This article contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
All three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender are now streaming on Netflix, so it’s easier than ever to watch or rewatch the series.
While ATLA, which aired from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon, was both a rating hit for the network and critically acclaimed, it’s also a show that people are still discovering more than a decade after it ended. Over the course of 61 episodes (including a four-part series finale), Avatar told a cohesive story that’s rich with characters, worldbuilding—the fictional world of the series is largely influenced by Asian and Arctic indigenous cultures—and complex themes like genocide, colonialism, and abuse that never dumbed down to a younger audience.
It also became incredibly influential since its initial run, both in how children’s animation is viewed and by the people who made it. Many of the writers and directors who worked on Avatar went on to craft their own acclaimed shows; Dave Filoni (The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels), Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery (Voltron: Legendary Defender), and Aaron Ehasz (The Dragon Prince) are only a few notable ATLA alumni.
In the years since ATLA ended, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino teamed up again for a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, and are developing a live-action version of their show for Netflix. ATLA has also lived on in a canon comic book series from Dark Horse that picks up after the end of the series. And while a live-action film based on ATLA’s first season directed by M. Night Shymalan was released in 2010, it’s considered to be a box office flop whose legacy is steeped in the controversy surrounding its largely whitewashed cast.
Granted, since we’re still on lockdown for the foreseeable future, many of us have more than enough time to watch all 61 episodes of ATLA; the episodes go by quickly. But if you find yourself hooked, I’d highly recommend you do so because, apart from being a great series, ATLA is very serialized, so you might miss a few things along the way. If you’re looking for a snapshot of what ATLA offers, this guide of essential episodes should do the trick. (Although they might be listed separately on Netflix, I’m counting multi-part episodes as one entry.)
The list may be missing some of the more notable memes like the Cabbage Merchant (multiple appearances in the first two seasons), cactus juice hallucinations (“The Desert”), the Foaming Mouth Guy (“The Warriors of Kyoshi” and “Avatar Day”), and “my first girlfriend turned into the moon” (“The Boiling Rock Part 1”), but there is still more than enough to sink your teeth into.
The quintessential episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender
1) “The Boy in the Iceberg” and “The Avatar Returns” (season 1, episodes 1 and 2)
The first two episodes of ATLA set up just about everything you need to know while offering hints of intrigue. We’re introduced to Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena), siblings who discover an Airbender named Aang frozen in an iceberg near their Southern Water Tribe settlement. We meet Zuko (Dante Basco), the Fire Nation prince who’s been tasked with finding the Avatar, and his uncle, the more easygoing Iroh (Mako). It’s been 100 years since the Fire Nation attacked, leaving much of the world under the Fire Nation’s rule.
Although the show’s intro gives us a glimpse into ATLA’s world, the first two episodes also introduce a couple of concepts. Katara is the only Waterbender in her village, so she doesn’t have a teacher. Aang doesn’t know about the war that the Fire Nation raged onto the world. And we catch our first glimpse of the Avatar State, in which Aang can access his past lives for additional power or bending abilities; the ability is passed on from person to person akin to reincarnation. And it sets our heroes (Team Avatar) off on their journey north so that both Aang and Katara can learn Waterbending.
2) “The Southern Air Temple” (season 1, episode 3) and “The Storm” (season 1, episode 12)
The Air Nomads haven’t been around in 100 years, so what happened to them—and how did Aang make it out of that purge unscathed? “The Southern Air Temple” and “The Storm” delve into Aang’s backstory. Aang, who was told he was the Avatar years before he was supposed to know, ran away because he didn’t want to be separated from his mentor Gyatso to learn how to control the elements. But some time after he ran away and was frozen in the iceberg, the Fire Nation attacked the Air Temples, resulting in the death of every single Air Nomad (including Gyatso).
3) “Winter Solstice” (season 1, episodes 7 and 8)
Aang, who is a bridge between the physical world and the spirit world as the Avatar, makes his first connection with the Spirit World, where he learns that Avatar Roku (the most recent Avatar before Aang) wishes to speak with him on the Winter Solstice. After venturing into enemy territory to reach Roku’s temple, Aang spoke with Roku, who revealed something that would go on to drive the rest of the series.
Sozin’s Comet—which provided the Fire Nation with the power to start the war against the Air Nomads 100 years ago—would soon appear in the sky. And while most Avatars had years to master all four elements, Aang only had months to master them all and defeat Fire Lord Ozai (Mark Hamill) before he can use the comet’s power to conquer the rest of the world.
4) “The Blue Spirit” (season 1, episode 13)
From the start, Zuko is immediately one of ATLA’s most fascinating characters, and “The Blue Spirit” starts the transition from outright villain to a complicated antagonist. Aang—who’s trying to obtain herbs to help Sokka and Katara after they both fall ill—is captured by Fire Nation Admiral Zhao (Jason Isaacs), a major rival of Zuko’s, but soon, a mysterious stranger in a blue mask rescues Aang. The stranger is knocked unconscious during their escape, and afterward, Aang discovers that Zuko was under the mask. Aang wonders if, in another time, the two of them could’ve been friends, but Zuko lashes out in response.
5) “The Siege of the North” (season 1, episodes 19 and 20)
The season 1 finale is explosive, and not just with the final confrontation between Aang, who merged with the Ocean Spirit to form a giant and powerful koi after Admiral Zhao killed the Moon Spirit, and the Fire Nation naval forces, ultimately resulting in Zhao being taken down by the Ocean Spirit. It’s a further examination of the complicated relationship between Aang and Zuko.
While Aang is victorious, it doesn’t come without a cost: Aang—who was raised as a pacifist—is now afraid of himself in the Avatar State while Yue, a Northern Water Tribe princess, gives up her own life to heal the Moon Spirit years after the Moon Spirit healed her. And Fire Lord Ozai, having heard of Zuko’s failures up north, orders his daughter Azula (Grey DeLisle) to accomplish what Zuko couldn’t.
6) “The Blind Bandit” (season 2, episode 6)
“The Blind Bandit” is our first real introduction to Toph Beifong (Jessie Flower), an Earthbending prodigy who can “see” the vibrations of the earth with her feet; she’s the daughter of a wealthy family who believes her to be helpless because of her blindness. Aang is convinced that Toph should be the person to teach him Earthbending, and while she’s initially reluctant to leave her family, she eventually joins Team Avatar and cements her spot as a fan favorite.
7) “Zuko Alone” (season 2, episode 7)
This particular episode of ATLA is a Zuko character study as he goes off on his own for a bit and is haunted by his past while witnessing first-hand harm caused by the Fire Nation to a small Earth Kingdom village. He befriends a family who suffered at the hands of Fire Nation soldiers and colonialism, but the more he sees, he’s reminded of abuse he faced from his father and sister while his mother comforted him; she abruptly disappeared after the death of his grandfather and Ozai ascended to the throne instead of his older brother Iroh. But even after Zuko defended the family against rogue soldiers and revealed his true identity, he can’t change the minds of the people who hate him on principle.
8) “City of Walls and Secrets” (season 2, episode 14)
In the latter half of season 2, Team Avatar arrives in the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se attempts to inform the Earth King about a looming solar eclipse that will temporarily render Firebenders powerless. While the city has never been successfully invaded, it’s far from the utopia it’s made to be—revealing how far those in power will go to ignore the problems outside the inner city.
Ba Sing Se is structured by class, so poor citizens and refugees live near the wall while the wealthy and powerful live in the center fo the city. The Dai Li, the city’s secret police who’s strayed far from the group’s original design, controls access to the Earth King and the spread of certain information in Ba Sing Se. When Jet (a character Team Avatar first encountered in season 1) discovers Zuko and Iroh hiding in the city as refugees, he’s captured and brainwashed by the Dai Li to believe that there is no war in Ba Sing Se.
9) “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” (season 2, episode 15)
A series of vignettes that take place throughout the city featuring Team Avatar, Zuko, and Iroh. While most of the vignettes are on the lighthearted side, Iroh’s story—which concludes with him honoring his son, who died in Iroh’s previous siege of the city, on his birthday—is touching enough to bring tears. To add an additional level of poignancy, the vignette ends with a tribute to Mako, who died while season 2 was airing.
10) “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny” (season 2, episodes 19 and 20)
If the season 1 finale was a high point for Team Avatar, the season 2 finale sees them at rock bottom. Toph is captured by men hired by her parents (who believed that Aang kidnapped her), but she is able to free herself from a metal container after being able to sense the earth—and invents Metalbending along the way. Aang tries to access the Avatar State by opening chakras, but he’s unable to maintain it after sensing that Katara is in danger. Zuko and Katara bond while they’re imprisoned by the Dai Li, but when he’s on the verge of switching sides, he betrays Katara to help Azula, who’s taken control of Ba Sing Se.
And Aang, who tries to take on Azula, is nearly killed by a lightning strike; he’s healed by spirit water, but he’s unable to access the Avatar State for most of the third season.
11) “The Headband” (season 3, episode 2)
Team Avatar spend the early part of season 3 in disguise after it’s reported that Zuko killed Aang in Ba Sing Se, giving them a glimpse of how revisionist history can warp an entire nation’s perception of events. The Fire Nation can’t grapple with the idea of wiping out an entire culture of people because they have no idea that it ever happened; because history is written by the victors, the Air Nomads are made out to be violent villains.
12) “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” (season 3, episode 6)
ATLA draws even more implicit ties between Aang and Zuko—two characters who are already linked in the series—by drawing parallels between the lives of Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin. For Aang, it’s a story about how people aren’t just black and white and how nobody is beyond redemption. For Zuko, who’s urged to look into his great-grandfather’s life by an imprisoned Iroh, it’s the reveal that he is the great-grandson of both Sozin (on his father’s side) and Roku (on his mother’s side), which helps to explain his growing inner conflict about his role in the war.
13) “The Day of Black Sun” (season 3, episodes 10 and 11)
Team Avatar, now accompanied by more of their allies, use the Solar Eclipse—which renders Firebenders unable to access their powers for several minutes—to strike against the Fire Nation. But after reaching an empty palace, they discover it was a trap. It culminates in a confrontation years in the making between Zuko and Ozai where Zuko finally chastizes him for putting him through years of mental and physical abuse and calls Iroh more of a father than Ozai would ever be. Ozai reacts with taunting and a lightning bolt. While Iroh made his own escape in the chaos, Zuko leaves Ozai the Fire Nation for good with all intentions to help Aang and Team Avatar.
There’s a reason that, whenever fans talk about redemption arcs, Zuko’s is always cited as the pinnacle. It’s never been something that’s come easy to him and he’s failed countless times. But his redemptive arc also comes with atonement—something that so many stories often forget or breeze over—for his actions. Although Team Avatar eventually accepts Zuko as one of them, it doesn’t come easy, and he has to prove to each of them that he’s genuine. And that he does as he and Aang learn Firebending from its original source (“The Firebending Masters”); helps Sokka rescue his father Hakoda, his girlfriend Suki, and other allies from a high-security prison (“The Boiling Rock”); and aids Katara in getting closure for her mother’s death at the hands of Fire Nation soldiers (“The Southern Raiders”).
14) “The Ember Island Players” (season 3, episode 17)
The penultimate episode of ATLA is the closest it will ever get to a clip show. Except instead of pre-existing clips from older episodes (something that Legend of Korra had to do in its final season), ATLA got creative. While hiding out on Ember Island (a luxury Fire Nation resort island), Team Avatar (Aang, Katara, Zuko, Sokka, Toph, and Suki) went to see The Boy in the Iceberg, a highly inaccurate depiction of ATLA’s events up until now.
The Ember Island Players’ version of ATLA is awful and absurd, but it’s also a brilliant meta-commentary on the show itself. Zuko is obsessed with honor, Katara is always on the verge of tears, Sokka is an idiot who’s always hungry, Aang is played by a woman; it even nods to one of ATLA’s most popular ships and the ambiguity of a minor character’s death. The only person delighted with their portrayal is Toph. But the ending, which predicts that Fire Lord Ozai will kill Aang with enhanced powers from Sozin’s Comet, leaves everyone in a sour mood.
15) “Sozin’s Comet” (season 3, episodes 18-21)
Building off everything that came before it in both character and plot, the four-part ATLA series finale is a visual and storytelling masterpiece. As Sozin’s Comet finally arrives, Ozai plans to use its power to burn down the Earth Kingdom while leaving an off-balanced Azula—who’s still jolted by the betrayal of the only friends she’d ever known—to rule the Fire Nation in his stead.
Although Aang is left with one more existential crisis as he debates the necessity to kill Ozai with his own morals, the finale culminates in two stunning battles: An Agni Kai (a Firebender duel) between Zuko and Azula to decide who would become the next Fire Lord, and a duel between Aang and Ozai to finally put an end to the war once and for all. And once everything plays out, we’re given enough time with the characters to see where they end up on the other side.