Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Northern Air Temple

The Northern Airbender Temple has a significant place in
the history of the Avatar world being featured heavily in Legend of Korra, but in “The Northern Air Temple,” we get our first
introduction to our second air temple in The
Last Airbender
.  Like the Southern
Air Temple, it sits atop a mountain peak, seemingly, if not truly, impervious
to assault from those who would dare climb to reach it.  We are introduced to the Mechanist,
theoretically, the steampunk grandfather of the Avatar universe, who may be
responsible for some of the Fire Nation’s steam and coal powered mechanical
monstrosities, if not the planter of the seed that grew to produce them
all.  While the emotional focus is on
Aang in this episode, his ability to accept change, “The Northern Air Temple”
really serves as an episodic book end to “The Southern Air Temple.”  The latter was the third episode in the
season and the former is essentially the third to last episode as well (if we
combine the two part season finale).  The
purpose of the parallel is to demonstrate not only Aang’s growth, but also to
offer a hopeful message that the legacy of the air benders, those who loved the
skies and defying gravity, does continue on despite their deaths.

We open with a campfire tale told by Earth Kingdom
residents (in warm clothing, by the way, we’re moving closer to the North
Pole!) about people who defy gravity.
Aang and the Gang believe it a left over story from before the Fire
Nation committed genocide and wiped out the air nomads, but their assumptions
are quickly corrected.  The story relates
to a sight seen just a week ago.  Excited
at the prospect that perhaps a few airbenders had survived some how in the
Northern Air Temple, the gang takes off immediately for the northernmost air
nomad sanctuary.  Aboard Appa and flying
through the clouds, they spot the temple, beautifully situated atop a mountain
peak surrounded by snow white capped mountains.
In The Legend of Korra, the
expanded budget allows for an even more majestic presentation of the temple,
but none the less, in The Last Airbender
it remains one of those scenic locations the gang will visit.

Around the temple, gliders can be seen circling its
towers and for a brief moment, our Avatar’s eyes light up with hope, but only
for that brief moment.  In a sad voice, Aang
tells his friends that the gliders they see are simply that, gliding, not
flying.  In something close to arrogance,
Aang immediately dismisses them as not having the spirit of the
airbenders.  This pronouncement is
followed by a boy in a wheelchair attached to a glider buzzing Appa and his
riders and sets off a quick aerial chase between Aang and the boy.  The chase is at both times dizzying and
impressive with Aang giving some leeway of respect upon its conclusion.  The boy is named Teo and we quickly learn his
father is the Mechanist.  Teo is also one
of the first, but definitely not the last handicap character to appear in the
show, yet another incredible nod at the diversity the creators inject into it
without being obvious about it.  Teo’s
placement in the wheelchair does not define his character and his presence in
it is only pointed out to contrast with his ability to fly and by his father’s
deliberate act to equalize the playing field for his son.  

This is a big moment for the Avatar universe, as it’s
generally the first time we see technology replace a core ability of a
bender.  Defying gravity was a hallmark
of the air nomads, but through the use of the gliders, anyone can do so.  Later on in this same episode, we see the application
of technology achieve flight that does not require wind to stay aloft.  As The
Last Airbender
continues we will see technology slowly intrude into the world
laying the groundwork for the futuristic world that Avatar Korra will inhabit.  Importantly, the technology and “new”
introduced in this episode does so intrusively.

In Aang’s tour of the air temple, pipes protrude almost
without sense from one wall and disappear into another, randomly breaking
through ancient air bender murals and statuary. Increasingly, Aang’s temper
roils at what he deems the desecration of the former air nomad home.   Aang’s
grip on the past is also highlighted by his refusal to open the doors to the
temple’s sanctuary, which requires air bending to do.  His refusal is based on his desire to keep
some things safe and sacred.  The pipes,
however, are a display of progress over the past, erasing it to make way for
what comes next.  

This is hammered, or should I say, demolished, home when
Aang discovers a statue that he’s relieved to find still intact, only to see a
demolition ball smash through it and the wall behind it.  In the newly made hole in the wall, standing
behind the rubble remains, is the Mechanist.
His introduction highlights him immediately as an odd antagonist to the
historic and sacred nature of the air temple.
The Mechanist is devoted to his pursuit of new technology, sacrificing
his very fingers to achieve his goal of bettering the world (through safer
knife sharpening devices).  His brazen
charge in updating the temple immediately sours Aang and while Sokka quickly
becomes interested in the Mechanist and his inventions, Aang departs desiring
to find something of the past in the present.

This leads to Katara’s first solo gliding flight with
instruction from Teo.  Teo describes
flying in a deeply reverence manner and finally, Aang begins to lighten up as
he realizes that the gliders are imbued with the same spirit that took
airbenders to the skies.  A quick flight later
and Aang decides to open the doors to inner sanctum to fulfill a desire of Teo’s
to see what’s behind them.  This was a
mistake.  Filling the room is a hot air
balloon with a large Fire Nation emblem on its side.  It’s a secret workshop of the Mechanist, who
we quickly learn had been inventing weapons for the Fire Nation in exchange for
the Fire Nation allowing the new residents to stay in their temple home.  No sooner has this discovery been made, but a
Fire Nation official arrives to inspect the new project.  He receives a cold reception from Aang, who
sends the enemy packing, despite threats of an attack.  For the first time in a century, a battle
will be fought between the residents of the Northern Air Temple and the Fire
Nation.

The battle will be one won or lost based entirely on the
resident’s one advantage, air power.
Gliders equipped with smoke, stink (don’t under estimate the power of
stink), and fire bombs slip into the air at the sight of the arriving Fire
Nation troops.  Sokka and the Mechanist
are late to the party in a newly reconfigured airship with a mechanism to
control its climb and fall.  (As a note,
toss this on the pile of evidence that Sokka is a genius of sorts).  The fight is won when the two airship pilots
notice a large concentration of natural gas (artificially scented based on
another observation by Sokka) and Sokka ignites it by dropping the airship’s
source for hot air, an iron stove.  The
massive explosion annihilates (and probably kills) a large number of the enemy,
who beat a quick retreat.  Minus a heat
source, the airship begins to fall to the ground and its two inhabitants are
rescued by Aang.

Victory assured, everyone is bonded by the shared
experience with Aang much happier and at peace with the new residents of the
air temple and the new residents promising to respect the temple’s past.  However, this is one of those few episodes in
The Last Airbender which does not end
on a happy note.  It ends with the Fire
Nation recovering the downed airship with the implication that the enemy now
has the new invention it will need to help ensure its victory over the rest of
the world.  For those who have watched
the show’s entirety, it is not hyperbole.

While the episode laid down groundwork for the future,
its main purpose was to serve as a parallel to “The Southern Air Temple,” and
what happened in that episode.  In “The
Southern Air Temple,” we are faced with a temple littered in the bones of its
defenders and attackers.  Aang is faced
with the cold reality of what has happened to his people and the temple is as
much a tomb as it was a place of peace and solitude.  It represents Aang’s past and his identity as
the last airbender.  In contrast, “The
Northern Air Temple,” represents not just Aang’s future, but the future of what
the air nomads cherished.  The temple is
not a tomb, but instead a blank canvas for those who dream of creating a better
world.  Gliders fill the skies, and while
they may not fly in the definition of an air bender, they defy gravity in the
same way, and in the same spirit, as the air nomads once did.  

Specifically, Aang’s connection to the past is weaker now.  He has grown as a person, and while he’s
upset at first by what the new residents have done to the former home of the air
nomads, he overcomes that feeling and by the end of the episode, is happy they
have taken over its grounds.  After the
past few months of travel, Aang has let go of the past that identified him
(without forgetting it) and accepted his place in the future, in the same
manner that he has accepted the presence of the Mechanist and his people.  This acceptance of change will play a role in
the next season when he is directly challenged to accept that change is inevitable
and unavoidable, something he does with relatively little trouble.  

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