Word of mouth recommendations are always funny. They can lead you to something that you doesn’t meet the hype of your recommender. However, when literally every friend you’ve ever known telling you to watch something, it’s likely worthwhile. So is the case for Avatar: The Last Airbender, not just one of the greatest kids shows ever made, but one of the greatest television programmes, period. The fact that it’s animated and aimed at children is irrelevant. The characterisation, world building, serialised / episodic blend of storytelling, charming writing, and truly unique premise, make it nothing less than exceptional. But which are the best of the best in terms of its 61 episodes? Let’s find out. Honorary mentions are: The Avatar and the Firelord, The Siege of the North, The Southern Raiders, and The Blue Spirit.
5. The Puppetmaster
The closest thing that Avatar ever did to horror, The Puppetmaster is a brilliant distraction from the world ending main plot antics with an unusually frightening tone. The gang find a decrepit old lady in the woods, who is revealed to come from the Northern Water Tribe. Here the show introduces simultaneously one of its greatest sub bending skills: blood bending. With the horrendous premise of controlling the actions of others and literally turning them into puppets, the show aptly uses a grey colour palette, dark shadows, and eerie music to create a spooky single episode that ends on a grim note. While Katara may be cursed by her new power, she also receives some fantastic character development.
4. Zuko Alone
Speaking of character development, this is another episode that, while not filler, doesn’t enhance the overarching fire nation plot, but rather delivers some stunning character development for the absolute best character; Prince Zuko. Perhaps I just like genre specific one off episodes, as this one takes a western style, with a desert town setting, organised crime, and lots of wide shots and long periods with no music. Opening the eyes of Prince Zuko to the true horrors of his father’s war with a small stakes, personal story, was a genius touch, and serves to make the banished prince more conflicted, as well as more likeable to the audience.
3. The Tales of Ba Sing Se
Yet again, an episode that has nothing to do with the main plot, but everything to do with character development. I just love to watch these characters do what they do and be themselves; they’re that well written. So engaging in fact, that a story of Aang saving a zoo, Toph and Katara getting a makeover, and Sokka losing a medieval rap battle, are all incredibly compelling. However, the real emotional resonance comes from Iroh’s story, which concurrently presents his sorrow for the passing of his son, whilst paying tribute to the real life passing of his voice actor, Mako. It’s heart wrenching stuff, executed beautifully, with a watercolour sunset showing the stunningly designed city, and the grieving father at his son’s grave. Powerful stuff.
2. Sozin’s Comet
The culmination of this fantastic story could not have been delivered better. Despite years of pressure, somehow the co creators managed to deliver a conclusion that ties up (almost) all of the loose ends, whilst being both incredibly satisfying and visually breathtaking. It’s funny, because the former two episodes of this four part finale feel a little dull, and the Lion Turtles antics almost veer into deus-ex-machina territory. However, the final battle is handled so, so well, with each character’s story feeling earned and impactful, that it doesn’t matter. The music here was also written specifically for these episodes, giving Sozin’s Comet a movie-like production value. The insane elemental bending visuals, the voice acting of Mark Hamill, and the tight bows around every single major player’s character arcs make this perhaps the most satisfying finale of all time.
1. The Ember Island Players
Let’s just say it; Sozin’s Comet is objectively a better episode than The Ember Island Players. However, it isn’t my favourite. TEIP exemplifies my two favourite elements (ha) of the show; comedic writing and writing that subverts expectations. In no world, should a recap episode deserve to be this good. The framing device of the story being retold through a fire nation propaganda play is just perfect. This episode delivers some of the biggest laughs, while giving self referential nods to fan reactions, such as the hatred of The Great Divide and Jet’s ambiguous, Nickelodeon censored death. The Ember Island Players is so smart because it shows how the characters react to past events too. It is just perfect. Between this and Sozin’s Comet, every element of this phenomenal show are front and centre: frantic, quick paced and epic, grand action, well written arcs, genuinely funny jokes, a fleshed out world and mythology that somehow feels more real than most live action shows, a sensational score, fantastic pacing, mature themes, and of course, well realised characters with real human problems and emotions. Phew. There is so much to love here. Now let’s see if they can match it…on to the next binge watch!