Having set up the basic world situation in the first two episodes, episode 3, The Southern Air Temple, offers a bit more backstory for two of the characters, our young avatar Aang and the angsty Prince Zuko. This episode functions structurally as a dual story of, if you will, a youth in conflict with his own past, the thing that has brought him to the difficult situation he is in now.
Aang takes Katara and Sokka to the temple where he was raised and shares with them some memories of the monk who was crucial to his training, which include the monk’s predilection for practical jokes. He has to figure out how to pierce the inner heart of the temple, with its statues of the avatars who came before him, and then he has to face the truth that all his people are gone and his home destroyed.
Prince Zuko must face Captain Zhao, an ambitious man who wants to humiliate Zuko and force him to return to the Fire Kingdom in disgrace. Rather than acquiescing, he fights him, not without aid from the cunning Uncle Iroh. The writers do a particularly nice job of dropping in the crucial information that Zuko was banished from court for an unspecified offense (if it was specified, I missed it).
Since my initial guess was that Zuko had been given this task to prove himself, I was intrigued by this new layer of complexity to his situation: He’s not just proving himself, he’s trying to restore his honor and get back the place he desires, not to mention echoes of a father/son dynamic with plenty of room for drama. It adds a level of interest to his character, not least because now, as a viewer, I wonder what he did and why it mattered and why Iroh is with him and for what purpose. As a writer, I note that these are all excellent questions to have the viewer asking herself because it makes her want to keep watching in order to get her questions answered.
Two emotions stand out in this episode.
First is Aang’s grief. His grief consumes him and, indeed, makes his power erupt. The overwhelming and dangerous emotion is contained by the presence of Katara and Sokka, his new family. This was nice and a little predictable, but that’s all right. I felt we were still getting eased into the larger story.
Zuko, of course, is defined by his anger, which is multifaceted but which swirls around his sense of himself as a failure, a person dishonored. This is the charge Zhao throws at him. But fundamentally for me, while Zuko does find his power and defeat Zhao, he does so in large part because his uncle has stuck with him. Again, the ties of family mean he is not alone. Although he doesn’t really appreciate it yet, he is strengthened and protected and lifted by his uncle’s belief in him.
I really like this underlying message. I suspect it will become one of the main thematic concerns of the series.