The Last Airbender: 10 Years Later, the Avatar Can Still Save the World

Animated series Avatar the Last Airbender aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Animated series Avatar the Last Airbender aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

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By Hannah Gonzalez

“Avatar: The Last Airbender,” I admit with equal parts pride and shame, is one of the few television shows I’ve ever watched in its entirety. This is partly because it came out before my attention span was mercilessly cut down by the mind-numbing effects of phones and internet access. At age 10, plopping down in front of the television, day after day, week after week, to watch the same program was feasible. I just didn’t have that much going on in fourth grade.

More than that, though, the reason I was drawn back to “Avatar” episode after episode was the world that captivated me, the characters I learned to love and above all, the powerful storytelling I was enraptured by. Years later, when I watched the show again (and again) with my younger siblings, I not only relived my childhood love of the story, but was able to better appreciate the complexity and depth it offers.

It’s currently the 10-year anniversary of the end of this beloved children’s cartoon. The show was groundbreaking for many reasons: instead of the Western fantasy tropes and art style viewers were accustomed to seeing in cartoons, “Avatar” took its cues from Asian and Inuit cultures, in everything from lore to costume design. Instead of random-humor or unconnected episodes that don’t require consistent viewership to appreciate (take “Spongebob,” for example), the show relied on continuing plotlines and character development. Though it aired on Nickelodeon, “Avatar” never talked down to its audience, exploring mature themes such as genocide, imperialism and social divisions. Yet, despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the show’s remarkable optimism and humor shines through.

At its core, “Avatar” is about what it means to coexist with others and how the cycle of evil and violence can be broken through peace and mercy. But to get there, Aang, the titular Avatar, must travel the world with friends he gains along the way, interacting with earthbenders, waterbenders and firebenders to learn the techniques that just might help him defeat the Firelord and save the world. Everyone they encounter in their adventures has their own unique background and morality, and learning more about the Avatar world and characters who inhabit it is one of the joys of the show.

In fact, one of the most memorable aspects of “Avatar” is the multifaceted characters who viewers grow to know and love over the course of the series. As early as the third episode, Aang learns of the destruction of his people and grapples with the pain and guilt that he wasn’t there to protect them when it mattered most. We watch him grow up throughout the series, leading to his ultimate struggle between his morality as a peace-loving airbender and the obligations of being the Avatar.

A similar struggle is exhibited in Zuko, the exiled Fire Nation prince, who has one of the most well-executed character arcs I have witnessed in any medium. To those who haven’t seen the show, that might seem like an overstatement. But the tactful handling of this character’s complexities and moral dilemmas is indicative of the masterful writing that underlies this ostensible children’s show. The series sees Zuko change from an angry boy obsessed with reclaiming his “honor” to a young man who peels back the layers of his rage to discover who he truly is and what he stands for. That is profound enough to leave an impression on viewers of any age.
At one point, late in the series, Aang says, “Anyone’s capable of great good and great evil. Everyone, even the Firelord and the Fire Nation, have to be treated like they’re worth giving a chance.”

I would say the same goes for children’s shows. No matter your age, if you haven’t seen “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” it’s worth giving a chance.
Today, the legacy of Avatar lives on in the Netflix Original series “The Dragon Prince,” released just last Friday. Avatar head writer Aaron Ehasz has once again created a colorful fantasy world with equal parts humor and depth, if reviews are to be believed. With any luck, that sprinkle of Avatar magic will give the next generation of children—and adults—a new story to fall in love with.

Animated series “Avatar the Last Airbender” aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)