Two weeks ago, my best friend came up for the weekend. Shortly before we were about to go to bed one night, they said, “We’re going to watch ‘Avatar’.” Minutes later, the Nickelodeon cartoon was streaming via Netflix and despite myself, I was instantly drawn right in.
It should be noted that I’ve always been vaguely aware of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. But all through high school — when all my friends were watching and loving it — I was staunchly anti-cartoons. (I think it made me feel more grown up or something? I’m 23 now and confused by 17 year-old me.) Now I’m kicking myself, because this show is honestly one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” chronicles the story of Aang, a 100 year-old boy who’s been frozen in a glacier since the start of a massive war between the Fire Kingdom and everyone else. He is the newest in a long line of Avatars — warriors who are masters of “bending” all four of the elements — and it is his duty to stop the Fire Lord from conquering the whole world and bringing peace back to the kingdoms. But Aang is just a little boy. And although the series is only three seasons long (spanning about a year in canon), he does a lot of growing in a short period of time. So do his friends.
This series is incredible. The plot is consistent and interesting; each episode contributes to the overall arc while also featuring smaller arcs that are just as captivating. Each of the characters has a distinctive voice and role within the group and best of all, the show features a variety of characters from all walks of life. The women possess as much strength as the men, though everyone has their own particular strengths and weaknesses. I genuinely like all of the major characters and most of the minor ones as well. The ones I don’t like I’m still able to respect from a writer’s point of view, as well as a viewer’s — even the bad guys have layers.
Some of the most notable characters, in my opinion (a.k.a. my faves), are Prince Zuko (banned from the Fire Nation for disobeying orders and sent on a quest to hunt down the Avatar in order to “restore his honor”), Uncle Iroh (Prince Zuko’s meditative, tea-obsessed mentor figure), Toph (a blind earthbender who passes her skills onto Aang), Katara (the last waterbender from the southern water tribe, a matriarchal society that is vastly different from the world surrounding it), Appa (Aang’s flying bison, prompted into the air by the call, “Yip yip!”), and Suki (the head of a female warrior clan who suffers wrongful imprisonment, among other terrors). That being said, I also adored Aang (of course), Sokka (Katara’s brother and the only one in the core “gaang” without bending powers), and Momo (a lemur). Of course, I have intense emotions about most of the characters, not just the ones mentioned above.
Basically, I adore everyone. If given the opportunity (and the emotional stamina), I could likely write entire posts about every single character featured even semi-prominently on this show. They’re that incredible. Seriously.
I’m disappointed that “Avatar” didn’t have a much, much longer run, because the potential story lines are endless. Honestly, I could watch entire episodes of Appa flying around the various kingdoms giving new characters rides through the sky while they told their individual stories. In fact, I would be content with anything involving these characters and their world. The history involved in this culture is rich and layered, and the brief glimpses we get into it as Aang and his friends travel the world are fascinating. To see more of that history and establish more of that culture would be an absolute gift.
While exploring the history, it would be amazing to delve into the lives of Avatars past, as well as the lives of the people who lived and died when Aang was first born into the world. A prequel to this series would not go amiss (at least not for me). There’s so much to learn and understand. And while we’re at it, seeing into the lives of the families of characters like Zuko and Sokka and Katara would be just as incredible. I want to know everything about this verse, and the series only teases at many of these things.
The ending of “Avatar” was hardly disappointing — it was neat, but not too neat, and provided characters closure that deserved it from the start. It also defined relationships that had walked on borderlines for three seasons (like that between Aang and Katara, which was always something more than friendship but never quite romance until the end) and provided context for new friendships and developing plots. I would have liked to see more, of course, but only if it led to a longer run of the show. I think that, given the fact that the series ended where it did, the ending worked well. It was happy and offered everything one could want from a war story starring children (though really, every war story does).
I’ll likely be going back to this series time and time again, primarily because it’s so delightful. Even when I felt overwhelming emotions regarding sad or dark elements of the series, I still felt the kind of delight that can only come from good storytelling — brimming, heaving joy filling up my chest with every breath.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” may be a cartoon, but it’s also a well-written and diverse story that features characters of a caliber that I can’t even find on most adult dramas. Surely, there’s a moral story to be learned in many of the episodes and because it’s a kid’s show, there are moments that are clearly catered to a younger audience. But overall, “Avatar” provides the kind of entertainment that I thirst for in the literature, films, and television shows I’ve invested myself in all my life. I’m just disappointed I didn’t realize it before, all because I thought cartoons couldn’t provide that kind of enrichment.
Oh, how wrong I was.