In Appreciation of Avatar: The Last Airbender
My name is M.J. Kuhn, and before a few weeks ago, I had never seen Avatar: The Last Airbender. As a Millennial this is like, eternal shame, but I never watched cartoons as a child (compounding the eternal shame there, I know). I am actually very glad to have watched Avatar for the first time as an adult, because I got to appreciate the storylines, character development, and worldbuilding without the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. And let me tell you… this show is SOLID.
There were definitely moments it was clear this was a kid’s show (though, honestly, mostly just in Season 1). Cartoony moments of childish comedy, that kind of thing. But the characters and the world over all were nuanced, balanced, and fascinating. So much so that I wanted to do an entire blog post just gushing about the elements I loved in the show.
This is obviously a huge topic. I could talk about the magic system of elemental bending, or the geography of the world, the history of the concept of the Avatar, the ADORABLE ANIMAL MASHUPS (hello, turtle ducks - why aren’t you real?!). But the main thing I want to talk about with worldbuilding is the nuance of it.
Fire Nation are the baddies, right? Sure. And there are some DEFINITE baddies in the Fire Nation: Ozai, Azula, Zhao, etc. But they’re not all evil. Uncle Iroh is one of the most beloved characters of the show. Zuko has one of the best, most realistic character arcs I’ve ever seen in fiction, and even Mai and Ty Lee get their redemption.
A great episode where this is concerned is the one where Aang goes to a Fire Nation school under cover. We see the kids are being taught propaganda about the Fire Nation rather than true history (which… uh, happens here too, folks). They’re not evil, they just have a rather slanted worldview and happen to be ruled by a tyrant. Much more interesting than bad guys who are evil because… uh… evil.
On the other hand, the other nations are the good guys, right? Okay sure, they’re fighting against the oppressive Fire Nation invaders, but things are more complicated there too. The brainwashing Dai Li and their leader, Long Feng, in Ba Sing Se, most obviously. But there’s also the old man who rats out Haru to the Fire Nation soldiers. Haru just saved his life with earth bending… and the man hands him over to the soldiers to be taken to a prison camp. Then there are the Earth Kingdom soldiers in the episode Zuko Alone who are oppressing their own Kingdom’s villages under the guise of protecting them. Aang is captured and tortured to try to bring out the Avatar State in another Earth Kingdom city.
Even in the Water Tribes we see some conflict (though less than we do with the Earth Kingdom) in that Pakku is a sexist SOB when we first meet him. Then, of course, there’s Hama, the revenge-crazed, blood-bending innkeeper.
TL;DR, I really enjoyed that not all the Fire Nation were Evil Bad Guys and not all the other kingdoms were Righteous Good Guys.
Again. I could talk about a billion things here. But I want to focus on two main ones - character growth, and badass lady characters.
For character growth, I’m going to be probably the 9 millionth blog to talk about Zuko’s arc. In the beginning, he is a certified douchebag, hell-bent on capturing the Avatar. We find out later that it’s because his father, (a certified douchewagon) has banished him, and Zuko believes the only way to win his father’s respect and to get his honor back is by giving him the Avatar.
The arc is slow and has plenty of moments of relapse, but that’s what makes it realistic. People change in the real world, but it’s rarely straightforward or steady progress. Every little piece of the puzzle adds up in the end. Zuko’s interactions with the Earth Kingdom girl who shows him the burn on her leg. The adventure I mentioned above in Zuko Alone (one of my favorite episodes) where he befriends an Earth Kingdom family, only to see their kindness dissolve into bald hatred when they learn he is Fire Nation. His time spent in Ba Sing Se making a peaceful, simple life with his uncle. Honestly, Uncle Iroh’s influence on him in general. He has almost turned the corner… but when Azula offers him what he wants most at the end of Season 2… he takes it.
SO FRUSTRATING, but I think it’s so important that he got what he wanted. If he had decided to join Aang only after being denied his dreams again and again that would have been much less powerful than what actually happened. He was handed everything he had ever wanted… only to realize he didn’t really want it.
Secondly, let’s talk about the BADASS LADIES of Avatar. I don’t just mean the sheer number of them either (there are a LOT), I mean the variety. You have your standard “I’m a badass and I’ll fight you” badass ladies like Azula, Mai, and the Kyoshi Warriors (and Kyoshi herself, if we’re counting dead people), but even more than that you have characters who are both strong and sensitive, like Katara and Yue, characters who are playful and powerful (and unapologetically flirtatious), like Ty Lee, and characters who are a bit brash and abrasive (in the best way), but still allowed to be feminine sometimes, like Toph. There is no shortage of variety of strong women in this world, and Avatar shows this beautifully.
I could talk about the plot - it is pretty darn airtight, but I’m going to use my last bullet point to talk about some of the random things I appreciated about the show.
First of all, BOYS. CRYING. Aghhh I can’t tell you how much I LOVED how often we saw strong, male characters cry in this show. Let’s make that normal in every kid’s show - and every adult show - ever, can we? Like, whoa, what do you mean boys and men have EMOTIONS?!
Lastly, Sokka. Just Sokka. I love Toph and will say that she is my favorite character, but Sokka is a great example of the importance of having team members with all kinds of strengths. He is not a bender, he does not have magic. Sure, he’s good with a boomerang, and he learns sword-fighting, but direct combat is never his greatest strength in the show. He’s an innovator, a strategist, and the relational glue that holds the Gaang together, more often than not. I love this way of showing that there is more than one way to help save the world.
Did I miss talking about your favorite thing about Avatar? Comment below or chat with me on Twitter @mj_kuhn to let me know!