It's surprising that, with all the foreshadowing in the last episode of the terrible events to come, this one starts out quite peacefully, and keeps this tranquil note for a good while. And although it is the first part of the season finale, there's exceptionally little plot development; most of this episode focuses on Aang and his inner turmoils.
There's a mix of both good and bad events running through the entirety of this episode, circling each other, until they come to a collision course at the end. Along the way, we get a great deal of character development from Aang, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko. Sokka finally gets viewed as a grown man by his father. Zuko awakes from his metamorphosis and becomes a completely different person. And Toph learns to metalbend.
There are basically two major plot lines running through this episode: Aang opening his chakras, and Azula plotting to take over Ba Sing Se. In the first one we get a great deal of insight into Aang's feelings, mostly in the form of various flashbacks of scenes taken from previous episodes. This is both a look back upon Aang's development over the course of the show this far, as well as an in-depth analysis of Aang's character. In the second one we receive a display of Azula's fearsome skill in manipulation and her scheming prowess.
This episode is very stunning in its artwork. The scenes around the Eastern Air Temple are beautiful, and the various hues of Aang's chakra scenes (corresponding to the actual color of each chakra) add a very nice touch to them. The music accompanying these scenes is fitting as well, making the whole process a high point in quality.
Indeed, even though so much of the episode focuses on Aang meditating, the pacing of this chapter is just right. There are five storylines in total, and their interchanging screen time is accomplished very well. The only thing that might seem a bit rushed is the apparent simplicity with which Aang actually opens each of his chakras. But anything else would have unnecessarily dragged out those scenes and taken away valuable time that is better used to show he events transpiring with the other characters. With only twenty-some minutes per episode, cuts have to be made. And these are not at all troubling.
When Aang reaches his last last chakra, that's when the action escalates. Toph has escaped and is heading back to Ba Sing Se, Katara discovers that Zuko and Iroh are in the city and is taken down by Ty Lee, and Aang gets his vision that Katara is in trouble. Zuko and Iroh are invited to the palace, and Azula makes her deal with Long Feng. Now that all the players are headed to the same goal, the action can finally begin in the second part of the finale.
One interesting thing to note is the timeline. All the action takes place over the course of a single day. A day that started out very cheerfully with a happy Zuko, and ends very terribly with a happy Azula. It is this very short time frame that makes this episode engaging. If all the event were spread out over a week or more, a lot of the immediate tension would be lost.
Overall, this is a very good lead in for this season's last episode. It does not concentrate as much on the plot, but rather prepares all the characters for the next episode. There are clear changes in most of them, and their growth will hopefully help define what is to come in the future.
The Guru ranks high among the forty episodes produced for the series so far. Giancarlo Volpe directs an incisive and well-paced story, one that focuses on the heroes after they disband to pursue individual goals. Unlike Tales of Ba Sing Se, a strong pace is maintained for the entire twenty four minutes. The main theme of this episode is the personal growth of the main characters. Aang receives insight into what it means so be an Avatar from a wise Guru. Sokka's confidence is strengthened when he is reunited with his father. Capture by the bounty hunters drives Toph past her own limits, revealing a new power. Zuko seems to have emerged from his fever with a brand new appreciation for the good things in life. The notable exception to all this is Katara. If this were broken into individual stories ala Tales, her story could be entitled Katara's Bad Day.
The titular character of this episode, the enigmatic Guru Pathik, was briefly introduced to us at the end of Appa's Lost Days. Here he is central to the main storyline. He is a fascinating character, possessing an almost supernatural wisdom and tranquility, with a lighthearted sense of humor. The character of Guru Pathik is clearly influenced by the Aesthetics of East India. His introduction adds yet another flavor to the blend of eastern influences in the show.
As he assists Aang in resolving his inner conflicts, Guru Pathik offers tantalizing insights into key concepts in the series itself. We learn that the nature of the avatar universe may not be quite what we believe. This theme of revelation parallels scenes involving the other heroes. Toph finds metalbending not as impossible as is generally accepted. Katara discovers she is far from secure inside the high walls of Ba Sing Se. Sokka, long under the conviction he was left at home due to his immaturity, learns otherwise from his father. And Aang discovers that the full might of the avatar state comes at a powerful and unexpected price.
Special mention must be made of the visual presentation in The Guru. The story unfolds in a large variety of locations, all of them beautifully rendered. The most striking of these are the natural vistas of the Eastern Air Temple. Powerful waterfalls, misty valleys and tranquil shrines, these backgrounds lend a solemn, mystical air to Aang's spiritual journey. The monochromatic dreamscapes of Aang's mind seem to pay homage to Yimou Zhang's use of color in the movie Hero. Katara, lying helplessly as the false Kyoshi warriors gather around her, stands as one of the most powerful images in the series.
My only criticism concerning this episode was Nickelodeon's decision to air it as a "movie feature" with Crossroads of Destiny. The Guru stands better on its own, and the cliffhanger ending is more effective without an immediate continuation of the story.