THROWBACK THURSDAY: Avatar, The Last Airbender
By James Sherriff
Earth. Water. Fire. Air.
It’s been nearly 15 years since those four words began the Avatar series. If you’ve seen it, you probably read them in Katara’s voice, and you can almost certainly recite the rest of the opening monologue too. It’s iconic.
When I first watched the series in full, I was about 10 years old – just younger than the kids in the show – and that was fine. It’s a kids’ show after all. The second time, I was a late-stage tween, and amidst all my restless angst and unearned self-confidence the series became something new - a thoughtful yet light-hearted study of friendship, with enough epic fight scenes to keep things interesting. The last time I watched it was earlier this year on exchange, and you better believe I’m watching it all over again at the moment.
Each time, something different in the series stands out. At its heart, it’s a story about a group of kids with magic powers, riding a flying bison and trying their best to stop a war before it’s too late. There’s the chosen one, the funny guy, and the caring sister, all running from an angry firebender and his wise-cracking uncle.
At its best though, it’s an emotionally rich and stunningly powerful tale of hope in the face of overwhelming odds. Archetypes dissolve as the characters grow and mature with the audience, and a quest which seems straightforward enough (master all four elements and defeat the Firelord) becomes riddled with uncertainty and impossibility.
The first season (or ‘book’) does a lot of introducing. As Aang, Sokka, and Katara (the “gaang”) travel from the South to the North Pole, they wind their way through a vast and varied world, meeting everyone from kings and teachers to pirates, rebels, and cabbage merchants. The thrill of the chase keeps the story pressing forward, as Zuko breathes his stubborn, angsty persistence down their necks. Things are relatively clear cut at this point – there are goodies and baddies, and the goodies beat the baddies at every turn (just).
The contrast between the different bending styles and their philosophies mirrors this clarity. Fire is utterly and completely in opposition to the water and air disciplines, it is rage – unrelenting, dogged determination; water is balanced but decisive; air is evasive and peaceful. Later, we are introduced to earth, and in its own stubborn, patient way it too is entirely distinct.
This simplicity works to ease the audience into a world which is really going through some serious and complicated shit, and the show never shies away from just how serious it all is. Right from the get-go, we’re shown the devastating impact of the fire nation’s imperialism, and it only gets more intense. But at each point, whether it’s discussing personal loss and suffering or outright genocide, the show is sensitive and mature, with a serious respect for its young ‘target audience’.
Like all good shows, ATLA relishes the grey areas. But ambiguity and complexity are not simply used to keep us guessing, they’re concepts thoroughly baked-in to the world, its peoples, and their different ways of life. As Aang begins to learn more about the elements, Zuko too questions his perception of himself and his purpose in the world – a purpose forced on him by his father and their toxic relationship. Uncle Iroh (undoubtedly the show’s greatest character. fight me.) explains that the four nations are divided only by the perception of difference, when really, each is dependent on the others. Fire is not simply destruction and fury, it is warmth, life, and passion; an essential piece of a balanced whole.
This learning happens throughout the show, and it comes slowly. But that’s the brilliance of a story that knows exactly what it wants to say, and exactly how it plans to say it. Zuko’s character arc, alongside the natural growth of all the characters, is perfectly executed – a feat so many shows struggle to pull off (ahem... GoT…). The show’s epic four-part finale is utterly satisfying, as each character faces down their fate to produce the perfect conclusion – an answer to the show’s overarching question: “do you shape your destiny, or does it shape you?”
So once I finish showing ATLA to my girlfriend, I’ll probably start watching all over again. For the story, for the art, for the music, for the laughs, and for its heart.