In this episode…
Aang and the gang travel to the Northern Air Temple, where they find a group of people living—not airbenders or monks, but a group of refugees, lead by a brilliant inventor (“the Mechanist”) who has retrofitted the temple with steampunkesque technology. Aang befriends the inventor’s son, only to discover that the Mechanist was collaborating with the Fire Nation by making weapons for them (albeit against his will). When a Fire Nation officer comes looking for the technology promised them, Aang confronts him; forced to leave empty-handed, the officer promises that the Fire Nation will be back…to destroy the temple. Aang and the gang come up with a plan to defend the temple, and with the glider technology pioneered by the refuges, together they turn back the Fire Nation raid.
This episode opens with the Aang Gang listening to a storyteller talk of people who fly through the air. When questioned, the storyteller tells the Gang that the people in the story actually exist, setting the Gang off on their journey for the episode. I love how they get this piece of intel. It is another example of quality worldbuilding for the series. Verbal storytelling is a part of this world. Later on in the series we see more examples of storytelling and performing. I love that the creators really created a culture for this world and showed us all sorts of performance, whether it is stories around a campfire, bending on display at a Fire Festival, or theatre performance. It is a nice touch that I appreciate.
Question for those rewatching: How does Teo hold up to the other male supporting characters we’ve met (Haru and Jet)? My experience is that I tend to forget his name, but always remember his part in the series. He seems like a fun-loving kid and I really like his interactions with Aang and Katara. It’s interesting to note that even though Teo is not a bender, he has the spirit to earn Aang’s respect…over time. Might one’s spirit have something to do with their abilities even if they are not a bender? We have talked a lot about battle sequences that involve both benders and non-benders. The battle in this episode had a LARGE number of non-benders fighting in it. Yes, Katara’s ice bending came in handy, but in the end it was Sokka’s science that won the battle…though sadly, hurt them in the long run. (Anyone notice how “NICK” this battle was? The primary weapon was GREEN SLIME. I wonder if that was intentional.)
I really enjoy when Sokka is showcased as more than just “a guy with a boomerang”. For the majority of this episode, Sokka was paired up with The Mechanist talking science and natural gas. I think Sokka is much smarter than Aang and Katara give him credit for and in my mind, he tends to be the hungry, grumpy guy. But sometimes he really shines.
I think the biggest lesson the Gang learned in this story was to be open to change. Aang couldn’t handle the changes to the Northern Air Temple when he first arrived, but by the end he accepted the change. He also chose to trust The Mechanist after his betrayal. That’s a big move for Avatar Aang.
Overall, I feel like this episode is the first push into the final episodes of the season. It had its humorous moments and also had quieter moments for Aang AND an awesome hot air balloon.
There is just SO MUCH that happens in season one. In retrospect, this seemed like something that had happened much farther along in the series. That it happens here, near the end of season one, seems kind of amazing. Not only are each of these episodes extremely densely packed full of plot, that’s very true of each season as well.
There’s substantial worldbuilding expansion in this episode, from the introduction of the steampunk elements that become more prevalent later on, to giving the viewer a better understand of how the Fire Nation operates in regard to the people they subjugate.
When Aang is facing off with Teo in their little flying duel, it’s kind of funny how Aang is taking it really seriously and is being all competitive while Teo is just having fun, and good-naturedly even acknowledges how good Aang is (even as he kind of one-ups him with the skywriting/drawing of Aang’s face). It seems a little out of character for Aang to act that way, though he does get over it and very quickly befriends Teo. I would have thought that Aang would have just been happy to get to play with someone who could kind of keep up with him in the air. I’ll give it a pass though since he was clearly upset that squatters had moved into the air temple.
When you first see the Fire Nation soldiers trudging up the mountain pass, you think, well this should be a pretty easy place to defend: the refugees have the higher ground, they have air power, and there’s a major choke point that should be easily defensible at the top of the mountain. And all is going quite well, until the Fire Nation’s TANKS show up. Those things are totally cool, but I do kind of have to wonder at how incredibly advanced the Fire Nation is technologically compared to the other peoples of this world. It makes some sense that they’d have something like a tank, as such a motor vehicle would be powered by an internal combustion engine, and what are firebenders but biological combustion engines. But man, as if the Fire Nation didn’t have enough of an advantage already, having the most powerful and destructive element literally at their fingertips. The more we learn about the dynamics of this world, the more implacable the Fire Nation seems—the more we see of them, the more they feel like George Lucas’s Empire, and the more we see of them, the more we dread their power and wonder how it can ever be that our heroes can prevail.
The relationship between religion and secularism is addressed many times throughout Avatar. I very much admire the line they walk. The statement the creators seem to be making here is quite nuanced, and perhaps is geared more towards adults than children.
As is consistent with his personality, Sokka tends to appreciate bending only in terms of its functionality. For the most part, he pays much more attention to science, technology, and other non-bending practices. He has nothing but contempt for charlatans and hocus pocus. He balks at the respect given to Aunt Wu, because he believes fortunetelling is bogus. Give Sokka a boomerang or a slime bomb any day.
Aang also has a low tolerance for mythology and dogma. Look how quickly he turns the neighbor-hating religion of the two tribes in “The Great Divide” on its head. But at the same time he has a profound respect for the spiritual. Perhaps this stems from the Avatar’s ties to the spirit world. Aang makes a big deal of spirit in this episode, the something special that gives people their gifts.
Could this be the creators’ way of saying that a secular world filled with spiritual people is ideal?
Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may 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 Waterbending Master!
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.