The Southern Air Temple (Book 1, Chapter 3; originally aired February 25, 2005)
The Warriors Of Kyoshi (Book 1, Chapter 4; originally aired March 4, 2005)
Only the third episode and we’re already coasting into one of those boring topics that crop up in every kids’ show: genocide. That’s right, it’s like an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba! or something. What’s more, Fred Rogers already owns the subject. That episode where King Friday rounded up all of the animal puppets and put them on the train to the Death Camps Of Make-Believe? Chilling.
Okay, okay, enough with the Genocide For Kids not-so-funnies. Aang and the Aang Gang arrive at the Southern Air Temple to discover it lifeless and desolate. In Aang’s memories, the temple glows with magic hour light and his mentor, Monk Gyatso (who, according to Wikipedia, is also the voice of Mr. Sparkle on the Simpsons), is full of humor and wisdom. In the present, the temple scenes are shot in cold blue, and Katara and Sokka keep having to distract young Aang to prevent him from dwelling on the enormity of what they’ve found.
There are some wonderfully realized moments in The Southern Air Temple. The look of anguish on Aang’s face when he realizes that the temple is empty is powerfully rendered, and his childish joy when he’s chasing Momo is delightful, especially when he leaps over the edge of a huge cliff without breaking stride. When he finds Gyatso’s corpse, the director, Lauren MacMullan, places him far back in the scene, illustrating just how small and alone he is. His Avatar State is brought on by fear, pain, and rage, rather than the threat to his well-being that caused it in the previous two episodes. I love the scene where all of the statues light up in the temple. This apparently causes Avatar temples across the world to light up, which gives me a little adult continuity snag: why wouldn’t all of these temples have lighted up when Aang went into the Avatar State and smashed Zuko’s boat in the last episode? Is it because he was in the temple when he went all glowy? Regardless, this is heavy stuff for little kids, and it’s impressive how the show handles it, leaving enough suggestion to clue adults in on the horror without really calling the kind of attention to it that would scare the young’uns.
I apologize in advance for mentioning the movie The Last Airbender, but this is a great point to demonstrate the difference in how they handle narrative. In the movie, when Ahng and the Ahng Gong arrive at the Southern Air Temple, Ahng tells the others that Gyatso was like a father to him by using the words “he was like a father to me.” Clearly this is superior to the tv show’s method of having Aang remember interacting with Gyatso while bathed in warm yellow light and then becoming enraged by his death! I mean, I was left with the impression that Gyatso was like an uncle or family friend or even just kindly neighbor to young Aang. But father! That’s the sort of relationship that requires blunt exposition spoken in an emotionless, dead monotone.
All that nonsense aside, in our B-story, Zuko and Iroh arrive at a Fire Nation dock for repairs. Unfortunately for them, this dock is overseen by one Commander Zhao, who is a serious ass. While this is apparent to those of you watching for the first time, you don’t yet realize how much of a sociopath that Zhao is. It seems improbable to some of you that a man who utters a sentence like “It’s a shame your father won’t be here to watch me humiliate you” could gain the trust of the leader of a powerful nation and rise to a position of authority in the Fire Navy. However, this is because you have not met the Firelord yet. The Fire Nation’s armed forces appear to follow a careful recruitment strategy of hiring supervillains and forcing out anyone remotely human. It’s a weakness of the show, especially early on, that the Fire Nation seems to produce nothing but sociopaths, stormtroopers, and damaged princes guided by avuncular uncles (okay, the plural isn’t really necessary in that last group). It’s unclear (oops, this sentence may be mildly spoilery) whether this was a strategy from the beginning to show the devastating effects of propaganda or whether the show became more nuanced about the Fire Nation as it progressed. I would like to think that it’s the former, but it probably isn’t.
So, despite how massive Zuko’s ship appeared to be to the people of the Southern Water Tribe, in the dock we see that it is, in fact, quite dinky for the Fire Navy. Zhao laughs in Zuko’s face for his ridiculous Avatar quest until he learns that the Avatar not only exists but was responsible for the damage to Zuko’s ship. This leads to an abrupt about-face, but Zhao’s assholitry continues unabated until a fed-up Zuko challenges him to an Angi Kai, the Fire Nation way of duelling. Iroh reminds Zuko of his last Angi Kai, and there is a truly excellent pan from the untouched right side of Zuko’s face over to his horribly scarred left as he says “I will never forget.” That’s masterful visual language, completely negating the need for Zuko to exposit, “oh, you mean this scar that I received in my last Agni Kai, after which I embarked upon this test for the Avatar in an attempt to recover what I lost?” Certain Indian-American writer-directors should take note.
I think I’ve already indicated how well-directed this episode is. Lauren MacMullan directed some amazing episodes of Avatar, including my favorite, Season 2’s Zuko Alone. The fight scene between Zuko and Zhao is no different, with clear action and excellent pacing. Zhao’s sneak attack is a given for a villain like him, but there’s some lovely moments both in Zuko’s ability to use Zhao’s confidence to turn the tide against him and in Iroh’s schooling of Zhao in the way of the civilized warrior. The chapter ends on a similarly touching note, as Aang watches the Southern Air Temple, which is now both his treasured childhood home and the scene of a terrible massacre, fade into the mist behind him.
The Warriors Of Kyoshi is the first of the episodic chapters that do not advance the plot but provide some crucial character and setting development. Is there a name for episodes like this? Back in the X-Files days, we called them monster-of-the-week episodes. These are more like picaresque adventure of the week. In this episode, Aang and crew go to Kyoshi, an island named for an Earthbender Avatar of 400 years prior, so that Aang can ride the elephant koi, which, as you might imagine, are koi the size of elephants. Sokka makes some sexist comments towards the beginning of the episode (given his tribal upbringing, these should not be that surprising), but he gets his comeuppance when the titular warriors of Kyoshi turn out to be tough young women.
Aang is treated like a hero on Kyoshi but learns that it is a mistake to spend too much time in one place when Zuko tracks him down and burns the village. Spoiler: this lesson does not really speed up their journey. Katara is particularly motherly and Aang is particularly childish through much of the story. Sokka has a good moment when he swallows his pride and dons the dress of the Kyoshi warrior, but given his excessive sexism at the beginning, it was inevitable that something of the sort should happen to him.
Despite the light plot, this chapter has some fun and funny moments. Aang’s pride in his rinkydink marble trick: funny. The reaction of the Kyoshi guy who screams, foams at the mouth, and passes out: hilarious. The spaghetti western look of the Firebender raid on the town (shaded in all reds for maximum Leone-ness): fun fun fun.
- Season 1? Episode 3? We don’t need no stinkin’ seasons and episodes. Avatar has Books and Chapters, son. Also, no more letter grades. Just assume that they’re all A- except for those that are clearly deservings of some stripe of B or, perhaps, an A+.
- This is my fourth rewatch of the series and I just put it together that the air temples are on the islands in white on the map. I had thought they were in Earth Kingdom territory prior to this for some reason. Those islands appear to be occupied mainly by Earth Kingdom citizens and the Air Temples are at the very top of mountains in large ranges that most islands don’t appear to have. I seem to have made an unconscious assumption based on this, but it looks like it was wrong. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
- In The Southern Air Temple, Sokka and Katara are still dressed in their warm coats and gloves. In The Warriors Of Kyoshi, they drop the gloves but keep the coats. Considering that Aang is wearing practically nothing in the water, how cold is it supposed to be there? How long will they be able to stand the heat?