Retro: Avatar: “The Southern Air Temple”
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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?)
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
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”