That’s All, Folks: Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Epic Finale Ushered in a New Era of Action Cartoons

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That’s All, Folks: Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Epic Finale Ushered in a New Era of Action Cartoons

Most scripted television shows end in cancellation, so there’s something special about the ones that get the chance to go out on their own terms. This year, Ken Lowe is revisiting some of the most influential TV shows that made it to an officially planned final episode. That’s All, Folks is a look back at television’s most unforgettable series finales.

I have opinions about cartoons—more than a nearly-40-year-old man with four kids should have, honestly. It’s why I wrote an entire year-long column on Batman: The Animated Series, not knowing that it would coincide with the year we lost the voice of Batman. And it’s why, when I carefully considered which dozen TV shows I’d spotlight for their finales, I wanted to find a way to fit in animation somewhere. It’s a medium, more so even than live-action TV, that almost never gets an ending. So, before we get into Avatar: The Last Airbender—one of the most spectacular, epic final runs of any show—I should probably put in some honorable mentions.

King of the Hill vied mightily for this same spot, since it is unquestionably the best “adult animation” show for one very simple reason: It’s the only one that’s ever fucking ended. Gravity Falls also featured an absolutely unforgettable finale event, and certainly one of the most emotionally rewarding of any cartoon show. Justice League Unlimited also would’ve rated a write-up, but I’ve visited it before elsewhere in Paste. I felt like Steven Universe and Steven Universe Future, as well as The Owl House still need some time before we start adding them to Best Ofs (but for the record, their finales ruled). Castlevania’s was incredible, but also a little talky and, unfortunately, not as momentous.

But here’s why Avatar: The Last Airbender won out, even over its sequel series The Legend of Korra: It continued something that Batman: The Animated Series began. B:TAS showed that we were past the gaudiness of the Reagan era. A:TLA resolutely refused to be a breezy, episodic kids’ show. It was a serialized adventure story with deep intentionality from its very first episode, and the fact that its finale resolves the conflict from that very first episode marks it as a masterpiece of the form. Back in 2005, nobody saw this one coming, but kids born during the show’s run have now grown up in the cartoon landscape it created.

The Show

In a fantasy setting inspired by Asian and Inuit cultures, some people are born as “benders,” with the power to manipulate one of the four classical elements of water, earth, fire, and air. (One Japanese elemental tradition includes a fifth, and I will get to that in just a minute.) There is one being, the avatar, who is born with the ability to bend all four elements, and this figure is reincarnated every generation, serving as an arbiter of world affairs.

The world is divided into states based around the four elements, and as we begin the story, the Fire Nation is in the midst of a century-long campaign of world domination. Because the avatar’s reincarnation cycles through these four countries each generation, the Fire Nation has annihilated all airbenders to prevent his return. The avatar is nowhere to be found, and the world groans under violence and tyranny. The show conveys all this inside of two or three minutes in a way that demonstrably worked, since kiddos who were plunked down in front of the tube to watch Nickelodeon absorbed it all like sponges.

Down in the southern polar region, the Southern Water Tribe members Katara and Sokka discover a boy frozen in a glacier. His name is Aang, and, impossibly, he is an airbender. More impossibly, he also bends all the other elements. He is the avatar, and it’s revealed that he chickened out on assuming his mantle and put himself in cryo to let the world burn in his absence. With his newfound comrades, he embarks on a quest to defeat the Fire Lord and restore balance to the world by mastering the four elements and doing sick kung fu.

Fire Lord Ozai, the big baddie of the series, who is so unthinkably fearsome that he doesn’t even properly start showing up until Season 2, is voiced by Mark Hamill (the voice director was Andrea Romano, the very same who turned Batman: The Animated Series, and Hamill’s Joker, into such a success). In a recent interview, he said the show never talked down to its audience, and he’s right: Aang and his companions never win easily or in a way that feels trite. There are very few wholly evil or irredeemable characters, and many times when the heroes come into conflict with someone, there are understandable reasons for why their antagonist is behaving the way they are, even when they’re clearly in the wrong.

The other secret weapons of the show were the late, great Mako Iwamatsu, who voiced Uncle Iroh, mentor to the series frenemy Zuko, voiced with equal parts villainous intensity and hilarious outrage by Dante Basco. Prince Zuko, the Fire Lord’s son, starts the series obsessively hunting the avatar to gain favor with his distant and abusive father, undergoing a redemption arc unmatched in television history. At one point, determined to learn the secret of redirecting lightning, he stands atop a mountain during a thunderstorm and screams at the gods to light his ass up. Eventually, he joins Aang’s quest, and his allegiance symbolizes the harmony between the elements.

But, in a way that really shows how deeply the show integrated its Eastern philosophy, so too does the show’s least serious character, Sokka. Sokka is the only member of Aang’s group who isn’t a bender: He’s just a guy. He begins the show as a braggart and something of a chauvinist; one early episode features him getting rocked by a group of female warriors founded in honor of the Earth Kingdom’s last avatar, and it teaches him not to be a sexist jerk. Over the course of the show, he grows, and soon becomes the group’s tactician. At one point, he forges his own sword from a meteorite and learns sword techniques reminiscent of Southern Chinese and Taoist styles.

Here’s the thing about all of that: In Japanese Godai elementalism, there is a fifth element, which is often translated as “Void” or “Emptiness.” It doesn’t always mean nothing, but can represent a kind of anticipatory creativity. The legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Mushashi, in his treatise on fighting titled The Book of Five Rings, dedicates a chapter themed on each of these elements, and the Emptiness chapter is a short philosophical meditation on the warrior spirit.

I haven’t read anything suggesting the show’s creators purposefully made these connections, but the fact that Sokka’s growth as a character is a kind of emptying out of his preconceptions and prejudices, that his apotheosis is as a cool and competent swordsman who doesn’t feel like a fifth wheel in a group that also contains an earthbender girl who can sunder mountains, fits perfectly into this framework.

The show features dozens more memorable characters and arcs, and going into them all would be impossible. But it also featured a finale that shook the pillars of the world and sent its characters off in style.

The Finale: “Sozin’s Comet”

Nothing short of an epic four-part finale would do for a show themed around the four elements, and “Sozin’s Comet” is a two-hour TV movie jam-packed with extreme emotion and the kind of destruction you see in a Godzilla movie.

Aang, as he has been since the beginning of the show, is afraid of fighting Fire Lord Ozai. He believes he doesn’t have what it takes, but he also adamantly refuses to kill the man, no matter how evil and irredeemable he may seem. Aang is a monk, and he believes fervently in nonviolence—he doesn’t even eat meat. As the movie begins, he’s staring down a terrifying deadline. Once a century, Sozin’s Comet passes by the earth, and during its passage, firebenders experience a peak in their destructive power. As Zuko reveals, Aang can’t simply wait for this celestial phenomenon to play out. His father plans to use the power surge to immolate the forces who oppose him. If they don’t take him out now, there may not be a world left to save.

Torn between his duty and his beliefs, Aang runs off alone while the rest of the team help muster the forces to oppose Ozai. Epic battle commences: Iroh and the other members of an ancient order of do-gooders storm the conquered Earth Kingdom capital and reclaim it, concluding a major character moment for Iroh, who once conquered the very same city under the banner of the Fire Nation. Sokka and earthbender Toph resolve to destroy the Fire Nation’s airship fleet to stop its indiscriminate aerial firebombing.

Aang, meanwhile, finds himself on an island that moves. Mystified, he consults his own past lives for guidance in his hour of uncertainty. This is, to my mind, one of the best moments of the entire show. Aang’s past lives give him advice, and none of it conforms to what he wants to hear: His immediate past self tells him to be decisive, another tells him to take an active role in the events of the world rather than sit by passively. But it is Kiyoshi (the same Earth Kingdom avatar whose disciples trained Sokka) who gives perhaps the most jaw-dropping advice. She fought a similar tyrant during her time. As we see in her memories, during the resolution of the conflict, the ground gave way under this antagonist and he fell to his death.

Aang naively points out that she didn’t kill him at least. No, Kiyoshi, responds, she doesn’t see it that way. He died as a direct result of her actions, and it had to be done to bring the world back into balance. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a fellow Air Nomad avatar explains gently to Aang that even though airbenders preach disconnection from the world, he isn’t just an airbender, he’s the avatar, and his duty is to the world. Sometimes, she says, doing what’s right means sacrificing our own spiritual needs.

This is a show for kids.

The parallel story is just as important and just as lavishly animated. Zuko must defeat his deranged sister Azula, who has been appointed ruler of the Fire Nation as her father goes for world domination. The conflict between the siblings has simmered the entire show, and in many ways, Azula is even worse than Ozai. Katara joins Zuko in a final battle against her: Azula promises a 1v1 duel against Zuko, but immediately cheats when it’s clear she can’t win cleanly. It’s a gorgeously animated, unforgettably scored fight, and like everything in Zuko’s arc, he doesn’t win because he fulfills some trumped-up destiny. He tries to do right and does the best he can, and it’s enough.

Aang does eventually nut up and face Ozai, with a little help from another entity. It is a battle difficult to describe in anything but giddy hyperbole, but it ends when Aang reconnects with his past experiences and becomes destruction incarnate—hurling mountains and throwing oceans at a suddenly terrified and overmatched Ozai. He has upset the balance of this world, Aang declares with the voice of a thousand generations of his past selves, and now he will pay the ultimate price.

But he stops short of killing him. Aang received one final bit of knowledge from the moving island, which was actually a lion turtle, one of the creatures who first invented “bending.” In a final deus ex machina, Aang grapples with Ozai, and his spirit overcomes his foe’s. Aang robs him of his ability to firebend, turning him into just another old fascist. Around the world, the other forces opposing him make mincemeat of his armies.

It’s a touch too tidy of an ending, but just a touch. There are reasons, deep and coherent ones, for Aang to resist simply killing his nemesis, and he agonizes over them before finding a way. That’s the miraculous moment, as becomes clear the minute Aang just goes Supersaiyan and starts kicking Ozai around like a hacky sack. It’s related to why Iroh refuses to face Ozai, who is his brother: It would appear to the world as just another grab for power from another jerky Fire Nation noble. Simply force-feeding Ozai a mountain or dropping him into the Mariana Trench would prove the guy’s violent ideology right. Aang, or anyone else, can’t just beat Ozai. They need to destroy the warmongering, genocidal paradigm he’s created, and the new world that rises in its place must be one of peace and harmony.

It ends with the world at peace, Aang anointed the avatar before a grateful world, and his close friends all together and relaxing after their victory. Aang and Katara steal a kiss, even though she should’ve ended up with Zuko.

The show conquered its audience’s imagination, and it has enjoyed a sterling reputation in the decades since it ended, despite a lackluster M. Night Shyamalan movie adaptation. More than that, it seems that every show now aspires to be Avatar: The Last Airbender in its feeling of completeness, if not its scope and world-building.

Few kids’ shows before or since have ever felt so perfectly contained, from the hero’s first awakening to his final battle.

Tune in next time, when That’s All, Folks! enters the era of prestige TV with Lost.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste TV. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.