Avatar: The Last Airbender Rewatch on Tor.com

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Southern Air Temple” (episode 103)

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In this episode…

With the hope of finding other Air Nomads, Aang and company travel to the Southern Air Temple. After revisiting fond memories (and befriending a lemur he names Momo), Aang discovers that the Fire Nation truly has murdered all his people. This revelation sends him into the Avatar State, alerting people all over the world that the Avatar has returned. Fortunately, Katara is able to talk Aang down. Meanwhile, Zuko stops in at a Fire Nation harbor for repairs. A powerful Fire Nation officer, Commander Zhao, learns of the Avatar’s return from Zuko and challenges the prince to a duel. Zhao intends to teach Zuko a lesson, but Zuko wins the duel. Zhao then attempts to kill Zuko, but Iroh saves his nephew.

 


 

Matt

So I thought it would be easy to keep my posts spoiler free. This is the first episode where I’m dying to talk about things that happen down the road. Look for an extended post in the comments.

This episode shows a lot of things that are not common to cartoon series. Often, the principal cast is established in the pilot. Here, in episode three, Momo the lovable lemur shows up, as does Big Bad Commander Zhao. These character introductions leave us with a sense that any character we meet could easily hop aboard Appa and join us for the remainder of the show. You never know.

Also, this is only the second week of the show—two part series premiere, and now this episode, and you already have the antagonist cast in the protagonist’s role. There are two independent plot lines going back and forth in this episode and in one of them the good guy is the bad guy from the previous episode. He’s the hero. He is the character with something to prove. He has the arc. Zuko and Iroh are the good guys for half this episode. And they don’t do anything to hurt or obstruct the Avatar in any way. On the contrary, they are unknowingly helping him by keeping the full force of the Fire Navy off his back.

My first time watching Avatar, I did not make obvious Star Wars connections until late in season two, but this time I can’t stop drawing Star Wars parallels. The Fire Nation is very evil empire. There’s a great scene where we see Zuko’s massive ship dwarfed by even more massive ships that reminds me of the opening of Empire Strikes Back when the Super Star Destroyer rumbles into frame. There seems to be a parallel between Aang and Luke. Last of the airbenders, last of the jedi. Both see the skeletons of murdered loved ones. It makes me wonder: if Aang survives his three season-long quest, perhaps he will spend his retirement trying to recreate the Air Nomads Jedi Academy style.

A few quick thoughts:

  • I like that Sokka so deftly walks the line between having his own drama and being comic relief.
  • It’s a cartoon for kids, and you have A PILE OF DEAD BODIES. In a show where you have booger humor you can also show a really kick ass airbender pulling an Alamo and killing 150 firebenders before finally going down himself.
  • When it comes to Airball, Aang is kind of a jerk. He totally kicks Sokka through a wall. It would be like if you asked me, “Hey Matt! Teach me how to play soccer!” And I was like “Okay” and the first thing I did was punt the ball at your head.

Next time! Sexist Sokka, sizzling Suki, and the all-important lesson: “There’s always a bigger fish.”


Jordan

After all the talk following the first two episodes about how childish the show was, this episode brings the darkness. Two episodes ago, you’re watching little kids who have to pee and then you get to this episode where Aang sees the skeleton of his mentor. That image is juxtaposed with our introduction to Monk Gyatso, that showed him and Aang throwing cakes at the other monks. Extremely childish. I also think that scene shows where Aang’s sense of fun comes from.

Another thing: Aang went into the Avatar State in the last episode, but it was his going into the state in this episode that appeared to alert the world to his existence. Why now? Was it his proximity to the Air Temple or perhaps that he went into the Avatar State because of an emotional reaction. Thoughts?

Onto Zuko. In his conversation with Zhao, he acknowledges that the his father can’t expect the world to bow down to his rule through violence. It’s interesting to see that even though Zuko desperately wants his father to respect him, Zuko doesn’t necessarily agree with his father’s actions. Considering where Zuko ends up, it was cool to see how early on he was thinking that.

Sokka thought: He hated Aang three days ago in show time and undergoes a complete 180. By the end of this episode he tells Aang that they are a family now. I guess he really took to heart was his grandmother said about their destinies being intertwined.

Jordan’s list of cute things:

MOMO! I love the way Momo’s entrance was set up. They gave him the commercial break. Big, scary, Fire Nation helmet-looking shadow turns out to be an awesome lemur. The moment that sold me on Momo was when he brought Sokka food. That is one smart lemur.

Also, I’m going to keep a running tally of the Agni Kai’s Zuko gets himself into… starting now. 1: Zuko vs. Zhao.


John

We get to learn a lot about the mythology of Avatar in this episode, and after watching this one I don’t see how anyone could not get completely hooked on this show. Seeing the Air Temple for the first time is very cool, and also very sobering given that the monks have been wiped out—sort of a stark contrast to some of the lighthearted elements I’ve talked about before. This is nicely brought home by Aang’s reaction to seeing the devastation—coming to a head when he sees the corpse of his friend Monk Gyatso; of course, Aang must have known that if he was in the iceberg for 100 years pretty much everyone he knew would have to be dead (certainly a monk of Gyatso’s age would be), but to find his friend and mentor, murdered, that’s something else entirely, which of course is what sends Aang into the Avatar State.

Of course, as Jordan mentioned, it’s quite unfortunate that the Avatar State triggers that beacon thing, thus alerting the world the Avatar is around. But the question is: why didn’t that happen when the Avatar State was triggered in the previous episode when Aang is fighting Zuko? Is it, as Jordan suggests, that it was his proximity to the air temple statues? Or is it that he was more angry this time, so maybe he wasn’t quite fully in the Avatar state last time? Or do those fireworks go off every time he goes into the Avatar State and we just don’t know it? I do wonder what the purpose of it could be. Maybe a warning system to alert civilians to an impending threat? (After all, the Avatar State would only be triggered in extreme situations.) I’m really not sure about that as an explanation, though, and while it was kind of cool to see, in retrospect it seems kind of dumb to me—like it was a too-easy way for the writers to clue the Fire Lord and his minions that the Avatar is definitely alive. It probably would have been better story-wise had some action of Aang’s clearly alerted them to his presence (and thus intensified their hunt for him), to give him a bit more internal torment to serve as fuel for his quest to truly become the Avatar the world needs.

Another sign in this episode showing us that this is not your typical kids show is when Zhao is interrogating Zuko, he is not so easily fooled by Zuko’s lies; he doesn’t trust Zuko will tell the truth—after all, why would he?—so even while he’s interrogating Zuko, he has his men question the other Fire Nation soldiers on the ship, and so Zuko is caught in his lie. And regarding Zuko, an element of characterization that I find is often lacking in all forms of fiction is the portrayal of the villain. In reality, a villain never thinks he’s evil and doesn’t cackle over the bad things he does; the villain always thinks he’s right and justified in his actions. Avatar does a great job of portraying the villains that way.

About that airball game—While the bending abilities explain away some of the superheroic stuff we see on the show, I have to kind of wonder how Sokka would have even survived that game of airball. That was a preeeetttty long fall he had there (not to mention that he was slammed into that stone disk). This kind of thing happens throughout the series, and even though most of the time it’s happening with Aang or other benders, the bending doesn’t quite explain how they’re able to survive these things.

One of the things that I think is great about this show is that they’re not afraid to end episodes on a down note. Given the fact that the Avatar’s quest is to save the world from an evil empire, it makes sense that there would be darkness in the show—Fire Nation killed an entire race of people! There’s GENOCIDE in a KID’S SHOW!—and thus some episodes would end with sadness. Yet doing so, even with similar circumstances, is exceedingly rare in cartoons.

This episode, of course, ends on a really down note. When Aang discovers that all the monks in the air temple are dead, and that he really is the last of the airbenders—that’s really just a totally sobering moment and they portray it quite well. And while they do lighten it up with some humor before the end of the show, the last shot of our heroes riding Appa away from the air temple is kind of a heartbreaking thing: Aang, looking back toward the air temple—he only home he’d ever known and now the eternal resting place of all of those he held dear—is just CRUSHED. As you would expect him to be. But kudos to the writers for actually portraying that properly.


Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will continue to be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes will abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.

Up next: The Warriors of Kyoshi!


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Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.

Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on twitter as @thejordache.

John Joseph Adams (www.johnjosephadams.com) is an anthologist, a writer, and a geek. He is the editor of the anthologies By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), Seeds of Change, and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. He is also currently the fiction editor of Lightspeed Magazine, which launches in June 2010, and the co-host of Tor.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

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