Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, we visit the Northern Air Temple. How does the episode hold up? Here are my thoughts.
1. Progress vs Preserving a Culture.
This episode’s primary theme has recently come to the front of American minds: that of preserving a culture which is no longer relevant, versus progressing forward and painting over the old culture.
When Aang sees a group of people who have settled on an old abandoned air temple, he feels betrayed. But there’s both blame and valid reasons on each side. Aang wants to preserve his now-dead culture because it’s rare and sacred, but that blinds him to the needs of the refugees. Likewise, the settlers took up that area because of their refugee status, yet they literally crash through the walls of the sacred structures so they can rebuild them for their needs. Interestingly, the mechanic notes at one point how they can go a little crazy with the progress and can sometimes destroy valuable things. Still, in the end, Aang gives his blessing: his culture is no longer relevant, so it’s up to the new residents to make the temple their home and make whatever changes they need so it reflects the new culture.
Obviously this doesn’t have a complete 1:1 correlation to the current statue controversy, but it is interesting right now to look back at what this episode was trying to say. Another instance of Avatar being just as relevant as the day it aired, if not more.
2. Keeping the Airbending Spirit Alive.
Not all is lost for Aang’s airbending culture: these settlers became enamored with the air nomads and learned how to use their own machines to simulate bending. This was probably the biggest thing that changed Aang’s mind about the settlers. Yes, on one hand, he sees his culture being replaced by that of these people. But on the other hand, they’re actually keeping the spirit and some practices of the airbenders alive, even though all of the actual airbenders are dead. This is progress: Taking the best or most useful parts of yesterday, shedding what’s no longer relevant, and combining those good parts with today’s purpose and a view of tomorrow.
3. Sokka’s Mentor.
How much fun was it to watch Sokka and the mechanic play off each other? Their dumb jokes, smart ideas, and perseverance worked perfectly together. In teaming up with the mechanic, Sokka found a purpose he hadn’t exactly had yet. He found his calling as a leader and a tactician, which he had only slightly played at in earlier episodes.
These scenes were also made much more fun by the music. It’s pretty low on the track in some parts, but check the music when they’re investigating the leak. There’s a soft militant-sounding snare drum beat with rising horn sounds over it, reflecting the characters’ measured ingenuity. Zuckerman knows how to use music to reflect the mood of a scene, instead of using it to tell viewers how to feel.
4. Controlled By Fear.
The mechanic, it turns out, has been creating weapons for the Fire Nation. Even given this, it’s hard to see him as a bad guy. He just wants his people to have a place to call their home, and he knows that if he didn’t agree to do this, the Fire Nation would return to finish the damage they already did to them (including killing his wife and maiming his son). His fears are completely founded in reality, as we see by the end of the episode. So as much as the viewer, and his son Teo, may want to group him in with the bad guys, the reality is a lot hazier than that.
5. A Major War Battle!
In what ends up being a test run for both the show’s creators and the Fire Nation army before the season finale, we get our first full-scale war battle! Lasting longer than most season one fight scenes, the creators had to try something new in covering multiple characters with each achieving a different function, all of which make up a coordinated counter-strike. With Aang and Katara using their bending on the ground against tanks, the settlers doing what they can in dropping bombs on soldiers, and Sokka and the mechanic performing aerial attacks from the blimp, we have a full-scale war battle that stays engaging for the entire duration. This bodes well for the finale.
What did you think of the episode? Do you find the episode relevant today? How do you feel about the conclusion to those themes? Let me know in the comments!