At long last, Avatar: the Last Airbender is on Netflix for your quarantine viewing pleasure. If you missed this series in its heyday from ‘05-’08, then consider yourself lucky for the discovery you just made. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a rich, adventurous story with a surprising amount of emotional depth for a children’s show. There are plenty of funny one-liners and wise parables, but also quality dialogue that illustrates the emotional journeys of four benders, plus Sokka. The show is full of commentary on spirituality, destiny and balance in the world, and has an amazing score. Here, we’ve collected 20 of our favorite quotes from this incredible series.
Also check out our essay on the many, many sins of M. Night Shyamalan’s dreadful The Last Airbender film adaptation from 2010.
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”Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.” —Iroh, Episode 2.14 “City of Walls Secrets”
As we exist in this gray area between quarantine and (possibly short-lived) reopenings, truer words have never been spoken. We’ve all related to Zuko (and Aang, coincidentally) in Book 2: stuck somewhere we didn’t want to be, miles or months away from the object that will bring us all the gratification we could ever need. That’s not how happiness works. It requires adaptation, but humans can be fulfilled by even the most insignificant things around us. Iroh’s words here are a lesson for humans of all ages: your life is not a linear plan, but a series of moments that you decide to be present for.
“I’m angry at myself!” —Zuko, Episode 3.05 “The Beach”
Zuko finally acknowledged his intense, elusive pain that’s sabotaged every move he’s made. Admitting this truth gave Zuko (and the audience) the catharsis that he deserved, that even the protagonists in the series hoped he would find. We watched him push away loved ones away and sabotage friendships with Katara and Aang in countless episodes, when they could have helped him through his confusing struggle with right and wrong. Considering his father’s verbal abuse escalated to a fire blast in the face before he was banished, it’s no wonder Zuko struggled to maintain relationships. This is Zuko’s first moment of genuine clarity through the pain that experience caused him, and he finally understood why he wasn’t happy. It’s the first of many small realizations that lead Zuko to find his own destiny instead of living up to the self-serving expectations of a father who never loved him.
“Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source.” —Iroh, Episode 2.09 “Bitter Work”
This is one of Iroh’s most relevant phrases, as it’s a direct explanation of how to quell a universally debilitating emotion. Everyone gets bogged down by shame, and many learn to evade the problem or obsess over it in hopes of doing better. Iroh challenges us to drop our guards and be more accepting of our imperfections, and to even embrace them. “Humility is the only antidote to shame.”
“It’s easy to do nothing, it’s hard to forgive.” —Aang, Episode 3.16 “The Southern Raiders”
As expected, Aang chose a passive route in confronting Katarra’s thirst for revenge. She had every right to call for blood: Yon Rha murdered her mother who wanted to protect her helpless daughter. That helpless daughter can bloodbend now, so how could she let a chance at revenge go? Aang recognized the gravity of the situation, and gave Katara the space to spiral through her quest for vengeance so she could make peace with Yon Ra on her own terms. Instead of submitting to the endless push and pull of violence, Katarra tapped into her higher moral character and fought to forgive, not for Yon Rha, but for herself.
“Sometimes life is like this tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place.” —Iroh, Episode 2.20 “The Crossroads of Destiny”
More life lessons from Iroh, and this time he teaches the importance of patience and perseverance. Uncertainty is no reason to stop trying, and if you keep moving forward you’ll come to a better place, even if you don’t feel that way right now. Iroh and Aang happened to be in a literal tunnel when he said this, but this advice works for non-tunnel-related issues as well.
“It’s the quenchiest!” —Sokka, Episode 2.11 “The Desert”
This is arguably Sokka’s greatest feat as comedic relief of the series. For the first time ever, Appa was missing, Toph wasn’t confident, Aang was too angry to make wise decisions and Katarra didn’t have any water. In the midst of the group’s despair in the desert, Sokka gives an honest try to help, but ends up crossfaded. Maybe the group needed to laugh more than they needed to hydrate.
“You make one step backward, one slip-up, give me one reason to think you might hurt Aang, and you won’t have to worry about your destiny anymore; because I’ll make sure your destiny ends, right then and there, permanently.” —Katara, Episode 3.12 “The Western Air Temple”
Whoa. This is not the same girl who, in Ba Sing Se, listened to Zuko’s past and almost forgave him for compulsively tracking them around the globe. Katara even considered using her sacred water from the North Pole to heal the scar on his face, the symbol of his troubled past. Despite Katara’s kindness, Zuko chose Azula’s side and attacked Aang. Part of Zuko’s journey was learning to face the consequences of his actions, and Katara was the first of those consequences. Betrayal and deceit hardened her into a cold huntress who lurks in the shadows to threaten you while you’re unpacking your things. Her maternal energy is discussed in the series, and in this scene it takes a ferocious form. We get the honor of witnessing an agitated lioness expose her claws and circle a newcomer in the den as a warning: do not fuck with my cub.
“You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you” —Mai, Episode 3.15, “The Boiling Rock: Part 2”
The situation was dire for Team Avatar and escape was highly unrealistic when Mai’s betrayal saved them. She had tremendous audacity to stand against Azula the way she did. She used her usual monotone voice, but this quote was a nasty read of Azula’s psychological issues. She uses fear to control people close to her because she doesn’t know how to love, or feels unloved by her mother, or both. Mai completely dismantles her, and Azula confirms the statement with a classless move. Let the record show that Mai was milliseconds away from facing off against Azula’s lightning with nothing but her knives, and considering she’s one of the few fighters in the show getting by on pure skill, she might have had something up her sleeve!
“Step aside, filth.” —Zuko, Episode 1.15, “Bato of the Water Tribe”
He was obnoxious at times, but angry ponytail Zuko was a vibe. The 16 year old had no problem approaching grown men and women and making demands without even introducing himself, usually degrading them all the while. His cruelty and lack of mercy were somehow hilarious. Moments like this display how his vain, narcissistic behavior was borderline Regina George at times. It had to be the ponytail.
“My first girlfriend turned into the moon.” —Sokka, Episode 3.14 “The Boiling Rock Part 1”
Sokka and Zuko’s talk about girls was rather short-lived. Zuko went on one date before blowing his cover and fleeing the Earth Kingdom, and yeah, Sokka fought really hard to declare his feelings to Yue before she was charged with becoming the Moon spirit. Zuko’s reply “That’s rough, buddy,” is probably the only appropriate response.
“Sorry Warden, you’re my prisoner now.” —Suki, Episode 3.15 “The Boiling Rock Part 2”
Alexa, play “Riot” by Waka Flocka Flame, because Suki needs a hype-man. In the middle of a prison riot, our Kyoshi Queen ran through a crowd of tussling inmates on their heads. She parkours up a wall and dances through the warden’s guards before capturing him by bluffing a fire blast to the face, when she can’t even bend! With the muscle memory of a mercenary, she turns him around and gags him with his own headband. She doesn’t say much about her past, but Suki’s been around the block a few times.
“I’m sorry Appa.” —Toph, Episode 2.10 “The Library”
Toph was the only person outside the sinking library when sand benders came for Appa. She was holding the library to keep it from sinking, and she’d lose everyone if she let go for more than a few seconds. She can’t see in sand because vibrations don’t travel well, which meant she had no chance of winning against a team of sand benders. Toph assessed these factors in the situation when she decided to let the thieves take Appa. She had no other choice. An emotional reaction in that moment would have destroyed the world’s only chance against Ozai, so Toph did well to let Appa go. Sometime the best decisions feel the worst, especially if the Avatar screams at you after.
“You sound like my nephew, always thinking you need to do things on your own without anyone’s support. There is nothing wrong with letting the people who love you help you.” —Iroh, Episode 2.08, “The Chase”
This statement is a cure-all for those who suffer from impostor syndrome whenever they don’t feel completely independent. Everyone needs help sometimes and loved ones are more than happy to give it. We’re only human, and life is about loving, not proving your strength.
“My cabbages!!” —The Cabbage Merchant, Episode 2.12 “Journey to Ba Sing Se Part 1: The Serpents Pass”
Omashu, the merchants pier, Full Moon Bay and Ba Sing Se were horrible losses for this innocent merchant trying to make an honest living from his cabbages. His location was always superb, he had no competition and demand was through the roof, but our troublesome heroes obliterated his product every chance they got. In the comics, he ends up opening a restaurant that’s much more profitable. I’m sure he was tired of eating destroyed cabbages for dinner, because Team Avatar saw to it that he never made a dime to buy anything else.
“But now you’re not letting yourself feel anything. I know sometimes it hurts more to hope and it hurts more to care. But you have to promise me that you won’t stop caring.” —Katara, Episode 2.12 “Journey to Ba Sing Se Part 1: The Serpents Pass”
Some of Katara’s wisest words fell upon reluctant, angry ears as Aang wrestled with his pain from Appa’s abduction. He was the only member of the group still upset over what happened at the desert library, and understandably so. Aang and Appa were frozen in an iceberg together for 112 years. The last airbender lost the only (known) sky bison in the world; how does one accept that? Aang would have to figure out on his own, but the wisdom that Katara offered in this scene is a testament to her maternal spirit and a marvel of emotional maturity.
“You can’t knock me down!” —Katara, Episode 1.18, “The Waterbending Master”
When a waterbending master over 30 years her senior launched a tidal wave at her, Katara dug in and refused to be moved. She used her rebellious spirit to stand against injustice often, but her protests against the Northern Water Tribe’s prohibition of women in combat seemed misplaced among the regional politics of the area. The Northern Tribe adhered to strict generational traditions to preserve their strength, so Katara had the task of dismantling customs older than herself. Even still, she didn’t flinch, she didn’t stutter or even ask Aang or Sokka for help. Even when she knew her fight was futile, she challenged Master Pakku with the will of the strongest tides. Her resolve was so impressive that the crowd of Northern spectators cheered her on after she refused to be deterred.
“My own mother thought I was a monster… She was right of course, but it still hurt.” —Azula, Episode 3.05 “The Beach”
Who would have guessed that Azula could be funny? We got a glimpse of her comedic genius when she had the audacity to nickname Zuko “Zu-Zu” in their death match for the Aang in “The Chase,” but her dialogue once Zuko is on her side becomes surprisingly light-hearted and enjoyable. She’s always portrayed in such a composed manner that to see her visibly confused by her emotions is shocking. Her humor is self-deprecating in this instance, and the Azula we’ve seen on the battlefield would never acknowledge her weakness. It’s not rare for an animated series to humanize a villain, but Azula’s usual ferocity and precision makes her vulnerable states jaw-dropping.
”[Roaring]” —Appa, Episode 2.16 “Appa’s Lost Days”
Spirit Guides can’t speak, but they still have emotions. Appa let out so much anguish after his scrap with the porcupine-boar that we humans understood his pain. The bellow was so out of character, but it was mesmerizing seeing him in such a feral state. Keep fighting buddy, you’ll make it home soon.
“Alright hair, it’s time to face your doom!” —Azula, Episode 3.20, “Sozin’s Comet Part 3:Into the Inferno”
Azula … gurl. Emotional home cuts are never the answer to your frustrations of the day, and most certainly not moments before your coronation as Fire Lord. While this scene is a disturbing crux in Azula’s staggered breakdown, it was… hilarious. Her type-A perfectionism was turning her wacko, and while it was sad to watch her hallucinate and sob after, we all still chuckled when she declared war on her bangs.
“Little Soldier Boy Comes Marching Home.” —Iroh, Episode 2.15 “Tales of Ba Sing Se”
In perhaps the most moving scene in the entire series, Iroh’s day of kindness to strangers ends with him breaking down in front of a makeshift shrine of his deceased son, Lu Ten. The time and energy he dedicated to people in no position to return the favor was surprising, even without considering his past as a Fire Nation War General. Thus far, Iroh’s inexplicable change of heart after a life of successful colonization seemed so abrupt, and maybe even unlikely. The image of Lu Ten’s bright, young face captured in a photograph, seemingly trapped somewhere no one can hear him is compelling enough for us to empathize with Iroh. The source of Iroh’s infinite wisdom is finally clear: infinite pain. What’s more heartbreaking is that the episode was written in honor of Mako Iwamatsu, Iroh’s first voice actor in the series who passed away in 2006. Years later, one of the protagonists in Legend of Korra was named after Mako. Rest in Peace.
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