May 10 2010 12:58pm

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Northern Air Temple” (episode 117)

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 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!

« Episode 116 | Index

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 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 ( 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’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

John Fitzingo
1. Xandar01
I enjoyed this episode though the biggest thing that bothers me is the careless desecration of the place. It is shown how it bothers Aang, and the Mechanist's response is no one was left so who cares? Not much of a sorry or even an explanation that it was necessary. (Although if your running steam pipe and can blow a hole in a wall, you can plan to run your pipes around the mural instead of through it.)

To top it off, Aang seems to accept it too quickly. I like the idea that he can accept the new residents, but I think it would take a lot to be so accepting of the damage so quickly.
Beth Mitcham
2. bethmitcham
Yes, I would have held a grudge a lot longer. I suspect I'm better at holding a grudge than the Avatar.
3. Nentuaby
Totally, Xandaro. A hundred and fifty years after the end of the series, grad students in History and Archeology departments around the world will be burning the Mechanist in effigy. It's great that they found a home and made it their own, and all, but paying maybe just a LEEEEEETLE more respect to one of the greatest cultural heritage sites in the world would have been nice.
4. wandering-dreamer
I never liked how the Northern Air Temple was defaced but I just had a thought, perhaps they didn't know what they were doing. And I mean that as in, the Fire Nation's eradication of the Air nomads was so complete that even the stories of them didn't exist and the refugees didn't figure out where exactly they were and simply assumed that the temple had been abandoned on purpose years ago. It's been awhile since I've seen the show so it's a little iffy here, but it does sound like the world has forgotten about the airbenders in those 100 years and maybe this episode is trying to show just how completely they have been forgotten, yet some of their ideas live on in a new group of people.
M Linden
5. mlinden
Am I the only one who spent this entire series really, really hoping that they would find air nomads somewhere? I can't be the only one, right?

The total eradication of the Air Nomads was one of the few things that never sat right with me, and this episode (along with all the Aang flashback-to-life-in-the-temple stories) largely highlighted why. I mean, I get that the fire nation was trying to break the Avatar cycle, and the only way to do that was to make sure there were no airbenders left for the Avatar to incarnate into. But, a nation of monks, living on inaccessible mountaintops, WHO CAN FLY? I imagine it would be hard to pin them down, and everything we've heard about the Air Nomad philosophy just doesn't make them out to be the "fight until the bitter last-stand" type. When faced with overwhelming odds...they would scatter. Regroup, refocus somewhere else, and keep the Fire Nation disoriented. I just don't get how the Fire Nation could have killed every. last. airbender. How did they pin them down?

I was convinced that the Sandbenders in Season 2 were Air Nomad refugees...desert nomads who sail in skiffs powered by little dust-devil whirlwinds? I figured they weren't bending the sand at all, just using it as a handy cover. Which makes their kidnapping of Appa all the more significant. But, nothing ever came of that, so I guess I was wrong...

Also, Air Nomads? If they were Nomads, how come they lived in giant fortress monestaries? Shouldn't they move around? Okay, done nitpicking.
6. ChrisG

My prediction at the end of this episode was exactly the same. I thought the stories of air nomads, though not accurate this time, was the Checkov's gun setting up Aang to discover some refugee air nomads later, allowing for him to re-establish balance among the four nations in the long run.

(Not telling how that prediction came out, mind you; just telling what I thought at the time.)
7. Lsana
@5 mlinden,

I don't believe they were trying to break the cycle; if they were, they were 12 years too late and they knew it. I'm pretty sure they were always planning to capture Aang alive to make sure he didn't throw an inconvenient lemur-wrench in the works.

@6 ChrisG,

In the long run, my guess is that the people in the Northern Air Temple are the new airbenders. They will develop a new civilization based on technological flight, probably learn to bend as part of it, and the avatar cycle won't be broken. But the Air Nomad civilization was destroyed, and once Aang dies, they'll be gone forever. Yes, it sucks, but the Fire Nation did evil, and there are consequences.
8. Doug M.
Yeah, I'm in the "Aang will use spirit-bending to give airbending powers to the Machinist's people" camp.

But the Air Nomads, yup, gone forever. And the bison go extinct too.

Doug M.
9. Iscah
I believe Mike and Bryan said something like "Teo's people will not become the new airbenders"... Which of course leaves the loophole that they've said nothing about Teo specifically...

Anyway, my personal theory on the revival of the airbenders is kind of like Lsana's idea but more general... Post-war there could be a major development in mechanical flight generally - the Fire Nation must have a pretty big Zeppelin factory to have built that fleet for the final battle, so now it could turn to constructing them for peaceful purposes. And eventually people with the right spirit might learn to airbend again... It wouldn't be a return of the Nomads, but a new culture altogether.

Also, a random thought... Does anyone else think the Mechanist might be based somewhat off the White Knight from Through the Looking Glass? They look kind of similar and they're both mad inventors...
Jennifer B
10. JennB

I too believed the sandbenders where airbenders when I first saw them. When you think about it, each type of bender has a little known, forgotten civilization ( the earthbenders have the sandbenders, the waterbenders have the swampbenders, and the firebenders have the firebenders at the sun temple), so what about the airbenders. On top of that, if souls are reincarnated and the bending powers are attached to the soul, shouldn't all the dead airbenders eventually be reborn. I would think that the occasional airbender baby would be born to parents from the other nations. After all, the people move around and there has to be a significant amount of genetic mingling.

I think that they should have made a Book 4: Air, where they search for airbenders hiding amongst the various other nations. It could have gone something like this:

Firelord Zuko receives a petioner in his audience chamber. The man explains to him that , while rare, there have always been air, earth, and water benders born to fire nation parents. His grandfather ran an exchange student program, sending these benders to the other nations to learn their bending skills and bringing firebender children born in the other nations in to learn firebending. When Firelord Sozin declared war on the other nations, the man's grandfather went underground, smuggling the children and their families out of the Fire Nation to safety. The man talks about how his father and he continued his grandfather's work and kept meticulous records. He hands Zuko a scroll with names and locations of airbenders that where born in the Fire Nation and smuggled out for the last hundred year. Zuko gives the scroll to Aang, who gets the gang together and they all go on an airbender hunt. The season progresses as they check names off their list. Of course some of the airbenders are dead, some can't be found, some are hostile to the idea of joining Aang to rebuild the Air Nomads, but sometimes the gang is successful, and sometimes they might even find an airbender not on the list. Slowly they begin gathering airbenders and they hear rumors of a secret airbender civilization and begin searching for it. In the finally, they find the secret civilization, but they want to remain in hiding and are hostile to Aang's efforts to bring them out into the open. Aang has to gain their trust and convince them to abandon their isolationism.

Of course that won't happen because the new series has only one airbender and that is Aang and Katara's kid. :-(

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