30. The Warriors of Kyoshi (1×04)
The first outright funny episode of Avatar is also a sweet and sad tale of a culture lost and found during wartime. It also course corrects some of the rougher elements of the series so far, most notably Sokka’s sexism. When the group stops by Kyoshi Island so Aang can ride giant sea creatures, he quickly becomes a local celebrity complete with an entourage of screaming fangirls. Meanwhile, Sokka gets on the bad side of a group of elite girl warriors who kick ass in full traditional garb using only metal fans as weapons. The girls, led by his eventual girlfriend Suki, teach him a lesson about what it takes to be a true warrior and make him wear a dress in the process. As great as it is to see Sokka knocked off his high horse, the episode’s high point comes later, when Aang dives off a fleeing Appa and rides the dangerous Unagi monster to put out the fires set by Zuko and his crew. Aang feels responsible for the destruction of this neutral territory, an early sign of the selfless hero hidden underneath his playful exterior.
29. Lake Laogai (2×17)
For kids watching Avatar: The Last Airbender during its original run, the Ba Sing Se episodes of book two were absolutely mind-blowing. The Dai Li secret police, Jet and Joo Dee’s brainwashing, and the city’s deep state conspiracy of propaganda are disturbing on an instinctual level, even without young viewers’ recognition of the city’s probable central influences–North Korea and Qing Dynasty Beijing. As adults, the connections are just as disturbing, and they all culminate in this pulse-pounding episode which takes place at the city’s titular underground mind control center. Jet’s apparent death at the hands of Long Feng is a shock for a show that until this point had frequently danced around the idea of death without actually showing it. It’s a turning point for the series, and for Zuko, too. The tortured prince is confronted by his uncle and forced to finally consider his own desires. In a moment worth cheering for, he throws down his Blue Spirit mask and sets Appa free, a heroic act that he does without seeking any recognition. This episode propels the series into a third act that’s darker and more epic than anything we’ve seen before.
28. The Library (2×10)
“The Library” is another episode that feels high-stakes and memorable thanks to its masterful pacing and writing. When Sokka learns about an ancient library in the middle of an Earth Nation desert, the crew ends up embroiled in a plot to steal war strategy information from an all-seeing knowledge spirit. The spirit, a creepy giant owl who detests humankind, calls the kids out for their inability to value knowledge for knowledge’s sake, without using it to hurt others. “You think you’re the first person to believe their war was justified?” he says, and it’s yet another piece of hard-hitting allegory impressively sandwiched into a series marketed for children. “The Library” is bold storytelling that makes our heroes its villains, and the willful blurring of ethical lines by characters we’ve come to love is deeply unsettling and impactful.
27. Sozin’s Comet Part 1: The Phoenix King (3×18)
This is it. The four-part finale of A:TLA is an epic piece of cinematic storytelling on par with the great fantasy stories of our age. The first section eases us into the action with a couple of light moments and considerable set-up, but the signs of what’s to come are ominous and many. Ozai tells Azula she’ll be the new firelord, a promotion that somehow feels like a betrayal. Aang decides he’s not willing to kill the firelord, whose baby picture the team coos over before realizing they’re looking at the child who would become a brutal dictator. Zuko reveals the vile strategy discussed at a recent war meeting, a plan that involves massive civilian casualties. This episode sets up a half-dozen stomach-clenching plot points, setting viewers perfectly on edge for the final hour.
26. Winter Solstice Part 2: Avatar Roku (1×08)
“Avatar Roku” sets off the metaphorical ticking clock that follows Aang through the rest of the series. There’s a showdown between Zhao and Zuko, both of whom have chased the avatar to a fire nation temple. An unsuccessful military blockade and a secret loyal fire sage raises the stakes early on, so that when Aang finally reaches the sanctuary and speaks with Roku, only to learn that he’s prophesied to defeat the firelord or fail before Sozin’s Comet arrives next summer, it feels like a dramatic gut check in the best way. Zhao plans to kill the boy once he exits the sanctuary, but Aang leaves with all the power of Roku at his disposal. Aang can be pretty badass when he needs to be, and this is one of our first glimpses at what he can do with the support of his previous lives.
25. The Serpent’s Pass (2×12)
This travel-is-a-nightmare episode finds the gang still Appa-less and in need of passports to get to Ba Sing Se. Inexplicably, they’re at the same refugee port as a handful of other characters, including Uncle, Zuko, Jet, and Suki, all poised to start the next chapter of their lives. When a heavily pregnant woman and her husband have their own passports stolen, Aang decides to give up their spots on the ferry and instead guide the couple through the treacherous Serpent’s Pass. This episode has plenty of material to work with, from Sokka’s grief over Yue manifesting in anxiety on Suki’s behalf, to Aang’s attempts to make himself feel nothing to prevent the avatar state, to the anti-dream team of Jet and Zuko. By its end, the group has faced down a deadly serpent, delivered a baby, and found that Ba Sing Se isn’t the stronghold it once was.
24. Sokka’s Master (3×04)
A largely bending-free episode, “Sokka’s Master” allows the only non-bending member of the group to get his moment of honor. By this point Sokka is travelling with the avatar, the world’s first metalbender, and the world’s only known female combat waterbender. This is a lot of hype to live up to, and Sokka feels useless in comparison. Lucky for him, there’s a sword master in town, and Master Piandao takes on Sokka as a student. Unlike the other masters we’ve encountered thus far, Piandao doesn’t hurl abuse at his student, nor does he remain overly aloof and mysterious. The man (played by character actor Robert Patrick) meets Sokka on his level, recognizing the latter’s heart, creativity, versatility, and intelligence. Elsewhere, Uncle Iroh tricks a douchebag guard into thinking he’s a desperate and weak old man, while actually training day and night to emerge at episode’s end stronger than ever.
23. The Earth King (2×18)
You’d think after what went down at Lake Laogai, the gang would catch a break, but it’s not their destiny in the episode leading up to the second season finale. The team decides to try once more to reach the earth king and tell him about the war, but to do so they have to battle their way into his palace. Toph takes the lead with the legendary bending flair that made her earthbending tournament champ, but when the group meets the earth king, Long Feng is still whispering lies at his shoulder. Eventually they convince the king to support them in the war, and Sokka ironically states that “Everything is gonna work out perfectly from now on and forever!” Of course, everything immediately crashes and burns from there, as a series of codas show Toph being kidnapped, the Dai Lee pledging loyalty to an imprisoned Long Feng, and most harrowingly, Azula and friends appearing in town to “protect” the earth king, disguised in clothes they clearly stole from the Kyoshi Warriors. While all this unfolds, Zuko undergoes a spiritual transformation, becoming sick from the cognitive dissonance of his two opposing selves and experiencing a series of strange and hypnotic prophetic dreams.
22. The Day of Black Sun: The Invasion (3×10)
Together, the “Day of Black Sun” episodes are some of the best of the series, a Game of Thrones-style large scale battle story that’s surprising at every turn. There’s a war on, and it’s now or never, something Aang recognizes when he finally kisses Katara, fearing he might not return. Sokka finally gets to join his father in combat, but pre-battle jitters keep him from taking the leadership role he’d sought. This episode sees the return of several minor allies who we met in earlier one-off episodes of the series, all of whom appear ready to fight and die if it helps Aang defeat the firelord and end the Hundred Years War. Sokka teams up with the inventor whom we met at the Northern air temple, and the two engineer-minded guys invent bending-powered submarines and other innovative tools of war. The excitement is dampened by the team’s slow realization that the fire nation saw them coming, that their attack was anything but a surprise. As anxiety grows, Zuko prepares to leave home for good, and Aang finds an empty throne.
21. Imprisoned (1×06)
“Imprisoned” is a haunting episode of television that echoes the human rights violations of several past real-life wars. In it, the group touches down at a fire nation-occupied earthbender town where using one’s bending has been outlawed. They meet a teenager named Haru who hides his abilities, as his father has already been imprisoned for displaying his bending. When Haru is forced to earthbend to save a life, he’s swiftly turned in to the fire nation army, who send him to the same prison rig that holds his dad. There’s a poignant small moment where Katara, seeing Haru’s mother, knows immediately that he’s been captured. Eventually, Katara gets herself arrested and, once in prison, attempts to lead a revolt against a cruel warden, played by George Takai. In a depressingly realistic moment, Katara gives a speech to rally the prisoners, but they’re so beaten down and dispirited that they hardly notice her. It all ends well, but the majority of the episode plays out like a strong, emotional condemnation of wartime practices.