Avatar: The Last Airbender Rewatch on Tor.com

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Avatar Returns” (episode 102)

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In this episode…

Having been alerted to Aang’s presence at the Southern Water Tribe village, Zuko launches an attack. Sokka’s pitiful defenses don’t stand a chance against a squad of firebenders. The situation looks hopeless until Aang swoops in and shows Zuko that a fully trained airbender can hold his own in battle. Rather than risk the lives of the water tribe, Aang agrees to be taken as Zuko’s prisoner. Sokka and Katara set out on Appa to rescue their new friend. With Sokka and Katara’s help, Aang escapes Zuko’s ship, and the three set out on a journey to the North Pole, where Aang and Katara hope to learn waterbending from a master.




This episode does a lot to redeem my issues with episode 101. There’s lots of cool moments in this one, and by the end of the episode we have a much clearer idea of what the show is going to be like. There’s still some parts I found overly goofy (like when Aang suggests they try fighting the Fire Nation with “fun” sometime), but overall it’s much more tolerable in that regard. Despite my misgivings about this overemphasis on goofiness early on, it does kind of show just how far Aang comes along as the series progresses and he starts to realize just how much the world is relying on him.

Most of my favorite moments in this episode have to do with the action. We saw some bending in episode 101, but I felt like this episode is really where I got a good idea of what the characters would be capable of. Like when Zuko storms the Water Tribe’s beach and hurls some fire at Aang, only to have Aang whirl it away with his airbending.

That was cool, but I kind of feel like the show really turned a corner for me when Aang escapes from the Fire Nation guards with his hands tied behind his back. It felt like the worldbuilding sort of cohered in my mind, like I could suddenly see and believe how these societies could have developed and honed these bending powers and incorporated them into their lives—including, of course, for warfare and defense.

His subsequent fight with Zuko is a lot of fun too, and shows off more of the power of what an airbender can do. Fire seems to be the obvious choice for best offensive weapon, so I always found it interesting in the series when they were able to show the various ways in which the other elements could battle and sometimes equal fire in battle.

The fight culminates, of course, with Aang plunging into the water and unknowingly triggering the Avatar State—a moment that at this point in the series we don’t know anything about except that OMG, IT’S SO COOL. That’s one of those sense-of-wonder moments that hits you like, WHOA—I gotta stick around and find out what’s up with THAT.


Awesome shot as we pick up where we left off, with the flare falling in a creepy orange sky, tilt down to Aang and Katara returning to the village, ashamed of their mistake.

It doesn’t take long for the series to settle into the action, angst, and ever-endearing Appa moments that make the show so good. Aang messed up big time, and now he has to deal with two threats. First, the Southern Water Tribe reacts … coldly? … to the Avatar. Aang accidentally sets of a flare on an abandoned Fire Navy ship, leading Zuko and his firebenders straight to the Water Tribe. Sokka and GranGran want Aang gone. Only Katara stands by him, going so far as to banish herself to prove that her tribe is making a mistake. Second, one seriously ticked off Fire Prince is on his way to the village.

When Zuko’s ship arrives, it’s up to Sokka and a handful of kindergartners to fend off the attack. Did anyone ever think Sokka stood a chance of defeating the Fire Nation alone? Face paint does not a warrior make, as is clearly indicated by how casually Zuko stuffs our club-wielding water tribesman. Still — nice throw with that boomerang. It had, what? 30 seconds of hang time?

Aang swoops in on a penguin to rescue the Water Tribe, putting an end to the silly argument about goofiness vs. seriousness in the series. Aang’s line about “You should try [fighting the fire nation with fun] sometime” is rather appropriate, considering his mode of attack. We will see this throughout the season. Aang’s ability to be loose and have fun gives him an edge over his dour and serious opponent, Zuko. Moreover, until episode 1.16 “The Deserter,” Uncle Iroh is the most powerful firebender we see. He fits this mold of easy-going and fun-loving. In 1.05, we meet the season’s most powerful earthbender, who also fits this mold. Perhaps there is an important lesson here. Take it easy! Enjoy the little things, like penguin sledding and koi surfing. As we’ll see soon enough, doing so saves Aang and his friends on more than one occasion.

I totally agree with John on the awesomeness factor of the Avatar State. When Aang hulks out like this in the movie, it’s going to be very cool.

Once the much anticipated film is released, there will be plenty of time to talk about comparisons, so I don’t want to dwell on that here. Still, there is an important scene in this episode featured in the second trailer. GranGran delivers the line “He will need you. And we all need him.” Not word for word what she says here in the show, but the sentiment is the same. Aang will give the world hope. And he needs Katara’s help. She gives Sokka and Katara a gift for their long journey — two bedrolls. Keep an eye on these sleeping bags throughout the season. They are not important to any significant aspect of the plot, but they represent the first of dozens of examples of the fascinating and attentive way that Avatar handles the relationships between characters and objects. In most shows, character costumes and weapons are taken for granted. The most notorious example of this that I can think of is Highlander: The Series, where one minute McCloud is jumping from rooftop to rooftop in skin-tight jeans and a billowing trench coat, and the next minute he whips a huge sword out of … somewhere … and fights with it. Here, if Aang and company need to make a quick getaway, those bedrolls are gone forever. If Sokka loses his trusty club/ball/stick thing, he will have to make another one. Often, objects are significant parts of characters’ identities. Think about Iroh and his tea, or Zuko and the conspicuous dual swords hanging on the wall of his quarters. Think about the lengths Aang goes to in this episode alone to retrieve his staff. And think of, well … as Sokka says:

“I’m just a guy with a boomerang.”

Well said, Sokka. Well said.


This is the episode where the show really starts cooking.

Something that is interesting to think about in retrospect is how obviously intimidated Sokka is by Aang. Of course, he would be. At this point in the series he is very anti-bending, but he is so clearly threatened by Aang.

We know that his father left Sokka to “protect” the town. The Fire Nation attack shows a Sokka that we don’t see much of for a good part of the series. He steps up and attempts to protect his village, because it is all he has ever known to do. He might not have succeeded in stopping the attack, but he showed his courage. He stood his ground until he was literally toppled over by the Fire Nation ship. Boy cares about his honor, like some other young teenage boy I know…

I never really thought about the similarities between Zuko and Sokka. They both live (at this point in the story) to make their absent fathers proud and in this episode they both come so close and yet don’t make it.

I remember watching this episode for the first time and thinking, “Wow, that angsty Fire Bender sure caught Aang fast.” Not, of course, knowing Aang would kick some Fire Nation ass five minutes later. I do think it was a cool decision to have Zuko and Aang meet so early on in the series. I was expecting an episode or two more of “the chase” initially.

The guys haven’t said much about Katara’s bending in the final fight sequence. She was so weak, all she could do was cover guys in ice. Compared to the Katara of later seasons, it was fun to remember where she started. While Aang might have done the heavy duty bending in that sequence, all three of them did their part. Katara with her ice and Sokka’s retrieving Aang’s glider. An angry Zuko grabs the glider just as Sokka gets his hand on it and … yeah, that part always makes me jump. (This beat has a great throwback to earlier in the episode. First, Zuko hits Sokka with his broken spear doot-doot-doot. Then Sokka gets some payback, hitting Zuko with the glider staff doot-doot-doot.) Appa showed his commitment to the team by going to Katara and Sokka when Aang needed help. Sokka’s ecstasy at Appa finally flying was probably the happiest moment he has had in the show thus far.

As usual, Iroh had his moments of humor like being passed out as Aang was searching for his glider and his astonishment at Appa flying over him while yawning. But he was involved in the most important exchange for me in the episode.

“Good news for the Fire Lord, the Avatar is nothing but a little boy”.

Only to be met with Zuko facing reality.

“Yeah, but that little boy did this.” Facing his ice-wrecked ship.

He has no idea what’s coming…

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 Southern Air Temple!

« Episode 101 | Index | Episode 103 »


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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