By Matthew Moorcroft
Chapter 3: The Southern Air Temple – Highest Recommendation
Chapter 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi – Strong Recommendation
- Directed by Lauren MacMullan (Episode 3), Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 4)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
“You can’t hide it from him forever,” Sokka warns Katara as she hides the Fire Nation helmet that adorns Aang’s once proud home. And it’s true – Katara is only really delaying the inevitable, a desperate attempt to hide the truth as much as possible in a vain attempt that somehow, this will protect him from some kind of pain.
One of the beautiful things about The Southern Air Temple (which ranks as one of the best episodes of the early sections of the show) is how it does, in a way, delay the inevitable itself. We as the audience know that the airbenders are gone – hell it’s in the title of the show – so saving that full whallop for three episodes into the show is unusual but poignant. Aang’s own character has been built already so now we get the chance to see him grow and deal with the reality of the genocide inflicted on his people.
And like all amazing episodes of the show, it’s directly paralleled with Zuko’s story. As the banished prince of a nation, he has a lot to prove to himself and his triumph over Commander Zhao here is a quick, but not permanent victory, and it only happens due to Zhao’s own overconfidence. Both characters are incomplete and broken, and yet it’s through the people around them they are able to grow and learn (Iroh in the case of Zuko, Katara in the case of Aang). The scene where Aang finally goes in the Avatar State after realizing his people are truly gone is a moment of great animation, yes, but it’s also a culmination of three episodes worth of buildup that feels warranted and earned.
And if that’s too heavy for you, the next episode has you covered!
Yes, for all of it’s drama and emotionally charged storytelling, Avatar: The Last Airbender is classified as a “Comedy-Drama” for a reason and it’s next episode, The Warriors of Kyoshi, leans far more into the comedic side of things for the better. It’s easy to forget that the show is still technically aimed at young kids who watched Nickelodeon, and as such some of it’s episodes are meant to be lessons that kids will learn and grow from themselves, and the comedic stylings help it from getting too preachy. Not every joke here lands but most of them do, with a gag involving a frustrated painter being particularly very funny.
But the episode is also doing double duty beyond that, as it also expands the lore of the Avatar in general and gives greater meaning to what being the Avatar actually means. To Aang, it’s a tough lesson he has to learn very quickly – being the “chosen one” means that wherever he goes he has a responsibility to those people and not following that leads to consequences. It’s a rough lesson, yes, but I appreciate that it doesn’t dumb it down for kids either and portrays the consequences as very real.
But it’s Sokka whose meaty development is probably the highlight here. Sexism related storylines in the mid-2000s were nothing new, given as the rise in female protagonists and representation was starting around this era particularly in children’s programming. What’s particularly unique about Sokka’s arc is that it’s clear his sexism is not rooted in a personal belief but a cultural one, something that he has to come to terms with himself. Even nowadays most shows tend to simply dismiss bigotry as a individual thing without ever taking societal pressures, upbringing, and cultural stigmas into account and it’s honestly refreshing that in 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender was not only doing it but doing it well.
Which could be the mottos of the whole show. If these two episodes prove anything, it’s that Avatar: The Last Airbender was willing to tackle serious subject matter across the spectrum both seriously and with a light touch. It’s a delicate balance that it’s able to do exceptionally well and better then the majority of adult shows coming out now, which is, in of itself, something to be proud of.