The first part of the Avatar series finale is likely overshadowed in the collective memory of us fans, well, because the rest of the four-part finale is packed full with fan-service and awesomeness. Nevertheless the episode stands out amongst its preceding chapters as it adds dynamics to the finale and provides an interesting exposition to the epic conclusion of the story we grew so attached to in our viewing experience.
Several of the most attractive aspects of this exposition include the plot thickening that Zuko presents to the group when he tells them all of his father's plan. The way in which Zuko brings this up is incredibly entertaining and appropriate of his character: rather than berate the group for ignoring the impending doom of the Comet's arrival or explain the need to fret, he attacks Aang, full on. This chase scene, coupled with the training the group undergoes in preparation for a joint assault on The Firelord and the Royal Palace, sets the precedent for the action to come.
Another one of the demarcating characteristics of this episode in particular is the smattering of jokes the writers peppered into this episode. Whereas the mood in each of the consecutive segments of the finale is increasingly emotional, tenebrous, and apocalyptic, this episode begins with a beach party – a gratuitous opportunity to show off the characters in their swim gear one last time – and proceeds with Toph's Melon Lord line and a quite humorous search for Aang.
To address Aang's character development: his issue with violence is founded in previous episodes and absolutely logical here. The argument he has with the group about what seems to be an imperative to kill Ozai and his reluctance to do so makes perfect sense in serving as an impetus for his disappearance and subsequent soul searching.
Overall, the expository nature of this episode leaves the viewer wanting, which is ideal for dragging he or she into the rest of the finale. This episode brilliantly sets up those to come. Nevertheless, as a sort of overture, this episode doesn't exactly fulfill the viewer, and as such I cannot rate it as highly as I would its sister segments. A solid episode, an excellent entrée, yet nothing compared to the main course.
It's strange to have thought that Aang almost never considered that "beating the Fire Lord" would inevitably mean having to kill him. Foreshadowed in The Southern Raiders, The Phoenix King opens up this four episode finale with Aang's final obstacle: a moral dilemma that pits his duty as an Avatar against his moral compass and Air Nomad teachings. This episode does a very good job of emphasizing Aang's moral dilemma. Not even being able to strike down a makeshift Fire Lord with a watermelon head was a great way of depicting how deep Aang's accordance with his teachings from Gyatso really are.
Unfortunately, that's really all that the episode does well. While Aang's questions about the morality of killing a human beings that he doesn’t like are well taken and reasonable for a pacifist, the episode does a poor job of presenting an opposing case. There's little discussion of Ozai as a terrible person, having killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them dear and close to the members of Team Avatar. There's an inherent deontological and utilitarian debate here: is it right to sacrifice a life to save millions or is it the right of one life absolute and undeniable? Yet, the quandary is undermined by how lousy the rest of the group tries to solve Aang's problems, especially considering how inconsistent it is.
Take for example, the scene where Sokka slices open the Melon Lord's head. It's clear to everyone at that point that Aang is having a hard time with this kill-the-Fire-Lord business. Yet, in the dinner scene right after that, the group is seen having fun, joking with Aang, and making fun of Aang's problems. It's hard to imagine that even though he's a joker, Sokka, who was busy yelling at Aang that afternoon about how to kill the Fire Lord, would be spurring on Aang even though Aang clearly told him that he wasn't feeling himself. The same goes for Katara, who hasn't spoken up once or confronted Aang about his problems, even though on a regular basis she's seen at Aang's side when he's alone. Katara says that "we do understand", but does the group really step up and acknowledge that Aang has real problems on his hand? They don't. The bouncing around from comedy to seriousness is done in a way that it feels that the group is acting without really paying attention to anything else, as if the episode is another throw away meant to grease the wheels of the finale with jokes before jumping into anything serious.
On top of that, I found it strange that the group just decided to let Aang sort out this problem by themselves. I can definitely see it in Zuko's character to solve issues alone; it's been a forefront of his character. Still, on issue as important as killing the most important man in the world, I would have thought that the group would want to talk it out with Aang. Instead, the group goes against its group hug five minutes before, and forces Aang to confront a problem that they should have known was difficult and complicated.
In other words, the episode does a great job outlining the Avatar's moral problems. All of the elements, the Melon Lord scene, the picture of baby Ozai, all of them contribute to Aang's vision of Ozai as not some potential casualty of war, but a human being with rights, ideas (albeit bad ideas), and a beating heart. On the other hand, the episode is inconsistent with the rest of its cast. They're too volatile, jumping from one emotion to the other inconsistently to the point that they almost seem out of character with jokes that are poorly timed and their complete unawareness of Aang's emotions when it's right in front of them.
The rest of the episode is purely expository in nature. Ozai has outlined his finals plans and proven that again he's a maniacal dictator, Team Avatar acknowledges that the comet is mere moments away and they should no longer be goofing around, Azula's psychological state is questioned even further, and Aang meets the legendary Lion Turtle. I have complaints about some of these elements, especially the sudden presence of the [s]deus ex machine[/s] Lion Turtle, but those are complaints more appropriate for later episodes.