AKA the three episodes before the two-part finale, aka I am very nearly a third of the way through this show. No.
Only Aang would take a break from being chased by Fire Nation soldiers who want to lock him up indefinitely to go to a Fire Nation cultural festival. Because yes, that’s how this episode starts. True to character, Sokka thinks it’s the STUPIDEST IDEA EVER and Katara is convinced by the practicality—like Aang says, seeing firebenders up close when they’re not trying to attack him would be good for his bending education, and it’s not like they can’t wear disguises. So into a Fire Nation village they go.
After a fun moment where Katara matches up Aang and Sokka’s masks to their personalities…
…the trio settles in to watch a firebender magic show. Only the whole “go incognito” plan kind of flies out the window when Aang uses airbending to rescue Katara from a rogue fire dragon (don’t ask). In an attempt to distract people who now clearly knows he’s the Avatar, he gets his boogie on while Sokka unties Katara:
A fella named Chey helps them escape to the forest to meet Jeong Jeong, a firebender whom Chey says can teach Aang some mojo. Only when they get to his camp, Jeong Jeong—who’s wanted by the Fire Nation cops for being the only one to desert the army and live to tell the tale—refuses to teach Aang on account of Aang being a young whippersnapper who’s supposed to learn water- and earthbending first, thank you very much. Also because fire is a super-scary force of nature—not like water and earth, which are for sissies—and Aang is too weak to control it.
That’s when Avatar Roku appears to tell Jeong Jeong to stop being a fucking asshole.
I mean, not in so many words, but that’s basically what happens.
So Jeong Jeong does teach Aang firebending, but it’s less either the fire or the bending and more “This is how you stand. This is how you breathe. This is how you concentrate.” But Aang, impatient to get to the good stuff and fulfill his destiny (guilt issues), is all “I JUST WANT TO LEARN HOW TO SHOOT FIRE FROM MY FINGERTIPS!” Don’t we all, Aang? Don’t we all? Jeong Jeong tells Aang about an ex-pupil of his who only wanted to control fire and didn’t care about discipline or restraint. Surprise: It’s Admiral Zhao! Who showed up at the festival after Aang escaped and has been hunting him since.
AND WHO’S ALSO VOICED BY JASON ISAACS.
Jeong Jeong goes off to do something old and curmudgeonly and wise, leaving Aang to complete a boring training task. Only Aang gets a bit too into it and starts flinging fire around, which ends with him accidentally burning Katara. Sokka loses his shit, as does Jeong Jeong, who shows up and tells Aang to GTFO. I think they both have the right of it, frankly. Man, Aang’s fucked up in two episodes running now. But you can tell why he did. Realistic character development!
Katara’s fine, though, because it turns out she has waterbender healing powers. OK. I’ll go with that. Jeong Jeong says he wishes he had that, since fire only brings destruction and pain. And then… BOOM. Firebenders, led by Admiral Zhao, show up. Jeong Jeong refuses to fight and instead uses some firebending trick to escape. So then Zhao and Aang fight, only Aang avoids the temptation to firebend and instead uses his airbending and dodging prowess to make Zhao look really flipping incompetent. Realizing that Jeong Jeong was right about Zuko lacking control, Aang takes the fight to the Admiral’s ships and tricks him into burning his ride home down.
He also taunts Zhao by saying “I don’t know why, but I thought you’d be better than Zuko.” Meanwhile, Zuko, off in the distance:
Aang, having won the fight by using Zhao’s own aggression against him, peaces out with Katara and Sokka, who bicker about Katara’s newfound healing abilities.
Can there be Zuko next episode? Please?
The Northern Air Temple
No. No Zuko.
BUT. We do get an episode where a character veers into “Technological progress is bad! Stop disrespecting history! No change!” territory, but then by the end he realizes he was maybe kind of being a little bit of a jerkwad. You think “The Northern Air Temple” is going to go all SCIENCE BAD. But then it doesn’t. Thank you, Avatar.
Let’s talk about what actually went down in this episode. Aang & co. hear about a secret group of air walkers, which makes Aang think there might actually be airbenders still living in the Northern Air Temple. Guess which of his companions is encouraging and optimistic and which one thinks he’s going off on a wild turkey-goose chase. Go on. Guess.
Also, brilliant line from Aang: “I laugh at gravity all the time! Ahahhaah gravity.” Would you say he’s…
OK OK, moving on.
When they get to the temple Aang gets pissy because what he discovers isn’t airbenders, but a group of people who spend all day having fun on hang gliders. The most adept of those is a boy named Teo, who we learn later ended up in a wheelchair after a flood destroyed his village when he was a baby. Teo’s father—who’s in the credits only as “The Mechanist,” but I’m gonna call him Mr. Monocle—led the refugees to the temple, which by that point had been abandoned. Mr. Monocle used his science/engineering know-how to make the place habitable, installing a series of tubes (it’s not a truck!) to carry hot air around.
Aang, continuing his trend of being a little bit of a dipshit—a dipshit driven by completely understandable emotional impulses, but still a dipshit—judges Mr. Monocle for doing renovation work on the sacred temple. I get where you’re coming from, dude, but… they live there now. They’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do. The guy wants to build a world where his disabled son can fly. Don’t be harsh.
Teo whips out a cool metaphor about the wildlife that lives in the temple, explaining that things may have changed in the past century, but the critters are the direct descendants of the ones who lived there when the airbenders did. He then leads Aang to the sanctuary, which, as only an airbender can open it, should be the only part of the temple that’s completely untouched. Wanting it to stay that way, Aang elects not to go inside.
Meanwhile, Mr. Monocle and Sokka have become SCIENCE BROS.
Mr. Monocle delivers the ominous news that there’s a room in the Northern Air Temple filled with explosive gas. NBD. And there’s a leak somewhere, but he can never figure out where the leak’s coming from, because the gas is colorless and odorless. With their Science Bro powers combined, the two of them figure out that if they put rotten eggs in the room, they can give the gas an odor, thus making it easily detectable.
Hmmmmmm. I wonder if that will come up later.
Meanwhile Aang’s decided to open the sanctuary, since even if Teo’s not an airbender he still has the spirit of one, so if he wants to see what’s in the sanctuary then he damn well will. But it turns out what’s in there is weapons Mr. Monocle has been making for the Fire Nation so they won’t blow his home up.
In a bit of excellent timing, the Fire Nation representative shows up to get the weapons, only for Aang to tell him to GTFO. Which is pretty awkward for the Northern Air Temple, as now they have an army coming to attack them and all, but Aang, Katara, and Sokka have their backs. The good guys have a bunch of stink, slime, smoke, and fire bombs at their disposal (uh, buds, maybe fire bombs against people who control fire might not work so well?), and Sokka figures out how to make Mr. Monocle’s “war balloon” work.
Things go pretty well for Aang & co. for a while—the bombs are effective against the Fire Nation foot soldiers, and Aang uses airbending to whip up an impressive avalanche that probably killed a whole bunch of people. But then. Tanks. I kind of love the Fire Nation. Because everyone else is all: Spears! The occasional sword! But you know what we should really do to take out this temple that in all honesty has very little strategic importance? HAUL TANKS UP A MOUNTAIN.
Aang’s able to take out a few of them with airbending—I repeat, Aang is able to airbend some tanks over, holy crap—but they have some sort of balancing component that makes them pretty much indestructible. Indestructible, that is, until Teo figures out that the balancing system uses water. So Katara steps up, and with help from Aang and Appa they take out even more tanks.
Then Sokka shows up with Mr. Monocle in his war balloon, which is pretty much a giant hot-air balloon. They drop some slime on some tanks before getting a whiff of the sweet, sweet smell of rotten eggs… which means that aforementioned gas leak is nearby. They jettison the war balloon’s fuel into the crack where the gas is coming from, blowing up the Fire Nation army and almost getting themselves killed in the process. But they survive. Aang gives a stirring speech about how the people now living in the Northern Air Temple have made it their own and protect each other (AVOIDING “SCIENCE BAD”) before heading on his way.
To end on an ominous note: Fire Nation soldiers find the war balloon and eeeevilly proclaim that their defeat at the Northern Air Temple will be “the gateway to many victories.” DUN DUN DUNNNNNN.
OK, Zuko in the next one, right?
The Waterbending Master
This episode starts with a shot of a koala, so you know I’m going to like it.
Team Avatar’s all on-edge and pissy because they’re where the Northern Water Tribe should be, only they can’t seem to find it. But then! Icebergs! Ice walls! Ice gates! Needless to say, this Water Tribe is like 10,000 times more impressive than Katara and Sokka’s, at least from a materialistic perspective. It’s too cool-looking. Everyone’s too happy. Something’s going to go wrong.
Oh, and Sokka spots a laaaady.
Meanwhile, Zhao has discovered that Aang is heading to the Northern Water Tribe to find a waterbending master. Yeah, no shit, dude. I’m pretty sure he’s told that to multiple people. Since the Northern Water Tribe is so impressive, it’ll require a massive force to invade them, which means Zhao needs to commandeer Zuko’s soldiers.
Note: I said his soldiers, not his ship. Isn’t Zuko operating with a skeleton crew? I’m pretty sure that if Zhao’s assembling a huge army, getting Zuko’s, like, twelve people shouldn’t be of paramount importance to him. All that is to say that Zhao busting up Uncle Iroh’s Dance Party Music Night to steal Zuko’s crew is done less out of military necessity and more out of Zhao wanting to stick it to Zuko a little.
Zhao is so mature.
While Iroh’s hosting his boy band practice, Zuko is brooding alone in a dark room, because of course he is. Enter Zhao, who’s all “Surprise, bitch. Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me. Oh BTW sorry you won’t be there to see me capture the Avatar.”
Zhao sees Zuko’s fancy swords and realizes he’s the Blue Spirit who helped Aang escape his clutches. He didn’t realize that before because, as established, he’s a dingledork who thinks he’s about eighty times more of a capable adult than he actually is. As a coup de chlildish pissbaby grace, Zhao sneeringly informs Iroh that he’s invited to come along on the Avatar-capturing mission if he wants.
Meanwhile, back at the Northern Water Tribe, Chief Arnook hosts a feast in Katara, Sokka, and Aang’s honor. The feast doubles as a 16th birthday party for Princess Yue, the girl Sokka went all hearteyes at earlier. He tries to get his flirt on and fails magnificently, but luckily Yue’s into socially awkward dorks.
Aang meets Master Paku, who’s going to teach him and Katara the ins and outs of waterbending. He’s a huge dick. Even more dickish: The next morning he informs Katara that he can’t teach her waterbending, because the girls in the Northern Water Tribe only learn healing, not fighting. My favorite thing about this scene—about this whole episode—is that Katara doesn’t look sad, or shocked, or indignant. Her immediate reaction is hella pissed.
At first Aang wants to refuse to learn from Paku, but Katara tells him no, you can’t risk your training because this guy fell off the dick tree and hit every dick branch on the way down. So she goes to learn healing, and it’s a little disheartening because the other students are all little girls. While there, she learns an interesting tidbit from the teacher: The necklace Katara wears—the one that belonged to her mother—was carved for Katara’s Gran Gran by her fiancé. The reason Healing Teacher Lady knows this is that Gran Gran and the fiancé both were originally from the Northern Water Tribe. No one knows why Gran Gran left, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that it’s at least partially because of the North Pole’s screwed up gender roles.
While Katara’s getting a family history lesson, Aang’s taking waterbending lessons, Sokka’s securing a date with Princess Yue, and Zuko’s getting his ship blown up by the merry band of pirates that Zhao hired. Because he’s trying to assassinate a teenager. Zhao, you are pathetic. However, Zuko does catch a break when a green… dragon… bird… thing…
…shows up to…. glare at him?… and warn him that the blast is coming. Or something. So basically, his ship is destroyed, and Zhao thinks he’s dead, but he’s not. Iroh agrees to join Team Zhao, but he’s really only there so he can help cover for Zuko, who’s stowed away on the ship and is pretending to be one of Zhao’s guards. They’ll get to the Northern Water Tribe, and Zuko will swoop in and capture the Avatar for himself.
Sokka has his date, and it doesn’t go well, because Yue runs away after a few minutes. While in the middle of a fit of teenage self-pity, he cuts through Aang and Katara’s angst sandwich by suggesting that Aang teach Katara waterbending himself. Only Paku catches them at it and goes off on a rant about how THEY HAVE DISRESPECTED HIS TEACHINGS AND THE ENTIRE WATER TRIBE CULTURE. Paku will only keep teaching Aang if Katara apologizes, and she’s about to do it for Aang’s sake… until Paku condescendingly calls her “little girl.” And it’s on then. Katara challenges Paku to a duel… “if you’re man enough to fight me.”
Paku tries to ignore Katara, but then she water whips him and BOOM FIGHT SCENE. Katara actually holds her own really well for being a teenager with no real training going up against a waterbending master over twice her age. She even does a water disc move that Paku’s never seen before. Though he defeats her, you can tell he’s impressed by her indomitable spirit, AS WELL HE SHOULD BE. Also impressed: The little girls in Katara’s healing class, who are cheering her on. LEAD THEM TO A FEMINIST PARADISE, KATARA.
Then Paku sees Katara’s necklace, and it comes out he was the guy Katara’s Gran Gran was engaged to. It was an arranged marriage, and he loved her, but she didn’t love him back, so she ran away. Princess Yue’s in an arranged marriage situation, too, thus her clearly being into Sokka but running away from their date.
The episode ends with Paku—who’s less of a snarky jerk now—teaching Aang and Katara how to be (non-healing, warrior-type) waterbenders. I love how Aang drove like… zero percent of the action this episode. The plot was about girls not being allowed to be warriors, and it was ALL KATARA who got shit done.
Anyway, something tells me Aang will get center stage in the two-part season finale, when Zhao and Zuko are set to put in an appearance at the Northern Water Tribe. Check back two weeks from today for that recap. Til then, happy bending!
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