The Underrated Value of Avatar Book One


Avatar: The Last Airbender has a wide reputation
as being one of, if not THE, best television series ever made, and with that reputation
also inevitably comes a die hard fanbase, of which I’m a part of, who take every chance
they can get to shill it like freakin’ Jehovah’s Witnesses.. which I will do right now. You want an epic globe-trotting story? We got that. You want an intriguing world teeming with
interesting lore and backstory? It’s here. You want a cast of endearing and loveable
characters, each with their own satisfying development and arcs? You better believe we have it. Avatar: The Last Airbender is great, but there
is one thing about it that even some fans of the show will treat as the ugly stepchild
of the family and it happens to be… well, the entire first season. Now before you angrily type in the comments that “Hey! I like season 1 dude, season 1 is awesome”,
look I’m not saying that nobody likes season 1, but chances are that if you’ve participated
in any form of Avatar discourse, you’ve probably heard or even said the phrase at
some point; “just wait until season 2 man, that’s when it gets goooooood”. I’m even guilty of doing this myself, because
when you’re trying to introduce this amazing show to people and you end up getting these
lackluster responses at first, it’s hard to contain those feelings of just “dear
god if only you knew what greatness lies ahead, if only you knew…” Today though, I want to look at this supposedly
“lesser” first season and see if what those people are saying is true, does this
show only get good in season 2, and if it does, then why does everyone still love it
if it has such a weak first season? 15 years ago marked the beginning of what
we know as Avatar: The Last Airbender, so it feels like the perfect time to sit down
and really dive in, as we take a look… at the underrated value of Book One. Talking about what makes Book One great is
an interesting dilemma because it would be pretty easy for me to just sit here and recount
all of the great episodes and say, hey remember “Jet”? Remember “The Storm”? Remember the “Winter Solstice”? How can you say this season’s bad when we’ve
got episodes like these? Checkmate haters. I don’t think a mindset like that is exactly
fair though, believe me we will talk about some of those great episodes, but I think
there’s more to people discounting this season than something that simple. I wanna look at this more analytically, I
want to understand what could make someone not enjoy this season as much as the oth– Wait wait wait wait wait. Where the hell is Toph? You’re telling me there’s no Toph in this
entire season?! Well there’s your problem right there! How am I supposed to enjoy this amazing story
without Toph blind jokes every episode? “What’s this?” “I don’t know! I mean seriously, what’s with you people? I’m BLIND!” On a more serious note, the jokes of Book
One are actually a good place to start when talking about what separates it from Books
Two and Three. There’s a lot of little things in this season
that kind of indicate that the writers were still figuring out the identity of the series,
and I think this debuting as a new Nickelodeon series, a network I’d like to point out
that’s used almost entirely for comedic sitcoms, makes it seem like there was a little
bit of pressure not to make things too serious, and to keep the comedy up frequently. That’s not to say Book One isn’t afraid
of getting serious, and those are often the best moments of this season, but I don’t
think many people would disagree that Books Two and Three definitely took it way further
and the comedy was a lot more subtle and placed at better times. The jokes and tone are only one side of the
story however, and if you really asked me what the biggest difference in this season
was, I’d say it definitely comes down to structure and focus. When I think about what I love about Avatar:
The Last Airbender, it would be its sense of progression, the show has a plan, we have
a goal and we’re constantly moving towards that goal with every single episode, and yet
despite that overarching story, this epic journey that spans three seasons over this
entire world, it still manages to intersperse all of these really interesting episodic stories
that flesh out the world and introduce cool characters. Book One is no exception to these things but
there’s a very clear distinction between it and the following seasons, and it all has
to do with story arcs. You see, even in the midst of this overarching
goal of Aang needing to master all four elements, defeat the Fire Lord, he has a lot to learn
but I believe he can save the world, the show also takes multiple opportunities to tell
these smaller arcs that make up the ladders which take us to that final goal. Book Two has the Ba Sing Se arc, we’re building
towards finding Appa and getting the solstice information to the Earth King, great. Book Three has the Invasion arc, we’re lying
low in the Fire Nation but there’s a constant allusion to the battle that’s coming, awesome. These are great stretches of episodes because
there’s a very clear focus on where the story is going, and on top of that you get
this great sense of location and scale, all while these writers are still giving you
entertaining episodic stories in the midst of it. Book One… doesn’t really have that, at
least not until the very, very end of the season when we finally make it to the North Pole. There’s not really a goal in this season
other than Aang needs to learn Waterbending, so we need to get to the North Pole to find
him and Katara a master, the rest of the season is basically just flying wherever Aang feels
like because he’s a child and having a flying bison to go wherever you want is awesome. The result is that this season, while containing
a lot of great individual episodes, feels really disjointed and doesn’t really build
up to anything crazy, even though I do love those final North Pole episodes a lot. All of that would be my prime reasoning for
why this season doesn’t stand up for a lot of people with seasons 2 and 3, and after
hearing all of that, you might be saying “wow, I thought this video was supposed to be about
why Book One is good”, and we’re getting to it okay? We’re getting to it. Avatar Book One might not share the same level
of focus as Books Two and Three but there is one thing it excels at on the same level
as those seasons, maybe even moreso. Foreshadowing. A story is only as good as its foundation
and when looking at the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s almost overwhelming
how many little seeds are planted all over this seemingly disjointed arrangement of episodes. Take your pick of literally any single episode
in Book One and you will be blown away by how many things these writers managed to play
connect the dots with to later points in the story. So many shows, movies, and games try to make
their stories feel big and grand, but end up missing that essential
key to making the world feel alive. Plot elements shouldn’t just be brought
up whenever it’s convenient, it needs timing, it needs proper build-up, and Avatar understands
this beautifully. To demonstrate, I want to look at an understated
example in an episode near the end of Book One called “The Northern Air Temple”. On the surface this episode is good but it
doesn’t really connect with anything that’s happened so far in the season, it introduces
a couple new supporting characters and tells a standalone story about a mechanic father
who is secretly working with the Fire Nation in order to protect his son. The episode progresses, the father ends up
betraying the Fire Nation, and him and Sokka end up creating a war balloon to help fight
a troop that attacks them. They win, the gang leaves, end of episode,
those characters disappear and none of this ever has any consequence again… SIKE! You thought! Little did you know that these characters
and plot points would be integral not one, but two seasons later during the Invasion arc. The Northern Air Temple episode ends with
the Fire Nation captain discovering the crashed war balloon and very ominously saying that “this defeat will be the gateway to many victories”. And he was right. Fast forward to the solar eclipse, and as
we’re prepping for the Invasion plan, out of nowhere, all of these supporting characters
from Books One and Two get brought back to help us out, including that mechanic father
who happened to be the key to building the submarines which take us to the Fire Nation. That alone is already awesome, and super satisfying
to bring back all of these characters in an important way, but the real reason I brought
up The Northern Air Temple episode is because by the end of the Invasion, the solar eclipse
is over and we have to retreat back to the submarines. It’s at this point where the Fire Nation
releases a bunch of… you guessed it, war balloons, and Zeppelins likely created using
the same technology. These Zeppelins are not only the key to their
victory in the Invasion, but also the key to their entire plan of wiping out the
Earth Nation in the finale, and all of that can be traced back to this seemingly random Northern Air Temple episode where Sokka had this crazy idea about controlling hot air, like are you
kidding me right now, that’s so well done. This is what it means to foreshadow, and this
is what it means to have a world and a story that are dynamic, one that makes sure everything
has a purpose. And it doesn’t stop there, seeds like that
can be found all over Book One, The King of Omashu episode introduced King Bumi, and Omashu itself was brought back multiple times over the series, when it was taken over by the
Fire Nation in Book Two, and liberated in Book Three. The Jet episode introduced the Freedom Fighters,
some of my favorite supporting characters that end up being brought back during the
Ba Sing Se arc, and are also integrated with Zuko’s character development. The Warriors of Kyoshi episode established
lore for Avatar Kyoshi and her village that would end up being brought back in Books Two
and Three, and now even has its own freakin’ spin-off comic book! It’s honestly astonishing how much thought
was put into this series and how well they managed to tie everything together, and I’m
not even saying that they necessarily had all of this planned out from the beginning
but what’s important here is how well these writers knew how to take advantage of what
they had set up previously, nothing is wasted. And in my opinion the crown jewel of all this
foreshadowing, all this planning, can be found in the two episode special, “Winter Solstice”. This special starts pretty simply enough with
Aang trying to help out this remote village being terrorized by a spirit, but it quickly
evolves into something much greater when Aang enters the Spirit World for the first time,
and has his first encounter with a previous Avatar… Roku. This ends up sending the gang on a quest to
an island in the Fire Nation so Aang can talk to Roku about a vision that he received. Fast forward a bit through the usual Book
One stuff, cool action setpieces, Zhao being a prick, and Sokka 200 IQing our way to victory, Aang finally meets Roku face to face during the Winter Solstice, and he has a message
for Aang that will fundamentally shape the entire structure and goal of the series. One hundred years ago, Fire Lord Sozin used
the power of a comet to wipe out the Air Nation, and now that same comet is returning, and
the current Fire Lord Ozai will use its power to finish the war once and for all. “Aang, you must defeat the Fire Lord
before the comet arrives.” This goddamn scene gives me chills every time
I watch it and it’s because it’s the gold standard for establishing stakes and setting
a goal that we’re constantly striving for. Aang needs to learn all four elements to become
a fully realized Avatar, and defeat the Fire Lord before he can use the comet’s power to win the war. It’s such a simple goal, it’s such a simple premise, and yet that simplicity is why this story works so well. Through every season’s complex arcs with
political and dramatic storylines, that simple focus of defeating the Fire Lord and bringing
balance to the world never changes. There’s no dumb secret final villain after
Ozai or some twist about how there’s an even bigger threat after the comet, the moment
that Aang defeats the Fire Lord is when his hero’s journey is completed and it’s why
that entire finale is the greatest finale to a story ever made in my opinion, it’s
pure narrative catharsis. Basically what I’m saying is that Books
Two and Three are standing on the shoulders of a severely over-criticized and under-appreciated
season that I just wanna protect from all you bullies and give it hot chocolate or whatever
Book One’s would like. It plants these seeds and those seeds end
up sprouting into something truly great, and that’s not just limited to these grand storylines
or intricate world-building, you can see it happening in another side to Avatar that a
lot of people consider its greatest strength, the characters. Avatar has one of the greatest overall casts
of characters I’ve ever seen in a series, and it’s because when you look at literally
any character in this main or supporting line-up, every single one of them has depth, they have
nuance, they go through arcs, they change, they’re real people and not only is that
refreshing as hell in a market filled with stereotypes, but these inner character arcs they go through are legitimately relatable and inspirational. And to anyone that’s like
“you’re inspired by a cartoon? Get a life loser”. I freakin’ DARE you to watch
Zuko’s character arc and not feel even a little bit inspired that someone could
turn their life around so much and find their inner purpose, I’m about to cry just thinking
about it. The thing with these characters is that a
lot of people will tell you that their best moments are found in Books Two and Three,
and that’s pretty natural since all of the pay-offs to these characters can be found
in those seasons. Yet again though, Book One does not get the
love it deserves for establishing these characters at the beginning of their arcs, and planting
even more seeds for where they would eventually go. And my favorite example of this can be found
in an episode right near the middle of Book One called “The Storm”. This is arguably the greatest episode of the
entire season and the reason for that is because we’re finally getting some backstory on
Aang and Zuko’s pasts. Up til’ now we’ve mainly been left to
infer what they’ve gone through based on glimpses or little bits of dialogue, but it’s
here where we finally get the full look and god, it’s just so good. The stuff that’s covered in this episode,
Aang’s fear of taking responsibility and losing touch with his friends and Monk Gyatso,
Zuko having to fight for his honor after disrespecting his father, this stuff is way too good to
speed by on a drive through but I want to focus on a very deliberate aspect of this
episode with not only the seeds that they plant for the future of these characters,
but the future of their entire dynamic. Aang and Zuko may as well be two sides of
the same coin, they’re the two leads of the entire story, our perspective during this
series almost always comes from either one of their sides, and the show is constantly
alluding to the similarities that they share and how them developing eventually results
in them becoming… well… friends. What I like about this episode is that in
any other series, you would normally want to separate these backstories into individual
episodes in order to really give each one its own distinct focus and appropriate thematic
tone, but the thing is, these two backstories already have the same thematic tone and that’s
why it’s genius to combine them together. Aang and Zuko’s backstories, and their characters
themselves, parallel each other so perfectly because they’re both put into positions
where they’ve lost everything and are trying to make it right. These backstories are great because we jump
into their lives at the very moment where they made a critical mistake that led them
to ending up where they are now, and it’s made even more beautiful
because those so-called mistakes are what led them to grow
into the people they were meant to be. If Aang never ran away, he would’ve died,
and if Zuko hadn’t been banished, he might never have found the light. It’s really satisfying to look back on these
episodes when you realize where everything was leading to, and that’s truly the mark
of a great foundation and a great story. Hell, you can see this episode’s influence
all over Aang and Zuko’s dynamic in seasons 2 and 3, although to be fair they aren’t
exactly subtle about it all the time. But one of my favorite examples of this parallel between them is in an episode near the beginning of season 3, fittingly called “The Avatar and the Fire Lord”. The reason I bring this episode up here is
because the influences from season 1 couldn’t be more apparent, I’m serious, this might
as well just be “The Storm” 2.0, and I love it. The general concept of watching an Aang and
Zuko related backstory at the same time and drawing parallels between the two is exactly
the same, but in this case, we’re not watching something directly related to Aang and Zuko, but rather their ancestors, Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin. This entire backstory is freakin’ amazing
but the real genius comes afterwards when you understand the message behind everything
it’s saying, and how it connects to what we’ve seen so far. If “The Storm” was a way of showing the similarities
between how Aang and Zuko began their journey to redeem themselves, then “The Avatar and
the Fire Lord” is a way of showing where that journey finally ends. Aang sees firsthand the humanity that can
be found even in the Fire Nation, even in the Fire Lord himself, and realizes that everyone
should be given a chance. Zuko on the other hand learns of his heritage
as the great-grandson of both Fire Lord Sozin and Avatar Roku, and why his legacy has always
been drifting between the dark and the light, before he finally finds his way. The development for these characters is out
of this world, and I could go on another 10 minute tangent just talking about the throughline
of their arcs throughout the series, but I think you get the point by now. This show just has a ridiculous understanding
of setting destinations for its characters and its story, and that leads to more satisfying
pay-offs, and I only looked at two characters here, you want more examples? Look at Sokka’s makeshift leadership of
the South Pole in episode 1, look at him taking control of the ship during the ice dodging
in the Bato episode, little seeds that give you insight into his role and personality
beyond just being the sarcastic guy, that eventually bloom in season 3 when he takes
charge of the entire goddamn Invasion force during the solar eclipse. Time and time again, Avatar shows this kind
of care with its characters, Katara takes up a motherly role
because of the loss of her own, and ends up having to confront the killer herself. Iroh is a constant source of wisdom and love
for Zuko, but eventually has to let him go so Zuko can figure out his life on his own. And Momo! Don’t even get me
started on Momo, okay?! And god this video would go on even longer
if I sat down to talk about Book Two characters and plot points and how well they’re seeded off for Book Three pay-offs, so let’s save that for another day. Basically I think you understand the point
I’m making, all of these things, all of this build-up, foreshadowing, arcs, destinations, pay-offs, they’re all crucial to creating
satisfying characters and stories, and Avatar understood that better than anyone. Just look at episode 1’s title and
compare it to the finale’s title, “The Boy in the Iceberg” becomes “Avatar Aang”, but in order for Aang becoming
Avatar Aang to be so satisfying, he had to be The Boy in the Iceberg first. “Again, it’s like poetry,
sort of they rhyme”. In the end this topic of the “Underrated
Value of Book One” ended up being a lot more specific than I originally intended,
and managed to encapsulate a lot of what I love about the series as a whole, but in a
way I guess that’s the way it should be, Avatar should be viewed as one story, not
segmented into Books or parts, and this one story happens to have a beginning that people
don’t appreciate enough. It might not have all the crazy pay-offs that
Books Two and Three have, but it’s the reason why those pay-offs even work in the first place. And there are other things I like about
Book One beyond just foreshadowing, I like the globe-trotting stories. I like foaming mouth guy. I like Aang turning into a giant penguin. I like Koh the Face Stealer giving me nightmares. I like when Sokka and Katara had to suck on frogs. Wait what– There’s a lot to love about Book One and I’d love to hear what you think about it in the comments below. And while you’re around, you can follow
me on Twitter @PhenomSage, and I also invite you to join my Discord community where lots
of cool people hang out and we watch anime and movies together and it’s a lot of fun
and you should totally join cuz it’s awesome. Or you can do none of those things, go back
to rewatching Avatar for the 15th time, and continue having a great day. I love you, and see ya next time.

51 thoughts on “The Underrated Value of Avatar Book One

  1. I mean it’s probably the weakest season.

    Also, it just so happens that a lot of the episodes are self contained so it’s harder to appreciate the episodes since it’s hard to see where the story is going

    Edit: not that I don’t agree with you but I mean of course the first season is gonna the best one at foreshadowing it’s literally the first one.Not to take anything from the points you made. The authors had a vision from the beginning and that’s worth praising
    Edit #2: Zuko alone is the best episode of season 1

  2. Avatar is living proof to all Western sceptics of anime that Japan understands animation way more than anyone else. It's a Western-made battle shounen.

  3. "…or you could do none of those things and go back to rewatching Avatar for the 15th time"
    how could you call me out like this?

  4. It’s pretty much the perfect tv show. Not a problem with book 1 but book 2 and 3 was much more consistent. Book 1 contained two of my least favorite episodes, the great divide and bato of the water tribe.

    Also Jet episode was kinda bad.

  5. Season 1 is the trunk to a beautiful tree. No trunk – no tree. Certainly, the beauty of season 1 is of a different nature, but you can't deny a trunk can be very beautiful as well, in another way

  6. I mean I do feel like season 1 is the one I enjoy rewatching the least and is the least memorable when you think about Toph appearing. Season 1 is still good but I feel like the other seasons had things more to offer at a faster pace.

    Azula the Bae sing Sae dark tone stuff following soon. Zuko's character growth also really starting mostly after season 2.

    When he is now officially hunted by the fire nation after his encounter with his perfect sister azula.

    The strongest part of season 1 was the north pole. Stuff but I feel like everything that comes after is just more memorable.

  7. Off topic.

    Please, someone please give me a fate series "order to watch" list.

    Btw, amazing video as always.

  8. If you chose to watch Avatar for the 15th time then you better join us on Discord when you done!! Don't forget to eat and sleep during your binge. See you in 2 days.

  9. You know me and you had conversations where we both talked shit about Book One of Avatar. With that said you made some great points. Although I feel like for every masterpiece in season 1 like Winter Solstice half way through Book 1 or The Siege of the North being an amazing finale, we get stuff The Great Divide which is arguably the only filler episode in the entire series, or Bato of the Water Tribe where everybody act out of character and are awful to each other; and that's not even mentioning how a lot of the first book is not as memorable as Books 2 and 3. Book 1 was important for a good foundation, but there were parts of that foundation that did not matter or just completely fell apart by the time the credits for that episode where rolling. Book 1 is good, and in some cases great, but it is not a masterpiece like Books 2 and 3.

  10. Actually I have never heard anyone say season 1 is bad.
    Though the only time I really discussed Avatar with anyone was after Korra season 1 and all I got was that ALL TLAB was amazing and most of the Korra series sucks compared to it.

  11. Im 30 and hearing uncle Iroh sing under the tree still brings tears to my eyes. Thats the genius of character development in this show. It makes u feel emotion

  12. You make an interesting argument and I think I agree. In hindsight it's so easy to say that books 2 and 3 are "where it REALLY gets good," but it's only natural to remember those books more than the first one because that's where all the payoff takes place. Which is unfair to book 1 since that was setting everything up. I also agree it's great how books 2 and 3 kept going back to the well of book 1 and finding existing plot elements to expand on and reincorporate instead of just coming up with new ones, which it very well could have done (and in fact did sometimes). It shows a great deal of confidence in the existing material. As much as fans might say there's stuff in Book 1 you'd rather just forget, the writers at least always treated it with a lot of respect and considered it worth carrying out. It's hard to say how much of that was intended from the get go and how much of it was just "hey, why don't we use that thing from Book 1 again?" but either way, it's really satisfying. It makes me want to rewatch Season 1 to see how much I wouldn't have noticed the first time around.

  13. "Nothing is wasted"
    Exactly. My favorite moment in Season 1 is from Ep 11 The Great Divide where after the 2 tribes settle their differences and travel together to the Earth Kingdom, you see them again in Season 2 and they assist Team Avatar in defending the Earth King from Azula by fending off the Dai Li, both leaders soundly defeating Long Feng and shouting "REDEMPTION!!!"

  14. Book 1, 2, and 3 were all amazing to me and I've never knew there were people who didn't like Book 1, but at the end of the day ATLA is a masterpiece 🔥🔥🔥💯.

  15. Phenom, if you want valid/credible information about the live action Netflix series of Avatar The Last Airbender I recommend you check out the Youtuber named Emergency Awesome.

  16. Bro when the abzu music strated playing I lost my shit. The choices for clips and music is phenominal and structure seemed unique to me and extremely well done. Thanks for reminding me of the brilliant music of that small game

  17. i doubt this series would be as great as it is if the whole book 1 did not setup for the following seasons. its the whole foundation of the show

  18. ATLA is for sure one of the best series ever made and it still blows my mind of the writing and people are still making videos TODAY about it that just proves how fucking godtier ATLA is

  19. This video gave me confidence to continue showing this cartoon to my dad. He’s currently on book 1 and isn’t being very interested, but all of that will be worth going through, because what awaits him will be an experience worth remembering. MAN DO I LOVE THIS SHOW!

  20. Book 1 was sure episodic feeling and disjointed, but it still connects to the rest of the series. For me, it didn't hit it's stride till The Storm and…man it's incredible!

  21. The best episode in book 1 is the boy in the ice berg because aang
    Said this

    Aang:i need to tell you something

    Katara: what is it

    Aang:come closer

    Katara:ok

    Aang:DO U WANT TO GO PENGUIN SLEING WITH ME!?!?!?

    Katara:ok,sure i guese so

    Sokka:UGH,OH C'MON

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