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5 Best And 5 Worst Episodes Of Avatar: The Last Airbender

Fans and critics alike have said it countless times and will say it countless more, but Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show for the ages. From beloved characters like the ever-quotable Iroh (voiced by Mako Iwamatsu and Greg Baldwin) to the grand tapestry the story weaves over the course of three seasons to the masterful musical score, there's a lot worthy of praise when it comes to Avatar.

To call the show "perfect," however, is a bit of a stretch. Out of its 61 episodes, a special few are noticeably better than the rest. And just as certain episodes lead the pack, certain others lag behind — some of which simply pale in comparison to the competition, others of which stick out like sore thumbs considering the show's significant legacy. Either way, Avatar's consistency is one of its greatest strengths, so the best of the best and the worst of the worst stand out more than they otherwise would.

Let's highlight a few of these highs and lows, to see what works and what doesn't in this legendary series. Needless to say, spoilers ahead!

Best: 'The Storm'

Many Avatar fans would tell you the show's first season is its weakest — stories have to find their footing before they can run, after all. Of course, that doesn't mean season 1 should be scoffed at or skipped over. There are still plenty of great tales as the long and arduous journey begins, some of which give viewers an idea of who the characters on said journey really are beneath the surface. One of these is "The Storm," an episode that manages to show rather than tell how protagonist Aang (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) and antagonist Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco) may not be so different. Though "The Storm" is most often looked back upon as Avatar's first major turning point, it's a masterpiece in its own right.

When a fisherman accuses Aang of neglecting his Avatar duties for the last century, the young airbender flies off in the midst of a brewing storm. Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman) finds him sheltering in a cave, and Aang divulges his past to her as they wait out the tempest. His fun and peaceful days at the Southern Air Temple were disrupted by the revelation that he's the Avatar. Lost friends, new life, impossible expectations — it was a lot to handle for a kid. Burdened by the weight of it all, he ran from the responsibility, and abandoned the world when it needed him most. Only, a storm much like the one in the episode's present day sends him and his flying bison Appa (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) into the depths of the ocean, where he entered the Avatar State and protectively encased them both in an iceberg for a hundred years.

Zuko's backstory is explored in parallel, the first hint of the alliance to come. After the hotheaded firebender says some harsh things to his ship's crew, Zuko's Uncle Iroh decides to sit the men down and explain his nephew's behavior. As a younger man, Zuko attended a war council with the Fire Nation's finest generals and his father, Fire Lord Ozai (voiced by Mark Hamill). He balked at the generals' callous willingness to use unknowing soldiers as bait, earning Ozai's wrath. That wrath led to the trademark scar on Zuko's face, forever marking him as a disobedient son and disgraced prince of the Fire Nation. Only seizing the Avatar will restore his crippled honor. Like Aang, Zuko's destiny is tied to the actions of his past, and like Zuko, Aang eventually takes destiny into his own hands.

Worst: 'The King of Omashu'

"The King of Omashu" is the perfect example of an episode that really isn't that bad, but really isn't that good, either — a dud by Avatar standards. Aside from being the cabbage merchant's (voiced by James Sie) first appearance, the only memorable addition the episode has to offer to the story at large is King Bumi (voiced by André Sogliuzzo) — who, to be completely fair, doesn't play that big a role ever again. He appears around a season later in "Return to Omashu" and then in Avatar's finale, but that's it.

Team Avatar makes a pit stop in Omashu, a great city of the Earth Kingdom, on their way to the North Pole (where Aang intends to find a waterbending master). It's like nothing Sokka (voiced by Jack De Sena) and Katara have ever seen before, having never left the Southern Water Tribe before meeting the Avatar. Aang, however, has been to Omashu; he used to ride the mail chutes like roller coasters with Bumi, a friend who he presumes must be dead by now. It's painfully obvious to viewers that King Bumi is the same man grown old thanks to a flashback scene, but Aang doesn't see it.

Instead, the elderly Bumi gives Sokka and Katara jennamite rings, which will grow into crystals large enough to encase them unless Aang can complete three challenges first. The first two aren't all that interesting, but Aang must fight Bumi for the final challenge. The reveal that he's a muscular old earthbender is great, but the battle is lackluster in comparison to most others. Bumi has some wise words for Aang afterwards, but they're nothing that won't be said better by other characters in the future. So: sidelined Water Tribe siblings, boring conflict, and humor that doesn't stick the landing. At least Aang and Bumi ride the mail chutes together one last time.

Best: 'Zuko Alone'

Excluding Aang, Sokka, Katara, and the recently introduced Toph (voiced by Michaela Jill Murphy) from an episode is bold enough, but "Zuko Alone" does exactly what the title implies: It focuses solely on the exiled Fire Nation prince. Following his decision to change course at the end of season one, he and Iroh journey together for a time, eluding Azula (voiced by Grey DeLisle) as best they can. But a troubled soul like Zuko believes he might benefit most from finding his own way, and so he eventually leaves Iroh, too. It all sets up the events of "Zuko Alone," a character study if there ever was one.

Avatar is best classified under the fantasy genre, but "Zuko Alone" is more like a Western than anything else. Indeed, the starving and ragged Zuko seems a desperado on the verge of doing whatever it takes to survive; he almost steals food from a young couple, stopping himself only when he sees the woman is pregnant. That aura of desperation surrounds him even as he reluctantly lodges in a rundown Earth Kingdom village, where soldiers barely stave off a not-so-subtle desperation of their own. Zuko's time with the family that takes him in brings back memories of his younger days — memories of a childhood largely spent apart from others, of growing up in Azula's shadow, and of his mother Ursa (voiced by Jen Cohn).

These flashbacks not only expand on the foundation laid by "The Storm," but pave the way for the sort of man Zuko wants to become. In between the past and the future, however, there's the present to contend with. That means defending the town that took him in from the aforementioned soldiers, who reach their limit when Lee (voiced by Robby Bruce) — the son of Zuko's host family — pulls the dagger Zuko gave him on them. Resorting to firebending to defeat the earthbending soldiers, Zuko proudly announces his identity to everyone watching, and is immediately scorned for it. With his past marked by pain and loneliness, and his present rife with misunderstanding, Zuko leaves the town, moving toward a future full of uncertainty.

Worst: 'The Great Divide'

"Xenophobia is bad" is a sentiment most people can agree with, even if putting it that way is a vast oversimplification of the deep-rooted societal issue. Team Avatar encounters it often in their travels across the Four Nations, and it's most often handled with the appropriate nuance; characters that are xenophobic are well-written representations of such people, even if it's clear they're in the wrong. Unfortunately, "most often" doesn't mean "always," as blatantly attested by the heavy-handed season 1 episode "The Great Divide."

The title holds dual meaning: There's a canyon called the Great Divide that the characters must cross, and they must do so while attempting to mend and understand the animosity between the tribes crossing with them, the Gan Jin and the Zhangs. The former is the picture of cleanliness and refinement, the latter boisterous and free-spirited. There's no subtlety whatsoever, and though the disparity is played off for laughs, it's more clumsy than funny.

As the Avatar, Aang takes it upon himself to resolve the inter-tribal conflict. Having listened to the origins of the rivalry, Aang tells the Gan Jin and the Zhangs that the story isn't what time's warped it to be — in fact, he knew the tribes' ancestors personally when they were young, and their "fight" was little more than a kids' game called "Redemption." The tribes accept the story, settle their differences on the spot, and walk away together. Once they're out of earshot, Aang reveals to Sokka and Katara that he made it all up. Yep. Simplified xenophobia is unbelievably resolved through a monk's straight-faced deception. Great lesson, right?

Best: 'The Tales of Ba Sing Se'

Having a conversation about Avatar without "The Tales of Ba Sing Se" sneaking its way in would be like Toph suddenly declaring she's not the greatest earthbender in the world. In other words, impossible. Divided into six short segments each focused on a major character (or characters, in one case), the episode is as close to the slice-of-life genre as Avatar ever gets. The show has a plethora of quieter moments like the ones on display here, but "The Tales of Ba Sing Se" stands out because it's completely dedicated to those quieter moments. Indeed, it's a real treat to see these characters living relatively regular days, since they're so often in life-or-death situations in which the fate of the Four Nations hangs in the balance.

First up are Toph and Katara, whose girls' day out turns into an introspective look into their views on themselves and each other. Next is Iroh, who imparts wisdom to all he passes before ending his day with an emotional birthday ceremony for his late son Lu Ten. Third is Aang, whose love of nature leads him to construct a better home for Ba Sing Se's depressed-looking zoo animals. Fourth is Sokka, who stumbles into an all-girls haiku club by mistake and goes with the flow. Fifth is Zuko, on an awkward date with a girl named Jin (voiced by Marcella Lentz-Pope) that turns into an interesting night. Last but not least is Momo (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker), whose search for the missing Appa takes some unexpected turns.

Though "The Tale of Iroh" is often considered the best of the bunch ("Leaves from the Vine," anyone?), each tale offers a unique and valuable perspective on the characters and world of Avatar. It all comes together to remind viewers that even on a continent ravaged by a century-long war, where tensions run high no matter who you are or where you go, strong hearts and kind spirits persist. From disowned Fire Nation princes to lonely winged lemurs, there's hope yet for a better world — a world in which love and peace prevail over hatred and disharmony. The characters in "The Tales of Ba Sing Se" are among those who will bring about that world, so they deserve the time off.

Worst: 'Bato of the Water Tribe'

Like "The King of Omashu," "Bato of the Water Tribe" is by no means a truly bad episode. The difference is that the latter actually has some pretty great things going for it: the phenomenal martial arts choreography on display in the Aang-Zuko fight scene, the much-needed emphasis on Water Tribe culture, and of course, fun side character June (voiced by Jennifer Hale) and her shirshu — one of Avatar's coolest and creepiest creatures. Solid worldbuilding and excellent animation are certainly important, but characters and story are the real reasons Avatar has stood the test of time. It's in those respects that "Bato of the Water Tribe" falls short.

By chance, Sokka and Katara reunite with Bato (voiced by Richard McGonagle), a friend of their family who left along with their father to fight the Fire Nation years before. Happy though they are to see him, Aang feels ignored soon after Bato arrives, and begins to worry Sokka and Katara will leave him to search for their father with Bato. That sort of inner conflict could've been done in an interesting way, but instead is treated rather reductively. Aang leaves a conversation with Bato before hearing Sokka and Katara declare that they intend to stay with him, meaning a simple chat with his team might have alleviated Aang's melancholy.

Aang acts petulant and immature for the duration of the episode, going so far as to intercept a letter from Sokka and Katara's father. They rightfully get angry at him, and decide to abandon him despite their previous decision. It all feels so contrived, and it's all erased when Sokka and Katara ultimately decide that, though they miss their father, Aang's family, too — something established as early as "The Southern Air Temple," the third episode in the entire series. Why retread old ground like that, especially if nothing much changes by the end of the episode?

Best: 'Appa's Lost Days'

Animal companions tend to be pretty hit or miss, since they can't speak (most of the time) and can easily end up as nothing more than tools or cute props. That risk was always there for Appa and Momo, but between Avatar's superb writers and Dee Bradley Baker's spectacular animal sounds, it's more than just abated: it's erased entirely. Introduced early in season 1, the flying bison and winged lemur establish themselves as integral and beloved members of Team Avatar, their personalities as developed as anyone else's. Aang also grew up with Appa, making their connection especially unbreakable. So when Appa is kidnapped by sandbenders midway through season 2, it's hard not to be as heartbroken as the Avatar.

Team Avatar searches for him, of course, but the show must go on. Later, Avatar takes a break from the team with "Appa's Lost Days" to reveal what the flying bison's been up to since he went missing. Poor Appa just wants to find Aang, but new obstacles block his path no matter what corner he flies around. The trials and tribulations he goes through are things no animal should have to suffer, which garnered the attention of the Humane Society and led to the episode winning the Genesis Award for its realistic depiction of animal cruelty.

It's not all suffering and pain for Appa, though. Resting in a barn one night, he and Aang happily share a dream of the time they met each other over a century before. Later on, Suki (voiced by Jennie Kwan) and the Kyoshi Warriors find Appa and tend to his many wounds from a recent fight, though Azula soon arrives to crash the party. In his flight, he meets Guru Pathik (voiced by Brian George), who senses his bond with Aang and sends him off to Ba Sing Se. Just as Appa thinks he's about to reunite with Aang, however, Long Feng (voiced by Clancy Brown) captures him with an impressive feat of earthbending. The episode really puts Appa — and viewers — through the wringer, making his eventual return to Team Avatar all the more satisfying.

Worst: 'Avatar Day'

As with any position of power, the Avatar is going to attract legions of supporters and hoards of detractors. Not counting Fire Nation soldiers, however, Aang encounters few average citizens of the Four Nations who outright hate the Avatar and everything he stands for. In fact, most of the towns he visits welcome his assistance, even if tension brews due to his (initial) relative inexperience. But in "Avatar Day," our heroes find a town that hates the Avatar so much that its denizens make it a point to burn effigies of Avatars Aang, Roku (voiced by James Garrett), and Kyoshi (voiced by Jennifer Hale) once a year in celebration of the titular holiday.

Their hatred stems from Kyoshi's supposed murder of Chin the Great, for whom the town was named; Kyoshi referred to the same man as Chin the Conqueror, since his armies covered the land in her day. Since the current Avatar contains the essence of all his or her past lives, Aang is arrested for the vicarious killing, and it's up to Sokka and Katara to dig up enough evidence to bail him out. Honestly, the concept is extremely interesting — totally in line with Avatar's approach to history — but the execution ... yeesh.

Aang, Sokka, and Katara have been built up as memorable characters by this point, yet this episode manages to amplify their worst qualities and knock everything viewers love about them down. The villagers are a disgrace to the many wonderfully written side characters Avatar has to offer. The idea of character agency is thrown out the window in favor of childish buffoonery and nonsensical conflict resolution. The humor all feels like it was written by a first-time stand-up comedian who's fumbling with the mic. In a nutshell, "Avatar Day" is grating, and nothing changes by the end. Small children might be able to let most things in the episode slide, but older viewers will wish the heart-wrenching B-plot about Zuko and Iroh's separation was the A-plot instead.

Best: 'Sozin's Comet'

Series finale "Sozin's Comet" is spread across four episodes, which may be cheating when it comes to this list, but those four episodes work in tandem to create one grand crescendo. With the titular comet on the horizon — said to make firebenders more powerful than ever — and a Fire Nation airship fleet prepared to raze the Earth Kingdom, the stakes are even higher than they were in season 1 and 2's respective finales (both excellent in their own right). Aang originally planned to defeat Ozai before the comet's arrival, and doesn't feel ready now that it's quite literally on the horizon.

Victory doesn't just depend on Aang, but all the skills every member of Team Avatar has attained over the past year: Katara's waterbending mastery, Sokka's leadership and ingenuity, Toph's metalbending, Suki's improved hand-to-hand combat, and Zuko's firm resolve. The Order of the White Lotus is there to help, too, led by Iroh and many of the old masters Team Avatar met in its travels. Everyone has a role to play, but even in these final moments, Aang doesn't want to compromise the values he grew up with by killing the Fire Lord. His friends — and even his past lives — hound him about it, pressuring him to "do what must be done." He's gone through too much to give everything up now, though, and finds a way to win with the help of a lion turtle.

The battles themselves are nonpareil feats of character writing, music, animation — everything. Sokka, Suki, and Toph tackle the airships; Zuko and Katara duel Azula; and Aang, of course, confronts Ozai. He defeats the Fire Lord with spiritbending, taking the latter's bending away so he can never again threaten the Four Nations. After that, the only place to go is forward, forging ahead with Zuko as the new Fire Lord and Aang as a fully realized Avatar. The final scene shows all the characters peacefully celebrating their victory, while Aang and Katara step outside to share a wordless kiss. What more is there to say? They've come so far together, and the future is ripe with possibility. There's no better place to end than that.

Worst: 'The Runaway'

Every member of Team Avatar develops a rapport with each of the others, and the bonds between them are often as important and interesting as the individual characters — if not more so. Their respective relationships change over time as they get to know one another better, and the characters themselves change as a result. The relationship between Katara — motherly, responsible, and caring — and Toph – rowdy, independent, and gifted — is the perfect example, which Avatar explores over multiple episodes ...

... Which is exactly the problem with "The Runaway," an early season 3 episode. By that time, viewers already know how much Katara and Toph respect each other — and not just begrudgingly. Their personal differences are still as obvious as Aang's arrow tattoos, but they've been through a lot together, and that's enough. So, even though Toph's actions in this episode — using her earthbending to scam Fire Nation citizens to make a quick buck — don't align with Katara's values, the latter's overblown response feels unwarranted.

After Katara ultimately decides to work with Toph to prove she can play her game, they're captured by Combustion Man (voiced by Greg Baldwin) and make amends while imprisoned in the same cell. Had the conversation — and all the events of this episode — come earlier, it would've held more weight, but as it stands, viewers may find themselves twiddling their thumbs as they wait for the relationship retread to end. It's nice to see Katara agree to write the blind Toph a letter to her parents in the episode's closing moments, but that, too, feels like something that could've happened long before. It all comes together to make "The Runaway" feel boring and unnecessary.