Chapter Three: “The Southern Air Temple”
(Rating Out of 15)
After falling under the spell of the two Pilot episodes, “The Southern Air Temple” is at once disappointing and intriguing. (Fair warning: the word “disappointing” will pop up sporadically when reviewing these episodes.)
On the Aang side of things, we get to see his former home that was the once lively Southern Air Temple, and how completely dead and deserted it is after the war. On Zuko’s side, we are introduced to Commander Zhao, who will serve as a rival to Zuko in his race to capture the Avatar.
These are both fascinating developments. For Aang, we come to realize just how alone he really is as the titular last Airbender, and for Zuko, we suddenly begin to root for the villain as he begins to face off against fellow Firebenders less honorable and respectable than he is. So there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “The Southern Air Temple” in the ideas department; no, it’s the execution that turns some things a little sour.
It’s a little strange looking back at this episode and how it handles the genocide of the Airbenders. Unlike later episodes such as “The Southern Raiders,” the issue of death feels rather toned down and even overlooked, as if the writers didn’t want to depress the little ones too early in the show. The sentimentality they use instead really harms the episode’s integrity.
Zuko’s side of the story, on the other hand, is as effective as ever. Every single scene with him, Uncle Iroh, and Commander Zhao is wonderful. Our introduction to Zhao even comes with humor, as neither Iroh nor Zuko can come up with a good lie as to how their ship got damaged. It’s simply amazing how quickly the writers are able to get us to empathize with Zuko in his confrontations with Zhao, a suave and condescending man who appears to want to go after the Avatar only to humiliate Zuko even further. And there are depths to Zuko? A banished prince trying to get back in his father’s favor? And what about this exchange:
Zhao: If your father really wanted you home, he would have let you return by now. Avatar or no Avatar. But in his eyes you are a failure, and a disgrace to the Fire Nation.
Zuko: That’s not true!
Zhao: You have the scar to prove it.
The Agni Kai (or Firebending battle, I guess) between them is not very involving, but it’s definitely interesting. Zuko’s eventual victory is followed by a sneak attack by Zhao, which is stopped and criticized by Uncle Iroh. And the final exchange before he and Zuko leave is delightful, too.
Sadly, Aang’s side pales in comparison, even if he’s supposed to be the center of the series—personally, I think Zuko is the real center. Aang’s excitement over seeing the Southern Air Temple can’t be dimmed by Katara’s warnings that the Airbenders may all be dead. Not even the largely empty Air Temple totally shatters his hopes. I don’t really think they took full advantage of the lonely emptiness until the end of the episode (and it’s extremely effective when they do).
Now there are positive things here. The flashbacks to Aang’s old friend, Master Kyotso, are nicely done and inform us where Aang’s mischievous spirit comes from. The large room with the past Avatars is pretty cool. The first appearance of Momo leads to a fun chase scene, as Aang tries to get him to be friends, and Sokka tries to get him to be food. Aang’s advantages as an Airbender are put to great use, particularly in the exhilarating shots where Aang has jumped from a vast height, leaving Sokka behind. No Rigid Action Syndrome here.
Even with all this good stuff, these passages are largely marred by two things: 1) annoying Sokka humor; and 2) too much sentimentality.
My gripes with Jack DeSena and his “comedy” haven’t ceased after all these years. I understand that Sokka is the comic relief, that’s fine. My problem is that neither the writers nor DeSena really knows how to make the character truly funny. In this episode, they setup that Sokka is starving and can’t appreciate the thrill of being at an ancient temple. To pay it off, Sokka runs into a large door (that appears to have been drawn in color pencil), talks all the time about meat, and just acts silly. There’s only one good laugh, and that’s when they are hiding from an unknown threat.
Sokka (whisper): It’s Fire Nation. Don’t make a sound.
Katara (whisper): You’re making a sound!
Sokka and Aang: Shhhh!
And the sentimentality…oh, boy does it run thick. The writers make it pretty clear that the Fire Nation did indeed kill all of the Airbenders here. And they setup how worried Katara is about Aang realizing this, to the point of lying. That’s not the problem. My problem lies with moments like in the beginning, when Katara admits that the Fire Nation killed her mother. This information is just dropped in, and no one really reacts to it. Turns out this was meant to serve merely as a plot device for later, like a morbid brick joke.
So finally Aang discovers the skeletal remains of Master Kyotso surrounded by the remains of Fire Nation soldiers. Aang’s breakdown before going into the Avatar State was never really convincing to me. By the way, why are Kyotso’s remains the only ones around? Did everyone else manage to escape, or fall off the mountain? And why is it that when Aang goes into the Avatar State that all the statues in the room light up, as well as lights in other places around the world? I know this is meant to alert the entire world that the Avatar has returned, but does this happen every time Aang goes into the Avatar State? If so, did it happen in “The Avatar Returns” when Aang went into the Avatar State to save himself? And if it did, then doesn’t the world already know by this point that the Avatar is back? (That could be how Zhao knew Zuko was lying, but that’s a stretch; I don’t want to give DiMartino and Konietzko and company too much credit.)
As Aang’s emotional wrath causes a whirlwind, Katara makes it her duty to calm him down. This should be a powerful moment, but it’s completely ruined by bad writing choices. When Sokka tells that her that Aang found Kyotso’s body, her reaction is borderline nonchalant. Sokka is no better, as his response to her going to calm Aang down is, “Well hurry up and do it before he blows us off the mountain!” (Hmm, was his selfishness supposed to be a gag?)
Katara’s normal volume of speaking can somehow be heard over the strong winds, as she brings back the exposition of her mother dying to show Aang she knows what he’s going through. That’s lame, but then she goes on about how she and Sokka are his new family! Ack!
This calms him down, but he’s still sad to be the last Airbender. And as we reach the episode’s conclusion, we get the very best moments to be found here, and two of my all-time favorite moments from the series (probably because of my abandonment issues, but I digress).
First, Aang stands together with Momo and Appa, telling them that as the last of their kind, they need to stick together. Unlike with those Avatar State scenes, the writers don’t overdo it with sentimentality. Hell, I don’t think there’s any sentimentality here at all. Maybe that’s why it works so well.
Second is the very last shot of the episode, in which the group flies away from the deserted Air Temple. Aang watches mournfully as the temple disappears into the clouds, never to be visited again. It’s a sad, painful, yet poignant moment, and it almost makes up for the episode’s flaws. It’s moments like this that make Avatar: the Last Airbender worth watching, and if you’ll willing to wade through the shakiness of Book One, you’ll come to understand what a great show this is.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.