Set in the aftermath of a colossal disillusionment, the last hope of an entire army brought to its knees at the verge of victory, the Avatar and his friends along with the other youngest travel to the final Air Temple to be visited in the series, as an asylum from the Fire Nation. Biding their time, in this episode the plot shifts. A plan to defeat the Firelord has vanished with the recent Solar Eclipse, and now the GAang must grapple with a substitution: drawing a new plan comparable and feasible to be enacted within a month to bring down The Firelord.
The new location is something unequivocally captivating in this episode: an Air Temple clinging to the underside of a cliff (something reminiscent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon). The children are completely astounded by the architecture, and it is no different for the viewers, equally swept of their feet by the sheer and seeming impossibility of fixing those temples in that peculiar way.
Architecture and aesthetics aside, this chapter offers all the viewer could possibly seek in Avatar. There is both physical and verbal conflict: Zuko in his infinitely dorky nature rallies his courage to confront the GAang and to request admittance into their group, offering his Firebending tutelage as his contributing attribute. He is met with rash bewilderment. Then after meeting a frothy blast of water in the face, courtesy of the bitter Katara, he is left soaked and rejected only to return to his camp all the more let down. Toph the voice of reason attempts to enlighten the group to the reality: Zuko can teach Aang, that's one fortuitous solution to an impossible problem that can't be ignored. As liaison, she visits him and, inadvertently, her feet get burned. This simple summary obviously points to one thing: great character dynamic and interaction. This chapter is brought to life by these circumstances: personalities light up and come to life as arguments arise and past hurts resurface.
The story comes to a head when Cumbustion Man reappears. He attacks, and Zuko boldly attempts to protect the Avatar while managing to nearly blow himself straight into the gorge. He bombards the Temple, and is only stopped by Sokka with his boomerang action. The battle is exciting and refreshing: that good old Avatar bending we missed in The Day of Black Sun, the previous episodes. In particular, this battle gave the episode that heightened excitement level not so typically found in every seemingly commonplace chapter. It was concerted, well-placed, innovative, and this scene certainly makes The Western Air Temple that much more attractive.
Finally, the ending is bitter-sweet. Sure we learn Zuko is indeed a caring, level-headed Firebender, who is accepted by each group member with varying degrees of reluctance, but we also witness this ominous death-threat from Katara. With a chilling voice acting performance from Mae Whitman, Katara basically tells Zuko she'll destroy him on the spot if he ever slips from his new path of righteousness. This ending note rings with a haunting sibilance as the episode closes, completing the fully enjoyable, emotional ride that is The Western Air Temple.
Waiting for something great has the potential to make it even sweeter when it finally arrives. Which is why this episode might seem much better that it really is just because it's finally here, the first one of the new episodes, the final run towards the finale. However, even past all the hype, and all the excitement, there is one thing that's clear: This is a great episode.
By now, 'Avatar' has imprinted onto me a standard. I expect the show to conform to it, and watch every new episode with the quality of the previous ones in mind. And after months of nothing new, 'The Western Air Temple' sends me right back into all the things I have come to love about the show. It has the connection to the past events, the characters you know facing new hurdles, it has wonderful music and stunning art, it has the occasional and tasteful jokes, and, in just this episode, it has a lot of heavy drama.
The events of this episode shouldn't be surprising, really. Zuko catches up to the gang, and tries to convince them that he's changed and wants to join them. Many speculations came true, such as Appa remembering his rescue from under Lake Laogai, Combustion Man appearing again and Zuko trying to stop him, and Zuko finally becoming Aang's firebending teacher. So if the plot bears nothing new, it has to be two things: the comforting familiarity, and the volatile relationship that the group's shared pasts evoke.
First things first: I'm glad that Zuko turned out to become Aang's firebending teacher. Iroh would have been somewhat uninteresting, and Jeong Jeong, who even gets mentioned, would have been plain boring. But Zuko adds just the spice needed to really heat up the series (no pun intended), and to add to the complexity of the feelings running through the characters. And the various flashbacks of Zuko right after his banishment were nice. It's always interesting to learn about the pasts of the characters.
In many ways, Zuko is the star of this episode. His practicing talking to the others, his constant frustration, his inability to form complete sentences when finally meeting the gang, all this makes his constant trying really great. And the gang's reaction, though expected, is also depicted very in-character. Even Toph's sympathy. Checking back confirms that she never actually fought Zuko, and that Sokka, Katara, and Aang have a long history together before Toph showed up, something that is very easy to forget so far into the show.
Next to that, the art and music are wonderful. I expected the Western Air Temple to be just like the other three. When the gang reached the gorge and said they had arrived, I thought that maybe it was built from the bottom of the gorge, but still like the others. When they finally showed the temple, I was blown away. The various shots of the curious architecture are breathtaking.
But nothing is perfect, and this episode had a few blunders as well. There was a bit of an issue with pacing, not much, not often, but enough to be noticed. Some lines seemed a bit off. And I least liked Combustion Man's death. It was actually very anti-climatic, and his metallic arm just forms a morbid piece of evidence of his apparent demise. While people have died on 'Avatar' before, this seemed a bit brutal.
This episode could have ended after Zuko gets accepted (during which they only show his unburned side) and led to his room by Sokka, and it would have been good. But what really puts the cherry on top is Katara's death threat right at the end. With just that line, Katara has reinforced her position as my favorite character. And has created a feel of dread and dire foreboding. What a great note to end a great episode on!