Our favorite zen tea-maker Uncle Iroh once said, “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love.” In the spirit of Iroh’s wisdom, this list should be prefaced with an assertion: there’s no such thing as a truly bad episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Certainly, a small handful of episodes of Nickelodeon’s critically acclaimed fantasy show (now set to become a live-action Netflix series) feel rushed, heavy-handed, or like obvious filler. Yet each of its 61 episodes has clearly been crafted with the love Iroh values by series co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, along with talented writing, voice acting, and animation teams. Although Iroh’s right about striving for perfection, at least half of them are also about as close to perfect as they could get. Talk to a dozen different Avatar fans, as I have this week, and they’ll all be able to rattle off at least five different favorite episodes in a single breath, qualifying each as funny or intense or shocking or emotional. By its definition, this list ranks each in order from worst to best, but it’s worth stating that almost every chapter of A:TLA is profound, lovely, and original in its own way.
Those of us who have seen Avatar: The Last Airbender tend to praise it with near-fanatical love, but the zealous response is warranted. The Emmy-winning series, which follows a group of young teens with the ability to control the elements as they attempt to restore balance to a war-torn world, is a masterfully made, heartfelt epic on par with Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet it aired rather briefly on a children’s channel and was overshadowed by a bad film adaptation, making it a pop cultural underdog perpetually seeking legitimacy within the larger cultural conversation.
The show also stands out for professing morals that are in direct and refreshing contradiction to the stories that usually dominate the airwaves. Avatar looks deep into the aftermath of war through the lens of Eastern spiritual traditions, valuing radical self-sacrifice, commitment to non-violence, defense of the oppressed, and the tough work of forgiveness. Richer and deeper than anything else that’s fallen under the label of children’s entertainment in a long time, it’s a hero’s journey unlike any that has come before or since. For that, it’s worth celebrating. Read on for a ranking of every episode.
61. The King of Omashu (1×05)
Like many early episodes of A:TLA, “The King of Omashu” is overly reliant on sequences of kiddish fun, but we can’t blame the writers for attempting to keep things light while they could. This time around, Aang, Sokka, and Katara ride the mail delivery chutes in the Earth kingdom city Omashu, where Aang used to hang 100 years ago with his friend Bumi. They’re quickly apprehended by the King, who is obviously a now-elderly Bumi. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode hinges around the mystery of the king’s identity, which the gang is embarrassingly slow to realize. On the plus side, this episode marks the introduction of the unlucky cabbage vendor!
60. The Great Divide (1×11)
While most of A:TLA‘s filler episodes get high marks for memorable jokes or compelling B plots, “The Great Divide” is short on both. The plot follows Aang and co. into a Grand Canyon-esque chasm where they meet two rather obnoxious tribes who harboring a longstanding feud with one another. The episode’s central message is that xenophobia is dangerous and that people are stronger when they work together across arbitrary social divisions. That’s all well and good, but Avatar says it better and with a lighter hand a half-dozen other times. Widespread dislike for this episode has become a bit of an in-joke, and it even gets razzed by the writers in the season three episode “The Ember Island Players.”
59. Avatar Day (2×05)
No other episode has a wider gap in quality between its A and B plots, and in a turn of events that’s surprisingly common for the series, it’s the side plot that fares best in “Avatar Day.” The central story involves Aang being imprisoned for a murder allegedly committed by one of his past lives, Avatar Kyoshi, a plot that grows increasingly ludicrous. Sokka’s inexplicable Sherlock Holmes impersonation, grating townsfolk, and a sense of glaring unimportance in comparison to Toph’s looming introduction all weigh the half hour down. On the other hand, this is the most we see of entrancing, powerful Kyoshi, and Iroh gives Zuko some of his most enduring wisdom when he suspects his nephew is stealing: “You must never give into despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”
58. Return to Omashu (2×03)
Bumi-centric episodes tend to end up being wild goose chases, and “Return to Omashu” is no exception. When the gang returns to Omashu and finds it overtaken by the Fire Nation, Aang tries to find his old friend and along the way convince some resistance fighters to retreat for their own safety. A:TLA is also full of moments of serendipity, most of which can be chalked up to fate, but the many convenient moments of timing in this episode stretch belief. Sociopathic Azula thankfully steals the episode as she puts together a team which includes emo rich girl Mae and bubbly acrobat Ty Lee. This episode seems tangential, but it has re-watch value for introducing this ultra-cool bad girl trio.
57. Nightmares and Daydreams (3×09)
Avatar has two different episodes centered on the inability to get a good night’s sleep, and this is definitely the trippier outing. With the solar eclipse just four days away, Aang becomes plagued by anxiety and stress nightmares. Most of these are goofy, like his anime-influenced confrontations with the Firelord, but a glitchy, apocalyptic sequence near the middle is genuinely unnerving. The episode eventually goes off the rails in a hilarious albeit inconsequential way, culminating in a hallucinated duel between talking, armor-clad Momo and Appa. In a short side story that has lasting repercussions we don’t find out about until later, Zuko angsts over attending an important war council meeting.
56. The Headband (3×02)
Fire nation Footloose is the name of the game in this season three episode, which gives viewers insight into the rigid culture of the patriotism-heavy mainland fire nation. After stealing what turns out to be a school uniform, Aang gets picked up by fire nation truant officers and enrolled in a local school that perpetuates propaganda and doesn’t allow self-expression. The detour into school life is a novel idea, and mostly a fun one as Aang turns his unending reserves of kindness (plus some 100-year-old slang) on bullies, popular girls, and nerds alike. While the group lets loose in a humorous diversion, Zuko is up to his old ways, yelling at a cell-bound Uncle with all the emotional immaturity of seasons past.
55. Winter Solstice Part 1: The Spirit World (1×07)
This episode, which follows Aang’s first journey into the spirit world, is in no way bad but simply suffers from feeling thin. We barely meet the townsfolk who are plagued by mysterious disappearances, and the hurt forest spirit responsible, a panda bear turned monster, is equally aloof. This episode leads into “Avatar Roku,” one of the first epic mythology downloads of the series, but on its own, it feels brief and incomplete. Still, Katara’s early intonation to guilt-ridden Aang–that new life is just as powerful as destruction–is a vital and beautiful recurring theme in the series.
54. The Drill (2×13)
As part of a two-episode series originally titled “Secrets of The Fire Nation,” “The Drill” felt pretty epic. It doesn’t hold up quite as well on its own merits but is still a valuable marker of the point at which the series ratcheted up the adrenaline and kept stakes high for the rest of the series. The entire back half of season two feels climactic, including this entry, which sees the gang trying to stop a massive drill from breaking through the formerly impenetrable walls of the Earth Kingdom capital, Ba Sing Se. A lot of technical stuff goes down, allowing Sokka to be the hero of Team Avatar (a name he made up in this episode) for once, and when the group finally makes it into Ba Sing Se, it’s a well-earned victory after an exhausting journey.
53. The Swamp (2×04)
“The Swamp” is a chilling psych-out episode with more on its mind than it has time to explore. The first signs of spookiness come when Aang subconsciously steers Appa toward a swamp that feels “alive,” and the kids end up stranded in the dark. The best parts of the episode are also its most disturbing, as Katara is haunted by a vision of her dead mother and an image of (also dead) Princess Yue scolds Sokka for failing to protect her. The Foggy Swamp is where each character’s fears are laid bare, but its central mythology is explained in a rather rushed conclusion by a vine-bending swamp dweller who claims that the swamp is “one big organism, just like the world” where “time is an illusion and so is death.” A just-okay episode ends with one hell of a kicker when Zuko, in full Blue Spirit garb, attacks a man who had ruthlessly taunted Uncle as the two panhandled earlier in the episode.
52. The Ember Island Players (3×17)
One of the most-referenced comedy episodes of the series aired right before the four-part series finale and essentially acted as an extended recap. The gang, now including Zuko, gets wind of a play written about them that’s being performed by a notoriously untalented acting troupe. “This is the kind of wacky, time-wasting nonsense I’ve been missing!” ever-meta Sokka says. The play is a pretty hilarious telephone game version of the kids’ antics over the first three seasons, featuring a buff dude filling the role of Toph, a constantly-sobbing Katara, and jokes aplenty about Zuko’s hairstyle changes. When Sokka tries to give the actor playing himself some better jokes, the man says, “Oh no, another fan with ideas!” Clearly, this episode is meant to acknowledge and poke fun at the series itself and its fandom: it even includes a reference to the omnipresent ship Zutara.
51. Bato of the Water Tribe (1×15)
This episode offers an always-welcome peek into Sokka and Katara’s water tribe upbringing, putting the culture’s Inuit-inspired traditions front and center when they run into a friend of their warrior fathers. We learn that when their father left for the war, Sokka was too young to go with, and with no father figures left he wasn’t able to complete the male rights of passage that are traditional for their tribe. Bato sets out to right that wrong and also promises incoming word from their father on the battlefront. All of that is undermined, however, by a truly petty move from Aang that is both out of character and veers into it-was-all-a-big-misunderstand sitcom plot territory, something the series otherwise mercifully avoids.