Thoughts After Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender Twice During the Pandemic

N.B. This post contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender (should be obvious from the title, but still better to be safe). I write this with the intention of it being an interesting read even if you haven’t watched the series, and don’t mind spoilers.

Aang. (Source: Wikipedia)

I came late to watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’d heard great things about it for years, starting from the controversy around the apparently awful live action movie (which I haven’t seen). But I didn’t watch it until it came to Netflix and my eldest kid was also interested in watching it during the summer of 2020. Then, after I got said kid an Avatar graphic novel (The Search) and a plush Appa toy for the kid’s 14th birthday, their brother (age 10) decided he wanted to finally watch the show, too, so we went through a whole family re-watch just so my youngest kid could watch it for the first time. I haven’t done a lot of reading to see discourse about the show from other fans, and have mainly stuck to reading things my friends shared with me. So bear that in mind as I share my own thoughts in this blog post. I’m probably not adding anything new to the conversation, just sharing my personal opinions and feelings on the show.

The Series

There is so much to love about this show. The humour. The stories. The life lessons. It’s such a good show for all ages. I loved watching it with my kids, discussing the messages shared in the stories, and hearing them laugh at various jokes. Seeing how they react to certain aspects of the show. But I know I would’ve enjoyed watching this even if I hadn’t had kids to watch it with, just as an adult in her mid-30s.

I think there’s a lot to be said about the popularity of young adult content amongst adults (teenagers are not the sole audience for YA books, for example). During the pandemic, I found myself revisiting a number of 90s teen movies I enjoyed when I was still a teenager. They’re our formative years, and as such, I think no matter how old you are as an adult, you eventually find yourself revisiting your teen years, reliving experiences, thinking about how that time in your life shaped you, or how you wished you could’ve made other choices now that you have had more life experience. Teen romances (i.e. romances between teens; not creepy adult/teen “relationships”) have appeal because some of us like to imagine (or re-imagine) what it might’ve been like for us if/when we’d been in those situations when we were still teens. How might our lives have changed if we’d only done this or that differently? If our personalities had been more like that? In the past, as an adult in my 20s and 30s, I described an ex-partner in the early stages of our relationship as “acting like a teenage boy” with me because of how giddy I’d made him, even though he was more than a decade older than me. We’d gotten together twice, several years apart, and that’s what he was like with me in the early days both times we’d gotten together. Hormones, am I right?! We can still have these feelings of being like a teenager again no matter how old we are, so I find myself still able to connect to stories about those adolescent years for that reason (I was also a fan of the TV series Glee in my late 20s/early 30s). And I guess there’s a fantasy and disconnect, too, because my teen years were not good to me. I acknowledged this recently during a Facebook conversation thread with a fellow former high school classmate, wherein we discussed how awful our high school was with harboring bullies who treated us badly.

Of course, Avatar is not about teenagers in high school. It’s (primarily) about teenagers with special abilities in a fantasy world during a hundred-year war who set out to save the world from the tyranny of the Fire Nation. Adults can have the special abilities, too, but the focus is on the teenage characters. The fantasy elements are cool, but for me, the greatest appeal is the sometimes-subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messaging of the story. These lessons come on both a macroscopic/societal level—such as when Aang and his friends visit Ba Sing Se and experience the duplicity of that city in such a creepy way, hiding reality even from the Earth King himself—to a more personal level, in terms of the lessons individual characters learn, based on their personalities and needs. And their personalities are so varied, which makes them very interesting to watch. I can’t imagine anyone watching this show and not finding at least one character they relate to on some level.

The Characters

I’m not going to go into detail about my thoughts on every single character here, but I would like to share my thoughts on some of my favourites.

Prince Zuko. (Source: Fandom Villains Wiki)
Zuko

Overall, I think Zuko is the most interesting character in the series. He has the most character growth across the series, and it was incredibly engaging to watch how he was at war with himself, for who he thought he should be, to who he wanted to be. When I originally started watching the series, a friend of mine shared another fan’s theory with me that Zuko could be autistic. I didn’t go through the whole post until after I’d finished the series (I’d wanted to avoid spoilers), but I watched it with the theory in mind to see if it came across to me, as an autistic person. I could definitely see the ways it presented, and especially so after revisiting the post after I’d seen the series. I am not sure if being aware of the theory shaped how I followed his character, though. Well before watching, I have found myself drawn to misunderstood characters with redeeming qualities. I want to see the bad guys change. Even though I’ve never seen myself as a “bad” person (we’re all heroes in our own stories), other people have, and sometimes even told me so. In general, though, because I’ve wanted to be a good person, I’ll try and listen to the feedback and change to do better. So I think I connected with Zuko on a personal level for that reason, and appreciated his Uncle Iroh for continuing to stand by him even in the toughest times. When you struggle with mental health issues, having someone like that as your rock to help guide you and support you unconditionally can make so much difference.

On the other side of it is, when you have been bullied and mistreated by others in life, as I have, sometimes you want to believe there is still good in the bully. An opportunity for them to recognise what they’ve done as wrong, learn from their mistakes, and perhaps even apologise (I have actually had someone I went to high school with and reach out to me to apologise for how she treated me in high school, so it does happen, and I forgave her). It can be hard to understand why someone would choose to be mean for the sake of it. And sometimes, when you’re empathetic, you identify with the bully’s traumatic history and forgive them for their bullying behaviour even when they’ve done nothing to deserve it (bullying is still a choice—not everyone with traumatic pasts winds up being a bully, so a traumatic past can often be used as an excuse without reflecting on how one can do better in spite of that trauma). You might project your own goodness onto them, and hope that’s enough to help them change.

Zuko, at least, had redeeming characteristics. His path was fraught with confusion, and sometimes he made the wrong choices. But, I also think some of those “wrong” choices were necessary for his development. The major one I’m referring to is when he betrayed his uncle in favour of supporting his sister Azula and defeating the Avatar so he could finally return home to be accepted back by his father after having been banished by him three years earlier. Sometimes, it’s only in getting what you think you want and not being satisfied that you are able to find your true path. In some ways, I feel like this is one of the most important lessons of the show: it’s not worth pretending to be someone you’re not in the hopes of making someone care about you. That’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn, unfortunately through experience.

Once Zuko was captured by Azula and detained in the same prison as Katara at the end of season 2, and they finally had the chance to talk on a more personal level, I found myself desiring a redemption storyline that would lend to a Zuko/Katara romance, although truthfully I think there was a part of me that desired that as early as when he found Katara’s necklace in season 1. I don’t know what that says about me, apart from recognising that I have a past history of sometimes being attracted to men (or boys, when I was younger) who weren’t actually nice to me (this was especially true when I was a teenager/in high school). Maybe this was the result of the societal misconception that someone who is mean to you is actually secretly attracted to you. Or perhaps I overlooked their mistreatment because I wanted to believe they were really cool, and actually there was a good reason to have been attracted to someone who was mean, rather than reasoning something to the effect of, “No, I just hate myself and think I deserve the mistreatment.” The reality could be a combination of those things, and additionally the idea that someone good can save or redeem someone who is bad. The latter is, unfortunately, more often a fantasy told in fictional media, as many people who are intentionally mean in real life are unlikely to want to change when their experience with being mean has served them well.

Throughout season 3, after Zuko joined Team Avatar, it felt even more right in my mind to have a Zuko/Katara romance. Certainly it felt more right to me than watching the Aang/Katara storyline blossom. Anytime Aang’s crush on her was shown, and Katara displayed a lack of interest, that’s what made sense to me. Because I kept thinking a lot about their ages. Aang was 12, Katara 14, and Zuko 16. I fixated especially on Aang’s youth. “YOU’RE TOO YOUNG!” is mostly what persisted in my mind. I might’ve felt differently if they were all a little older. Meanwhile, Zuko actually made an effort to redeem himself. It wasn’t shallow changes. He genuinely wanted to show he cared. Even though he didn’t understand why Katara still hated him and couldn’t trust him when the others had forgiven him, he listened to her and made an effort to consider how he could be redeemed in her eyes, by helping her find the man who took her mother from her. He literally protects her with his body by jumping into the path of Azula’s lightning strikes during their final battle. We see him making way more of an effort with Katara than we ever see him making with his actual girlfriend, Mai, who is pretty bland by comparison (although I did enjoy watching her save Zuko even after he’d abandoned her when he left the Fire Nation to join Team Avatar).

Regardless, it also makes sense that Zuko and Katara do not end up together. If they had, it could’ve felt like a tired trope to some of the show’s audience. Perhaps it’s better not to suggest that it’s okay for once-enemies to end up as lovers. Too many people already stay in toxic relationships under the belief that their partner has a good side, that they’re not always bad, and you should show compassion and forgiveness no matter what. Is it then healthier to suggest that, whilst you can forgive, that doesn’t mean you’ll forget, and it’s okay to maintain a boundary to protect yourself to avoid the possibility of being hurt if that person slides backwards? It makes sense to me to consider it that way.

Toph (Source: Wikipedia)
Toph

Where do I start with Toph? She’s such a badass. I love how strong she is, how capable and smart. I love her snarky sense of humour. But she also has a troublesome side. Emotional walls she puts up to protect herself, but they’re such that she winds up sometimes being a nasty kind of mean. Her method in teaching Aang earth bending in their early days together bothered me a lot, and I found myself siding with Katara when they argued. But, like Zuko, I think she needed to have some of those early experiences in order to develop interesting character growth. One of my favourite Toph scenes is when she shares tea with Iroh, completely unaware of who he is and how he’d been connected to Team Avatar in the past. He’s just as much a wise old man to her as he is to Zuko.

Overall, I love Toph’s talent—she is, after all, the first ever earth bender—but she could do better to learn some humbleness. She acts a little conceited because she is so skilled, although it could be partially due to hiding some of her insecurities, too. An issue that was explored a little in the series, but could certainly have been expanded on. Still, it was good to have that topic covered and she was able to find some self-reflection, which is important when exploring insecurities. Without that, insecurities can develop a life of their own, and overtake our ability to control ourselves and how we treat other people. Perhaps this could’ve been explored more in depth if Toph had had an opportunity to go on a proper life-changing field trip with Zuko, just as the rest of Team Avatar did. She tried!

Uncle Iroh (Source: Fandom Heroes Wiki)
Uncle Iroh

Iroh was the most prominent adult character in the series, and he’s also the only one I’m going to write about. It’s not that the other adults weren’t cool characters, I just appreciated Iroh the most. My youngest kid nicknamed him “Tea Man” and the name kinda stuck throughout the series, even after he was able to remember his actual name. My other kid and I began using the nickname and we’d laugh at the reference.

The contrast between Iroh and Fire Lord Ozai in Zuko’s life was significant, along with Iroh’s humble lessons and calm demeanor. But I also appreciated that his character was explored outside of his relationship to Zuko. How his defeat at Ba Sing Se and the death of his own son humbled him, but not only that, how he secretly learned from the original fire benders, and lied to protect them. He had good in him even before his defeat at Ba Sing Se. He was a character unto himself, with his love of tea and pai sho, and his membership with the White Lotus. Being one of the few fire benders who had an appreciation of the other nations, even before Zuko turned “good,” he was really an instrumental element in the series, to show that just because a nation starts a war, that doesn’t make that entire nation’s population evil.

During the few moments when Iroh interacted with members of Team Avatar when Zuko wasn’t around, I appreciated that those characters got to experience him as a caring man (even if only caring about the safety of his nephew) rather than solely their enemy.

Suki (Source: Fandom Heroes Wiki)
Suki

Suki might be my favourite female character in the series. She can’t bend any elements, but she’s both tough and kind. I appreciated that the series gave her a life outside of her connection to Team Avatar. Meaning, after they met the Kyoshi Warriors, the warriors didn’t join Team Avatar, nor did they remain on Kyoshi Island. They branched out and decided to forge their own path to protect people during the war. It was a lovely surprise when she reappeared in the series, and getting to see how her life had changed since Team Avatar first met her. Then in seeing how she helped Appa when he was lost.

Suki’s introduction humbled Sokka early on in the series, and considering his sexism had been getting on my nerves up until that point, I was glad that was addressed so clearly and so early. She’s the kind of female hero I could look up to for all her characteristics, and she felt really fleshed out. Even when she was in prison and had to be rescued by Sokka, I didn’t feel like she was your typical damsel in distress type—after all, she was the person who wound up capturing the Warden. She was a key element in their escape.

Sokka (Source: Wikipedia)
Sokka

Far from being one of my favourite characters, I still appreciated what his essence brought to the show. Primarily in the sense of him getting called out on his sexism, and then actually changing and viewing things differently. What I found odd about his character is that he was somehow the teen boy that every girl who came across him had a crush on. Suki. Yue. Toph. Ty Lee! HOW?! WHY?! Perhaps I’m just not used to the biggest dork character in a show being characterised also as the most attractive one. I preferred the idea of a Suki/Sokka romance to the Yue/Sokka one, I think because Sokka’s attraction to Yue seemed purely physical, but to Suki it was because he came to respect her as a warrior and a person. And Suki wasn’t attracted to him until he gave her a reason to respect him (by being humble and asking her to teach him the ways of the Kyoshi Warrior).

I think I have a love/hate relationship with Sokka’s jokes. Some of them a great, and others not so much. The best episode for Sokka was season 3 episode 4, “Sokka’s Master,” wherein he finally has a chance to have someone else train him, and he demonstrates how humble he has become, as well as his creativity. This was another episode that showed a Fire Nation citizen, like Iroh, knowingly choosing to support and help someone who is not Fire Nation, and seeing him reappear later in the series to defend Ba Sing Se in the finale was an excellent touch.

Katara (Source: Wikipedia)
Katara

I really like Katara as a character, which you might assume given how much I talked about wishing for a romance between her and Zuko, and liking their chemistry. But I enjoy her beyond that, too. She might not have as much character growth as some of the other characters, because she was already pretty strong-willed and honourable in the beginning, she still developed some additional empathy, particularly as it related to Toph (and Zuko, eventually, too). She could be a little hot-tempered and bossy at times, so butting up against Toph’s stubbornness was somewhat common as a result. She was confronted with some difficult choices, like whether or not to bloodbend after being shown how, and whether or not to exact revenge on the man who took her mother away from her. Overall, though, it seemed like just about every choice she made came from a place of good intentions. One of my favourite episodes for Katara was season 1, episode 18, “The Waterbending Master,” wherein she has to make some difficult choices when she learns female water benders in the Northern Water Tribe are only allowed to learn healing skills, not fighting ones.

Momo and Appa (Source: Wikipedia)
Momo and Appa

My youngest kid has a penchant for animals. When I first watched the show with my eldest kid, we both knew their brother would adore Momo and Appa, but even as we tried to convince him to watch it with us for that reason alone, he wasn’t interested in the summer of 2020. Winter, Jan 2021, though? Yeah, as soon as he was able to physically see and feel a plush toy of Appa, he insisted he wanted to watch the show (he loves his plush toys; I think part of it is the soft sensory experience that helps him regulate his autistic body, but also he just loves animals, so he collects a lot of these types of toys). By the time we’d finished the series, my youngest kid had bought himself a plush Momo with his earnings from his t-shirt shop, and it arrived the day after we finished watching the show.

Because these two characters were my youngest kid’s favourite characters, when we watched Season 3, Episode 9, “Nightmares and Daydreams,” he declared it his favourite episode, just because of how funny it was seeing Aang imagine them talking to him and then fighting with each other. I loved hearing his laughter watching this episode.

I enjoyed the animal characters too though. The whole story arc where Appa was stolen, and then watching what happened to him when he was missing was heart-wrenching. Loved Zuko setting him free, and that leading to Appa’s affection towards him when Zuko first tried to join Team Avatar. Meanwhile, the hilarity Momo inserts into the story is great, like when the Fire Nation soldiers think he earthbends.

Plush Appa and Momo

Binge-ability

There are 3 seasons with 20-21 ~24 minute episodes each season. First time watching the show, my eldest kid and I watched it between June 5-July 1, 2020 (27 days; almost 4 weeks). Second time, watching with both my kids? Jan 10-30, 2021 (21 days; 3 weeks). It actually took us 10 days to watch season 1, and 11 days to watch season 2&3 combined (I consistently keep track of what I watch in a notebook). And we managed to do that 3 week stint whilst also balancing it with everyone’s distance learning (including my own classes, which aren’t during the same hours as my kids’ classes), chores, and playing a few table top games here and there. Hopefully that gives some indication of how watchable this show is!

Overall Favourite Episodes

Listing these in episode order, not order of favourability.

Season 1, Episode 4, “The Warriors of Kyoshi”

I made reference to this episode earlier. It’s where we meet Suki, and Sokka gets schooled on how some girls are better at fighting than he is.

Season 1, Episode 5, “The King of Omashu”

Loved discovering the connection between Aang and the king, and all of the challenges the king put him through.

Season 1, Episode 13, “The Blue Spirit”

Wherein Zuko secretly rescues Aang from Admiral Zhao, and Aang wonders if they could’ve been friends… you know, if it weren’t for the fact the Fire Nation wasn’t what he had to defeat. Hilariously watching Momo collect everything except water for Sokka and Katara while they’re too sick to help themselves.

Young Zuko with his mother (Source: Avatar Wiki)
Season 2, Episode 7, “Zuko Alone”

Here we get a real taste for Zuko’s past, and some of the good choices he’s capable of making. Sure he doesn’t have much left to lose at this point in his life, but sometimes that’s the moment people make their worst decisions. Nothing left to lose? Scorch the Earth! Not Zuko, though. He helps a kid and then a whole town that is being bullied in the Earth Kingdom. Not for the glory or his honour, but because deep down he knows it’s the right thing to do.

Season 2, Episode 8, “The Chase”

The latter part of this episode is where it’s at. I may have cringed a bit at the teething in Toph and Katara’s relationship, arguing as much as they did. However, it led to that great conversation between Toph and Iroh when Toph abandoned Team Avatar. Then, by the end of the episode, we get a glimpse of Zuko and Iroh teaming up with Team Avatar to fight an even worse foe in Azula, and then Katara wanting to help Iroh.

Season 2, Episode 14, “City of Walls and Secrets”

This is where we discover what it’s like to actually be in Ba Sing Se. So creepy and eerie.

Season 2, Episode 20, “The Crossroads of Destiny”

Zuko and Iroh are happy with their place in the Earth Kingdom, until they discover Azula is there. Zuko and Katara share a moment, and she considers healing his scar. Aang and Sokka learn Toph had befriended Iroh, then he seeks the assistance of Team Avatar to save his nephew. Aang experiences Iroh’s wisdom. Tough conflicts and choices. Great finale for season 2.

Season 3, Episode 5, “The Beach”

Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are on a forced vacation on Ember Island. No one knows who they are, despite the fact they’re still in the Fire Nation. They have an opportunity to pretend to be like normal Fire Nation teenagers, even if only for a little while.

Season 3, Episode 12, “The Western Air Temple”

Zuko struggles with figuring out how to join up with Team Avatar, and make them trust him, after months of chasing them to capture Aang for more nefarious reasons. The struggle is so real, and so good.

Zuko confronts Team Avatar
Screenshot from “The Western Air Temple” – Zuko tries to join Team Avatar
Season 3, Episode 13, “The Firebending Masters”

Zuko’s first life-changing field trip is with Aang, and we get to learn so much more about the history of fire bending, and also Iroh, even though Iroh himself is not in this episode.

Season 3, Episode 15, “The Boiling Rock, Part 2”

Mai catches up with Zuko after he abandoned her to join Team Avatar. She’s pissed, and yet, she and Ty Lee end up temporarily defeating Azula to help Zuko escape with Sokka, Sokka’s father, and Suki. I loved this turn of events. It felt unexpected to me the first time I watched it, because with Mai’s monotonous emotions, it was sort of unclear just how much she loved Zuko. But then, on top of that, Ty Lee chose Mai over fearing Azula.

Season 3, Episode 17, “The Ember Island Players”

This episode is hilarious. Reviewing the entire history of Aang, Zuko, et al from the perspective of a play in the Fire Nation. This was, naturally, one I was especially fond of as someone who liked the idea of Zuko/Katara. Their awkwardness watching the actor Katara declaring her attraction to actor Zuko felt like a subtle hint at “Yes it’s true but I don’t want to admit it!” rather than embarrassment that the writer thought there was anything to it. Plus Katara rejected Aang after Aang reacted so poorly to watching that scene in the play. Also loved Toph’s reactions to everything—claiming everyone’s portrayals were accurate, and loving how she was portrayed, despite the actor being almost the opposite of who she actually is.

Screenshot from "The Ember Island Players" of Katara and Zuko's reaction upon watching actors playing them on stage with 'Katara' declaring her attraction to 'Zuko'
Screenshot from “The Ember Island Players” of Katara and Zuko’s reaction upon watching actors playing them on stage with ‘Katara’ declaring her attraction to ‘Zuko’
Season 3, Episode 21, “Sozin’s Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang

Ultimately, the conclusion of the series is great. I did not foresee the way Aang would defeat Fire Lord Ozai. Katara accompanying Zuko to the Fire Nation palace to defeat Azula together was amazing. Sokka, Suki, and Toph worked well together fighting the Fire Nation airships, and I loved seeing the White Lotus members defend Ba Sing Se. Whilst I may not have been excited about Aang and Katara together at the end, it was cute seeing my youngest kid throw his arms in the air, cheering them on, when they did. Aang was his favourite human character besides Iroh, so it makes sense for him to be happy that Aang got what he wanted in the end.

What’s Next?

Well, my 10 year old wants to watch Legend of Korra now. He did purely because of enjoying Avatar so much, and then I showed him a picture of pabu, so now he really wants to. My 14 year old and I just watched it in August-October 2020 though, so it feels even more freshly watched for me. Maybe it won’t be as easy for me to binge with him right away as I’m also on the final stretch of my boot camp right now (I finish that on Feb 10, and am working on my final project). Additionally, reading the graphic novels. I enjoyed the omnibus collections of The Promise and The Search, and I have The Rift and Smoke & Shadow on pre-order. I’m grateful to have content to learn more about what happened to the characters after the TV series, to find out about unanswered questions that weren’t covered in Legend of Korra.

If you read through all this and haven’t watched the show, I hope my thoughts have helped you see why it’s well worth the time spent watching it.


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