Welcome, fellow readers. We at Toy-TMA cordially invite you all to Too-Much-Avatar Week. In preparation for the official premiere of Nick’s new Avatar series, The Legend of Korra, coming this Saturday morning, we will be posting new Avatar articles every day this week. Later, I will be sharing my Favorite episodes of all time. Also to look forward to, an early review of the latest Avatar comic The Promise Part 2, bookmarked for release this June.
Today, I begin Too Much Avatar Week with quite the peculiar list. One thing I have yet to get across in all my fanboy rants about the series thus far, is WHY I believe Avatar stands out over anything else that the big three child centered TV Networks combined (Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network) have created in over a decade. Apart from being one of the first successful animated series made in the west with a strong east influenced art style, the show itself pushed the boundaries of its Y7 TV rating and was able to pull off rare moments of drama and suspense that, before this show, would have seemed unprecedented for a young audience. Moments that make you think, “Wait, Nickelodeon let this slide?”
So to congratulate Avatar for taking risks and giving their young audience something more serious and mature to watch for a change, here are some specific episodes responsible for making it happen. My Top 5 Darkest Episodes of Avatar The Last Airbender.
Book 1 Chapter 13 The Blue Spirit
I’m one of those guys that started watching Avatar since the beginning during its premiere in 2005. Early on in the show’s run, while I enjoyed it for its good mix of fights and slapstick wrapped in some very pretty animation, I didn’t really think of it much more than just another harmless action series in the vein of Teen Titans or Kim Possible. Sure there was a very good buildup with a sense of urgency and distress in the world with the warring nations and whatnot, but the show itself never really went anywhere all too dangerous or threatening for the first several episodes.
The 13th episode of the first season was the first point of Avatar where I truly felt the stakes were raised. Let’s recap what happens:
- The show’s central antagonist, Zhao, get’s promoted to Admiral.
- He recruits a group of legendary archers in his hunt for the Avatar.
- They track down Aang and capture him while he’s too busy searching for a cure for his friends to properly defend himself.
- Oh that’s right, Aang’s only two available companions, therefore the only people who would theoretically know he’s in trouble and attempt to rescue him, are both out of commission due to nasty fevers they caught in a storm from the previous episode.
So like that, the world’s one and only hope for peace is officially captured and the Fire Nation has secured their victory.
“This is the year Sozen’s Comet returns to grant us it’s power! This is the year the Fire Nation breaks through the walls of Ba-Sing-Se, and burns the city to the ground!”
The only reason the Avatar, and henceforth the world, is saved this episode, is because a certain banished prince had the gall to go against everything he’s ever believed in order to break him out. Zuko, for the entire show at this point, has been obsessed with one thing and one thing only: restoring his honor and fulfilling his destiny as Prince of the Fire Nation. So for him to commit just about the most dishonorable act imaginable, betraying his entire country, was just unprecedented. What’s sad is that it wasn’t like Zuko wanted to do this because he had a change of heart or was truly concerned about the world. No, he does it because he’s literally given no other option. It was either this, or bend down, roll over, accept his failure, and live the rest of his life as an outcast, never to come home again. That sucks.
Book 2 Chapter 11 The Desert
In the opinion of not only myself but a large portion of fans, Avatar truly hit its stride and was at its absolute best in its second season. The plot thickened, the enemies were more threatening, and the Gaang started to move along their journey at a brisk pace with almost every episode building off the last. At the apex of the entire series, the Gaang discovered a library where they found out about a solar eclipse that could be their one and only window of opportunity to invade the Fire Nation at their weakest.
Of course, immediately upon receiving this information, their Bison gets stolen by Sandbenders and they are left stranded in the middle of the desert with no transportation.
Do I even need to remind people how intense this was? Let’s recap again:
- Sokka’s tripping balls on catctus juice the whole time, so he’s useless.
- Toph is blind as a bat, so she’s useless.
- Aang is more pissed than we have ever seen him or ever will, so much so that he is completely incapable on focusing on anything but Appa, so he’s also useless.
That leaves Katara, forced into taking up the mantle as the leader, desperately trying to keep the group together and alive, bare-in-mind all the while slowly losing what little usefulness she has as her water supply quickly depletes. It is easily the most powerless situation our heroes are ever in for the entire series. If that weren’t enough, Aang’s anger manages to get worse and worse as the episode progresses, to the point where he, the self-proclaimed animal lover who believes all life is sacred, consciously and intentionally KILLS a buzzard wasp in cold blood, just because.
By the time they reach the sandbenders, Aang completely snaps and enters the Avatar state. The episode ends with probably one of the saddest and unresolved wrap-ups in the series.
Book 2 Chapter 17 Lake Laogai
All right, so I had my doubts about putting this episode on the list. For starters, this is the episode when the Gaang is finally reunited with Appa, whose capture was what made the Desert episode so bleak in the first place. Moreover, Zuko is the one that sets him free, who does so not for any personal gain or obligation, but because it is the right thing to do. To cap it off, Zuko finishes by ultimately letting go of his identity as the Blue Spirit. So in many ways, this episode was very uplifting.
That said, it did not come without a price. And quite a steep one at that.
The victory at Lake Laogai came with the loss of Jet, who for the run of his character arc since season one went from being a troubled adolescent with misplaced ideals of justice to a humble refugee seeking redemption for the wrongs in his past. His story’s kind of depressing when you think about it. Just when he’s starting to become a decent human being, he gets unceremoniously killed off while fighting for his freedom. Also, keep note that this is the first time in the series a central character is KIA (Yue was self-sacrificed and Zhao suffered divine retribution. Neither of which was in battle). Not only did it serve to show just how sinister Long Feng is (probably my favorite villain in the series), but the way they go about confirming his death is so sudden. He tells Katara that he’s going to be okay, but as they leave to continue looking for Appa, Toph confesses the truth to Sokka:
That’s a punch to the gut if I ever felt one. While we see what looks like Longshot pulling out an arrow to stand guard over his fallen comrade in case any more Dai Li show up, it has been speculated that what he was really doing was readying an arrow to put Jet out of his misery. That may almost sound TOO dark, but honestly, it would not surprise me if Longshot had it in him to do that. After all, he was the guy that fired the shot that blew the dam that flooded the town that could have wiped out hundreds of lives in Book 1 Chapter 11.
RIP Jet, and may flights of Lemurs sing thee to Hot Guy Heaven.
Book 3 Chapter 8 The Puppetmaster
Coincidentally, this episode premiered on Nick the week of Halloween 2007. It sets itself up to be your typical ghost story, what with the creepy old lady innkeeper, and the mystery of people in town disappearing the night of the full moon. We’re lead to believe this is a spirit world conflict, given a similar setup to Book 1 Chapter 7, but then we gradually learn more about this innkeeper Hama. It is revealed that she is in fact at a Waterbender from Sokka and Katara’s tribe. We see the story of how she was the last of the Southern Waterbenders taken in the Fire Nation raids.
Then the episode takes a turn from a little spooky to flat out terrifying when Hama reveals the method that lead to her escape: Bloodbending. Freakin’ Bloodbending! That’s like something the mature fans would speculate online but never believed the creators to actually tackle.
So the next full moon arrives, and Hama attempts to force her teachings onto Katara.
“The choice is not yours. The power exists…and it’s your duty to use the gifts you’ve been given to win this war. …We’re the last Waterbenders of the Southern Tribe. We have to fight these people whenever we can. Wherever they are, with any means necessary!”
The worst part, by the end, she succeeds. Yeah, the bad guy wins this time. Hama threatens Aang’s life by bending Sokka to aim his sword directly at his heart, and Katara has no opening but to Bloodbend Hama herself and stop her from taking the Avatar’s life just in the nick of time. And like that, the darkest of Waterbending techniques gets passed on to a whole new generation.
Of course said power is only as effective as the user’s will to use it, and of course this is Katara we’re talking about. Team Avatar’s very own Mary Sue. There’s absolutely no way someone as kind and collected as her would ever be rash or aggravated enough to actually consider… oh…
Book 3 Chapter 16 The Southern Raiders
And thus, we round up our list of darkest Avatar episodes with what could be considered a spiritual follow up to The Puppetmaster, seeing as it takes place at the next full moon. In the final chapter of the Individual Field Trips with Zuko arc, Katara takes a journey to confront the man that murdered her mother, and in the process becomes a more scary and unsettling person than Hama herself. Heck, she even gives Azula a run for her money.
Speaking of Azula, the show opens with a very early surprise attack in which we get to see the Princess of Fire Nation, fresh from being betrayed by her only friends at the Boiling Rock, take her first steps toward insanity, of which we will all witness in full throttle during the finale.
Anyway, back to Katara. It can be said that The Southern Raiders was to her what The Desert was to Aang. She unveils inner demons from her past that lead her to say and do things that would suggest no longer being herself. One of the big ones is how she resorts to Bloodbending, a technique that last time brought her to tears for having it forced upon her to protect someone. Now she uses it with vengeful intent without a hint of hesitation, only to find out the man she uses it upon is not really the one she’s looking for.
The culprit in question, Yan Ra, is surprisingly well developed in just the few short minutes we see him. How ironic that the man responsible for murdering Katara’s mother now spends his retirement being bossed around by his own mother. (True story: Every single person I have ever watched this show with has always laughed at the part where he offers Katara the option to kill his mother for payback. How sad is that?) Their confrontation in the third act is nothing short of intense. We’ve spent nearly the whole episode focused on Katara and her grief, yet we’ve just now seen enough of Yan Ra to truly pity him. It’s a no win situation, regardless what fate Katara chooses in the end.
However, there is a moment of relief when Katara chooses to take the high road and follow Aang’s advice. Even Zuko comes up to Aang and admits he may have been wrong in how he attempted to push Katara to such violent means. Of course, this tender moral is quickly countered when Zuko asks Aang a vital question:
“What are you going to do when you face my father.”
Way to kill the mood, Zuko. Just when this episode was about to take a turn for the better, you have to ruin it by bringing up another conflict that we won’t see a resolution to till the very last episode. I hope you’re happy.
“I’m never happy.”
So there you have it, the darkest episodes of Avatar the Last Airbender. Keep in mind, I made a personal note to steer away from putting any of the season finales on the list. By their nature, all three finales, Siege of the North, The Crossroads of Destiny, and Sozin’s Comet, were reasonably dark simply given that they were the climax of a whole season of buildup, and therefore prone to have a rise in tension. Likewise for Book One Chapter 12, The Storm, which told Aang and Zuko’s origin stories, both of which were inherently dark given they needed tragic pasts to set them up. A few other dark episodes include the following:
- Winter Solstice Part 1: The Spirit World
- Zuko Alone
- City of Walls and Secrets
- Appa’s Lost Days.
And yet, one of the things that compels me most about Avatar was how well it balanced its mature themes with some of the most well timed light-hearted humor I’ve seen in animation. Some of the best jokes of the series come from the same episodes I claim to be dark.
Happy Too-Much-Avatar everyone. Stay tuned for more Avatar related updates all week long.
And remember, only 5 more days till Korra!