50. The Runaway (3×07)
Katara is a mom friend, this we know. However, she’s having trouble coming to terms with it in “The Runaway,” and takes it out on Toph. Meanwhile, our favorite blind earthbender is going through some stuff of her own, and she makes up for it by convincing Sokka and Aang to help her Better Call Saul everyone they meet, swindling swindlers until the gang racks up a hefty stack of coins. Not only does this episode include some of Toph’s best jokes about her peers’ clueless statements about her disability, but it also provides a much-needed conclusion to the wearying on-and-off drama between her and Katara. The emotional arc here feels a bit forced compared to others, but even at its least authentic the show’s interplay between characters is still remarkably touching.
49. The Waterbending Scroll (1×09)
When Katara finds out that Aang is an instantly talented waterbender, she resorts to stealing a waterbending scroll from a marketplace run by pirates (or as they put it, “high-risk traders”). Hijinks ensue, culminating in boat chase that leads to a deadly waterfall. This time it’s Katara’s turn to be petty; she’s jealous of Aang’s talent, and acts out in a way that endangers the group because of it. Aside from the swashbuckling, this episode is remembered as the likely inception of the ultimately doomed Katara-Zuko ship. He saves her from the pirates, only to tie her up and taunt her with her dead mom’s necklace. Nice.
48. The Chase (2×08)
The other sleepless night episode follows the gang as they’re chased by a mysterious mechanical contraption (basically a car) whenever they try to land Appa. It turns out Appa is shedding, leaving behind a trail that Azula and friends have been following day and night with ease. Meanwhile, Toph ditches the group after a spat with Katara and ends up meeting Uncle Iroh, who shares his tea with her alongside a piece of wisdom about letting herself need other people. The episode’s highlight is its last moments, which see the gang fighting against Azula alongside Zuko and Iroh. It’s a strange and thrilling sight to behold, and it foreshadows the alliance that will ultimately save the world a season later.
47. The Boy in the Iceberg (1×01)
The series pilot is sweet and humble but the series’ co-creators still manage to set up several important personality traits rather deftly in its 22 minutes. It’s all here: Sokka’s sarcasm and masculinity issues, Katara’s empathy, Aang’s fun-loving attitude and heart-eyes for Katara, Uncle’s love for tea and wisdom, and Zuko’s rage and obsession. The latter even says the “h” word–honor, which in case you missed it he’ll mention approximately 8 million more times throughout the series. The pilot does no more or less than the heavy lifting required to set up the season and sew intrigue for the journey to the north pole that will take up the rest of book one.
46. The Beach (3×05)
One of several third season episodes that makes fans marvel at Avatar‘s Y-7 rating (essentially a PG), “The Beach” is dark, but not in the way we’d come to expect. It follows the beats of a fun filler episode, but instead of following Team Avatar, it centers on a beachside vacation Zuko, Azula, Ty Lee, and Mae are forced to take while Firelord Ozai works on confidential war planning. As the anti-team Avatar, this group is mean-spirited and combative, arguing with and manipulating one another until they ultimately end up at a campfire-set confessional that leads to party-crashing. There’s no real resolution or lesson to be learned, but it’s still a caustic good time. “The Beach” is a memorable portrait of how the evil half lives thanks largely to Azula, whose intense, sociopathic personality translates rather hilariously into the teen party scene.
45. The Painted Lady (3×03)
If this were an Always Sunny episode, it’d be called “The GAang Commits Ecoterrorism.” When the team travels to a small, riverside village that’s suffering from Fire Nation factory pollution, Sokka tells them they have no time to stop and help. Thinking outside the box, Katara heals and feeds the populace at night by pretending to be a local spirit called The Painted Lady. Somewhere along the way she decides to blow up the factory, a horribly ill-planned act of heroism that leads to a confrontation between the Fire Nation occupation and the villagers. In an odd break from the show’s usually peace-oriented philosophy, Katara’s actions are ultimately given a stamp of approval by the real Painted Lady herself. Buried in this episode is a discussion about slow-moving institutional change versus short-term, small-scale impact, but it’s never worked through to any clear conclusion.
44. The Boiling Rock Part 2 (3×15)
A:TLA portrayed the brutality of its worlds prison system (which, surprise, isn’t much different than our own) in this two-parter which follows Sokka and Zuko on a field trip of sorts to the titular lava-surrounded rock prison. Part two focuses on the actual breakout part of the prison break plot, with Sokka and his dad Hakoda troubleshooting a plan that keeps going sideways when other prisoners, guards, and Azula’s gang get involved. This episode has a couple of disturbingly realistic moments, like when fellow guards cover for Sokka as he meets with Zuko (now a prisoner), assuming he’s visiting the boy’s cell to beat him. This is also a Mae-centric episode, as Zuko’s jilted ex reappears to confront him before ultimately (along with Ty Lee) turning on Azula in an act of understated but important bravery.
43. The Desert (2×11)
Remember when Sokka deadass got high as hell off of cactus juice? There’s more going on with the gang in this episode (mostly Aang’s attempt to compartmentalize his helpless rage at Appa’s disappearance), but it’s absolutely overshadowed by high AF Sokka, who wanders through the desert doing the worm, worship mushroom clouds, and talking to Momo. Sokka’s always been the show’s best comedic character, and putting him in this hallucinatory situation, especially during this moment of crisis, makes him all the more meme-able. Elsewhere, Uncle and Zuko play Pai Sho, and the former is left behind while the latter is let into a “members only” secret room. The show’s gradual, steady hints surrounding the secretive Order of the White Lotus lead to one of its most satisfying pay-offs later on.
42. The Boiling Rock Part 1 (3×16)
The first half of Sokka and Zuko’s jailbreak adventure starts a promising story that turns relentlessly grim. The two unorthodox heroes sneak away from their group in hopes of freeing Hakoda and end up stranded in an inescapable maximum-security prison. They witness bullying and brutality at the hands of the prison guards, and instead of finding Hakoda they discover Suki, imprisoned and isolated from her fellow Kyoshi Warriors. Something about these episodes just doesn’t quite land the way it was intended (maybe it’s the complete absence of several main characters), but they’re powerful bits of social commentary all the same.
41. The Firebending Masters (3×13)
Until this point in Avatar, firebending seemed destructive and scary while each of the other elements held spiritual significance and an air of harmony. “The Firebending Masters” finally delved into the philosophy behind firebending, which its original practicers understood as life-bringing and energizing like the sun itself. Zuko and Aang make this discovery on their first outing as friends: a trip to the ruinous home of the sun warriors, a lost civilization of people who first learned firebending from dragons. This is the last real mythology download episode of the series, and it’s a lovely one. The sight of Aang and Zuko working together to fulfill their respective destinies, awestruck in the face of enlightenment, is nourishment for the soul following their seasons of antagonism.