Avatar:TLA Re-Watch: S1Ep1 “The Boy in the Iceberg”

Commentary on Avatar: The Last Airbender S1:Ep1 “The Boy in the Iceberg”

First, a brief word about spoilers. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers in these discussions, but I may occasionally mention general themes and concepts from later in the series. Please, in your comments, try not to spoil the fun for the people watching for the first time!

Just like the iceberg that kept Aang frozen, only the smallest portion of the story is visible in this first episode. We meet the principle characters, establish the setting, but there is so much more lurking beneath the surface!

If we were to judge the show only by this first episode, it would be easy to assume that it’s a pretty typical children’s adventure cartoon. Plenty of silliness and slapstick, and a story with clear good guys and bad guys. And yet, there’s already hints of more, suggestions that there is greatness, waiting to be discovered.

Consider the first scene with Sokka and Katara. It establishes several things right away: They are siblings, with the attendant rivalry. Katara can use water bending, and Sokka is a little bit resentful of her talents. Their parents aren’t around, and they have many responsibilities.

But then in their argument, Katara actually calls her brother “sexist” (among other things). I remember watching this scene for the first time and being surprised. While I’ve seen other cartoons take up the “Boys Vs. Girls” story trope, this show’s willingness to actually use the word “sexist” struck me as more sophisticated. It’s an indication that the show is prepared to explore some deeper issues, beyond the superficial “Good Vs. Evil” conflict.

Then, despite Aang’s dramatic entrance, his first words are: “Will you go penguin-sledding with me?” He is playful, impulsive, and a bit of a show-off, but ultimately friendly and earnest.

Another peek into hidden depths is the fact that Aang lies to Katara when she asks about the Avatar. Even if we hadn’t guessed that he was the Avatar by the fact that his face is on the DVD box, we saw him frozen in a giant magic iceberg, and then he woke up all glowy-eyed. Given what we learned in the intro, we can see that the Avatar’s disappearance is a big mystery to the whole world. Yet, despite his playful, extroverted nature, Aang chooses to lie.

We are also introduced to Prince Zuko and his Uncle Iroh. Zuko is established as the principal antagonist, simply through his desire to capture and “defeat” the Avatar. He is shown as determined, but impatient, and yet we wonder: How did he get his scars? Why is his honor dependent on completing what must have seemed like a century-old wild goose chase?

Even his frustration with his uncle’s refusal to teach him advanced fire-bending techniques is interesting. For the primary villain of a children’s show to openly acknowledge that he is not already all-powerful is unusual. His uncle’s laid-back attitude and fondness for tea is an unexpected blend with his skill at fire-bending. These things suggest that even the show’s antagonists are more than they may first appear.

We spend much of the first episode having fun, watching Aang show off his gliding skills, playing in the snow, laughing at Sokka’s Drill Sergeant routine. (“No potty breaks!”) And then there’s sneezing.

But after the penguin-sledding, we discover the derelict Fire Nation ship. Katara describes it as “a very bad memory for my people”. That, and the nasty-looking weapons inside, are ominous. Aang tells Katara: “If you want to be a bender, you have to let go of fear”, which introduces a theme which will resonate throughout all three seasons.

This leads to Aang’s discovery that he was frozen for a century, which is the first thing he seems to take seriously since his introduction.

But before it can be carefully discussed, the trip-wire alerts Zuko to their location, as well as the location of the Water Tribe’s village. This sets up the conflict to appear in episode 2.

Additional Notes:

* I love the show’s animals, nearly all of which are blends of traditional earth animals, like the otter-penguins and the tiger-seals.

* Sokka’s sarcasm is always welcome in my home. “And this is Katara, my flying sister.”

* Given how important they become later, it was a bit surprising to remember that characters like Toph and Azula don’t actually appear until later in the series.

* The Fire Nation’s coal-punk technology is cool.

* This is the only episode using this version of the opening. The more abbreviated opening that starts with episode 2 is less personal to Katara and more matter-of-fact.

Tor.com also did a re-watch of this show!

Also, check out this great Avatar Wiki!

So, what did YOU think?

You can leave comments here, but I’d also encourage you to check out my posts on Google Plus. An excellent place for discussion.

And be sure to come back on Tuesday for episode 2!


  • Noble Bear says:

    I love the setting. I love the characters. The dialog is often engaging. I am grateful to Nick for taking a chance on an american animated series having a continuous three season story arc.

    It also proved to be one of the greatest sources of frustration for me. Often the series reflected how little forethought and planning actually went into their concepts and how they just never seemed to realize what they had on their hands. Season 1 does a lot of stumbling but is passable. Season 2 is solid. season 3 is huge steamy mess ending in the biggest series letdown for me to date.

    Hopefully Korra will actually have the structure Avatar would have benefited from but was denied.

  • Christiana says:

    That’s really interesting, because my feelings about the series are pretty different. I felt like the entire run represents one of the most consistently great television shows, I’ve ever seen, and the last season, including the finale, easily represents one of my all-time favorite series finales.

  • Kaesa says:

    I agree with you on the comment about Katara’s specifically calling Sokka sexist. Even though, on my first viewing, I remember not being very impressed with the episode as a whole, I liked that they didn’t just go with Katara saying she was better because she was a girl, or something similarly tired and stupid.

    Another thing this episode kind of drives home (without actually making the tone of the episode all that dark) is that the war with the Fire Nation has had horrible costs. The scene with “Aang, this is the entire village. Entire village, Aang,” sticks out, and Sokka’s warrior training class for the little boys. It’s meant to be funny but it also drives home that there’s hardly anybody left. We get a more serious reiteration of that point when Katara says she’s the ONLY waterbender left in the Southern Water Tribe.

    A little detail that probably wasn’t intended to be relevant, but I noticed it this time: As Iroh is trying to talk Zuko out of pursuing the Avatar, in his game of solitaire he places a tile with an Air symbol on it over a tile with a Fire symbol.

  • Mark Junk says:

    Ok, first episode rewatched. I watched it with my son (8) and we both agree that our favorite characters are Grandmother and Appa. I know that seems odd but it’s honest. I like the character introductions and know how they develop as the story goes along having seen the first six or seven episodes years ago. All in all an enjoyable episode with lots of foreshadowing and mysterious clues. I look forward to watching this again now that it is on Netfix from the beginning.