Chapter Seventeen: “The Northern Air Temple”
(Rating Out of 15)
I wasn’t expecting “The Northern Air Temple” to equal the brilliance of “The Deserter”–nothing that followed in Book One would–but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be so boring. “The Northern Air Temple” plays like a regression to the style and tone of the very early episodes of Book One. That is definitely not a good thing. Above anything else, “The Northern Air Temple” is a reminder of how much Avatar: the Last Airbender has improved, and why episodes like it are most unwelcome this late in the series.
This is yet another filler-with-plot episode. The closest comparison I can muster is to “The King of Omashu,” although to its credit, “The Northern Air Temple” at least tries to be about something. Aang learns that there may just be a few Airbenders alive after all, and the kids travel to the titular location to see for themselves. Much to Aang’s disappointment, the people there are not really Airbenders: just people who know how to glide extremely well.
We were probably meant to sympathize with Aang’s attitude through most of this episode, but he tends to come across as annoying. He criticizes the gliders for not having true Airbender spirit and their soulless flying. When he tries to show up Teo, one of the gliders, he’s like a bratty hipster who doesn’t want to be upstage by “phonies.” I don’t know what DiMartino and Konietzko and company were going for here, unless they mean for Aang to be a real prick.
His anger is more understandable when he sees that the people who live here have probably much desecrated the abandoned temple by sending pipelines through the walls and destroying many of the statues. This was the sacred culture of Aang’s people, and now it’s been ruined by steampunk modernization.
Teo’s dad, called the Mechanist, tries to explain to Aang that his people were driven to this temple after a flood destroyed their home. Teo’s legs were permanently paralyzed and his mother was lost. The Mechanist found the temple, as well as left behind gliders and had a brainstorm: bring his life’s work here and also create a life for his son so everyone could be equal. Since everyone can glide, Teo doesn’t have to use his legs. This story is halfway convincing to me, which is more than can be said for Aang, who still believes the additions to the temple weren’t necessary. They do have this nice exchange, though:
The Mechanist: We’re just in the process of improving upon what’s already here and after all, isn’t that what nature does?
Aang: Nature knows where to stop.
I like this line by Aang, because it’s precisely the imperfect wisdom you’d expect from a twelve-year-old monk. Had the episode just continued along these lines of what constitutes natural progression and the tainting of historical relics, this may have been a good one.
For a while, it stays on that trail. Teo shows them around some more, and even gives Katara her first gliding experience. This is a very nice sequence, especially in the handling of Katara’s evolution emotional state from fear to exhilaration to enjoyment. Aang begins to realize that maybe (but just maybe) this isn’t such a bad thing these people have going on in this former sanctuary, and that Teo, despite not being an Airbender, has the spirit of one.
Unfortunately, the Avatar formula take over, and the rest of “The Northern Air Temple” is on autopilot.
There is a door that Teo could never open because it’s one of these kinds that only Airbenders can unlock. Initially, Aang didn’t want to open it for him because he wanted it to be the only part of the temple to remain preserved and untouched. After getting to know Teo, Aang opens it anyway. And what do they see?
There’s a big question here, and that involve precisely how in the Hell the Mechanist was able to get into this room to hide all of these weapons without Airbending. This question remains unanswered, so instead of being shocked by this discovery, I feel cheated. Besides, all this reveal does is set up the last-act action sequence.
Speaking of which, if DiMartino and Konietzko were going to stick to this Avatar formula, they might as well at least have done it competently. “The Northern Air Temple” has the distinction of having the single most boring last-act action sequence of an episode of Avatar to date. I don’t even recall the one in “The Great Divide” being this dull (then again, I don’t remember much about that episode, perhaps for the better).
There’s a lot going on, for sure. Aang and the gliders dump different types of bombs (smoke, stink, stick, etc., but all non-lethal) on the incoming Fire Nation soldiers, and there are big war machines of infinite capabilities: they can scale mountains, catch themselves out of the air, and even have a revolving driver’s seat so you can’t ever totally fit them over (knocking them sideways might stop them, but no one tries that).
But there’s nothing at stake here; there’s no suspense. I never got to know Teo, his dad the Mechanist, or any of their people that well to really care about them, and neither Aang nor Katara seem to ever be in real danger. Katara even slashes a bunch of those war machines with no problem.
Their inevitable victory feels wrong. Throughout the episode, the Mechanist and Sokka form a bond based on each other’s intelligence (believe or not, I would have much preferred to see more of this), and in the midst of this, they come across a brilliant way to detect any gas leakage in the temple: since the gas is colorless and odorless, they’ll use rotten eggs’ smell as the indicator. Later on, after they’ve found a way to get the Mechanist’s war balloon functioning, they drop their engine into a giant crack where they realize gas is leaking to blow up the mountain and scare off (and kill, I’d assume) the Fire Nation. Why this plan didn’t result in the destruction of the entire temple and our heroes, I’ll never understand.
And after all this action is over, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have the nerve to go back to those themes about nature and progress. It’s sound message, I guess, but why not focus the entire episode around it? There’s no need for a big action sequence in every episode when the subject matter clearly doesn’t call for one.
So was there anything good about “The Northern Air Temple?” Despite being largely unmemorable, there are a couple of things. As mentioned earlier, I did enjoy the gliding sequence with Katara, as well as the Mechanist and Sokka’s bonding moments. The Mechanist himself is pretty amusing. The first few scenes of Aang looking at the changes made to the temple are fairly effective.
The very end is definitely worth noting. The Fire Nation soldiers find the remains of the Mechanist’s hot air balloon after he and Sokka had to abandon it before it crashed. They quickly fill it up with hot air using their Firebending. The captain realizes this may hold the key to them finally ruling the world. Oh, snap! This plot element doesn’t even resurface until the middle of Book Three. Now that’s clever!
But clever foreshadowing is not enough to redeem an otherwise perfunctory and dull episode. I’m tempted to guess that this story point was all DiMartino and Konietzko initially thought out, and then hastily wrote a whole episode around it when the time came, following the Avatar formula to a tee. They had a few more good ideas, but ultimately, “The Northern Air Temple” feels like there was very little effort put into it.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.