I was twelve when Avatar: The Last Airbender aired. I watched it on an old Magnavox TV, on a cold Friday evening in February when the world outside the living room windows was black as the bottom of the ocean. I was sitting in my dad's rocking chair, and the rug was the old red one we had before the cats forced its replacement, and the light from the dining room was bright incandescent-bulb gold. We wouldn't get internet in the house for nearly four more years.
I wasn't even that enthused at first: the advertisements had instilled in me a certain degree of hesitation, as western television that tried to be anime had a batting average of 0 in my experience at the time. I had actually missed the first few minutes of that first episode, flipping through channels to see if anything else was on. That didn't matter, in the end.
That night was over half a lifetime ago.
I've been rewatching Avatar. The world is falling apart outside. The lightning crackles and dances in its bottle as I take it down from the mantelpiece.
It was the agni kai between Zuko and Zhao that really got the hooks in, back then. Certainly in terms of TV at the time I had no experience of "large chunks of episode time given to the antagonist dealing with things that aren't interacting with the protagonist. I don't think I was expecting there to be that much care given.
The average Fire Nation footsoldier will be involved in some kind of joke. Slapstick or comedic misinterpretations, usually.
Poverty is not abstracted here. It happens to people, and those people have faces and names and lives that the Gaang directly intersect with, because they're poor too. The only ones who ever really had any money are Toph and Zuko, and neither of them hold on to it for very long.
War is not abstracted here. Everyone we meet has lost someone to it, or knows someone who has lost someone. No life has gone untouched, whether by open wounds or old scars. Even the safest and most distant enclave can look to the horizon and see the smoke.
We are immersed in a reality that invites us to empathy. Why is it even important that Aang saves the world? Because the world is not abstract. It's right there. It's those people.We've been with them the entire time.
This is a cartoon on Nickelodeon and it contains
- Militarist hypernationalism.
- Prison camps.
- Child soldiers.
- Deliberate strikes against soft targets.
- Public disfigurement of a child.
- The casual disregard of military leadership for the lives of their own soldiers.
- Assorted additional war crimes.
- Animal cruelty.
- Secret police.
- Fascist indoctrination of schoolchildren.
- Industry-induced ecological collapse.
- The abuses of the carceral system.
Elizabeth Welch Ehasz carried a whole lot of this show - she was lead writer for both "Zuko Alone" and "Appa's Lost Days", among others, and those are probably the two best episodes in the entire series.
I still polish my service medals from the Kataang Grande Armee off for parade days, but I cannot deny that the entire subplot has the feel of...something that was considered a given. I think there would have been some value if they had sorted out their feelings early-to-mid season 3. Buck the typical "relationship only after accomplishment" of these sorts of hero stories, go into the end strong.
Guru Pathik meant well, but living atop a mountain in solitude did not prepare him to teach a teenager whose entire life consists of the clothes on his back, his handful of friends, and the crushing weight of his responsibilities. He presumed that the student already understood what was meant, that Aang understood the difference between love and attachment. That a kid could sit and let the death of one of his only friends pass by like water over a stone.
There might well be places in the Earth Kingdom that have never heard of the Earth King and his impenetrable city, nor ever seen an imperial tax collector.
The Fire Nation uses shitty iron. Stone hastily earthbent for combat is often less dense and easily broken.
I don't think it sank in the first time, that Lu Ten was 18-20 when he died. I always supposed he was older. Was it in the field? Was it in some medic's tent? What orders had he received that morning - would he have lived if they had been any different? Had he knowingly put his life in danger, or had it been simple happenstance, a lucky shot? Was the body recovered? Did he even have the time to realize it, or did he simply cease?
No answers. Just the space where a man used to be.
I like to think that there are more unique communities that we simply never got to see: bending traditions that grew up in other nations and were influenced by other styles. Influences from India, Persia, the Andes, subsaharan Africa, the Asian steppe, the Pacific coast, the southwest, the Great Plains.
Ozai is a punk-ass loser. The kind of fascist who wears polo shirts and khakis and talks big talk about the weakness of other men and the decadence of society while eating an entire drawer of silver cutlery. He's a fucking nobody. All his talk of strength, all his love of power and domination, and what has he actually done? Disfigured a child and blackmailed his wife into doing regipatricide for him. He sits in his gloomy throne room in ecstatic adoration of his idea of himself but won't lift a finger unless it's against someone who is powerless to defend themselves against him. Characters offering even the least resistance reveal him as the oaf that he is.
He's a spineless, vapid piece of shit. A blunt-force trauma of a human being. The perfect villain for this show - utterly banal, completely without nuance, in cold and unflinching opposition to the protagonists.
The world invites engagement. It motions to its blank spaces and says "here, you already have the tools", and the gaps are filled in by your own hands. There has been a long tradition of fanon here, and contrary to my typical dismissal of fandom as a toxic swamp of sadness and badness, there's actually some quite clever places you can go. A few of my own personal favored theories:
- The Ember Island Players are wildly popular and have been for a long while, despite being absolutely awful. So that must be the point, you go to see the players to watch a farce on stage. Ursa dragged the family to see the Players butcher Love Amongst the Dragons every year, and I can't help but picture it as this world's variant of live showings of The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show.
- On the same note, the Players are able to put on these farces prominently featuring the royal family, which would indicate that Ozai either doesn't care or gives tacit approval.
- Zhao was promoted to commander in the back ass-end of nowhere. Perhaps he had enemies in the navy - it'd make sense considering his age and ambition - but, being commander of the ass-end of nowhere then gave him the ships and the spare time to pursue Aang.
- Katara and Sokka have a grandfather with a gigantic white walrus mustache, who, given the tone he is referenced in, is still alive. So he's probably Hakoda's father, rather than Kya's. But since he's never seen, we can then assume he lives in a different village.
- I refuse to believe that Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors don't have a rotating schedule of who gets to make a fool of the dumb out-of-towner, because they absolutely have to do that regularly.
These are aspects of characters that have no actual textual support, but enrich the experience all the same because they make enough sense to fit where they ought.
There is no way Toph became a cop. Katara would have stopped her.
Suki does not get a whole lot of screen time, but by the time she joins the Gaang in the last quarter of season 3 it feels like there had been a place for her there all along. We have seen enough of her own arc from afar by that time.
I remember finding out that Mako had died the day before "Tales of Ba Sing Se" aired.
What would have happened, I thought to myself, had Aang not run away from home and had gone instead to the eastern temple to train as the abbot had decided?
He would not have been ready when Sozin's forces arrived a few months later, certainly, though perhaps he could have been spirited out in the chaos, to learn the other elements in secret. Maybe with a few other companions, likely novices themselves. It would have been a very different story, then.
This part is the Katara appreciation section of the essay.
"The Painted Lady" is a much better episode than folks, now or then, give it credit for, precisely for how well it establishes the person Katara has become at this point in the series: when presented with the scope of the Fire Nation's destruction of its own territory - strip-mining its islands bare to fuel its war machine while its citizens dredge up stunted, mutated fish from polluted waterways - she doesn't hesitate to put her beliefs into action. Even Aang - the pacifist, the vegetarian, the one supposed to right the world's wrongs - says they should be on their way.
Katara, stone-cold comrade that she is, says "fuck that, fuck this, fuck you, fuck the military-industrial complex, I'm going to commit an ecoterrorism"
Which she then proceeds to do. 0 to industrial sabotage in 10 seconds flat.
She began this series saddled with the responsibilities of adulthood while still a child - complaining about having to do all the chores while her jerkass brother goofs off, barely able to keep a fish aloft with her bending, teased for being the worrywart team mom, the nebby-nose moralizer, the preachy crybaby who can't resist giving overemotional speeches about hope all the time.
And then she goes and ends it wondering if her inability to kill the man who murdered her mother was a moment of weakness or a sign of strength.
She's always possessed great empathy and great anger, but here in the final season we see that she has unified these traits with the ability and willingness to act directly upon both towards accomplishing greater goals.
I don't know how you would write "all cops are bastards" in Inuktitut, but I feel it would be appropriate here.
Potential alternatives to energybending:
- Aang uses his trickery and guile to goad Ozai into overexerting himself - what would normally just exhaust him now burns him out like a cheap light bulb due to the influence of the comet.
- Ozai is imprisoned in such a way to make escape impossible (cave on a mountain far out at sea, surrounded by watchful spirits?)
- Ozai surrenders. Spineless, vapid piece of shit, right? The fight immediately goes utterly one-sided as soon as Aang enters the Avatar State anyway.
- Ozai is injured in such a way to make firebending either impossible or nearly so. (Granted "let's break your spine" is hardly much better than killing him outright.)
The fifth is my favorite (Mon helped me brainstorm this).
Aang, desperate for some way to defeat Ozai without, makes a journey to the Spirit World. Maybe the turtle is the catalyst still, doesn't matter. He convenes with the other Avatars there (not just the previous 4, but a vast parliament of them, and after hearing their arguments (which would include everything listed above, plus that given in the show), he's still not convinced. But the seed of an idea starts blooming.
He is going to petition the Sun Spirit to strip Ozai's bending from him. The other Avatars and most of the attendant spirits there are thrown into chaos - Surya does not give a shit. Of all the spirits, he's the one that doesn't even pretend to recognize the Avatar's authority as an intermediary. Reaching the Solar Court is next to impossible even for other primal spirits.
But, Aang has an in: his crush's brother's ex is the moon. Yue appears to him as the council of Avatars dissipates, telling him that, as the Moon Spirit (and thus, Surya's queen), she has access to both the court and Surya's ear.
Travel transition to the Solar Court (possibly on giant spirit rabbit with a mallet), it's practically a dyson-sphere palace, very impressive, blah blah. Throne room, etc. Very impressive.
Surya looks like a character pulled from Asura's Wrath. Absolutely fucking gigantic (Aang and Yue don't even crest the top of his feet), looks simultaneously immensely bored and perpetually pissed off. He demands to know why Yue brought a mortal into the presence of the eternal sun, and Yue (showing a side of herself that is not "mild princess" or "sad princess") manages to argue him into hearing the request.
Aang's request is met with derisive laughter. He had already failed at the eclipse, and how he's attempting to seek the Sun's favor again? Yue moves to argue again, but Aang asks her to stand down and pleads his own case.
Whether he is actually persuaded or just wants Aang to leave, we don't know, but Surya agrees, on one condition - Ozai must be defeated, completely and without question.
Yue returns Aang to the physical world, leaving him with a "good luck" and some message of comedic gold for Sokka.
The rest of the climactic battle goes according to how it is in the show, until the end.
Ozai has gotten the shit beaten out of him, but dime-store fascist that he is, he refuses to surrender. Aang appeals to the Sun to strip him of his bending as agreed - Ozai is beaten, and if the Sun itself will not keep its word, then all creation falls apart.
Nothing seems to happen. Ozai manages to spit out a "I don't think the sun is listening, Avatar" and attempts a point-blank fireblast.
He collapses back to the ground, with no fire. Surya upheld his part of the bargain, but didn't give enough of a shit to even be theatrical about it.
Ending proceeds as normal, except for the final scene in the Jasmine Dragon. Rather than Sokka's inept painting gag, we watch a confused-looking peasant woman clutching a piece of paper in one hand, and the hand of a young girl (~6 years old) in the other. A plain-looking man, clearly a laborer of some kind is there with her.
She tells Katara or Suki that she received this invitation to the Jasmine Dragon out of nowhere, with a passport and money for the trip to the capitol. They assure her she's in the right place, show her to a table, and call in an order for three cups of tea from the kitchen.
Which are delivered to the table by Zuko, of course, because of course it would be. It couldn't be any other way. There's a moment of hesitation (for Ursa never saw him with the scar, and hasn't seen him for eight years plus by this point), and then a moment of realization, and then there is a tearful and joyous reunion.
Sometime later, Aang and Katara share a kiss on the patio, pan up to the sky, roll credits, fin.
I put the bottle of lightning back up on the mantle. The world outside spins towards its apparent ruin, but I find a small peace of comfort here. It is a pin's point upon which to balance amidst the maelstrom, for a moment.
It doesn't matter what the flaws are, in the end. Not really. Perfection is impossible. Overrated, even.
More important is that it was there; in that time, in that place.
It will never, in all the universe, happen again.
(PS; here is the class I made for elemental benders.)