In 2005, I watched a couple of episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it couldn’t keep my interest.
A decade later, I liked the show enough to breeze through it in a week.
The humor and chibi-inspired shenanigans didn’t quite cut it for me, but I think this is a case for me where the cast dynamics and some incredible character arcs allowed me to forgive things that typically would induce facepalms, such as idealism, clear-cut morality, and preachy writing. (It amused me to no end by the way after I learned that Ann of Arrested Development was the voice actress for Katara.)
Zuko’s character arc is simply incredible. His decision to depart from his father was one of the finest payoffs I’ve felt from any show, up there with Stringer Bell’s demise in the third season of The Wire, Elizabeth telling Phillip to come home in the first season of The Americans, Jasper’s badassery in this most recent season of The 100. (I realize these names probably mean nothing to you, by the way.) Iroh was also a sweet supporting character.
The pacing in this show was also masterful. It helped that there were a lot of multi-part episodes, and I am wondering how they were able to schedule those because there were quite a few of them. I think many shows would benefit from having longer mid-season and season finale climaxes. The last episode did a wonderful job of tying together lose end and even bringing back bit episode characters.
I do have a major problem with how this show handled death, genocide, and collateral damage, and I’m guessing that a lot of that was just the writers trying to figure out how to get the show to meet a Y7 rating. But come on man, all the protagonists on the show are basically made to have completely clean hands, but even if they did not kill directly, you know that some of the usages of the bending had to have resulted in deaths for the cannon fodder. Throwing people off cliffs, exploding entire vehicles/ships with people still inside — it made it seem like the characters were in a state of cognitive dissonance sometimes.
When Aang was going, “Wah, I don’t kill people. Don’t want to start now with Fire Lord Ozai!” I wanted another character to say something like, “Dude — it’s ok. Remember, when we dropped that twenty ton boulder on the group of Fire Nation grunts without bending abilities or plot armor last week and you were okay with that?”
Jet fucking died. Acknowledge it!
I also laughed when Hakota (father of Katara and Sokaa) told his children that they should flee and not worry about abandoning their Bay of Pigs invasion force because the Fire Nation would simply take them prisoners and that they would survive. Given the track record of the Fire Nation, how were they that confident that their captors would abide by the Geneva Conventions?
I think Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (the showrunners) were also terrible at handling romantic relationships. They say they were setting up Katara and Aang the whole time, but the way they wrote it, it felt like Aang would inconsistently jolt out of the friend zone in spurts in between long stretches of receiving little romantic attention from Katara. Especially in the last few episodes, it felt like the showrunners were completely telegraphing Katara as Zuko’s eventual righthand woman at the throne. Feels like all around that would have made more sense. Symbolically unifying the nations, allowing Aang to keep on going on his own adventures or bang Toph (muscular blind girls need lovin too, man).
The failure of DiMartino and Konietzko to actualize Zutara, along with the failure of nation states to pass comprehensive climate and finance regulation will go down as one of the great lost opportunities of the 21st century. Hate to be a shipper, but man oh man, the setup was there for the taking! (On the note of Katara, I was disappointed that the focus on Zuko seemed to come at the cost of spotlight and action for her. She definitely deserved more than being a relief pitcher for Zuko during the climax.)
Finally, I found that the tendency to give all adult characters Asian accents while younger characters sounded more “white” to be puzzling.
Zuko just completely stole the third season, and by extension, the rest of the show. His development made the show a worthwhile time investment for me. Also, I found his lines to be the funniest. Him and Mai exchange their “I don’t hate you’s” was one of the few un-lame bits of humor in the show.
Appa is also one of the cutest fucking things ever conceived. The episode featuring the baby air bison almost killed me with its cuteness.