In Which I Fanboy Over Avatar: The Last Airbender
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.
December 9, 2013 @ 9:54 am
*sniffles* I am watching the series for the second time right now and it is.JUST.SO.GOOD. That scene between Zuko and Uncle Iroh makes me cry every single time.
December 9, 2013 @ 10:09 am
You’re probably the fourth person whose opinion I respect that has said this is an awesome show, but you’re the straw that broke this camel’s back (Ow). The show is now on my watchlist, and I’ll be starting it tonight. I’ll just go ahead and thank you in advance.
Jim C. Hines
December 9, 2013 @ 10:10 am
Yes. Zuko looking so torn up over betraying his uncle, and Iroh so clearly not giving a damn about any of that, and just being happy to have his nephew back.
December 9, 2013 @ 10:14 am
LOVE love love this show. All the elements (pun intended) come together to show brilliant human nature with realistic characters. They struggle with themselves and with their powers, but the choices made are due to human influence and not Because Magic! This is why my kids and I were so disappointed with the movie -awful- and Legend of Korra, where the characters are more cardboard tropes and the women/girls are relegated to marginal roles, even though the MAIN character is female. Avatar was so well done that the other two versions are incredibly disappointing.
Jim C. Hines
December 9, 2013 @ 10:17 am
Heh. You’re welcome 🙂
Jim C. Hines
December 9, 2013 @ 10:18 am
I refuse to acknowledge the movie.
As for Korra … yeah. When I started watching the first season, I hadn’t seen Avatar yet, and I really liked Korra. But the second season went downhill, and it’s more painful to watch when you compare it to Avatar. Sigh.
December 9, 2013 @ 11:59 am
+1 That’s pretty much my favourite scene in anything ever. It’s just so perfect.
Stephen A. Watkins
December 9, 2013 @ 3:50 pm
Netflix gave me so many sads when they dropped their Viacom deal before I had a chance to watch Season 3. But now I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is, one way or another, and buy the whole darn thing on DVD or something. Because the show really is that awesome, and not seeing its ending is a painful thought. It really is as great as you say, and I can say that having seen only 2/3rds of it so far.
Stephen A. Watkins
December 9, 2013 @ 3:55 pm
Also, I experimented with the movie a bit, taking it in doses on Netflix. It wasn’t a badly produced movie (as in, it got the visual look of the Avatar world mostly right, in general), but it just felt so wooden and weak. It was a cardboard cut-out. The acting and direction just weren’t there (to say nothing of the facedesk-inducing casting choices). I had said, when I first heard that the movie was being made, that I thought it would be impossible to make a bad movie out of this excellent series – just stick to the script, so to speak! But, well… my foot just doesn’t taste as wonderful as I thought it would.
GroundPetrel (aka Floored by Scalzi's awesomeness)
December 9, 2013 @ 7:43 pm
I love this show. I’ve been a fan since season 2 went on TV, and I have to say that the series finale was perfect. Just perfect.
The sequel series is passable, and the movie is an appalling travesty. Skip the movie, watch the sequel series if you’re bored. Otherwise, stick to the fanfiction.
Yeah, really. For whatever reason ATLA attracts a lot of supernerds/amateur writers who write professional-quality fan fiction. I even read a ATLA/Stargate crossover fanfic, of all things, that was better than several published novels that I have read. You find something new every day…
December 9, 2013 @ 11:13 pm
When you first mentioned starting the series, it was difficult not to gush about everything you said above. Now that you have finished it, you understand. It is an amazing series in so many levels.
We first started it (partway through season 1) because it looked like it might be fun for the kids as training for future geekiness, but within a couple episodes my wife and I were sucked in, and within 5 or 6, we had charts and schedules on now to catch up and see every.single.episode.
I don’t think I can ever grow tired of watching that show. Zuko is the most complex character I have ever seen in a “children’s” show. Also, you now fully comprehend the awesomeness of Iroh. Someone could teach family-oriented fantasy writing based entirely on that show. It is light and fun without being groan inducing, but still tragic and emotionally wrenching without being too dark for kids (at the end there with pretty much everyone trying to convince Aang of what he must do but he so doesn’t want to, it’s heart breaking). Plus like you said, it is a massively epic story that manages to keep it very focused and personal on just a few people and their relationships and growth.
I also like how it manages to be magical and otherworldly without being in your face about it. It is simply another world and everyone just goes with it. (Although I loved the poking fun at themselves when they met the Earth King and his pet bear. “A -what- bear?” “Nope, just a bear.”) sure, there’s a talking owl that runs the greatest library in the world, but everything didn’t need elaborate explanations nor was it so bizarre that it didn’t make sense in that world. Absolutely brilliant.
It’s too bad Korra had to follow it. I think Korra is a really good show. Unfortunately, it has the bad luck of following a masterpiece and so looks worse from comparison. (Plus, seems to suffer from the fear of cancellation, so is afraid to let a story develop and grow over time the way Last Airbender did, which is ironic, since it’s less likely to continue for that very reason).
Jim C. Hines
December 10, 2013 @ 7:41 am
Yes, you must.
I double-checked the Nick.com site to see what was available online, but alas, they don’t seem to have many episodes posted.
Jim C. Hines
December 10, 2013 @ 7:42 am
I don’t know what’s going on with Korra. I liked season one, though I don’t think it was as strong as Avatar. Season two … well, I liked season one!
And yes, the “A *what* bear?” line was perfect 🙂
December 10, 2013 @ 8:15 am
Thanks for this. The kid loves the show and it’s not my taste, so I wrote it off as similar to a couple of other shows she watches.
December 10, 2013 @ 12:08 pm
I said the same thing when I finished, that Avatar: TLA was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen of all time. While I didn’t care for some of the silliness (except the poor cabbage guy), it added to the charm and started to grow on me.
December 10, 2013 @ 7:12 pm
Jim, if you get the chance, you should check out the two graphic novel series: Avatar The Last Airbender: The Promise & Avatar The Last Airbender: The Search. They continue the story after Book 3: Fire. It would have been amazing if they could have animated it, but the comic works well, too.
Jim C. Hines
December 11, 2013 @ 7:19 am
They’re both on my wish list for Santa this year 🙂
December 14, 2013 @ 3:12 pm
Yes. I love this show.
*SPOILERY TALK BELOW*
I also really appreciated how they explored the implications of Aang having to kill someone. How he pushed back against that and found another way. But I really just loved that they actually talked about that! It wasn’t glossed over. And they didn’t take the Disney out and just have the fire lord conveniently fall to his death.
Yes, one of the best series of all time. So much love.
December 28, 2013 @ 11:48 pm
Ah, glad other people are saying similar things about the comparison between The last Airbender and the Legend of Korra – this one is more consistently good (whereas Korra can be a bit more flat).
Glad you are enjoying it, Jim!