The 15 best episodes of 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'
Mastering the elements and the episodes
Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the most beloved kids' cartoons of the 2000s... not least for the ways it wove adult concerns and real-world problems into its fantasy narrative. Now that it's back on Netflix, the show has garnered a wealth of new fans and reminded old ones why they loved it in the first place. So we at EW decided to mark the occasion by revisiting and ranking our very favorite episodes. Don't worry: Like the characters themselves, we strove to maintain balance.
Note: We will be using Netflix's episode numbering system, which combines most but not all multi-part stories into one.
15. The Chase (book 2, episode 8)
Reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica’s excellent premiere episode “33,” “The Chase” sees the gang endure several sleepless nights because a mysterious machine keeps catching up to them. Naturally, tensions rise, and Toph eventually heads out on her own after a spat with Aang, which leads to a delightful and enlightening encounter between her and Iroh. Meanwhile, Aang winds up in a fantastic three-way fight with Zuko and Azula in an abandoned town. Not only does the climactic conflict further establish Azula as a great and dangerous adversary, but it also foreshadows the unlikely alliance that formed in season 3. —Chancellor Agard
14. The King of Omashu (book 1, episode 5)
After we met Suki in the previous episode, “The King of Omashu” acquaints with two new figures — Bumi, and of course, the cabbage merchant. Three amazing characters back to back? We are truly blessed. Only Bumi could keep the audience on his side even after going, “How can I impart wisdom on this tween, who’s also my childhood friend? Threaten to kill his friends, obviously.” The king gives Aang and the show some much-needed edge by forcing the Avatar to think like a mad genius and get creative to save Katara and Sokka. And who can forget just how visually astonishing Omashu is? We still want to ride those giant chutes. —Rachel Yang
13. Lake Laogai (book 2, episode 13)
Indicative of Book 2’s unique strengths, “Lake Laogai” simultaneously feels like one of the happiest and one of the darkest episodes in the entire season. On the one hand, the gang finally recovers Appa! What a joy it is to see the Dai Li secret police get their asses kicked by him too, huh? But is the short-lived catharsis of seeing Long Feng thrown in jail worth Jet’s tragic death? Even his sacrifice is but the capper to a horribly sad life. Jet’s experience of pillage, thievery, and brainwashing is an honest depiction by Avatar: The Last Airbender of how some poor people get horribly consumed by wars they had nothing to do with. —Christian Holub
12. The Firebending Masters (book 3, episode 12)
It’s not just Aang who spent most of Avatar: The Last Airbender terrified of firebending. We viewers had only been shown it as a destructive, conquering military force. From the first moments of the opening credits, we are told that there are four major elements to this world, but one of them is wrong, bad, and opposed to the other three. One of the great joys of Book 3’s final stretch is showing how things don’t have to be that way. By journeying to meet the Sun Warriors tribe and the last dragons they’re protecting, Aang and Zuko learn that fire can also be beautiful, colorful, and life-sustaining. Far from being inevitable, Firelord Ozai’s reign of terror is a perversion of the world (a good reminder in our own age of seemingly endless war). Fire doesn’t have to destroy, just like Aang and Zuko don’t have to fight each other; in fact, they’re much stronger when they’re growing and burning together. —C.H.
11. The Southern Air Temple (book 1, episode 3)
This early episode gave two big indications of the unique ways Avatar: The Last Airbender was going to unfold. The first was Zuko’s Agni Kai. Having just been introduced to this guy as the supposed primary antagonist of the show, already we see hints that he is quite sympathetic and noble in his own way. Even more important is this episode’s horror story aspect, as we watch goofy little Aang slowly realize the truth of the genocide that was inflicted on his people. A large reason A:TLA was and remains so unique in the kids’ media landscape is its non-condescending reckoning with the horrors of imperialism, and that started right here at the beginning. —C.H.
10. The Puppetmaster (book 3, episode 8)
With “The Puppetmaster,” Avatar wades into horror territory again. While camping out in the Fire Nation, Team Avatar meets Hama, an old lady who runs a local inn and turns out to be a waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe. A former prisoner of war, Hama offers to teach Katara and reveals how she escaped captivity: Bloodbending, a truly horrific technique that produces some unsettling visuals when Hama manipulates people’s bodies. On the one hand, the general idea of bloodbending is cool because it’s a different application for waterbending, but it’s also unsettling seeing waterbending used in such a violent way because it’s associated with healing. Furthermore, Hama is one of the show’s most tragic figures because of how her oppression made her just as monstrous as the monsters who hurt her. In the final confrontation, Katara has no choice but to use bloodbending to stop Hama, which unlocks a darkness in Katara that comes out later in the season. —C.A.
9. The Warriors of Kyoshi (book 1, episode 4)
What begins as Aang’s fun trip to Kyoshi ends with some serious lessons for the gang and the introduction of a now-beloved character. This episode gave us some of the funniest scenes from Book 1, plus what we’ve been waiting for — Sokka’s misogynistic butt getting whooped. He’s defeated by Suki and a “bunch of girls,” a.k.a. the Kyoshi warriors, whose delicate fans and strategic fighting style show him that it takes more than brute force to win the day. This chapter also masterfully reestablishes the responsibilities that come with being the Avatar. Other kids can ride elephant koi all day long, but Aang’s no average 12-year-old, and his indulgence results in the devastation of an entire village. The final showdown when Zuko finds the group is genuinely thrilling, and Aang’s last-minute decision to risk his life and save the town lets us know early on what kind of Avatar he will be. —R.Y.
8. The Guru/The Crossroads of Destiny (book 2, episode 18)
Avatar: The Last Airbender got its own Empire Strikes Back in “The Guru/Crossroads of Destiny” two-parter. Unlike the hard-fought victory of “Siege of the North” or the cathartic Ragnarok of “Sozin’s Comet,” the explosive Book 2 finale saw the bad guys triumphant for once. After a season of learning to sympathize with Zuko, we see him regress to his worst instincts here — but not before sharing a beautiful scene with Katara, an indication of how the show’s great characters could be mixed and matched in fascinating ways. Aang’s cosmic Avatar Spirit was one of the coolest visuals the show ever produced, which maybe explains why he had to be forcibly shut off from it all the way until the finale. —C.H.
7. The Ember Island Players (book 3, episode 15)
Hello, “wacky time-wasting nonsense.” In “Ember Island Players,” Team Avatar attends a local theatre troupe’s performance of a play based on their adventures. Not only was this a necessary reprieve from the rising tension before the four-part series finale, which came immediately after it, but it was also insightful and a total delight. Through the play, the writers explore how Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and Toph see themselves and each other, and reflect on (and lovingly lampoon) pretty much every aspect of the show — from recurring beats and bits (Sokka’s cheesy humor, Zuko’s honor obsession) to the different ships the show has inspired. In many ways, it’s the best kind of fan service. But the revelation that The Boy in the Iceberg is just Fire Nation propaganda elevates this episode even more because it becomes apiece with the show’s larger concerns with the many different parts of the war machine. Yes, it’s a filler episode in many ways, but it’s an excellent one. —C.A.
6. Tales of Ba Sing Se (book 2, episode 15)
If you didn’t know it before, “Tales of Ba Sing Se” truly proved that Avatar is a step above the rest. Its characters are so well developed that they don’t need action-packed plots for audiences to find them interesting. This slice-of-life episode imbues each of our protagonists — even Momo — with levity and tenderness and illustrates that little things, from a date to strangers’ gossip, can have a big impact on someone. The standout vignette is of course Iroh’s chapter, which finds him doing good deeds for everyday people and culminates with his memorial honoring his late son’s birthday. Iroh has always been more than the “carefree old man who likes tea” caricature, and this episode digs deeper into how his wisdom was shaped by loss and self-reflection. We dare you not to cry when “Leaves from the Vine” comes on. —R.Y.
5. The Boiling Rock (book 3, episode 13)
While the benders are on fire this episode, with Zuko further redeeming himself with Team Avatar, it’s the non-benders who are “Boiling Rock”’s MVPs. Sokka once again showcases his ingenuity with two separate plans to rescue his loved ones from the maximum-security prison. But when he fails to think through the end of the scheme, it’s Suki who seals the deal, and her single-handedly defeating numerous guards to capture the warden is a sight to behold. Ultimately, it’s Mai and Ty Lee who let the group get away by turning against Azula. Their betrayal is the beginning of the end for the Fire Nation princess, who unravels with one badass line from Mai: “I love Zuko more than I fear you.” Goosebumps. —R.Y.
4. The Blind Bandit (book 2, episode 6)
Leading into Avatar: The Last Airbender’s second season, there was a lot of anticipation around who would become Aang’s earthbending teacher. Thankfully, this episode didn’t disappoint at all, because Toph, the eponymous blind bandit, was instantly iconic from the moment she was introduced. Aang and company cross paths with the angry Toph at an earthbending tournament, and writer Michael Dante DiMartino and director Ethan Spaulding quickly and effectively establish how talented she is. At first, Toph turns them down because of her rich and overprotective parents, but then she changes their minds and runs away with them. With her tough and sarcastic attitude, Toph immediately brought a new energy to the show that changed up Aang, Katara, and Sokka’s dynamic for the better. —C.A.
3. The Siege of the North (book 1, episodes 19-20)
“Siege of the North” excels not only in battle scenes between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe, but also in its beautiful message about the spirits and balance, and what happens when people disrupt that equilibrium. Fire and water, yin and yang, the sun and the moon — the world cannot survive without these dualities. When Zhao takes the moon away, both Aang and Princess Yue step up to prevent its permanent loss. Their scenes are equally breathtaking — Aang merging with the Ocean Spirit to unleash his powers on the Fire Navy, and Yue making the ultimate sacrifice for the world by becoming the moon, in contrast with Zhao’s selfish act. It’s a stunning finale, a fitting goodbye for a loathsome villain, and a perfect set-up for Azula’s emergence as the new antagonist to make up for Iroh and Zuko’s betrayal of the Fire Nation. —R.Y.
2. Zuko Alone (book 2, episode 7)
Avatar goes full Western with this standalone tale about Zuko. After separating his uncle, the wayward firebender finds himself in a poor Earth Kingdom village and decides to defend the innocent townspeople from the exploitative Earth Kingdom soldiers. Up until this point, Avatar had done a good job of exploring the horrors of war, but this instance was particularly affecting because the Fire Nation weren’t the villains of the story, indicating good and evil aren’t as clear cut, and more importantly, we were seeing it through Zuko’s eyes. He started out the show as an antagonist and here he’s forced to confront the consequences of his actions and how people perceive him as he’s trying to figure out how he feels about himself. The way in which the show effortlessly juggles this intense character study that deepens one of its “villains” with a relatively realistic depiction of the global conflict’s consequences is prime of example of how Avatar was more than just a kids' show. —C.A.
1. Sozin's Comet (book 3, episode 16)
Sure, the series finale has a slight advantage in this ranking since it’s the length of four separate episodes, but the primary reason “Sozin’s Comet” gets the top spot on this list is because of how perfectly it resolves all the plotlines and character arcs that built up over three seasons. One of the best series finales of all time (certainly in kids’ media) wasn’t afraid to flip your expectations. For three seasons, Aang has been training to become more powerful than Firelord Ozai. But only at the end, when he has mastered all four elements, does Aang think about what it would actually mean to “defeat” the Firelord.
Thanks to the long-awaited appearance of the wise Lion Turtle (the ultimate animal hybrid, whose existence was hinted throughout the series), Aang learns that he doesn’t have to kill his enemy when a more righteous solution is available: Taking away the power that Ozai used to justify his imperialist slaughter. "Sozin's Comet" retains its power years later, especially at a time when Americans are openly thinking about what justice means: Should officers of the law have a license to kill in the line of duty? Is it humane to incarcerate people for years? May each of us, when we arrive at our moments of triumph, retain our humanity enough to question the consequences of our actions. Even more than that incredible power sphere of elements, Aang's insistence on doing so is what finally makes him the Avatar. —C.H.
"The Library" (book 2, episode 10): This adventure is a blast of fantasy, from the Borgesian desert library to the "sandbenders" who move and dress like the Fremen of Dune. It's also very important to Team Avatar's journey, kicking off Appa's tragic captivity and pointing the way to the Day of the Black Sun. No other Spirit World denizen is as compelling as Wan Shi Tong, the owl librarian so pacifist that he's willing to kill rather than let more people twist his knowledge for violence (which, like the best A:TLA episodes, really makes you think). —C.H.
“The Headband” (book 3, episode 2): With the Fire Nation set up as the bad guys, the episode did a great job at humanizing its people as everyday citizens caught in a war, just like people from other nations. Plus, it’s always fun to see Aang get to be a normal kid, showing off his ~flameo~ dance moves and teaching his classmates how to loosen up. —R.Y.
“The Southern Raiders” (book 3, episode 14): Picking up where “The Puppetmaster” left off, this late season 3 entry further explores Katara’s dark side and allows her to be understandably flawed. In a bid to earn Katara’s trust, Zuko helps her track down the Fire Nation general who murdered her mother. This pairing is so interesting because of the characters’ contrasting journeys: Katara started out the series as extremely compassionate and learned about her inner darkness as the series progressed, whereas Zuko ran hot from the beginning and spent season 2 and 3 learning how to care about other people and do the right thing. The shot of Yon Rha surrounded by Katara’s rain icicles is stunning. Thankfully, she doesn’t cross the line, but she doesn’t forgive Yon Rha either. —C.A.