It has long been a staple of children’s literature that the one who has to save the world is a child. This is because children are generally seen as wanting other children for their perspective characters. Which is probably true and certainly not unreasonable. But it does also mean that it puts a lot of weight onto that child which is not necessarily fair. Real children have a lot to deal with; the idea of adding “and you have to save the world” onto that seems like a lot. Which has a lot, I think, to do with some of the premise of this show.
Namely that, a hundred years before the show began, the Avatar disappeared. In his world, there are those who control the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water, in the Galen sense of the word element—in a way that’s called “bending.” The Avatar can bend all four elements. Over a century before the show begins, the Avatar was reborn as a boy named Aang (Zach Tyler), an airbender. Then one day, he vanished. In the time since then, the Fire Nation has conquered almost the entire world. The Air Nation has been completely wiped out. The Earth Nation is struggling. The Water Nation is two small tribes, one at the North Pole and one at the South.
Two young members of the Water Tribe are Katara (Mae Whitman) and her brother, Sokka (Jack De Sena). Their mother is dead after a Fire Nation raid. Their father is off fighting the Fire Nation. And they are boating around the waters near their home when they see a giant iceberg. Trapped inside it are Aang and his flying bison, Appa (Dee Bradley Baker). Aang has a little time left before the Fire Nation becomes too powerful to stop; in that time, he has to master bending all four elements. Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) of the Fire Nation is trying to capture him.
Honestly, though, my favourite character on the show is Uncle Iroh (Mako until his death and then Greg Baldwin). Iroh is the brother of Fire Lord Ozai (Mark Hamill!) and uncle to Zuko and his sister, Azula (Grey Griffin). Zuko is used to his uncle as an old, slightly dotty man who is a shadow of the great warrior of legend. Over the course of the series, we come to learn what’s inside that dotty old man. One wonders how much better off the world would have been if Iroh had become Fire Lord, but we do know that he had been the heir until the battle of Ba Sing Se.
The show allows the characters, children and adults alike, their feelings. Aang ran away a century before the show began because the burden of being the Avatar was so heavy. For one thing, it was going to mean being taken away from the people he loved. He was told four years early that he was the Avatar, because the world was in crisis—the Fire Nation was beginning its conquest at the time—but of course sixteen is already awfully young to learn that you have that level of responsibility. Aang, intentionally in the pantheon of tricksters, doesn’t always deal with that in the best way he could.
Katara, meanwhile, is essentially forced into adulthood. She’s the only waterbender in her tribe. She’s been acting as a mother since her mother was killed; in a later episode, Sokka tells Toph (Michaela Jill Murphy), a blind earthbender who joins them, that he has a hard time remembering their mother because he remembers Katara instead. She is gentle and loving and nurturing, and it’s little wonder that Aang comes to love her.
The show alternates funny and poignant, with the tribute to Mako almost making me cry. Its mythology and world-building are well-developed. The various nations are not the same kind of stereotypes you get in a lot of shows; while the techniques of bending are generally the same style across all bending of that element, not all people of that nation are the same. Even just the four main Fire Nation teens are wildly different in personality—though all dysfunctional in their own special ways.