Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Show that Stood the Test of Time, by Caroline Cruise
Prior to two months ago, I had never heard of Avatar: The Last Airbender. To say that I’m late to the game is probably the world’s biggest understatement. The show aired on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008—during my prime cartoon-viewing years—yet I somehow missed this show entirely. I stumbled upon this program after a co-worker recommended it to me, but I was skeptical at first because I was far removed from the show’s target demographic. However, I had some free time during my socially-distanced winter break, so I decided to take the plunge. Avatar: The Last Airbender had me hooked after the first episode, and I can see why people still rave about this show sixteen years later.
Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a society that’s divided into four civilizations, each named after the classical elements. A select few in each civilization have the ability to “bend,” or manipulate their respective element. Only the Avatar—the international peacemaker—has the ability to bend all four elements.
The pilot episode introduces the viewers to Aang, the titular Avatar and last airbender. After being trapped in ice for a hundred years, Aang regains consciousness and learns that his world is in the middle of a war led by the Fire Nation. Aang and Katara and Sokka from the water tribe seek to defeat the Fire Nation and restore peace. But there’s a catch: Aang is only twelve years old and must first master water, earth, and fire-bending before he can hope to save the world.
Aang’s awakening quickly catches the eye of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. Banished from his homeland, Zuko seeks to capture the Avatar in hopes of regaining his father’s trust. This show does a really good job of portraying three-dimensional and dynamic characters. Zuko begins the show as the primary antagonist, but his backstory turns him into a character that viewers can empathize with. We later learn that Zuko’s signature facial scar was given to him by his father, from whom he desperately seeks approval. Zuko is accompanied by his uncle, General Iroh, during his exile. At first, I thought that Iroh existed solely for comic relief, a break from the war and destruction that surrounds the main characters. But Iroh quickly became one of my favorite characters and is the primary force in Zuko’s redemption arc. He convinces Zuko that he has a say in his destiny and can turn away from the destructive world that his father bestowed upon him. Iroh, or “The Dragon of the West,” spent his life fighting battles that he didn’t believe in. He encourages Zuko to learn from his mistakes and fight for peace, not conquest.
I think one of the reasons why this show works so well and why everyone can enjoy it is because the show isn’t afraid to take on heavy themes. In season one, Katara, Aang, and Sokka travel to the North Pole and run into the Northern Water Tribe. Aang and Katara seek training from Pakku, a waterbending master. Pakku refuses to train Katara because the Water Tribe believes that women should only use their powers for healing. Katara eventually receives training, but only after she challenges Pakku to a duel and proves her worth. This situation parallels gender inequality in the real world—many girls are denied an education simply because they are girls. This show tackles feminism without being too preachy or token. I love that Katara is portrayed as being both feminine and strong; she’s compassionate and kind while possessing powerful water-bending and healing abilities.
The other female protagonists are well-developed too. In season two, we’re introduced to Toph, a blind earth-bender. I like how the show doesn’t portray Toph’s blindness as a disability or hindrance. Her lack of sight heightens her sense of touch, and she eventually learns how to feel vibrations in the earth. This skill gives her the ability to “see” in a different way; she can feel her enemies approaching before they attack. She even learns how to sense people’s heart rates, so she can tell when she’s being lied to. I love how this show takes on representation and portrays Toph’s blindness as a feature that makes her stronger.
As someone whose recent Netflix binges were Gilmore Girls and New Girl, I didn’t think Avatar: The Last Airbender would be up my alley. But between the quick-paced plot, dynamic characters, and heavy but well-executed themes, this show offers something that everyone can enjoy. It might make you see the world in a different way too.