The TDF Top 10: Avatar: The Last Airbender
In our latest TDF Top 10, Daisy Treloar ranks the top ten episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the best animated series of the 2000s.
There aren’t many cartoons from the 2000s which have endured as mightily and belovedly as Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, which experienced a massive resurgence in popularity when it dropped on Netflix this year. A whirlwind fantasy adventure following a 'chosen one' - the titular Aang - and his ragtag team of friends and tutors in his quest to defeat the Fire Lord, the series made waves in its refreshingly direct approach to the mature themes of imperialism, genocide, spirituality, and whether it’s justifiable to kill one person for the good of the world. (Spoiler: it can be, but really try not to if you can.)
In their sensitive adoption of Asian folklore and an anime aesthetic, creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko built a tangible, memorable world full of life, colour, and a beautifully fluid elemental magic system channelled with the grace of a martial art. And, though the series’ childlike humour can grate on some (come on, it is a kids’ show after all), its lasting stamp on western TV animation is irrefutable. From its divisive, markedly more serious sequel series centred around the next avatar, The Legend of Korra, to the redemptive character arcs and overarching narratives of more recent offerings like Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, it looks like the legacy of Avatar: The Last Airbender is here to stay.
Whittling down 61 episodes into a solid ten isn’t an easy task, but these top picks remain shining examples of the show’s terrific storytelling – that cartoons aren’t just for kids, and never really were. Allow us to present The TDF Top 10: Avatar: The Last Airbender...
10. The Southern Air Temple (Book 1, Episode 3)
Where better to start than where the series first addresses exactly why Aang is the last airbender? With his new pals, waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka, Aang travels to the old home of the Air Nomads to find the whole temple complex utterly desolate – apart from, of course, the hundred-year-old skeletons of his people, courtesy of the Fire Nation invasion. On finding the skull of his mentor, Gyatso, he even enters the Avatar State in grief.
Meanwhile, Prince Zuko (the Fire Lord’s disgraced son obsessed with tracking down the Avatar) and Admiral Zhao (a ruthless and ambitious Fire Nation commander) face off in a firebending duel, known as an Agni Kai. Zuko wins, only for Zhao to hit back when Zuko isn’t looking, the sneaky weasel. Uncle Iroh’s there to scare him off at least.
The episode marks a surprisingly dark turn so soon in the series, but nonetheless serves as an early indicator that Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t one to shy away from complex issues, despite its often goofy exterior. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as this is where the group stumbles upon everyone’s favourite flying lemur, Momo.
9. The Avatar and the Fire Lord (Book 3, Episode 6)
Occasionally Avatar: The Last Airbender takes a deep-dive into its lore, but only exactly when we need it. Just as Zuko is doubting his place in the Fire Nation, he happens upon the final testament of his great grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, while Aang consults with the previous Avatar, Roku. It turns out the two figures grew up as best friends, but, when Sozin rushed to help Roku in his hour of need, he ended up leaving the Avatar to die from noxious volcano gases in order to enforce Fire Nation order over the world. Yikes.
What’s really great about this brief aside is its bearing on Zuko – for he discovers that he’s not only descended from Sozin, but Roku too, on his mother’s side. It’s a fine parallel for his inner turmoil over what side of the war he should take.
8. The Desert (Book 2, Episode 11)
After the events of The Library (another great episode there isn’t enough room for here), Team Avatar are left stranded in the desert when their newest member, blind earthbender Toph Beifong, fails to save Aang’s loyal sky bison Appa from being kidnapped by sandbenders. To be fair to her, her powers were severely limited due to the sand, and she was trying to stop the whole library from sinking into the ground at the same time.
What follows is a significant character shift for Aang. Here we see the clownish kid we thought we knew get dangerously angry as the group strikes out under the beating hot sun to search for Appa, leaving Katara to keep up morale. Aang again enters the Avatar State on hearing that Appa was muzzled (“WHERE IS MY BISON?!”), but Katara bravely calms him, reducing them both to tears. Moving stuff.
Forced to trudge across the dunes with water in short supply, the comic relief of the episode is left to Sokka as he unwittingly enters an…’enlightened’ state after consuming some strange cactus juice. “It’s the quenchiest!”
We also get to see the first inklings of the mysterious Order of the White Lotus when Iroh and Zuko come across a Pai Sho game in a village tavern.
7. The Siege of the North (Book 1, Episodes 19-20)
The largely episodic nature of Book 1 is overturned by this epic nail-biter of a conclusion. Having convinced Master Pakku that girls should be taught to waterbend in combat (go girl!), Katara becomes a great bender in her own right. Things heat up though when, on a romantic date, Sokka and Yue, Princess of the Northern Water Tribe, catch sight of the Fire Navy headed right for the city. Zuko secretly goes off on his own to track down Aang, who meditates in order to cross over to the Spirit World so he can get some help from (the frankly terrifying) Koh the Face-Stealer.
Katara and Zuko battle over Aang’s unconscious body, but Zuko wins as the sun rises and steals him away. Aang returns to the physical world and swiftly defeats Zuko, but Zhao captures and kills the Moon Spirit despite the warnings of both Aang and Iroh that it would upset the world’s balance. In one of the more poignant moments of the series, Princess Yue, touched by the moon as a baby, sacrifices herself to revive the spirit and the day is saved. But dun, dun, dun! At the end, we get a first glimpse of Azula, Zuko’s twisted sister and one of animation’s most iconic villains.
Whew, that was a lot. Horror, action, emotion: this season finale has it all. But just you wait – it isn’t even the best one.
6. The Southern Raiders (Book 3, Episode 16)
Zutara shippers, rejoice! Before the Gaang go off to defeat Ozai, there is one loose end left to tie up – Katara’s unaddressed anguish over her mother’s death. Zuko, keen to earn Katara’s approval, accompanies Katara on her revenge quest, dismissive of Aang’s warnings against such an objective. Eventually, the pair manage to locate the soldier responsible, who has retired to lead a rather sad but peaceful rural life with his cantankerous elderly mother. But, despite Katara’s gradual descent into rage – she even uses bloodbending to force information out of one officer – she just can’t bring herself to murder.
Often reduced to a maternal role within Team Avatar, we’ve seen flashes of Katara’s trauma, but she always pushes it down in favour of caring for the others. Here we get to see her at her most tortured and selfish – things which Zuko is all too familiar with – which makes for an extremely satisfying conclusion to her arc. Her merciful treatment of the soldier also provides an interesting dynamic for Aang, as he deliberates over whether the prospect of killing the Fire Lord can be reconciled with his beliefs as a pacifist monk.
5. Zuko Alone (Book 2, Episode 7)
In the show’s greatest solo character study, a disguised Zuko, having parted ways from his uncle, befriends a small Earth Kingdom boy and his family. Interspersed between his interactions with the townspeople are the painful memories of his childhood with Azula, the accession of his father to the throne, and the mysterious disappearance of his mother (if you want to know more about the latter, check out the graphic novel tie-ins).
When he has to reveal his identity as Fire Prince after a fight with some bullyish Earth Kingdom soldiers, he’s cast out by the villagers and left on his own again. Who doesn’t love a heart-breaking backstory?
4. The Guru / The Crossroads of Destiny (Book 2, Episodes 19-20)
In the Book 2 finale, Aang tries to open his chakras under tutelage from Guru Pathik; Toph discovers she can metalbend; and Azula, with her friends Mai and Ty Lee, capture Katara under the guise of Kyoshi Warriors. And that’s only the first half.
At one point Zuko is captured and thrown into the Crystal Catacombs with Katara (Zutara shippers, you are again welcome), with nothing else to do apparently but trade the experiences of losing their mothers. She even nearly heals his scar with some magic water Pakku gave her from the spirit oasis. Luckily she doesn’t, because Zuko soon defects back to the Fire Nation, and she later uses the water to bring Aang back to life after Azula shocks him whilst in the Avatar State.
It’s a hell of a ride, and the latent symbolism is stunning. The art historians among you might even have detected that the way Katara holds the dead Aang is remarkably similar to the way the Virgin Mary holds Christ in Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture. But it’s Zuko and Katara’s conversation, as well as the excellently choreographed fight sequences, that make this one so memorable. And, of course, Azula casually staging a coup over the whole Earth Kingdom government almost single-handedly. Just girly things, you know.
3. Tales from Ba Sing Se (Book 2, Episode 15)
Tales from Ba Sing Se was the series of quaint slice-of-life vignettes we didn’t know we needed. While Katara and Toph bond over their differing approaches to femininity, Zuko struggles with his love life and Aang builds a zoo. The jewel in the crown though is undoubtedly “The Tale of Iroh” – wherein Iroh commits a few random acts of kindness for some of the city’s inhabitants and makes a pilgrimage to a hilltop, all to mark the birthday of his dead son. He tearfully sings:
Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home
It goes without saying that you’ll need tissues at the ready for this one. What’s even more moving is that the episode is dedicated to Mako, Iroh’s voice actor, who died during the production of Book 2. Sniff, sniff.
2. The Puppetmaster (Book 3, Episode 8)
It’s here where we really witness the dark seeds from which The Legend of Korra would grow. Hearing that people are going missing from a small Fire Nation village, Team Avatar are keen to help, and are offered a place to stay by Hama the innkeeper. It turns out she, like Katara, is a waterbender from the Southern Tribe, thought long dead. But as the kindly crone becomes Katara’s mentor, things take a sinister turn. For it’s Hama who has been imprisoning the villagers as a twisted form of revenge for her decades as a Fire Nation prisoner! In their final standoff, Katara must use bloodbending (bending the water inside someone’s body to control their actions) in order to defeat her, but in so doing, the old woman has successfully passed on her disturbing methods to another generation.
As previously mentioned, Katara does end up using bloodbending later on during her journey to find her mother’s killer. But the beauty of The Puppetmaster’s horror lies in its subtle variation on the deceptively simple magic system we all thought we knew. And, while Koh the Face-Stealer was monstrously frightening, Hama is a figure altogether more chilling in her personal relation to Katara’s desire to retain a connection to her ancestry.
1. Sozin’s Comet (Book 3, Episodes 18-21)
So here it is, the grand finale. Torn between his pacifism and need to protect the world from Ozai burning it to the ground, Aang seeks out an island he sees in his dreams, which turns out to be a giant lion-turtle. Zuko and Katara, meanwhile, head to confront Azula at her coronation as Fire Lord, who herself has spiralled into insanity following the betrayal of Mai and Ty Lee. Sokka, Suki and Toph work on taking down the Fire Nation airships, and Iroh and the White Lotus try to free Ba Sing Se.
Armed with the lion-turtle’s knowledge, Aang participates in a monumental battle with Ozai, utilising all four elements and eventually unlocking the Avatar State. At the palace, Zuko and Azula fiercely face off in an epic Agni Kai, but when Azula slyly directs her lightning at Katara, Zuko jumps in to take the blow. Katara then takes over, managing to freeze Azula over a water grate, who proceeds to fully break down in frustration. Her face in that moment is the kind of retina-staining image that’ll stay with you for life.
When Aang finally overpowers Ozai, instead of killing him, he decides to strip him of his bending – an ability granted to him by the lion-turtle, and a suitable end to his moral dilemma. Zuko becomes Fire Lord and makes up with on/off girlfriend Mai; Iroh keeps his tea shop in Ba Sing Se; and oh yeah, Kataang finally happens. It’s a bit weird if you ask me, but we’ll roll with it.
And that’s that. A truly unforgettable climax packed with gorgeous artwork, sublime fight choreography, and a killer soundtrack too. It has a certain re-watchability to it as well, unmatched by almost any resolution to, well, anything. Time again for another one, we reckon.
There are too many brilliant episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender to reduce to just ten. Honourable mentions go to Zuko’s turn as "The Blue Spirit" (Book 1, Episode 13), Katara’s as "The Painted Lady" (Book 3 Episode 3), and the fandom-poking joyride that is "The Ember Island Players" (Book 3, Episode 17).
What are your favourite episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender? Let us know in the comments below...