An Objective Ranking Of Every AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER Episode
It took several years of research, but we now know—objectively—that Nickelodeon’s mid-2000s animated action-adventures series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is the best show ever made. But how do we objectively locate the best episode of what’s objectively the best series?
Wonder no more. I’ve devised a rigorous system to quantitate the qualitative aspects of the show, and with it, I have ranked all 61 episodes of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, based on their objective quality.
Before we begin, a couple notes: Multi-part episodes and episodes which first aired on the same date are being considered as single episodes for the purposes of this list. For brevity’s sake, I have only credited the writers of each episode as the author. Remember to applaud directors Giancarlo Volpe, Dave Filoni, Lauren MacMullan, Anthony Lioi, Joaquim Dos Santos, and the animators at JM, Moi, and DR Movie for their essential contributions to the series.
50. “The Fortuneteller” (Season 1, Episode 14) written by Aaron Ehasz & John O’Bryan
This episode is cute, but its cuteness doesn’t make up for its trite jokes. Considering how spirituality informed the rest of the show is, one would believe an episode titled “The Fortuneteller” would have some fresh observations about prophecy and premonition. Sike.
+50 points for Aang’s weaving skills. -25 points for a very convenient volcanic eruption. -25 points for the sexist flattening of our main characters.
49. “The Great Divide” (Season 1, Episode 11) written by John O’Bryan
Is this episode really as bad as every A:TLA fan who tells you to skip it says it is? Or is it yet another underappreciated Season 1 gem? I lean towards the former. It’s true that this episode doesn’t have any real point, direction, or relevance with the rest of the series, but its biggest crime is that it’s one of the two A:TLA comedy episodes without consistently good jokes.
+50 points for neat art style shifts. +200 points for Rene Auberjonois (RIP). -150 points for banal tribalism clichés.
48. “Winter Solstice (Parts 1 & 2)” (Season 1, Episodes 7-8) written by A. Ehasz / DiMartino
The bulk of this two-parter is Spirit World exposition and setting up the stakes for the rest of the series. Unfortunately, the story these episodes tell isn’t all that engaging when taken on its own.
+100 points for smol panda friend. +200 points for Rokus and Dragons. -100 points for infodump overdose.
47. “The Painted Lady” (Season 3, Episode 3) w. Josh Hamilton
The Fire Nation invasion plot takes a backseat for some environmental awareness boosting.
+50 points for Doc Shoe Bushi’s rise-and-grind lifestyle. +100 points for a little hill with horns. +200 points for industrial-imperialist comeuppance. -100 points for two-headed fish.
46. “The King of Omashu” (Season 1, Episode 5) w. John O’Bryan
What starts out feeling like an obligatory usage of the Three Trials trope ends up being an entertaining showcase of Aang’s best qualities. You really can’t help but love our tattooed flying monk boy after this one.
+50 points for a newly refurbished bed chamber. +150 points for lost cabbages. +300 points for Swole King Bumi.
45. “Nightmares and Daydreams” (Season 3, Episode 9) w. John O’Bryan
A:TLA actively triggers insomniacs with this interlude about Aang’s stress dreams.
+150 points for Sokka Freud. +250 points for Dream Aang’s ‘90s shōnen gear. +350 points for Dream Aang’s Humphrey Bogart impression. -100 points because Aang’s sleep-deprived eyelids are too relatable.
44. “The Runaway” (Season 3, Episode 7) w. Joshua Hamilton
A problem going into Book 3 was the potential for Toph to get sidelined since earthbending would no longer be Aang’s focus and the war wasn’t personal for Toph the way it was for Katara and Sokka. Coming up with compelling episode ideas for her must have been a real head-scratcher, so I’m glad we got something, but this caper adventure lacks the teeth of its surrounding episodes.
+200 points for A:TLA’s only cold open. +300 points for sweatbending. +350 points for “Sparky-Sparky Boom Man”.
43. “Bato of the Water Tribe” (Season 1, Episode 15) w. Ian Wilcox
This episode introduces June, the #1 baddie of A:TLA. On another site, that would make this the #1 episode of A:TLA. But over here at BMD we like to keep things classy. In all seriousness though, “Bato of the Water Tribe” is a really touching episode.
+100 points for an ice dodging ceremony. +300 points for Bato’s reassuring presence. +500 points for Hakoda’s heartbreaking departure. +600 points for June THEE Bounty Hunter.
42. “The Waterbending Scroll” (Season 1, Episode 9) w. John O’Bryan
This one’s a fun pirate adventure. It also features a scene which added nuclear ammunition to the shipping wars.
+1,000 points for that Zuko-Katara necklace interaction. +1,000 points for a smoke-filled scramble for a scroll.
41. “The Swamp” (Season 2, Episode 4) w. Tim Hedrick
Does it make a lot of sense that a tribal people in the middle of an Earth Kingdom swamp has Cajun accents? Does it need to? “The Swamp” is an exposition/set-up episode in the mold of “Winter Solstice”, only this time it’s a lot more tolerable because it’s a one-part episode.
+4,000 points for the “lemu”-hunting, plantbending Foggy Swamp tribe. (Note: if I ever get to make an AVATAR sequel series, the new Avatar will be born in the Foggy Swamp. Non-negotiable.)
40. “The Earth King” (Season 2, Episode 18) w. John O’Bryan
There’s not a lot to say about this episode since it mostly functions as a hasty wrap-up for the Ba Sing Se conspiracy plotline and set-up for the Book 2 finale. The sequence where the gAang storms the Earth King’s palace is sick as hell though.
+500 points for cinderblock dominos. +2,500 points for turning stairs into slides. +3,500 points for the most apologetic siege in TV history. +3,500 points for Zuko’s fever dream metamorphosis.
39. “The Cave of Two Lovers” (Season 2, Episode 2) w. Joshua Hamilton
SECRET TUNNELLLL! SECRET TUNNELLLLLL! What? I never said this list would be about restraint. This episode is packed with hilarious moments. It often gets overlooked in the A:TLA comedies canon because it’s not a parody of pro-wrestling, nor is it an explosion of meta-humor like a certain other episode.
+10,000 points for too many jokes to list here. +5,000 points for my fav: “If the Earth Kingdom discovers us, they’ll have us killed. But if the Fire Nation discovers us, we’ll be turned over to Azula. *beat* Earth Kingdom it is.”
38. “Boy in the Iceberg”/”The Avatar Returns” (Season 1, Episodes 1-2) w. Michael DiMartino & Brian Konietzko.
It shouldn’t go unappreciated how effective this pilot was in establishing the main characters, themes, and world of A:TLA. A remarkable amount of thought went into making Aang, Katara, and Sokka immediately endearing, while also seeding their internal conflicts for the rest of the show. Zuko and Iroh also get key moments, even though their characters might come off as garish to the first-time watcher. A solid start.
+20,000 points for “Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories…”
37. “The Northern Air Temple” (Season 1, Episode 17) w. Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
Elizabeth Ehasz probably has the most rock-solid portfolio of all the A:TLA staff writers, and her first “written by” credit on the show is no exception. “The Northern Air Temple” tackles the consequences of the Air Nomad genocide in an engaging way, and we get to see some more growth from Aang.
+10,000 points for aerial siege defense action. +20,000 points for that Air Nomad spirit. -5,000 point it’s hard to believe in techno-industrialist utopians like the Mechanist these days.
36. “Imprisoned” (Season 1, Episode 6) w. Matthew Hubbard
This one excellently displays why Katara is the nucleus of Team Avatar, and it’s also one of the earliest episodes to show the ravages of the Hundred Year War. It’s definitely A:TLA’s second best prison break episode.
+10,000 points for an earthbending lemur. +20,000 points for Katara’s NORMA RAE speech.
35. “The Avatar State” (Season 2, Episode 1) w. Ehasz, Ehasz, Hedrick, & O’Bryan
This episode is a bombastic way to tell viewers “No, Aang can’t just go Avatar State Sicko Mode on the Fire Lord, so stop asking.” It also seeds an impressive amount of Season 2 plot threads. Azula finally makes her first real appearance! The exploitative machinations of the Earth Kingdom General forces our heroes to reassess who they can trust… and not for the last time.
+1,000 points for the Earth Kingdom soldiers not having a problem with that. +9,000 points for chopped top-knots. +30,000 points for everyone’s favorite power-hungry, pyromaniac princess.
34. “The Headband” (Season 3, Episode 2) w. John O’Bryan
By this point in the series, A:TLA had already done riffs on countless martial arts films, STAR WARS, Sergio Leone movies, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and more. So now that we have an episode where the gAang adopts new identities and goes behind enemy lines the film A:TLA chooses to take the most inspiration from ends up being… FOOTLOOSE? Sure. Why not.
+4,000 points for a Hotman’s call. +6,000 points for a game of hide and explode. +20,000 points for a vivid representation of the mundanity of fascism. +25,000 points for Uncle’s silent treatment (RIP Mako).
33. “The Southern Air Temple” (Season 1, Episode 3) w. Michael Dante DiMartino
Rather than immediately jumping into hijinks like most adventure cartoons of this era, A:TLA lets its characters breathe, and establishes some backstory. While “The Southern Air Temple” might not be as revelatory as the series’ other backstory episodes, it’s definitely successful at making viewers care about the worldbuild-y tidbits like the air temples, Air Nomads, and the Avatar Cycle. We also gain more insight into the Fire Nation with the introduction of Book 1 antagonist Zhao and the show’s first Agni Kai.
+25,000 points for Momo, the last flying lemur. +35,000 points for that iconic Agni Kai theme music.
32. “The Warriors of Kyoshi” (Season 1, Episode 4) w. Nick Malis
The third entry of the series establishes many of the show’s fun qualities: its witty humor, its expressive animation and action scenes, the deftness with which it introduces supporting characters and memorable new locations, and its sense of levity without sacrificing the overarching story.
+70,000 points for a foaming mouth guy.
31. “Avatar Day” (Season 2, Episode 5) w. John O’Bryan
A:TLA does a riff on LAW & ORDER. Hilarity ensues. On the more serious side, Zuko parts ways from Iroh for the first (but not last) time.
+5,000 points for “Ruff Rhinos”. +15,000 points for an ashamed foaming mouth guy. +30,000 points for Avatar Kyoshi’s seismological castration of Chin the Conqueror. +35,000 points for sensitive prisoners. -5,000 points for gross, unfried dough consumption. -5,000 points for no “Ruff Rhinos Anthem”.
30. “The Western Air Temple” (Season 3, Episode 12) w. A. Ehasz & Hedrick
The gAang’s world gets turned upside down, and not just metaphorically. Zuko nervously asks to become Aang’s firebending teacher, and old resentments give way for a partnership we’ve all been waiting for.
+40,000 points for a Dante Basco Iroh impression. +50,000 points for Sokka’s Game 7 3-point buzzer beater boomerang shot (RIP Sparky Sparky Boom Man). -10,000 points because I can’t see with my feet.
29. “Return to Omashu” (Season 2, Episode 3) w. Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
This episode does a great job establishing how Azula is a threat in a way that Zuko and Zhao just weren’t. A big part of this are the additions of Mai and Ty Lee to the cast.
+20,000 points for a return of a king. +25,000 points for a twisted couple of recruitment-reunion scenes. +50,000 points for FAST & FURIOUS: OMASHU DRIFT.
28. “The Awakening” (Season 3, Episode 1) w. Aaron Ehasz
A:TLA ushers in the new status quo at an astonishing clip. The Hundred Years’ War is no longer a war, and more of a ragtag rebellion. The Avatar is dead. Supposedly. Aang and Zuko both have to decide where to go next.
+10,000 points for the Fire Lord’s handsome, evil mug. +15,000 points for nappy-headed Aang. +100,000 points for Mae Whitman’s vocal chops making me cry every time that Katara-Hakoda heart-to-heart comes around. -25,000 points for makeup-less Azula’s incest vibes.
27. “The Boiling Rock (Parts 1&2)” (Season 3, Episodes 14-15) w. Chan / Hamilton
Sokka and Zuko’s bonding adventure ends up being a Great Escape. This two-parter is a propulsive couple of actioners—exactly the kind of welcome diversion that A:TLA’s episodic structure permits. My only caveat is that one of these episodes should have been from Suki’s perspective.
+2,000 points for fire fists and hot squats. +18,000 points for buddies having it rough. +25,000 points for Mai and Ty Lee’s mute/unfollow of Azula. +75,000 points for a Hakoda family reunion. +80,000 points for Chit Sang.
26. “The Serpent’s Pass”/”The Drill” (Season 2, Episodes 12-13) w. DiMartino & Hamilton / DiMartino & Konietzko
The difficulties of getting around without a flying bison are made clear in this travelogue two-parter. While forces converge around Ba Sing Se—the last great Earth Kingdom stronghold—our heroes continue to evolve, and long-absent familiar faces show up. Ends with the coolest A:TLA setpiece outside of “Sozin’s Comet”.
+25,000 points for Jet and Zuko’s short-lived bromance. +50,000 points for Sokka’s Suki smoochie. +175,000 points for stomp-kicking a giant drill into submission.
25. “The Library”/“The Desert” (Season 2, Episodes 10-11) w. O’Bryan / Hedrick
More than just a pulpy adventure interlude, this exciting two-parter kicks off A:TLA’s mad dash to the finale. Past this point, every episode raises the stakes or advances toward the final battle in some way. Appa’s kidnapping—heart wrenching as it is—is only the beginning of a long series of escalations.
+50,000 points for a peyote trip in a children’s cartoon. +150,000 points for Wan Shi Tong’s accurate portrayal of academia. -100,000 points for the rudeness of stealing Appa. +200,000 points for making ever viewer cry.
24. “Jet” (Season 1, Episode 10) w. James Eagan
This very special episode of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER tackled child soldiering and wartime collateral damage! In the process, it gave us one of the show’s most interesting recurring characters.
+25,000 points for chewing wheatgrass. +300,000 points for riding Fire Nation soldiers like wild hog monkeys.
23. “City of Walls and Secrets” (Season 2, Episode 14) w. Tim Hedrick
This episode’s achievements (in order from least impressive to most impressive) are that it 1) scored A:TLA its first Emmy nomination, and 2) spawned A:TLA’s most obnoxious meme. Back in 2006, Long Feng’s plot to obscure the Hundred Year War was seen as topical and resonated strongly with Bush Administration disillusionment. Now though… who am I kidding? This episode is still kinda topical. As I write this, we’re probably only days away from the president obliviously retweeting a “There Is No COVID in Ba Sing Se” gif or something.
+25,000 points for just a bear. +75,000 points for Posh Toph. +100,000 points for a Freedom Fighter intervention scene. +200,000 points for Clancy Brown’s perfect casting.
22. “Sokka’s Master” (Season 3, Episode 4) w. Tim Hedrick
A level-grinding episode for Sokka ends up becoming a love letter to all the teachers, mentors, and great collaborators who have helped us move forward. This episode also “reveals” something that true A:TLA fans knew the whole time: that Sokka is a warrior.
+20,000 points for Swole Iroh. +50,000 points for a sword duel final exam. +180,000 points for a shiny meteor sword. +1,000,000 points for a million Lees. -750,000 points for the image of Aang using awful grimdark armor and a “wind sword.”
21. “The Waterbending Master” (Season 1, Episode 18) w. Michael Dante DiMartino
Merely introducing the Northern Tribe, having the gAang finally find a waterbending master, and setting up the climactic battle would have been too easy for the A:TLA writers. They had to throw in a subplot about challenging patriarchal norms while they were at it. “The Waterbending Master” is a great episode, and an essential Katara episode.
+100,000 points for doing an activity. +400,000 points for not apologizing to a sour old man.
20. “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” (Season 3, Episode 6) w. Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
Throwback! The past lineages of both Aang and Zuko are thrown in great relief and revealed to be deeply intertwined. “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” is a nice meditation on the things we inherit. The responsibilities forced on us by past generations can be burdensome, but they also leave open a door for redemption.
+100,000 points for Fire Lord Sozin’s variation on the white man’s burden. +150,000 points for tons of dragon-riding. +300,000 points for the only good inversion of the Luke-Vader reveal.
19. “The Firebending Masters” (Season 3, Episode 13) w. John O’Bryan
The clock is ticking for Aang to learn firebending, but Zuko can’t get it up! I mean, Zuko’s change of heart has inhibited his inner flame, so he and Aang decide to go dancing and they light it up with some dragon homies. An excellent and funny bonding episode.
+100,000 points for a RAIDERS homage. +200,000 points for Baby Toph’s first earthbending lesson. +300,000 points for the Dancing Dragon form.
18. “Appa’s Lost Days” (Season 2, Episode 16) w. Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
After spending the past several episodes stressing us out by not showing where Appa’s been, A:TLA stresses us out even more with this recap. Elizabeth Ehasz and director Giancarlo Volpe outdo themselves by putting you in the Last Flying Bison’s perspective for half an hour.
-1,000,000 points for sky bison abuse. -500,000 points for the Suki vs. Azula cliffhanger. +2,150,000 points for Baby Aang and Baby Appa’s meet-cute.
17. “Lake Laogai” (Season 2, Episode 17) w. Tim Hedrick
Reunions abound in Ba Sing Se. Jet’s Freedom Fighters link up with the gAang again. Appa finally returns to Aang. But the most potent reconciliation happens beneath Lake Laogai, where Iroh manages to recover Zuko’s long-buried better nature, if only for just a moment.
+50,000 points for an old man’s dream tea shop. +150,000 points for a prince who never thinks things through. +200,000 points for the rites of a fallen Freedom Fighter. +300,000 points for a found pet.
16. “The Chase” (Season 2, Episode 8) w. Joshua Hamilton
“The Chase” uses one of my favorite plot formulas. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA used it. FURY ROAD used it. THE LAST JEDI used it. You can’t go wrong with it.
+250,000 points for Toph and Iroh’s teatime. +500,000 points for a four element Mexican stand-off.
15. “The Deserter” (Season 1, Episode 16) w. Tim Hedrick
As an early introduction to the ethos of firebending, this episode is effective in convincing you of the bending art’s danger. Out of the many mentor figures of AVATAR, I can’t think of one I like more than Keone Young’s Jeong-Jeong… except for maybe Avatar Roku. Which makes it all the more perfect they share a scene together (+800,000 points).
14. “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” (Season 2, Episode 15) w. Estoesta & Wahlander / Huebner / Scheppke / MacMullan / Mattila / Ridge & Volpe
With its knack for supplying even its one-off characters with color and interiority, there was never any doubt A:TLA could pull off a micro-stories anthology.
+50,000 points for Sokka’s rap battle. +100,000 points for Zuko’s first date. +600,000 points for Iroh’s kindness. +600,000 points for Mako’s immortal grace. +600,000 points for “Leaves from the Vine”. -1,000,000 points for messing around with an Appa cliffhanger.
13. “The Beach” (Season 3, Episode 5) w. Katie Mattila
A Fire Nation episode that makes you sad there weren’t more episodes set within the Zuko/Azula crew. The standard Beach Episode trope is made absurdly comic by juxtaposing the quirks of adolescence with the war that has defined these teenage soldiers’ lives.
+100,000 points for Aang’s rock-suit rocket launch. +300,000 points for teen melodrama. +600,000 points for Azula’s flirting skills.
12. “Sozin’s Comet (Parts 1-4)” (Season 3, Episodes 18-21) w. DiMartino / Ehasz / DiMartino & Konietzko
“Sozin’s Comet” delivers on nearly everything an epic fantasy conclusion needs to deliver on. Thanks to the titular comet, the stakes are raised higher than ever. The promised showdown between the Avatar and the Fire Lord can no longer be postponed. Along the way, beloved characters are put in peril, tender final moments are shared, and fan-favorites make clever cameo appearances. All of this gets to be presented with a new high bar in animation and score (areas where A:TLA was already exceptional).
The only downside is that Aang’s character arc was slightly mangled to make room for it all. It’s cool that “Sozin’s Comet” throws an ethical curveball at Aang right at the moment we’re getting hyped for the final battle. It’s just the follow-through with this conflict is half-hearted, especially when contrasted with the show’s other mature plotlines. And the more I watch the show, the more gratuitous Aang and Katara’s final scene feels since it uses up time that could have gone to Aang wrestling with his dilemma in a more honest way.
+3,000,000 points for showing just how far our main characters have come. +3,00,000 points since The Last Agni Kai remains the most impactful setpiece in TV history. +3,00,000 points for Sokka’s painting of the good times together. -4,000,000 points for a fumbled spiritual conflict.
11. “The Ember Island Players” (Season 3, Episode 17) w. Hedrick, Hamilton, & O’Bryan
Who doesn’t like “The Ember Island Players”? Past the killer jokes, past the meta-humor, past the nostalgia of having the show recapped for you, this episode is great because we get to explore how the gAang views themselves and each other.
+1,000,000 points for The Merchant of Cabbage. +3,000,000 points for a scar on the wrong side. -2,000,000 points for a horrible play. +4,000,000 points for decent effects.
10. “The Blue Spirit” (Season 1, Episode 13) w. DiMartino & Konietzko
“If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends, too?” The core tension of A:TLA is rendered painfully clear with a single question. The forces which have made Aang and Zuko enemies—the war, past betrayals, past losses—are felt more than ever once we’re shown how well these two boys play together.
+1,000,000 points for Miyuki’s dinner. +2,000,000 points for Zuko’s Blue Spirit costume. +3,250,000 points for escaping the Yuyan Archers.
9. “The Blind Bandit” (Season 2, Episode 6) w. Michael Dante DiMartino
It isn’t very often a show manages to introduce a fan-favorite regular in the middle of the series, especially in cartoons, whose fandoms tend to be hostile towards new characters (think Poochie). To get viewers to agree with a new character, you need a great episode. With “The Blind Bandit”, A:TLA served a phenomenal one, and that’s why everyone agrees Toph Beifong is the GOAT.
+100,000 points for a strip mall martial arts school. +600,000 points for wrestling fanatic Sokka. +900,000 points for a conflicted Boulder. +1,000,000 points for the thoughtful design of sonic “vision”. +5,000,000 points for the arrival of Toph the Undefeated, Long May She Reign.
8. “The Southern Raiders” (Season 3, Episode 16) w. Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
As the mommy-glue that held Team Avatar together, Katara was rarely allowed act flawed in significant ways. She always had to be the moral compass. Which is why it’s so refreshing to see Katara skirt the dark side a bit, and not in a superficial way, but for human, understandable reasons. This episode’s take on revenge and forgiveness is nuanced enough to earn it all-timer status.
+500,000 points because of course Azula made it. +800,000 points because Sokka fucks now. +1,000,000 points for pausing the rain. +3,000,000 points for Katara’s Eichmann in Jerusalem moment. -2,000,000 points for Aang’s judgmental ass. +7,300,000 points for Zuko’s checkmate of a final question.
7. “The Storm” (Season 1, Episode 12) w. Aaron Ehasz
Now this is a classic backstory episode. Probably more important to the arc of the show than any other Season 1 episode besides the premiere. “The Storm” is crucial to understanding the psychologies of Aang and Zuko, the two main characters of A:TLA. “The Storm” is also deeply tragic, and an important step in the show’s steady foray into more mature themes.
+1,000,000 points for not being too young to die and still not wanting to. +8,000,000 points for young kids making impossible decisions.
6. “The Guru”/”The Crossroads of Destiny” (Season 2, Episodes 19-20) w. DiMartino & Konietzko / A. Ehasz
And here is where A:TLA goes full EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Our heroes split up to learn new skills and meet up with old allies. The enemy reveals themselves at the worst possible moment, there’s a betrayal, and suddenly it seems all hope is lost.
But instead of being a mere mimicry of EMPIRE, this two-part finale goes above and beyond. The aforementioned betrayal is felt much harder here than in a gamut of stories which have attempted the same formula. The oft-criticized decision to have Zuko side with Azula at the last minute not only makes good on the foreshadowing of previous episodes, but it also hits home one of A:TLA’s core lessons: real change never comes easy.
+1,000,000 points for unlocking them chakras. +2,000,000 points for the Greatest Earthbender in the world never letting us forget it. +3,000,000 points for an Avatar Pieta. +3,500,000 points for the realest betrayal ever.
5. “The Siege of the North (Parts 1&2)” (Season 1, Episodes 19-20) w. O’Bryan / A. Ehasz
No other show has weaved together relationship drama, tense action, internal conflict, and otherworldly spiritual portent with this much ease. If you had any doubts about AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER being the real deal, then they were surely put to rest by Book One sticking the landing this hard.
+1,000,000 points for raw talent alone not being enough. +1,000,000 points for Admiral Choi preparing to meet his fate. +2,000,000 points for Koh the Face Stealer. +2,000,000 points for the monochrome Agni Kai. +2,000,000 points for Yue’s heroism. +2,000,000 points because a man needs his rest.
4. “Zuko Alone” (Season 2, Episode 7) w. Elizabeth Welch Ehasz
A mountain of ink has been spilled over this one episode, so rather than attempting to find a new way to describe how amazing it is, I’m just going to link you to Hoai-Tran Bui’s pitch-perfect entry on this televisual accomplishment. (While you’re at it, read the rest of her list. It doesn’t have an objective point system like mine, but it’s still very accurate.)
+1,000,000 points for baby turtle-ducks. +1,500,000 points for a belly-laughing General Iroh. +1,500,000 points for sharp weapons as metaphors. +8,000,000 points for a sublime character study of A:TLA’s #1 sad boi prince.
3. “The Puppetmaster” (Season 3, Episode 8) w. Tim Hedrick
Nobody thought A:TLA would go there, but A:TLA did. Plenty of stories like to play around with a clean version of “elements” that really only function as a color-coded system for hitting people—you know, your CAPTAIN PLANETs and your NARUTOs, etcetera. Few stories take pains to acknowledge that elements, by their definition, make up everything around us. And when they do, they sometimes forget that elements are inside of us too.
This is also true for the forces of oppression—the relationships of power which allow us and drive us to dominate one another. Anyone can be subjected, and anyone is capable of subjection. With the parable of Hama, A:TLA hauntingly forces viewers to ask how to conduct themselves in such a system.
+1,500,000 points for Tress MacNeille’s delivery of “They’re just flowers.” +2,000,000 points for the gnarliest prison break in Nickelodeon history. +4,500,000 points for Hama’s tragic, twisted psychology. +5,000,000 points for the most memorable one-off character in AVATAR.
2. “The Day of the Black Sun (Parts 1&2)” (Season 3, Episode 10-11) w. DiMartino / A. Ehasz
This two-part battle episode is a sea of payoffs. Not only does all the strategic and combat experience our heroes have accumulated come in use; we also get a LORD OF THE RINGS-style reunion with the all the allies the gAang has made.
But the main reason “The Day of the Black Sun” remains so memorable is because of the miles of growth we see from Aang and Zuko. I don’t need to tell you how cathartic it is to see Zuko tell off his father and defect from the Fire Nation. And Aang’s declaration that he can face the Fire Lord without an eclipse is the bravest darn thing ever. It inspired me as a kid, and it inspires me today.
+500,000 points for stammering Sokka. +1,000,000 points for bringing our bald boy back. +1,500,000 points for Azula’s tag skills. +2,000,000 points for Serena Williams. +4,000,000 points for Comrade Zuko’s radicalization. +5,000,000 points for an Avatar’s promise to make it up to you.
1. “Bitter Work” (Season 2, Episode 9) w. Aaron Ehasz
“Bitter Work” is the A:TLA episode I’ve found my adult-self returning to the most. That’s partly because of its location within the series—late enough that the writing has sharpened and all the major players are on the stage, yet early enough that the shit hasn’t completely hit the fan—but it’s also because it’s filled to the brim with practical life lessons. When I feel stuck or hesitant about something, I literally hear Toph’s voice now: “You’ve got to face it head-on.”
But what elevates “Bitter Work” to Greatest Episode status is its window into A:TLA’s main philosophy. Of course, I’m talking about Iroh’s lecture on the four bending arts. People like to point out that A:TLA is a show about war, and while that’s not a wrong assessment, on its own it leaves out the reason why we would make a children’s show about war in the first place. At its core, A:TLA is a show about imparting empathy. “Understanding others—the other elements, and the other nations—will help you become whole.”
+3,000,000 points for Zuko begging for lighting from a rainstorm. +3,000,000 points for the rainstorm refusing. +3,500,000 points for Aang’s worldview being challenged in a tangible way. +5,500,000 points for the catharsis of finally seeing Aang move that rock.