The Southern Air Temple
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, Master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished.
A hundred years passed, and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar: an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world!
—Katara, opening narration
We open the episode with the final form of the opening narration, as quoted above.
There are two plots in this episode. I'm going to describe them separately to prove a point.
In the first plot thread, the Gaang make their way to the Southern Air Temple, Aang saying that he wants to see for himself that everyone's gone. After all, for him, it was only a few days ago that he was last here. They make their way through the old ruins, with Katara hiding evidence of the Fire Nation attack from Aang, not wanting him to be hurt.
Eventually, they reach a door that Aang was told that he would have to enter to meet someone that would help him be the Avatar. Inside, they find a large room with statues of former Avatars; the one in the middle is Avatar Roku, the previous one. Aang knows this... somehow.
After spotting a monkey, with Sokka wanting to eat it and Aang wanting it for a pet, they run outside where Aang discovers the corpse of his guardian, Gyatso. All around him are the remains of Fire Nation soldiers.
In his grief at the death of his guardian, Aang gets all glowy. All the statues' eyes light up as well. And we get cuts to other places in the world where other images of former Avatars start glowing too. Ominously, we cut to a Fire Nation temple where someone tells someone else to inform the Firelord that the Avatar has returned.
Aang creates a whirlwind that threatens to throw Katara and Sokka off the mountain. They eventually calm him down. And then they leave, taking the monkey with them, naming him Momo.
The other plot thread is with Prince Zuko. He lands at a Fire Nation-held port to make repairs. Zuko tells Iroh not to mention the Avatar to anyone; he needs to bring the Avatar in personally. Then, they run into a guy named Commander Zhao. Say hi to the main villain for Season 1.
Zhao lets us know that Iroh was a general and a Fire Nation hero. Zhao wonders how their ship was damaged, so Zuko and Iroh engage in a bit of Komedy! in trying to craft a tale. Zhao invites them to tea, and Iroh accepts for Zuko.
Would you trust a man with these mutton chops?
At tea, Zhao asks how Zuko's search for the Avatar's going. Zuko has a terrible
poker face (a trait that will bite him more than once. Kudos to the writers for that); while he says he hasn't found the Avatar, Zhao knows something is up. He asks Zuko, for the benefit of the Fire Nation, to tell him what he knows, but Zuko lies again.
When Zuko tries to leave, the guards stop him, saying that they interrogated Zuko's crew and discovered everything. Holy shit, a villain displaying actual competence? Well, it won't be the last time, believe me, though it is a rare sight from Zhao.
During some banter between Zuko and Zhao, we find out that Zuko's an exiled Prince; he cannot return to the Fire Nation itself unless he does so with the Avatar. Zhao starts taunting Zuko about how his father doesn't want him, how his father would have let him return if he actually cared. So Zuko challenges Zhao to an Agni Kai: a Fire Duel.
Zuko and Zhao fight at sunset, bare-chested. Zhao is winning at the beginning, but after seemingly luring Zhao in to close-quarters, Zuko takes the advantage. He keeps Zhao off-balance and beats him. Instead of killing him, he spares Zhao's life. Naturally, being the main villain for Season 1, Zhao attacks while Zuko's back is turned, but Iroh saves him, and points out the shame Zhao has brought on himself.
Now tell me something: what do these stories have to do with one another? Virtually nothing.
The inter-cutting between such unrelated storylines hurts both of them. It cuts from the beginning of Aang's rage to the Agni Kai, then after that cuts back to Katara calming him down. The music really
suffers here; it goes from alarming and loud to silence (the start of the duel) in a simple jump-cut. The two just don't go together very well.
Also, I find Aang getting over seeing his people dead way too, for want of a better term, cartoonish. I just don't buy that any actual human being can leave one day, come back a few days later (to them), see their entire family and just about everyone they've ever cared about dead, and then brush it off. I understand that wangst
can be a problem, but angst when everyone you've known is dead after them being alive a few days ago is entirely legitimate. To the point where not showing some kind of discomfort at this suggests sociopathic tendencies.
Zhao vs. Zuko has a problem. Zhao is going to be the main villain for awhile, with Zuko being a more sympathetic antagonist. But we've already established that, however good he looked in his fight against Zhao, Zuko isn't as good as Aang. And Zhao's now our main villain. So... are we supposed to find him more
threatening? The guy who couldn't beat a 16-year-old, who himself lost to the 12-year-old hero?
Now to be fair, Zhao is saved because Zhao has resources. He has lots and lots of people to throw at a problem. His threat will be in his rank and status. But overall, he's just not a threatening guy as a person. And his character design, with large mutton-chop sideburns, isn't exactly helping.
Also, the Sokka-needs-food thing needs to die in a fire. It's not funny. Indeed, this is another one of those anime-esque things that annoy me: the juxtaposition of serious drama with childish Komedy! Even so, Sokka overall does come out better in this episode. He clearly cares about Aang's feelings, and he understands why Katara wants to protect Aang from the truth. But he knows Aang's going to find out sooner or later. He's a realist. Too bad they damaged that by having it interspersed between bouts of him talking about food.
This is a good episode in spite of itself. As much as the two plotlines step on each other, it still works overall. And yes, Sokka will eventually stop talking about food.
Post script. There's a nice, subtle point in the middle of this episode. Gyatso's corpse is in the middle of a bunch of Fire Nation corpses. I think someone remembered Captain Sheridan from Babylon 5's infamous line, "Then I'll die. But I will not go down quickly, and I will not
go down alone."