Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
When I first saw Avatar: The Last Airbender, I watched it through Netflix, but the old-fashioned way: by getting individual DVDs in the mail, each containing four to six episodes before I’d need to mail it back and order a new one. Now, as I watch it through the massive streaming service Netflix has become, The Last Airbender remains the same show I’ve always loved. It’s just as consistently beautiful, intense, profound and hilarious as I remember, balancing each element as well as the Avatar balances water, fire, earth, and air.
But as I’ve grown, and as my younger sister experiences the show for the first time, I’m finding new, different ways to connect to The Last Airbender’s stories and characters. The warring nations are no longer just a backdrop for cool battles (although damn, those battles are still so cool), but contain different political ideologies and structures based directly on the real world. I’ve grown to relate to more of its characters’ struggles and triumphs. Above all, the show’s unwavering message of choosing good over evil is more potent than ever.
Immediately, The Last Airbender felt distinct from the other cartoons I watched at the time. Unlike Spongebob Squarepants, The Fairly Oddparents or Jimmy Neutron, this show had a strict narrative, without a single episode being unimportant to the overall plot. I noticed how in the Pokémon anime, Ash and co. would meet a new friend and always promise to meet again someday at the episode’s end. They almost never did.
In Avatar, they mean it. Every action has far-reaching consequences, not just on a wide, geopolitical scale but even in how different characters view one another. Avatar: The Last Airbender was the first show to trust that my age range could understand and enjoy a complex, increasingly mature story, and it was right. As has always been the case, kids—even those with developmental disabilities—can understand a lot more than adults give them credit for, at times being able to view characters and plot points with more nuance than perhaps more narrow-minded parents.
Still, as I’ve rewatched the show, gaining more understanding about politics and media have changed my perspective on it. The last time I watched the show was when I was around 13, as one of the first shows I introduced to my younger sister, who was around five years old at the time. And although I recall her enjoying it, she was also too young to remember anything but the most vague, abstract structure of the show. We both started rewatching it together when it hit Netflix’s streaming service in May, and although my sister began watching with a nearly complete blank slate, The Last Airbender is also a radically different show from how I remember it.
As a privileged, white, middle-class kid, I didn’t really need to worry about politics growing up. I knew some people hated the Obama administration while others adored it, but anything I heard about it was an incomprehensible babble of political mumbo jumbo. When I was 16, something happened that changed that—on November 8, 2016, Donald Trump became President Elect of the United States. The morning after, my teacher broke down before class started. Fights broke out in the hallway between students of opposing ideologies. Some teachers tried to act like everything was normal; others spent the entire bell ranting for or against the upcoming leadership; another came into class, eyes burning red from tears, and gave us a bunch of pointless assignments to busy ourselves with while he sat silently at his desk. Politics were no longer something I could comfortably ignore. From then on, they were everywhere.
Even, as it turns out, in my favorite media.
While many forms of media, especially videogames, claim complete political immunity nowadays in order to not alienate any possible audiences, The Last Airbender thrives in its politics. Katara calls her brother sexist within the first five minutes of the premiere, and although its fantasy setting keeps it from directly calling out any political figures at the time, one can certainly draw comparisons between the insidious counselor to the Earth King, Long Feng (Who, by the way, literally says the word “political.” Can you imagine the reaction to that under today’s rage-fueled Internet?!) and the similar puppet-master/ vice president at the time, Dick Cheney.
But the political comparisons go far beyond those of when it was made. Politics have always been a cyclical discussion, and many of the issues The Last Airbender tackles in-depth are ones that have once again reared their ugly heads in 2020: Governments, particularly the Earth Kingdom, refusing to acknowledge the threats of oncoming destruction, lest it disturb their way of life certainly rings a bell with leadership across the country and globe, doesn’t it? “There is no war in Ba Sing Se” sounds a hop and a skip away from leaders and citizens alike proclaiming global warming, racial injustice, and our newest threat COVID-19 as nothing more than overreactions from the radical left, if not entirely made up.
In The Last Airbender’s sequel series, The Legend of Korra, its politics get even more complex, but not always for the better. Each season seems to explore various forms of government and the ways they succeed and fail, but as it progresses, showrunners Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko display an unwillingness to make any bold statements about any of them. Its socialst allegories are thrown in the same lines as its fascist ones, with sympathy for most rational sides but seldom ever any conviction. “Everyone kind of sucks,” Korra seems to suggest.
As Khee Hoon Chan writes for Polygon, tales of good vs. evil can be just as compelling as morally ambiguous ones, even refreshing. That’s what The Last Airbender provides. It’s a tale in which the forces of love clash against the structure of hate, and the advocates for peace rise up against the proponents of war. But just like reality, good and evil people can come from anywhere. Although the Fire Nation is initially set up as the unambiguously antagonistic expansionist empire, there are plenty of good people within it, just as its opposing nations have plenty of deplorable characters.
Nowhere else is this duality as present as it is in the troubled Prince Zuko, banished by his own father and sent on a wild goose chase to capture the Avatar in order to restore his honor. At different points throughout the series, Zuko has to choose between these two disparate ideologies, each choice eating away at what he believed his identity and destiny to be.
I’ve admittedly never been banished, but I was effectively expelled back in kindergarten due to poor behavior. I didn’t really know or care about the change of school at such a young age, but as I grew and began to understand how I was different from my peers, I also began my ongoing journey of coping with my own failures.
Likewise, failure is an ongoing theme in The Last Airbender which connects both its heroes and villains. Aang feels intense, continuous guilt for leaving the Air Nomads—and the rest of the world—behind when he disappeared for a century, just as Zuko aims to do whatever it takes to regain his father’s love after seemingly failing him. Zuko’s uncle Iroh is defined by his “legendary failure” to breach the walls of Ba Sing Se. Even the ever-sarcastic, humorous Sokka feels inferior by his inability to bend or lead.
The Last Airbender’s writers seem to understand that our mistakes stick out more to us than our successes, and just as everyone copes with defeat differently in our world, so do they in the world of the Avatar. Aang seeks guidance from a spiritual guru to unlock the Avatar State through a series of what are essentially therapy sessions, helping to destigmatize seeking professional help in tackling personal issues. Zuko realizes that it’s his father who’s failed him, as many, including myself, have had to acknowledge how abusive authority figures have warped our own senses of self-worth.
Over 15 years since it first premiered, Avatar: The Last Airbender remains not only one of the best cartoons out there, but one of the best TV shows at large. Its animation hasn’t aged a day, fitting some of the genre’s most stunning fight sequences and gorgeous environments within an outdated aspect ratio. Similarly, its messages and themes have stood the test of time, remaining as relevant and important now as they ever were.
If you haven’t seen Avatar: The Last Airbender yet, you owe it to yourself to experience the journey for yourself. If you’ve already seen it, well, it’s always a good time to watch it again.
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Joseph Stanichar is a former Paste intern who specializes in videogames. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.
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