Ahead of 2010’s blockbuster-to-be The Last Airbender, we’re revisiting the Peabody-winning cartoon serial from which it got its name, Avatar.
3. The Southern Air Temple
First, a disclaimer: at times I will be making a bit of a deal out of the fact that Avatar was the recipient of a 2008 Peabody Award. I can’t help it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Peabody Awards, they are made to celebrate excellence in radio and television. Last year, when Avatar was honoured, the committee said this about the show: “Unusually complex characters and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare enhanced this American-made, anime-influenced martial-arts adventure.”
The big part of that is “consequences of warfare”, and it’s something that Avatar explores thoroughly throughout its three seasons. The pilot hinted at the consequences of a wartime society lacking male role models, but it never became the main focus – there was penguin sledding and lots of other fun to have! In episode three, The Southern Air Temple, the cost of the hundred-year war becomes the main focus.
With Katara and Sokka in tow, Aang returns to the Southern Air Temple, his old stomping grounds from a century ago to see what his home has turned into. Of course, a hundred years have passed, leaving very little of Aang’s (first) youth there: no monks, no flying bisons, really only empty temples and a disused airball court. (I wonder how exactly you play this game? It makes about as much sense as Quiddich!)
Katara lightly warns Aang that the Fire Nation may have wiped out the Airbenders, but Aang works around denying this with his regular positive stance, claiming that the Fire Nation would have never made it to the Air Temples without the use of a flying bison.
In a flashback, we are introduced to Monk Gyatso, Aang’s cheerful-looking mentor, who says that Aang should have been told he would be Avatar at age sixteen, not age twelve as he was. (Hmmm…) He also says that within the Air Temple’s sanctuary, a spirit will guide him in his journey.
So, of course, the gang heads for the sanctuary, where we are introduced to the reincarnation cycle of the Avatars via a number of statues, all of whom have come from the four nations. This means that Aang is the reincarnation of Avatar Roku, a Firebender, one of the first signs that the Fire Nation aren’t always the bad guys…
And then, lemur! Sokka, hungry as ever, chases the lemur – one of the last inhabitants of the Air Temple – while Aang chases after him as protection. In all of this tomfoolery, Aang stumbles upon Gyatso’s skeleton, surrounded by Fire Nation bodies, the final proof that the Fire Nation did trigger a genocide of the Airbenders.
In an outpouring of grief, Aang triggers his Avatar spirit and works on destroying the rest of the Temple. His grief is understandable (how would you react if your heritage was totally wiped out?) yet, in its power it causes a glowing effect within all the Avatar statues within the sanctuary and, following a series of similar effects across the world, the news is out: the Avatar has returned.
Meanwhile, Katara and Sokka work on calming Aang down, claiming that they are his new family and that no harm will come to him. This works, but Aang has stopped his denials. He truly is the world’s last airbender.
As our explorers are about to leave, Aang wonders how exactly he will communicate with Avatar Roku, but Katara tells him he will find a way – my guess is through hallucinations or flashbacks, really – before being interrupted by the lemur from earlier, who brings a starving Sokka food. As the lemur eats a moon peach, Aang calls him Momo – Japanese for “peach”, trivia fans! – and adopts him as another member of their group. They leave Aang’s former home soon after, with Aang taking one last glance at his home.
There’s a lot to deal with in this story. The fact that an entire race was exterminated by one nation is a big thing to take on in a cartoon. Aang knows it, you really can tell, but his denial of it is what makes it really powerful to watch. The ‘cost of war’, indeed.
As for the B-story, Zuko, Iroh and the Fire Nation warship stop off at a harbour for repairs following Aang’s attack from the previous episode. They quickly run into Commander Zhao (voiced by Jason Isaacs!), an important member of the Fire Nation army, who invites them for a drink. He tells them of the Fire Lord/Zuko’s father and his plans to win the conflict, which Zuko believes will fail, calling his father a “fool”. Zhao interrogates him on whether or not the Avatar may be alive, causing Zuko to lie, saying that he knows nothing of the Avatar being alive. Except, minutes later, Zuko’s crew reveal that the Avatar himself attacked the ship. Busted!
Zhao makes a fine point about the team searching for the Avatar – why should the fate of the world hang in the balance of a surly teenager with daddy issues? – and takes the responsibility of hunting him off of Zuko’s hands, which he doesn’t respond to well, challenging Zhao to an Agni Kai.
From Iroh’s warnings to Zuko, we can understand that an Agni Kai is how he got his freakish eye scar, but from whom? Turns out an Agni Kai is a duel between two fire benders, seemingly to the death, something that Zuko turns away from, deciding to not kill Zhao at the last moment. (Because, er, we wouldn’t have a rival for our antagonist. Such is plotting.)
The action here is depicted really well, the anime inspiration really shining through in the little breaks in the action – a close-up on an eye, flecks of stone falling through the air…
When Zhao attacks Zuko at the last minute, meek old Uncle Iroh steps in with a degree of badassery, pushing Zhao back and defending Zuko’s honour. “Thank you for the tea.” AWESOME.
So, all in all, a good episode, showcasing some more of the complexity to the show and leaving some questions to the mind… How important is Zhao’s plan? How important is Zhao? And how in the hell do you play airball?
Some random thoughts:
Sokka was on fine form in this episode, particularly with “I wanna eat you!”
Only a few episodes in and I love Iroh already. What a dude.
Is the decision to tell Aang he was the Avatar before he was sixteen, like the reincarnation cycle, a Buddhist thing?
I thought Zuko and Iroh’s little attempt to throw Zhao off at the docks was fun. Zuko seems like such an angsty character most of the time that seeing him almost loosen up like that was neat.
Hell yeah, “the Avatar has returned”.
Read our recap and review of episode 2 here.