(Note: Brian and I recorded an accompanying podcast to this post, in which I addressed some of the points of this article.)
I’ll get this out of the way first: Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cartoon marketed to kids, but it’s not a “kids show.” More accurately, it’s not JUST a kids show. Some of the marks of kids’ TV are there — it has the lighthearted comedy and episodes’ themes are often stated a bit on-the-nose — but the substance and quality of the show runs deep.
But don’t give me this crap that Avatar is any less legitimate, any less great, because it appears on Nickelodeon and is animated. Great story is great story. This is a fantasy epic, a moving drama of many characters’ sweeping sagas. It’s, honestly, one of the best and most enjoyable shows I’ve seen, animated or otherwise.
Avatar (not to be confused with the blue people movie) covers the story of Aang, the last surviving member of the eradicated “Air Nomads”), uniting a rebellion against the oppressive Fire Nation. Aang is not just the last Air Nomad but a “bender,” which is a sort of kung-fu wizard.
On top of that, he’s the Avatar, a hero charged with maintaining order between the four nations of the story world. He can enter “the Avatar state,” in which he taps into fantastic, primal energy which is the key to him defeating the evil king Fire Lord.
It’s not that easy, though. To master the Avatar state, Aang not only needs to bend air, but the other three elements: water, earth, and fire. Thus, the story is broken into three stories, each centered around Aang’s quest to master one of the bending disciplines.
Throughout these seasons, he meets dozens of characters who enrich the story. And it’s these characters I want to start with as I discuss this show, because — as with many great stories — it’s the characters that you really remember.
The protagonists of the story refer to themselves as “Team Avatar.” This party gradually expands as the series goes on as Aang prepares to take on Fire Lord Ozai. Their adventures and relationships form the heart of the show.
The titular Airbender, Aang, has many of the show’s best stories, as you’d expect. But as a character, I found him not nearly as compelling as some of the other leads. He’s childlike and almost infinitely good-natured.
In other words, he’s almost too good of a hero. He does have a few stumbles — I liked his “rejection of the call” at the beginning of season 3 when the world believes him dead, for instance — but was occasionally by put off how little darkness there was in the character. (Remember — his entire culture has been recently massacred.)
The two other main protagonists, Katara and Sokka, give the leads some variety. Katara is a well-developed character and straight woman, with a blend of maternal warmth and strength that makes for an uncommonly strong female character.
Sokka, Katara’s brother, starts as the comic relief, but rapidly comes into his own, just like Katara. He serves as a sort of leader of the group but gets some of his best stories from the fact that he’s the only non-Bender lead. (He also remains tremendously funny through the whole series.)
Sometimes when a show adds a lead character, it throws the chemistry and rhythm of the show off. Look at the third season New Girl. Though I like Coach, the show seemed to run out of space with him around — they could never tell full stories for all their characters.
Other times, the opposite is true: For example, Toph in Avatar. I was so, so worried that she was only contracted to be a guest star, because you immediately want more of her after the first time you meet her in the second season. A tiny, sassy blind girl with world-class bending skills? Someone who legitimately clashes with Katara? Genius. Fortunately, she stuck around for the rest of the series and remained just as compelling.
There are two other main leads in the show, and they’re my two favorite characters.
Runner-up favorite character: Uncle Iroh, voiced by legend Mako Iwamatsu until his death during the filming of the second season, is a wise, tea-obsessed old firebender. He’s a delight to watch about 100% of the time and gives the show a moral core. You pretty much always know Iroh speaks the truth in a show that digs deep into the complexities of the right vs. wrong.
But my favorite character, and one of my favorite TV characters ever, is Prince Zuko. Zuko starts the show as a pure villain but is gradually given a complex backstory and genuine arc. Zuko’s gradual transformation is something that’s simply unseen outside of great TV dramas: Great, multi-season, character-transforming stories.
I’ll dig a bit more into it in my spoilery synopses of the three seasons that cover the remainder of this article, but Zuko’s story works so well because the writers didn’t hesitate to give him serious adversity and stumbles along the way. Zuko earns everything the hard way (which is a bit ironic, seeing as he’s a prince) while Aang often seems to get off easy.
I contend wholeheartedly that Avatar is more Zuko’s story than it is Aang’s. He’s not the most “fun” character on the show in the typical sense, but he’s the most crucial ingredient in what makes the show great.
And if I were to sum up what it is, exactly, that makes Avatar great, it would be the four H’s: Heroism, humanity, humor, and “hiyaah!.”
- Heroism: Avatar has fantastic heroes and villains, and along with that, a great feeling of adventure. Because they’re so believably written, you’re attached the characters and their successes and defeats.
- Humainty: Few shows — especially marketed towards children — have such a conscience and respect for life. Avatar has a tremendous heart and amount of empathy that elevates this entertainment to sophisticated moral commentary.
- Humor: This show is funny. Really funny. On top of all of the good writing described above, Avatar is a triumph as a comedy.
- “Hiyaah!”: Not only is the writing fantastic all around, but the animation is phenomenal. The kung-fu magic bending provides for remarkable fight scenes, and the animators use the premise to full creativity. The heart-racing action is at once kinetic and awe-inspiring.
Let’s take a quick look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the three seasons:
Book 1: Water
As great as Avatar is, the first season is clearly a step behind the second and third. The producers spent the first half of the season slowly realizing they could get away with complicated characters and intricate storytelling. The growing pains to get there are pleasant enough but are a bit slow to sit through on re-watches.
There are some early highlights: In only the third episode, Aang faces the genocide of his culture in unyielding terms, while “The King of Omashu” provides one of my favorite set pieces the show ever did, a cart chase through a strange transportation that relies on Earthbending.
“The Waterbending Scroll” and “Jet”, the eighth and ninth episodes, give us some early examples of the show’s ethical ruminations. Respectively, they ask: When is stealing okay? At what points do the ends no longer justify the means?
And if the follow-up to those two winners is the show’s most-panned episode (“The Great Divide”), the one after is one of its all-time best. “The Storm,” which gives us our first peek into Zuko’s tortured past and builds up the parallels between Aang and Zuko, is a turning point for the series. Before “The Storm,” Avatar is a very good show. After, Avatar enters the realm of “great.”
Though “The Storm” is the best episode from Book 1, its immediate follow-up, “The Blue Spirit,” is number two. “The Blue Spirit” is full of mystery and suspense, with a few brilliant twists at the end. The Blue Spirit’s threat to kill Aang used as a deterrent reminds us of the premise — the Avatar reincarnates, so imprisonment of the Avatar is a better position than murdering him.
Though the final stretch of the first season is good, I have some problems with the final three episodes in the finale: The plot rushes through many developments (including Sokka’s potentially moving relationship with Yue). The spiritual conclusion of the episode, with Aang joining the Ocean Spirit to turn into a water monster and destroy Admiral Zhao, rings a bit deus ex machina. Too much emphasis on spiritual forces, not enough on character.
In all, though, the first “book” is a great one, especially in its second half.
Book 2: Earth
I love the second book of Avatar. It’s one of my favorite seasons of TV ever, and it’s easily my favorite of the series.
Aang’s quest to master the Avatar state opens and closes Book 2, showing how Aang and the team’s failure to achieve their goals is a major theme of the season. Great conflict results in great story, so the second season’s theme of “failure,” while downbeat, lends itself naturally to great stories. A memorable villain in psychopathic Azula, Zuko’s sister, helps too.
But if the plot of the show is more powerful in the second season, the comedy is just as strong: Virtually every episode of the season features some fantastic jokes. The second episode in particular is a highlight, drawing laughs from a group of guitar-strumming hippies.
The plot really starts to heat up when Aang meets Toph about a third of the way through the season, though. The stubborn “Blind Bandit” is, as I mentioned earlier, a delightful addition to the Aang Gang. With her comes a sense of momentum in the plot.
Two Book 2 highlights are the seventh and eighth episodes, “Zuko Alone” and “The Chase.” The former, in particular, is a strong candidate for my favorite episode of the series. It’s heartbreaking and beautifully animated exploration of Zuko’s pain, but also the pain that war has caused the world.
The plot hits fever pitch at the halfway point: Appa is kidnapped in “The Library,” and the fallout from that would define the rest of the series. All of the main characters cross paths in the show’s extended run in the Earth Kingdom capital, Ba Sing Se.
It’s this stretch that really makes Book 2 my favorite in the series. The deliberate pace of exploring the city and the characters’ changes makes it all work: It was sorely missed in the rushed finale of Book 1.
Besides, the Ba Sing Se stories, right down to the thrilling finale, are entirely creative and badass: We have the creepy, Orwellian introduction to Ba Sing Se in “City of Walls and Secrets,” the motley vignettes of “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” the tearjerking tale of Appa’s suffering in “Appa’s Lost Days,” and then a thrilling four-episode run to the finale as all of the characters collide in the Ba Sing Se palace.
The last episode of the season, “The Crossroads of Destiny,” is not only the best animated season finale I’ve ever seen, but one of my favorite finales of any show. It’s tense and unpredictable, with a heartbreaking final few minutes as — spoiler alert — Zuko betrays Iroh and Azula nearly kills Aang.
The end of Book 2 has often been compared to the end of The Empire Strikes Back, but I think this ending is even strong: it actually gives us a reason to buy Zuko returning to the “dark side.” All he wanted since we’ve known the character is to have his honor restored in his family, and he takes advantage of his chance to finally do so. It’s a sad but powerful moment, particularly on the heels of his fantastic bonding with Katara.
Book 3: Fire
The third book of Avatar does many things right, escalating the scope of the series and employing a wide variety of tones. It’s not quite as good as Book 2, but it’s not far behind, featuring some of the show’s greatest moments.
The season opens with Zuko “redeemed” to the Fire Nation and Aang supposedly defeated.The first third of the season explores this status quo from several angles. Highlights from this stretch range from the Footloose-inspired “The Headband” to the all-time great Sokka episode “Sokka’s Master” to the divisive, memorable “The Beach” to “The Avatar and the Firelord,” a fantastic exploration of the history of the war in Avatar’s story.
But at about the halfway point, the show picks up its larger plot once more, as Aang prepares to confront Fire Lord Ozai. The episode depicting the failed eclipse invasion, “The Day of the Black Sun,” is the first of three multi-part episodes in the second half of the third season, and it’s the final turning point for the series.
From there on out, almost every every episode is serious and epic, often dark: Katara confronts the person who killed her mother while Sokka reunites with first-season fling Suki as he frees his imprisoned father.
Notice I said that “almost” every episode is serious and epic… For its penultimate episode, Avatar went heavily meta and goofy. “The Ember Island Players” is surely one of the strangest, most “meta” episodes in TV history. It consists of the Aang Gang watching a play about themselves, effectively recapping the entire series in a very self-conscious style. It’s a hilarious diversion before the shit hits the fan in the explosive, four-part finale.
“Sozin’s Comet,” the finale, is epic and huge, jam packed with world-class action and callbacks to side character from the entire series. It relies too heavily on a deus ex machina allowing Aang to avoid killing Ozai, in my opinion — though that particular moral dilemma was played very well. More crucially, the finale feels too heavy on spectacle while avoiding the twists and uncertainty of Book 2’s conclusion. There are the expected showdowns, the expected results, and the expected conclusions.
Still, it’s a finale that is remakrably satisfying, closing all the major plot threads with pizzazz and sending the show off on a high note. “Sozin’s Comet” might not be my favorite episode, but it’s successful escalation of the scale and danger of each climactic battle makes it a heart-pounding winner.
With all that done, there’s still more Avatar to explore. Along with three post-Avatar manga series, there’s a sequel TV series, The Legend of Korra, currently airing its third and final season. (I haven’t seen Korra yet, but I definitely plan to at some point.)
Beyond that, it’s always a pleasure to revisit the original series again and again. There’s so much adventure, and plenty you miss or forget from the first times you watch it, that it’s a show worth revisiting. I never regret tuning in once more.
A note on the show’s romance…
I feel like I need to mention this. Avatar has a huge “shipping” fan community –to the point that it’s impossible to search for info about the show on the internet without running into fan-made pictures — which mostly centers around the (very valid) observation that Katara and Zuko have WAY more romantic chemistry than Aang and Katara ever did. Similarly, I always thought Toph was originally written to eventually become Aang’s love interest (and I have a few data points to support this theory), but that plot never happened as the show went all in on Aang and Katara.
To me, Zuko-Katara and Aang-Toph ending the show together would have had deep symbolic resonance, as both romances would represent the characters “crossing” over to their opposite element, emphasizing the restored balance at the end of the show.
Still, the fact that a kid’s show has developed its characters relationships to a point where you can seriously analyze their chemistry and compatability is a testament to show’s fantastic depth and writing.
Avatar is one of the best show’s I’ve ever seen. It has lights-out, balls-to-the-walls animated action. But more importantly, it’s the writing and the characters and the stories that make this show so great. The show manages to borrow many styles without ever feeling like a knockoff, and it’s so far elevated above normal kids’ fare that it’s almost mind-boggling. Avatar one of my favorite shows, and its depth and grace of storytelling would be considered fantastic for any medium. To its creators, I say…
Credit for all of the screenshots: The indispensable AvatarSpirit.Net.