TV Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1, Episodes 17-18

By Matthew Moorcroft

Chapter 17: The Northern Air Temple – Strong Recommendation
Chapter 18: The Waterbending Master – Strong Recommendation

  • Directed by Dave Filoni (Episode 17), Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 18)
  • Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
  • TV-Y7

One of the things that’s sometimes hard to remember in world building is the importance of cultural significance and political views. There is sometimes a fear that bringing those topics to the forefront can alienate audiences but it’s really the exact opposite; by giving your world tangible societies and customs you give a sense of history without having to do much at all. You don’t need to go into every single detail either, you just need enough to show your world in a realistic light.

Avatar: The Last Airbender does something very interesting with it’s societies in that it actively confronts it’s own fictional universe and forces change onto it. We meet both the remnants of the Air Temples as well the Northern Water Tribe (finally), and the show actively pits us in a world that is already on the brink of change. Societies are evolving, tensions are high, and we get to see how different perspectives are slowly allowing the world to shift in an opposite direction as before. And what I love about how it portrays this shift is that it’s done entirely through character.

Aang’s own reluctance to see the Northern Air Temple changed and repurposed is completely understandable. After all, he’s the last of his people and while a genocide of people is horrific, a complete cultural genocide would be even worse as it would let that initial genocide be forgotten in the annals of history. It’s also a genuine moral dilemma involved though, as the ones repurposing are also refugees from the Fire Nation without a home, and it’s a question not easily answered. What I love about the episode is less it’s action sequence – which as fantastic as you would expect from the show – but instead the development that Aang goes through and how it effects the people around him. I also love how the show doesn’t necessarily answer it’s questions entirely, leaving it up to the viewer on how to feel and instead furthers Aang’s will to want to sustain the Air Nomad culture.

The same can be said for The Waterbending Master, albeit there is a lot more going on in that episode then simply discussions on society and culture. Waterbending Master is pulling nearly triple duty in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish and it could have easily fallen apart. Thankfully though it ends up a strong episode overall, particularly when looked as part of the season as a whole. We have spent 18 episodes trying to get to the North and when we do get there it’s worth the wait – the gorgeous locales simply pop off the screen and there is a noticeable jump in animation quality throughout this section of the series. All of the good stuff for this season was clearly being saved for this big finale and that’s saying something considering how well crafted the show was up to this point.

As a setup for the finale, it has all of the necessary pieces. The more compelling stuff is on the Zuko and Iroh side as they receive a multitude of setbacks thanks to the increasingly dangerous Zhao, who has clued into Zuko’s identity from several episodes past. While in hindsight it makes that Zuko wasn’t killed off, the fact the show is able to make you believe for a second that he was is a testament to the great writing and directing at play. And the final shots of the Fire Nation navy making their way towards the North is a perfect cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more while also on the edge of your seat wondering how they are going to win against them.

When it comes to our heroes however, the setup is interspliced with a separate, more interesting story about cultural taboos, patriarchal societies, and misogyny that feels increasingly relevant the further we get in today’s world. Unlike the prior episode which leaves some room for ambiguity and introspection, this episode takes a strong stance against systemic bigotry in all of it’s forms and presents a narrative about female empowerment that isn’t preachy or dumbed down for audiences. Katara also never once wavers in her beliefs, and they are consistent with her prior portrayals which makes this an extremely effective “you go girl” story.

Plus the action sequence is really stellar. In fact it’s one of the best of the show thus far – we rarely see bender vs. bender battles like this unless it’s opposite elements but seeing two people of the same kind go after each other makes for a really unique battle that feels exactly like waterfall. A push and a pull to each movement, the water flows but also doesn’t stop for one person. The true extent of Katara’s abilities aren’t even here yet and already there is a clear indication on how much she has grown in this season alone – she is a powerful, powerful bender and that alone makes her worthy of teaching.

Once again, Avatar: The Last Airbender is above and beyond most children’s programming when it comes to narrative storytelling and structure. And while the truly good stuff is yet to come, there is so much to love here that it’s very nearly the peak of what the season has to offer. And we are only just getting started.

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