Favorite Moments in the Original Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1

The Gaang, Appa, Katara, Momo, Aang, and Sokka looking away toward the giant full moon

Clay Dockery shares their 10 favorite moments in Season 1 of Avatar: The Last Airbender—the original Nickelodeon version.

On February 22nd, Netflix is releasing the first season of their live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since fans have been burned before, many are apprehensive about the show. The trailers so far have looked pretty great, and I am cautiously optimistic. Mostly though, I am just excited that this show is going to draw people back into the ATLA universe so many new fans can, all these years later, discover one of the most sneakily fantastic shows in the history of television: the original Nickelodeon version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

In anticipation of the new show’s debut, I have been doing a rewatch of the original and have once again wondered at the incredible stories, surprising depth, emotional resonance, and goofball humor of the series. Every character and almost every episode is a favorite—we don’t talk about “The Great Divide”—so I thought it would be more fun to share ten of my favorite “moments” from the season. I’ve decided to call these moments so they aren’t defined in any particular way; this includes individual scenes, plotlines, and possibly even single lines. I also decided to just put them in the order they appeared in the show as it was impossible to rank them in comparison to each other.

Please note: the following contains spoilers for the first season of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender and thus, potentially, for the new Netflix series as well.

1. Aang and Katara Go Penguin Sledding in “The Boy in the Iceberg” S1E1

When people talk about how Avatar: The Last Airbender is a great show while also still being truly and completely a kids’ show, they are referring to scenes like this. The show is not afraid to be itself, and by extension, neither are the characters. For Aang, that means that in addition to being the classic “chosen one” he is also a goofy, smitten, 12-year-old kid.

Immediately after he is freed from his self-imposed 100 years inside an iceberg, he doesn’t ask for an update on what’s happening in the world, he asks the cute girl who freed him to go do something fun. Even better is that Katara agrees to do it, though not until the end of the episode. The viewer gets to go deeper into the world—the penguins are multi-flippered “otter-penguins” after all—and we get the exposition and learn about both Aang and Katara as they have this exciting side adventure together. The show allows us to have action and intriguing character dynamics while still being fun and accessible for even the youngest people in the audience.

Aang and Katara riding penguins down a large incline

In fact, the show is so successful at this detour into childishness that the first time I watched it, I nearly stopped watching right here. It seemed that the show would be too silly. Instead, the viewer quickly learns that there will be both silliness and pathos. The characters will experience real growth and loss.

But Aang will remain, until the very end, a goofy kid who loves animals. And the show is all the better for it.

2. Iroh Flips Zhao in “The Southern Air Temple” S1E3

In the first two episodes, Iroh was almost entirely comic relief. It was clear that the older firebender was there as a mentor to Zuko, and between his witty quips it was clear that he would be an important mentor figure. But most of that was based on expectation and the fact that his voice actor was the incredible Mako.

At the end of “The Southern Air Temple” though, we get our first glimpses of the incredible power and importance Iroh will bring to the rest of the series. Throughout the episode, he had been trying to teach Zuko the importance of being courteous to Zhao, without much success. When Zuko wins the Agni Kai against Zhao though, it is Zhao who tries to come at Zuko with a sneak attack.

My favorite moment is Iroh catching Zhao’s foot in midair, mid-bend, and stopping the attack. Iroh, no longer cute or comic, casually flips the much larger man aside and tells him that he has no honor and that Zuko, the disgraced prince, the shunned child, is superior in both mind and spirit. It is our first time, but by no means the last, seeing ‘The Dragon of the West’, and that moment solidifies Iroh’s place in the show.

Iroh and Zuko looking toward the left with a deep red sky in the background

3. Katara Leads the Prison Revolt in “Imprisoned” S1E6

This one is not so much a moment or a single scene, but a decision by the creators; they decided to give the other characters, not just Aang, their arcs and place in the story. This episode could have easily centered around Aang teaching the earthbenders and rallying them to rise up. (As happens in that terrible nonsense film we definitely don’t talk about.) But the show instead gives the spotlight, and the agency, to Katara.

It is Katara who not only gives the rousing speech and saves the day at the end of the episode, but she also makes the initial connections and enacts the plan. So much of what makes the show great is on display as we get to see that Katara will not just be a love interest or a side character, she has her own value and her place in the story is about her development as much as it is about Aang.

4. Iroh’s Capture in “Winter Solstice, Part 1: The Spirit World” S1E8

This plotline mostly just continues and deepens the “Iroh is awesome” thoroughline I’ve already discussed. But this includes the incredible fact that Iroh is captured because he is chilling in a hot tub and spends most of the episode nearly naked. These are just incredibly fun details that add to the humor and intrigue.

Of course, the biggest beat is when Zuko decides not to follow the escaping Avatar after he sees Appa fly through the sky, instead staying and freeing his uncle. Zuko will feel the push and pull of what his journey of redemption means many times in the future, but this first choice is a critical one that lays the groundwork for his eventual turn away from his ingrained upbringing. Iroh and Zuko working together easily bring down the whole group of Earth Kingdom lackeys and wind up growing closer because of it.

5. Jet’s Treachery in “Jet” S1E10

Jet is the first of many secondary or one-off characters on the show who push the boundaries between hero, anti-hero, and villain, and then break all those boundaries down. (The greatest of these being the incredible Hama in Season 3.) Jet is not only right about what the Fire Nation is capable of, he is right that the complacency of the rest of the world is what has allowed this to happen. His message and leadership as a freedom fighter is true.

The issue is his extremism and methodology. I know a lot of people now in the real world who advocate for a similar style of extremism, and I am far more inclined to radical action than a middle way. But Jet’s fall into pure terrorism is a caution that should be taken seriously. No matter how noble your intentions, or real the pain in your own life, once you decide that murdering entire villages is a legitimate means to an end, you have become the villain.

This is an incredible amount of complexity for a side character in a children’s cartoon, and doesn’t even take into account what happens when Jet returns in season 2, which (without spoilers) I will say only makes the whole Jet story more complicated and compelling.

6. Zuko’s Backstory in “The Storm” S1E12

Then there is our favorite honor-driven exiled crown prince, Zuko. Episode 12 is absolutely one of the best in the series. All of the plots are interwoven thematically, even Sokka’s subplot, and we learn both the full details of Aang’s disappearance and Zuko’s exile. The details of Zuko’s exile are what set him apart and allow the viewers to realize that he may have been the true center of the show.

In one sad tale from Iroh, we learn why Zuko has his scar, why he is so obsessed with capturing the avatar, why he is so angry, and why he is so sad. In the series of scenes, we see that Zuko, even before the exile, was never on the inside of his father’s confidence. He always had too much heart and empathy for that. And that empathy is what betrays him. He stands up against the needless sacrifice of Fire Nation soldiers and his father challenges him to an Agni Kai.

The back of Ozai's head in shadow in the front of the frame towering over Zuko who is bowing on the far side

Zuko refuses to fight and Ozai responds to that by blasting the scar onto Zuko’s face and banishing him. Zuko thinks this is a failure and he needs redemption because he is a child who has been horribly abused. At the end of the story Zuko once again realizes that the soldiers are more important than the mission and we see another piece of his armor fall away.

7. Aang & Zuko in “The Blue Spirit” S1E13

“The Blue Spirit” has incredible action, a poignant scene between Aang and Zuko, and Katara and Sokka sucking on frozen frogs. The whole episode is filled with many favorite moments from Avatar: The Last Airbender. But the one second that always gets me the most is right at the end. After they have escaped and Aang has gone back for Zuko, Aang has been going on and on about how they could be friends and Zuko just shoots a fireball at Aang. That is a great moment to encapsulate why the whole series works so well.

8. Every Scene with June in “Bato of the Water Tribe” S1E15

June is powerful, beautiful, smart, has a great and unique animal companion (shirsu), and instantaneously tracks down the Avatar, which Zuko had been trying to do all season. I love absolutely every scene with June and of course, I’m not alone—some of the funniest moments of the whole series are Iroh’s very… interesting… interactions with the bounty hunter.

9. Yue Becomes the Moon Spirit in “The Siege of the North, Part 2” S1E20

Every time I watch the three-episode arc in the North at the end of Season 1 I think two things: it’s amazing that either water tribe was able to last this long in this war, and “wow, Yue is barely in this.” In her few scenes though, Yue makes an impact on the viewers, and especially on Sokka that will resonate throughout the series.

Sokka instantly falls for Yue and she seems interested in him as well. Then it turns out that she is in an arranged marriage, a pact made long ago that she is bound to (foreshadowing, of course). In just a couple of short scenes, the characters are allowed to establish a real bond. So of course, Zhao has to show up and murder the spirit of the moon and ruin everything.

Yue dies. Of course she also becomes the moon spirit, but an essential part of joining the spirit world is leaving the mortal plane. The best thing about the moment though is that it is her agency, not out of obligation or to support the others, it is her own fate. She is the chosen one in a different story and this is the culmination of her journey. Her ascension of course affects Sokka deeply; from here on out, he, while still being his goofball self, has changed. But this is not a moment about that, it is actually about Yue. Life and Loss. Rising and falling. The moon and the sea. Yin and Yang.

10. The Introduction of Azula in “The Siege of the North, Part 2” S1E20

A close up of Azula's face staring intently into the camera

This brief interaction is the conclusion of the first season, and only consists of two lines, but every time I see it, it gives me chills. Having been dealt defeat at the Northern Water tribe thanks in part to Aang and the gang, but mostly to the incompetence and hubris of Admiral Zhao, Ozai turns to the one person who might be able to win him this war. His daughter, Azula.

If I list my favorite moments from other seasons, there will be a whole lot more to say about the mistress of the Fire Nation who will become the greatest and most complex villain in the series. But in the first season, her only scenes are this one and the one still shot at the end of her father and brother’s Agni Kai. But she is already memorable. The steely determination is already depicted in her eyes. As is her power. Azula is as powerful as her father, as dedicated to the mission as Zuko, and as intelligent as Iroh.

Azula will go on to do things both great and terrible in the series, but it all starts with this chilling coda.

Bonus: Every Moment with Appa and Momo

I love Appa and I love Momo. They can do no wrong and every scene-stealing inquisitive stare from the lemur-monkey or giant, loving tongue bath from the Air Bison deserves its place on this list. It doesn’t matter if it is just a single frame of Appa sleeping beside the Gaang as they start an adventure or of Momo chomping on a grasshopper-snail, each and every time I see them, it is a favorite moment.

Aang with Momo sleeping in his lap sits in front of a fire by Katara with Appa in the background

I hope you enjoy these moments as much as I do and I encourage you to share your favorite moments from Avatar: The Last Airbender in the comments. And if you haven’t seen the original yet, burst out of that iceberg and get to it!

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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