The Top 15 Episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender
So for those of you who don’t know, we here at The Fandom Menace love us some TV. Battlestar Galactica, LOST, Arrested Development, The Venture Bros, all shows that have poked at something deep inside us and have since influenced many late night conversations amongst the group. About a year and a half ago, a few friends turned me onto a show that quickly forced its way into our pop-culture lovin’ hearts. That show is Avatar: The Last Airbender. With the exception of Matt who was already a fan, we were a bit hesitant to watch this Nickelodeon kids show but within a few episodes, we had all fallen in love with this epic series. With rich characters, deep mythology and long reaching story arcs, Avatar: The Last Airbender quickly proved to be a perfect representation of the potential that television has to offer. Since the series ended in 2009, fans of the series have been chomping at the bit for more adventures in the world of the Avatar and finally, our prayers have been answered. Original series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko‘s follow up series, The Legend of Korra, begins April 14th on Nickelodeon and chronicles the adventures of Aang’s successor to the Avatar title as she struggles to master the elements and bring balance to the world.
In honor of this new series, I wanted to share some of my favorite episodes with all of you. Every episode of the series is unique and interesting in their own way, but this collection of episodes focus on themes or ideas that made the show such an enjoyable experience for me. Because of that, I want to be clear. This isn’t a list of the BEST episodes, but a list of my FAVORITE episodes. Also, because there is a good chance many of you haven’t seen the show before, I will do my best to avoid directly discussing anything that might spoil the series for you. There are some things I will have to discuss though, so those of you who haven’t experienced this brilliant show should go watch the series in its entirety immediately. It’s on Netflix streaming, so get to it.
OK, enough chatter. Lets get this started!
15. Book Three: Fire, Chapter Two: The Headband
After the dark events that brought season two to a close, it seemed like it might be difficult to return to the light-hearted fun that had always kept the series in balance but this episode early in season three proved that assumption wrong. This charming stand-alone features a newly hairy Aang infiltrating a Fire Nation school that quickly turns into a parody of Footloose with one of the best animated dance sequences I have ever seen. While the episode is ultimately meant to give us a peek behind the curtain of the evil Fire Nation, its hard to ignore the entertainment value of Sokka wearing a fake beard and pretending to be Aang’s father.
14. Book Three: Fire, Chapter Eight: The Puppetmaster
One of the joys of this series was its ability to go into very dark territory for the sake of advancing the characters. In this pivotal episode, the dark side of water bending is introduced via a kind old woman named Hama who Katara views as a kindred spirit. As an advanced water bender, Hama had developed a skill she referred to as “blood bending,” using the fluid in a person’s body to take complete control of them and move them around like her own sick meat-puppets. This horrifying turn took it one step further when Hama forced Katara to use this skill to save her friends, an act of evil that Katara never completely recovered from.
13. Book Two: Earth, Chapter Sixteen: Appa’s Lost Days
Six episodes after Appa, Aang’s flying bison, was kidnapped by sand benders, we were finally told what happened to him and the experience was not pleasant. After being kidnapped, Appa was sold to a circus where he was humiliated and tortured only to escape and wind up starving, lost and terrified. For any show to subject a character, much less an animal, to this kind of abuse is rare. While the episode is incredibly hard to watch, it also shows the lengths this show will go to in order to deliver depth to a character who had previously been viewed as a simple and one-dimensional pet.
12. Book Two: Earth, Chapter Nine: Bitter Work
In this episode, Aang finally began his training in earth bending. More then that, however, this episode introduced some insight into the deeper understanding that Iroh had of the elemental balance. While the series had hinted at the idea that Iroh was more then just comic relief, it was in this episode in which Iroh taught Zuko how to redirect lightening (a skill he developed studying the water benders) that we truly began to see Iroh as the brilliant warrior he was. Plus, Sokka got stuck in a crevice and named a saber-tooth moose cub Foo Foo Cuddlypoops. Classic Sokka.
11. Book Three: Fire, Chapters Eleven and Twelve: The Day of Black Sun
Since discovering midway through season two that an eclipse that would cripple the Fire Nation army was on its way, we had been waiting for this episode. The “g-Aang” (see what I did there) gathered together a collection of friends from the entire series including the Inventor, the swamp men, Jett’s crew and Sokka and Katara’s father to lead an assault on the Fire Nation capitol. Continuing in the tradition that began with the season two finale, however, things didn’t go quite as planned, setting up the events leading to the epic finale and putting a big plot device into motion. It was in this arc that Zuko finally embraced his destiny and turned his back on his father to join the Avatar.
10. Book Three: Fire, Chapter Five: The Beach
On a forced vacation on Ember Island, Zuko, Azula, Ty Lee and Mai try to blend in with normal teenagers and inadvertently provide us with some of the best comedy in the series history. From Azula applying her deadly fighting skills and trademark will to win to a simple volleyball game to Mai and Zuko’s hilariously emo relationship (“I don’t hate you” “I don’t hate you too”), this episode pokes fun at the seriousness of its own over-dramatic characters. But really, it’s the closing moments when each of them are forced to really confront their own demons showing the series’ ability to jump from silly comedy to serious character exploration that really marks this as one of the best stand-alone episodes of the series.
9. Book Three: Fire, Chapter Seven: Zuko Alone
The skill of the writing staff is on full display when they dedicate this entire episode to showing the humanity of what was, up until then, the villain of the series. Alone, confused and hunted by the Fire Nation, Zuko finds himself seeing the other side of the coin for the first time. Haunted by memories of his childhood and his sadistic and manipulative sister Azula, Zuko is taken in by an Earth Nation family that lost a son to the war. When a group of soldiers attack, Zuko stands up to defend the family, revealing his identity in the process. After fighting off the soldiers, the community that had taken him in chases Zuko out of town because of his Fire Nation heritage. It is in this western-style episode that we first see Zuko as the sensitive and tortured hero that he is destined to become.
8. Book One: Water, Chapter Twelve: The Storm
This episode acted as a big turning point in the series. Not only did it give us the backstories on Aang and Zuko, but it also, for the first time, made it clear that the journey of Avatar: The Last Airbender was really the story of two lost souls coming together to accept their destiny. From this episode on, Aang and Zuko’s stories began to run in tandem, mirroring each other and proving that this show was more then just another silly cartoon.
7. Book One: Water, Chapter Thirteen: The Blue Spirit
Its no coincidence that this episode followed The Storm on this list. After Aang is captured by the evil Admiral Zhao, Zuko does his best Batman by dressing up as The Blue Spirit and rescuing him. Not only does this episode provide us with our first glimpse of how well Aang and Zuko work together, but it also provides us with one of the more poignant moments of the series when Aang asks the unmasked Zuko if he thinks they could have been friends if not for the circumstances of the war.
6. Book Two: Earth, Chapter Six: The Blind Bandit
While searching for an earth bending teacher, Aang and the group discover a blind prize-fighter named Toph who “sees” her opponent using vibrations that resonate from their movement much like Daredevil. Not only does this episode introduce us to one of the most powerful heroes in the series, it also features some of the most beautiful animation I have ever seen. The detail in Toph’s movement as she faces off against her enemies is really incredible. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention The Boulder, a Fandom Menace favorite who speaks in the third person like a WWE wrestler and stands as one of the funniest characters in the series.
5. Book Three: Fire, Chapter Seventeen: The Ember Island Players
While this episode is commonly regarded as one of the funniest episodes of the series, it is rarely viewed as what it really is – a chance to catch our breath. In the episode, the group goes to see a play based on their adventures being put on by a local Fire Nation theatre group. The play manages to openly mock the show as a whole by providing silly, over the top representations of the characters and the events that had transpired over the course of the series. While it is incredibly funny (especially Sokka’s emotional and creative investment in the play), the episode really acts as a buffer, a soft spot between the tonally dark season and the coming battle that brings the series to a close.
4. Book Three: Fire, Chapter Four: Sokka’s Master
In my eyes, this episode doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it deserves. While Sokka had always been loved by the fan base for his lust for food and sarcastic quips, we had only been given brief glances into his true talent as a warrior. Upon the realization that he had little to offer to a group containing a master water bender, a master earth bender, and the God-damned Avatar, Sokka went out in search of a master of his own which he found in Fire Nation sword master Piandao. Under the tutelage of the Hattori Hanzo of the Avatar world, Sokka finds that it his creative nature is a big part of what makes his such a brave and capable sword fighter. In the end, Piandao reveals that not only did he know Sokka was from the Southern Water Tribe from the start, but that he also sees in Sokka the potential to be the greatest swordsman that has ever lived. Additionally, we see that Iroh, who has been locked in a Fire Nation prison since the season two finale, has truly returned to bad-ass form, doing one armed pull-ups in his cell and proving why he was such a feared warrior in his youth.
3. Book Two: Earth, Chapter Twenty: The Crossroads of Destiny
The only way to really describe the finale is season two is by comparing it to The Empire Strikes Back. Aang, much like Luke, abandons his training with a guru who is teaching him how to unlock his true potential in order to rescue his friends. Upon arriving, he discovers it is a trap set up to lure him into danger. Those who were sworn to protect the Avatar and his friend abandon him and aid the villainous Azula. Meanwhile, Zuko struggles with a crisis of faith, trying between what he thinks he wants and what he knows is right. For an animated series to take such a dark turn in a season finale was shocking and daring but ultimately paid off by not only increasing the stakes, but also by making us all realize how much we cared for these characters.
2. Book Two: Earth, Chapter Fifteen: The Tales of Ba Sing Se
I love it when shows go out on the ledge enough to do anthology episodes. The Tales of Ba Sing Se features six stories about the central characters of Avatar. In one, Katara and Toph go to a beauty spa and connect for the first time in the series. Another features Sokka in a haiku rap-battle. We get to see Aang try to build a new zoo for the people of Ba Sing Se and Zuko go on a date with a young Earth Nation girl. We even get to see Momo getting into trouble while searching the city for his missing friend, Appa. The true stand-out of this episode, however, is the tale of Iroh. Iroh spends his segment wandering through town, collecting items for a picnic while bettering the lives of all he meets with a few kind words, a friendly smile or a song. In the climax, he takes his picnic up to a lone hill as the sun begins to set and places a picture of his son (who died trying to lay siege to the city ten years earlier) at the base of a tree. With a tear in his eye, Iroh wishes his lost son, his lost soldier a happy birthday and sadly sings to him. As the final shot pulls back, a dedication to Mako, the voice of Iroh who died after recording season two, fades up. It’s so touching, I almost cried a little just writing this.
1. Book Three: Fire, Chapters Eighteen, Nineteen, Twenty, & Twenty-One: Sozin’s Comet
From the beginning of the series, I knew that the finale was going to be an extremely epic experience. It’s incredibly impressive that the writers managed to strike such a great balance between the different elements of storytelling within this monster-sized series finale. All of the various plot threads come to a head as Aang comes face to face with the Fire Lord while Zuko finally makes his stand and faces off with his sister Azula in one of the most beautifully animated fighting sequences EVER. Many past characters are brought back under the guise of a mysterious organization that had been hinted at since the beginning of the series and every plot thread, with the exception of Zuko’s mother, are tied up neatly. What really makes this final stretch so impressive though is the little moments. The writers managed to make lines that would have otherwise been silly, work as incredibly emotional moments in context of the story. Need an example? “I don’t think boomerang is coming back this time Toph.” That line alone still works like an emotional punch to the gut. Also, each character is given true tests of their skills and ability leading to some of the coolest moments in the series’ history. Seeing Toph skitter across the ceiling, wrap herself in steel like armor, then take out the entire crew of a warship single handed was awesome. As a fan of television, I would be hard pressed to think of a series finale that was more emotionally rewarding. We couldn’t have asked for a better ending to an incredible show.
Don’t forget to watch The Legend of Korra beginning April 14th on Nickelodeon and don’t forget to share your favorite episodes in the comments section!