Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived in harmony. Then, everything changed when the fire nation attacked.
These words echo through the collective unconscious of late millennials, marking a time of innocence long-past for many of us. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a critical and commercial success when it ran from 2005-2007, delighting children and adults alike and proving once and for all that television animation could tell a meaningful story. Although it is an American children’s show, Avatar: The Last Airbender fuses Eastern and Western animation styles to tell a story of love, loss, innocence, death, genocide, war, friendship, racism, honor, abuse, redemption and growing up. But most importantly, it’s a story about second chances. Teaching children about the horrors of genocide and war through a medium they can understand is a feat unto itself, never mind crafting some of the most well-written characters and most wondrous settings ever made. Regardless, fifteen years later, these themes are more important than ever before. War is not the answer—there is always a better way. My generation has now reached adulthood, and the values we absorbed from Avatar still ring true so many years later.
Now that Avatar is available on Netflix, millions of people are experiencing its beauty for the first time. I implore you this: if there is only one piece of media you consume for the rest of your life, let it be Avatar: The Last Airbender. If I could share just one thing with everyone in the world right now, it would be this show. This is not as hot a take as I’d like it to be, but I’ll stake my reputation on it: Avatar: The Last Airbender is the most excellent story ever told, whether by book, television, or film.
Set in a fantasy world where people from each of the four nations (Earth, Water, Fire, and Air) can control (bend) their respective elements to their wills, Avatar immediately places the concept of socially constructed Geo-political divisions at the forefront. Like in our world, humans have divided themselves for superficial reasons—which element they can bend—as we have based on the amount of melanin in our skin. These nations are not separated by skin color. However, people of every skin tone exist as natives of every nation.
Each culture is based on a blend of cultures from our world; The Fire Nation is Japan, the Earth Kingdom is China, and Korea, the Water Tribe is Inuit, and the Air Nation is the Indian Subcontinent and Tibet. These cultures blend seamlessly. For instance, in the Earth city of Ba Sing Se, the architecture of the homes is distinctly Chinese, while the upper-class clothing is Korean. At the same time, you’ll see native Earth Kingdom citizens with skin as dark as night or pale as snow, and they are all the same people. This world is not divided by race, and the topic never even comes up. Nonetheless, the divide between the elemental nations runs just as deep and serves as a mechanism to address the issue in a void removed of context. This is the brilliant way that viewers slowly learn that we are all one people—through the mechanism of allegory.
The story begins when a 14-year-old Water Tribe girl, Katara, and her 16-year-old brother Sokka are out on a routine fishing expedition. In a fit of rage, Katara’s water bending abilities pull an iceberg from beneath the surface containing a young boy with arrow tattoos and a flying bison, frozen in time. The boy, Aang, reveals that he is an Airbender, at which point the real horror of this world is revealed; Katara sadly confesses that the Air Nation was wiped out by the Fire Nation 100 years ago. This children’s cartoon begins with a 12-year-old boy realizing that his entire race has been murdered, wiped out of existence—he is the Last Airbender. Not only his family and friends but his entire culture—simply gone. Aang is such a compelling protagonist because he begins the story as broken as any human can be; he has truly lost everything.
Aang reveals that he is indeed the Avatar, the only person in the world who can bend all four of the elements. Each time the Avatar dies, they are reborn into the next nation in the cycle: water, earth, fire, air. The Avatar has all of their past lives contained inside them, and from time to time, Aang receives guidance from his past selves. The Firelord, the ruler of the Fire Nation, sent out his armies to destroy the Air Nation and kill the Avatar once and for all. Aang ran away, was frozen in ice, and now finds himself one hundred years in the future. Meanwhile, Fire Prince Zuko hunts for the Avatar, hoping to capture Aang and restore his honor.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about our villain, Zuko, is that it is just as much his story as it is Aang’s. The parallels drawn between our two opposing forces as Aang tries to master the elements and stop the Firelord while Zuko tries to hunt him down are fascinating. Aang and Zuko are, on many levels, the same: they are passionate about those close to them, they are determined to do what’s right, and at their core, they are good people. This is a children’s show in which the hero meditates for an entire episode on whether it is ever right to kill, even if it’s a genocidal dictator. At the same time, the villain learns to love himself and that his identity is his own.
Aang and his friends take on a journey of growing up, losing your innocence, facing your fears, and finding your courage that so many coming-of-age stories have before. Zuko’s story, however, is a darker one not often told to children: redemption. Guided by his uncle, a disgraced former general, he learns to question what honor is— and who can bestow it upon you. As a child, Zuko pleaded with his father to spare innocent soldiers during a war meeting. His sister, Azula, had always been the favorite child for taking after her father’s intelligence and lust for power, while Zuko inherited his mother’s passion and understanding. As punishment for his mercy, he challenged Zuko to a duel. After the Firelord burns his own son’s face past recognition, he banishes Zuko and tells him not to return without the Avatar. Zuko’s painstaking, three-season long arc in learning to love, then hate, then love himself again is the mirror of the simple human act of growing up.
Avatar: The Last Airbender in detail is all of these things, but broadly it is a story of second chances. Aang is given a second chance after he runs away from his duties into the ice, terrified by responsibility. Katara is given a second chance to forgive after spending her life enraged and destroyed by her mother’s death at the hands of the Fire Nation. Sokka is given a second chance to prove himself as a warrior after failing his family. Toph is given a second chance at life, a chance to be a real human when she runs away from her abusive parents. Zuko’s story is, of course, one of forgiveness; he is trapped in an endless cycle of hating himself, moving farther and farther away from the person he is at his core, reaching for the person his family expects him to be. By the end of his story, he’s exhausted dozens of second chances but still manages to redeem himself. And in the most heart-wrenching subplot of all time, Iroh is given a second chance to have a son.
Avatar is essential, and it is beautiful. It is necessary because it teaches us to forgive. More than forgiving our friends, or even our enemies, Avatar has taught us to forgive ourselves. The moral of the story is not to give everyone who hurts you a second chance but to take whatever second chance you are offered in your life and make the most of it. Aang and Zuko’s parallel journeys through hatred to forgiving themselves are journeys every single one of us takes, albeit with less earth bending. When you are given your second chance, take it. It is the least you deserve.
These characters are some of the most iconic in history, telling a story so much greater than themselves. Even Appa, the flying bison, has more personality than any human on network television. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a roller coaster that never stops climbing, and when it reaches the end, the sight is glorious. With a genuinely perfect ending, this tale about love and acceptance is truly one of the all-time greats. Even if you are opposed to animation, or unfamiliar with eastern culture, or not the biggest fan of fantasy, I still implore you to watch Avatar. The show even received a Peabody award for “multi-dimensional characters, unusually complicated personal relationships for a cartoon serial, and a healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.” Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. You deserve it.