Is “The Great Divide” really that bad? Sure, Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest shows of all time, and this episode ends on a white lie about babies in timeout. Babies. In. Timeout! It’s an early Season 1 episode where it’s clear they were still testing the boundaries of the show. Some of that is present in the episode’s simple morality message. The majority of fans say this episode is the worst ATLA episode, but I’m here to vindicate it, once and for all.
Simple story set-up
“The Great Divide” falls at the midway point of ATLA Season 1. Coming across a Grand Canyon-type crossing, Aang, Katara, and Sokka meet two warring Earthbending tribes, the Gan Jins and the Zhangs. Their beef with each other mostly consists of petty squables and prejudices toward the other. One thing they do have in common — they’re refugees of the Fire Nation’s oppression, and need to get across the divide.
However, there’s just one guide, an Earthbender, and Appa can only fly so many people across. Aang uses his mediating skills to get everyone to cooperate and thus, they all begin their journey. But trouble occurs along the rocky trails when both tribes bend the “no food” rule, causing giant rock spider creatures to attack. Aang rallies them all to battle and the two tribes, including the squabbling water tribe siblings, work together to defeat the spider rock creatures and make it to the other side of the divide. So far, so good. Aang used his super Avatar meditating skills and saved everyone from being crushed by giant rocks and the spiders that live within them. That’s not even the best part.
For some reason, the power of teamwork did not stop the tribes from hating each other. Safely on the otherside of the divide, they go right back to flinging insults. Yet again, Aang must step in. This time, he uses the power of words and storytelling to get them to see the error of their ways by concoting a lie about the twins at the center of the tribes’ shared history and where their initial fallout began. And so the Avatar spoketh.
The Avatar role, expanded
It is a ridiculous ending that a story told by Aang ultimately allows the tribes to make up, and not the fantastic teamwork demonstrated in the previous sequence. But what “The Great Divide” showcases is a necessary look at a different side to Aang’s Avatar duties. Since the beginning of the show, a great showdown between Aang and the Firelord has been foretold, sending the Gaang off on a journey of bending knowledge. The stakes are high, and the journey long. We’re twelve episodes in and Aang still only knows airbending. But the Avatar is not just a master of the four elements, they’re a mediator, existing to keep the balance between the four nations.
In “The Great Divide,” Aang’s mediating skills are put to the test for the first time. It’s definitely on a smaller scale than saving the whole world, but working with difficult people with long-held prejudices is part of the job. This first test is low stakes compared to the rest of the show’s premise (I mean, if you want to call giant rock spider creatures low stakes). Aang is also 12 years old — telling a white lie to make obnoxious people stop fighting fits right in with his personality.
Fans and critics often refer to this episode as “filler.” However, because this episode features Aang in a role we have yet to see him in, “The Great Divide” is more than a filler episode. It’s not advancing the season long plot, but it is character work that’s hard to ignore. Not just with Aang but with Sokka and Katara as well.
Caught up in their own petty arguments, Sokka and Katara end up taking a respective side in the beef between the two tribes. If this was later in the show, I would definitely question Sokka and Katara’s willingness to believe each tribes’ story without much consideration for the other side of the story. But it’s early days, and the water tribe siblings were already often annoyed with each other. It’s an episode that allows for an uglier look at Sokka and Katara, and the relatively low stakes provides the room to be silly with it.
Any episode that explores different aspects of a character we haven’t seen yet is worthy of consideration. “The Great Divide” provides a lighter side to the Gaang’s first season. It allows Aang to stretch his mediating skills and shows that he’s not above playing dirty for the greater good. Aang can be goofy but he can also get serious when he wants to. His frustration with Sokka, Katara, and the two tribes breaks the Avatar veneer to show that Aang, despite being the Avatar, gets annoyed just like the rest of us.
It’s not the most popular episode, but there’s more to “The Great Divide” than people give it credit for. In the grand scheme of the entire show, it definitely doesn’t live up to the series’ best episodes. But this early on, it’s a great example of the show trying to find its feet while showcasing different sides to the characters we haven’t quite seen yet.
Featured image courtesy of Nickelodeon