Avatar: The Last Airbender is the Soul-Cleansing Experience We Needed Right Now
Originally published July 28, 2020
The unfortunate reality of COVID-19 among other politically charged events hasn’t exactly made life easy for anyone. Getting laid off from the job I loved left me feeling anxious about my future. I’ve also been dealing with a lot of personal issues with friends, family, and even myself.
There couldn’t of been a better remedy to distract me from these problems than revisiting a nostalgic show like Avatar: The Last Airbender. The anime-esque Nickelodeon series is a show I’d often watch as a child out of boredom. However, after viewing it from start to finish as an adult, I realized that it is much more complex than what I could comprehend in my youth.
Avatar — no, not James Cameron’s hit feature length film of the same name — but Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s television series debuted in February 2005. It was commercially successful and praised by critics for its cultural diversity and mature themes. Netflix made Avatar available in the United States earlier this summer, which is a testament to how the show continues to resonate with fans even after its end in 2008.
What makes this series so impressive? Honestly, it’s almost hard to put into words how gracefully it has aged over time. Avatar is set in an Asiatic-like world where some characters have the ability to manipulate (or bend) the classical elements through psychokinetic variants of Chinese martial arts. One individual, the Avatar, is the only person who can bend all elements: water, fire, earth, and air.
The world building and storytelling in Avatar can be compared to other prominent franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. While this may be seen as a controversial statement, the care and detail the creators put in the series is astounding. Avatar mainly relies on imagery of East Asian, South Asian, Inuit, and New World societies. Human civilization is divided into four nations: the Air Nomads, the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Water Tribes. Each nation has its own customs, philosophies, and bending styles inspired by various Asian and native cultures.
Aang, the main protagonist, is a twelve-year-old airbender who was found literally frozen in time by siblings Katara and Sokka. The Fire Nation began a war 100 years earlier and as the infamous title sequence suggests, “only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished.” The rest is history.
Sure, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a children’s show at heart. Most of the characters are in their teens. There is a tinge of comedy and light-heartedness. They yearn to experience their adolescence. But that is another reason why the series is so great. The characters were written uniquely and realistically. They have their own flaws, their own desires, and their own ambitions.
The series also showcases a profound sense of wisdom and spirituality. The lovable Uncle Iroh is the epitome of these two qualities. Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation, was banished by his fascist father and left with a recognizable scar on his face. Determined to win back his honor and capture the Avatar, Iroh aids Zuko in finding another path towards self-acceptance and compassion over tyranny and rage.
At its core, Avatar‘s plot is as much of a spiritual war as it is a political war. Aang’s physical journey to master the four elements directly corresponds to his spiritual journey to enlightenment. The only way to achieve this is by forging balance. Balance, one of the series’ most critical themes, is embedded into the plot’s framework and applies to every single character in some capacity.
Mature viewers will likely notice the series’ political commentary among other critical life lessons. A restoration of balance can only be achieved by fiercely fighting for social justice and equality. This lesson is what makes Avatar: The Last Airbender timeless. Whether you’re a fellow Gen-Z or a Boomer, the show’s material will likely leave you touched and inspired.