Where to begin? This episode packs that punch of grandness that the last episode before a finale must have. But it also has lots of little things for which the finale might be too cluttered. A good mix, and a lot to say.
The gang, after lots of traveling, indeed arrives at the north pole, and quickly come in contact with the Northern Water Tribe. Cut to Zhao and his generals, who also plan to move to the north pole. With this, we already have the great foreshadowing that will most likely come to conclusion in the finale.
This is also what makes the episode both good and full. We get the two parallel storylines again, but this time, both of them follow through a full arc, and both have a climax at the end, with an unconcluded resolution, meaning there's an end, but more has to come.
The Northern Tribe is shown as a huge city, much in contrast with the Southern Tribe. The prevalent colors of blue and white put everything into a mystical hue, an ice-city of unimaginable magnificence, a bastion of strength that has endured a hundred years of war.
We soon get to know Master Pakku, who seems to be a tough, strict, arrogant, and rule-bent jerk. He knows he's the best, and he values the traditions of the Tribe above everything. After months Fire Nation soldiers, this guy is an interesting and new challenge the gang now has to overcome.
After Katara's euphoria is shattered by Pakku rejecting her as a student, frustration is abound, perhaps even with the viewers. However, it also puts Katara into the spotlight and as the star of this episode, shining with her character and personality. Her headstrong attitude is bound to stir up some turbulence.
Meanwhile, we get Zuko's crew at music night. It's nice to see that the music matches what the lieutenant is actually playing on his instrument. Just another thumbs up for the animation. And then we see Zhao's ingenuity at work. By depriving Zuko of his crew, he does not only gain more men, but has rendered his rival paralyzed.
Back at the Water Tribe, after Pakku discovers her waterbending, we get Katara being Katara, breaking things with her anger, and challenging Pakku to a duel. The resulting fight is some of the most awesome display of waterbending in the show, and reveals Katara to be quite talented, albeit lacking finesse. Plus, we get to see Katara with loose hair! Changing hairstyles is always nice in cartoons, because hair, just like clothing, tends to be static to help with character recognition. Just as a note, the way Pakku traps Katara is very reminiscent of a scene in Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers". Just goes to show where the creators get their inspiration from.
Throughout the episode, Sokka's and Yue's relationship demonstrates the rigidness of the customs, but also allows Sokka to mature. However, Yue's voice is way too, well, western, in lieu of a better word, to fit into this setting.
Showing that Zuko actually survived his assassination is a bit of a two-sided thing. For one, he is part of the main cast, and the creators probably did not want everyone to think that he was dead. But as a literary device, showing Zuko this early kills a lot of drama and surprise, as the suspense of the unknown would make his reappearance that much more staggering.
All things considered, 'The Waterbending Master' is a great episode where action is tuned perfectly with character, and with a deep and mounting plot driving the whole chapter onwards. This last scene of the huge Fire Nation navy is the perfect way to leave the story hanging for a (hopefully) grand finale.
Seventeen episodes have passed leading up to The Waterbending Master. Aang and friends finally reach the Northern Water Tribe in search of a waterbending teacher. This episode ties everything together with action, romance, and humor while focusing on the dilemma of keeping tradition.
It begins with the long-awaited arrival at the North Pole. Everything is picturesque and breathtaking, from the icy architecture to the numerous waterfalls. Viewers immediately recognize the polar contrast from the Southern Water Tribe, which relatively lacks inhabitants and structure. Sokka falls in love with Princess Yue at first sight, but the situation isn't as simple as it seems.
Zhao's flashbacks of the Blue Spirit certainly add rising action to the plot, as anything could happen from then. Later, we once again see the pirates from episode 109, The Waterbending Scroll. Unexpected cameos from minor characters are always a plus for me, so I was really impressed.
Master Pakku, a sarcastic and seemingly cold-hearted man, immediately refuses Katara's request to learn waterbending. One can only imagine how Katara was feeling at that moment, after longing for this day her whole life. This part of the episode brings in the issue of keeping or breaking tradition, a heavily discussed topic. The Northern Water Tribe has many old customs, usually for good intention, but they are conflicting with contemporary society's demands and diversity.
Sokka's friendship with Yue becomes something a little more, but a big obstacle is evidently present. Then, the most exciting part of the episode comes: Katara's challenge against Master Pakku. We see that her primary technique is the Water Whip, but she has to adapt to the unpredictable tactics of her opponent. A good portion of the fandom argued about how unrealistic Katara was, but I think it was presented fairly--especially considering her defeat. We all know that Katara is a very determined character with much potential, particularly when under emotional distress (as seen in the first episode with Sokka).
Then, we find out about Gran Gran and Pakku's marriage that was supposed to be arranged sixty years ago. It's revealed that Princess Yue is also in an arranged marriage, leaving Sokka heartbroken and fans sympathizing.
I liked it when Iroh accepted Zhao's proposal, but I think it should have ended there. One flaw with the episode is that we learn that Zuko survived the explosion too soon. If this had waited until the first half of the finale, it would've left a much more dramatic ending to The Waterbending Master (and a nice twist in The Siege of the North Part 1). The dismayed general sided with the admiral, leading dozens of Fire Nation ships right to the North Pole? Yes, please.
Overall, this is a fantastic episode. There's a nice balance of everything and we learn that so much is connected.