Recommended Viewing: Avatar: The Last Airbender

by sketchyfeminist

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Of all time, people. It is, hands-down, my favorite animated series produced in English, and it has some of the best plotting and characterization that I have ever seen on TV.

Yeah. A Nickelodeon show. Who knew? (OK, a lot of people knew. It has a large and devoted fan-base.)

I’m not going to bother summarizing the basic plot and premise, because the opening sequence of the show has already done that for us. Tidily.

The opening sequence:

KATARA’S VOICE: Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world. [Transcript taken from the Avatar wiki, here.]

The above narration plays over the opening animation of just about every episode, reiterating the series’ premise. I assume that this narration is primarily for the benefit of new viewers, so that people catching it out-of-order on air still have a chance to understand what’s going on. However, it also serves to remind regular viewers of the core premise of the series. Basically, everything in the show somehow connects with or boils down to the quest outlined above.

The thing about Avatar is: all its characters are good. (As in well-written.) Not just “It has sympathetic villains” or “Its heroes are good role models” or “It has strong female leads,” but all of that. It’s one of those shows where I can’t pick my favorite character because they are. All. So. Good. And so well-developed. Pretty much everyone in the central cast has at least one character arc in which they change and grow over time. Most of them have more than one.

Now, I’m not going to argue that every single episode is gold-pressed latinum, or anything. It has its hits and misses. But even the episodes I found difficult to get through the first time (due to cheese or silliness or what-have-you) still have something going for them. And the show’s retrospective episode–in which the characters watch a staged play of their own adventures–is the single best retrospective episode I have ever seen of anything. Seriously. Do not skip the retrospective.

The thing I find most compelling about Avatar as a series is its setting. And I don’t mean the fantasy universe with Inuit-inspired ice villages and East-Asia-inspired city designs. (Though that’s cool too, and it makes a nice change-up from kids’ shows which assume that “fantasy” means “it has a European castle somewhere.” Not that I have anything against European castles. Honestly, I’d like to see more children’s fantasy TV of every stripe.) The thing that really resonates with me in Avatar, and which is vital to the series from the first episode on, is that it takes place in a world ravaged by war. “Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked,” remember?

Here is one of my favorite lines from the first episode:

KATARA: Aang, this is the entire village. [Gestures to entire village.] Entire village, Aang.

And I find this line so significant–significant enough that I put it all by itself in a block quote–because the “entire village” consists of nine women and ten children. And one dog. Twelve children if you add Katara and Sokka, whom Aang has already met.

This moment is played as cute and funny–a kind of “Katara’s village is so small that …” joke–but it delivers important information. There are no men in Katara’s village. There are no men because the men are at war.

Also from the first episode:

SOKKA: Now men, it’s important that you show no fear when you face a firebender. In the Water Tribe, we fight to the last man standing. For without courage, how can we call ourselves men?
[Cut to an audience of six wide-eyed little boys]
Boy: [raises hand] I gotta pee!
SOKKA: Listen! Until your fathers return from the war, they’re counting on you to be the men of this tribe. And that means no potty breaks.
Boy: But I really gotta go.
SOKKA: [sighs] OK. Who else has to go?
[They all raise their hands.]

Sokka, the oldest male human left in the village, is trying to take on a more adult role by training the village’s next generation of “warriors”–who are at this point all still little kids. This is another moment played for laughs, and yet it brings home the trauma that is integral to the entire series.

I really like this central conceit–of the world of a children’s show being at war–from a narrative standpoint, because it provides a reason for the world’s heroes to be children. The adults are busy–either fighting battles or recovering from their aftermaths. So it’s time for a team of kids to step up and save the world.

Over the course of the series, it is established that most of its main characters (almost all children) are haunted by trauma of one kind or another, much of it either a direct or indirect result of the war that it takes the three seasons of Avatar to resolve. I won’t give you the backstories now, however, because many of them are revealed gradually, and that would be some major spoilage.

More review, some minor SPOILERS and a brief discussion of The Legend of Korra under the cut:

Bonus: Elegant Magic System
The magic users of this world are called “benders.” A bender can manipulate one of the four elements of earth, water, fire and air. The Avatar is the only person who can bend all four elements.

However, not all elements are bent the same way. A big part of the series is Aang (who can at first only bend air) learning to “master all four elements.” And the four elements require different attitudes and mindsets: rockbending requires firmness, firebending requires passion, etc. This means that, in order for Aang to grow as a bender throughout the series, he quite literally has to grow as a person by learning to understand–and incorporate–other ways of engaging with the world.

Also, the element-bending battles are beautifully animated and choreographed. The show’s creators apparently based the different bending styles (in terms of how the characters move) on different, pre-existing martial arts.

Bonus: Vegetarian Main Character
Aang is a vegetarian. I don’t see a lot of vegetarian action heroes, so yay.

Bonus: Characters with Disabilities
A few characters show up who have visible/noticeable scars or disabilities, often caused by the violence of the war. One character, introduced in Season 2, was born blind, and she becomes a series regular from her introduction on. Toph is an earth bender, who uses her bending power to “see with her feet” by feeling vibrations in the ground. It is implied that she learned earth bending in large part because of her blindness. While this does put her in the Daredevil camp of “Hey, your disability is starting to look an awful lot like a superpower,” and I have mixed feelings about that trope, Toph still makes for an awesome character.

Toph is loud, brash, impulsive and sometimes outright gross, deliberately defying any convention which demands that she behave ‘properly.’

There may be quite a few ‘blind jokes’ surrounding Toph, but she initiates most of them, and they are almost exclusively–though not exclusively–about how the characters around her tend to forget her disability, and need Toph to remind them of it.

An enterprising youtuber put up a collection of some of these jokes, simply entitled “Toph is blind.”

Here is a transcript of one of them, from the episode “The Library”:

[Our Heroes fly over a desert on their flying bison, searching for a mystical library.]
TOPH: There it is!
[The others look. There’s nothing there. They turn to glare at Toph.]
TOPH: That’s what it will sound like when one of you spots it.

My guess is that this running gag keeps running for practical purposes, as a short-hand way to inform new viewers that Toph is blind. However, I like that Toph calls the other characters on their unintentional ableism. As this running gag repeats, episode after episode, Toph begins to express a perfectly justified frustration that her friends can’t seem to remember this basic fact of her own life.

Bonus: Uncle Iroh
There are a lot of interesting relationships that play out in Avatar: mentor and student, sister and brother, parent and child, friend and friend, etc. There are even a few romantic pairings. The most touching relationship in the series is probably that between recurring villain Zuko and his Uncle, Iroh, who acts as a kind of surrogate parent to Zuko throughout Zuko’s exile. (It is established very, very early on that Zuko is a prince in exile.) General Iroh is a soft-spoken, jovial character who generally just wants to relax with a friend, a board game and a good cup of tea. (A man after my own heart, is Iroh.) Iroh provides a lot of the comic relief for Zuko’s earlier scenes, often undermining Zuko’s overblown sense of dignity with his antics.

Iroh was voiced by Mako Iwamatsu (known by fans as “Mako”) for the first two seasons. After Mako’s death, Greg Baldwin took over the role for Season 3.

On a side note, a lot of fans have made a lot of really good Avatar fan music videos. (Many, interestingly, to songs from The Prince of Egypt.) One of my favorites is a Zuko/Iroh tribute set to Incubus’s “Dig.” (The youtube link is here. SPOILER warning if you follow the link, though, as the video covers the entire series.) Man, I love fans. They make neat stuff.

Bonus: Owl Librarian
One episode has an owl librarian in it. I shouldn’t really have to elaborate on that, but I will anyway. I think that one of the reasons I respond so positively to shows like Supernatural is because I like stories in which characters conduct research and then apply what they’ve learned through their research to their own lives. So this library-themed episode of Avatar sits well with me. The Avatar library is also a legendary library, staffed by a giant owl spirit who believes in the pursuit of knowledge only for its own sake. This introduces an interesting moral question when our heroes show up with the intent of finding (and stealing) the info that will give them an edge in combat against their enemies.

Though even without the interesting moral question, the episode would have had me at “owl librarian.”

Netflix, how could you?

Sadly, Netflix is no longer hosting Avatar: The Last Airbender on Instant View, which is how I watched it the first time. And the second time. However, if you have an Amazon Prime account, you can stream it on Amazon Prime Instant Video for free. The DVD collections run at about $16-$25 per season (or “book”), with three seasons total.

The Follow-Up: The Legend of Korra

The follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, stars a female Avatar. Which is cool of it. The first season of Legend of Korra is well worth watching, and the second season premiers this month. Right now, apparently as a promotional for the 2nd season, which airs Friday September 13th, you can watch Season 1 over at the website.

So far, for me, Legend of Korra doesn’t quite hold up to the first series. This is in part because the scope of Korra is so much less epic than the scope of Avatar. In Avatar, we got to follow Aang and his friends to all of the Four Nations, slowly learning about global politics and the world’s traumatic past. There were lords and quests and revenge plots and redemption arcs. In Korra, everything is kept pretty central to one city, and even though stuff is going on, everything just feels much smaller. (Basically, in terms of scope, Korra is to Avatar what Dragon Age II is to Dragon Age: Origins.) And while the animation in Korra is sleeker than the animation in its predecessor, none of it has stunned me with its sheer prettiness the way certain scenes in Avatar: The Last Airbender did.

That said, Korra does have some neat things going for it, especially for Avatar fans. There are a few fun in-jokes scattered here and there, and several of the main characters are directly descended from characters in the original series. There is also a bittersweet element to Korra. There can only be one Avatar at any time, because they are all reincarnations of one another. This means that Aang’s soul lives on in Korra. This also means that Korra’s very existence is a reminder to fans that the fun-loving, vegetarian action hero from the last series has passed on. This adds another dimension to Korra and gives the show a certain gravitas it might not have, otherwise.

As far as the female lead goes, I’m more excited by the fact that Korra is female-led than I am by the actual female characters in Korra. I don’t hate them. I just liked the characters (both female and male) in the previous series better. Toph was hilarious. Katara was such a badass that some days I think I want to be her when I grow up. Still. I’m psyched Korra is being continued and I hold out hope for improvement in–Holy smokes the owl librarian is in the Season 2 trailer.

Owl. Librarian.

OK, I’m sold.

Is it Friday the 13th yet?