When Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005, it was an instant hit. Not only was it hugely popular with children, but teens and adults found themselves becoming fans as well. For a kid’s show, it went way above and beyond expectations, bringing in well rounded characters, a rich, deep and complex story and dealt with subject matter that most cartoons wouldn’t touch with a 20 foot pole. It had action, romance, humor, drama, creativity, just about anything you could ask for in a TV show can be found here, which is why it has earned a spot among my favorite shows of all time.
A lot of hype has been building up for the upcoming spinoff, The Legend of Korra, especially since fans are still recovering from the scar left behind by the M. Night Shyamalan movie. In the meantime, I want to share with you what I believe to be the best episodes of the original series. These 10 episodes were chosen from a selection of 61, most of which are all unique in their own way, but the ones here encompass all that has made the show the masterpiece it is. Needless to say, there will be spoilers galore, so read at your own risk. These are the Top 10 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender (in my opinion).
Aang and the crew are attacked by Fire Nation soldiers while heading toward the North Pole, but they are rescued by a resistance group lead by a cool rebel named Jet. Aang and Katara trust him for saving their lives, but Sokka becomes more suspicious when he sees just how far Jet’s hatred for the Fire Nation will take him.
While the Fire Nation is the definitive enemy of the show, we also get to see that some of the good guys start going down a dangerous path. In the case of Jet, his lust for justice was brought to such an extreme that he was able to put innocent lives in danger to take his enemy down. His hatred is so great that he attacks anyone barely resembling the Fire Nation. I personally think Jet is one of the more tragic characters in the show, not just because of how much the war has messed him up, but because later on we find out he never learned. It really explores the effects of war and how it can affect even the most reasonable people. There was even a point where Katara went down the path as Jet, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
9: The Puppetmaster
As the group is settled outside a Fire Nation village where people have been mysteriously disappearing, they come across an old woman named Hama, who reveals that she is a waterbender from the same tribe as Katara and Sokka. She takes a special interest in Katara and begins to teach her an advanced form of waterbending that allows her control the fluid within an organism’s body. It is later revealed that she has been using this technique, known as bloodbending, to abduct Fire Nation villagers as retribution for her imprisonment and the death of her friends.
This episode was long after the show started to take a darker turn and explores the dark side of bending. Up until then, firebending was perceived as the evil element, the element of destruction. Here, Katara comes to the revelation that waterbending has its dark side as well. I think bloodbending is the most advanced form of waterbending, just like bending lightning is for firebenders and bending metal is for earthbenders, but is much more dangerous than the other two. Obviously they can’t show someone boiling or freezing someone’s blood, crushing their organs or stopping their heart in a kids’ show, but the possibilities of it are frightening, which is probably why Hama comes across as, for lack of a better word, blood drunk. Katara only uses bloodbending twice; once in this episode, and later in another which we’ll cover later. What really resonated with me about this episode was its exploration of the evils that bending are capable of, and its success in making one of the show’s only horror episodes.
8: The Blue Spirit
When Katara and Sokka become sick, Aang ventures out to find a cure, only to find himself captured by Admiral Zhao. He is then freed from his imprisonment by a mysterious, sword wielding masked man known as the Blue Spirit. But who exactly is this masked vigilante and why does he want to help Aang escape?
This is definitely a favorite among fans. For one, it has some of the best action sequences in the entire show, where Aang and Zuko not only take down a bunch of firebenders, but work together for the first time to fight a common enemy. This was also a turning point for Zuko’s character, foreshadowing his eventual alliance with Aang. Of course he did it more to spite Zhao, but there was a hint of things to come. Aside from that, this episode contains some of the greatest action sequences in the whole series, very little of which contained any bending. Originally, this was supposed to be the first season finale, and in all honesty, I can kind of see why they would choose this.
7: The Southern Raiders
After Zuko was reluctantly added to the group, he was able to gain their trust through a series of events. But even after he helped Aang learn firebending and helped Sokka break his father out of prison, he was unable to gain the trust of Katara, who treated him with nothing but contempt since he joined them. He finally offers to help her find the man who killed her mother and bring him to justice.
Katara’s character development, especially in the second and third seasons, went in directions that I don’t think anybody saw coming. Throughout the show, she’s presented as the calm, compassionate mother figure of the group, so seeing her judgment become so clouded and actually showing malice toward certain characters was a complete 180. So much so that she actually went out of her way to willingly use bloodbending for the first and last time. For a moment, I honestly thought she was actually going to kill the man once they found him. But this is a kid’s show, so obviously we can’t be having any of that. Ultimately she’s finally able to forgive Zuko, but seriously, that was a real close one.
6: Tales of Ba Sing Se
After months of running, chasing, fighting and plotting, our characters all find a day of relaxation in their new settlement in the Earth Kingdom capitol. Katara and Toph get to spend some quality time together, Aang builds a zoo, Iroh makes friends with strangers, Sokka gets a little poetry lesson, even Zuko forgets his troubles for a moment and goes out on a date.
Rather than adding more tension to the series, the writers decided it was time for our characters to settle down a bit and just relax, giving us a much needed release in tension. For the most part, the stories are actually pretty funny and lighthearted (Just the notion of Zuko going on a date in itself is kind of hilarious.), but what caught me by surprise is just how emotional some of the stories were. Iroh’s story was a lot like the first ten minutes of Up, as in it was nice and cute and fuzzy at first but by the end I was bawling my eyes out like a kid who dropped his ice cream cone. This probably had to do with the fact that Mako, Iroh’s voice actor, had died around that time and that particular vignette was made in his honor. Even more surprising was Momo’s story, which, despite having little to no dialogue, was actually kind of sad and heavy. And at the very end it showed us something that let us know that the episode wasn’t just filler and served a greater purpose than we thought. Little touches like that are what makes this episode so great.
5: The Blind Bandit
After failing to rescue Bumi, Aang is now faced with the lack of an earthbending teacher. As the gang crosses a village that holds underground earthbending tournaments, he meets their champion, a blind tyke by the name of Toph Be Fong, and begs her to be his earthbending master.
I think the very existence of Toph is a testament to just how creative the writers could be. For those of you who don’t know, despite being blind, Toph is able to “see” by feeling vibrations with her feet. This Daredevil like hyper-sense allows her to pinpoint the exact location of everything in her surroundings, giving her heightened aim and accuracy. Because of her overbearing, overprotective parents, she wasn’t able to leave with the gang at first, but her decision to run away has since lead to a lot of growth which has lead her to become a fan favorite. This episode was another landmark in the series, not just because of the introduction of Toph, but because every episode in the season after this is considered to be the show’s best, and I honestly could’ve filled this whole list with episodes from that era, but didn’t simply for the sake of variety. But this wasn’t a bad episode to kick things off. The action was great, there was some more surprising drama, and we were introduced to an incredibly awesome character.
4: Appa’s Lost Days
At a certain point in the second season, Aang’s flying bison Appa was stolen by sandbenders, and finding him became one of his main objectives in Ba Sing Se. This episode steps back in time and shows us what happened to Appa in the time he was captured.
I was a bit conflicted on putting this episode on here at all because even though the show has a lot of dark and heavy-handed episodes, this one was seemed outright cruel. For one, this isn’t just showing a gratuitous amount of suffering, but all that suffering is being inflicted upon an animal. And if this wasn’t animated or being inflicted on a creature that doesn’t exist, I don’t think this ever would’ve gone past the radar. My sister, a big fan of the show and an animal rights advocate, both hates and loves this episode for its depiction of animal cruelty. We see that Appa has been sold to a circus where he was humiliated and, for lack of a better word, tortured. When he escapes, he find him starving, lost, scared and defenseless. But don’t let this scare you away. Just like Tales of Ba Sing Se, there are points that show that it serves a greater purpose. For one, Appa meets a guru who knows a great secret that he must teach Aang. He even runs into the Kyoshi warriors right when they’re about to…uh, just skip to #1 if you want to find out.
3: Zuko Alone
After a dispute with Iroh, Zuko decides that he must travel alone. He eventually comes across some across and saves a poor farm family from Earth Kingdom soldiers. He subsequentially bonds with the farmer’s boy, who is unaware that he is the banished fire prince. During he stay, he is haunted by visions of his past.
By this point, we learned very little about Zuko’s past, but it is here that we get to see everything, from his relationship to his mother, the disappointment his father has for him, and the extent of his sister Azula’s cruelty. It’s actually kind of amazing that I’ve gone this long without talking about Azula yet, because she truly is one of the greatest female villains in recent memory. She’s sadistic, manipulative, ruthless, a master firebender, capable winning allies with one word and destroying enemies with another. We see examples of this throughout the show, but here we learn she was like this even as a child. Really makes one wonder if she was actually born with horns and a tail. After he saves the boy’s life again and reveals his identity, he repays him with scorn and hatred, making us realize that Zuko never really belonged anywhere and never had a true friend until he joined Aang, making him the most tragic character in the show. It’s a great character study for an amazing character.
2: The Storm
Sokka takes up a job on a fishing boat to help to raise money so he and the gang can buy food. Things get uncomfortable when a fisherman recognizes Aang and blames everything that has happened in the last 100 years on his absence. When Katara asks him what he meant, Aang tells him about the time he learned that he was the Avatar and why he ran away. Meanwhile, Zuko’s crew has had enough of Zuko’s obsessive attitude, which leads Iroh to explain how he was banished in the first place and why capturing he Avatar is so important to him.
It’s no coincidence that the best episodes of this series depicts Aang and Zuko’s struggles simultaneously. While Zuko only wants acceptance from his family, Aang has the fate of the entire world on his shoulders, so the guilt of turning his back on the world for 100 years was absolutely tremendous. Most flashback episodes seem to be just filler, but I think the fact that two of my top three episodes are technically flashbacks are a testament to how well they handle them. This was the turning point of the series where people realized that this show was going well above and beyond the expectations of kid’s shows, proving that there was something in there for teens and adults as well. It foretold what was to come and showed us that it meant business when it was time.
1: The Crossroads of Destiny
A race against time has begun to stop Azula’s sinister conquest of Ba Sing Se. But Aang has not completed his training to control theAvatarStateand puts himself in mortal danger. Meanwhile, Zuko comes at a crossroads of his own when Azula presents him with the opportunity to return home at the exchange of betraying his uncle. But does he choose the path of redemption and begin his life anew, or will he let Azula’s manipulation get the best of him?
This episode is absolutely perfect. Everything in the second season, from Aang’s training to Zuko’s road to redemption to Azula’s conquest of the Earth Kingdom all comes together in this great, climactic clash of heroes and villains. I’ve already talked about how great a villain Azula is, but here all those traits are magnified. Azula’s plan of entering the city disguised as the Kyoshi warriors, betraying Long Feng and taking control of the Dai Li and holding the Earth King captive goes without a hitch. Things even get better when she convinces Zuko to betray his uncle and strikes Aang while he is activating the Avatar State, making it impossible to use it again. Everything that could go wrong did, and combined with some amazing bending and the shocking twist ending was what made this a perfect season 2 finale, showing they meant business and setting things up for season 3.
Well that’s my list and I hope you enjoyed it. If you agreed or disagreed with it, feel free to comment and tell me some of your favorite episodes.