The Wonderful Heart of Avatar: The Last Airbender

~ essay on the greatest American animated series of all time — Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Lessons, Adventure, Action, Companionship

Avatar — at surface, a rather simplistic and childish cartoon show from early aughts Nickolodeon — is full of heartfelt lessons. Not unlike the original serial adventure cartoons and comics, like Jonny Quest or Spider-Man {or the many other modern toons that fit to such molds}, every episode contains a moral. These moralizing threads are woven throughout Aang’s journey, alongside water tribesmen Katara and Sokka, later earth-toppling Toph, the little blind girl who is probably pound-for-pound the strongest force in the whole world. Over three seasons {61 episodes} of hero’s journey arcs for the child air nomad Aang, ‘The Last Airbender’ — and Avatar, the one slated to bring balance to a world where four nations, one for each element, battle it out for parity, or supremacy, or peace — creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko build a world of adventure, action, and hearty companionship.

Structured like a prototypical pre-teen adventure show, “Team Avatar” — consisting of funloving, naive, and golden-hearted Aang, motherly moral compass Katara and inventively comedic Sokka, and the brashly confident Toph — ventures through a war-torn realm solving problems. 100 years into a war initiated by the Fire Nation — against the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes and Air Nomads {now exterminated..} — the world is decidedly unbalanced, full of oppressed, exhausted, afraid or altogether ruined peoples, cultures, nations.

Elemental “bending” provides the key to understanding the world; certain persons within each nation are afforded the power to control their element, for the sake of security and invention. And inevitably, war. The Avatar — master of all four elements — is continuously reincarnated into the world, cycling rebirth as a person somewhere among the four elements. Their role — now Aang’s — is to provide balance between the elements, and the nations. Aang’s journey begins as he emerges from ice, asleep and out of the game of said balancing for over 100 years, with the Fire Nation in a position of geopolitical dominance.

What the show does superbly, among many things, is build out Aang’s character — and he and his companions’ true-hearted philosophies — via real action in the world. Their diverse band takes to traveling the lands and training Aang’s Avatar capabilities, like a Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party or Star Trek crew — that is, running into, getting caught up in, going out of their way to help all kinds of peoples along their way to their greater quest, the classic one: saving the world. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and many other side characters they meet and befriend along the way {even including early rival Prince Zuko} actually engage in that world, with the people they are tasked with eventually saving; introduced to different cultures and myths and perspectives on everything from the war to what the role of the Avatar should be, a living, breathing realm is mapped out.

It is a dangerous and exciting place, full of strange multi-combo animals {Sky bison, turtle ducks, eel hounds, platypus bears!} and incredibly detailed element-bending animations and styles. Not to be discounted in the critical acclaim of the series is the excellent action sequences and fight scenes between top-tier benders. The imaginative bending battles of Aang and Zuko and Azula and Iroh and Katara and especially Toph, alongside the magnificent battles in the final episodes are some of my favorite fights in any show — anime or otherwise. The high-flying elemental combat, along with the narrative stakes, are what makes Avatar special.

In the wide-ranging storyline, harsh lessons are earned by trickster, never-wanna-grow-up Aang, as he is faced with the consequences of tyranny and slavery and genocide that his ancestral absence and pathological power-grabbing from the Fire Nation has wrought; he takes on his responsibility with grace, his face casting an unselfconscious grin upon everyone he meets, seeking to understand and to help. Carrying on as truly the last of his noble tradition of air nomadism, Aang’s arc is one of building his childlike compassion steadfastly and conscientiously into the world, whether it takes to it easily or not. Or whether it is easy for him or not.

Overtly rationalistic, soldierly Sokka learns early of the err of his defaulted misogynistic ways; he proceeds to prove himself time and time again to the many benders he fights with and comes across, as a capable foe even without it. Healer archetype Katara, fiercely protective of her found family in Aang and Toph and others they meet, wields her water-bending power the same way she does her heart — peacefully, trustingly; but she struggles with fears of loss and betrayal, the draw of revenge and the potential expediency of blood-letting tempt her. Toph, disabled and thoughtlessly sheltered by her parents, hardly lets such things hold her back; tough beyond belief for her frame, powerful Toph most of all yearns for companionship — and that is just what Team Avatar delivers to her.

Katara and Sokka’s arcs, alongside Toph’s {and Zuko’s} all deal with coming to terms with the absences or shortcomings — or straight up injustices — of their family circumstances. Their parentage guides them onto paths from a young age — and it is through their journey alongside Aang, through the world and its peoples, that they come to resolution. To peace. And that peace has everything to do with the bonds they build into one another. And the lessons they learn. Aang and his ride-or-die companions are given insights into the human condition from witnessing and taking part in the struggles of people; consistently non-obvious, especially to a child, these lessons take their form before Aang and construct a worldview to culminate in his final battle against the corrupted Fire Lord Ozai:

People are complicated, and can change / the *right* thing is never the most expedient, and may only be found along the path of most resistance / it is beyond alright — even imperative — to rely on others, to trust your companions to help you along your journey — even if they are unproven, or opposed you before… and the most important family in your life is the one you choose.

~ “Why didn’t you tell us you were the Avatar? / Because… I never wanted to be.”
~ “If you want to be a bender. You have to let go of fear.” ~ Aang
Fire Nation gang ~ Azula, Ty Lee, Mei, Zuko

Yeah, I know. It is just “the real treasure was the friends they made along the way” stuff. It is. But you see, what I love most about Avatar, having watched it as a kid when it aired and again now, is just how realistic yet concisely the narrative delivers such cliched companionship. It’s sincere; it is believable. And a joy to experience. What is so fulfilling about the series {similar imo to the anime Fullmetal Alchemist, which I find to be comparable and equally excellent} is that ALL of the principal characters are given their due time. Every character has a myriad of powerful or artful moments — amongst the world, with each other, against their enemies. Protagonist Aang has an individually distinctive relationship with Katara, Sokka, Toph and Zuko — and then Katara and Toph have their own bond, Katara and Zuko have their long, emotional road to travel, Sokka and Zuko even get their high stakes buddy mission.

The real quest for the Avatar, for Aang, is cultivating such companionships, helping everyone he comes across — regardless of their original position in the larger war — and that of nurturing his own heart, for the battles and balancing to come. In its underlying heart, through such characters, that is just what Avatar does.

Paths to Redemption

Avatar builds out what may be the best Redemption Arc of any show I have yet seen — that of the story of scarred, unyielding, firebending Prince Zuko. While much of the spotlight belongs to Team Avatar, to me the beating heart of the series belongs to Zuko and Iroh. A banished prince, obstinate in his quest and his disgraced yet graceful uncle, a former Fire Nation general with a dark past, make up the parallel quest to Aang’s roaming cavalcade of heroics. As Zuko hunts the Avatar to regain his honor and rightful place beside his father, the Fire Lord, we are delivered the truth of our two ‘antagonists’ and their intersecting path with our heroes.

Aang and Zuko’s backstories are revealed in the same episode, as parallel yet disparate journeys. Aang, 100 years ago — still just a kid and not yet ready to take on the immense responsibility of being Avatar — runs away from his masters at the air temple. Caught in a storm, Aang enters the Avatar state unconsciously and seals himself in ice… where he waits, locked in time, for 100 years.

Zuko, only a year or so ago, taking part in the royal war council for the first time, speaks out against an elder general’s plan, one that is willing to sacrifice the lives of citizens to gain an objective. As a result of his seeming disrespect, he is challenged to an ‘Agni Kai’, a firebending trial by combat, and is surprised to see his father as his opponent. Refusing to raise his hand against his father he is burned, forever scarred, and then banished.

As an impossible forever-quest, Zuko is tasked by Fire Lord Ozai, his father, in hunting down the Avatar {whose whereabouts obviously have been unknown for these 100 years} and capturing them for the glory of winning their war. Only then could he return to the Fire Nation with his honor intact. Iroh, brother to Ozai and uncle to Zuko, joins him on his ill-fated quest as a soon-to-become surrogate father — ever working and hoping to calm Zuko and turn him away from his confusion and anger at being banished. Thus, the dynamics of the show’s core are laid out. Aang journeys over the land, across all nations, meeting and helping her peoples > while Zuko passionately chases Aang to regain his lost position > and Iroh subtly teaches Zuko, with word and action, of a different path, a better one.

~ “I believe people can change their lives if they want to. I believe in second chances…” ~ Iroh, speaking from personal experience
~ “I know my own destiny, Uncle!” / “Is it your own destiny? Or a destiny someone else tried to force on you!!” … “Stop it Zuko! It is time for you to look inward and start asking yourself the big questions: Who are you? And what do you want?” ~ Zuko and Iroh
“If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends, too?” ~ Aang to Zuko

We soon find that Aang and Zuko are rivals but not enemies. Through their repeated conflicts, Aang’s escapes and Zuko’s failures, the world’s shifting conditions, their own changing emotions and realizations — buffered by Iroh’s guidance alongside Team Avatar’s worldly travels — we find the true path before each of them. One of balance, transcending honor for justice and peace, slicing through traditional conflicts to arrive at an alliance that is both necessary and righteous.

The narrative plays out beautifully. Zuko’s path to redemption is not without obstacles, hidden growths and setbacks, late-stage reversals, further layers of betrayal to Iroh, Katara, himself. His sister Princess Azula {voiced by the talented Grey Griffin}, firebending prodigy and queen liaress, proves to be the saga’s most intriguing — and terrifying — villain {even beyond Fire Lord Ozai, voiced by the great Mark Hamill}. She is introduced in Book 2, and is immediately showcased as a hyperfocused, cold-blooded little tyrant, more pathological than the ever-conflicted Zuko, and therefore much more effective in her hunt for the Avatar. With the help of Uncle Iroh and Aang’s companions — their character and their deeds in the world — Zuko comes to bear the weight of his past more graciously, seeing beyond his fatherland and his father, eventually consciously working to do the right thing in a striking volte-face against everything he had committed himself to up to that point. He finds himself again, sees his destiny for what it really is — joining the Avatar to help restore balance to the world — and then follows through on that path to the very end. *Redemption Arc complete.* It is beautiful, as I said, and my favorite thing of all about the saga.

“No matter how things may change, never forget who you are.” ~ Zuko’s mother to him / Zuko turns the corner when he remembers his past, the kid he used to be, before Ozai and Azula changed his mission

In the final picture of Zuko and Azula’s arcs, one can see that the difference between them, despite their apparently starkly different natures, is that of the presence of companionship, or love, within their life. A family of support and wisdom. Love from peers and mentors. Experiences among the people on the ground, well below the king’s courts. These things appear to be the decisive factor in their respective pathing to the light and dark side. Zuko had it with Iroh, who helped him along his realizations, as a child of tyrants and conquerors, his journey back from the abyss of pathology is borne out of constant struggle; Azula did not, she had no one. And so, she never turns away from her empire, her father’s legacy, her own narcissism. As a result, Azula’s elitism, her isolation and her invulnerability, all her most dire character flaws come to dominate her person by the end, sealing her fate. Zuko’s redemption comes in the integration of his drives and his flaws. His desire to regain his honor is redirected — like the lightning bending that Iroh teaches him — onto a better path, a destiny of his own making.

“All your life you used fear to control people.” / But what choice do I have!? Trust is for fools, fear is the only reliable way…” ~ Azula slips away into madness — all her flaws lies with her perspective on her parentage, hated the weakness of her mother and worshipped the power of her father. But she knows that only one of them loved and respected her
“Come on, strike me! You’ve never held back before!!” ~ Zuko weeping on a mountaintop, yelling at the thundering sky, at the world itself
“You are now at war within your own mind and body… You are going through a metamorphosis nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience. But when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful prince you were always meant to be.” / “Follow your passions, Zuko, and the world will reward you.” / “You have come to the crossroads of your destiny. And now you must choose: to be good.” / “The kind of redemption she offers is not for you!” / “Zuko. I am begging you. Look into your heart and see what it is you truly want!” ~ Iroh to Zuko, his constant teacher and *true* father
“Growing up, we were told the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. That somehow the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was! The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation! They don’t see our greatness. They hate us! And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world. And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it. With an era of peace and kindness. / Hahaha. Your uncle has gotten to you, hasn’t he? / …Yes. He has.”
~ Zuko to his father Ozai
“I thought I had lost my honor, and that somehow my father could return it to me. But I know now that no one gives you your honor. It’s something you earn for yourself, by choosing to do what’s right. All I want now is to play my part in ending this war. And I know my destiny is to help you restore balance to the world.”
~ Zuko to Aang and Team Avatar

The Wisdom of Balance

Despite loving them all, Uncle Iroh is actually my favorite character in the series. His presence as a source of both wisdom and comedy, grace and power, fatherhood and unclehood {a mythically distinctive separation from these two roles!} — is just awesome. Maybe more than anything else, after watching all of the Avatar saga, one wishes to sit down and have a cup of tea with Iroh.

~ “Please sit. Why don’t you enjoy a cup of calming jasmine tea?” // “Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights.” ~ Uncle Iroh
~ “Power in firebending comes from the breath, not the muscles.” ~ Uncle Iroh

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The wisdom of Iroh is profound, and laced throughout the saga’s run. One of the most ingenious ways, from Uncle Iroh and others, that the series conveys timeless truths and big character-turning moments — is through its core conceit: the nature of the elements, hidden bending techniques, how they all combine to make the world as we see it. We understand from the show’s intro that the Avatar is meant to bring balance by wielding all four of the elements, allowing them to effectively fight against and defeat any potential power-hungry conquerors, only ever able to bend a single element, that try to unbalance the world. The Avatar’s mastery of all is one critical bending technique, others come from Iroh and Toph and Katara, in their own respective arts. Iroh teaches Zuko how to bend lightning ~ a more volatile aspect of firebending ~ who then also teaches it to Aang; Toph invents metalbending, identifying the components of earth within the structures, to escape a dire situation; Katara learns bloodbending from a wayward elder, the dark side of the peaceful, supposedly non-lethal waterbending. Lightning and metalbending prove to be pivotal in the final fights against the Fire Nation’s top benders, such as Ozai and Azula, and against their superior technologies with their war balloons. Bloodbending on the other hand, provides Katara with a most important inner obstacle, to restrict herself from using it to defile and kill her foes, even if they may deserve it.

“Lightning is a pure expression of firebending, without aggression. It is not fueled by rage or emotion the way other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula. To perform the technique requires peace of mind.” ~ Iroh
“I am the greatest Earthbender in the world!” ~ Toph
“I won’t! I won’t use bloodbending and I won’t allow you to keep terrorizing this town!” ~ Katara

Iroh, in his many witticisms and shrewd guidance of Zuko back onto the path of goodness, provides his best insights when speaking upon the importance of balance, concerning one’s own soul, their energy, and the elements and nations themselves:

“Fire is the element of power. The people of the fire nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want. Earth is element of substance. The people of the earth kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring. Air is the element of freedom. The air nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace in freedom. Also they apparently had pretty good senses of humor! … Water is the element of change. The people of the water tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through many things.”

~ Iroh on the four elements
~ “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other nations, will allow you to become whole.” ~ Iroh
~ Regarding the power of the four elements / nations, it makes sense, from a strategic perspective, that the Fire Nation would take out Air Nomads first — air and fire are the only elements that are the least dependent upon their surroundings, and therefore are the most powerful / useful in battle. Waterbending requires ready sources of nearby water — what of battles fought on land? Earthbending requires earth, and the fire nation has developed technology, including ships made of steel to combat them. Like earth and water are rivals, diametrically opposed in their philosophies of solidity vs. flow — so are fire and air, that of passionate, war-like aggression vs. tempered, mediative pacifism.

We come to find in Iroh’s past there is great conflict and pain, resolved as of now from time and experience, but never fully healed; in a previous generation of the ongoing war, he lost the decisive battle — the siege of Ba Sing Se, the key city in the Earth Kingdom — but more imperatively, he lost his only son in the fighting. Thus, Iroh’s wisdom has been earned through painstaking experiences of his own.

“Ever since I lost my son, I think of you as my own.” ~ Uncle Iroh to Zuko {😭}.

More layers to his character are revealed with his actions in the Order of the White Lotus and tales of his own ventures to the indigenous fire peoples and their coexistence with the two remaining dragons in existence, the original firebenders. Iroh’s strength, both physical and spiritual, is borne of a fraught life, hardened yet loving. He now seeks balance with the Avatar, Zuko, the other nations. It is through Zuko’s redemptive transformation, his son in all but name, that Iroh hopes to find peace for his nation. And for himself.

~ “You sound like my nephew — acting like you always need to do things on your own. / Where is your nephew? / I have been tracking him. / Is he lost? / Yes, a little bit. I know he doesn’t want me around right now. But if he needs me, I’ll be there. / About your nephew… maybe you should tell him that you need him too.” ~ Iroh and Toph
“Pride is not the opposite of shame but its source. Only humility can resolve problems with shame.” ~ Iroh to Zuko
“Perfection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love.”… “I don’t know the answer. Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel — You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel. But if you just keep moving, you will come to a better place.” ~ Iroh to Aang
~ Zuko and Iroh reuniting 😭😭😭 — “I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I thought you had lost your way…”

~

😭😭😭😭
😭😭😭😭
RIP Mako

Aang’s various ‘vision quests’ come in the decisive moments of each Book of the saga — through conversations with his past selves, such as Roku and Kyoshi, facing off against the daemonic “Facestealer” in the pit, learning of chakras with Guru Pathik, sailing off with the great Lion Turtle — and provide similar bouts of resolute wisdom on his path to mastering all the elements. Iroh and Roku and Pathik and the Lion Turtle all bear the same message, weighted with knowledge and the cycles of the past, on to the youngsters of the next generation within the world, the ever-present conflicts between the nations and their respective elements always threatening on the horizon: that of balance in all things.

The lessons of guru Pathik ~ “There are seven chakras that flow through the body. Each has a purpose. … Opening the chakras is an intense process. Once you start this process, you cannot stop until all 7 are open…” ~ Guru Pathik | Earth/Fear, Water/Guilt, Fire/Shame, Love/Grief, Sound/Lies, Light/Illusion, Thought/Earthly attachments ~ https://avatar.fandom.com/wiki/Chakras
~ “Their fire was beautiful. I saw so many colors. Colors I have never even imagined… / Yeah. Firebending as harmony.” ~ Zuko and Aang after experiencing the masters, the pair of final dragons // ~ Iroh was the last to face the Masters — they deemed him worthy and passed on the secret of firebending to him as well — he lies about killing the last dragon to protect them from annihilation…
~ Wisdom from Avatars past to Aang ~ Roku: You have to be decisive / Kyoshi: Only justice will bring peace. / Korin: You must actively shape your own destiny, and the destiny of the world. Yang Chen: All life is sacred. But this isn’t about you. This is about the world… Many great air nomads have detached themselves from worldly attachments. But the Avatar can never do it. Your sole duty is *to* the world. Selfless duty calls on you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the world.

Not centrism, or indecisiveness, or acquiescence to your foes — no, instead the saga of Avatar: The Last Airbender presents a vision of an empire gone too far, a war and campaign of oppression and injustice in need of a swift and violent conclusion, a world, divided and dissociated, with too many people suffering — and too many peoples gone entirely. All this is too far out of balance to be considered anything but unconscionable. And so Aang and Zuko and our cast of conscientious characters must play an active role — as liberators, defenders and protectors, balance-seekers unto a world set on fire. Threads of anti-imperialism and anti-racism are laid bare; themes of egalitarianism and mutual cooperation, of the possibility of redemption and the revolutionary necessity for it from out of the currently existing power structure, are all here, in a kid’s show! Alongside monologues on destiny, and of the power of the energy flowing through one’s body, genocide is openly discussed as a tactic the Fire Nation can use for their victory — against the Air Nomads already, and against the Earth Kingdom if our heroes were to fail. Aang and Zuko respond to the wicked violence from Ozai and Azula with virtuous resistance, consciously choosing to return their opponent’s death-driven fascism with newfound harmony, sparing their lives to prevent their own corruptions as they take on their duties as leaders for the new world.

~ Show does a good job showcasing the many different ways the people will resist an authoritarian military occupation — guerilla tactics from independent rogues and freedom fighters, prison rebellion, rival clans caught up in their own conflicts, agrarian communities hiding away in their own enclaves, others betraying their own potential comrades in order to stay safe. There is a blatant and profoundly anti-imperialist message throughout the saga’s run. The Fire Nation’s imperialistic domination of the world, sending it out of balance with their progression to power, murdering, oppressing, and exploiting their way toward such supremacy — is seen as righteously evil in all respects. And must be stopped at all costs.
~ “Humans only bother learning things to get the edge on other humans.” / “You believe you are the first person to believe their war was justified!”
~ Wan Shi Tong, the librarian owl
~ “Constant news of an escalating war will send the citizens into a panic. … Our economy would be ruined, our traditions, our peaceful life would disappear. In silencing talk of conflict, Ba Sing Se remains a peaceful, orderly utopia. The last one on earth.” ~ earth kingdom using propaganda to prevent their citizens from understanding their geopolitical circumstance, their forever war with the fire nation, a losing conflict… THERE’S NO WAR IN BA SING SE

This is the balance of Avatar; these are the timeless truths presented relatively simplistically, alongside fun animation and whacky adventurism. I think it is a message kids should certainly hear, even in their cartoons.

~ “The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation. Things you think are different and separate are actually one and the same.” / “Like the four nations.” / “Yes. We are all one people, but live as if divided.” / “Everything is connected!” / “That’s right. Even the four elements… They are all connected.” ~ Guru Pathik and Aang
“You struggled. You suffered. But you have always followed your own path. You restored your own honor. And only you can restore the honor of the Fire Nation.” ~ Iroh to Zuko

It’s easy to see why the show endeared itself to so many people in the short time it was on the air. The story, the characters, and the visuals are top-notch. In my opinion, there are few series that reach the heights Avatar reached, and none of them are made for children. In 61 episodes, the series brings us incredible heroes, terrifying villains, wildly diverse and important storylines engaging with the horrors of war, imperialism, and oppression. Building its world amidst grand animation and great music, fun side adventures, and one hell of an ending, the saga is holistic, completely realized. Avatar is essentially a perfect show, full of pathos, of heart. Creators DiMartino and Konietzko continue to reach new audiences with their mythos today. Here’s to Avatar: The Last Airbender’s endurance, and to hoping future generations continue to find it and experience it themselves. ~

~ art by Naomi Vandoren

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