In a time marked by a frightening global pandemic and a social uprising in America, the search for the warm glow of something nostalgic, familiar, and reassuring is understandable.
Enter Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the greatest TV shows in history that captivated a generation a decade ago and is now returning to do the same. It deserves the endless tributes of memes dedicated to it. Around the world, its resurgence has been used as references for contemporary issues and as points of humour. Fans who grew up with the show are finally seeing it being showered with the adoration it deserved once it unveiled on Netflix.
There are now essays and articles in tribute to ATLA’s greatness. People eulogise their favourite moments and the show’s unmatched humour. It’s that remarkable yet unsurprising that ATLA has survived the test of time where other shows often haven’t. Where some feel mired in regressive values, Avatar is a show written for this time with its focus on imperialism, empires and nationalism.
The failure of the film, that followed its ending in 2008, is what reinforces its greatness. Reproducing ATLA’s greatness isn’t simple. It also helps if you don’t whitewash the cast as the film did. Something that is powerfully refreshing about the show is that it draws heavily from Asian cultures and mythology.
There are four nations gifted with the ability to bend water, earth, fire and air respectively, living in conflict with each other. Only the Avatar, a figure reincarnated into each nation every generation, with the unique capability of harnessing all the elements, is able to bring harmony and liberate the people from the tyranny of the Fire Nation.
The show takes us on the back of a flying bison and reveals a world where there are cities of ice, kingdoms of giant walls and extreme social stratifications, an ancient library buried in a sea of sand, guarded by a sentient owl, and abandoned temples belonging to an ethnically cleansed group.
It’s a children’s show meant really for adults. The third episode is about dealing with the genocide of an entire people and being one of the last survivors of it. Throughout the series, the story explores the trauma of war and broken families, of suffering in despair and searching for hope beneath the totalitarian fists of an imperialist empire, which is on a mission comparable to that of the British Empire.
There is failure, lots and lots of heart-stopping, tear-inducing moments when our heroes come up short. They lose friends, watch their loved ones be taken away from them. They themselves realise it, but keep persevering because in their own words, “you can’t quit because you’re afraid of failure.”
It is also nuanced in that the Fire Nation, depicted as bad because we’re seeing the story through the lenses of the colonised outsiders for the first two seasons, becomes humanised in the final season where ATLA illustrates how important history and narratives are to a nation’s understanding of itself, and its place in the world. The show, in the words of the Avatar himself, teaches us that everyone is worth a second chance and has capacity for both good and bad in them.
For a story to be interesting it needs good characters, and the show is blessed with them. The main character Aang is a carefree pacifist who wrestles with the need to use violence right up until the end, afraid of his own destructive powers, and at heart is a child who is more interested in enjoying himself and a girl.
The show could have easily made Aang unbearable due to his overwhelming goodness but despite his clear humanity, he isn’t without his flaws and vulnerabilities. It’s often this that makes you root for Aang to prevail, because there is a sense of what he is overcoming isn’t simply the enemy before him but all that is inside him. He constantly carries guilt for his failures and is driven by that right up to the end.
The support cast is what generally makes ATLA more than just likeable; it also underlines why it’s seen as superior to its sequel, The Legend of Korra, by many fans. In ATLA there are two siblings who are desperate to beat the Fire Nation for what it took from their family, who progress from a goofy teenage boy into a fearless warrior and a reckless young girl into a master of waterbending, driven by an incredible sense of justice.
There is a young blind girl who uses her disability as a source of strength for some truly mind-blowing feats and ribcage-bruising humour. The antagonists themselves are interesting in that while the Fire Lord is the overarching villain, there are others who dominate the show, notably his daughter.
The episodes creates a good blend of being driven by the characters whilst having a main goal to progress towards. The endgame is defeating the Fire Lord and it is the journey towards that which takes Aang and his friends across the world and creates genuinely powerful conflicts.
Even the filler episodes are worth watching, particularly those at the beginning of season three, for how they deeply flesh out the characters even further. There is one such episode from season three called “The Beach” that turned into an extraordinary characterisation of the antagonists and one beautifully conflicted antihero called Zuko.
He’s a banished prince of the Fire Lord sporting a horrible scar across his left eye who spends much of the first season hunting the Avatar. The show gradually humanises him with a gut-wrenching backstory that explains how Zuko’s relentless pursuit of the Avatar, and talk of restoring his honour, is simply to earn affection from his abusive father, with his loving mother seemingly dead.
He is accompanied by his uncle Iroh and it is their relationship that is the soul of the show, as it is Iroh who acts as a moral centre for Zuko, helping him heal psychologically and pushes him towards being a better human being. ATLA, in a gripping and sometimes heartbreaking manner, demonstrates that redemption is not a linear journey but one riddled with constant doubts and confusion.
Zuko is also a demonstration of renouncing privilege and resisting nationalism, as he is depicted as a traitor to the nation for speaking truth to its propaganda. Given that we live in a world where criticism of the government or history, particularly when second or third-generation citizens do it, can get one cast as a traitor or someone who despises their country – this resonated strongly.
The show teaches us about the value of family and friendship, which can be found in the strangest of places, and the sanctity of life. And as the Avatar himself is reincarnated every generation to save the world, so the show has come alive once more to save a new generation, trapped in a time of racist authoritarians and a global pandemic.