Writings #7: Avatar: The Last Airbender

21 minute read


Part 7 in a collection of posts where I’ll give some of my thoughts and analysis on essays, short stories, novels, movies, etc. It is not really anything academic, but purely for me to practice my writing.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

A show by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Rising from the dawn of 2005 came one of the greatest creative masterpieces to air on television. And, no, I am not talking about The Office. I am referring to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a children and teen animated show, which surfaced at the feet of spring in 2005. Despite concluding a short 3 years later in mid-2008, the show has continued to grow in popularity and appreciation. Not long after its end, the show was reincarnated into a sequel series The Legend of Korra and a wealth of comics and books were published contributing to the Avatar universe. Even Netflix picked up on the hype announcing the production of a live-action show in works with the original creators.

And it is not just corporate hype either. Even 12 years after its finale, the show continues to amass more fans into its already massive following. Critics also appreciate the show, with Avatar sitting at #12 on IMDB’s Top TV Shows List with a rating of 9.2/10, putting it ahead of other behemoth, well-respected shows such as True Detective, The Sopranos, Sherlock, Seinfeld, Friends, and The Office. It has even maintained a 100% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes in companion with a 98% audience rating on the same site. When Netflix reacquired the show in May 2020, it instantly soared to the #1 spot and remained for several days.

So this begs the question: what makes Avatar: The Last Airbender so good? Why has a kids television show captivated so many of all ages for more than 12 years? In search of this truth, the best answer is to just watch the show, but given its nature there is also much merit in discovering and discussing the beautiful way it weaves story elements together.

In just 3 seasons, the show perfectly blends inventive, but mystic world building, dynamic and relatable character arcs, beautifully crafted animation, and a creative and compelling plot. As a final addition, the array of quality ingredients are held together by an intangible touch of perfection, which elevates the show to its prestige.

Many popular stories in science fiction and fantasy are rooted in fantastic world building. When these roots sprout into even sturdier and more beautiful story telling, we are often left with a masterpiece and cultural phenomenon, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Even with mediocre writing, a beguiling world is often enough to captivate the reader and let their imagination fill in where the writing suffers.

Such great world building is often inventive and creative, but founded in reality. A desirable setting is one in which the audience can put themselves into and become enraptured by the imaginative landscape. Tolkien founded much of his world and tropes in Norse mythology. He incorporated wars, power-grabs, and racial divides, all of which are relatable to any human at least partially in-touch with reality. Another example is J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series. Despite the magic and spell-casting, the characters still live in our very real “muggle” world. Much of the setting is even in a school, which, in addition to a vast amount of magic, still has all the drama and struggles of normal human school. Any reader can instantly relate, drawing them in until they are fully captivated by the mysticism and fantasy.

Other components of great world building, which Tolkien and Patrick Rothfuss master in their narratives, are consistency and background. Tolkien spent years devising his setting before he even began writing the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. His text The Silmarillion is essentially a history textbook recounting the foundations and stories of Middle Earth. Along with the complete history, Tolkien went as far as creating usable languages, songs, and poems. While this extensive backstory seems like it might detract from the liberty of the reader’s imagination, when implemented successfully it can accomplish quite the opposite. Carefully woven, extensive backstory creates structure through which the reader can compound ideas. Acting as a guide, backstory can provoke good story telling within the imagination of the reader.

So how does Avatar: The Last Airbender develop its world in a way which captivates and fascinates? How does it guide the viewer’s imagination to even better story telling? First, it is important to examine what Avatar’s world is exactly.

Much like Tolkien draws from Norse mythology, Avatar gleans heavily from Asian culture. Throughout the show characters strive for virtues such as honor, family, and tranquility. The premise of the Avatar is based on reincarnation and balance with nature. Names, fashion, and other cultural elements are reminiscent of Asian culture giving the entire Avatar universe a familiar backdrop for its plot.

Within this setting is the war between nations. From the onset of the show the characters find themselves in the midst of a nearly 100 year long war, which has consumed the entire world. Global conflict is nothing new to a viewer and, unfortunately, a familiar aspect of life. War in kids shows, however, is either never mentioned or referred to abstractly. Avatar, on the other hand, brings up extremely tragic, but real aspects of war in an appropriate, digestible manner. For instance, the genocide of the air nomads is never shown, but offered as a historical point to build the severity of the war. Several characters have lost loved ones, are impoverished, or are refugees due to the war. This complex background creates a relatable, yet tragic setting, while still preserving the innocence of the show.

Drawing from Asian culture and setting a story during war are enough to familiarize the viewer, but it is the fantasy of element bending, the avatar, and the spirit world, which enchant the viewer to this universe. Within Avatar, there are 4 nations: the fire, water, air, and earth nations. Each of these nations are themed around their respective element and some of the citizens are capable of “bending” this element. For instance, an air bender can control the air around them by “bending” it. Likewise a water bender can move water using their mind and a combination of martial-arts like movements. The control and power they have over the element is determined by skill and training.

Benders of each element are often characterized by that element. Earth benders are strong, persistent, and enduring. Air benders are free, at peace, and detached from wordly concern, which is why they all live as nomads and/or monks. Water benders are adaptable, loving, and build community. Finally, fire benders are powerful and strong willed. In addition to world building, these attributes also greatly contribute to the show’s character building and dynamic interactions.

If you are born into a certain nation, then you have a chance of becoming a bender of that element with the exception of the air nomads who are all born as benders due to their spirituality. Only the avatar, who in this show is Aang, can bend all four elements. The avatar is a messiah like figure, who acts as the bridge between the spirit world and the human world and is responsible for protecting people and maintaining good. Once dead, the avatar is reincarnated as someone in the next nation in the cycle (fire, air, water, earth).

On a personal note, element bending is one of my favorite fantasy powers. It exposes great character building through the nature of each element, while not lending itself towards the plot holes of general “magic”. Throughout the show bending also makes for great fight scenes; fights where characters fight in the nature of their element and must think tactically about how they approach benders of other nations.

Element bending, coolness aside, provides the same captivating mysticism that exists in Harry Potter and superhero comics. The supernatural power is mystic and fascinating, while founded enough in reality to enthrall. A typical viewer may very well covet the abilities which characters possess. This world building element, while simple to explain, is increasingly difficult to construct in our saturated narrative market. Choosing a fantasy element too cliche sacrifices mysticism and wonder. On the other hand, building a fantasy element too obscure or labyrinthine leaves the audience lost and disinterested.

Bending, and all the other fantasy elements, are not just left unexplained. Despite the time between the first episode and last being less than a year, the show provides extensive explanation to the purpose and nature of element bending, the avatar, and the spirit world. The Legend of Korra gives even more backstory on the first avatar and how bending came to be. Yet, even armed with just the purpose and nature of element bending, the imaginative reader can construct solid, sensible backstory for the universe. Often these explanations are legend, which share similarity with those of many Eastern Asian religions. Due to this, when left to imagination, one is led to construct holistic narratives that fit within the Avatar universe.

Avatar’s world building and backstory are stellar and only form the foundation for even better character development. The character developed most and the focus of the story is Aang: the next avatar in the cycle. After the genocide of the air nomads and 100 years hidden in ice, Aang becomes the last airbender, hence, the name of the show.

To say that Avatar: The Last Airbender has great character building would be a monumental understatement. The show’s complex characters, their individual story arcs, and the dynamic ways in which they interact are its finest parts. In fact, I would argue that the characters alone could be responsible its success. They are even well developed enough to warrant an hour long fan-made psycho-analysis. And in spite of being a kids show and lacking the ability to introduce certain common character building elements like swearing, sex, substance abuse, on-screen death, and excessive violence, the show develops some of the deepest, complexly integrated characters on television. In fact, after having seen the show several times, it has led me to view these “adult” elements in other narratives as a crutch.

Avatar excels in letting each character build off of each other. While each is complex and dynamic in their own right, they also all serve as foils to each other’s personalities in various ways. Zuko, the tragic anti-hero, and Aang are the main two foils of the show. Despite just a handful of interactions before their union in season 3, Zuko and Aang’s stories being told in parallel builds each character as the narrative unfolds. Aang, as we learn early in the show, has his destiny thrust upon him as the Avatar. It is not much later that he learns that he must defeat the fire lord by the end of summer and the rest of the show is Aang learning to come to terms with his destiny. Zuko, on the other hand, spends 2.5 seasons in constant turmoil within himself trying to ascertain his destiny and not one which others have placed upon him.

However, it is not just their approach to destiny in which Aang and Zuko differ. Zuko is brash and full of rage. He tries to solve his problems by force and power. He seeks after validation from others in his hunt for his father to restore his honor. Being a monk, Aang is peaceful and happy. He solves problems creatively and without confrontation. Even though he is ashamed of what the world thinks of him, he holds himself accountable for his flaws and seeks honor in virtue.

While Aang and Zuko, certainly complement each other’s character qualities, the rest of the shows recurring characters all intertwine in building a more dynamic cast. Zuko finds another foil in his uncle who is wise and open-minded, while Zuko’s focus is narrow and fleeting. From the pilot to the end of season 2 Zuko and Iroh travel together with Iroh serving as a constant source of wisdom to the lost young teen. Although Zuko does not see it Iroh becomes a better paternal figure to him than his actual father from whom he constantly seeks approval.

I would be remiss to not fully discuss the beautiful character that is Uncle Iroh. Everybody needs an Iroh in their life; someone who sets them on the right path, loving them in spite of pain and no matter how lost they are. Iroh, always with joy in his heart, guides Zuko and gives him advice. Even when Zuko betrays his uncle and leaves him behind, Iroh still looks after him from afar. Even when Zuko curses and mars him, Iroh holds on to hope for Zuko. Nearing the end of the show, after Zuko finally finds his way, he becomes filled with guilt fearing to confront Iroh believing that there is no way he could still love him. Iroh’s emotional, tear-inducing forgiveness of Zuko is enough reason to watch the show alone. Combined with his joyous personality, Iroh’s paternal love is remarkable and, through great writing, he becomes a character with which the audience wishes they knew personally.

And the story’s characters are not quiet on social issues either. Avatar beautifully presents female characters that are strong, but not just strong. The words of Suki so aptly describe this, “I am a warrior… but I am a girl too”. Suki’s ferocity and honor are admirable, while her interactions with Sokka present her as human. The other main female characters are all immensely strong benders, but it does not define who they are. Katara is a master water bender, but she is also nurturing and vengeful. Toph, likely the most powerful earth bender in the world and the toughest in the Avatar’s entourage, is juvenile, yet wise. Azula, who is aptly described a fire bending prodigy, is power hungry and quite simply insane. Females are presented with just as much strength as the male characters (often more), yet they are never defined by this quality alone.

Female characters, however, are not the only ones given complexity. One male issue the show handles quite well is vulnerability, and more specifically the issue of men burying emotions. Aang, Zuko, Sokka, and Iroh, men of varying ages and backgrounds are all shown weeping in the show. And they do not just cry, they also wrestle with their emotions: happy, sad, angry, and thankful. In allowing these struggles to flow from characters the show presents a healthy image of emotional healing.

Not only does Avatar progress these individual character traits, but it also treats diversity and unity with great understanding. The nature of Avatar’s world is inherently diverse. Members of each nation are, being characterized by their element, extremely different and practice immensely contrasting cultures. The show celebrates the differences between the cultures and their unique origins, while beautifully portraying their unity and oneness through nature and the avatar. The Legend of Korra deals with diversity even further by tackling the hardships of a city where benders of every nation live.

Hopefully, you are convinced of the great story telling elements within Avatar, but what story are they telling exactly? How does the plot weave together complex story elements and still remain satisfying for both kids and adults? The secret is in the sauce. Well, not really.

Avatar’s plot, even though it aired long before the advent of streaming services and binge watching, finds its strength in serial story telling, rather than episodic. Within the first season, there are a small hand full of episodes, which attempt to be self-contained; they are arguably the weakest episodes of the show. Unlike these few, the rest of show all adopts a hybrid approach: each episode contains a minor rising action, climax, and resolution, while contributing to the major arc of the show, which is Aang defeating the fire lord.

Despite the strong story of the plot, it is also probably the most targeted element of the show. A brief internet search will quickly uncover that the most offered complaint about Avatar is the use of deus ex machina within its story. Both the endings of season 1 and 3 rely on unexpected events or powers which resolve the impending conflict. It should first be mentioned that deus ex machina is not inherently indicative of poor story telling, but rather neutral. For impatient writers it can become a crutch when stuck in a convoluted plot, such as with Harry Potter’s unexpected resurrection at the end of Deathly Hallows, but for some stories it can become an important plot device, usually when nihilism or chaos are intended themes. A particularly glaring instance is in Lord of the Flies when all the children are rescued suddenly and unexpectedly by the naval ship, which drives home the depraved character of humans and the “random” nature of their fate.

However, despite the potential of this device, the use of unexpected plot solutions in Avatar is more aligned with Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe, than with deus ex machina. Tolkien, often criticized for his use of the eagles in LOR, coined the neologism eucatastrophe to defend their use and, at the same time, construct a word for the highest, truest form of fairy-tale. Eucatastrophe is to fairy-tale as tragedy is to drama. When used correctly it brings joy and relief to the audience, while shedding a glimpse of light on truth.

To inspire relief and joy the story must build a serious threat, to which the viewer genuinely and desperately desires a solution. The end of season 1, in this vein of thought, offers the finest illustration of eucatastrophe in Avatar. Admiral Zhao, the ignoble fire nation officer, seeks to slaughter the ocean and moon spirits, putting an end to waterbending once and for all (as well as the actual moon and ocean). Leading up to and following his confrontation with the spirits the show gives immense reason to believe the severity of his intents, as well as the utter catastrophe that would ensue. Even Iroh, the brother of the Fire Lord, renounces the actions and, in an emotional fit of anger, threatens his fellow fire bender Zhao with the ultimate penalty if he decides to harm the spirits. After Zhao, consumed with rage, kills the moon spirit the viewers are fed to believe there is no hope as the moon slowly fades out of the night sky.

It is this moment of darkness and hopelessness Avatar builds upon to incite joy. Aang, in anger with the destruction of natural order, combines with the ocean spirit and becomes a being of immense power and wipes out the entire fire nation fleet. First, it should be acknowledged that this is one of most epic scenes in the entire show and is beautifully animated. However epic it may be, this ability of Aang’s is not built up to or a result of any plot development. Yet, it brings a great amount of joy to see restoration; it is euphoric to watch Zhao swallowed up by the very spirits he was “destined” to destroy. Along with joy, Aang’s assault with the ocean spirit serves to offer a glimpse of truth in the world. Truth, in the Avatar universe, is founded in natural harmony and order, which is restored through the resurrection of the ocean spirit.

Finally, I offer a practical piece of advise regarding Avatar: The Last Airbender: just watch it. Even as an adult the story evokes a sense of child-like joy. In the turbulent, troubling time we live in it is almost medicinal to turn off the news and watch something that makes you smile. So if you choose to embark, I recommend going in with an open mind. The first half of season 1 feels very young. It is a kids show after all. But should you choose to embrace the innocent humor and watch the show to its end, you will be rewarded with a heartwarming and captivating tale, which you will likely want to watch again immediately.

My Show Rating: 10/10

– Daniel Nichols