Pilot episodes have to do a number of things. They have to introduce characters. They have to set up the setting. They have to set up the basic premise of the series. And most of all, they have to get people to want to watch the next episode.
No surprise then that so many serieses use two-part pilots. And Avatar is no different. Since this is a single story in two parts, both episodes will be covered in one go.
The Boy in the Iceberg
Will you go penguin sledding with me?
—Aang, upon waking up
Our first episode begins with an opening narration from one of the characters we'll meet. She explains about the setting, bending, the nations, the Avatar. She also explains that the Avatar vanished, the Fire Nation attacked the rest of the world, and things have gone downhill for the last hundred years.
Katara, the narrator, and her brother Sokka are two teenagers of the Southern Water Tribe. They're in a canoe in an icy, glacial area; they're apparently looking for fish. We get a bit of hijinks that establishes that Katara is a waterbender and that Sokka doesn't care much for bending, since he claims that he always gets wet when she does it. Then, they get swept into a fast-moving section of water with chunks of ice all around. The canoe is eventually crushed, but they escape onto a block of ice.
They start arguing, and then Sokka makes a sexist remark. This throws Katara into a rage; this approaches conniption levels, but there's a bigger problem. Her rage and arm movements seem to be shattering a large iceberg behind them, but Sokka isn't able to get her to stop before the ice shatters.
The shattered iceberg reveals a sphere-shaped ball that emits a bluish light. After a moment, they can see someone inside, who has glowing arrows on his forehead and the backs of his hands. Katara immediately takes one of Sokka's weapons to try to break him free. When she pierces the ice, a column of light erupts.
Cut to a man looking through a telescope on a large steel warship. The left side of his face is scarred. We get some establishing dialog telling us that this is Prince Zuko, and he's traveling with his uncle Iroh, an old, balding man with white hair and a beard. Zuko immediately sets course for the light, thinking it's the Avatar, but Iroh doesn't want him to get his hopes up.
Cut back to Katara and Sokka. A boy emerges from the ruin of the iceberg and collapses, the glow of his arrow tattoos fading. Katara cradles him as he wakes up. Then he says the page quote, thus establishing the tone for his character.
After a bit of banter, we are introduced to Appa, the boy's animal companion. He's a "flying bison"; a giant, fluffy 6-legged animal with a long tail and fur markings that form an arrow on his head just like the boy's. After Sokka accuses him of being a Fire Nation spy (who emerged from a ball of ice. Yeah, Sokka's not very smart), the boy finally introduces himself. And his bending, by sneezing at the same time he says his name: Aang.
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen
He's an airbender. Anyway, Aang offers them a ride back to their village on Appa. But it seems the time in the iceberg has taken the "flying" out of his flying bison, as Aang's command-word doesn't get him airborn.
Cut back to Zuko for a quick conversation with Iroh. We establish that Zuko is hunting the Avatar to reclaim his honor, and that the Avatar has been missing for a hundred years.
Speaking of whom, we cut back to the others, as Katara asks Aang what happened to the Avatar. Aang, for his part, is a pretty terrible liar; he says that he didn't know him, and he doesn't know what happened to him. Katara buys it and goes back to sleep.
After a bit, we get to the Water Tribe village. The Water Tribe cultures are loosely based on Inuit culture. Katara and Sokka are noticeably darker in complexion to Aang's pale skin (though they have blue eyes. For some reason). Their village is basically a bunch of igloos surrounded by an ice wall, all lying on a sheet of ice. This doesn't initially make sense, but once you find that waterbending also means being able to freeze/melt water in an instant, it makes a lot more sense.
We get some establishment that airbenders haven't been seen in a hundred years and are thought extinct. Aang livens up the village substantially. He plays with the children of the village, while Sokka's desperately trying to drill 5-year-olds into being competent warriors. Why? Because it makes Sokka look like an ass, which seems to be what the writers were going for. I don't know why, since Sokka's going to be one of our main characters.
Meanwhile, we see Prince Zuko training in firebending with his crew. His uncle delivers some exposition to us about how firebending works. Zuko is impatient with him and his love for tea, demanding that Iroh start teaching him more advanced moves in order to effectively fight the Avatar.
While this is nice, this really isn't the place for it. It's nice in the sense that it's good to see that bending takes effort and practice, that it's not just magic anyone can do. But this is a pilot episode. Zuko's our villain for the pilot. We need to see him as a capable threat. And while they get around to that, this scene only serves to undermine Zuko's threat level.
Cut to Katara and Aang heading off together to do something. She asks him to teach her waterbending, but he points out that he's an air
bender, so he doesn't know waterbending. Katara reveals that she's the last waterbender in the southern tribe. Then Aang offers to take her to the north pole on Appa, but she's unsure about leaving her family.
Then, they go Penguin sledding. Which means catching a four-armed Penguin and riding it down a snowy slope. They come to a stop near an old Fire Nation ship embedded in the ice.
For reasons that continue to baffle me, Aang wants to investigate, even when Katara says that they're not allowed to go into it, for fear of booby traps. Naturally, they go in anyway. While on board, Katara and Aang discuss the war. She says that he was frozen for a hundred years, which is why he doesn't know anything about the war.
And then, Aang triggers a booby trap that launches a flare. A flare that Prince Zuko sees. Through a telescope, he sees Aang carrying Katara back to their village. Since Aang is surviving 30-foot falls, Zuko knows that it's an airbender, and therefore he knows it's the Avatar. And where he's going.
The Avatar Returns
So... I guess you never fought an airbender before. I bet I can take you both with my hands tied behind my back.
Everyone in the village saw the flare go up. So when Aang and Katara return, they know what happened. Sokka casts Aang out of the village, since he just potentially got them all killed. We even get a bit of exposition when Sokka says that he promised their father that he would look after the village. But Katara almost goes with him, since Aang wants to take her to the Norther Water Tribe to get proper waterbending training. Aang doesn't want to come between her and her family, and Sokka asks if she would choose Aang over her family. This bit of emotional blackmail gets her to stay. Aang wanders off with his non-flying flying bison.
Then we get some cross-cutting between Prince Zuko and Sokka both getting ready for battle. How Sokka knows for certain someone is coming at this very moment isn't explained.
We get a scene of good tension, where Sokka is standing on his ice wall and we see Zuko's ironclad ship emerge from the mist and batter it down. This tense scene was needlessly ruined by slapstick from Sokka. Thanks, writers; I didn't really want to feel any tension over the impending attack.
Prince Zuko and several soldiers emerge. Sokka charges him and... gets punked out in two seconds; Zuko doesn't even bother to firebend at him. Good job making Sokka useful, writers.
Our comic relief hero, ladies and gentlemen
After dealing with Sokka, Zuko proceeds to intimidate and threaten everyone, asking for the Avatar. Zuko expects the Avatar to be a hundred years old, since a hundred years have passed. Sokka then tries his boomerang, which misses. But naturally, as Hollywood boomerangs are known to do, it comes back perfectly and hits Zuko
in the back of the head. This is a sharpened, metal boomerang, so naturally it does little more than piss Zuko off.
Before Zuko can finish Sokka off, Aang shows up and says that he's
Oh yeah, that's a shock. It's not like it's in the title
After a short fight, when Aang sees that defecting Zuko's firebending could lead to collateral damage, he offers to turn himself in if Zuko agrees to leave. Zuko's the reasonable sort, so he agrees, and they leave.
Cut to Katara bitching at Sokka about how they should be doing something to help Aang. Meanwhile Sokka's preparing a rescue ship to go after Aang. Katara approves and compliments her brother. Their grandmother appears seemingly from nowhere and wishes them well, saying that their destinies are intertwined with the Avatar's. Because... she read the script? There's no other reason for this dialog.
Instead of taking the boat, they take Appa instead. Sokka manages to get Appa airborne and they're off.
Meanwhile, on Zuko's ship, Aang escapes. And this is the first time we really get a look at airbending. Basically, airbenders get to move fast, float on balls of air, and dodge really, really well. They're also very playful.
The downside of all of this is that, when Zuko corners Aang in Zuko's quarters, Aang makes him look like a fool. Aang is never in even the slightest bit of danger, and he runs rings around Zuko. This is not really the best way to establish your main villain as a credible threat for the season.
Aang gets onto the ship's deck and tries to fly away. His staff can turn into a glider that he uses to fly. Why he needs a flying mount if he can fly with his staff is not explained. Zuko runs out and pulls him back to the deck. They fight again, but Aang decided to abandon all his cool dodging moves in favor of trying to deflect Zuko's firebending with his staff. That doesn't work so well and he goes overboard.
And then... things get weird.
For some reason, Aang, who was perfectly conscious when falling, is unconscious in the water. And he keeps sinking. Then, his eyes and tattoos start glowing brightly. At which point, he creates a water spout and uses it to take out the ship's crew. Then the glowing stops and he passes out on the deck.
We're going to find out more about exactly what it was Aang just did over the course of the series. But for the time being, it's just Deus ex Machina
. And there is no trope that I hate more than Deus Ex Machina. There's nothing that diffuses tension more than knowing that the writer will just whip out whatever bullshit they want to resolve any particular problem. It is a poor reward for the audience's interest in the show.
Appa lands on the deck, and Katara and Sokka tend to the unconscious Aang. When Sokka goes to collect Aang's staff, Zuko grabs the other end of it, creating a callback to when Zuko owned him. This again works against seeing Zuko as a credible threat.
Meanwhile, some of Zuko's crew have come around and are about to attack Katara. She uses some of the leftover water to try to fight back but her aim is off. By 180 degrees; she hits Sokka instead. She tries again by turning around and doing the same move, which works and freezes them in place.
Now that we have established that Zuko's crew is full of morons who couldn't dodge an attack they saw coming
, Iroh wakes up from his nap and comes on deck as the trio escape on Appa's back. Zuko and Iroh combine their firebending to create a large fireball. Which the suddenly-conscious Aang deflects with an airbending move back into a wall of ice. The resulting ice debris falls on the ship, trapping it and allowing the trio to escape.
Now safe in the skies, Katara asks Aang why he didn't tell them that he was the Avatar. He replies with another of my most hated tropes, "Because I never wanted to be." Oh goody: a reluctant hero
. Just what we need: someone who's going to be bitching about how much he doesn't want what he's got and so forth.
As it turns out, that's not how Aang will eventually work. And by "eventually," I mean "next episode.
The trio, hereafter referred to as "the Gaang", establish that their ultimate destination is the Northern Water Tribe. However, Aang says he wants to do a bunch of crap first. And by "crap," what I mean is "waste the next 5 episodes not doing what they need to be doing." And no, I'm not kidding.
I like this show. But the pilot episode hit a stumbling block for me. And that stumbling block was called "Aang".
I didn't like Aang. I'm not a fan of the anime-esque child heroes, which is exactly what Aang is. You know the kind: perennially positive and always headstrong. Or, to put it another way, completely inhuman. When he's told that the Air Nomads, his people
, are all dead, killed by the Fire Nation, he just sort of brushes it off. Later, in a future episode, we find out that Aang ran away from his home. But even that doesn't explain his callous attitude. That's simply not how people react to news. The same goes to his reaction when Katara suggests that he's been in the iceberg for a hundred years.
Coupled with the fact that Aang basically dragged Katara onto the ship that she kept telling him that they shouldn't go on, it makes our hero look incredibly foolish and irresponsible. Not things I associate with heroes. And while I'm familiar with the concept of character development, starting with characteristics that piss the audience off is probably not a good idea.
I started to watch this show because of all the recommendations I got from over on TV Tropes.com. These two episodes did not make me care about the plot or characters. Yet another anime-esque show about a reluctant pre-teen hero trying to save the world. I only continued to watch it because I was streaming it from NetFlix and I figured I'd give it a few more episodes before it got good. Also, magic+martial arts is certainly worth some effort.
I'm glad I did, but that doesn't mean I give the pilot a pass. It hit a lot of my personal buttons, but it also did some things more objectively wrong. This was also an introduction for Zuko, and he did not fare well. Sure, he beat up Sokka, but he's a firebender and Sokka's an idiot (according to everything we saw in the pilot). When he went up against someone with real skill, he was doing at best OK. Hardly a grave threat.
Sokka was a problem too. He was written as an over-protective dick. And then there was his casual sexism that pissed Katara off and caused her to accidentally find Aang. He comes off as a misogynistic jackass upon whom pain is inflected for the enjoyment of the audience. Not a particularly compelling reason to watch.
To be fair again though, some of these problems are actually fixed over the course of the series.
I too wasn't happy with the pilot episodes. I thought "this show is okay..." but like you, I'm glad I stuck with it. I started watching solely based on the recommendations of people online, and decided to check it out. The first 5 episodes (I count this as two episodes, not one) didn't do anything for me. Episode 6 was where it picked up for me.
I think the reason they have blue eyes is because they're waterbenders and blue is associated with water. As to why non-benders have them as well, who knows.
Strangly enough, I do agree with your opinion on Aang. He was taking the 100 years asleep thing a little too well.