Avatar the Last Airbender:
Or How a Children’s TV Show Has Deeper Meaning Than Anything You Are Watching
For any of you who are fans of the series, you know that Avatar the Last Airbender is hitting Netflix tomorrow. If you didn’t know that… umm… Surprise. I am here though to talk to the people who are not yet fans. But if you are a fan and want to see how well I put the point that everyone should be a fan, buckle up.
Thesis: Everyone should love watching Avatar the Last Airbender
I said it for you right there, so let’s go to the argument. People who generally are not fans of Avatar the Last Airbender, hence forth to be abbreviated to ATLA because otherwise this is going to be a 20 page long essay, broadly fall into one of three categories, never been exposed to this show specifically, never been exposed to animated series at large, or write off animation as “great for kids but grow up honestly.” Arguing the first point is easy enough. If you are a fan of well done animated series and movies the likes of Studio Ghibli, Studio Bones, or even some of Netflix’s original stuff. This is a series that is right up your alley. And it is now free to watch (with Netflix membership). Check it out, I am sure you will understand most of the nuances of the series and will love the characters.
For those of you who have never really been exposed to animated shows in general, I am excluding Looney Tunes here, come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure gold animation. Crud sorry got off track on Gene Wilder singing again. Anyway. There is a lot more to the world of animation than just Looney Tunes, or the mindless dribble that is Peppa Pig and Spongebob. Serialized animated shows, those in which there is an overall story plot, actually make up the bulk of the animated television marketplace at this point. There is a wide variety out there if you want to take a dive into something new. Everything from witty kids shows, like Phineas and Ferb, to adult spy comedies, like Archer, to weird master chef style animes, like Food Wars!. There is plenty out there for you to gorge yourself on. Some I will even suggest in later weeks. But know that there is probably something out there that will interest you, you just have to find it. I will suggest though, to prove my point of there being a great animated show out there, that you give ATLA a try first, due to what I will argue to the next bunch. And then once you realize that this is a genre for you, go out and explore.
If you are of the third group that has told themselves the lie, that cartoons are for kids. Or that you think the only adults that like cartoons are the weirdo’s that dress up and show up to conventions. Let me lay down some straight facts for you. Let’s take a look at what the average person typically goes to for enjoyable shows. Game of Thrones, The Office, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory. All of these were top running shows of their time that attracted large groups of adults to watch, well, um. Most of these shows have a common factor. They either ran so long that the audience has gotten bored with them or the final seasons were so disgraceful that their fan bases basically walked away. Most have fairly one dimensional characters that don’t grow that much. And most have no meaningful lessons to teach. Except that people that work in The Office are terrible people. And everyone is a sociopath according to Game of Thrones. And these are the “good” shows that “adults” watch. I am not even going to get into the trash that is TMZ and the Kardashians. Meanwhile, ATLA has a diverse cast of characters from different cultures. They are dynamic, learn lessons, and grow as the series progresses. The plot questions themes like morality, imperialism, and cultural hegemony. Things that we actually should be looking at in our daily lives. One of the main “villians” at the start of the series, actually becomes a consistent fount of sage-like advice for the entire series. You might have noticed some of his quotes in the post so far. The show warns about the dangers of pride and the moral crime of dehumanizing others, something many people in this country could learn a lot from.
This series takes one of the most in-depth looks at Buddhist philosophy of any medium. It attacks the idea of toxic masculinity and promotes female equality. It looks at poverty, mental illness, abuse, war crimes. And it has good pacing and a satisfying end. It is a remarkably adult show for being just some kiddy animation for Saturday morning cartoons. And what I am trying to point out to you, is that art is art. It doesn’t matter the medium. Good art is good art and bad art is bad art. The Last Jedi was garbage and it wasn’t animated. And Spirited Away wasn’t any less amazing because it was animated. For another example Rebecca Blacks “Friday” would not be better played on an organ. Trash is trash, gold is gold. One should learn to appreciate art, whatever the medium, song, opera, theatre, animation, fine art, sculpture, architecture. So if I have to have to you watch a single episode, to try to convince you of what I am trying to teach you. Go onto Netflix tomorrow, and go to season 2 and play episode 15. It is an episode called “Tales of Ba Sing Se”. I am going to paraphrase it a little below but will try to keep from any major series spoilers.
First off, you should know that “Tales of Ba Sing Se” is a filler episode. I want you to keep that in mind through all of this. Filler episodes, for those who don’t know, are typically done for low budget or as a gap fill when the projected story board isn’t going to cover the season requirement. Normally they don’t progress the story in any way and if you skip them you won’t actually miss anything. That is, for normal shows. “Tales of Ba Sing Se” contains a grouping of small stories that show everything that you need to know about each of the main characters at their core. All of them take place in the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se.
The first tale is of Toph and Katara. Both are headstrong female characters from completely different backgrounds. Katara was forced to become the matron of the family when there mother was killed in the 100 Year War. Katara was 9. Think about that for a moment. This girl has been the acting mother of her and her brother since she was 9. That is a seriously strong kid. Toph on the other hand is the sole heir to one of the largest fortunes in the Earth Kingdom. She is the self proclaimed greatest earth bender in the world, and she is, but she is totally blind. The two have a strange dynamic as Katara is very motherly and Toph is not exactly the cuddly type. But the two decide to go have a girls day, something the six months of traveling, while on a mission to stop a century long war, has not allowed for. They go to the spa and proceed to have the usual mud bath, sauna, and mani-pedi’s done. And when they leave, they each are now wearing makeup. A group of rich girls confronts them and mocks them for their makeup, calling them clowns. The bullies are handled, but it is clear that the words have hurt. But the girls come together in a very genuine way. They build each other up, instead of perpetuating the cycle of psychological violence we seem unable to quell in our own world. The second story is of Iroh. And to be honest I am going to save it to the end. You’ll understand why.
The third story is about Aang, the titular Last Airbender. Aang finds a zoo that can only really be described as inhumane. Pens are too small, animals are hungry because the government shut down funds to the zoo. The zoo keeper laments that he cannot give his animals the home he wants and Aang volunteers to help. Not a friend, not anyone who can benefit him in any way, Aang helps a stranger who can do nothing for him. Because it is the right thing to do. The initial animal transport doesn’t go as planned, in typical Aang style. But he eventually comes up with a plan and leads all the animals to an area outside of the wall where he quickly uses his immense bending (ability to control different elements) power to build a zoo for the man.
The fourth story follows Sokka, Katara’s older brother and the goofball/ sarcastic one of the group. Sokka is the only one of the main characters that is unable to bend an element. However, what he lacks in bending ability he makes up for in wit and determination. Sokka somehow crashes into a Haiku school where he ends up battling in poetry with the headmistress. While not as eloquent as the headmistress, he enjoys the competition, and the scene ends with him getting thrown out of the school for going over by one syllable. The whole thing is lighthearted and comical, but that is what Sokka brings to the table. That even in the middle of the worst times imaginable, we have to have some fun and laugh.
Story five sees Zuko, the original baddie in the series, volunteered for a date by his uncle with a girl who frequents the shop. Zuko is a complex character. Scarred by his own father, the more-or-less king of the Fire Nation, and banished for speaking out about needlessly sacrificing troops in the war, Zuko was forced to roam the world hunting for the Avatar. He is awkward, headstrong, rage filled, and basically everything you would expect of a young teenage boy being forced onto his first date. The girl he goes out with is a commoner of the Earth Kingdom, while he is a prince of the Fire Nation. Both nations are more-or-less the only ones still fighting in the 100 Year War. These two from birth have basically been taught nothing but hatred for the other. And yet as a strange juxtaposition to this, here they are on a date. The girl ends up taking him to her favorite place in the city, a simple fountain surrounded by lanterns. But is crushed by the fact that none of the lanterns are lit. And then Zuko does something unexpected. At the risk of exposing himself as Fire Nation, likely to get him killed, he uses his bending to light all the candles while she closes her eyes. A simple kind act, with more meaning than just lighting some lanterns. These two are enemies. They are locked in a century long war. Yet in this moment, it is simply one person doing something kind for another. Imagine if we could all do that. You don’t have to be friends with everyone. You don’t even have to like everyone. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do something kind for them, or improve their life.
The last story chronologically is about Momo. Momo is one of the pet companions. Not a single word of dialogue is spoken in the last story but it is nonetheless profound. It follows Momo as he searches for his best friend, and fellow animal companion of the group, Appa. Episodes before, Appa had been stolen by poachers to sell to the highest bidder and Momo’s lament, though not in words, is heart wrenching. He searches in vain through the city before coming in contact with, and I’m only guessing on the name here, bat-panthers. These fearsome cat creatures are scrounging through the garbage when they get a chance at fresh meat. A chase ensues in which all three bat-panthers and Momo are captured by what constitutes as animal control, before being taken to a restaurant in the slums to be killed, cooked, and eaten. Momo is able to escape his cage, and before departing, knowing the fate of the others should he leave them, helps them escape. The bat-panthers then repay him by taking him to a large pawprint. One that could only be left by Appa. The entire story has something of an Aesop’s Fables vibe to me. The idea that if you help someone, eventually that will come back around to you. It also speaks of the problems we have in our own world of poaching and animal cruelty.
Okay, I promised. The story of Iroh. I saved this for last, because if nothing else can convince you that this is a deep series, worthy of your admiration, this will. And if it doesn’t, I don’t know how to help you. Iroh is the uncle of Zuko, the main antagonist through about season 1.5. He is seemingly hedonistic and care free. But even after a couple episodes you will get who Iroh is. He’s the father Zuko never had, because Zuko’s real father, and Iroh’s younger brother, is a psychopathic, abusive, power hungry monster. Yet Iroh is his foil. Humble, honorable, and above all, kind. Iroh’s story begins with him purchasing a picnic basket from a vendor. He tells the man that today is a very important day, but doesn’t let on more than that. He next sees a mother, struggling with a crying child. And rather than doing what we all want to do when we see that in Walmart and walk as fast as we can away from that ticking time bomb, Iroh picks up a pipa (like a 4 stringed guitar) and plays a song, that I swear will drive you to tears any time you hear it from now on, to comfort the boy. The child calms himself, smiles, and even takes a playful tug at Iroh’s long beard. After coming across some kids who break a window playing ball, he tells them it is best to admit our mistakes and ask for forgiveness. But when a hulk of a man threatens all of them for the damage, they all take off comically running to various alleys. When Iroh finally stops to catch his breath, he is confronted by a different man who attempts a mugging. Instead of feeling fear or anger at the attempted mugging, Iroh simply stares at the man with curiousity. Iroh critiques the man’s poor mugging stance, before quickly disarming him. After teaching the man the proper stance for wielding a knife, he talks the guy out of crime while sharing tea and just listening to the man’s story. The guy turned to crime to feed his family because no one had ever told him that there was another way. I want you to let that sink in for a minute. Because that is really profound. Iroh just talked a mugger out of a life of crime by listening to the person and then giving him the confidence that he could get out of poverty and feed his family another way. I am utterly convinced that if we all treated each other half as well as Iroh treats others, and took even half of his teachings from the series to heart, the world would be such a better place than it is right now. And then there is the final scene of Iroh’s story. On a hill outside the city, Iroh sets up a couple simple rocks. He then pulls out a picture of his son, and lights two incense sticks. He tells him happy birthday, and that he wishes he could have helped him the way he helped all those others. Because if you haven’t guessed. Yes, his son is dead. He died fighting for the glory of his nation in the war. Not far from where Iroh is now sitting in the Earth Kingdom. Iroh buried his only son. The jewel of his eye. His greatest treasure. And yet there he is, every single day. Smile on his face. Helping others. No, little kids watching this show probably aren’t going to get that. But we do. The adults do. Because we know what loss is. We know the empty feeling. And that’s why this isn’t some silly cartoon. It’s art. It’s really art. Because it connects with people of all ages. Give it a try. If you love it. Let me know in the comments. If you hate it and think I’m stupid. Let me know also.
Oh and to be clear we are talking Avatar the Last Airbender. If you just look up the live action Last Airbender abomination, you are just going to be disappointed.