When people talk about the current golden age of TV, they’re usually referring to big, serious dramas like Breaking Bad or The Wire. I am here today to tell you that Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated show about a group of magical kids who ride around on a flying buffalo, deserves to be counted among them.
Note: This piece originally appeared 9/30/16. I’ve bumped it up two years later after learning that Netflix is producing a live-action Avatar reboot helmed by the original showrunners.
I often bring this subject up in casual conversation. “Have you seen Avatar?” I’ll ask. “It’s one of my very favorite shows.”
“You mean the blue aliens?” my friendly interlocutor will respond. They’ll give me an odd look.
“No, I do not mean the the blue aliens,” I will say. “That movie came out a year after the real Avatar went off the air! I’m talking about The Last Airbender. It’s an animated Nickelodeon show about kids who use elemental powers to save the world.”
They’ll give me a different sort of odd look.
Avatar: The Last Airbender ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. During that time, The Sopranos and The Wire were still getting new episodes. Walter White would not become Heisenberg until after the final episode aired.
It spanned three seasons, with a total of 61 half-hour episodes ostensibly targeted at kids, ages eight and up. I am much older than eight but I can say without snark or childish nostalgia that Avatar should be considered alongside its most prestigious peers of the era. This is not a controversial opinion among the show’s many fans, but it is a hard sell to the uninitiated.
Time and again I have tried to explain to people why they should watch this show. It’s a kid’s show, I’ll acknowledge, but it’s as sophisticated as kid’s shows come. It starts slow, I’ll say, Stick with it. It carefully builds its world brick by brick, and treats its characters with the same level of diligence as Treme or Game of Thrones. Its storytelling matures along with its young heroes, and it tells one of the greatest redemption stories in TV history. It’s got action, romance, tragedy, comedy, and tiny little sheep with koala faces. Hopefully I get through to whomever I’m trying to convince. Usually I don’t.
In the process of this article, I will spoil everything that happens in the series, so if you care about that, I suggest you go watch it first. Then maybe watch it again. I’ll be here when you get back.
The world of Avatar is initially drawn in broad strokes, but it eventually reveals itself to be a complicated place with a complicated history, ripe for the sort of layered world-building you’d expect to find in a show like Game of Thrones or Firefly.
Each episode is preceded by a brief intro that lays out the fundamentals. By the end of the third season you’ll probably know it by heart:
“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. One hundred years later, my brother and I discovered the new Avatar…”
It’s a simple, effective setup. It may not be as catchy as “mobster who has a stressful suburban family life” or “dying chemistry teacher who decides to start cooking meth,” but it establishes a structure that is appealing to fantasy fans but also comprehensible to those who ultimately won’t care about the lore but will need to understand how everything fits together.
The world of The Last Airbender is divided into four nations: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. Each nation’s culture matches the characteristics of its associated element. Air nomads live in the clouds, untethered to earthly possessions. Citizens of the Fire nation tend to be passionate and war-like. The Earth Kingdom’s people are stoic and enduring, and so on. A certain percentage of all people are “benders,” able to practice a martial art that allows them to manipulate either air, water, fire or earth.
The nations used to live in a peaceful balance, guided by a powerful guardian called The Avatar. The Avatar alone has the power to bend all four elements, and each time he or she dies, they are reincarnated in a new body and must be trained to become the Avatar once more.
A century ago, the Avatar went missing just as the Fire Nation incited a war of conquest against the other three nations. Fire Nation armies wiped out the air nomads—surely one of the darkest turns in this children’s tale—and began to systematically destroy the southern water tribe as well. The northern water tribe forsook its southern counterpart and retreated behind their icy walls. The Earth Nation has resisted the Fire Nation for decades, but lately the war hasn’t been going their way.
It’s all pretty easy to follow, right? Fire is burning out of control, and the world is out of balance. A couple of kids find the Avatar, a young airbender named Aang, frozen in some ice near the South Pole, and set off on a quest to end the war and save the world. They are pursued by Prince Zuko, a Fire Nation prince who has been banished by his evil father and believes he can only reclaim his honor if he captures the Avatar and returns home with him.
Each season is arranged around one of the three non-air elements: Water, Earth, and Fire. Over the course of the season, Aang learns to bend that element. Characters also constantly drop narrative waypoints to help us understand where they’re going next, and why. Is there an eclipse coming up that will grant great power to the water tribe? Is there a comet that will grant unspeakable power to the Fire Nation? If there is, you can bet that the main characters will explicitly arrange their schedule (and the season) around it.
This simple, direct framework doubtless makes it easier for an eight-year-old (or a precocious seven-year-old) to follow what’s going on. It’s also crucial to what makes Avatar great. That’s because…
Avatar builds its world right in front of us. It does so carefully, one block at a time. Each episode introduces one or two new characters or concepts, taking great care to make sure the new stuff fits with the old stuff. Whenever we learn something new, we learn it because we need to know it. Once we know it, it will doubtless be further developed in some interesting way down the road.
Here’s a good example: Aang’s young earthbending teacher Toph, who joins the cast in season 2, is blind. Toph walks around barefoot and uses her earthbending to “see,” sensing the vibrations of the world around her. Toph is rad.
Her Daredevil-like abilities come as a neat surprise, since up until her debut we’ve mostly just seen Earthbenders throw rocks around with their minds. Toph expands our understanding of what bending can be used to accomplish. Her abilities help us better appreciate the Avatar mythology without contradicting anything that came before.
The show builds on this initial development in a few cool ways. We learn that giant moles (okay, badger-moles) were the original earthbenders, and that Toph learned bending from them as a young girl when she’d escape her overbearing parents. We met some badger-moles earlier, when the kids were first heading toward Toph’s hometown. The revelation that they might’ve been Toph’s friends makes perfect sense.
Toph’s abilities also play a role in Aang’s journey to self-actualization. See, the young air nomad has had a very hard time learning to earthbend. He grew up a brilliant airbender, but grounded, stubborn earth is his opposite element. In his climactic, series-ending battle against the mighty Fire Lord Ozai, Aang finally wins by using Toph’s technique.
As Ozai winds up to deliver a killing blow, Aang closes his eyes. For the first time in two seasons, we see him “see” the sound waves moving along the ground from his adversary. Aang waits, just like Toph taught, perfectly parrying when the time is right. It’s a hell of a moment, not just because the good guy finally beats the bad guy. It’s great because it subtly communicates Aang’s total mastery of himself and the elements. He has truly become the Avatar. The scene wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without the groundwork laid over the preceding two seasons.
That’s one example among dozens. When Iroh teaches his nephew Prince Zuko how to use firebending to channel lightning, that ability eventually factors into several pivotal scenes. In what is easily The Last Airbender’s darkest episode, a dangerous old woman teaches Katara how to “bloodbend” by moving the water within her opponents’ bodies to control them like puppets. It’s as horrifying as it sounds. So in a subsequent episode, when Katara meets the man she believes killed her mother, we’re shocked to watch her bloodbend him to his knees.
It’s a jarring, memorable scene that communicates the severity of Katara’s emotions specifically because it goes against everything we’ve learned about her up to this point. Even Zuko looks freaked out.
It wasn’t until after my second viewing of the complete series that I had a full appreciation for how effectively and consistently Avatar’s writers perform this sort of feat. By my third time through, I could only marvel at how well they did their thing.
Best of all is how clearly the writers enjoy this world they’ve built. Avatar is laced with in-jokes and references—the cabbage man, the awkward cough, the frothing fan, Sokka’s bag—and each is a reminder of how well the show’s writers have this all in hand.
At one point in the third season, the kids reference a character who hasn’t appeared since Toph joined the cast. She asks who he is, then stops herself. “You know what,” she says, “I’m sure I’ll find out if it’s important.” She’s right.
Many of the best kids’ stories grow more and more mature as they progress. Most famously, Harry Potter books become more sophisticated as the main characters grow into adulthood. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King pulled a similar trick with King Arthur.
The Last Airbender’s narrative only spans the course of a year, but its audience had grown three years older by the time the final episode aired. That slow climb toward maturity comes across in the show, and in the characters themselves.
Season one makes the most room for silly side-plots and mostly keeps the ramifications of the Fire Nation’s hundred-year war at arm’s length. Season two introduces more challenging themes of death, betrayal, and failure. The series reaches a turning point during a torturous stretch of episodes where Aang’s beloved flying bison Appa has been kidnapped and Aang must cope with his rage and sadness at the loss. Zuko’s maniacal sister Azula replaces him as the primary antagonist, and her quest to kill Aang raises the stakes of his conflict with the Fire Nation. During the season two premiere, we learn about how Zuko’s uncle Iroh lost his son in battle, and that revelation pays off with a devastating scene from the episode “Tales of Ba Sing Se.”
By the time season three rolls around, Avatar has largely left behind the wacky hijinks and childlike glee of the first season. The kids are behind enemy lines, and the fate of the world is at stake. Fire Lord Ozai plans to conquer the Earth Nation not by subjugating its people, but by burning them all alive from the sky. Animal friends Appa and Momo spend most of season three on the sidelines, and Aang is repeatedly forced to reckon with challenging questions of self: Does he have what it takes to kill Fire Lord Ozai, even if it goes against his principles? Will his love for Katara ruin their friendship if she doesn’t feel similarly? Can he seek out the power he needs to defeat the Fire Lord, even if it means letting go of everything and everyone he loves?
The rest of Team Avatar grows in their own ways. Can Katara accept what the Fire Nation did to her and learn to forgive Zuko? Can Sokka find his place as a non-bender in a world full of magical super-people? Can Toph… uh… can Toph stop being awesome for one second so we know she’s a real human being? (I love Toph, but she doesn’t have as strong an arc as the other characters. It’s fine. She doesn’t need to.)
Last but not least, can Prince Zuko finally understand what his benevolent Uncle Iroh has been trying to teach him from the beginning? Can he abandon his pursuit of the Avatar and unlearn his ingrained, toxic beliefs about manhood and honor? Will he become the leader who can return balance to the Fire Nation, or will he throw it all away?
Actually, let’s talk about Zuko for a moment. He’s really important.
On my recent third viewing of The Last Airbender, I realized that the most important and affecting relationship on the show isn’t between Aang and his powers, or his past lives, or his nemesis Ozai, or even his true love Katara. In fact, it has little to do with Aang at all. The most important relationship on Avatar: The Last Airbender is between Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh.
The first time I watched the show, I assumed Zuko was simply a villain. He had this terrible ponytail and this edgelord scar. He was petulant and childish. His uncle Iroh was there to provide comic relief and to act as a counterbalance to his nephew’s constant brooding. I thought he was a one-note character, and an ineffective antagonist.
That all changed by the series’ end, and on subsequent viewings, it’s much clearer what was really going on from the start. Iroh already knew about the goodness within Zuko, and had already begun to help him on his way toward a better path. He knew that Zuko needed to help the Avatar overthrow Iroh’s brother the Fire Lord, and held out hope that he could get his nephew to understand the world as it really was. The three seasons bear this out, albeit with some heartbreak and pain along the way.
Uncle Iroh is the best character on the show. (Sorry, Toph.) His story, as is finally revealed in that heartbreaking vignette during “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” is deeply moving.
A mighty Fire Nation general, Iroh proudly led his father’s armies in a great siege of the Earth Nation capital. Then, on the cusp of victory, Iroh’s son died in battle. It destroyed him. He quit the field, and the siege dissipated. He returned home in disgrace, gave up his birthright to his brother Ozai and went into exile.
While abroad, Iroh began to travel alongside his mixed-up, violent nephew, in whom he saw an echo of the son he lost. He hopes to redeem Zuko, to show him that war and conquest are not a path to honor. In doing so, he might return balance to the world and, more importantly, replace the son he so foolishly sent into battle and lost.
Kids may love the tale of Aang fulfilling his destiny as the Chosen One, but adults know where Avatar’s real heart lies. It’s not a fair comparison, really. Iroh is the only character on The Last Airbender old enough to have a backstory this affecting. Every scene between him and his nephew crackles with an emotional frisson that the rest of the show rarely matches.
On my most recent rewatch, I was struck by how most of the major “event” episodes were emotionally anchored not by Aang and Team Avatar, but by Iroh and Zuko. When Aang and Appa are finally reunited near the end of season two, the episode’s pivotal scene is actually an argument between Iroh and Zuko.
After two dozen episodes of smiling wisdom and gentle prodding, Iroh finally loses his cool with Zuko and lays his cards on the table. “I’m begging you, Prince Zuko!” he cries. “It’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions. Who are you? And what do you want?”
Zuko frees Appa, of course. As much of a relief as it is to see Aang and Appa together again (and as profoundly fun as it is to watch Appa swat the Dai Li leader into Lake Laogai), the reunion is ultimately possible because Zuko finally listened to his Uncle.
That’s not the only time the show pins its emotional trajectory to the prince and his uncle. In fact, their ups and downs provide the emotional arc for the entire series. The climactic showdown at the end of the first season is defined by Iroh explicitly telling Zuko he thinks of him as a son. The season two premiere ends with Iroh and Zuko symbolically cutting their hair and, with it, their allegiance to the Fire Nation. The duo barely features in “Avatar Day,” but the most memorable scene in the episode comes at the end, when Zuko tells his uncle he wants to carry on without him.
The enjoyable, western-inspired episode “Zuko Alone” is as much about Iroh’s absence as it is about Zuko’s journey. (It also may be the only episode of The Last Airbender without a single visual gag or joke.) At the end of season two, Zuko betrays Katara and helps Azula bring Aang down, but it is his betrayal of Iroh that hurts the most.
Season three, which centers on Fire, is largely Zuko’s season. In “The Headband,” Zuko confesses to his imprisoned uncle that he has everything he ever wanted but still feels lost. Iroh, his back turned to the door to his cell, begins to quietly cry. By this point, we know he’s not crying because he is disappointed in his nephew, but because he knows Zuko is in pain and that this time, he can’t help.
Season three’s two-parter “Day of the Black Sun” is ostensibly about an exciting, unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Fire Lord, but Zuko steals the episode yet again. In one of the most satisfying scenes in the series, he finally stands up to his father and tells him he’s leaving to help the Avatar overthrow him.
His father seizes the opportunity to throw deadly lightning at his own son, and Zuko uses the redirection technique Iroh taught him to save his own life and escape.
“The Ember Island Players” provides a fantastic recap of the show ahead of the finale. By watching actors perform a rendition of their exploits, the kids all see themselves from a different perspective and come face to face with some of their lingering issues. The episode allows Aang and Katara to once again address their budding, conflicted romance, of course. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, Kataang doesn’t do as much for me as it does some people.) More crucially, however, it allows Zuko to watch his own story and, with a little help from Toph, realize that Iroh has loved and supported him all along.
When the two are finally reunited in the series finale, Iroh silences Zuko’s apologies with a tearful embrace that confirms what we’ve known all along.
It’s the most emotionally satisfying moment of the entire show. The good guys have already won. The rest is just gravy.
Now, all this stuff about character and emotions is nice, but sometimes you just want to watch a bunch of awesome fire-magic and martial arts. So it’s a good thing…
The Last Airbender frequently delivers amazing action sequences that strike a balance between staying kid-appropriate (Sokka never quite skewers anyone with that cool sword of his) and exciting (I never for a moment doubted that Azula was trying to kill Aang whenever they fought).
Like its lore and storytelling, Avatar’s action-packed visual language is consistent and easy to read. Battles frequently become intense, layered affairs, yet it’s almost always easy to keep track of who’s fighting whom and who’s doing what. The show’s directors make liberal use of slow motion for dramatic effect, but even at regular speed fights almost play out as if running at 0.75x speed. Even when two combatants get into close quarters, it’s easy to appreciate their intricate feints, jabs and counters.
The more times I watch it, the more I appreciate the various fighting styles and bending techniques: The squared-off stance of an earthbender, the fleet-footed evasions of the air nomads, even the distinct fighting styles of the Kyoshi Warriors and the Dai Li.
In the tradition of the best superhero comics, each fight becomes a contest between known quantities. Can Aang’s powerful but evasive airbending hold up against Azula’s indomitable aggression? Can Katara’s room-clearing waterbending take down a team of well-armed firebenders? Can Toph fight off a group of opponents while standing on sand?
The show gives us plenty of duels like that, while also letting us enjoy moments when the whole team works together, Avengers-style. My favorite of these is likely the season-two sequence where Team Avatar assaults the Earth King’s palace in order to show him the truth of the war outside his walls.
Aang and Toph use their earthbending to protect the gang as they blast past multiple waves of the palace guard, while Katara leaps and flanks to give them space to operate. Each room they enter provides a brief, ten-second action sequence, and each one is immaculately staged and presented. The palace assault crams a ridiculous amount of cool action into a couple of minutes.
Unsurprisingly, Avatar’s best action sequences are usually fueled not just by cool fighting moves and powers but by the characters who are squaring off.
Katara’s losing fight with the northern tribe’s recalcitrant waterbending teacher is all the more exciting because she’s such an underdog, and because of the sexism that’s led him to deem her unworthy of his instruction.
Zuko’s face-off against Admiral Zhao, beautifully framed in the washed-out light of a moonless sky, lands because it represents the culmination of a season-long rivalry. It also pits Zuko not against the Avatar but against a fellow firebender, an early indication of where his story will end up.
The series-finale showdown between Zuko and Azula is the most exhilarating fight sequence of the entire series, not just for how awesomely it depicts two firebenders at the peak of their powers, but for what each character represents.
The action takes place nearly in silence, taiko sticks clacking as gouts of blue and red flame crest into the heavens. This is gorgeous stuff. In the end, Zuko wins not by outmatching his sister but by sacrificing himself to save Katara from Azula’s cruelly redirected bolt of lightning. It is Katara who ultimately dispatches Azula, but the victory belongs to them both.
There are so many things I haven’t yet mentioned. There’s the understated art style, which initially comes off as childish but eventually reveals beautiful layers of subtlety. There’s the enjoyably uneven soundtrack, a mix of fake-sounding virtual instruments, earworm-y character motifs, and terrific one-off musical themes.
There’s the show’s quiet progressivism, with its wealth of complicated female characters, infrequent but welcome queer-friendly undertones and the subtle but consistent message that it’s more important to be yourself than to hew to the roles society expects of you.
There’s literally every single thing about Toph.
The Last Airbender has attracted a broad and passionate fan-base over the years, and was eventually succeeded by its well-intentioned but ultimately less satisfying follow-up, The Legend of Korra.
The Avatar mythos will likely make its way into other stories, comics, and video games in the future. I’d wager that, like Aang himself, the original will always stand apart from its progeny. Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the great TV shows of our age.
Water tribe out.