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Over ten years ago, in response to lore-heavy success stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, kids TV juggernaut Nickelodeon decided it needed its own epic franchise full of magic and mythology. The result, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was better than anyone could have hoped for. Drawing inspiration from across Asia, from ancient Tibetan monks to contemporary anime, Avatar was unlike anything else on the network. And the richly developed characters and sophisticated storytelling earned it a passionate and loyal audiences of adults and children. The gamble worked! If you have unfortunately missed one of the best cartoons of this new millennium (and perhaps the only good anime period) here are ten essential episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
1. The Blue Spirit (Season 1, Episode 13)
The first few episodes of Avatar spend a lot of time either seriously establishing the world and its central conflicts or getting you invested in the emotions of the characters through one-off, light-hearted road trip adventures. What makes “The Blue Spirit” so special is how it kicks off one of the most serious and emotional plots/character arcs of the entire show: the complicated dynamic between Aang and Zuko. When Aang is kidnapped by elite Fire Nation archers, he’s rescued by a masked, sword-wielding figure later revealed to be the exiled Prince Zuko. Granted, Zuko only rescued the Avatar for his own kidnapping scheme, but this is the first time their relationship has been anything other than purely adversarial, a fact Aang notes. Plus the sword-on-bow action proves the show can do moody action without relying on the magic karate thrills of bending.
2. Siege of the North (Season 1, Episode 19-20)
The two-part finale of the first season showcases action on a scale you’d expect on the series essentially about a world war. Waterbenders fight fleets of warships, the moon dies, a big bug steals a monkey’s face, and there’s a giant fish monster. But what I really appreciate about this episode is how relatively self-contained it is. A lot of first seasons try to end in such a way that the story would still work if the show never got renewed. Avatar obviously had a larger plot mapped out, but many specific story elements introduced in this season or even the last three episodes receive satisfying conclusions here. Admiral Zhao, Princess Yue, and this particular incarnation of Zuko say farewell so we can move onto the next phase of the journey.
3. The Desert (Season Two, Episode 11)
Avatar season two takes the feeling of defeat and despair from The Empire Strikes Back and doles it across twenty episodes. Aang fails to master the Avatar State, fails to save his friend’s kingdom from Fire Nation occupation, and nearly fails to learn earthbending. But arguably the season’s most devastating failure comes at the end of “The Desert.” After deliriously wandering harsh, hallucinatory sand searching for his beloved stolen sky bison Appa, Aang learns from the kidnappers that Appa isn’t coming back at the end of this episode. Only Katara can pull Aang out of his rage and sadness as Team Avatar figures out its next step.
4. Lake Laogai (Season Two, Episode 17)
One of the most interesting wrinkles of the latter half of season two is the conspiracy within the fortress-like Earth Kingdom capital city Ba Sing Se. The Fire Nation is your standard, fascist, evil, invading army. But Long Feng and his Dai Li secret police are a colder, more secretive type of villainy like something out of 1984 or North Korea. In “Lake Laogai” the gang fights back against the corruption and even rescue Appa, but it comes at a cost. Jet may not have been the most important character, but seeing him hypnotically forced to fight to the death still carries weight, even if his death had to meet vague kids TV standards.
5. The Crossroads of Destiny (Season Two, Episode 20)
Remember how I said season two is basically The Empire Strikes Back? The final episode might as well be a remake. After abandoning a chance at enlightenment from a wise guru to save his friends based on limited information, Aang screws everything up. He’s not the only one, though. Katara, Toph, the rest of Team Avatar, Long Feng, and even the Earth King all get manipulated by the sinister Fire Nation Princess Azula. Even Zuko, on the verge of changing for the better, betrays his caring uncle to join up with his tyrannical sister. Oh, and Aang dies, only to be brought back to life at the last second by Katara after they get their Pietà on. As the Earth Kingdom falls, the only question left is how can they possibly come back from this in season three?
6. The Avatar and the Firelord (Season Three, Episode 6)
First off, this episode features Ron Perlman as the granddaddy of all Fire Lords, so, of course, it’s on this list. But furthermore, this episode furthers the show’s expert combination of the epic and the intimate by re-contextualizing the 100-Year War as a personal conflict between flawed but noble Fire Nation friends who either grow nobler or more flawed. This episode also develops the Aang/Zuko connection not only by having them hear the story at the same time but also by revealing Zuko’s literal blood connection to the previous Avatar. Zuko’s arc for this half of the season, his unhappiness despite achieving what he thought were his dreams, reaches its tipping point.
7. The Firebending Masters (Season Three, Episode 13)
Bending the four elements in the Avatar universe is one of the few magic systems that becomes more interesting the more the creators explain the minutiae of how it works. The comparison between lightning and fire in season two was fascinating, but “The Firebending Masters” shows us the real beauty at the heart of balanced Firebending with some good, old-fashioned dancing dragons. “Fire is life, not just destruction.” On our way to this transcendent epiphany, we even get some light Indiana Jones adventures, as well as a secret tribe of Aztec/Mayan-influenced Sun Warriors. This is one of the rare times the show looks beyond Asia for its cultural inspirations, making the Sun Warriors a credible source of ancient and almost otherworldly profound knowledge.
8. The Southern Raiders (Season Three, Episode 16)
The back half of season three could have been a frustrating waiting game until the big finale. Instead, the show takes the time to give every member of Team Avatar a finale to their personal storylines, all while exploring the fresh character interactions that come from having a reformed Zuko on the team. “The Southern Raiders” is the darkest side story, with Katara and Zuko seeking deadly (bloodbending!) revenge against the Fire Nation commander who killed Katara and Sokka’s mother. It’s also the most cathartic, as Katara learns to let go of hate of both the commander as well as the past version of Zuko. But most interestingly, it teases the show’s true final conflict. It’s not a question of whether or not Aang can defeat the Fire Lord, but can he do it without taking a life?
9. The Ember Island Players (Season Three, Episode 17)
A clip show before the final episode sounds like the worst thing ever. But once again Avatar opts for something more clever and satisfying. Team Avatar goes to see a play that chronicles their adventures so far. This results in the characters watching parodies of both themselves and the larger Avatar fandom. Beyond the meta jokes though the events of the episode have a real impact on the characters. A guilty Zuko relives his betrayal of his uncle. A frustrated Aang sees himself struck in the friend zone with Katara, and the whole team gets a glimpse into a dark future in which they fail, and the Fire Lord uses Sozin’s Comet to dominate the world. But trust me, this episode is really funny.
10. Sozin’s Comet (Season Three, Episode 18-21)
Sozin’s Comet, the last episode of the series, is technically a four-part movie. But who cares. With this episode, an already amazing show indeed saves the best for last. I don’t even know where to begin with this episode. Having Team Avatar unexpectedly forced back into the war at the last minute after calling it quits is a brilliant move to rack up the tension. Ryu from Street Fighter shows up. Aang is trying to learn from past Avatars only to gain wisdom from an era before the Avatar is phenomenal. Azula’s descent from cold, sardonic perfectionist to a hysterical ball of weeping self-hatred makes her my favorite character of the entire show. And I still get chills from the jaw-dropping animation and music of the final battles.
All that said, the ultimate resolution has never quite sat right with me. I understand how Aang puts his own pure spirit in danger to stop evil while still being true to his non-lethal self. But in the end, a character whose defining trait is dancing around tough problems instead of confronting them directly faces his toughest challenge yet, is told by everyone he can’t dance around it, and yet still finds a way to. I’m not saying Aang should have murdered the Fire Lord. But this moment, in an otherwise outstanding piece of television, is where I felt the mature ambitions of the show brush up against the confines of being on a children’s network. This problem only grows in Avatar’s sequel series The Legend of Korra.
Purchase the entire series from Amazon here.