We’ve finally finished watching all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’m going to go ahead and say this is one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. Here’s the official show description from the website, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with it:
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Only the Avatar was the master of all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless Fire Nation from conquering the world. But when the world needed him most, he disappeared. Until now…
On the South Pole, a lone Water Tribe village struggles to survive. It’s here that a young Waterbender named Katara and her warrior brother Sokka rescue a strange boy named Aang from a cavernous iceberg. Not only is Aang an Airbender–a race of people no one has seen in a century–but they soon discover that Aang is also the long lost Avatar. Now it’s up to Katara and Sokka to make sure Aang faces his destiny to save the tribe–and himself. Did we mention he’s only 12?
I don’t know how best to talk about a three-season, 61-episode show, so I’m just going to randomly celebrate some of the things that made it work so well for me.
The Characters: Almost without exception, every character has his/her own personality and story arc. The Big Bad Fire Lord was pretty much the only one who struck me as one-dimensional, and that’s partly because he barely even shows up until the very end. Everyone else felt fully human. They struggle. They make mistakes. You can connect and sympathize with almost everyone, even the villains. These are interesting people, and I wanted to spend more time with them.
The Animation: This is a beautifully animated show, from the background artwork to the various spirit creatures to the different cultural styles of dress and architecture to my particular favorite, the gracefulness of the four styles of bending. It’s gorgeous to look at.
The Joy: Aang’s backstory is incredibly painful. He’s the last of his people, a hundred years out of his time, and is tasked with saving the world. At the age of twelve. Yet he never loses his joy in the world. He jokes, he laughs, he plays, he dances. He believes in people … but not to the point of foolishness. The show hits notes of both very real pain and ridiculous silliness (poor cabbage guy), and the full range in between. That’s a hard thing to do well, and incredibly powerful when done right.
I’m putting the rest behind a cut tag, because of spoilers…
This Moment Right Here: Zuko’s journey of growth and redemption is one of the best, most powerful character arcs I’ve ever seen. If this moment doesn’t make you choke up, then YOU HAVE NO SOUL!
Uncle Iroh: Nothing but love for pretty much every single moment he’s on the screen.
Nothing is Static: The characters grow and learn and change over the course of the series. Lessons sometimes need to be repeated, but they’re rarely ignored or forgotten. And the implications and possibilities of bending are explored. Toph discovers how to metalbend, and can use her earthbending connection to the ground to help her see. Katara learns new waterbending tricks throughout the show, including the ability to draw water from the air and plants, and even to bloodbend. We see sandbending and swampbenders and more. Instead of ignoring or glossing over the implications of the world’s magic, the show embraces them, and I love it.
The Epic Storyline: Epic fantasy doesn’t get much more epic than this. A quarter of the world’s nations wiped out. A firebender winning a century-long war of conquest. History stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet, despite the world-spanning scope, the story never loses sight of the personal, the individuals who fight and struggle and mourn and laugh and go about their daily lives.
Jet’s Death: In a lot of ways, this captures what makes the show work. Jet started out as a bad guy, and not a terribly important one. He was a secondary character, an antagonist for a few episodes here and there. But you understood where he was coming from, and you saw him change and grow. And then, at the end of his story, he dies. There was no loophole, no deus ex machina. They killed off a kid. It was the right choice for the story, and they did it, and it worked.
The Women: Aang is the main character, but his two more powerful friends are Katara the waterbender and Toph the earthbender. (Sorry, Sokka. You’re pretty badass too.) Zuko’s sister Azula is downright terrifying. Katara’s mother sacrifices her own life to protect her daughter. The old twins on Ember Isle. The bloodbender Katara meets. Suki. Azula’s friends Mai and Ty Lee. There are so many powerful female characters, and they display so many different kinds of power, from healing to ass-kicking.
No show is perfect, but this one got so much right. Highly recommended.