So I’ve been a little stressed this summer. Everything is so busy and I can’t seem to catch a break. Between school, work, and the house I just haven’t gotten a lot of time to myself. However, this past week, I did take some time and binge the first three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series and I have thoughts and feelings.
Light spoilers ahead, FYI.
First, I really liked the show. I’d tried to watch it maybe a dozen times and just gave up during the first episode. One night I was so tired from working at the house I sat through like the first three. After that, I was hooked and finished the series pretty quickly. I don’t know what it was about the first episode, but it was just kind of hard for me to keep watching. I think it was the exposition and character setup. Once that is in place, the series really picks up.
I had watched some of the series off and on when it was releasing on Nickoloden. I thought the animation was beautiful and the world was mesmerizing. However, I could never catch the episodes in order. So I’d be completely lost on what was going on and who the characters were. Watching it as an adult, the themes about war, violence, refugees, and culture really hit home. I never realized how insightful the show was.
For example, the Fire Nation is the big bad guys that everyone hates. However, for one season, they spend a lot of time in the Fire Nation and find out that they don’t see themselves that way. People living there think they are helping the world by ‘sharing’ their culture. Later, you learn that the culture of the Fire Nation is actually radicalized from a different culture that is completely different and more peaceful. In essence, this reads a lot like a critique of Western Christians and more specifically the wars of the US since the 1950’s (also a lot of wars since forever by WASPs pre-1950).
As a person, I see myself as being good. As an American, I don’t know. I don’t totally agree with all the wars we have been involved in. However, I haven’t stopped the wars either. Entire countries have been destroyed in pursuit of protecting ‘freedom’ around the world by my country while people right here at home die of hunger and disease. To many people around the world, my country is evil. We drop bombs, take over cities, and topple democratically elected governments for profit. Yet, I don’t see myself as evil. I don’t see my community, friends, or family as willfully evil on a world’s scale. Which is why this series is good. Avatar took a really big idea and made it digestible and relatable. It takes a messy concept and shows the nuance of the issue rather than just black and white extremes.
In case this seems inflammatory to you, keep in mind that the good old USA has been at war for 222 years out of 239 years of existence. America may do many good things, but we don’t exactly have a great track record of staying out of other people’s business. The US has been at war so much, that there were only 4 years out of my 28 alive (86% of my lifetime) that we have not been at war. The most recent having begun over 15 years ago. Most of which were seemingly for profit. So, sorry if my opinion of our wars is not all rainbows, unicorns, and kumbaya.
ANYway… This is like Darth Vader being a moody teenager. He was an evil bad guy that did evil things. However, in his mind, he was doing them for good reasons. The world isn’t black and white. Additionally, it is extremely dangerous to continue that lie that the world is through media. Games, where you play a soldier gunning down ‘bad brown people’ to save America, are straight up propaganda and evil. Avatar, on the other hand, shows that the real evil is greed, hate, and fear no matter the country/culture/ethnicity. This series shows us that the Fire Nation has good people living in it that are misguided or uneducated. It also shows us good people living in the Fire Nation that knows what is happening and works to change it. It also shows terrible people who know and don’t care. But, more importantly, it shows all that.
My favorite nod to this is in the next to last episode in which the characters watch a play about their journey. It is so cute and filled with so much fan service that I squeed. However, at the end of the play, an actor portraying the Fire Lord comes on stage and tells the audience he is going to nuke the Earth Kingdom. Then they cheer. This is, to them, a good thing by a good person. They are too sheltered to realize what their country is doing or why it is so wrong.
This theme is only further exalted by the Avatar’s mission itself. They must travel the whole world and learn each tradition of the major countries and serve as a peace keeper between them. Aang completes this mission through peaceful non-violence (well… non-killing). His travels give him insight to each country and he learns their cultures respectfully in order to work between each. The show’s core message is to find alternatives to war, hate, and material attachments. The show teaches us how to respect another culture and learn about it without appropriating it or destroying it.
Take Uncle Iroh for example. He is likely the best and only important character in the entire show (I bend this line in the sand!). He spends the entire run of the show trying to start a small business (tea shop). His greatest ambition has been to drink tea, be nice, and share knowledge. His character arch is small, but he betters himself and the world through peaceful opposition to the idea of war. He organizes a United Nations like group together to protect the Earth Kingdom (complete with blue and white uniforms). And the wacky part, he is the true/actual/proper Fire Lord the whole time. The guy is just humbly one of the greatest fire wizards in the world and he just wants to drink hot tea and play Pai Sho.
This is goals. Yes, he is a complex character that has made mistakes. However, instead of wanting vast riches or power, he wants a simple peaceful life. He may not be very dynamic in that regard but he is a constant anchor for the rest of the show. In addition, he is voiced by the amazing Mako which only makes him that much more incredible.
The series does a fantastic job of juggling silly things with serious moments. There are some jokes that are aimed at younger audiences but the majority can be enjoyed by children or adults. One running gag that is maybe too silly was a cabbage merchant that keeps getting his food cart destroyed by the avatar. Every time I would see the setup for the joke I would groan. BUT, there was a long game on this gag that took three seasons to pay off. This made even its dumb jokes hit pretty well with time.
One nitpick I do have is that all the adults are useless. I know this is a common trope of this kind of adventure show with magical kids but it felt like they could have addressed it more. Like, every adult just seems to be so hopeless that they need children to save them every couple of minutes. It’s A Series of Unfortunate Events but with wizards and less singing but more teen romance.
In short, this series is a treasure trove of important life lessons set in the post-9/11 political landscape that will more than likely be studied for generations because of its important insight into a turbulent time in the country. I am eagerly starting Legend of Korra as it seems to pick up the show’s ideals and dig into their core beliefs even further.
I have more thoughts but I should really try to widdle them down into more nuanced/focused ideas. I think this post may have gone in several directions all at once. Thanks for reading.
Get your own Avatar addiction started with the series or try a comic book: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise, Part 1