‘The Southern Air Temple’ breaks open the world and stories of Avatar in immensely satisfying – though incomplete – ways. We begin with Aang and company, revisiting nearly immediately Aang’s avoidance of reality – both his destiny and the ramifications of the passing of a hundred years.
Meanwhile, Zuko faces off against Command Zhao, whose dialogue reveals that Zuko is the disgraced son of the Fire Lord, banished for an unnamed offense. Similarly, he mockingly addresses Zuko’s uncle as ‘General’ Iroh, a great hero of the nation – though he clearly has no regard for either prince or uncle. Iroh’s calm acceptance of the blatant disrespect stands in stark contrast to Zuko’s barely contained fury.
Zhao takes over Zuko’s mission, citing his failure to hold the Avatar, and taunts Zuko into rashly challenging him to some sort of duel called ‘Agni Kai’. After Zhao accepts smugly and leaves, Iroh worriedly reminds Zuko of what happened last time he dueled a master, leaving us with more questions than when we started. Is this what happened to Zuko’s face?
Meanwhile, Aang is losing himself in the joy of being back at the Southern Air Temple, empty though it is. Katara & Sokka are notably subdued in contrast, both intuiting that the temple is empty because the Fire Nation overran it years ago – this is confirmed when Katara finds a Fire Nation helm, though she quickly hides the evidence to spare Aang’s feelings. This can’t last, and a feeling of nervous anticipation shadows Aang’s fond recollections of his mentor, the loveable and wise Monk Gyatso.
Things reach a head for both storylines as Aang enters the temple itself and Zuko faces off against Zhao. Zuko initially falls against Zhao’s confident attacks, overwhelmed by their power and unsure of his ability. Iroh’s encouragement and reminder of his ability helps bring him back and he turns the tables, ultimately standing ready to deliver the finishing blow to Zhao. He instead fire the shot deliberately wide, allowing Zhao to live with the shame of his defeat.
We aren’t surprised when Zhao mocks this mercy as weakness, nor when he moves to attack Zuko from behind. But it is Iroh’s intervention that stands out, and is surpassed not only in his rebuke of Zhao, but his statement of faith in Zuko: “Even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” The moment of camaraderie between these two as they walk away together is understated but affecting.
Aang has his own crisis of faith when the reality of what has happened at the Southern Air Temple can no longer be avoided. After chasing a lemur that entered the temple (mysteriously filled with statues of every previous Avatar incarnation), he finds the remains of his beloved mentor Gyatso surrounded by the remains of Fire Nation soldiers. Distraught, he enters the Avatar state, wreaking havok all around him as he glows almost insensate with sorrow and rage. At the same time, all of the statues and every Avatar temple around the world begins glowing too.
It is only Katara’s statement of faith and sharing of her own pain in the loss of her mother that brings Aang back from the brink. Sokka, too, expresses his commitment, as Aang finally accepts that he really is the last airbender. They set off together with Momo, the earlier mentioned lemur, to their next destination.
More pieces of the puzzle are laid out for us in this episode. Aang’s angst (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) is on full display, and I can’t help but think that this isn’t the end of his avoidance issues of his destiny and of his loss. It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. Similarly, I wonder if we’ll hear more about Katara & Sokka’s loss of their mother – and where is their father? What became of him & the warriors who journeyed to the Earth Kingdom?
We also got a few extra facts about how the Avatar cycle works: air, water, earth, fire. That the last Avatar was a Fire bender and that the Fire Nation is currently the source of the world’s woes makes for an interesting potential story point. And the life of the airbenders just seems neat – along with their lock design! I very much enjoyed seeing how that sort of made sense, while also being ridiculous and fanciful.