I fail to see the point of this episode. According to every definition in my book, this qualifies as a pure filler episode. And not a very good one at that. It is rigged with a formulaic plot, cliched characters, and clear stereotypes. There is no advancing of the big plot, no true character advancement, and definitely no foreshadowing of or hinting at events to come.
The basic outline is that the gang has to cross a the Great Divide (akin to the Grand Canyon) along with two feuding refugee tribes, the pompous Gan Jin and the barbaric Zhang. Being polar opposites, they don't get along well, and their bickering and enmity brings all the travelers into danger as they cross the Divide.
Trying to solve things, Aang asks Katara and Sokka to accompany the Gan Jin and the Zhang, respectively. During the night we find out that both tribes are heavily prejudiced against each other, starting from smuggling food into the canyon to having differing views on the same historical event. It is here that something very strange happens: Katara and Sokka suddenly and utterly jump out of character. Instead of viewing the tribes' hostilities as neutral bystanders as they were asked to, they get swayed by the simple telling of a myth and side with whatever tribe they were traveling with. As the episode goes on, the siblings' out of character behavior moves further by having them fight over someone else's feud.
The tales, as told by the two chiefs, are an enlightening moment in the episode. The contrast between the art styles is a nice touch, further characterizing both tribes, but also further pushing their stereotypes. What seems silly however is that the way the stories are told, they could probably end their feud by just sitting together and talking things out. The tales are too simple for anything more complicated.
The last fight against the canyon crawlers was predictable, that Aang finally succeeds in getting the tribes to work together out of necessity and mutual benefit. Even after they escape, though, they continue to fight, until Aang spins together a lie that miraculously solves all problems. To me, this was a very poor ending. Aang's lie just dishonors and humiliates whatever really transpired between Jin Wei and Wei Jin.
Overall, this episode does not really add anything to the show. The events have no effects whatsoever on the overlying plot, and the characters don't evolve. I guess in the middle of the season, the writers were short on ideas, as the plot is not as thick as the one in Book Two. If this episode were not so lighthearted, it would be terrible. But the jokes, along with the quirky canyon guide and his earthbending, make 'The Great Divide' mediocre enough to be, somewhat, re-watchable.
The episode begins with Katara and Sokka fighting over chores, which soon proves to be a microcosm of the main conflict in the episode. Though Aang solves this problem things will be much more difficult as he, and the others are planning to cross the Great Divide.
The Great Divide is a canyon that must be crossed in for them to continue their journey to the Northern Water Tribe. That is when the episode really takes off when the Zhang and Gan Gin earth kingdom tribes enter the scene, which provides a deeper look into the earth kingdom itself as well as Aang, Katara, and Sokka.
The title Great Divide means more than just the actual canyon, but it also refers to the conflicts between the Zhang and the Gan Jin, portrayed as tribes that has been going on for a hundred years. The title really shines light into what the episode is actually about and how that reflects the diversity of the earth kingdom.
One of the highlights that really ties the episode together is the story telling by both the Zhang and Gan Jin tribe leaders. True to real life there are two opposing views of one story. The Gan Jin tribe feels that their "patriarch", Jin Wei, was wronged as the Zhang tribe feels that their "noble" Wei Jin, was wronged. This conflict is what makes the entire episode work and fit right into the story. This is a great method in laying out the history and the vital information in the episode.
One of the subtle references to Ba Sing Se does not seem important when first viewing this episode that seems much more significant later on. Both tribes were refuges after being attacked by the fire nation and they are heading to Ba Sing Se, which ties perfectly into the story line not just for the current episode, but reiterates the fire nation's advances into the earth kingdom and the importance of Ba Sing Se.
In the end the Zhang and Gan Jin tribes work together to get out of the canyon by helping each other from the canyon crawlers, but that does not solve the conflict. The end result is Aang solving the conflict by telling a good story of his own.
No matter how good a show is, every season has a stinker or two. "The Great Divide" fits squarely in this category and is probably the worst episode of the first season.
The plot is grotesquely cliche, centered as it is around the faux morality play between two feuding tribes who, if only they would learn to communicate and understand one another, would be great friends. At its core this episode revolves around the basic premise that communication and understanding magically resolve deeply ingrained intercultural and intergenerational problems. While hard problems generally can't be resolved without good communication, I find the ridiculously simplistic application of this idea in most entertainment programs to be nauseating.
Now, let's examine the backdrop a bit. The Gan Jin tribe are a bunch of prissy, over educated snobs who are just as lazy and dishonest as anyone else underneath all their fancy garb. They hate the Zhang tribe, and see them as just a bunch of dishonest, lazy slobs who treasure their ignorance. The Zhang, of course, are in fact a bunch of dishonest, lazy slobs who treasure their ignorance. They hate the Gan Jin, and see them as a bunch of prissy, over educated snobs who are just as lazy and dishonest as anyone else underneath all their fancy garb.
Did you get that? Part of why this episode stinks is that the nasty things each side believes about the other are, in fact, largely true. How uplifting! What a way to both make fun of stereotypes and cave in to them at the same time!
As for the plot, well, it's basically a huge device to get these two tribes together in a way that forces Aang to struggle with the diplomatic aspect of his role as the Avatar. To do this we have to get rid of Appa by having him transport all the old and sick people to other side of the canyon. We can't just have Appa come back and ferry everyone over in groups, because that would ruin our chance to hear the Zhang and Gan Jin hurl lame insults at each other. Nope, we need to head down into that canyon - a canyon which just so happens to be loaded with massive carnivorous insects. This way we can be forced by a common enemy to stop being so caught up in our prejudiced past, sing Kumbaya and learn to give peace a chance.
Sounds like the end of the episode right? They fight the canyon crawlers together, hug and go home, yes? Nope. If this episode left it at that, I'd give it a "C" and chalk it up as a failed indulgence in saccharine, politically correct moralization. Alas, the "twist" offered at the end of the story drops it down to a "D+".
What is this twist? Glad you asked. The twist is that the writers must have known that the obvious solution was really lame, so they cooked up a real stinker. Instead of uniting against a common foe to force the realization that the other guys aren't so bad, they decided to simultaneously prove that Aang is a capable diplomat by having him lie his way to a solution, and show that both tribes are populated exclusively by morons for allowing their previous belief systems (diseased and prejudiced as they were) to be swept away by the ridiculous untruths of a twelve year old.
The only redeeming feature of this episode was the Jin We / We Jin story. This segment didn't seem to take itself too seriously as it was obvious to the audience that neither version of the story was accurate. The differences in the animation styles for these two segments were also fun to see and they did achieve their objective of accentuating the differences between the viewpoints of the two tribes.
Ultimately, however, this remains one of the most disappointing entries in the series to date. The cliche treatment of conflict resolution and the bogus "twist" make this episode difficult to enjoy.