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“Best. Episode. Ever!” Toonzone Talks “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

by on June 30, 2010

To mark the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender live-action movie, the staff of Toonzone News came together to name their picks for a “Best. Episode. Ever!” dedicated to the original Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series.

The rest of this article assumes you’re already seen the show, and contains spoilers. Loads of ’em. We’re talking spoilers for the episodes, spoilers for the seasons, spoilers for the whole honking show to date. We ain’t kidding. If you haven’t seen Avatar yet, bookmark this page, go start now, and come back when you’re done.

Click any video clip to play a brief segment from the episode.

Neo Yi’s Choice: “The Waterbending Master” (Episode 118)

Written by: Michael Dante DiMartino
Directed by: Giancarlo Volpe

Plot Synopsis:

Aang, Katara, and Sokka finally reach the North Pole to a hero’s welcome. However, the Waterbending master Pakku refuses to teach Katara, exiling her to the healer’s huts. Elsewhere, Sokka is smitten by the teenaged Princess Yue.

Why I Love It:

I’m going to make a confession. I hate the episode “The Warriors of Kyoshi”. Avatar passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, so the fact that this episode exists is one of Avatar‘s rare moments of intolerance. It’s yet another mandated life lesson on why girls must prove their worth to stubborn boys—an unfortunate cliché in children’s cartoons. I always found this to be a poor approach on handling feminism because it promotes the idea that females must actively seek out the respect of men in order to change their minds. And yet, I love “The Waterbending Master,” which may look like it employs a similar structure, but there are several key differences to explain why I hate the first and love the second.

Sokka was raised to believe all men were the hunters, gatherers, and warriors, while women sewed, cooked, and raised family. Suki had to prove herself by outsmarting him with her techniques and getting him to undergo her training. It’s ambiguous how different the gender restrictions of the Southern Water Tribe are from the North, but it must mean something that Katara and Sokka’s grandmother Kana journeyed to the South to escape the North. A flashback in Season 3’s “The Southern Raiders” showed female Waterbenders of the Southern Water Tribe in battle alongside men, pulling off combat techniques that the North would have refused to teach. And her father, Chief Hakoda, is clearly very pleased of Katara’s growth and progress. He does not seem to mind at all that she learned to Waterbend, including fighting techniques as well as healing ones.

In contrast, Master Pakku did not accept this no matter what the circumstances, since he was committed to the customs and rules of the Northern Water Tribe. Sokka’s sexism can be seen as the standards of an immature, still-developing one-note teenager who sees men with weapons and immediately assumes that’s what men do. Pakku’s sexism seems rooted in his belief in tradition and a different—possibly older—standard of living. Simply put, he was the product of his generation as much as Katara is of hers. It was through Katara’s convenient necklace that he finally changes his mind. After sixty years, he realized that the very necklace he carved for his then-betrothed was a chain that finalized her decision to escape the torments of her straitjacketed gender role. As a result, Katara ultimately completes the change in him that her grandmother started. She didn’t have to prove anything for him; he gladly accepted her when he realized he was about to make the same mistakes twice.

Sokka openly mocked the concept of women warriors. Pakku merely stuck to the laws and culture of the tribe he lived in. Sokka had to be convinced; Pakku realized the errors of his ways. He wasn’t terrible for believing in what he was raised to consider a social norm, and he can’t be blamed for wishing to stick with the ideals that he grew up and had grown used to. As a result, “The Waterbending Master” takes a marvelous, different approach to gender issues by subverting its expectations: Pakku isn’t the evil Katara paints him out to be and she didn’t dramatically change the world with her beliefs. They both found a way to compromise to create the best of both worlds, with both walking away with dignity.

Dens Maris’ Choice: “Zuko Alone” (Episode 207)

Written by: Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
Directed by: Lauren MacMullan

Plot Synopsis:

Alone and adrift in the Earth Kingdom, Prince Zuko stumbles on a town run with an iron fist by a gang of Earth Kingdom soldiers. He befriends a young boy and his family while remembering events of his childhood past.

Why I Love It:

I kept thinking after seeing it that “Zuko Alone” was one of those episodes that would floor me on a first viewing and then bore on a rewatch. However, stylistically and structurally, the episode is the best of Season 2 and thus probably the best of the series. Ironically, the title character does not once appear in the episode.

For once, Zuko doesn’t have the benefit of Iroh to provide a sensitive viewpoint on his character, and he certainly doesn’t talk about himself much, so it’s left to the impressions of total strangers and his own memories to understand his mental state. I think my favorite bit in the entire episode is at the beginning, where he considers robbing a traveler at swordpoint for his dinner, but relents when he sees the traveler’s pregnant wife. It’s one of many ways that implication and suggestion are especially powerful throughout this episode. Another is Zuko’s recollection of his mother’s farewell and his father’s total silence and lack of acknowledgment when he asked what had happened. It is one of the most haunting sequences I’ve seen in animation, and clearly still haunts Zuko as a character.

I also have to praise the writers’ skill with handling Azula at a younger age in a way that does not try to sand off her edges. Her expression of mild surprise when they receive word of Lu Ten’s death; her bullying reaction to Ty Lee doing a somersault better than her; the way she snorts and casts away Iroh’s gift from the front—all of them imply a steadily burgeoning rip from compunctions that we know will vanish completely once their mother Ursa vanishes. Perhaps those compunctions disappear because Ursa vanishes.

Finally, “Zuko Alone” also shows how difficult it is for a regular human combatant, even one as skilled in swordplay as Zuko, to fight a bender. The good guys beat down non-benders left and right, so it’s nice to see it from the opposite perspective here, and the way it’s done adds a very artful kind of tension in a genre known for action-heavy fights. Here, Zuko is trying to avoid the fireworks for a change. But as has always been the case for him, life won’t let him hide who he is, and it still won’t let him feel any appreciation for his effort and noble intentions. The last shot is horribly cliché, but the shot before it of his face as he rides off is good enough for me to pardon it: eyes straight ahead, unsurprised—and undaunted—to be left on his own once again.

Ed Liu’s Choice: “Tales of Ba Sing Se” (Episode 215)

Written by: Joann Estoesta & Lisa Wahlander (Toph/Katara), Andrew Huebner (Iroh), Gary Scheppke (Aang), Lauren MacMullan (Sokka), Katie Matilla (Zuko), and Justin Ridge & Giancarlo Volpe (Momo)
Directed by: Ethan Spaulding

Plot Synopsis:

A day in the life in the sprawling Earth Kingdom capital city of Ba Sing Se, as seen through the eyes of seven of the Avatar cast members.

Why I Love It:

This quiet anthology episode was one of Avatar‘s greatest successes, demonstrating that the characters on the show had grown and developed to a point where an episode could do nothing but follow them around just to see what happens. It also serves as a temporary oasis of calm between the hectic events of the previous 5 episodes and the buildup of the final 5 to this season’s big conclusion.

Of the stories that compose this episode, the tales of Toph & Katara and Aang are probably the least substantial. The Toph/Katara episode is redeemed largely for a wonderful acting job near the end, when Jesse Flower lets Toph’s tough façade crack just a tiny bit, revealing her statements to be more rationalization than truth. Aang’s tale is notable for the soundtrack contributions of the Track Team, which transforms a relatively trivial event into a moment of tremendous import. His tale also gives a nice demonstration of his growing confidence as an Earthbender. Sokka’s tale, where he attempts to impress a gaggle of girls in an improvisational haiku competition, pulls off quite an impressive trick by managing to make him look smart while still staying true to his buffoonish persona. Besides, you have to love how all but three lines of the dialogue are in haiku.

Momo’s episode is the one that most obviously ties in to the larger Season 2 plot, but it’s a wonderful sequence that doesn’t rely on a stitch of dialogue. It is also the one that changes tone the most often, managing comedy, action, and even a palpable sense of affection in its short duration. As a bonus, it also features the return of “Momo-cam,” last seen in Season 1’s “The Blue Spirit.” Zuko’s story beautifully expresses his growing internal conflict through the vehicle of a date with a girl. This story couldn’t have happened before this point in the season; earlier than this and he’d have spurned the date entirely, but later than this and his conflict might have been resolved too soon. It highlights his fundamental decency, as he uses his Firebending skills for something non-destructive (possibly for the first time in the entire series) and he is clearly trying not to hurt the feelings of his date Jin, even though he ultimately fails. Compare this to his selfish actions earlier this season in “The Cave of Two Lovers.”

However, the real gem of this episode is Uncle Iroh’s story. I’ve always felt that Uncle Iroh was the role of a lifetime for the late Mako, and this short story is an exhibition why in microcosm. Mako turns in a marvelously sensitive and beautiful performance as Iroh goes shopping to commemorate a very special day properly, and while his actions don’t look like anything more than a show his compassion for others, they all add up for a powerful emotional wallop by the end. I am always especially impressed at the way that his song to cheer up a crying Earth Kingdom boy echoes at the end to mean something completely different, and the emotional impact of the moment has not lessened even after repeated viewings.

Lelouch’s Choice: “The Crossroads of Destiny” (Episode 220)

Written by: Aaron Ehasz
Directed by: Michael Dante DiMartino

Plot Synopsis:

Aang, Zuko, and Azula’s plot threads finally collide in the Season 2 finale, as Princess Azula’s plan to overthrow the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se is set into motion, catching Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph in the middle and leaving their only potential allies to be Uncle Iroh and Prince Zuko.

Why I Love It:

There are many reasons why “The Crossroads of Destiny” is my favorite episode from Avatar, but perhaps the biggest is the sheer amount of shock, excitement and emotion the last few minutes bring the viewer. For its duration, “The Crossroads of Destiny” does a fantastic job building up suspense and keeping every viewer on the edge of their seats. Much of this comes from the surprising connection that develops between Zuko and Katara, both captured by Azula’s forces carrying out their coup d’etat of the Earth Kingdom. During these moments, there is a glimmer of hope for Zuko’s character and it actually looks as though he may finally join the right side, but that hope is soon tested when Azula appears.

Azula has quite a few moments in the series where she shines for being both ruthless and cunning at the same time. That moment in “The Crossroads of Destiny” comes when she skillfully tells the truth to Zuko, admitting she cannot defeat Aang and Katara alone and manipulating him into joining her to take down the Avatar. The fighting that ensues is nothing short of pure awesome, with both sides evenly matched.

Like Zuko, Aang also has to make a difficult choice between mastery of the powerful Avatar State or the people he loves. Earlier, he opted for those he loved, but that choice is forced on him again in the heat of the moment when Zuko and Azula bring him and Katara to the cusp of defeat. This is where the episode truly takes hold of the viewer. When Aang finally makes his choice and achieves the Avatar State, things immediately start to look better for our heroes, but those hopes are dashed in an instant with a bolt of lightning from Azula, defeating Aang and causing our heroes to flee. The Earth King delivers a perfect line that truly captures the emotion of the scene, stating “The Earth Kingdom…has fallen.”

Avatar used cliffhangers a few times, but this episode provided easily the biggest jaw-dropper yet. Perhaps the shock came in part because it was the end of the season, meaning a longer than normal wait for the next episode, but perhaps it was also partially because all hope really looked lost for Aang and company for the first time in the series. The way the excitement, drama and action throughout “The Crossroads of Destiny” builds up to such a powerful final moment makes it my best episode ever.

The Huntsman’s Choice: Sokka’s Master (Episode 304)

Written by: Tim Hedrick
Directed by: Giancarlo Volpe

Plot Synopsis:

Dejected at being the only non-bender in the group, Sokka begins studying with the Fire Nation master swordsman Piandao.

Why I Love It:

As interesting as the benders were in the series, I always found myself drawn more to the non-benders such as Sokka. Despite being outclassed by most opponents and being the least helpful in a fight, he demonstrated immense strength throughout the series in his perseverance to save the world. Unfortunately, he was little more than the butt of jokes in many episodes, but several episodes in the series allowed him to reach his full potential. “Sokka’s Master” was one of them.

In this episode, we got to see a different side of Sokka. Finally realizing that he just doesn’t cut the mustard on a team full of benders, he seeks out a master swordsman in order to become a more productive member of the team. I appreciated how he managed to incorporate Master Piandao’s lessons while still remaining true to himself, and while it seems unlikely that he could have become so much better after a mere two days, I felt that his transformation made the series better. Besides, it seems to me that Sokka always had what it took to be a great warrior; Piandao merely had to help him gain enough discipline to be true to himself and make full use of his talents. His final test was particularly beautiful, in both the choreography of the fight and the reasons for it.

Yet what I like most about this episode are the few scenes involving Iroh, now a shadow of his former self, slowly losing his sanity in a Fire Nation dungeon. Or at least seeming to. I was always fond of Iroh, but seeing him easily deceive the guards while undergoing a workout regimen that would make Schwarzenegger blush was one of the best things that I have ever seen in the series and it made me excited for what was to come.

This episode was easily my favorite episode in the entire series. It provided some substantial development for a character who crucially needed it and managed to be both comedic and dramatic at the perfect times. The only real complaint that I have is that it took until Season 3 for an episode like this to happen.

GWOtaku’s Choice: Day of Black Sun (Episodes 310-311)

Written by: Michael Dante DiMartino (Episode 310) and Aaron Ehasz (Episode 311)
Directed by: Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 310) and Joaquim Dos Santos (Episode 311)

Plot Synopsis:

On the day of a solar eclipse, which robs Firebenders of their powers, Aang seeks out Firelord Ozai to end the war while his friends spearhead a ragtag invasion force battling their way through the Fire Nation capital city. Zuko comes to a fateful decision. And why is Azula still so confident?

Why I Love It:

In my judgment, “Day of Black Sun” from Book 3 belongs in any conversation about the best that Avatar has to offer. The solar eclipse that drives this episode has been coming since Book 2, and the battle is appropriately momentous as many characters from the past two seasons show up to do their part. While Katara takes a back seat, the children are still the stars here though. Toph is her usual competent self and Aang is in the thick of the action, resolved to not fail this time around. When Sokka is forced to step up and lead in his father’s place, he fills the role with with cool determination. Unfortunately, attentive fans knew going in that surprise was not on our heroes’ side, for Azula learned of the whole plan beforehand, thanks to what transpired in Ba Sing Se during Book 2.

Aang, Toph and Sokka go after the Firelord only to encounter Azula instead, and the ensuing fight is perhaps the best example of what a formidable adversary she truly is. With only her wits, agility and a pair of earthbending bodyguards, Azula occupies the trio—a group that, remember, includes the Avatar—for the duration of the eclipse without any special powers at all. Naturally she also steps into the manipulative role that she plays so well, managing to provoke Sokka into wasting some more of the group’s precious time by taunting him about Suki’s capture. Azula’s firebending is a mighty tool, but we see here again that her greatest asset was always her cunning mind. When she fights, she does so on her own terms. That’s why she is dangerous, that’s why she was a step up from the threat of Zuko when she arrived in book 2, and that’s why she is perhaps one of the most formidable animated villains in recent memory.

Perhaps most critically, “Day of Black Sun” is the ultimate watershed moment for Zuko. After nearly two and a half seasons of of angst and bad decisions mixed in with no shortage of humanizing character development, everything finally pays off when Zuko comes to terms with himself and with the revelations of “The Avatar and the Firelord.” He finally finds the conviction to seize his own destiny and directly confront his own father. One almost wants to applaud when Zuko draws his swords and proceeds to declare how wrong his banishment was, and describes the contempt the rest of the world holds for his supposedly ideal nation under Ozai’s rule. He even withstands a direct attack from Ozai! This was the moment Zuko fully realized that his honor and loyalty were in conflict; the moment that he finally heeded his conscience and seized his independence. In short, it was the moment he became a man. After “Day of Black Sun,” Avatar would never be quite the same show again. Its events were momentous enough for a series finale. Instead, it was the beginning of the end and it set the stage for a future finale that was even grander in scale.

purplehairedwonder’s Choice: The Boiling Rock (Episodes 314-315)

Written by: May Chan (Episode 314) and Joshua Hamilton (Episode 315)
Directed by: Joaquim Dos Santos (Episode 314) and Ethan Spaulding (Episode 315)

Plot Synopsis:

Sokka and new ally Zuko travel to the Fire Nation’s infamous Boiling Rock prison to find and free Sokka’s father Hakoda. They fail to find Hakoda, but do discover Kyoshi Warrior Suki imprisoned there, and the three are left trying to improvise an escape from a prison sitting in the center of an active volcano.

Why I Love It:

“The Boiling Rock” stands out among Season 3 episodes especially because it showcases an understated relationship that develops in the final episodes of the series: the brotherly bond between Zuko and Sokka. For Aang, Katara, and Sokka, obvious baggage from the previous two seasons leads to difficulties in admitting the exiled prince into their circle, but at the same time, it is that previous experience that makes Zuko’s eventual acceptance all the more satisfying.

In the two-parter, “The Boiling Rock,” it is Sokka’s turn to go on a life-changing field trip with Zuko. And in their trials and travels together, these two unlikely and polar opposite characters find something surprisingly worthwhile in one another: respect and friendship. With neither boy having male friends their own age growing up, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that male companionship would be inviting to either boy despite a colorful history. What does come as a surprise, and a rather pleasant one at that, is how such a transformation takes place. As Zuko joins Sokka on his mission to the Boiling Rock, the audience is treated to deep meditations on family and girls—as one might expect from teenage boys. Sokka’s insecurities over his failed plans, most notably the failed invasion on the Day of Black Sun, spill over into this mission. Amazingly enough, it is Zuko who helps him overcome these issues. To his credit, Sokka’s issues aren’t played for laughs as they might once have been. No, Sokka is a full-blown warrior at this point and his insecurities and troubles are as worthy of exploration as Aang’s or Zuko’s.

But Sokka is not the only member of the partnership to be tested in this episode: a heartbroken Mai confronts Zuko about the letter he wrote right before leaving, challenging his reasons, manhood, and so forth. But, in a testament to the evolution of Zuko’s character, the prince refuses to back down no matter how much he cares for Mai. And as if the antics of teenage boys aren’t enough fun on their own, Zuko/Mai shippers are treated to one of their shining moments as well, as Mai turns on Azula to “rescue the jerk who dumped [her].”

Mai’s defining moment during the climax of the episode also contributes to the lasting impression “The Boiling Rock” leaves. Her apathy shaded her nearly as drab as her wardrobe, leaving little for the audience to connect with—until now. Mai defies Azula, which is exceptionally brave (or crazy) on its own, but she does it for Zuko’s sake. By telling Azula, “I love Zuko more than I fear you,” Mai single-handedly sows the seed for Azula’s immediate spiral into insanity, even without Ty Lee’s defection. Mai’s character develops for miles in mere moments as the heroes merely watch from the gondola that is sailing into the distance.

Even outside the character development that pervades the two-parter, the climactic fight atop the moving gondola stands among the more engaging fight sequences in the series. Two fights are going on at once: Zuko and Sokka versus Azula, and Suki versus Ty Lee. If Sokka’s chance to go head-to-head with Azula herself doesn’t lend credence to his much-improved character, nothing can. Meanwhile, the fight also marks Zuko’s first confrontation with his sister after his defection to Team Avatar. There’s something especially satisfying in seeing Zuko finally able to challenge his sister and hold his own. On the other side of the gondola, Suki gets her chance against Ty Lee in an aerobatic spectacle in which both female fighters flitting from roof to gondola and back again. For the more action-oriented fans, this episode does not disappoint.

“The Boiling Rock” serves as a good set-up for the fast approaching finale. The stage is set with Azula now alone after the betrayal of her cohorts, Zuko’s bona fides established with Aang and (almost all) his friends, and Hakoda and Suki extracted from the hands of the Fire Nation. Sokka’s returned confidence, Mai’s stand, Zuko’s resolve, and Azula’s fast-spiraling sanity all combine to leave the audience completely satisfied with the finished product in the episode and yet hungry for more as Sozin’s Comet approaches.

And there you have it! Toonzone’s staff picks for the Best Episode Ever of Avatar: The Last Airbender. We made up our minds, so now it’s your turn. Think we missed one? Think we got something wrong? What’s your “Best. Episode. Ever!”?

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