TV Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1, Episodes 7-8

By Matthew Moorcroft

Chapter 7: The Spirit World: Winter Solstice, Part 1 – Strong Recommendation
Chapter 8: Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice, Part 2 – Highest Recommendation

  • Directed by Lauren MacMullan (Episode 7), Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 8)
  • Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
  • TV-Y7

Despite being billed as a two-parter, the Winter Solstice storyline is ostensibly two separate stories entirely connected only thematically. The spiritual side of Avatar has been touched on a tiny bit up to this point, but mostly in passing through what we can only assume are the teachings of the Air Nomads onto Aang, but these episode dive headfirst into spirits and the the philosophy of Avatar in a way that pays off magnificently later but also allows for a strong set of episodes as the show finally begins finding it’s footing.

What I love about the portrayal of the spirits in the show is their consistently otherworldly nature; they don’t act like mortals and never have, their existence is beyond us, unknowable, unthinkable. Their absolute grey morality makes them a unique presence in an otherwise good vs. evil style of show like this one, allowing for questions of morality to ponder while also giving lots of texture to the world. These spirits are old and ancient, and the Avatar’s ability to commune with them equally as mysterious as it is entrancing.

The actual story that goes along with our first spirit encounter, a giant Ghibli/Gainax inspired creature called Hei Bai, is mostly standard fare all things considered, and is mostly an excuse to give some cool visuals while setting the stage for the much more dramatic second part, which might as well be it’s own separate entity. Once Aang and the group enter the Fire Nation the episodes explode in quality, becoming one of Avatar’s strongest to date with fantastic animation and stellar storyboarding.

But the introduction of a ticking clock is an important addition. Beyond simply giving a deadline for the characters to reach their goal and keeping tension at a high, it also gives us our first look into a past Avatar – something that will become a franchise staple in the years to come. The moments that Avatar Roku takes over Aang while in the Avatar state is such a great moment and one of the most visually distinct parts of the show yet; a sheer display of cosmic, unstoppable power.

In fact, the second part is so good that it almost threatens to overtake the entire storyline – the first part, while still great, pales in comparison to the latter’s more confident direction and storytelling, and on rewatches feels very much like a table setter in terms of story. It’s simple moral about the cycle of life is touching and ends on a note of ethereal goodness but never moves past that outside of some visually stunning action setpieces, even if Hei Bai himself is a fantastic design for a creature like this.

But those are minor complaints as the rest that follows is so good and so engaging in what it’s trying to do. It’s the moment Avatar really started to get good at what it did, and it would only get better as time went onward. The show was starting to reveal itself as something really special and it was only the beginning.

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