One hundred reviews in under a year seems like an unearthly amount, yet here we are, my 200th review (depending on whether you include the Lessons in Adaptation— which I will). Last year I talked about my darling favorite video game, Psychonauts, for my 100th, so my 200th needed to be something special, too.
I could have finished up my Preacher review series, given I’m still hanging off of that final episode, but no. I could choose my favorite book or film, but to be completely honest, I don’t have one of those the same way I do a favorite video game. I don’t even have a favorite show, really, and most of the ones I deeply adore I’ve already discussed.
Well, except for the one.
It isn’t difficult to find fans of the early 2000s cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. This children’s series aired on Nickelodeon for just three years, but gained wide acclaim and an avid viewership of youths. While its success initially spawned commercial interest, its cultural moment faded with the critical failure of the 2010 film adaptation. In the years since the film, the rise of streaming services and a similarly mature sequel series has attracted more attention to the series. Today, it is regarded as one of the most well-made television shows of all time, even by those who never watched it during its release.
Plenty of people have talked about the disastrous M. Night Shayamalan adaptation of the series, so I’m not here to dissect what happened with it. Maybe later. After, you know, I’ve actually seen the thing.
No, what I want to talk about instead is the backlash against the show. Even as it’s risen to prominence on the internet, Avatar remains relegated to the children’s animated bin. While it’s not difficult to find those who picked up the show as children or as part of their anime regimen, those even slightly averse to animated series have tended to steer clear of it, assuming it won’t appeal to them.
I’m not going to try to convince anyone who is dead-set in their biases that the show is worth your time. If you hate Disney animation because you were always a Dreamworks stan, or if you’re afraid of being seen as childish for appreciating something that doesn’t have curses and dirty jokes, I’m not going to convince you otherwise. I’m not really sure I’d want to.
But if you are at all interested in fantasy, or want to write your own fantasy books, you owe it to yourself to know what this series is and why it’s held up for a decade and a half. The fundamental structure of Avatar and how it maneuvers fantasy tropes is making it an inspiration for new works in the genre in the same way as Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. And in many areas, it surpasses other fantasy standards.
Besides, it’s a good story worth retelling.
3P Reviews: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Spoilers: Yes (also minor spoilers for The Legend of Korra)
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: The Shape of Characters
There are simply too many episodes of this show for me to go through them one by one. Every one deserves a discussion, so I might do something with them one day, but a lot of people have singled out episodes or gone through the series piece-by-piece in their discussions. Instead, I’d like to talk about the series as a whole, aiming it at those who are vaguely interested but haven’t ever seen it themselves.
The first thing a viewer will likely notice about the show is that it is made for children. Children’s fantasy tends to take on a very different feel than fantasy aimed at adults. Where Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, American Gods, and The Broken Earth Trilogy have a historical lean to them and take influence from The Lord of the Rings, series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The Golden Compass, and The Spiderwick Chronicles draw more from The Hobbit for their pacing and style. Stories of any sort aimed at children are often episodic, their language simplified, their plots focused almost entirely around the central characters. In fantasy, this often translates to the worlds being seen wholly through the eyes of the main characters, becoming tied to the narrative like the world of a fairytale. Children’s stories are easy to understand. This can make them boring.
Avatar breaks from the fairytale tradition of children’s fantasy and turns to worldbuilding to keep its audience engaged. It opens with exposition — unusual, as exposition is characteristic of fantasy for older audiences. Ever since The Lord of the Rings, traditional fantasy has leaned heavily into constructing worlds to give the audience a sense of the book not as a story, but its own little universe. Starting in the early 2000s with the rise of young adult genre fiction, more stories intermediate between children’s and adult fantasy began to merge the worldbuilding trend with relatively simple fairytale narratives. Avatar is one of the early forms of that merger in television.
As a result, the show has a vast lore and complex magic mechanics, but its story remains straightforward. This is especially evident in the first season, which has a somewhat slow start but sets a foundation for the series moving forward. It ensures that any audience, regardless of age, can follow the story.
There is a village, there is a warship, and there is an iceberg.
The world of Avatar is organized into four nations, each of which contains elemental benders based on the Greek classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Each nation draws upon different sources of real-world inspiration, particularly those of China and broader Asia, the Earth Kingdom evoking mainland China, the Air Nomads evoking remote Indian and Southeast Asian Buddhist temples, the Fire Nation evoking Imperial Japan, and the Water Tribe evoking various northern indigenous groups*. Benders within each nation only control one element, with the exception the Avatar, a spiritual leader who can learn to control all four. There is only one Avatar at a time, and when they die, the next Avatar is reborn into another nation.
The series opens with this basic exposition, as well as the plot you’e probably heard in some form or another if you’ve spent any time on the internet: the Fire Nation has attacked the others, and the Avatar has vanished altogether. At the time of the story, the world has been at war for a hundred years, during which the Fire Nation has wiped out the entire culture of Air Nomads, to whom the next Avatar would have been born. However, in the pilot, a sister and brother from the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka, stumble upon an airbender boy named Aang who has been trapped in an iceberg for the duration of the war. They soon learn that he’s the new Avatar.
From there, the story settles into a standard fantasy cast: the chosen one, the love interest, the comic relief, and the cute animal mascots on an adventure to learn magic and save the world. Aang only knows airbending, and so, to master the other elements as any good Avatar, he must travel the world and find teachers. Along the way, he and his new friends are pursued by Zuko, the banished Fire Nation prince, as well as other military leaders of the imperialistic nation. As the story goes on, we get our ticking clock in the form of a comet that will allow the Fire Nation to invade the few corners of the world they do not already control, inevitably resulting in mass casualties. Aang, then, must become a fully realized Avatar before the comet arrives and stop the Fire Lord for good.
All or most of this is summed up at the start of each episode, and it is not, on its surface, and overly compelling plot. The setup allows for an entertaining story, sure, but the premise is so threadbare as a fantasy adventure that anyone older than the age of eight would probably ask for at least some assurance that the series is better than it sounds.
It is better. In fact, it is so much more expansive and heartfelt and introspective and compassionate than it promises initially, that even with fifteen years of peak tv prestige dramas between it and us, Avatar still displays a grasp of the human condition seen nowhere else on television.
While the first season follows an episodic series of adventures as Aang & co. make their way to the Northern Water Tribe (the Southern one having no waterbenders other than Katara). While many of the first season’s episodes are what one might expect of a children’s fantasy adventure (perhaps with a bit more visual flair, especially compared to others of the time), even early on, the show demonstrates its willingness to go far further than expected for its story.
In the third episode, Aang takes his new friends to visit the temple where he grew up. He has yet to see firsthand how the world has changed. The Fire Nation wasn’t militaristic when he was growing up, and he’s only had a brief encounter against them up to now. He’s only twelve, so he’s also unprepared to accept that his friends are long dead anyway. After exploring the temple for a while, he comes across the inevitable, an ancient battlefield full of skeletons, one of which he recognizes as his mentor and father figure. The antagonists have not only exterminated his friends, but they’ve also done their best to wipe his entire culture from the map.
As the series progresses, much of Aang’s character arc concerns his guilt at not being there to help the other airbenders, and the pressure of being responsible for ensuring a similar genocide doesn’t happen again. In later episodes, we learn that Aang became frozen while running away from this responsibility, and that despite the immense power the Avatar wields, they can and have been fallible. It was an oversight by the last Avatar that allowed the Fire Nation to gain a foothold prior to the start of the war, and as he travels, Aang sees people who are afraid of or loath the Avatar — sometimes for good reason, he thinks. In another early episode, Aang gets caught up in the fascination of a new town full of adoring fans, only to later realize he’s lead Fire Nation soldiers to their doorstep. Throughout the story, Aang is plagued by fears, mainly that he’ll fail to save people or even hurt them in the attempt.
I mean, that’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a twelve-year-old. And he is twelve; unlike many fantasy series with younger protagonists, this one very much plays to the social and cognitive limitations of its characters as expected for their ages. While many of them are more capable at fighting and wilderness survival than their principle viewership likely is, the characters are inexperienced, impulsive, and often have difficulty fully expressing their emotions. This is a major source of drama, right alongside the dire stakes of a magical war. Yet, this is also a major source of ingenuity for the series. Aang’s naivete and childlike sympathy for people leads him to solutions others wouldn’t consider. In fact, this very attribute is what allows him to bring people together and resolve the conflict peacefully, despite the odds.
Part Two: How to Break People (Nicely)
By the time we get to the second and third seasons, the show starts to open up and flex its narrative muscles. It not only pays off the potential seen in the first season’s highlights, it far exceeds them.
The second season sees Aang, having reached the North Pole and mastered waterbending, in search of a teacher for his next element, earth. The team acquires a new member, a blind girl named Toph, who is a delightful loudmouth with an appropriately rigid personality. The second season is perhaps the least focused, as Aang and his friends have no specific task to accomplish nor place to reach for much of the season.
That’s what I love about the second season, though; it provides time for the characters to explore their worlds and their relationships to each other. We see more of the Earth Kingdom and learn about the different cultures and subcultures that inhabit this world. Many characters talk about philosophy, addressing the spiritual undertones of the series directly. Incorporating religious concepts into a fantasy series is a tricky business, but I think this one hits the right notes for the most part. Avatar makes a distinction between the internal religions and philosophies of its world, and the in-universe magic of bending, the Avatar, and the Spirit World. While the two are often connected, that connection tends to be specific to religious characters, like Aang, as a monk.
Much of the second season is introspective, with Aang trying to master the powerful Avatar State. This ability comes up when he is in danger or emotionally charged, the collective abilities of all of the previous Avatars possessing him and granting him skills beyond any one person. However, using the Avatar State is highly dangerous, as Aang can both hurt people accidentally, and hurt the entire line of Avatars with it. If he’s killed in the Avatar State, he learns at the start of the second season, the Avatar will die permanently.
That very nearly happens at the season’s end, with Aang trying and failing to reach a harmony between his personal interests and the much larger role the Avatar plays as a force of balance. This sets Aang up for increased stress in the third and final season, where the fate of the world hangs on his shoulders. He and his friends have discovered a tiny window of opportunity to defeat the Firelord before Sozin’s Comet arrives and grants the firebenders untold power. This season sees Aang with his greatest difficulty in finding a teacher yet, as he must master firebending at a time when, to his knowledge, all firebenders are his enemies. On top of that, his brush with death in the previous season means the world at large — allies and enemies — think he’s died.
Aang faces near-constant feelings of failure and frustration, making him eager to fulfill his destiny as soon as possible so more people don’t have to get hurt for his sake. When that fateful day finally arrives, though, Aang finds himself underprepared and the window of opportunity vanishes.
The third season is perhaps the most emotionally and narratively complex, as it requires Aang to see the Fire Nation as more than evil villains. Although he and his friends are in hiding through most of the season, most the people they encounter are ordinary Fire Nation civilians. They’re peasants, merchants, artisans, and so on, much like those of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe except for the place where they live. In order to stop the war, Aang needs to do much more than merely destroy the evil villain; he needs to understand the Fire Nation, its element, and his relationship to it. As Avatar, Aang is himself a firebender, and despite his misgivings about the element, he must learn to use it.
It’s no coincidence that the antagonist at the start of the series, Zuko, gets a redemption arc and becomes Aang’s firebending teacher. Zuko is Aang’s foil throughout the series, but even as early as the first season, the series sows the seeds for eventual friendship between the two. A few years before the start of the series, Zuko insulted his father and has been punished with what until now has seemed an impossible task: finding and retrieving the Avatar. When he discovers Aang in the South Pole, Zuko pursues him with fervor, seeing Aang as his ticket home. Over the course of the series, though, Zuko’s travels through the Earth Kingdom with his peaceful uncle reshape his priorities. As a banished prince, Zuko is often at odds with the Fire Nation itself, forcing him to fight his own men and family members, or go into hiding.
Halfway through the first season, Aang is captured by Admiral Zhou, a rival of Zuko’s with far more resources than him. It’s little surprise, then, when a masked figure who infiltrates Zhou’s compound and helps Aang escape turns out to be Zuko himself. While the rescue is rather obviously Zuko’s attempt to claim the prize for himself, he and Aang work together while breaking through the compound, and Aang rescues a knocked-out Zuko even after realizing who he is. The episode doesn’t end on amiable grounds, but it’s an early indication of how the similarities between these characters would make them highly compatible friends were the circumstances different. By the time the third season rolls around, Zuko has seen the light and despite winning back his father’s favor, desserts to join Aang’s team, realizing this to be the moral choice and the one he actually wants.
While Aang and Zuko are easily the most central characters with the most prominent arcs, a major theme throughout the series is community. In the finale, all of the major characters have to use what they’ve learned over their arcs and play to their strengths to stop the war.
Katara has come to master waterbending to a level surpassing even Aang, taking over from their teacher at the North Pole to continue Aang’s training. Throughout the story, she has grown closer to Aang as the typical love interest, but her personal growth has more often related to her dual personality traits. Katara is the most motherly of the group, the nexus that keeps everyone together and cares for them. However, she is also brash and obstinate, a self-appointed caretaker who, for all her apparent maturity, is still a child herself. Katara is the first to trust Zuko in the second season when the two of them are captured by Zuko’s violent sister, Azula. After Zuko turns on her and Aang, though, she bears a grudge that continues well into the third season, even after he’s redeemed in the eyes of the other protagonists. In the finale, Katara hangs out on the sidelines while Zuko battles his sister once more. Despite being relegated to role of healer and moral support initially, it’s actually Katara who wins the day; she combines her own passive resourcefulness with her raw waterbending talent to trap Azula in a way no other character could.
Sokka is with Toph and a more minor character named Suki, all trying to stop a fleet of advancing Firebender airships. Sokka is the main comic relief character, but he’s also a strategist, trying to live up to his father’s reputation as a warrior. As you might imagine, his traits are often in conflict; Sokka is at times highly perceptive and intelligent, but at other times thick-headed and dickish. His arc is largely about coming to accept himself for who he is and use his talents to his advantage. Because of his unique way of thinking, Sokka is good at inventing novel solutions to difficult problems. Upon realizing each airship is far too large and fast for his group to take them out individually (especially as neither he nor Suki are benders), Sokka determines to take control of one ship on the end and crash it into the others. And bizarre as it may seem, that’s what works.
Toph’s arc is largely complete by the end of the series, as Season Two was more concerned with her personal development. Toph is the youngest of the group, a formidable earthbender who uses a unique style of fighting that allows her to bend even metal. She’s learned all of this on her own, because her blindness kept her parents constantly hovering over her in her youth. Eager to make use of her talents and prove her critics wrong, Toph has fostered a coarse exterior, favoring self-reliance and shows of strength over vulnerability or compassion. Throughout the series, Toph has struggled to relate to the other characters, but by the end of the third season, she’s warmed up enough to accept orders and work with the rest of the group rather than on her own. She still plays a pivotal role in Sokka’s plan to dismantle the airships, but it’s a plan that requires strong communication skills and Toph up in the air, out of her comfort zone.
Zuko’s arc likewise is mostly complete by the end of the series. His culminating moment comes from him finally earning his way into the main group, which follows nearly three seasons of internal conflict and identity crisis. Zuko is an angsty boi.
Pivotal to his character arc is his relationship to his uncle, a kind man whose love of tea and board games belies his tremendous wisdom and talents. Zuko’s uncle, Iroh, is a neutral figure, even in the first season. He’s nominally from the Fire Nation, but averse to violence and much more interested in learning about the other nations rather than conquering them. He’s Zuko’s primary mentor, teaching him firebending techniques and various philosophies as they travel, but he’s also Zuko’s surrogate father figure. Zuko picks up a lot from Iroh subconsciously, such as an appreciation for the other nations’ cultures and a desire for peace, even as he continues to strive for his abusive actual father’s approval. In the second season, when given the choice to join Aang’s side or his sister’s, Zuko chooses his sister, despite everything he’s learned about the Fire Nation and despite his sister’s previous attempts to hurt him. Iroh is distraught and fights with Aang, spending most of the third season in a Fire Nation prison for treason. By the time Zuko comes around and realizes his mistake, Iroh has fled to join a resistance team, meaning Zuko is on his own when he faces his father and defects to join Aang. The only part of his arc left to complete, aside from take over the Fire Nation when Aang’s dealt with the current firelord (you know, that small thing), is for Zuko to reunite with his uncle and apologize. Which he does, and it’s adorable and it makes me cry.
I realize I’m probably spending a lot of time on Zuko in this section relative to the other characters, but to be honest, it’s very much merited. The series takes a lot of time away to show the audience what he’s doing, even outside of his interactions with Aang’s team. None of the other characters goes on quite the roller coaster of allegiances and states of emotional duress that this one does.
With perhaps one exception.
Zuko’s contribution aside, this is ultimately the story of Aang, but not in the way you might think. Aang is two characters: Aang the child monk from the Southern Air Temple, and Avatar Aang, savior of the world. In the end episodes, Aang must reconcile the two to become whole. He spends the entire prelude to the final battle meditating and trying to figure out how to stop the firelord without killing him. As a monk, he was raised to be peaceful and tries to never hurt any other creatures, much less kill them. While the world depends upon him now more than ever, and he knows well the consequences of failure here, he’s not sure he can physically kill the firelord, even if granted the opportunity.
And he’s right. All of the previous Avatars tell him that there’s no other way. His friends tell him the same. When he does finally face down the firelord, he is a fully-trained Avatar capable of controlling all four elements and the Avatar State. In the midst of battle, Aang has the perfect opportunity to kill the firelord and end the war; the firelord shoots a lightning bolt at him, and, using a special technique, Aang catches it.
The series has used this technique in all three seasons and built upon it in a masterful way. The idea is that a firebender, regardless of whether they themself can produce lightning, can passively accept incoming an lightning bolt and redirect it elsewhere. For instance, at the aggressor that produced it. Aang learns this technique from Zuko, who can’t produce lightning himself but was instead taught this technique by his uncle. Iroh in turn invented the technique by basing it off of the waterbenders. In essence, this is a defensive move that is only ever as harmful as the attack directed at it, links the two main characters through their respective arcs, and thematically significant. On top of all of that, the firelord should see this coming, as Zuko used it against him when he defected. The firelord is too incurious about the larger world to understand the technique, too arrogant to predict Aang might use it, and too violent to keep from from becoming vulnerable to it. What he gets is all his own doing.
At the last moment, Aang aims away and fires into the air.
Defeating the firelord is not about the kind of person the firelord is; it’s about the kind of person Aang is. Aang is not the kind of person who stands idly by and lets someone die, even if they’re a monster and it’s their own fault. He is the Avatar, but that doesn’t preclude him from being himself, a pacifist and a child who can empathize with even the worst monster in the world, and determine that even they don’t deserve to be killed.
Aang eventually finds a nonlethal solution that involves removing the firelord’s powers, and a fair few viewers have beef with this resolution because it feels overly convenient. There’s a spiritual element of Aang encountering a mystical dragon turtle at an opportune moment, and it’s somewhat unclear that the dragon turtle gives him this power. The creators were apparently beset by complaints frequently enough that they worked the functionality of this mechanic into an episode of the sequel series, The Legend of Korra. The Avatar backstory episode is actually quite good, but even without it, and even with the sort of deus ex machina resolution, I still think the ending of Avatar is one of the most remarkable resolutions to any fantasy series.
Yes, in practical situations, there often isn’t a perfect solution and you have to choose one track or another for the trolley. You can’t save everyone.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t damn well try.
Part Three: Deep Breath
The journey this series takes its viewer on is entertaining and, for many people, deeply affecting. I hope my enthusiasm for the series comes across and paints an appropriate picture, because I really would recommend it, even with spoilers and internet memes and its association with Nickelodeon. But I said at the beginning that I aimed to make this review for people who are interested in fantasy writing, I still intend to do that. While it may be apparent by now what Avatar does that makes it stand out, there are a few things in particular I want to dissect further.
For one, Avatar has the most vibrant fantasy world I’ve ever seen.
Really. Plenty of fantasy series focus on fleshing out their worlds, but Avatar does so by connecting everything together, making it simultaneously feel far more expansive than necessary, while also ensuring that it’s particular plot could only ever happen in its particular world. The actions of the characters shape the world, the world shapes the characters, and both are dynamic, adapting as the plot directs them.
The number one mistake I see new fantasy writers make is that they create their worlds before they know what they want to do with them. The best fantasy worlds work as a piece of the plot, the story arising naturally from the established framework, and providing an anchor in turn that allows further expansion of the world. There’s not much point in spending all of your time determining the entire hierarchy of your world’s political system if the main characters are all street urchins whose town burns down and forces them to live in the woods for the remainder of the plot. At most, you might reference the name of a noble or two, but you don’t need to determine these people ahead of time. It’s far more important to understand the world you’ve built moving forward and establish areas you can expand upon as needed, rather than try to fit a square story into a round world.
Regardless of how Avatar built its lore originally, in the final piece, the series only ever spends time on worldbuilding areas as they become important. It paints broad strokes that it can fill in later with detail. When characters mention the major city of Ba-Sing-Se for the first time, it’s only to inform the audience that there’s a major Earth Kingdom city and it’s called Ba-Sing-Se; it’s only once the characters get close to the city that we learn anything about its makeup or governance or culture. At that point, the story needs characters to have certain capabilities and limitations to keep things interesting, so the city is structured around those needs, but filled out enough that it feels like its own entity. Zuko and Iroh need to be able to go in hiding in the city at the same time Team Avatar arrive, but we need to get Team Avatar’s missing bison back and build tension for the climax before they run into Iroh and Zuko. Ba-Sing-Se therefore has to be large and complex enough that these groups of characters can complete small but interesting subplots without accidentally running into each other. The city also needs to be grand enough to payoff the extensive setup it’s had throughout the season, while remaining vulnerable enough to be conquered by a small number of characters during the climax.
By recognizing these needs and finding ways to satisfy all of them, the world and the story become fully intertwined. In fact, they’re so intertwined that while later spin-off series use the same world for their foundation and often revisit familiar locations, they have to change the world considerably to tell different stories in it.
The cohesion of its world is part of the success of Avatar‘s narrative. Another part comes about from the series using basic fantasy cliches but turning them into something more.
Plenty of other series have elements similar to those in Avatar. Often, Avatar is unapologetic when it borrows from common fantasy tropes. It has a Chosen One spiritually ordained by his forebears, an Evil Overlord, a Badass Love Interest, a Blind Warrior, Angsty Boi, the Comic Relief Best Friend, Mentor Figures for days, a Spirit World, a Mystical Guru, The Four Elements and their associated cliches, the Psychotic Magic Woman and her sidekicks, Dead Father Figures, Abusive Father Figures, Absent Father Figures — all the father figures — and also plenty of Dead or Missing Mother Figures. The series even manages to fit in Nightmares Before the Big Test and The Last of the Dragons. It’s full to bursting with tropes, and this is intentional.
While I won’t say the series handles every one of its tropes with nuance, it certainly tends to fill them out. Take for instance one of the show’s major homages and most recognizable visual characteristics: its martial arts.
The series is heavily influenced by martial arts movies and like plenty of video games and anime shows, Avatar combines this broad spectrum of melee combat with magical abilities. But where most series would inject magical martial arts for flair or aesthetic, this one goes a few steps further. As well as different bending styles and techniques linking to in-universe cultural trends, the way the show uses bending resonates with its themes. The series is often concerned with balance, the Avatar balancing the elements and nations, certain elements cancelling out each other. Martial arts techniques used throughout the series reflect the different concepts of balance, such as when techniques from different areas of bending reflect one another. Waterbenders can manipulate ice much like earthbenders do rock, firebenders and airbenders use similar punching techniques, earthbenders can manipulate sand like airbenders do air.
The series also plays with the audiences expectations, working the gray morality of its story into the very fabric of its magic system. While firebending is visibly dangerous and airbending is visibly less so, each bending ability has productive and destructive capabilities. Firebenders can use their abilities to, for instance, fuel hot air balloons or power generators, while airbenders can knock people off of buildings and steal the air from their lungs. One of the early episodes focuses on how waterbenders can use their magic to heal people, an ability Katara cultivates, while a later episode teaches her the delightfully creepy art of bloodbending.
One of the constant comments I hear from people watching the series for the first time, especially as adults, is how creatively the series uses its magic system. Even accounting for the world’s chimeric creatures and rare dragon turtle encounters, the magic system of the series is fairly confined compared to many fantasy epics. There are only four elements, benders can only control those elements, and those elements can only manipulate objects or substances readily in their purview. Compared to worlds with much broader magical abilities or vaguer constraints, Avatar would seem to be light on magical flexibility. But, as anyone familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s rules for magic knows, the more limitations a magic system has, the more creative the story has to be to get it to do what it wants.
Often I hear Sanderson’s rules on their own without much follow-up, but Avatar is a prime example of why this particular one holds. The limitations provide interesting junctures for the series to explore how a culture, and even an entire planet, might develop. Because the system only has to deal with four types of powers, events surrounding them would become highly repetitive, especially in a story centered around children learning about their powers. The show uses this as an opportunity rather than a hindrance, creating narrative parallels between characters learning similar abilities, and showing depth of character with their particular responses. The show is also careful to ensure similar events or encounters have enough variation that they don’t feel stale.
One of my favorite episodes — scratch that, my very favorite episode — involves Aang’s first firebending lesson from Zuko. Zuko needs a refresher himself because he’s out of sorts, and Aang suggests they find the original firebenders to learn from. There are various fantasy creatures in this world, a few of which have bending abilities and are considered the original benders of their respective elements. Toph learned how to earthbend from giant badgermoles, and Aang explains that according to legend, airbenders learned their craft from giant flying bison like Aang’s lovable companion, Appa. It would be easy for the series to take time aside and have Aang and Zuko run off to find some dragons, get trapped, and have to learn firebending from the dragons in order to escape like the other times characters have encountered badgermoles. However, to keep things interesting, the series has Zuko reveal that the dragons are long extinct, the last ones killed off by his uncle. The episode is still about learning how to firebend, but the bulk of the episode is about them working as a team for the first time, exploring the ruins of an ancient firebending civilization and coming to a better understanding of their personal histories and the history of their world. This is not the sort of episode you get in Skyrim, despite some amusing similarities.
The world of Avatar is narrow in scope, but almost endlessly deep. A seemingly simple character always has more going on under the surface, and the same is true of the plot, the lore, the magic system, the character relationships, the music, the animation — everything. This is a series that has a solid sense of self, which is rare to see in this sort of epic fantasy. I love the genre, but it’s a messy one. Perhaps because it wants to be comprehensible to children, Avatar focuses on honing its design. Episodes are only twenty minutes long, and anyone over the age of eight can follow them, but the show uses this time to pack in what it can at the edges. Even in its fluffier episodes, where the main gang finds a strange little village, encounters an obstacle, solves it, and moves on, there is always thematic unity that connects those smaller narratives to the grander arc of the series. Little episodes are opportunities for Aang to reflect on his past, for new lore to be revealed, for the main characters to build up their reputation, and for their individual goals to be challenged. This children’s series accomplishes in its three seasons what most fantasy stories can’t in twice the time with twice the resources. And it does so with a wink and a nod and a hell of a good time.
Go watch it. Your feelings will thank you.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 8
*There is certainly a conversation to be had about cultural appropriation, given the show’s main creators are two white men. I’m not sure I’m a great person to dictate that conversation, though. Generally speaking, appropriation is itself is neutral while the purposes and mechanisms can be harmful, especially if a colonizing culture is exploiting a colonized one. There isn’t a clear line delineating when cultural appropriation is harmful and when it’s permissible, and that call is really only something people from the potentially exploited culture(s) can make. Some portrayals are universally disliked by appropriated cultures because they belittle important cultural trends and historical events. I’m not entirely sure what the consensus of Avatar is outside of the US, but I can say anecdotally that it has a broad fanbase in the US, including among the Asian-American population.
I think Avatar tends to get a bit of a pass because it tries harder than most series of its sort. The production team used many disparate sources of inspiration for the art, music, and lore, but found commonalities between them and invented enough of their own material that the world feels like an homage rather than a replica. The creators of the series were cognizant of the tropes they were treading upon and their own position, so they relied on extensive expert consultation and workshopped their ideas with the intent of making a series that was beautiful without being exploitative. The cohesion of the world makes it feel organic despite its clear parallels to real-world cultures, so the Water Tribe being subsistence hunters or the Fire Nation having an immense navy are based in practicality rather than attempts to shoehorn in sweeping statements about the cultures that inspired them. Even if they get a detail wrong here or there when representing a particular aspect of a culture, they are close enough to the right spirit that their appropriation tends to be less bothersome than a series that slaps an Asian or indigenous aesthetic over a typical Western story (like a certain other series called Avatar, for instance).
That the series is well-made even without its influences probably doesn’t hurt.