Clearly, when confronted with the final countdown, the creators of Avatar knew full well that the only way to go out was with a seismic bing-bang-boom. Although it’s a little sad that Avatar is over, it was a wise choice to stamp this series with an expiration date right from the get-go. Given the ever-present tick tock nestled in the corner of their minds, the writing team of Avatar went all out and wasted no time at plopping viewers into a fully rendered world, complete with its own mythology, a cast of dynamic characters and an engaging philosophical journey. Don’t let the “Nickelodeon” or “kids” tag convince you otherwise; it’s really a thing of maturity, intelligence and beauty.
Warning: read on only if you are willing to catch a whiff of some spoilers. I am not liable for blowing your mind.
In my review of season two, I focused on character development and made some comments about Aang and Zuko’s inextricably bound destinies, as well as on the possibility of Zuko finally discovering that he’s probably better at being good than he is at being bad. What is so amazing about the writing of the whole series is that by the point Zuko joins the Aang Gang, we already feel it coming.
That is, Zuko’s transformation is gradual—never does his reincarnation seem gimmicky or cheap—and most importantly, the writers do not underestimate the core audience’s (children) ability to comprehend complex storytelling. Moreover, Zuko’s journey manages to avoid the pitfall of alienating its viewers with esoteric eastern philosophical thought: Zuko’s transformation transcends all cultures as it is a quintessential tale of the triumphs, wayward paths and mishaps many people encounter in their green days.
Choosing to write Aang as a monk was no arbitrary choice, and I waited all of season two to see his internal halves clash: an inner smack down between a being whose main concern is of enlightenment and a force of nature who is destined to destroy a nation—nay, kill a man (Fire Lord Ozai). Besides moments of fury, worry and sadness, I could hardly pick up on the anguish you would think would be inherent in such a contradictory character.
Luckily, episode one of season three wasted no time in throwing Aang into a phoenix-like rebirth. Fresh from a bout of epic failure and fire scorn, Aang channels Zuko v.1 with the declaration, “I need to redeem myself, I need my honor back.” Along with being a slightly creepy and ominous echo, Aang’s proclamation is obviously intended to convey the ongoing theme that what makes us good can very easily make us bad, for love and hatred are not mutually exclusive things. At the end of the day, the main antagonist is not Zuko, the Fire Nation or any of the past fire lords: the true antagonist is writ within each character.
Without a doubt, one of the biggest moments in season three was the revelation of Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin’s friendship, and it was definitely no coincidence that the answers Aang and Zuko’s sought were embedded in that very history. However, what I really enjoyed were the various developments in the relationships among the royal brats: Zuko, Azula, Ty Lee and Mai. All four characters may represent the greatest evil in the world of Avatar, but only by association.
What we come to understand in getting to know these four characters is that they all essentially lack something fundamental within their lives, whether it be a mother’s love, freedom, acknowledgment, or in Zuko’s case, a sense of identity. However, the means of addressing and filling those voids is quite another issue. Again, even within the scope of these four characters alone, Avatar drives home the philosophy that all individuals have the free will to choose what sort of people they want to be. Nature and nurture are moot points in this world.
Before Azula’s manic and final meltdown, viewers already know that she is capable of love, compassion, guilt and regret—at least to some extent—and what damns her is that she ultimately fails to recognize the beauty inherent in her and in all of the characters. At the end of the day, she refuses to walk a different path, and it’s a gruesomely sad demise.
In creating a timeless fantasy tale, Avatar achieved an unprecedented and laudable cultural phenomenon, one which features an Asian-centric realm and a cast of distinct Asian characters who represent issues that resonate with all ages, creeds and colors. It truly is no wonder why Hollywood has been quick to snap up the live-action adaptation. However, upon fully digesting Avatar, it is also blatantly apparent that Hollywood has yet to understand—or worse yet, to respect—the inherent charm, cultural relevance and impact Avatar brings to young American audiences. But that is a story for another day… stay tuned for a commentary on the forthcoming Avatar film.