With our heroes officially on their journey, this episode is split into two primary plot threads: The first involves Aang, Sokka and Katara making their way to the Southern Air Temple, the other follows Zuko and Iroh.
(One quick note – in my post for episode 2, I wonder if the thoroughness of my write-up discouraged discussion. So this post will be a little less detailed and hopefully a little more open-ended, allowing for conversation. Please let me know if you prefer the more in-depth style, and thanks for reading!)
With the Team Avatar thread: Aang can’t let reports of Air-bender extinction go un-investigated. He is pretty confident that the Air Temples are hard enough to reach that some Air Nomads may have survived, but Katara and Sokka are less optimistic, and try to prepare Aang for disappointment.
We see where Aang’s coming from, as the Temple really would be extremely difficult to get to without a flying bison, (or at least a flying SOMETHING), and the temple is beautiful… but deserted. Things aren’t looking good, but they continue to explore. Meanwhile, Katara and Sokka are trying to protect Aang’s feelings however they can: Katara hides the Fire Nation helmet, Sokka volunteers for an Air-ball demonstration.
We also get a bit more detail as to what Aang’s life was like before he was frozen. We see his friendship with Monk Gyatso, and learn that Aang was, for unspecified reasons, told that he was the Avatar four years earlier than is custom.
After investigating the Air Temple sanctuary (how cool was that air-bender door lock?), the kids find a “lemur”. There is a playful chase, as Aang wants to make friends, and Sokka wants food!
We get the feeling though that the lemur’s appearance is significant though, because it leads Aang straight to where he finds the body of his friend Gyatso, surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers, all long dead. The truth of what happened is now undeniable, and Aang, in his despair, goes all glowy-eyed again, and is only calmed when Katara tells him that he’s not alone, that he has a new family. The lemur, which Aang names Momo, now joins this new family, and it’s time for Team Avatar to move on.
Little do they know, however, that Aang’s outburst has sent shockwaves through every Air, Water, Earth and Fire temple in the world, meaning that everybody, even the Fire Lord, now knows that the cycle was NOT broken, and that the Avatar has returned.
Meanwhile, we spend nearly half the episode following Zuko and Iroh. Though he is still determined to capture Aang, Zuko is shown as a bit more sympathetic here. We learn that Zuko isn’t simply hunting the Avatar for kicks, he was actually banished by his own father for being “a failure”. What’s more, we see from Commander Zhao that he is considered, by many, to be a laughing-stock.
We don’t want Zuko to capture Aang and take him to the Fire Lord, and yet, we see that he is perhaps the lesser of many evils. To be sure, we like him more than the duplicitous and cowardly Commander Zhao. Zhao tricks Zuko and Iroh into joining him for tea while he has his men interrogate Zuko’s crew.
On the one hand, Zhao has a point that a threat as great as the Avatar should probably not be left to “one teenager”, but we see very quickly that Zhao is more interested in his own glory than he is about simply protecting the Fire Nation. And he has an entire fleet at his disposal.
Enraged, Zuko challenges Zhao to a Fire-bending duel, and we get suggestions that a previous duel is how Zuko got his scar. Now watching that duel, how can we not be cheering on Zuko? How many other kids cartoon’s would spend time making us root for the antagonist? With wisdom gained from his uncle’s teaching, Zuko is able to defeat Zhao, and then Iroh saves Zuko from Zhao’s attempt to sucker-burn him. Still, even in his defeat, we realize that Zhao is not going to stop his own pursuit of the Avatar.
* Many of the animals in this show are explicitly referred to as hybrids “Hog-monkeys” for example, but Appa is simply called a “flying bison”, and Momo a “lemur”. What do you think is the other animal for their respective hybrids?
* Interesting that Iroh is a “retired” general, and clearly a very skilled Fire-bender, so why is he accompanying his banished nephew?
* I like the attention to detail regarding the techniques of bending. For example, Iroh telling Zuko to “break [Zhao's] root”