Because fans should be critical, too

Retro: Avatar: “The Southern Air Temple”

B.A.S.S. Line:

Aang returns to his home in the Southern Air Temple only to discover that the Fire Nation really did wipe out his entire race. Meanwhile, Zuko must capture the Avatar before his rival, Commander Zhao, does.

Key Points:

  1. Just in case the title of the show didn’t make it clear, Aang is most definitely the last Airbender on the planet. Knowing that the next Avatar in the cycle would be reincarnated as an Airbender, the Fire Nation made sure to eradicate every single one of them in the hopes of stopping the Avatar from foiling their plans for world domination. Ruthless is an understatement.
  2. It would be one thing if Aang, having returned to his home after a hundred years of being frozen in an iceberg, discovered that the Southern Air Temple was still brimming with life and activity, let alone with Airbenders. What he, Katara, Sokka, and Appa find instead is a decrepit ghost town, and the only initial signs of life are the tall weeds growing from the cracks of the crumbling structures.
  3. For their part, Katara and Sokka expected as much from the evil Fire Nation, and do their best to brace Aang for the brutal truth of what happened to his home and his people. Aang, the eternal optimistic, refuses to give up hope that there’s someone still around after all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary.
  4. They do find one living creature: a flying lemur that the nature-loving Aang vows to make his pet and that a starving Sokka vows to make his dinner. In the end, there’s a nice compromise: the lemur, which they name Momo, brings the hungry kids an assortment of fruits from God knows where, and is graciously made a part of their oddball family before they leave the Southern Air Temple.
  5. Other than Momo, there’s not a single soul left in the temple. Who is Aang looking for specifically? According to a flashback, Aang’s old mentor and best friend, Monk Gyatso, informed the newly anointed Avatar that when he was old enough, he’d be able to enter the Air Temple sanctuary and meet someone who would guide Aang through his Avatar training.
  6. Aang and his friends do find the sanctuary and go inside, discovering over a hundred statues that represent all of the Avatar’s past lives. It is here that we learn about the Avatar cycle, which goes Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and repeats. Aang’s predecessor was a Firebender named Avatar Roku (a fact Aang just knows by looking at the statue, since there’s no writing of any kind on the statue), which explains why the Fire Nation knew the next Avatar would be an Airbender and killed all of them. Including, much to Aang’s horror, good old Monk Gyatso.
  7. It’s not that Gyatso is dead that sends Aang over the edge (it’s been a hundred years since Aang last him, and he was pretty old then); it’s that his skeletal remains are surrouned by the armor and corpses of dozens of Fire Nation soldiers, leaving no mystery as to how Gyatso must have died.
  8. It’s all too much for the poor little Airbender, and for the second time in the series, he goes into the Avatar State to unleash his fury. Had Katara and Sokka not been there to calm him down, he probably would have destroyed the entire temple. Luckily, they bring him back to his senses by reassuring him that while he may have lost his original family, he’ll always be a part of theirs. With that, they continue on their journey.
  9. Meanwhile, Aang’s Avatar State sets off a chain reaction around the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has finally returned. This worldwide phenomenon is a major blow to Zuko’s plan to keep the Avatar’s return a secret. Or, at least, it would be if his secret hadn’t already been figured out by one Commander Zhao.
  10. Commander Zhao is a snaky, condescending man who lives to inflate his own ego and humiliate those he sees as beneath him. Zuko is an easy target, having been banished from the Fire Nation and only allowed to return when he captures the Avatar. If Zhao catches him first, then that’s just one more insult he can shove in Zuko’s face. How proud these Fire Nation folks must be that a grown man gets off on putting down a teenager with enough of a burden on his shoulder.
  11. And so this strong-headed prince and this overconfident commander engage in a Firebending duel known as an Ag Ni Kai. Zuko barely manages to emerge victorious, thanks in part to Uncle Iroh, who yells fundamental advice from the sidelines.
  12. What matters most, however, is that Zuko decides against delivering the finishing move on his fallen opponent. It’s Zhao, who in a fit of sore loserdom, tries to attack Zuko when his back is turned. Again, Iroh saves his nephew, and delivers some choice words to Zhao before he and Zuko depart to their ship.

High Points:

  1. The tense encounter between Zuko and Zhao (and Uncle Iroh) are easily the best and most intriguing scenes in the episode. At this point, it’s pretty clear that Aang and friends are the “heroes” and the Fire Nation is the “villain.” But this episode throws some ambiguity our way by presenting us three different variants of “bad guy.”
  2. Zhao is the most traditional (and least interesting) villain of the three, and would likely have been the main baddie along with the Firelord in a lesser children’s show. But Zuko and Iroh? Iroh doesn’t seem all that villainous at all, with his love for tea and his nephew. Zuko, of course, wants to capture our hero Aang, but he’s hopelessly outmatched by Zhao in terms of resources and connections. Yet, as Iroh puts it, he’s a much more noble and honorable person than Zhao, even as an exiled prince. (And can a person who’s been exiled from the bad guys’ homeland really be all that bad?)
  3. One really has to give props to DiMartino, Konietzko, and company for further developing and humanizing the main bad guys. How many children’s shows even attempt to do that as early as episode three of any series?
  4. The Ag Ni Kai is also a fantastic demonstration of Firebending. This is one of the many ways in which the series makes concept of Bending more grounded and palpable by connecting it to actual martial arts principles and techniques. Scenes like this really benefit from the consultation of Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, hired to provide insight on the real life forms which inspire each element of Bending.
  5. As for our heroes, there are two moments in this episode that rank among the most emotionally resonant in the entire series, both of which take place just before the end credits, and both of which have to do with Aang coming to terms with the loss of his people and culture.
  6. The first, in which Aang says to Momo, “You, me, and Appa. We’re all that’s left of this place. We have to stick together.” So simple. So poignant. What more is there to say?
  7. The second, which closes the episode, shows our heroes flying away from the Southern Air Temple. Aang and Momo watch silently as the abandoned temple disappears behind the clouds.
  8. Both moments are underpinned by an amazing music cue from the Track Team, Avatar’s resident music composers (and sound designers) Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman. These two have always been an integral part of Avatar’s success (and would later work on Korra), and this is just one of many standout moments. It’s little wonder fans used to beg year after year for a CD release of the Avatar soundtrack.

Low Points:

  1. Thank God the episode ends on such a soaring high note because, except for the scenes with Zuko and Iroh and Zhao, the rest of the episode SUCKS. The animation? SUCKS. The voice acting? SUCKS. The dialogue? The humor? The drama? SUCKS, SUCKS, SUCKS!
  2. That’s a bit hyperbolic (not to mention juvenile), but it’s honestly shocking how bad this episode is. I know, it’s the first season and they haven’t worked out all the bugs yet. That doesn’t quite explain how this episode came out so terribly, especially since the first two episodes weren’t that bad at all.
  3. Then again, those episodes were animated by an entirely different animation studio. For the entirely of Avatar’s production, the only way that Nickelodeon and the Avatar crew could fulfill their huge workload and episode order each season was to delegate the animation production to two separate studios (all stationed in South Korea). During Book One, those studios were JM Animation Co., Ltd and DR Movie. JM Animation animated the first two episodes, while DR Movie animated this one.
  4. The odd thing is, if you look at the two studios’ track records, DR Movie would appear to have the more impressive resume. According to their Wikipedia page, DR Movie is the only Korean studio to have a contract with Studio Ghibli. (Hell, as of this writing, DR Movie is the only one of the three animation studios that worked on Avatar to even have a Wikipedia page.) But as Avatar went on, it was JM Animation that consistently produced the best-looking episodes of the series. DR Movie even quit Avatar after Book Two and handed its animation duties to its sister studio, MOI Animation.
  5. So maybe DR Movie wasn’t quite sure yet what to do with Avatar, or maybe the directions they received from DiMartino, Konietzko, and company weren’t entirely clear. Whatever the case, the first few episodes they animated for Avatar are pretty bad.
  6. Every time Aang has to express an emotion like disappointment, reminiscing, or sorrow, he just looks sleepy. The voice performance by Zack Tyler Eisen is on-point (as it usually is), but sleepy Aang just makes me laugh.
  7. You know what doesn’t make me laugh? Sokka. At least not in this episode. In the past, I used to think my hatred of Sokka was entirely due to Jack De Sena’s voice acting. He can certainly go overboard sometimes, but at the end of the day, he’s just an actor doing his best to make something out of a terrible script. (Not even P.J. Byrne, the voice of Bolin and one of the funniest character actors in Hollywood today, is immune to the horrid lines this franchise can occasionally pump out.)
  8. The animation doesn’t do Sokka any favors either. Because he’s the comic relief, we’re supposed to believe that whatever violence is inflicted upon him is automatically funny. But flipping him in the air with an Airbending blast seems intolerably cruel coming from someone like Aang. Later, when Aang enters his Avatar state, we see Sokka get blown about twenty feet into a stone wall. He’s not knocked unconscious, and he doesn’t experience any broken bones. So why should I care if he and Katara get blown off the mountain by Aang’s windy rage?
  9. That entire sequence is particularly awful. These kids are hundreds of feet in the air and in danger of being blown away to their deaths by the merciless winds of Aang’s despair. Yet Katara and Sokka speak to each other about the situation like people reciting their lines for an Advil commercial. Katara immediately volunteers to attempt to calm Aang down (with absolutely no precedence of how she could possibly do that), and Sokka callously tells her that she better hurry up before they both get blown off the mountain. Is Sokka’s sudden lack of brotherly concern for his sister’s safety supposed to be funny?
  10. To make matters worse, the scenes of Aang and friends at the Air Temple are clumsily intercut with the scenes of Zuko, Iroh, and Zhao. It’s particularly jarring towards the end, when Aang’s Avatar state havoc is edited around Zuko and Zhao’s Ag Ni Kai. I think they should have saved the Avatar state business for after the Ag Ni Kai, that way the worldwide reveal of the Avatar’s return doesn’t undercut the tension between Zuko and Zhao (who, aside from pride, are basically fighting for the right to capture the Avatar).
  11. All this confusion really does undermine the main emotional point of the episode, in which Aang discovers that he really is the last Airbender left on this planet. As harrowing as this concept is in theory, within the context of this episode’s messy script and clunky humor, it rings pretty hollow (at least until the final two moments discussed in the High Points). As time goes on, the episodes will strike a firmer balance between its pathos and its humor, making for some wonderful episodes. This is just one misstep (but unfortunately not the last).

Random Points:

  1. I always wondered about that scene when Aang goes into the Avatar State, which transmits a signal to different places in the world, alerting everyone that the Avatar has returned. Does this happen every time an Avatar goes into the Avatar State? Or did it only happen this time because Aang was in the proximity of the Air Temple sanctuary containing all the statues of the past Avatars? If it’s the former, why wasn’t the world alerted to the Avatar’s return back in episode two, which was the first time we’d ever seen the Avatar State activated? If it’s the latter, then I suppose it makes sense. The episode doesn’t clarify this one way or the other, which is why it still puzzles me after all these years.
  2. Did you know that DiMartino and Konietzko hired Jason Isaacs to play Zhao based on his performance in The Patriot starring Mel Gibson? That said, am I the only one who think that Zhao’s character design and voice performance resembles Gibson more so than Isaacs?

Conclusion:

As we can see, Avatar has a few production hurdles to clear before it can even qualify for the title of “best American animated children’s series ever made.” The ambitious and the potential is there, at least. As Konietzko put once it, “the first season of anything is Hell.” He was referring to the production side of things, but it can be true for the audience as well. It’s a good thing children are way more forgiving of sloppy execution, so long as whatever is on screen provides enough sustenance for their imagination, and even the worst episode of Avatar has more creativity and interest than most kid’s show.

Next week: Korra: “The Revelation” & “The Voice in the Night”

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4 responses

  1. Do you think Aang being the last Airbender make a lot of sense within the show’s world?
    I’ve thought a little bit about this recently and am not sure it’s as sensible as it used to be. Traditionally, agricultural societies have trouble fighting two groups of people, those on hills (e.g. Switzerland, atop mountains) and those that are nomadic (e.g. the Mongols).

    The former is difficult to fight against, because they can presumably see and hit you before you ever get in range. Moreover, it’s probably exhausting to climb the mountain in the first place. (Crash Course did a World History Episode on this entitled, “Rethinking Civilization” that touches upon this.)
    The latter is difficult to fight against, because nomadic groups can concurrently flee (exhausting aggressors) and live life normally (moving is moving whatever the cause). Moreover, they’re super mobile, so they can hit a group and run away before anyone can react. From what I understand, the Chinese had such a difficult time with nomads, they built the Great Wall.

    With this in mind, the Air Nomads are on top of hills (mountains), nomadic*, and fly. Even given the power boost Firebenders received with Sozin’s comet, it seems strange that the Fire Nation managed to sneak up on the Airbenders and exterminate all/most of them with the comet. The former is strange because Aang’s teachers voice concern about the state of the world, so it seems odd that the Fire Nation managed to move an entire army near the Air Temples without notice**. The latter is especially weird, because without any opposition in the air, it seems the Air Nomads should have easily fled.
    (Moreover, even within the show, a more advanced, albeit not Sozin Comet powered Fire Nation is unable to take down the Northern Air Temple, while it is defended by mostly non-benders.)

    *allegedly, the original conception of the Air Nomads was the most of them were nomadic and a few lived permanently at the Air Temples (maybe those that wanted to become monks). Because of this, Aaron Ehasz conceived of some Air Nomads escaping the massacre and hiding within the Fire Nation*** (I don’t believe this was stated anywhere, but maybe citizens within the Fire Nation even helped to hide some of the Air Nomads). They presumably mixed with people in the Fire Nation, so they became descendants of the Air Nomads and not necessarily Air Benders (I think Air Benders were meant to be there as well, but that’s a “what could have been”). For an interesting point, supposedly Ty Lee would have been one of these Air Nomad descendants.****

    **I remember reading that Air Temple access was made possible by an Air Nomad betraying a secret passageway. Even with this, though, it seems weird that the Air Nomads didn’t choose to flee if they noticed an army nearby. One would imagine the Western Air Temple would have easily noticed an approaching army. (This may be fan canon and not intended real backstory. Within the show, it seems the Fire Nation either forgot about the secret passageway/didn’t know the passageway for “The Northern Air Temple” or opted not to use it.)

    ***The Earth Nation seems maybe more sensible since I don’t recall the Fire Nation having complete control of it, but Ehasz apparently wanted to explore the idea that “fire cannot exist without air”. Interestingly, by doing this, he may also have been able to touch upon the idea of hiding in plain sight. (I don’t know if it’s an East Asian idea, but there’s a Chinese idiom that translates to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. It’s about those who are very skilled but hide in plain sight. This arguably applies to Iroh. Maybe it could have applied to the Air Nomads.)

    ****The immediate connection is her unique agility and maybe her ability to see auras. Another connection (my own) may also be her large family. The other Fire Nation families seem really small. I’m not sure why but I imagine the very spiritual Air Nomads may have seen having large families as a positive, especially after the massacre.

    For a production question unrelated to the above, what does the Animation Director do? I’ve been a little bit confused by the various roles needed for an animated work since a lot of the art work seems done away from where the writing is happening and the animation directors (at least for “Avatar”) seem to have been with the writers.

    (Sorry this ended up being longer than I intended)

    April 16, 2017 at 1:53 am

    • Ian

      I think the airbender genocide makes sense since the writers do a smart job of letting the viewer imply in their head how it went down by not providing a single bit of specificity to how the raids went down, other than that it happened during Sozin’s Comet. Seeing as the genocide is 100 years removed from the present time within the show, I think it works as being an event that “just happened.”

      The airbenders are all dead, the end. Could some have escaped? Sure. Are we to assume they were then killed if they did? Yes. Could we assume some are still alive? Sure. Does that matter to Aang’s story? No. So either way I think it works as a series concept in the same way the concept of bending works without an explanation. Animals and the moon taught people to bend according to the show, but we are never given any explanation past that, and we are to just accept it. Thankfully concepts like the genocide and bending being taught by animals is either explained at the start of the series (leaving no room for questioning it as coming out of nowhere) or is gradually explained about an unknown concept.

      All this to say I think it works lol

      You mentioned the Fire Nation being able to get into the temples via a traitor amongst the Air Nomads. This information comes from the, as far as I’m aware, non-canon card game. There were 4 exclusive characters made for the game that create some really interesting lore for the series. I consider it canon as the 4 characters are fascinating to me and create some interesting possibilities for this universe. The 4 characters are in the link below.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar:_The_Last_Airbender_Trading_Card_Game

      April 26, 2017 at 6:11 pm

  2. William Wehrs

    When I first saw this episode I was really impressed, as I didn’t expect this show to deal with the genocide committed by the fire nation in such an overt manner. I mean we have corpses! Looking back, I do still like this episode, but it does suffer from way too many scenes of Sokka being hungry. Thankfully the next episode begins Sokka’s growth. Though the animation is inconsistent I thought that the scene where all the previous Avatars’ eyes lit up was very well done. Also, major shout out to Jason Issacs’ voice acting as Zhao, as one would never know the actor was the same who played Lucius Malfoy. Issacs does a great job hiding his British accent, as well as giving Zhao, a pretty one note character, a personality.

    April 16, 2017 at 8:05 pm

  3. Ian

    Marshall I refuse to let your old review score system die, so I shall use it for these retrospectives!

    HIGH POINTS

    – I think what makes both Zuko and Uncle Iroh interesting to an audience is that the show immediately throws in Zhao, a character who is everything we expected these guys to be. Zhao is hotheaded, deceitful, manipulative, and no nonsense – Zhao most certainly does not have a sense of humor and has little, if any, humanizing qualities. This works well two fold.

    – 1. It makes Zuko and Iroh have our sympathy because now the villains have a villain. Someone who is worse then they are and who we want to see them beat. It also makes us ask the question of “Well, why are Uncle Iroh and Zuko so different? What has caused Zuko to embrace a code of “honor”, or Uncle Iroh, a war general, to reside to a life of mentorship to his nephew, and a passionate love of tea?”

    – 2. Sometimes one dimensional villains are fine, but can get boring if we see them to often or have nothing else of substance besides being evil.
    Zhao, thankfully, is only around for a total of 7 episodes in a 20 episode season, and is backed by the wonderful voice of Jason Isaacs who is somehow able to completely sell this very simple villain by just GOING FOR IT. Every line by Mr. Isaacs is sincere and calculated and you feel like Zhao is a person, even if a very simple one. Plus his fight with Zuko is really great!

    -Honestly if it weren’t for Zuko and Iroh, I do honestly think the Northern Air Temple, if it kept the quality of the rest of the episode throughout, could have been as bad as the Great Divide…

    – The scene where Aang does see Gyatso is very well done and you completely get the emotions and pain behind the event. Even if you don’t quite care about Aang just yet as a character, the scene works.

    – Everything else that was positive about the episode that you said I agree with.

    LOW POINTS

    – I agree that all of Aang’s plot is very bad. I blame that A LOT on the animation which fails to convey… anything really! Aang is sleepy, Sokka is constipated, and Katara looks quite bored. Which is REALLY weird because Zuko and Iroh’s stuff is quite expressive! Just look at the fight with Zuko and Zhao! There is an entire story being told there with the characters expressions themselves!

    – Another huge problem with this episode is the crew didn’t take into account how boring and meandering the premise of this episode actually is.
    NEXT TIME ON: Avatar: the LAST AIRBENDER! Aang will search the 100 year old ruins of his home to find out if he truly is the LAST AIRBENDER.

    – There is no tension, no mystery, no nothing, to this premise. We are all waiting for the main character to get on our level, and that’s never a good thing. It makes the wait boring.
    The King of Omashu would have a similar problem, but it was able to somewhat push this to the side by having the premise of the episode be different than the obvious plot point. The episode isn’t about “who is this King?” its about, “Can Aang survive this crazy King’s tests.”

    – What the creators then should have done was create a mystery aspect to the episode. While we know the airbenders were slaughtered at the temple I found it quite odd that aside from that one fire nation helmet that there were no other bodies from either side of the conflict scattered among the temple. Maybe there really could have been a reason for Aang to think his people escaped and the episode could have had the audience wonder throughout, “yeah, where is the evidence of an attack?” “Were the fire nation really here?”
    What the resolution would have been is up in the air, but it would have kept the audiences focus off of the obvious plot point, and instead shifted focus to something different and more ambiguous.

    – Or better yet, have there be an airbender still alive at the temple, whom is on his last moments. Have him be an airbender who escaped another temple and came to this one with a vision from the spirits that he would see the avatar before he died, being able to know that he was not the last airbender and that his people could still have a chance to regrow! Have Momo be his pet who has been bringing him food, and have Momo steal food from the perpetually hungry Sokka who gives chase like in the original episode leading to Aang meeting the man with his dying words being “you are the last airbender…”

    – I know all of that was SUPER fanfictiony but you can see how even with that really bad and rough outline that it leads to 1. A deeper meaning to Aang about his role as the last airbender. 2. A deeper meaning to the shows title. and 3. surprises the audiences expectations because we all expected for the the airbenders to be what the show told us: dead.

    – And really that’s my main problem with Aang’s subplot, the lack of anything interesting going on. We’re just wondering around, not doing anything really fun (the ugly CG airball scene was not particularly “thrilling”), just waiting for the next Zuko scene.

    – I’ve always found that when watching the scene where Katara calms Aang down that any person I’m watching it with will immediately make a snarky comment about how they’ve only known Aang for a few days and that its stupid. And they are completely right to do so. I feel like the episode should have taken the same approach as The Desert, by having Katara, AND SOKKA, just say nothing and just hold Aang in their embrace. It says so much and yet doesn’t overreach into feeling unwarranted. People care about people, that is relateable, what isn’t relateable is telling a hurting stranger that you are their family now.

    OTHER POINTS

    – I feel like the reason everyone may like Iroh so much is because we all want to be able to just relax in life and most people I think can relate to wanting to not take life so seriously if possible. Uncle Iroh is old and has clearly seen some stuff, not to mention has to travel around with his cranky nephew, yet he’s really relaxed and takes it easy. I think we all wish we were as patient and as relaxed, and therefore Iroh is someone we wish we could be. Plus with the fact that he a respected fire nation general he also embodies our desire to be in control at all times without having to always be on alert or on the defensive. Basically what I’m theorizing is that Uncle Iroh is actually a power (and as the show goes on) wisdom fantasy, for literally every person watching lol

    – The other reason is I think Iroh represents a person we all know in a particular group of people we don’t like. We all have those relatives that we just can’t stand, or a group of people we know who make our lives tough. Yet there is always that one cousin or friend, guy or gal, who is different from the rest yet still belongs to that group, often leading you to wonder, “why are they related/ friends with them again?”

    – We like that guy or gal, we like that cousin, they’re really chill people and easy to get along with, we like Uncle Iroh.

    – In regards to Jason Isaacs as Zhao, George Takei gives a similarly stellar performance to the infamous Warden from Imprisoned. Honestly I wouldn’t have minded if the season had a few more deliciously hammy and evil fire nation generals chasing Team avatar and trying to screw over the banished prince, each one trying to one up the other general for power while poor Zuko wants to get the avatar so he can just go home. Who knows how that really would have worked out. Still, a fun idea if I do say so myself.

    Overall I can still go back to this episode for the Zuko and Iroh bits which I think are great. Aang’s stuff may suck, but it does have a great payoff in the end and the scene of Aang discovering Gyatso is truly well done.

    I give the episode a 9 out of 15.

    Just OK

    Please reply

    June 15, 2017 at 8:29 pm

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