40. The Southern Air Temple (1×03)
The first devestating moment of the series comes early on, when Aang visits his former home at the southern air temple and witnesses the aftermath of the genocide that wiped out his entire race. That being said, the episode includes several light moments as Katara and Sokka attempt to distract Aang from the inevitable realization that everyone he’s ever loved is dead. Heavy stuff, this, and the series doesn’t shy away from the emotional impact it has on our young hero. This is the first time we see Aang catapult himself into the avatar state based on sheer emotional turmoil, and Katara bring him down from it through a simple assertion of love. Between the jokes about Sokka’s appetite and the first appearance of Momo, this is a quietly heartbreaking episode. The emotional impact is doubled by Zuko’s tightly written storyline, which hints at his past trauma as he begrudgingly shows Commander Zhao mercy during an Agni Kai duel.
39. The Fortuneteller (1×14)
Romantic comedies and shippy sitcoms could learn a thing or two from A:TLA. The series builds its central relationships gradually and organically over time and never plays coy about its characters’ intentions. By this episode, we already know that Aang is perpetually mooning over Katara, but we also get the first clue that she’s begun to see him as more than part of her found family. Everything unfolds against the comedy-rich backdrop of a town that’s obsessed with an esteemed fortune-teller, whom Aang and Katara both begin frantically consulting for advice about their love lives. This is one of the series’ funniest episodes thanks to the colorful townsfolk and Sokka, who’s in full exasperated skeptic mode.
38. The Deserter (1×16)
A Karate Kid homage seasoned with a side of Last Jedi-esque plot machinations (Jeong Jeong = Luke, Zhao = Ben Solo), “The Deserter” shows us Aang’s first foray into firebending. The avatar meets a mysterious man named Jeong Jeong, who’s rumored to be the only person to ever abandon the fire nation military and survive. While Jeong Jeong attempts to teach Aang the theoretical aspects of firebending, the kid is overeager and takes shortcuts that turn dangerous. After accidentally burning Katara, Aang decides he’s never firebending again. This impractical choice highlights his ongoing struggle with abandoning his worldly self. Aang will continue to choose holding onto the people he loves over achieving supernatural perfection, and his worldly attachment becomes both his Achilles heel and his secret weapon.
37. Appa’s Lost Days (2×16)
Poor Appa. We didn’t realize how much we loved the six-legged flying bison until he was gone, stolen away by creepy sandbenders and absent for a long stretch of episodes. Animal-lovers will have a hard time with this one, which reveals what went down with Appa during the month that he was away from the gang. Over the course of the episode’s 22 minutes he’s first sold to a circus led by a sadistic ringleader, then injured in a fight with a wild animal, then caught in the crossfire of Azula and the Kyoshi Warriors. He relives some childhood memories at the eastern air temple, then makes his way to Ba Sing Se where, in the tradition of every sad animal movie ever made, his happy ending is unfairly thwarted. It’s painful to watch Appa get so close to Aang, only to be captured once more, but the episode’s empathy for the creature is also apparent in every scene. All of the good characters treat Appa like a sensitive being with a soul and emotions, and it’s Appa’s unbreakable spiritual bond with Aang that eventually leads him into the city.
36. The Awakening (3×01)
Following the defeat at Ba Sing Se, Aang wakes up weeks later aboard a fire nation vessel. To his great surprise, the gang, Hakoda, and Bato are undercover on the stolen ship, and oh, yeah, the entire world thinks Aang is dead. While this news doesn’t gel with Aang–he needs to give people hope, and being dead isn’t really conducive to that–Zuko is adjusting to some major changes as well. Back home at the fire nation capital, he’s praised as a hero for killing the avatar. The only problem is that it was Azula who took him down, and Zuko knows he’s probably still alive. Like several season three episodes, the premiere deals directly with unmet expectations and complicated disappointments. The episode also includes sequences that are almost biblical in their presentation, as Aang is visited by spirits of encouragement when he runs off–this time toward his fate rather than away–and gets caught in a storm which parallels his earlier origin story. These big moments work well, but the highlight of the episode is a brief but cathartic conversation between Katara and Hakoda that lays out the former’s lingering, complex fear of abandonment.
35. Bitter Work (2×09)
Aang may be A:TLA’s main character by virtue of his avatar status, but Zuko is in many ways the series’ imperfect heart. Parallels between the two crop up early and often, and in episodes like “Bitter Work,” they’re directly emphasized by dynamic scenes which, thanks to some clever editing, are in clear dialogue with one another. The bare bones synopsis of this episode is rather simple: Toph tries to teach Aang earthbending while Iroh attempts to teach Zuko to conduct lightning. Yet a parable about the thin line between good and evil is boiling underneath the surface. Both Aang and Zuko are faced with shame and failure, but while Aang has a breakthrough thanks to positive reinforcement, Zuko can’t shake the years of pressure and cruelty he’s experienced at the hands of his family. By episode’s end, Aang has successfully moved the earth, while Zuko is screaming at the thunder-streaked heavens, begging the gods to strike him down.
34. The Guru (2×19)
When compared to the series’ other phenomenal finales, this half hour, which largely focuses on the metaphysical dirty work of chakra unlocking, is rather underwhelming. Guru Pathik is a distant character who seems to exist only for the purpose of explain Aang’s powers to him, and when we ultimately learn that Aang can’t master the avatar state–it would require him to detach from his worldly attachment to Katara–much of the guru storyline quickly becomes irrelevant. Across the world, though, suspense is rising as Azula and friends infiltrate Ba Sing Se by disguising themselves as the Kyoshi Warriors. All of this pales in comparison to one of the most epic moments of the series, as Toph Beifong, all-time badass and earthbender extraordinaire, invents the practice of metalbending. I repeat, this girl INVENTS a new type of bending. Go off, Toph.
33. The Avatar Returns (1×02)
So much of what makes Avatar great appears in this episode, which serves as both a conclusion to the pilot and an introduction to book one. It’s a series of chill-inducing moments, some of which only gain power when viewed within context of the entire series. An underdog tribe that’s already lost too much takes a stand against an enemy that will undoubtedly destroy it. Kids pretend to be men in place of their absent fathers, pantomiming what they think they know of war. A boy who is so much more than just a boy sacrifices himself for the greater good. This isn’t your average kid’s show, you may think to yourself by episode’s end; these are, to borrow a phrase from Firefly, big damn heroes.
32. The Western Air Temple (3×12)
Viewers wanted to see Zuko on Team Avatar for ages, but most of us never dreamed that his re-introduction as an official good guy would be so…awkward. Poor Zuko is no longer driven by rage, but he still suffers from those old insecurities, which are exacerbated when he follows the gang to the western air temple and essentially tries to audition for a spot in their group. By this point, he’s just a sweetie with comically horrible presentation skills, though his attempts to connect with the group would be funnier if we hadn’t already seen him struggle so much. Ultimately, he earns his place by connecting with Aang over their shared understanding of fire’s destructive power. Katara isn’t having it and threatens to make Zuko swim with the fishes if he steps out of line. Although it’s light on action, the episode is a standout for shining an earnest spotlight on the messy, unglamorous, frustrating work of self-improvement.
31. The Avatar State (2×01)
Post-northern water tribe siege, “The Avatar State” doles out one huge character development after another. Aang’s got PTSD after Hulk-smashing the fire nation navy, and worries about the destruction that inevitably comes with the avatar state. Katara tells him she loves him and can’t bear to see him this way, but Aang’s too distracted to notice her declaration, only recognizing the stakes when Roku tells him the reincarnation cycle will end if he dies while all glowy-eyed. Meanwhile, it’s the third anniversary of Zuko’s banishment, and by nightfall he and Iroh are officially fugitives from justice. Azula’s terrifying introduction should be the natural highlight of the jam-packed episode, but it’s the image of Iroh and Zuko cutting off their hair in the final moments–letting their old selves die–that sticks with us after the credits have ended.