In this episode…
Waterbender Katara and her wisecracking brother Sokka, two children of the Southern Water Tribe, discover Aang, the last of the air nomads, and his flying bison Appa trapped in an iceberg. After endearing himself to Southern Water Tribe’s village, Aang and Katara explore a long-abandoned Fire Nation ship, where Aang learns that he was encased in the iceberg for 100 years. Though Katara suspects Aang’s true identity, the airbender is hesitant to admit that he is actually the Avatar, a reincarnated superbender capable of wielding all four elements.
At the same time, the Fire Nation’s banished prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh are on the trail of the Avatar. When Aang and Katara set off a booby trap on the abandoned Fire Nation ship, the resulting explosion leads Zuko and Iroh to the Southern Water Tribe’s village.
The first thing that jumps out at me about the series premiere of Avatar is the extended opening sequence with additional exposition. This opening monologue seems much more personal and biased than the one used throughout the series, if that makes sense. Katara makes references here to “my grandmother…my father…I haven’t given up hope.” Also, the “ruthless Fire Nation” implies a black and white villain. Perhaps this word choice is a reflection of Katara’s naivete, considering how the Fire Nation is humanized over the course of the series.
On a personal note, watching the final shot of the opening sequence, in which we have the standard behind-the-back hero shot of Aang, but the Avatar himself is absent, was the moment when I got giddy and extremely pumped about the re-watch.
The first exchange between Sokka and Katara in some ways sets up the entire series, as we witness the attempts of one person utilizing technology and another utilizing bending to accomplish the same task, in this case, to catch a fish.
Sokka and Katara look much younger to my eyes, and Mae Whitman sounds distinctly younger.
It’s love at first sight for Aang, but who knows what Katara is feeling. He can’t stop smiling at her, and she’s too polite to tell him it’s creepy. Sokka has no problem groaning, though. (Although it is not mentioned, we can guess from Sokka’s reaction that boys have had crushes on his sister before.)
What strikes me about this pilot is how slowly the plot moves. It is almost entirely character development, chock full of scenes like Aang showing off his glider, Zuko training with his tea-drinking, duck-eating uncle Iroh, and of course, penguin sledding. But that’s okay. As a To Be Continued, this is really the slow build to an intense and action packed episode two.
The walk through the beached Fire Nation ship provides a lot of set up for later episodes. We see a lot of these ships over the course of the series, and although it may be a subconscious thing for first-time viewers, getting a handle of what these boats look like inside and out is important for later.
This episode’s critical moment occurs about halfway through, when Katara questions Aang about the Avatar. Whether it is out of shame or guilt, Aang lies to her, keeping his identity a secret.
Freeze dried and vacuum packed into this episode are introductions to a number of the show’s enduring mysteries and series-long character arcs. How did Aang wind up pulling a Captain America in the iceberg? Why won’t he admit to being the Avatar? Why does Zuko’s honor hinge of him capturing the Avatar? What is the dark day that Katara speaks of, and how did the Fire Nation ship get trapped in the ice? We get the first hints of Sokka’s insecurities regarding his lack of bending. We learn that Sokka and Katara both have strained relationships with their absent father. We learn that hair loopies are the most annoying costume choice since Princess Leia’s buns (I guarantee this was intentional. Hey Brian? Yes, Michael? Let’s draw Katara with some ridiculous hair extension like Princess Leia!)
Final thought: I love the expressions on the penguins’ faces when Aang and Katara finish sledding. They’re like, “Is it over? Can we go home now?” as the waddle away.
Like Matt, I found watching the original introduction a very interesting experience. It sets everything very clearly. Fire Nation=BAD. I totally forgot that this introduction existed because I am so used to the one that appears throughout the rest of the series.
The introduction of Sokka and Katara feels so true to the characters who we grow to love over the course of the series. They don’t suffer from first-episode-itis. Sokka feels inadequate next to Katara’s waterbending and Katara slowly starting to understand her true strength as a waterbender. The moment I fell in love with the show was when Katara goes off on Sokka starting with calling him sexist and moving onto his dirty socks. And then she blows up an iceberg. Don’t mess with Katara, peeps.
I love the first time you have Aang, Katara and Sokka together. Katara and Aang are excited to return home on Appa and Sokka is frustrated that he isn’t in control… and he’s covered in Appa boogers. Speaking of Appa, this little exchange between Aang and Sokka is my favorite line of the episode.
AANG: This is Appa, my flying bison.
SOKKA: And this is Katara, my flying sister.
Aang’s crush on Katara from the moment he meets her is adorable. WARNING: The closest I have ever come to being a shipper is when it comes to Aang and Katara. Love them. The wonderful thing about Aang is his joy at simply being in nature. The kid wakes up from what he thinks is a nap and the first thing he thinks about is penguin sledding. His confusion about the war is heartbreaking and locked me into the series. This is a boy whose entire world changed while he was sleeping. He isn’t ready at this point to face the consequences of ending up in that iceberg.
I’ll say a few things about Zuko and Iroh before giving John a chance to give his thoughts.
SLIGHTLY SPOILERY THOUGHT (highlight text below to view)
Knowing the evolution of Zuko and Iroh’s arc, it was very interesting to rewatch our first introduction to him. You have Zuko and his oh-so-important honor and Iroh with his tea. From the first time you meet them, you see that Iroh isn’t pushing Zuko to kill the Avatar. He’s already trying to help Zuko find his way. Iroh is a fantastic mentor for Zuko because for him, firebending is an artform, not just a fighting style… And he likes to eat.
END OF SPOILERY THOUGHT
I will say from the start Matt and I made fun of Zuko. He’s just so intense, Matt and I would walk around saying “I will Find the AvaTAAAR!!”. (BTW, the voice of Zuko is the actor who played Rufio in Hook. RUFIO! RUFIO!)
One last thought from me. How adorable are the children of the Southern Water Tribe? “I gotta pee!”
This episode gets off to a much slower start and shows many more signs of being a pilot than I remembered. The first couple minutes are actually pretty rough for me. There’s a bit too much of the tween comedy and sibling rivalry stuff going on, and before we’ve gotten to know or care about the characters. I realize this is intended to introduce us to the characters—and in many ways it does set the tone for the series—but it’s a bit over the top for me. Luckily it’s not too long before Aang pops out of that iceberg. If I hadn’t heard how awesome this series was, there were actually a few points in this episode where I would have considered bailing on the show. I’m immensely glad I stuck with it of course, because it does get totally amazing. Maybe the pilot seems weaker in retrospect because the show gets so much better later.
I actually kind of dislike a lot of what Jordan really enjoyed in this first episode—mostly because a lot of it comes off as too childish to me. I know it was a show made for kids, so I give it some slack. But one of the things I think is great about the show is how adult it is most of the time, even while remaining targeted at and accessible to kids. Maybe a “kid’s cartoon” as defined by networks needs to have these kinds of interactions and juvenile humor, but I would have preferred a slightly more serious tone, in this episode, and overall. Or at least funnier jokes. (There are some good humorous moments in the show, but this episode’s humor is too much on the goofy side of the humor spectrum to me.) I’ll have more to say about this way down the line when we talk about the last episode.
Some observations about this episode:
I didn’t realize that it was Katara who broke up the iceberg that lead them to finding Aang—when she’s angrily shouting at Sokka, she’s sort of waterbending without realizing it seems like.
What the heck is that thing Sokka carries around that Katara uses to hack at the iceberg? It’s like a machete with a bite taken out of it and a rubber ball grafted onto one end or something? He has it pretty much throughout the entire series. But what the hell is that thing?
I find it interesting that The Firelord sends Zuko to hunt down the Avatar before they even know the Avatar is actually around. That was a much more severe punishment than I realized. He was basically sentencing his son to roam the world forever in exile, with no real hope of redemption, since, after 100 years without seeing the Avatar, they must have assumed that the Avatar cycle had ended with the last of the airbenders.
I think the low point of the episode, for me, is when Aang wakes up and sees Katara, and the first thing he does is ask her to go penguin sledding with him. That’s not the kind of introduction a character like Aang should get—he deserves more than that. Since one of the things I’ve heard about this show is that the creators knew where it was going all along, it would have been nice if they had had Aang say something when they first met that he could have repeated or called back to at the end of the series. This feels like such a throwaway line, I find it disappointing. Why would Aang be familiar with penguins and penguin sledding anyway? Wouldn’t he have lived his whole life in the air temple with the airbender monks?
But anyway, wow, the first episode is over before anything gets going! It’s kind of an evil way to end the episode. There’s so much intriguing that’s set out here but not explained and it kind of ends in the middle of the episode’s arc (thus the “to be continued” bit) that having the next episode available on Netflix or DVD etc. is basically impossible to resist. Despite my reservations about this episode, I really did just want to cue up the next one right away. But I had to stop and write this damn retrospective. I hope you guys appreciate it!
Next up: The Avatar Returns!
Attention commenters: If you’ve watched the entire series, please don’t post any spoilers for future episodes; keep the commentary focused on the events that have transpired on the series so far in the rewatch. That way people who are watching the series for the first time can participate in the discussion.
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.