Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an Airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he still has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
Ten years ago, Aang, Katara, and Sokka set out to return balance to the world and set right the wrongs of the Fire Nation. Nickelodeon aired The Boy in the Iceberg on February 21st, 2005. Ten years later, ATLA still has a special place in many a heart. And for good reason. Avatar may have been a series designed for children, with a cast of children as the main characters, but the lessons taught throughout the show’s four seasons were anything but childish. There was fun, laughter, terrible puns, and the silliness that inevitably comes with the territory of being a kid, but the balance of goofiness and important lessons in morality and growing up always came up perfect. The characters are well-developed and continue to develop throughout the show. Their fears, prejudices, shortcomings, and strengths are realistic enough to resonate with viewers the world over.
ATLA dealt with some dark topics over the years, and never shied away from tackling some of the hard-to-get-at issues. We watched Sokka struggle with inferiority as the only non-bender of the group, watched as he worked himself from a scared little boy with the weight of the entire village on his shoulders an the prejudices to match into a confident and able man who learned to respect everyone. Katara was met with prejudice from not only strangers but from her own brother in the beginning of the series, and we rooted for her as she persevered and demanded the respect and equal treatment she deserved. Aang grew from a terrified child into a powerful and wise bender, overcoming the trauma of his past in order to do what must be done. Toph may have been blind but she refused to be frail, becoming one of the powerhouses of the show. Zuko, persistent enemy turned great ally, struggled with accepting himself and learning to overcome the shadow of an unloving father. Uncle Iroh taught us serenity and the importance of a good cup of tea. Azula presented the frailty that can lurk behind powerful skills and high expectations. I can go on. Every character played an important role, even those that appeared once or twice in the series. We were forced to ask ourselves if the soldiers of the Fire Nation were cookie-cutter evil as we watched them constantly engage in relatable scenarios. The show constantly faced heartbreak and humor head-on, and for every moment of sadness there was joy, laughter, and healing. We learned hope. We learned perseverance. We learned how to deal with loss. We learned forgiveness, and unconditional love.
Even the filler episodes were higher quality than some shows’ most important plot arcs. The plot advancements, character interactions, origin stories, and animation was obviously lovingly created and nurtured. The craftsmanship that clearly went into the Avatar series shows in every step, from the individualized bending techniques employed by each race to the perfectly mapped character paths. Avatar the Last Airbender is a work of love that really sought to help its’ viewers grow into more understanding people. The dialogue never failed to be witty and engaging, shifting from glorious sarcasm to raw honesty seamlessly. Most of all, the challenges faced by these characters were real, relatable problems. Even though they were tasked with saving the world on a grand scale, in a world vastly different from our own, their humanity resonated deep within us, and the individual struggles they face are absolutely things we face in our lives.
We are taught that there is always opportunity to change, to help, to make something better—to make ourselves better. The positive messages put forth by every aspect of this show are staggering. I believe that this is one of the most important TV series younger children can watch because of the way it deals with so many important topics. Characters are never reduced down to stereotypes; we see girls being important and strong in ways far more diverse than the “strong female character” archetype designates, prejudices and perceived weaknesses can be overcome because growth is possible, and even the “villains” are multi-dimensional. The lessons are never really watered down, and they are treated with the importance and weight deserved, but the messages of hope always shine through.
I honestly could not recommend any series as highly as I would ATLA. If you haven’t yet experienced the wonder, enjoyment, and importance that is the adventures of the gaang, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a marathon. At any age, any stage of your life. There’s something to be gained.
Oh, yeah. One last thing. Secret Tunnel, through the mountains! SECRET SECRET SECRET SECRET TUNNEL.