There are few children shows today that capture the attention of more mature audiences and bring stories to life that transcend from childhood to adulthood. When creating a cartoon, it is difficult to engage a multitude of people. Storylines and character motives can be lost or misinterpreted, or they can be too comical for others to focus on. Today there are few cartoons that have this magical capability of drawing the attention of children and adults simultaneously. We have Steven Universe, Adventure Time, Teen Titans (2003), and possibly a few more… but for the most part, good cartoons lately have been difficult to find.
Very few creators have managed to do it like Avatar: The Last Airbender.
It’s been fifteen years since the premiere of what I believe to be one of the greatest television shows ever made. A show that when re-watched uncovers hidden gems that weren’t realized before, lessons that feel stronger and characters that become more relatable. In honor of me recently binge-watching the series, I felt obligated to reflect on how this show hits home.
The characters are complex but also driven by clear motives
Like many of our favorite shows from childhood, there’s a pallet of quirky characters that we grow to love. Sometimes, characters are hated from start to finish. Some find a place in our hearts and others are just… meh. One of the things that Avatar does so well, and is even more commendable when watched again, is the ability to have characters that are not only multi-dimensional but also carry the story so that you don’t think of it at first.
During the show’s three-season run, we were introduced to a multitude of characters that not only serve as comic relief, but all have meaning and purpose. Everything that the creators reveal is for a specific reason and never at a fault. A great example of this is the antagonist, General Zhao. At first, he is introduced as a pure villain, someone who is hell-bent on making things difficult for team Avatar and even the lovable Zuko. General Zhao is a teachable villain in the sense that he isn’t brought to justice by the Avatar or the so-called “good guys”. It’s Zuko, a fellow citizen of the Fire Nation, who helps the viewers see Zhao’s true character. During Zuko’s battles with Zhao we begin to learn more about Zhao’s character and that he isn’t completely aligned with the values of the Fire Nation ─which we once thought he fully represented. And from this we begin to see additional layers of how evil is perceived. Zhao’s inability to accept defeat in his Agni Kai with Zuko allows us, the viewers, to see that he has no honor, and it’s really Zuko who has the honor within him from the very beginning.
Of course, the show is carried by a group of children battling to help Aang, the Avatar, fulfill a destiny that seems beyond them. But what the show never does is undermine their ability to fulfill this task because they are children. One of the reasons I believe this show is so great is because there is this larger than life obstacle that they are faced with and they managed to do it as a team, each one discovering their own destiny along the way. They managed to restore balance to the world because they are kids, malleable and not faulted by their preconceived notions of the world. But rather, celebrating their naivety and willingness to learn new things on their journey.
The lessons learned is that everything the show’s protagonists are searching for is often right in front of them. Sokka’s desire to be a great leader is demonstrated from start to finish, but only when he is awarded approval from his father does, he see that leadership was always within him. Katara’s will to become a great waterbender is known the moment her skills are questioned by Master Pakku because she is a girl.
The storyline is consistent and comprehensive throughout
“Long ago, the four-nations lived together in harmony, then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked…” recognize that one? Yeah, by mid-second season you know it by heart. With a shrivel of bias, Avatar has one of the most consistent and comprehensive storylines of any children’s show. There isn’t a single bad episode, even the episodes that work as comic relief and utter enjoyment serve as a plot device that we seem to always be brought back to as an important factor in the plot. Each episode proves to be adjacent to the storyline and critical to the information we’ve been fed.
One episode, which I didn’t realize the importance of until later, titled ‘Tales of Ba Sing Se’ shows the adorable Momo tale and the story behind Uncle Iroh’s son Lu Ten. Lu Ten is mentioned passively throughout the show as the son who died at war, and because of this Iroh never became the great general he was sought to be. Everything we had once thought about Iroh becomes even more embedded. We are introduced to a side of him that has been held back until it was necessary to expose. From this, we understand why he treats Zuko with patience and guides him the way he does, even though Zuko treats him disrespectfully from the beginning. Iroh treats him like the son he lost, hoping to not make the same mistake of not being there for him.
This episode is at the end of Book Two: Earth, and comes after our assumptions as viewers of Iroh have already been made. We see him as a protective parental figure that is wise and caring, but not as a plot device that is crucial to the bigger picture. This story helps us understand that Iroh’s story is just as important and relevant as the good guys to the overarching story. We learn that in this war between nations everyone on both sides have lost someone, and his loss is just as heartbreaking as Aang’s losing his people and Sokka and Katara’s losing their family.
Zuko’s has the best redemption arc in television history
Redemption is a long, narrow and laborious path for many of our favorite television characters. It’s a path of development and new hope. We see it in Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones, Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series and even the lovable Steve Harrington in Stranger Things etc… What makes a redemption arc so compelling is that we see a sliver of hope and good in the character from the very beginning, and we understand that even in difficulty they’re not all bad. Zuko’s story is insanely engaging and is told ever so beautifully that by the end of the series he’s a favorite and you want nothing but happiness for him.
So, let me tell you why he has one of the greatest redemption arcs in all television history. From the beginning, he is one of the most hated characters, with his annoying ponytail and sinister scar. He’s faced with as some would say an even more difficult journey than the Avatar; a family that disowns him (besides his uncle), inferior to his younger sister Azula and with a destiny that is not his own. He’s is consistently fuelled by anger and his motive to capture the Avatar goes against all the lessons of good we have learned from the start of the show.
He’s established well as a villain in the beginning, but as the show progresses we see his internal conflict with his own beliefs and what he stands for. Uncle Iroh has always been there for him and guides him in making the right decisions. When Zuko decides to part ways from Iroh, that’s when we see one of the most impactful choices Zuko makes, leaving his moral compass. Eventually whilst being alone he realizes that his destiny isn’t to capture the Avatar, but to teach him fire-bending. This moment of realization is Zuko’s coming of age.
From the day of his banishment, he believes that capturing the Avatar will restore his honor, regain his father’s acceptance and become Fire Lord. When Zuko learns this isn’t his destiny, relinquishes a piece of his past and begins to look to the future. Once defined by family and wrongdoings, he is no longer burdened by his past but rather becomes the man he is because of it. His redemption arc is strategic and weaves with the storyline perfectly. We believed he was evil because of his family and didn’t sympathize because of his anger and lack of care. Only through excellent storytelling do we see that he is nothing like his family. For him, unlike many of the other characters, family isn’t Zuko’s peace but his greatest battle. Throughout the show, we see family used as a positive force, something that separates good and evil. Zuko overcomes this duality by finding his own path and removing himself from his kin. Zuko realizing that he has to help the Avatar isn’t some epiphany-like moment but a series of difficult journeys that perfectly aligns with Aang and the fate of the world’s destiny.
So, there it is, spread out on the table as to why you need to re-watch this amazing show. I’m sure there are even more connections, themes and parallels that I may have missed – but all of it is what makes this show great. Seriously, do yourself a favor and re-watch. Think of it as self-care.