In season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the roles were pretty much defined when it came to good and evil: all elements that weren’t fire and the Fire Nation, respectively. Despite Zuko being exiled from the Fire Nation, he was pretty much running amok all over the globe, obsessively chasing the Aang Gang in order to redeem himself. However, knowing that there were two solid seasons to follow, I had suspicions that Zuko was much more than he seemed—perhaps a Byronic hero of sorts—and season two teased this out well. More than that, it confirms that Aang and Zuko are much more alike than traditional storytelling would have us think: they’re two heads of a coin spinning along parallel roads to the same destination.
In keeping with the Asian-centric world of the Boomerang Gang (plus a refreshingly spunky and grounded earth bender), season two also delves much deeper into Eastern philosophy, which permeates the world and comes to define the story of Avatar itself. Being a children’s program, this is a world where we would like to think we clearly know who the hero is and who the villain is, but in keeping with good writing and character development, Avatar shows us that we are always on the cusp between good and evil because both are inherently part of human nature. Moreover, it thrusts its characters into situations which suggest that typically positive human traits, such as love, can easily make the worst out of humans.
For Aang, his main concern throughout this season is learning how to earth bend, as well as how to tap into/control his Avatar state, but despite being the central figure of the story, I feared he was beyond the reaches of further character development. I’m all for a functioning moral compass, but he was seriously teetering on the edge of boring and bland. Then came episode three and ten, where he pretty much flips the hell out. He may be a little guy with a lisp, but now he’ll threaten to smash you into bits and pieces in the name of his “bithon.” More than that, these fearsome bouts of rage and fury are exactly what Aang needs in order to examine and unlock himself as an Avatar. Just as the Avatar is capable of wielding all four elements in balanced harmony, so should he be capable of balancing his emotions with self-reflection; he’s a monk, after all. His destiny is much more convoluted than it seems, and his real hurdles aren’t external to himself, they’re internal.
As far as personal journeys are concerned, Zuko really stole the show. Although Zuko talked a lot of talk, many of these self-professed intentions were belied by his actions in season one. He was a character with an ambiguous moral fiber and sense of honor, and much to my delight, Zuko has finally become a three-dimensional character, not just a royal brat with a chip on his shoulder. Despite being tortured by his past, his present and his cloudy future, Zuko is slowly proving that he’d be a much better ruler than his power hungry sister, but he still has a ways to go. It’s no accident that the story of this exiled prince is reminiscent of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His journey in season two illuminates another facet of a reoccurring Eastern theme: redemption is as fluid as water, for you can always choose to be a different person and live a different life. Like Aang, Zuko is a product of his environment, but unfortunately for the prince, he has only one voice of reason: his uncle, a living, breathing example of what it is to walk a different path.
As this decidedly wise and mature show develops further, there is no denying how heavily reliant it is on Eastern thought and philosophy. I seriously had to stop tallying the references to the Dalai lama and Bodhisattvas when it came to Aang and his past incarnations: these references aren’t just sprinkled on top like a crust you can fork away at. Rather, they build the character of the story from the inside-out. Again, I’m constantly amazed that these non-Asian creators have managed to create a convincing Asian realm, and I can’t wait to see how they’re going to end this brilliant tale in season three.
Random note: How cool was James Hong’s role in episode five as Mayor Tong? Normally, I can’t discern one voice actor from another, but I knew right off the bat that it was Hong. Nice to see he got involved with the show.
Stay tuned for my review of the third and final season, which will finally give way to my commentary on the controversy surrounding the upcoming Avatar film.