Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Southern Air Temple   Rewatch 
February 26, 2015 4:42 AM - Season 1, Episode 3 - Subscribe

Aang, Sokka, and Katara visit the Southern Air Temple, where Aang discovers what being "the last airbender" really means, while Zuko and Iroh meet with Commander Zhao, who is very interested in learning what happened in the South Pole. Also, introducing Momo.

In "I've heard this voice before" news, Commander Zhao is voiced by Jason Isaacs.
posted by Katemonkey (20 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I adore the room of Avatar statues, it breaks my heart when Aang finds Gyatso, and Katara telling him that they're his family now...aw man!

I think this is where I really started to love this show. It's like "well, I appear to be watching a children's show about genocide. GOOD TIMES."
posted by Katemonkey at 4:50 AM on February 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Again, for the Korra viewers, you may recall the Avatar statue room from Book 2, when Tenzin and his family were taking trips to the different air temples. It's a very cool room and one that actually had forethought in it, as they placed former Avatars you will learn about later on, such as Avatar Kyoshi. Very nifty and it was only proper that Avatar Wan's statute appear there later.

One thing that was definitely distracting was the drawing of a number of the main characters, such as Sokka and Aang, as they are drawn more youthful in appearance than they will be later on. I mean, did you check out the lashes on Aang? Oi!

Beyond that, though, I felt that this episode definitely stepped up its game in revealing what type of show it's going to be from hereon out. It deepens the characterization of Zuko, our main villain, by offering a background to his family and why his father banished him from the Fire Nation. Likewise, it was not afraid to go rather dark for a "children's show" by transposing within a few minutes a jolly old monk and dear friend to our main character with his skeleton surrounded by dozens of slain fire nation warriors. Aang predictably reacts and Katara's somewhat premature announcement that she and Sokka are Aang's family now lays out the future for the three characters where they definitely do become a family unit. (I say premature because she's known Aang for maybe a few days?)

More so, in this episode we really get a sense of what is the most important thing in the Avatar world: family. It's family dynamics that drive the motivations and decisions of a lot of characters, such as Zuko and later, Toph. It's a show about characters trying to find their place in a family or in adoptive families. Those who fail to find them or betray them are often the true villains or losers in the show.

Going back to the episode, we discover that Zuko is actually quite advanced after all, besting a master fire bender in an agni kai. (speaking of callbacks in Korra, this is THAT Zhou you briefly met near the end of Book 2) We also learn more about Iroh's background, which will be even further fleshed out as the show proceeds, but for now, he's an honored retired general of the Fire Nation military. We also learn that usually no one is told they're the avatar until they are 16 (which I guess Korra's own prodigy-like advancement overrode that rule) and that for Aang, he learned the name of someone who will help him along the path of the Avatar, Avatar Roku.

I loved Katara's admission when she tries to warn Aang not to get too excited about there being anyone alive within the inner sanctuary and Aang's rebuttal, "I survived a 100 years in an iceberg!"

One unintended ironic point, made so by Legend of Korra, was Aang's announcement that there were no sky bison in the Fire Nation (by which the Fire Nation could use to reach the air temples). In Korra we later learn that some Fire Priests saved a herd or two of sky bison during the war to protect them from extinction, so there were actually sky bison in the Fire Nation.
posted by Atreides at 7:05 AM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's like "well, I appear to be watching a children's show about genocide. GOOD TIMES."

If you feel like this is too much of good times, you can always pair this with Now and Then, Here and There, which can be recapped in part with one line from the Wikipedia article: "Much of the series deals with serious moral issues relating to war, the consequences of war, slavery, and the exploitation of children." But this isn't Grave of the Fireflies grim, due in large part to the ever-positive Shuzo "Shu" Matsutani.

Back to this episode: I LOVE Iroh! For me, he is a critical part in this show, especially as a balance for Zuko, as well as a generally upbeat, positive character with great perspective on issues and a deep well of patience.

Aang predictably reacts and Katara's somewhat premature announcement that she and Sokka are Aang's family now lays out the future for the three characters where they definitely do become a family unit. (I say premature because she's known Aang for maybe a few days?)

Well, they are all young survivors of traumatic circumstances that have taken their blood families from them, and now they have faced a great foe. Bonds can form quickly in such circumstances, especially with kids who lack the jaded skepticism that many adults have when meeting a stranger.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:55 AM on February 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I somehow missed that scene with Gyatso's body and the bodies of several dozen Fire Nation soldiers, or had ejected it from my mind. That's pretty intense to have so early, here.

A little detail I love that ties early Avatar together with Samurai Champloo: food. The hand-to-mouth existence of a group of ill-prepared wanderers doesn't usually come up in this kind of show, and I appreciate that it's there, and how it underlines just how ill-prepared they are at this point. As they figure things out, it becomes a lesser plot point.

Katara telling Aang that they're his family also feels early to me, but I agree about kids forming those bonds fast, and also that it's a character development thing for Katara, who is saying the things that SHE finds most comforting to try and calm Aang down. It says a lot about her character that family is where she defaults when she's experiencing something totally outside her previous life. Zuko, under similar circumstances, would probably say "Don't worry, we'll track down everyone who did this and destroy them all."

Anyone who's doing a first watch and wants more totally non-spoilered places to read up, should check out Mark Oshiro's reviews. "The Southern Air Temple" is here. One highlight in the comments section, though I can't remember where it starts: someone starts writing diary entries of each episode as Zuko, and they are a delight.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:29 AM on February 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, Iroh. I definitely saw that there was more to Iroh than he first appeared to be, and I think this episode was the one that sort of clued me into that eventual possibility.

Agreeing with those that highlight this episode as the one that really started highlighting that the show was going to be special, and much more than it first appeared to be. It started laying the groundwork for Zuko's later deflection, casually implied genocide, and showed the skeleton of a beloved mentor!

I still hadn't really warmed to any of the characters yet at this point, though. They all seemed kind of ...just okay to me still at this point. I think it took a few more episodes for me to really latch onto them. (I had to see some of that character consistency before I could trust their development!)
posted by PearlRose at 8:30 AM on February 26, 2015

[Scene: Zuko furious over Zhou learning the truth about the Avatar's reemergence, kicks over the table and the tea pot on it.]

Iroh: More tea, please.

posted by Atreides at 8:59 AM on February 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

Ha! That was the line I was going to quote, Atreides. Of the characters I've seen so far, Iroh is probably my favourite human. I like Sokka, Katara and Aang, but like PearlRose said, I haven't really warmed to any of them completely yet.

I really liked the detail of Aang's flared nostrils just before he opens the door to the sanctuary. Best animal goes to the lemur cake cleanup squad. The Avatar warning system was a nice touch, too. Obviously a bit of a problem in this case, though.

Are there sanctuaries and statues for water, earth, and fire? I guess it doesn't come up since this cycle's avatar is an airbender?
posted by minsies at 11:27 AM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

>Are there sanctuaries and statues for water, earth, and fire?

minsies, this might be more obvious since I'm rewatching, but when Aang went into the Avatar State (which Katara oddly calls "The Avatar Spirit" for the first and probably last time in the series), the Air temple glowed, and then the scene cut to light appearing at other temples with different color schemes.

The scale of the worldbuilding is pretty impressive for a kid's show.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:07 PM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Off the top of my head, in this show we visit "Avatar" sanctuaries at one other air temple and then a fire temple, but as tchemgrrl pointed out, there's holy places throughout the lands. We never see the Water Tribe temple again, that I'm aware of, but it's either similar/inspiration for or the one that we see at the end of Book 1 of Korra, where it ends with her restoring bending to everyone.
posted by Atreides at 1:32 PM on February 26, 2015

Yeah, the fire temple we see briefly in this episode when Aang goes into the Avatar State is the same one we visit a few episodes after this one, I think.

There's so much good stuff about this episode: the emotional moment with Gyatso, Momo's introduction, the past avatars, Zuko showing how good he is, and even more, the first hint we get of exactly how good Iroh is. As someone who loves the score for this show, I also have to say I love the Agni Kai cue, and the cue that plays when they're flying away at the end is an early appearance of the motif that later gets parlayed into the closing themes for both this show and Korra.

Also, there's a veritable goldmine on Jeremy Zuckerman's Soundcloud page. It's a damn shame that book 1 of Korra is the only thing that's ever seen an official music release.
posted by Kosh at 5:24 PM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

What impresses me about this episode is that even the B-plot blows right past all the usual expectations for a children's show, and it does so in one shot. When the camera pans across the Fire Nation harbor past all those enormous warships and comes to a stop on Zuko's vessel, tiny and battered and dingy-looking when it was a terrifying engine of death only last episode -- that's the moment when Zuko goes from being Darth Vader to the underdog.

In some ways he's even more of one than the trio, being "merely" talented and almost without allies. (Yay Iroh!) And I have to say, it was pretty obvious from this episode that Zuko's father was at the root of his problems, but I had no idea just how toxic that relationship would turned out to be.

Obligatory Agni Kai! This music actually turned up for the first time last episode, during Aang and Zuko's fight, but I think it was slightly slowed down.
posted by bettafish at 5:38 PM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Whoops. I feel a little stupid for calling out the Avatar warning system, which is obviously connected to the temples/sanctuaries. Maybe it was just because none of them seemed as big as the air sanctuary, or ... something. Thanks for the extra information anyway!
posted by minsies at 11:40 AM on February 27, 2015

Likewise, it was not afraid to go rather dark for a "children's show" by transposing within a few minutes a jolly old monk and dear friend to our main character with his skeleton surrounded by dozens of slain fire nation warriors.

It gets more grim when you consider how he could have taken out dozens of people. I think I saw someone on Tumblr or over at the AV Club suggest that airbenders might be able to bend the air right out of your lungs, causing you to suffocate. I kind of appreciated that A:tLA generally didn't much shy away from these kinds of grim extensions of its world building. We eventually got waterbenders who could bloodbend too.
posted by yasaman at 3:57 PM on February 27, 2015

I think I saw someone on Tumblr or over at the AV Club suggest that airbenders might be able to bend the air right out of your lungs, causing you to suffocate.

Hopefully not too spoilery but: this was happened in Legend of Korra (Season 3 I believe), so it's a confirmed theory!
posted by foxfirefey at 4:10 PM on February 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is the episode that changed this show from one that I was watching only provisionally with my daughter, to one that I was committed to following, and that I talked my wife into watching with us. The discovery of Gyatso's remains is a powerful moment, as people have commented on. But it's the light that's thrown on Zuko and Iroh's relationship that makes the episode.

"So this is how the great commander Zhao acts in defeat... disgraceful! Even in exile my nephew is more honorable than you. Thanks again for the tea. It was delicious."

Awesome! A little bit of dialogue that all at once defines who Iroh is, as well as transforming Zuko from a paper thin antagonist into the most complicated character on the show.

Somebody in an earlier discussion of the show, probably someone at the AV Club, once described Zuko's arc as being the best depiction ever made on television of the process through which some survivors of abuse in childhood unlearn the mythology that legitimized their abuse. So, yes: genocide and the dynamics of recovery from child abuse. Not your typical escapist cartoon.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:39 PM on February 27, 2015 [11 favorites]

Yes, FilthyLightThief is right on about Iroh being critical. Imagine an alternate Avatarverse where Iroh died in battle and didn't accompany Zuko in exile...

Something else I didn't recall from the early episodes was how often Aang was popping into the Avatar state. It makes sense from a writing standpoint, as it points to how powerul he has the potential to be without making him a highly trained badass from the start.
posted by ursus_comiter at 10:09 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Iroh is such an amazing character. KORRA SPOILER - hover for text
posted by JHarris at 3:15 PM on March 6, 2015

Alas, re: your spoiler point, JHarris, my comment in a Korra thread linked below still stands.

Korra Spoiler in Link.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:55 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

For those looking for Zuko's diary entries that tchemgrrl mentioned earlier: they're written by user lilah80, starting with the S02E09 review (Bitter Work).

Also, they are pure gold.
posted by Mrs. Davros at 3:13 PM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I couldn't find those in the thread for Bitter Work, so I did some googling, and it seems lilah80 collected them into a couple of LJ posts.
posted by ursus_comiter at 12:18 PM on July 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

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