With the announcement that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (ATLA) will be coming to Netflix US (it’s been on Netflix Philippines for some time now), the internet celebrated its release by showering my feed with memes from lifelong and newly recruited fans. I enjoyed ATLA back in elementary school when it was aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. This was before the time of streaming sites, when either new episodes would drop every day or we’d need to wait for the weekend to catch up on reruns. It was more than just a TV show for me—it taught me important life lessons I didn’t know I could use as an adult.
ATLA is an animated series about a world where characters lived in nations based on the four elements—water, earth, fire and air. In this universe, the avatar, the “master of all elements” is reincarnated into a new person from a different nation in that cycle and is the only one capable of restoring balance. The show follows Aang, the avatar from the Air Nomads, as he sets off with his friends Katara, Sokka and Toph to restore this balance.
With the existing notion that cartoons should only be tackling light themes, some shows have introduced heavier themes that challenge its viewers on higher levels of analysis. ATLA is one of these cartoons since it retains the humor and lightheartedness of a children’s show, but takes on morally complex themes like war, authoritarianism, sexism, cultural differences and environmental issues. The series’ creative storytelling and portrayal of such issues were even recognized in academic studies, tackling the show’s power dynamics, capability to forward socially progressive values and ability to provide lessons in psychoanalysis through the characters. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this show that stuck with me until today (spoiler warning!):
The show features a diverse cast of characters who come from different cultures with different abilities. Just as how the four nations have people that can bend the elements, the show also features some characters that can’t. Sokka, one of the main characters who isn’t a bender, was presented as a hero in this series despite not having a “superpower” like the other characters.
Aang’s backstory hinges on genocide and what happens when a group of people decide that maintaining their power is more important than the lives of others, with the Fire Nation exterminating all of his people in an attempt to break the avatar cycle, leaving him the lone surviving member of the Air Nomads. Throughout the series, he faces conflicts with other nations disrespecting his culture like when they visited the Northern Air Temple where he finds engineers and inventors creating machines for the Fire Nation for the war against the other nations.
The show also portrayed characters with disabilities in an inclusive manner. Aang’s earthbending teacher, Toph, who was born blind and uses the vibrations of the ground to make sense of her surroundings. She proved herself to be a powerful bender by discovering a new bending style (metal bending) and using her skill of sensing the ground’s vibrations to predict her opponents moves and to detect if people are lying. On her first appearance in the series, she’s shown as a tough and skilled fighter who her wealthy parents disapproved of because they wanted to protect her because of her disability. She later on took matters into her own hands and ran away from home to join Aang and master earth bending.
In an episode called “The Library,” Toph stays behind because her sense of “sight” is blocked by the sand as the team explores a forbidden library in the desert. The show consistently shows that Toph’s earthbending powers rely on solid materials like soil or metal while she’s unable to feel her surroundings in places with sand and water. This eventually prevents her from saving Appa, Aang’s sky bison, from being abducted by thieves thus creating a conflict within the team. They later on settle their differences and make it out of the desert. This shows a consistency in characters’ powers revealing their weaknesses despite being powerful benders.
The character differences in the series didn’t make any of them less of a hero, which taught me the valuable lesson of respect. The differences in the characters’ abilities made them a compatible team that hooks the viewers to anticipate how they would handle the challenges they face in the series. These characters respected each other’s differences and became a family with a bond that lasted a lifetime (and even across lifetimes *coughs* “Legend of Korra” *coughs*). Just like in the real world, we’re all different. We don’t know what other people are going through and why their ways of life are different from ours and we must respect that.
Even villains deserve character development
My favorite character in this series is Zuko—the banished prince of the Fire Nation turned Aang’s firebending master. Aside from the fact that he became my first ever cartoon crush (come on don’t lie, some of you have cartoon crushes, too), his character’s redemption story is considered one of the best in television because his arc involved him turning from the series’ main villain to one of the heroes, with him being a conflicted prince dealing with his father, Fire Lord Ozai, banishing him from the Fire Nation.
Not many TV shows during my childhood portrayed the good vs. evil conflict this way. Most of the TV shows I’ve seen established this dichotomy at the start and kept them until the end. ATLA, on the other hand, introduced Zuko as the villain who later on helped Aang defeat his father when he found out about his nation’s war crimes after he experienced the life of the other nations due to his banishment. The characters’ backstories were the emotional backbone of the series which couldn’t have taken off as well as it has without the series creators’ long-term storytelling plan. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, ATLA’s creators, did a lot of planning in advance to set up their characters to face the different conflicts and, thus, presented different socially progressive values that allowed the characters to grow over the course of the series. Examples of this include the stories of Toph and Zuko who come from places of privilege (wealthy families) but faced different struggles that encouraged their character development in the series. Another example was how the series humanized its characters like with Aang who needed to face the huge responsibility of being the avatar as a child thus committing mistakes and having poor judgment at times.
For me, their story arcs impacted the way I handled conflict. In experiencing misunderstandings and problems growing up, it made a difference to think about the bigger picture before acting on emotions. Although this isn’t that simple and still a bit hard to grasp today, seeing these characters helped me become more open to understanding where people are coming from before judging them for their actions. Even if people are facing similar problems , they could be coping and handling the situation completely differently (Zuko and his sister, Azula, losing their mother compared to Sokka and Katara losing their mother). The show made me realize that people may be going through things bigger than I can understand and, at such a young age, I learned that it’s better to extend a little more patience before acting out.
The show has more valuable lessons embedded in each episode and character, but for the sake of this article, I will leave you with these two. The world is a complicated place filled with hardships that we all, unfortunately, have to go through. But just like Team Avatar, we can build true friendships through mutual respect and understanding, giving people chances to redeem themselves when they’ve made mistakes.
The decisions of these characters affected how things unfold in the story of the avatar succeeding Aang in the series, “The Legend of Korra,” which tackled maybe even more complex issues to which I describe the franchise as a story that grows with its viewers. While “The Legend of Korra” has yet to air on Netflix, we could all enjoy ATLA once again and revisit why this show won the hearts of so many people to this day. Who knows? The show may reveal more valuable lessons now that we’re watching it from a new perspective.