With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
Twelve years after its finale, Avatar: The Last Airbender continues to stand out for its striking combination of gravitas and levity. While the overarching narrative is a carefully crafted epic inspired by Asian mythology and philosophy, the show never forgets that there are a thousand mundane and funny moments that take place between every grand one, and it is this delicate balance of both solemnity and humor that ultimately elevates the story above a simple hero’s journey narrative and makes it truly memorable.
The Avatar: The Last Airbender opening sequence explains the entire premise of the series in just 45 seconds:
Over the course of 61 episodes and three seasons (known as “Books”), the show followed airbender Aang and his friends, Katara, Sokka, and Toph—as well as the enemies pursuing them, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation and his uncle Iroh—as Aang learns to master water, earth, and fire, and discovers the many changes that have happened to the world since he vanished a century ago.
Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, Avatar premiered on Nickelodeon on February 21, 2005. With an original 13-episode order, Konietzko and DiMartino assembled a talented team of writers, artists, martial arts consultants, and cultural experts to bring the show to life, including musical duo The Track Team (Benjamin Wynn and Jeremy Zuckerman), who composed the show’s stirring and distinctive soundtrack, which combines a symphony orchestra with traditional instruments from around the world, including Chinese lute, duduk, and the African kalimba.
After a successful first season, Nickelodeon renewed Avatar for just two more seasons, giving the team a finite number of episodes to carefully plan out the story. By the time The Last Airbender ended three years later, the show was critically acclaimed, with multiple awards to its name, and would soon grow into a franchise that included comics, an animated sequel series, and a universally panned 2010 film adaptation. Currently, a live-action television adaptation for Netflix is in the works, helmed by Konietzko and DiMartino, who serve as showrunners and executive producers, with Zuckerman attached to score.
Avatar does not hold back from depicting the far-reaching consequences of a 100-year war and the collateral damage—on both a societal and emotional level—of genocide, imperialism, political corruption, and sociopolitical games. Nor does it ignore the fact that Aang is only 12 years old and that the great responsibility that has been placed on his shoulders would be challenging for anyone, let alone a young boy who wakes up to a world that has turned upside down.
A key theme of the story is the importance of balance, whether it is the balance of the elements, the balance between the mortal and spirit worlds, or simply the balance between the banal and the more meaningful. There is always room for silly asides, even in the middle of battle, and the beauty of allowing space for lighthearted moments allows grander, game-changing moments to have their full impact. Another reason the series holds up is because of its excellent character work. The narrative is fully invested in the humanity of not only the protagonists, but of all the minor characters that surround them. No matter what is happening, the story makes room for lives both big and small, from Aang’s pet lemur, Momo, to a disgruntled cabbage vendor to low-level employees on a Fire Nation airship.
Avatar remains as popular as ever, with a passionate online fanbase that continues to create fan art, memes, and videos—a testament to the power of its narrative. With the complete series available to stream on Netflix beginning May 15, here are 10 episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender that best highlight its ability to balance developing individual characters and pushing the overall narrative forward.
“The Storm,” which falls slightly past the halfway mark of the first season, is an early example of how the series invested in establishing the humanity of all of its characters, whether they are heroes, villains, or minor players. Set against the backdrop of a fierce storm, the episode reveals two crucial missing pieces to Aang’s and Zuko’s respective backstories: how and why Aang disappeared for 100 years, and the tragic reason behind Zuko’s relentless drive to capture him. These painful memories are unveiled after both face unpleasant confrontations with people questioning their character: Aang is accused by an old fisherman of turning his back on the world when it needed him most, and Zuko is accused by the captain of his ship of being a spoiled, disrespectful prince who doesn’t care about other people. The reality, of course, is much more complicated, and it is an early indicator of how Aang’s and Zuko’s narrative arcs will continue to intersect throughout the series. “The world needs you now,” Katara tells Aang. “You give people hope.” Here it’s revealed that Zuko is one of them.
Beautifully animated, the 50 minutes that comprise the two-part season finale of the first season are a profound lesson in the art of storytelling and the repercussions of war. Set in the austere surroundings of the Northern Water Tribe, the first few minutes of the first episode allow the characters to revel in the final moments of peace and joy, until black snow starts to fall from the sky, signaling the approach of the Fire Nation and the imminent destruction of their sanctuary. As Commander Zhao and his forces close in, Aang, Sokka, Katara, Princess Yue, and the warriors of the Northern Water Tribe lie in wait. “The stillness before battle is unbearable—such a quiet dread,” says Arnook, Princess Yue’s father, as the horizon darkens with the arrival of their ships. As the siege begins, heroes and villains alike are forced to make choices that have irreversible consequences, showcasing how far—or little—they have come. Self-sacrifice, fortitude, and compassion are the theme of the hour, especially as the characters are forced to deal with the repercussions of Commander Zhao’s cruel actions, which throw the world out of balance after he slays the moon spirit. Ultimately, although Sokka’s courage, Katara’s determination, Aang’s compassion, Princess Yue’s selflessness, and Uncle Iroh’s empathy help the Northern Water Tribe win the battle, with a destroyed home and the loss of a beloved princess, victory is bittersweet.
While she appears as an apparition two episodes earlier, this episode serves as the official introduction of Toph, a 12-year-old earth-bending master who becomes Aang’s teacher. Born blind, she “sees with her feet” by feeling the earth’s vibrations. This technique also helps her accurately predict her opponents’ movements, giving her the upper hand in the WWE-esque earth-bending rumbles she competes in, effortlessly defeating every opponent, under the pseudonym “The Blind Bandit” and without the knowledge of her family. Delighted to find her, Aang descends upon the ring to ask Toph to be his teacher and accidentally ends up knocking her out of it. A furious Toph tells him to leave her alone and disappears into the darkness, but after some clever sleuthing, Aang, Sokka, and Katara discover she is the only daughter of the Beifongs, the most affluent family in the city, and must figure out a way to convince both her and her family to let her join their team.
“It’s not nice to bother people about things they might not want to talk about. A man’s past is his business,” says the father of Lee, a young boy who Zuko meets while traveling alone through a dusty desert town in the Earth Kingdom after parting ways with Uncle Iroh. With the pace and setting of a Western, this is the only episode in the entire series that doesn’t feature Aang, Sokka, or Katara at all. Focused entirely on Zuko, this episode is a foundational part of Zuko’s character arc, juxtaposing the present with flashbacks to the past and revealing both the close and loving relationship he had with his mother and the fraught history of his relationship with his sister, Azula, who was “born lucky,” while he was “lucky to be born.” When Zuko defends Lee and his family by dueling with a cruel Earth Kingdom soldier, he conceals his ability to fire-bend and fights only with his dual swords. But when he is nearly knocked unconscious, he hears his mother’s voice, urging him to never forget who he is, causing him to reveal his true identity—which does not come without some heartbreaking consequences.
In “Bitter Work,” Aang begins his earth-bending lessons with Toph in earnest. Because earth is air’s natural opposite, Aang struggles to think like an earthbender, and in an attempt to help speed things along, Katara offers advice to Toph on how to guide Aang more effectively based on her experience as Aang’s water-bending master. Toph, of course, is uninterested in Katara’s platitudes, and continues to use her own unconventional methods to teach Aang how to earth-bend, which ultimately prove successful when he has to rescue Sokka after a hunting mishap. Meanwhile, Uncle Iroh, who has reunited with Zuko, teaches him the importance of seeking wisdom from many places when he reveals that he has invented a fire-bending technique that even Azula doesn’t know—the ability to redirect lightning. This episode is a great example of the value of respecting approaches and viewpoints that may be opposite to how you see the world, especially as they may come in handy when you least expect it.
Nominated for an Emmy, this episode showcases the sinister power of political corruption and bureaucracy and how difficult it can be to make any sort of changes when the system is actively working against you. This episode starts with eerie, unsettling music as Joo Di meets Aang and his friends at the entrance to the city of Ba Sing Se, a Stepford smile plastered on her face as she explains she will be their official guide. As she takes them on a tour of the city, she blithely ignores Sokka’s demands to take them to the Earth King so they can inform him of the valuable intel they have gathered to help defeat the Fire Nation. “It’s called being handled. Get used to it,” mutters Toph, who is the only one who understands what’s going on. While Aang and the team struggle to find a way to get an audience with the Earth King, a subplot focuses on Jet’s obsession with proving that Zuko and Iroh, who are also in the lower ring of the city as refugees, are firebenders. After he unsuccessfully confronts them, Jet is taken away to an underground prison, where he is brainwashed to believe that there is no war and no refugees, just as Aang and the team learn that the Dai Li, who run the city, purposefully ban any talk of the war to maintain “a peaceful, orderly utopia... the last one on earth.”
The last episode of the second season, “Crossroads Of Destiny” is a gripping finale. After Azula conducts a coup of the Earth Kingdom with the Dai Li and captures Zuko with their help, she tosses him into the Crystal Catacombs deep underneath Ba Sing Se, where he meets Katara. Although she is hostile at first, Katara softens when Zuko reveals that he, too, lost his mother to the war. Touched, Katara offers to heal his scar with the small amount of healing water she has from the Spirit Oasis in the North Pole, but before she has a chance, Aang and Uncle Iroh arrive to rescue them, and she leaves with Aang. Unfortunately, just as Uncle Iroh tells Zuko that he has come to the crossroads of his destiny and that it is time for him to choose good, Azula arrives in the Catacombs, promising him everything he has wanted for the past few years: his honor and their father’s love. After watching him struggle and grow for an entire season, it is agonizing to watch Zuko as he is forced to choose between his morals and his deepest desires, and to team up with Azula to take down Aang and Katara, knowing that he has turned his back on the one person who always believed in him, no matter what.
“You need to understand how the war began if you want to know how to end it,” Avatar Roku’s spirit says to Aang at the beginning of this episode, just as Zuko, who feels restless and unhappy despite having returned to the Fire Nation with all of his honor and status restored, receives a mysterious message that tells him that he must know the story of his great grandfather’s demise to reveal his own destiny. This episode is a turning point in the final season, as Aang and Zuko simultaneously discover the truth behind the relationship between Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin, who were best friends until Sozin’s aggressive imperial ideologies tore them apart.
In the penultimate episode before the series finale, Zuko has finally earned acceptance and trust from almost everyone, having turned his back on his father and Azula to join the Gaang as Aang’s fire-bending teacher. Everyone, that is, except Katara, who still has not forgiven him for his betrayal in the Crystal Catacombs, and tells him there is nothing he can do to make it up to her unless he finds a way to bring her mother back. Realizing that Katara has connected the loss of her mother with her anger at him, Zuko approaches Sokka and asks him to share more details about the day she died. After listening to the story, Zuko realizes that he knows the identity of their mother’s killer and offers to help Katara find him. She accepts, convinced that seeking vengeance is the only way she will find closure. Aang disagrees, but he accepts that this is a journey she needs to take. Ultimately, although Katara realizes there is little satisfaction to be found on the road to vengeance, she finally makes peace with Zuko and forgives him.
“Sozin’s Comet” is an intricate, cinematic four-part series finale that initially splits the narrative into multiple parallel storylines that then converge by the final episode. One of the most compelling is the downfall of Azula, in part three. Betrayed by both of her closest friends, Azula has quickly spiraled out of control in advance of her coronation as Fire Lord. Isolated and paranoid, she starts to banish everyone in the palace until she is completely alone, breaking down and smashing a mirror as she hallucinates her mother staring at her in sad disappointment. Azula’s downfall comes to a head when Zuko returns to the Fire Nation with Katara to challenge her to an Agni Kai that will determine who will be crowned Fire Lord. With a stirring, spare musical score set perfectly in sync with every move, Azula and Zuko’s Agni Kai showcases some of the most beautiful animation in the entire series, with Azula’s chaotic ice-blue flames set against Zuko’s confident orange fire. Despite appearing to have the upper hand when she strikes Zuko with lightning, Katara ultimately takes her down. Chained to the ground, Azula shrieks in heart-rending despair as Zuko and Katara stare at her sadly. Though she may have been born lucky, she is still human, not a monster.
All three seasons (or books) of Avatar: The Last Airbender are now streaming on Netflix.