Note: This review of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” contains spoilers.
The Netflix relaunch of the Nickelodeon classic “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has reignited old viewers’ love for the show while ushering in a whole new generation of fans. Its mature themes of imperialism, racism, genocide and patriotism are once again challenging the boundaries of what counts as “children’s television.” The current global confrontation with systemic racism and police violence make its heavier subtexts more relevant than ever.
Created as a children’s show that first aired in 2005, the show has withstood the test of time and touched the hearts of generations well beyond its intended demographic. While many exceptional aspects factor into the show’s popularity, the perfect balance of a fictional world with real-world themes is what drew me into the everlasting fandom.
The story takes place in the world of four nations with roots in four natural elements — the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation — and some individuals in each nation are gifted with “bending” abilities related to their respective nation. The “avatar” is the only one who can master all four bending styles.
The show begins a hundred years after the Fire Nation plunged the nations into a global war. Water tribe siblings, Katara (who is a water bender) and Sokka, find Aang, their generation’s avatar, who has been sealed in a block of ice for the past century, unaware of the consequences of the Fire Nation’s militaristic rule. Throughout the jam-packed three seasons, these three underdogs fight to take down the Fire Nation and bring balance back to the world, with the help of the friends they make along their long journey.
Even as a children’s show, “Avatar” explored themes of friendship and family against a backdrop of war and death. Unlike the other children’s shows, the heavy topics of war, genocide and trauma tested the limits of what was deemed appropriate for children aged seven and older.
In the show, Aang flies back to his home — or what is left of it, as he discovers the predatory Fire Nation had wiped out the Air Nomads, his people. This great loss is illustrated through scorch marks, rusted fire nation gear and a temple full of remaining bones and ashes. While the fictional setting subdues the devastation, it is Aang’s emotional havoc of tears that translates the pain, isolation and even guilt for leaving his homeland behind through the screen. The war has left him, as the title suggests, the last airbender.
We also see how the war has affected Sokka and Katara, who are just two of the countless children the Fire Nation’s raids had devastated. Though the stories of the raids are only told, and not shown, the physical aftermath is visible through images of demolished towns, starving and displaced people and the countless lives lost. As they fly to new war-torn villages every episode, the unfortunate consequences of war and imperialism are shown.
Below the surface of every story in “Avatar” lies the traumas of a hundred-year war, depicted in a way that makes them accessible even to children. The show teaches responsibility through a wide range of plotlines. When Aang loses his people, the twelve-year-old is engulfed with guilt for not being there to carry out his avatar duty of bringing peace to the four nations. He blames himself, but also finds a way to transform that guilt into responsibility for saving the world. Katara and Sokka are left with the great responsibility to take care of the remainder of their tribe after the older men leave to fight; they later shoulder the responsibility of supporting Aang. Prince Zuko learns responsibility when he realizes how he can shape his own destiny, even if it means betraying his family’s history and expectations.
While the Fire Nation prospered in all the conquered lands under the guise of “sharing their greatness,” Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation brought an unlikely perspective to light: the war stirred his internal conflict of right and wrong. Throughout seasons of internal struggle, when he finally finds his path of integrity and honor, he deplores to his rapacious father about how the Fire Nation has been propagandized, when in reality people seem oblivious to all the struggle outside the nation’s border. While firebending was once an art of life, it is now fueled by hatred and rage, showing how terrifyingly powerful the nation became.
On the brighter side, as simple as it is, the theme of friendship in the show is shown in every episode — whether the “g-Aang” meets a new supporting character to befriend or they work harmoniously together to fight off an enemy. There’s no doubt that the small but mighty group of kids were able to build a bond of lasting friendship. While the show highlights how valuable friendship truly is, one of the rewards the team receives at their endgame’s victory is a family of friends.
Growing up with no parents and only surrounded by the very old and the very young, Katara and Sokka befriend Aang, who was isolated for a hundred years. They seem to instantly click and become the best of friends, while Aang’s innocent crush on Katara sparks into something more by the end of the show’s course. Along their voyage, they come across Toph Beifong, a blind earth-bending prodigy whose talent is unbeknownst to her parents, and who runs away from home to join the group. Once overprotected and overlooked by her parents, Toph finds refuge with the group; as she was concealed from the public eye, Toph had never had friends or an attentive family, but she was welcomed into the avatar’s family.
On the path to redemption, Prince Zuko struggles to distinguish between what is right and wrong. He finds his destiny with the guidance of his wise uncle, Uncle Iroh. Zuko grew up brainwashed by the Fire Nation, led by his own father, with anger as fuel; he was never loved by his father, but was tormented by his prodigious sister and banished from the kingdom for three years. His only family was his uncle, who loved and cared for him, although it took Zuko a long time to realize so. As he realizes the truth about his whole world and discovers himself, he shows a deep, realistic character arc. This leaves Zuko as a traitor to the Fire Nation but with a new, rewarding group of friends and family.
In children’s shows, families are almost always portrayed as an exact replica of the cliched, happy family of children, perhaps living in a house with a dog. Family looks different in “Avatar,” which instead depicts deeply loving friendships between young people who never stay in one place for long, whose lives have been wrecked by war and who have responsibilities far beyond the norm.
Katara and Sokka’s extended family inhabits their small ravaged village without their parents who have died or left to fight. Aang’s family and people were wiped out in a genocide. Zuko was hated, abused and banished by his father. Toph’s parents only cared for their public image instead of their own blind daughter. Ultimately, the show demonstrates that family is not always defined by blood.
These themes are still relevant today. With today’s fight against centuries-long systemic racism, people all around the U.S. and the world are coming together to demand real change and attempt to heal wounds that over 400 years of racism have created. Upon the spark of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, advocates have utilized their power of offline protesting and online activism. From white supremacy to BIPOC discrimination, a growing group of united young people are fighting as underdogs against a regime of injustice.
From when a little boy is broken out of an ice block to when the well-matured hero skillfully ends the hundred-year war, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” captures the thoughtful yet entertaining stories, appealing to everyone even after 15 years. Like the Avatar reincarnation cycle, the legacy of one of history’s finest shows will continue forever.
Contact Katherine Lee at katie.lee.1004 ‘at’ gmail.com.