With many people quarantined at home and their eyes glued to Netflix, the recent addition of “Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA)” on the streaming service has offered itself as a form of escape in these chaotic times. This phenomenon has inadvertently led to a random (or possibly fateful) reignition of the show that first aired between 2005-2008 on Nickelodeon.
Although “ATLA” was popularized as a show directed towards young adolescents, “ATLA” remains a timeless exemplification of deep values and important themes that frankly, both children and adults can learn from. Despite being familiar with the show as a kid, as an adult viewer watching the entirety of the all three “books” or seasons consecutively for the first time, I, much like many others, fell in love with the wondrous world portrayed through the masterful storytelling of creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
As “ATLA” rose to the #1 spot on Netflix, even setting records, everyone including my 49-year-old mother couldn’t help but fall in love with the show. After her initial resistance, arguing her age as reason for being “too old for cartoons,” a week later I received a message from her saying she has now binged season two, as the show “grew on her.” In moments like these, it’s easy to forget that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was, in reality, first aired as a children’s show meant for a much younger audience.
The show is unique among the array of typical Nickelodeon shows, as it presents deeper and more mature themes (no offense, “iCarly”). This is in part given by its East-Asian-inspired setting, suggesting eastern philosophies as a framework for their world. Still, its distinct features go beyond its celebration of non-white cultures, highlighting important ideals like friendship, feminism and introspectivity.
In “ATLA,” one is immediately immersed in a compelling realm, ripe for adventure, as Avatar Aang, Katara and her brother Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe embark via Aang’s air bison, Appa, on a journey for world peace. The show’s premise introduces us to the four nations: Water, Air, Earth and Fire, and their sometimes gifted citizens born with the ability to manipulate and sometimes conjure their nation’s element, called “benders.” There was peace, until the fire nation attacked and began to colonize. The fate of the world rests in the Avatar, a reincarnated soul that is reborn into a new human for each generation, who is the bridge between the spirits and the humans, and can master all four elements. The defeat of the Fire Nation and restoration of the world relies on the new generation, specifically, in this team of pre-teens.
Enter Team Avatar. While it’s an undoubtedly large task to burden a few 12-year-olds with, their journey makes an inquiry into friendship, culture, governmental and societal structuring and the understanding of differing cultures among nations.
The show has a charming manner of simplifying ideas that promote sagacity, which I find so clearly encompassed in, ironically, a character from the tyrannical fire nation: Prince Zuko’s tea-loving Uncle Iroh. His character is a loving and kind one, despite being a general of a vicious army. Iroh has a plethora of wise quotes embedded through striking moments, such as when he says to Zuko, “it’s time to start asking yourself the big questions: who are you, what do you want?” These questions spark introspective thought in the same way Zuko struggles with his internal conflict, and we, the viewers, are invited to go inward with him. As much as the “bending” action steals the spotlight, I revel in these internal struggles just as much.
The reminder of childhood magic in the show (aside from bending) comes from the beauty and simplicity of universal ideals like joy, unity and spirituality—which makes the show so incredibly wholesome. Aang, although 113 at the start of episode one, is the embodiment of childhood bliss, as his zen wisdom teaches how to be flexible, and to live life mindfully with a presence of joy at the forefront in the way we go through the world. He shows us how to enjoy, to be so in love with the small moments even during times of extreme struggles.
Alongside ideas of wisdom and joy, feminist ideals portrayed by strong women characters are not sparse, as characters like Katara, Toph and Suki showcase strength, wisdom and fearlessness in their own ways. The show very clearly refutes misogyny from the very beginning when Sokka reevaluates his sexist notions after getting pulverized by one of the Warriors of Kyoshi. Suki beats the misogyny out of him, and he is humbled, realizes he is wrong and asks for Suki to teach him. Not only does it highlight strong women, but the demonstration of a man swallowing his hubris and acknowledging women as their equals and possibly even superiors in some regard, sets a strong example for young people (and your racist relatives) in having the ability to recognize their faults and learn from them. Suki saying she is a warrior but “a girl too,” highlights the show’s feminist message, proving women can be both feminine and fierce, and truly, whatever they want to be.
Ultimately, what I love most about this resurgence is its ability to bring people together. I can send memes to my mother, college friends and 10th grader cousins about this show, which is astonishing to me. Perhaps, as cheesy as it sounds, just like the four nations, “ATLA” can bridge humans to other humans in these distressed times. In all three seasons, “ATLA” is beautifully woven, unique and an anomaly, in its vast audience that it’s able to captivate, and in the way it both teaches and entertains so gracefully.
Aside from amazing characters and profound themes, “ATLA” is filled with moments that can make you laugh out loud or start tearbending. And if you loved “ATLA” as much as I did, its sequel, “Legend of Korra,” which is about the next avatar after Aang (and which I love just as much) was recently added to Netflix as well.