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Monday, April 6, 2015

Avatar Month, Part 1- My 10 Favorite Episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender

            Picking 10 most favorite episodes from The Last Airbender was no easy feat.  It is a show where a great episode was an animated masterpiece of television, and a “bad” episode was merely okay.  Almost any of the show’s 61, 23-minute offerings could be easily justified having on a list like this.  So which ones, in the end, have the most meaning for a particular person are really just matters of taste- which types of episodic adventures you prefer, which of the characters you loved most, whether you preferred the narratively filler episodes or saved your love for the big, plot-moving ones, etc.  After much thought, I think I’ve got a good handle on what my favorites were.   

            A spoiler warning for anyone reading who has not seen all of The Last Airbender.  Although if you haven’t, why are you reading this and not marathoning the show right now???  Shame on you.  Go get a life, buy the DVDs, and spend the weekend in front of the TV, loser. 

Honorable mentions: “The Drill,” “The Cave of Two Lovers,” “Into The Inferno,” “The Awakening,” “The Headband,” “The King of Omashu,” “Sokka’s Master”

10. “The Library” (Book 2, Episode 10)


             Ko was hands-down my favorite of the spirits, but Wan Shi Tong comes in a close second as the giant owl guardian of a vast, vast realm of knowledge slowly collected over the centuries.  As something of a book-lover myself (some, like my family, would use the word “addict,” or “obsessive,” but whatever) I fell in love instantly with the setting of this episode, and could perfectly understand the desire of the scholar Team Avatar drags down with them to stay there for forever (spoiler alert, he does).  It’s also this episode that really kicks off the best run of nonstop great episodes in the entire show, a streak of almost a dozen consistently excellent chapters in the second half of Book 2, culminating in the spine-tingling season finale, “Crossroads of Destiny.”  But more on that presently…


9. “Nightmares and Daydreams” (Book 3, Episode 9)


            Any episode where Momo and Appa talk and battle with samurai swords while talking sheep cheer them on has a place on a Top 10 list of mine.  Like with “Ember Island Players,” “Nightmare and Daydreams” provided a brief comic respite from the relentless heavy story rush of earlier episodes, working as a bridge between them and the major season climaxes that followed.  And out of the two, this was definitely my favorite, mostly because it was laden with homages and references to past animes, DBZ not least among them, and I am a reference-addict.  That, and we got some great Sokka-induced Schadenfreude


8. “The Deserter” (Book 1, Episode 16)


            An oft-overlooked aspect of Aang’s development as a character in the show is how non-linear his path to mastering the elements was.  In a simpler story he would have quickly picked up one element, then another, and then the fourth, before finally facing Ozai.  And while he does pick up Water fairly quickly, since the style and philosophy of the element closely resembled that of his native Air, Earth and Fire soon prove troublesome, resulting in him having to take a much more roundabout, and therefore much more interesting, journey towards his destiny.  He first picks up Fire, and then vows to never touch it again.  Even with a friend in danger, he cannot, at first, summon the will to move Earth.  He even balks at the first chance he gets to master the Avatar state. 

            It was in this episode where we first get a glimpse of the struggles he would face as a character, that his natural talent and happy-go-lucky demeanor would not be enough.  One of the first steps towards making the show a lot more intelligent and mature than many then (and sadly even now) gave it credit for.  We see him not only make a mistake, but suffer a bit for it too.  Plus, Jeong Jeong was one of my favorites of the older teacher-figures in the show, the right mix of wise, crazy, and powerful. 


7. “The Puppetmaster” (Book 3, Episode 8)


            This is the closest the show ever got to a legit Halloween classic, a horror story of abductions and disappearances by a mysterious, unexplained force in the woods around a small Fire Nation town.  Katara’s waterbending is taken to new and unwanted levels with the introduction of bloodbending, a frighteningly evil bending ability to take away the ability of someone to control their own body.  The mood of this episode is pitch perfect, slowly crafting a tense, uneasy sense of dread from start to finish.  Hama’s design deserves credit as well for making her seem harmless at first, but still not letting us feel too comfortable when she’s around.  Something is off, but the first time you watch the episode, you are hard-put to explain why.  In less than a half-hour, this episode puts the piss-poor excuses that pass for feature-length horror films these days to utter shame. 

            Funnily enough, for a while before Book 3 aired my friends and I had speculated as to whether or not any waterbenders could have power over the human body, given, you know, the whole 75% thing.  Then this came along, and we finally knew the terrible truth. 


6. “Zuko Alone” (Book 2, Episode 7)


            The classic Zuko episode, probably one of the most collectively beloved episodes of the entire series.  And it is a status well-earned.  Zuko’s arc as a character was one of the great artistic achievements of the show as a whole, an endlessly subtle tale of redemption, emotional struggle, and even intellectual enlightenment.  His brief decision to part from his uncle nearly ends in disaster, with him starving at first, and then being beset by a gang of Earth Kingdom thugs when he dares to defend a boy he befriended from their abusive actions.  We already had one part of the burden he carries revealed to us in “The Storm,” the brutal scarring and subsequent banishment by Ozai that began his hunt for the Avatar.  This episode magnificently reveals to us, it fragments and pieces, the other half of his story, that of the lonely, sensitive boy, who is constantly pushed to frustration by the demands of his dominance-loving father and sister, an abusive streak that finally costs him his mother.  He has not truly seen the light by the end- that would take another season’s worth of episodes and then some- but we finally see him in a fuller light as an audience, making us want to see him pull through more than we had before. 


5. “The Siege of the North, Parts 1 & 2” (Book 1, Episodes 19-20)


            Book One was, in accordance with standard trilogy practice, the lightest of the three seasons of The Last Airbender, using mostly episodic threats or dangers to slowly dip us into the wealth of character, narrative detail, and possibility that the world of Avatar offered.  This changed only over the course of the two-part finale, when a fleet of Fire Nation ships lays siege to the Northern Water Tribe, and the gang needs to both stop the fleet and fend off a more diabolical threat from Zhou, who attempts to destroy the Ocean and Moon spirits so as to permanently end the ability to waterbend.  It was a fantastic jump into the heavier elements that would dominate the next two seasons, including one of the most fearsomely awesome displays of power at the climax of the fight, when Aang bonds with the Ocean Spirit to wreak bloody vengeance upon the entirety of Zhou’s fleet. 

            There’s a lot about these episodes that earned them a spot on this list.  We get the first hints of the conflict between Zuko and his sister when he’s hiding with Aang from a blizzard (this was parlayed into an ending shot revealing the girl we saw in “The Storm” as Azula herself).  I loved the way Zhou goes out, after a season of being the primary villain- he would rather be taken by the spirit he tried to kill than allow Zuko to help him.  The giant, Godzilla-esque Koi Fish is impossible to not love.  But the biggest reason is in Part 1, when we get the (thus far) one and only appearance of Koh, the Face-Stealer, my favorite of all the spirits we have this far had the pleasure of meeting in either the shows or comics.


4. “The Crossroads of Destiny” (Book 2, Episode 20)


            Given how far Avatar has come and how firmly successful both shows have been, it’s hard to remember that for about a year or so after this finale for Book Two aired, there were questions marks as to whether and when The Last Airbender would actually be finished, and we would get the entire rest of the story.  This episode had some of the best bending of the entire show up to that point, and was highlighted by a heart-rending decision by Zuko to side with Azula against the Avatar once more.  I felt a literal shiver of terror go down my spine when Aang, having finally mastered the Avatar state, is promptly struck down by Azula.  There was no lower point in the series for the main characters than when, Aang barely alive, they fled on the back of Appa, while the Earth King looked back at Ba Sing Se and quietly lamented, “The Earth Kingdom…has fallen.”  Was the Avatar state gone forever?  Even with Aang alive, was the cycle broken?  With the lone nation powerful enough to match the Fire Nation effectively conquered, how could they possibly recover enough to win the war and save the world?  So many questions that, for a time, we feared would never be answered.  Thankfully, even though Book Three has come and gone, this episode has retained its power as one of the most thrilling and engaging of any in the show.    


3. “The Guru” (Book 2, Episode 19)


            Having now expressed my love for the season finale, you may be surprised to see that my most-favorite episode of Book Two is not, in fact, “Crossroads,” but rather the episode immediately preceding it.  While some time is devoted to putting chess pieces in place for the grand climax in the next episode, this one focuses primarily on Aang’s brief training with Guru Pathik, where he learns the secrets to unlock the 7 chakras of the body, each of which pertains to a certain aspect of one’s personality and self-awareness.  By fully tackling the different types of denial that block each one, Aang is able to attain a deep-enough level of enlightenment to gain full control over the Avatar state, even if it takes another episode before he fully commits to the necessary path. 

            This episode is one of the greatest examples of intelligent storytelling in the entire franchise.  The action scenes and the story tropes of the action/adventure/fantasy tale have always been the main marketing points of the series (“It’s cool because that girl threw a mountain, awesome!”), but what makes Avatar a true artistic masterpiece is how deftly it takes the superficial appeal of great action and a basic hero’s adventure and weaves in narrative depth and real-world spirituality and philosophy.  This episode might be the best, most concise summation of the themes and messages that suffuse The Last Airbender from start to finish- honest self-awareness as the key to true greatness, peace as a product of genuine balance and not the use of simple, vengeful force, and the importance of love as a binding force between all forms of life on Earth. 


2. “Avatar Aang” (Book 3, Episode 21)


            There isn’t that much in the long-awaited final episode of The Last Airbender that I don’t love.  Aang’s unexpected method of defeating the Fire Lord and ending the war is the culmination of a 3-season long tale about, more than anything else, the benefits of searching for answers beyond the easy solutions others will gladly tell you are the “only” way.  I am aware that it was not satisfying to a great many viewers used to the quick fixes to problems that both Hollywood and our politicians love to feed us, but set within the context of a show about the nature of balance, and the difficulties of achieving and maintaining it, the wisdom and power Aang gains from the Lion Turtle are a powerful reminder that, ultimately, even within a tale of high fantasy, an individual person or character is merely one part of a larger picture, a tool of forces far beyond their own control or even comprehension. 

            Of course, this would not be one of my favorite episodes if it did not manage to combine intellectual depth with the best visuals that a great, animated, action show has to offer.  The final battles between Aang and Ozai in the Earth Kingdom and Zuko, Katara, and Azula at the Fire Nation palace still rank among the best animated and most emotionally-engaging of the entire franchise.  Every single major character (and even a few side ones) gets at least one great moment to shine, and every major plot point (and relationship!) gets resolved.  It is a perfect ending to a very nearly perfect show. 


1. “The Storm” (Book 1, Episode 12)


          There was a time after this show started airing when I dismissed Avatar out of hand.  I saw snippets of some early episodes and thought that it just looked awful.  And then, for no particular reason I can recall, I decided to “tough out” just one episode to really see what it was all about.  That episode happened to be “The Storm,” and I have not looked back since.  This was the first episode of the show that I ever really watched, the one that got me hooked and made me realize that I had found something really, truly special.  And for that, it will always be my favorite episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender

            Even though the primary conflict with the Fire Lord and ultimate endgame of the story was established in an earlier episode, I feel that this is where the show really starts to turn into a great, classic tale, where the characters cease to be simple archetypes and become deep, complex creations of writing and voice acting.  The use of parallel storytelling and imagery to reveal the key similarities between Zuko and Aang is fantastic.  Aang has more to him than his childish fun side, and at least one major mistake he’s made that he will have to rectify, sooner or later.  Zuko is not just an angry, angsty teenage villain- he has suffered great injuries, psychological and emotional as well as physical, and he too must face a reckoning if he is to attain any real peace in this world.  It is just part of the beginning of the long, wonderful journey that is The Last Airbender

           

            This concludes Part 1 of Avatar Month.  Part 2, my favorite episodes from The Legend of Korra, will be posted shortly, so always, stay tuned! 


-Noah Franc 

1 comment:

  1. whether you preferred the narratively filler episodes or saved your love for the big, plot-moving ones, etc. Got Episodes

    ReplyDelete