed. Sure, he has his comedic idiot moments, but there are also some powerful forces at work within him as well. He was the last man of the southern water tribe. His father is fighting in a war that he wants to be a part of. Now, he is teamed up with the Avatar, his powerful water-bending sister and probably the greatest earth-bender who has ever lived. He finally confronts how useless he feels in this episode, by trying to find a teacher who can guide him. He finds a sword master in the Fire Nation and asks him to train him. When the teacher says that Sokka will have to impress him, it is kind of cool that he has a genuine serious moment saying that he doesn’t think he can. He confronts how useless he feels. The teacher respects this and offers to train him. It is a nice episode to see how devoted Sokka becomes, while keeping his comedic edge in some of the lessons. And there is a nice little twist at the end about who Sokka’s master actually is, which comes back later. Nice way to set things up for the future.
7. The Southern Raiders
Probably my least-favorite character in this series is Katara. She’s whiny, she’s preachy and she is CONSTANTLY telling everyone want to do, because she knows best. But this episode let you see some of the darker forces at work within her as well. She was there when her mother got taken away. She always blamed herself for what happened. It didn’t make things better when an old witch told her what became of her mother in prison. But when Zuko approaches her, wanting to know what bug crawled up her ass about him, he finds out the story about how her mother got taken. And he knows who took her. So, him and her go off on to find the person who led the attack on her home and bring him to justice. This is an awesome episode because it not only shows that Katara can be REALLY violent when she wants to be, but you get to see her and Zuko bonding over the experience. The final showdown with the commander of the Southern Raiders is nothing short of nail-bitingly intense. But the resolution it comes to feels natural.
6. The Desert
One of the few characters who you ever see get anything approaching angry is Aang. He always has this upbeat attitude that can sometimes be annoying. But this episode looks at him when he is at his most desperate. His oldest companion who has been with him since the very beginning, Appa, has been taken away. Aang is scared, angry and desperate to find him. Seeing how much this affects him is more than a little sad-making. You can feel his grief at the loss of a friend and a pet. A companion who was always loyal and always tried to help. My favorite parts of this episode were when the wasp takes Momo, and you see Aang air-bend a blade that cuts the creature’s head off. The rage in his eyes is beyond intense. Then, there is the part with the sand-benders who stole Appa. He immediately goes into a rage-filled Avatar-state, destroying their boats and very likely about to destroy them as well. How Katara goes over and embraces him, not saying anything to him, when he is at his most angry is a powerful moment. And one of the few times I liked her character. There was also this awesome comedic side-plot of Sokka drinking the juice from a cactus and it making him high as a kite. I don’t know if that was a “don’t do drugs” metaphor, but even if it was, it’s still funny.
5. The Blue Spirit
One thing about Zuko that most people ignore is that he isn’t just a powerful fire-bender. He is also quite the swordsman. This episode brought his skills to bear when he disguises himself as the Blue Spirit, in order to get Aang away from Admiral Zhao, who would take him to the Fire Nation and doom Zuko’s chance to go home. While this episode not only has some cool action sequences, it also has some interesting subtle moments. The fact that Zuko will attack his own people to get what he wants is interesting. Seeing him becoming desperate as well is a nice touch. But the best part, for me, is when he is injured and Aang rescues him. He wakes up to see Aang with him, looking after him, and there is an interesting one-sided conversation where Aang tells him some of his back-story, wishing that they didn’t have to be enemies. It is a small moment when you see that Zuko isn’t just evil. But the action sequences in this episode were awesome. Some of the best, without a doubt.
4. The Avatar and the Firelord
This episode was great for a whole lot of reasons. The first is that it finally gives some back-story into what happened between Avatar Roku and Firelord Sozin. Seeing how they were the best of friends, but grew apart due to irreconcilable differences is an interesting look. Then, years later, after having left things in such a bad way, when his friend is in trouble, Sozin comes back. He comes back to help someone who mattered to him more than any other. But then, when he has a chance to save his oldest and best friend, he betrays him, seeing his chance to rise to power. It’s a powerful performance, with Ron Perlman doing the voice of Firelord Sozin. But there is another part of this that was pretty awesome – Zuko and his uncle talking again. Until this episode, every time that Zuko tried to talk to his uncle, Iroh never spoke to him. I don’t know if this was done to give viewers a gap to get used to the new voice they got, following the tragic death of Mako, or not. But it still works. For so long, Iroh had been looking after Zuko. He regarded Zuko as a son. And he regarded Iroh as a father. Then, Zuko betrays his trust and I think that the character came to a realization – he had to do this alone. For a large part of the second season, Zuko was trying to get rid of Aang, dealing with the reality that Azula lied to set him up to take the fall, and he just might end up taking that fall. He had to feel that there was no way out. Finally, when he is at his most desperate, Iroh comes back to help him once again. It was a great character arc that worked really well. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but either way, it was a great piece of character development.
3. The Siege of the North
I think you all will be able to tell where this is going. The episodes that brought the first season to a close, and it was awesome. There were a lot of arcs in this episode being addressed. The first was Sokka and the relationship that was forming between him and Princess Yue. Yue was already engaged to someone, but he kept going after her anyway. It was a nice plot to humanize both of these characters. Both of them wanted each other, but it wasn’t the right thing to do. The next was Aang and his connection to the spirit world. When the Fire Nation ships come and the battle begins, he wants to make a deal with the ocean and moon spirits to get some help. So, he goes into the spirit world to find them. There, he is confronted by Koh, the Face Stealer. There is also the plot of Zuko finally having a chance to regain his honor. You also see him confronting his own past in a pretty intense moment of personal reflection, talking about his sister and himself. You have Katara finally facing an enemy who has always frightened her and being pretty badass. You see that the balance of this world is a lot more delicate than we might think, when Zhao takes the moon spirit and kills it, which takes away the water-bender’s ability to bend. But the best part of this episode is the climax. Watching Aang finally achieve the Avatar State and team up with the ocean spirit to destroy the Fire Nation forces. Seeing all the water tribe members bowing to him is just awesome. I would bow to a giant water monster too. And while that is going on, you have Zuko face off with Zhao. A battle an entire season in the making, it is SO cool to see. This was an awesome way to close out the season, and set up the awesomeness to come.
2. The Crossroads of Destiny
See, it was going where you thought it was. Another awesome closing to a season. This time, it was a lot more personal than the last episode. Azula has cleverly manipulated the head of the Dai Lee agents into taking over the Ba Sing Se. When he tries to double-cross her back, his agents don’t even move. They know the score as well as Azula does. They know that she could kick his ass and who the victor is. That line she gives when he bows to her, stating how she beat him at his own game is just great – “You weren’t even a player.” Awesome. Then, you have Zuko having finally come to peace with where he is at in the world. He actually seems to look at the future with hope. Then, his past catches up to him at the worst time, and his effort to face it ends in failure. You have him tempted to finally put his past behind him, only for Azula to prey on his internal conflict and manipulate him into not only helping her take over the Earth Kingdom, but also to betray his uncle and father-figure. Then, you have Aang, who had previously been told that the only way to control when he goes into the Avatar State is by letting go of his worldly attachments. He doesn’t want to believe it, but when the battle gets desperate enough, he resigns himself to doing it, to save the girl he loves. Then, it backfires on him when Azula actually kills him. So, it all ends with the Earth Kingdom falling and the group fleeing, with Aang being brought back to life by a woman he chose to give up. This episode is INTENSE, in every sense of the word. It makes for a great climax to the second season and worth checking out.
And my all-time favorite episode is…
1. Sozin’s Comet
How could it be anything else? These four episodes end this series in the best way possible. Not only does it tie almost all the plot points together, but it also has the most intense action sequences ever. The battle to destroy the Fire Nation fleet that is using the power Sozin’s Comet has given them to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground is unbelievably intense. The point where Sokka and Toph are sure that they are about to die is awesome. The final battle between Aang and Phoenix King Ozai (the new title he gives himself) is breath-taking. How it ends is one of the most amazing points of animation in the entire show. But, from my perspective, the best duel in these episodes is between Azula and Zuko. Azula’s insecurities finally catch up to her and her sanity is slowly falling apart. Zuko and Katara go to face her down and finally defeat the Fire Nation. But Zuko can see that she is cracking, and challenges her to the definitive duel of his people – Agni Kai. A duel to the death. Both of them know the score, and are prepared to take it that far. What I love about that battle is the AMAZING use of color. The blue flames of Azula, countering the orange flames of Zuko, with both of them amped-up by the comet looked unbelievable. It is beautiful. And the subtle tragic music that goes with the duel encapsulates how this isn’t an epic duel. It’s a sad one. These two are family, but only one of them can walk away from this alive.
Another interesting plot point of this episode is Aang facing the legacy that he is supposed to have. Jennifer Hale provided her amazing voice talents as Avatar Kyoshi, one of many spirits he meets with, when he is debating with them as to how he can stop the Firelord without killing him, which is a central tenant of his people’s belief structure. Aang actually actively rebels against what his titleship is supposed to do in this situation. It is an interesting dichotomy. Overall, this is an amazing episode. It truly does bring this series to close, giving us a nice little send-off with all the characters that we grew to know and love. It was the perfect ending to the series.
So, what are your favorite episodes? Let me know in the comment section.
Until next time, a quote,
“Firelord Ozai! You and your fore-fathers have devastated the balance of this world! Now, you shall pay the ultimate price!” -Avatar State Aang, Avatar: The Last Airbender