Spoilers for all of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
How do you be a good person? That’s the central question of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show uses a road trip structure, lifted from stories like Lord Of The Rings, to explore questions related to that question; the show is a constant process of its heroes stumbling across questions and finding answers to them. It’s most clear with the two main protagonists. In the show’s world, some people are ‘benders’; not impulsive alcoholic robots, but people with the ability to summon and control one of four elements (fire, water, air, and earth), and this world is divided into four nations, each themed around one of those elements (the Fire Nation, the Water Tribe, the Air Nomads, and the Earth Kingdom). Aang is the chosen one – the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, a person capable of controlling all four elements, philosophically intended to unite all peoples and specifically prophecised to defeat the Fire Lord, whose grandfather conquered most of the world. His story is one of refining what it means to be Avatar and how he can balance his personal ideals with his responsibilities (as a tiny example, he’s a vegetarian in a world where that’s unusual). Playing in countermelody is Zuko, son of the Fire Lord, banished from his kingdom until he can find the Avatar and bring him in. Zuko’s redemption arc is the most famous aspect of the show, depicting his shift from villain to antihero to hero.
The road trip plot creates a relaxed attitude, where the characters have somewhere to be (and some conflict to flee from) but the trip is so far that the characters can’t help but be caught up in some situation; the first season covers Aang’s trip from the South Pole to the North Pole to receive his training in waterbending, and not only is he fleeing Zuko the entire time, he’s finding situations he can’t help but interfere in. The show introduces a clock early in season one in that he must defeat the Fire Lord before the passing of Sozin’s Comet, which will power up all firebenders to ludicrous levels, which creates an increased sense of panic as time passes and the comet comes closer and closer, with the characters essentially racing across the world to get to the next target (which is almost always the next teacher for Aang). Season two introduces some plot complexity when Zuko’s sister shows up and botches an attempt to arrest him, which means she replaces him as primary antagonist and he starts walking the earth himself. Aang and Zuko have very similar arcs, in which they are put through experiences that test their morality and exposed to the thoughts and opinions of others that they can use to establish and refine their identities.
Zuko undergoes the most dramatic change, and in doing so demonstrates the show’s understanding of Goodness most vividly: one becomes a Good person by first mastering one’s emotions, which begins with considering them and which are more powerful than the others. Zuko begins as a brash asshole, taking out his emotions immediately on whatever surrounds him (and his emotion is usually anger). His journey is one of increasing self-awareness, as he realises that he’s been motivated by a desire to be loved by his abusive father; the big twist at the climax of season two (and, really, of the show) is that despite the things he’s learned, he decides to side with his sister, capture Aang, and take his place back at the Fire Nation as Prince. But Zuko finds that getting everything he wanted proves curiously unsatisfying, and that’s what finally motivates him to go out and join Aang in the fight against his father. Aang’s story is more static but, in its own way, more fluid; he doesn’t change identity as radically as Zuko, staying a happy-go-lucky capital-H Hero the entire time, but the moral quandaries he faces are wider in scope and less obviously rooted in moving him in one clear direction. An early episode deals with his guilt in the fact that running away from his responsibilities was what caused him to get frozen in a block of ice in the first place, setting the story in motion; he struggles with the reputation of the Avatar (both his own actions, and those of his previous incarnations); he finds being a natural airbender, which prizes finding clever ways around obstacles and has martial arts the focus less on striking and more on cleverly avoiding getting hit, interferes with him learning earthbending, which focuses on direct confrontation and powerful blows.
It’s a sense of Goodness that comes from having experiences and considering which ones felt right and which ones didn’t. Interestingly, a side effect of this is a fascination with the past – as in, history from before we were alive – as a guide to the future. Aang’s connection to his heritage is more literal than most, being a reincarnation with hundreds of past lives, but Zuko’s family is also an important part of his story, intertwined as it is with Aang’s. Aang frequently calls up his past lives to ask them for advice, quite literally drawing on history as a guide to what to do next, and it’s Zuko’s discovery of his grandfather’s crimes that causes him to abandon his father and join Aang – his motivation not so much shifting from “restore my honour” as it does expand into “restore my lineage’s honour”, which of course calcifies into “help the Avatar take down my father”. If you like, it’s a philosophical argument against “backstory is bullshit” in that history can be our lives before we had to live them – if we see ourselves as an extension of the world that lead up to us, we can fix mistakes before they happen to this particular iteration of who we are. We can form our image of how the world should be, and then convert the world to that.
“Tales Of Ba Sing Se” is an episode that is, intentionally and enthusiastically, filler. It takes place during a gap in the plot when the characters are stuck in the eponymous city, and shows them having small, funny misadventures – Sokka gets in a haiku rap battle trying to impress some girls, Aang builds a zoo, and Zuko goes on a date that is saved by him being endearingly awkward. Zuko has an uncle, Iroh, who serves as his Obi-Wan, constantly trying to nurture his Good side with proverbs and emotional support. Iroh’s little story involves him wandering the city being nice to people; one scene shows him correcting a mugger’s stance and talking him into abandoning crime to chase his dream of being a masseuse. It ends with him sitting by a tree and building a memorial to his son, who died in a war long before the series started. He sings a song that he has sung occasionally throughout both the series and the episode, and it quickly becomes clear that the lyrics – in which the narrator calls for a soldier boy to return home – have a very specific meaning to him. He chokes out tears halfway through the song, and I cry with him. This is partially because I’m a total sucker for sad reprises of happy songs, especially in the context of something that is otherwise not a musical (see also: “The Hero Of Canton”), it’s partially because old men crying about their dead children is inherently sad, and it’s partially because, well, I like Iroh and it’s very upsetting that no amount of good deeds will ever bring his son back and it’s moving to know he’ll keep doing them regardless. I cried watching it, I cried thinking about it afterward, and I’m crying now writing about it.
This is the only time the show successfully provoked a sincere reaction from me.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is beloved by a collection of people I find annoying at best, and every positive thing they say about it only makes me like the idea of it less – including and especially that bold claim that it contains the greatest redemption arc of all time. I chose to watch it for two reasons: one, I’m always keeping an eye out on ways to expand my horizons, and two, I wanted the challenge of watching something I was completely disinclined towards and choosing to empathise with it before judging it. The first half of this essay was the empathy, trying to convey the show’s ideals and intentions as fairly as possible, and it genuinely was a challenge that paid off with me appreciating aspects of the show to a greater depth than I did in the process of watching it, so it’s a tremendous relief that I can now openly say that Avatar: The Last Airbender sucks big floppy donkey dick. There’s something so deliciously naughty about watching something beloved by the morally righteous and reacting to it the same way they react to things I enjoy like Grand Theft Auto, Tarantino movies, or Ellroy books: “What the fuck is wrong with people who like this?”
On a purely moral level – and understand, this is the level on which it’s been sold to me for the past decade or so – it’s exactly the same thing children’s television has been dealing in since they stopped advertising cigarettes; save the innocent, be there for your friends and family, being openly sexist and racist is bad, winners don’t use drugs, and in terms of how the show directly talks about these issues, it’s your typical wide-eyed pronouncements about love and friendship and honour and Doing The Right Thing. What separates it from other children’s entertainment is the way it all logically fits together. I have no idea what the actual process was plotting was, but my gut feeling is that the writers worked out the major scenes they wanted to get to – the nature of Aang’s bending education, the overall skeleton of Zuko’s arc, and both the events that created the situation of the series in the first place and the pace at which this information would be revealed to the characters and audience – and then worked out the most plausible way to connect those various scenes.
What this effectively means is that the writers have set themselves up not as God but as Fate, firmly directing their characters around the gameboard they’ve set up. Characters like Avatar’s previous incarnations and Iroh frequently tell the characters to find their destiny, and the crew frequently send their characters signs, portents, and heralds to direct them on the right path and tools to get them there. This is abhorrent to me on several levels. Firstly, it creates a distinct lack of empathy. I feel like the creators are expecting me to feel for the characters instead of with them. When Zuko sides with his sister against Aang and Katara in the season two finale, I think I’m supposed to feel shock and outrage, as if the character has betrayed me as much as Katara. I’m not averse to feeling emotions for a character – I remember being viscerally disgusted with Don when he tore pages out of his notebook in season five of Mad Men – but I feel as if the show is actively blocking my sense of empathy with the characters and trying to cultivate my reaction via non-empathetic means, which makes my skin crawl in ways that are hard to articulate. I’m on the autistic spectrum, and one thing I’ve read that resonated with me is that autistic people don’t lack empathy, it’s that they have no ability to filter empathy at all and, when young, are so overwhelmed that they try and shut out the whole thing; this sounds right, based on my experiences, because I’ve found letting the empathy flow is generally much more pleasant.
But outside my neurology, I feel like I’m being asked to empathise not with other human beings, but with God, which I find totally perverse. I don’t believe in God, and if there is one, I believe its emotional landscape is as alien to us as ours is to ants. I’m often shocked by the emotions people are capable of; to believe you grasp how God feels – to project your feelings onto the fundamental fabric of the universe – to think the things that make you angry make God angry too – is to engage in an act of supreme arrogance, and in practice, people who do that often deny responsibility for their own feelings or the way they act on them. Here is where the show becomes genuinely hypocritical – Zuko is held accountable for his feelings in a way that Aang and Katara never are, simply because his actions and feelings are the Bad ones while Aang and Katara only have Good ones. I’m not averse to Aang’s pacifism, but he never has to face negative consequences for it the way Zuko does over his extended temper tantrum and daddy issues, despite being just as apocalyptically important in the setting. It’s as if the creators have created a hierarchy, with themselves at the top, the viewer below them waiting for the next piece of information, and the characters below us, there to be looked upon, inspected, and judged from a superior position.
It’s really the big thing I find annoying about those Avatar fans I’ve encountered, who for the sake of this essay I will call Optimists – those people who project their anger onto the universe, and who react to my sleazy pleasures with horror and disgust. I’ve always thought of myself as a cynic, and it’s a viewpoint that often gets labelled misanthropic; I never really questioned or was bothered by that until The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, where the title character reacts with shock to the label, observing that he doesn’t hate people at all, it’s just that anyone who is surprised by vile human behaviour is a fool for expecting any better. It made me ask myself if I actually hate people as a concept; I’m often frustrated and exhausted by what large groups of people are capable of, but the more I think about it, the more I realise I like being around and observing people, even awful ones, and I’ve gleefully hung around terrible people trying to figure out what made them tick and trying to figure out how they can be happy and contribute to a meaningful atmosphere while giving up as little of their identity as possible. Conversely, there is a streak of cruelty in Optimism that has, at times, shaken me to my core; I’ve seen people justify terrible destruction in the name of Goodness – violence that spilled out onto innocents that was justified by it having a single positive effect, which was usually the punishment of the wicked.
This is present to an extent in A:TLA – not to the foul extent that I describe, but enough to be visible. The character Sokka, who accompanies Aang on his journey, was created to be comic relief, and though the crew expanded on his character and made him a skilled strategist and swordfighter, he exists primarily to have jokes made at his expense. I’m not saying that’s not funny – though it frequently isn’t, more on that later – but it strikes me that if you keep someone around purely to torment them – to make fun of their beliefs, tastes, and intelligence – then you lose at least part of your claim on the title of Good Person and gain the title of Bully, which goes quite against the conceit of the series. And it extends out into the world; so much of the characterisation of secondary and especially tertiary characters is based on the idea that they’re so stupid, immoral, or cowardly that they need a twelve-year-old to fix their problems. How is that not misanthropic?
None of this would matter to me at all if the series weren’t also deathly boring. I will concede that it’s gorgeously made; the setting’s point of inspiration is “Lord Of The Rings, but with Medieval Eastern civilisations”, and it follows through all the way, with buildings and clothes and ceremonies drawing on a wide scope of inspiration – the Water Tribe are based on Inuit culture, making this a rare cartoon with brown-skinned protagonists, and the Fire Nation draws on both Japanese and Chinese culture to prevent accidentally implying any one nation is the Bad Guys. Ironically, for a series that preaches pacifism, the fight scenes are the best part, incorporating real martial arts disciplines into the magic the characters use (waterbending is based on T’ai chi, for example), and working out the most effective combination of techniques is a large part of the process of the show, making for thrilling fights that depend on cleverness more than power. The problem is that no amount of aesthetic can make up for the dryness of the storytelling. The side effect of building the series around a familiar set of scenes is that, once you realise what’s happening (whether consciously or otherwise – I laughed derisively when I realised Aang’s story beats in the season two finale was a direct rip of Luke’s story in the climax of Empire Strikes Back), surprise is sapped out of the experience. You’re sitting and waiting for the next inevitable beat to play out, recognising immediately what place each scene has in the story as its happening.
(You might say, “But dude, kids haven’t seen these movies or know these stories as deeply as you do, and can be surprised by things you see coming.” To which I would reply, “Yes. Hence why I don’t watch shows intended for children.”)
That’s the second reason I find this kind of thing abhorrent: the creators are running under the assumption they have nothing to learn, and certainly nothing to learn from their own creation. There’s no sense of surprise and discovery, no sense the creators have written something that’s gone somewhere that frightens them. The closest it comes is when Zuko finally makes his decision to join up with Aang; by this point, he’s tried to kill them enough times that it’d be implausible for them to immediately take them in, and while he’s more aware of his own emotions, he’s still pretty incapable of dealing with the emotions of others, so while it’s obvious that they’ll eventually take him in, it’s going to be surprising how and it’s going to come at the cost of something. The creators have to muster all their abilities with characterisation – everything they know about these particular people they created – to get them in the position they want, and that’s genuinely exciting and even divine in a way the rest of the show isn’t. Every other time the characters make a decision, I shrug and acknowledge yeah, that would push the plot forward and makes sense given everything we know, but I’m not terrified or excited or moved. On a micro scale, I find both the comedy and the pathos too broad to enjoy; the comedy always feels like it’s nudging me in the ribs, although there’s occasional really dry humour that works (“My first girlfriend turned into the moon.” / “That’s rough, buddy.”).
From now on, when I watch a show, I’m going to have a scale in my head. At one end is The Sopranos, a show that’s achingly sincere but completely lacking in craft. At the other is A:TLA, almost perfectly crafted but emotionally dead. Right in the middle is The Shield, a show that takes real emotions and puts them in exactly the order they need to be for maximum effect. Almost, I said. The ending takes all the things I’ve been complaining about throughout this essay and takes away the one thing I had a distant respect for. Despite everything I’m saying, I do recommend the show to people who want to study how a story can be crafted, because it’s fascinating to see a story that does all the things people wanted, say, LOST to do, and it is genuinely a full story that starts at the beginning and ends at the end and functions all the way through; there’s even something interesting in how it does all these things, does them all beautifully and with wonderful acting and animation and music, and still feels so lifeless. That ability to get from one beat to another in a logical fashion completely falls down, however, in the final arc.
Aang is heading into a final showdown with Fire Lord Ozai, the big bad leader of the enemy army trying to conquer the world (voiced by Mark Hamill! He even sounds like a way toned down, emotionally empty version of the Joker), and he realises he has to figure out a way to stop Ozai without breaking his pacifist ideals. The final run of episodes follow him searching with increasing desperation for some kind of solution (my favourite is when he asks an old reincarnation he’s spoken to before, who essentially deadpans “Who gives a fuck? Just kill the bastard.”). This is one of several moments where I actually sympathise heavily, because I care less about characters demonstrating the proper morality than I do about characters facing moral quandaries head-on – there’s an episode in the same run where Katara meets the man who killed her mother and finds herself unable to kill him in turn, and she doesn’t feel weak to me because she’s being honest with herself. I genuinely got excited for Aang, because he was in a situation where he’d have to either be really clever or abandon an ideal, and either way he’d have my sympathy. You want to know how he does it?
After days of moping, he sleepwalks to an island in the spirit world, meets the spirit of Definitely Not The Turtle From The Surprisingly Great Aladdin Direct-To-Video Sequel, and in the middle of the battle with Ozai, it cuts back to that meeting to reveal he got a super special ability to take away people’s bending so long as his willpower is stronger than theirs, at which point he deweaponises Ozai and throws him in jail. What an absolute pisser of an ending! What a lazy, bullshit way to resolve the last fucking plot point in the show! What an absolute slap in the face to the very idea of morality! What kind of fucked up grown-assed adult watches that and thinks “yeah, this is a deep and meaningful take on Good and Evil that wasn’t a waste of my fucking time”?! What kind of adult thinks “yeah, this is a lesson children need to learn”?! You want to know how to be a good person? Oh, it’s easy! Just ask God to rewrite the fucking laws of physics for you! Fuck!