Avatar: The Last Airbender

⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 3 reviews.

tl;dr: A wonderfully detailed world and magic system woven around a story that will entertain any age, a classic that definitely doesn't disappoint.



Season One

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I feel like people have been recommending Avatar: The Last Airbender for years, so it felt okay to break out of what we've been watching to give it a shot. It's definitely nice being in a fantasy world again, especially one with so many awesome animals and a really interesting magic system (even though it's got more than a little of Earthsea about it). Sure, the show's pacing and writing is very much aimed at kids, but it definitely holds up as one of the earliest "kidult" TV shows and I'm enjoying it immensely. The world building in particular is being well drawn out, with just enough in each episode to begin to paint a fairly nuanced picture without overloading the viewer.

That said, quite a few things are clearly being set up. Obviously Aang and Katara are on a path to fall for one another, though the show has enough eastern philosophy to it that they could end up being just friends (indeed there's been a slight hint of other romantic paths with Jet). I wouldn't be surprised if we were to bump into Katara and Sokka's father at some point soon as well, plus Sokka, being the one without powers, is almost certainly going to end up playing a critical role. It's also obvious that Aang's mastery of the four elements has a deeper meaning than just bending, and instead will see him unite the four nations in friendship. Katara is the Water Tribe and I'd place good money on the Fire Nation ultimately being represented by the current antagonist, Zuko; there's a clear redemption, anti-hero arc is I've ever seen one. Earth hasn't come into play just yet, but that'll likely be season two.

In the meantime, we're left with characters who are clearly kids and, luckily, act like it. A lot of kids cartoons make their protagonists weirdly grown up in terms of priorities, drive, careers etc. but Avatar seems content to let them screw up, slack off, and have fun every few episodes, which is nice. That said, even within this season we see a slow escalation in terms of stakes, going from relatively minor stuff at the start to the epic Siege of the North two-parter to end it out. And what an ending! We get a much deeper reveal about the way gods and spirits work, get to see some true villainy from Admiral Zhao, and ultimately get a surprisingly dark conclusion with Aang going behemoth and wrecking everything, drowning Zhao and generally wreaking havoc, whilst Sokka "fails" as Princess Yue gives her mortal life to take the place of the Moon Spirit. It's sad and triumphant all at once, which is nice; it also shows us that, even in the Avatar state and with the literal help of gods, Aang is not yet powerful enough.

Even though his power may not yet be sufficient, the season does give us a much more nuanced hero in Aang then is customary. Rather than being the standard goofball, kindhearted, wonder child (see Goku, Ash, and so many others), Aang has actual depth. He's a kid, so his decision to run away makes sense, as does his guilt and sense of loss at returning to a world without his family or culture. At the same time, his honour and monastic training give him a strong sense of morality and sense of self, which combine to make a hero who feels relatable and still someone to look up to. That's a hard trick to pull off and they've done it well; I'm really looking forward to seeing where it goes next!

Season Two

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

The second season hits the ground running and barely lets up. The first episode does well to set the scene and give us a taste of the Earth Kingdom, but its the ongoing developments of the side characters that really sell it. Zuko and Iroh's continued evolution is so much fun, from fugitives to refugees to successful merchants, their story really helps flesh out both characters. It's also nice to see both Sokka and Katara literally grow up, becoming a master/teacher for Aang and a competent leader and strategist in their own rights.

It also gives us a clearer picture of the depths the Fire Nation will go to in their ever spreading conquest. Avatar has set up its villains well, making them human but still clearly problematic, and putting the greed for power at the centre of what makes people evil. But it doesn't stop there. Probably the best piece of story telling here is when Appa is taken captive. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of other standout episodes; I'm particularly fond of the swamp bending exploration of water magic, the introduction of the Badger Moles, and of course the Blind Bandit which introduces Toff. But none of these quite have the same tonal shift as when Appa is stolen. Aang's fury and uncontrollable rage feel more important then they ever did in season one, plus from a narrative perspective the loss of Appa creates some interesting issues and slows the pace down again in the middle of the season, giving character development time to breath. Above all, though, it provides both a punch in the gut at Momo's near-miss discovery in the otherwise slightly too abstract Tales of episode and a slight spark of light for Zuko that more than likely foretells a coming switch of sides in the final season.

As for the main plot threads, I definitely enjoyed the introduction of Azula and her friends, though they quickly lost their edge of fear, which I think is a shame. Still, their interweaving with Long Feng and his Dai Li provide some more intriguing political elements to the plot and it's interesting watching the whole idea of Ba Sing Se unravel from a paradise to a dystopian nightmare. I'm not too sure about the ending, either the sudden discovery of a Guru who (ridiculously quickly) is able to unlock Aang's chakras or Zuko's twist double betrayal, but it's certainly a mark of a show that's confident it can stick the landing to go all Empire Strikes Back and end with the main character dying and everyone on the run. I'm definitely intrigued to see what comes next!

Season Three

Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

A great ending to a fantastic show. The third installment, aka Book 3: Fire, does exactly what you'd expect it to, wrapping up the show nicely whilst still jugging along at a fairly decent pace. I've really enjoyed watching Avatar and instantly feel, now that it's over, that my life is missing something, which is a small tell that you've just watched something excellent for me. I want to know more about Aang, his friends, and his world, but unfortunately that isn't really possible (well, except for The Legend of Korra, which is now firmly planted on my watch list for the future!).

After the fairly shocking ending to season two I was happy with the "flash forward" technique setting up the main arcs in episode one, except that I never really got on well with Aang's need to suddenly go it alone. I understand from a narrative perspective that they needed the kids to split off from the adults again, but the reasoning never pays off. Aang states he wants to battle the Fire Lord ahead of the invasion to reclaim his honour, but as their travels through the Fire Nation go on that initial logic is seemingly abandoned without explanation, instead just seeing the four main heroes travelling the long way to meet up with the invasion fleet. The silly thing about it all is that when they do, a much more logical explanation as to why the two groups needed to split up is forthcoming: on the one hand, travelling overland through the Fire Nation put Aang well out of the way (a hidden in plain sight manoeuvre) whilst allowing all of them to learn more about their enemies; on the other, the invasion force has travelled all over rounding up allies. Both of these are better reasons for them to split up then Aang suddenly going all emo-hero-mission on us, but oh well.

There are also a few small snippets which I feel could have been better integrated into the plot, such as Toph's meteor bending and the fact that Sokka gets given a white lotus by Master Piandao. These both get callbacks later on in the series, but neither feel particularly relevant; indeed, the white lotus is the barest of callbacks and not necessary at all, considering that Iroh unites the White Lotus anyway.

Minor quibbles aside, though, the character arcs and storyline developments in the third season are excellent. At long last we get to see Zuko flip sides (though not before we get to really explore his character, making his betrayal at the end of the previous season more than worthwhile) and join Aang, officially meaning that Aang has successfully united the four elements. Sure, it's a plot development that has been obvious from the moment we first met Zuko, but it doesn't make it any less satisfying. Plus, the way they go about it feels rewarding and justified, which is nice. Ditto Mai and Ty Lee's uprising and redemption; telegraphed, sure, but well done and meaningful when it came to a head.

It's also nice getting to explore the Fire Nation and getting to know the Fire Lord's story more deeply, including how the war began and the failures of the previous Avatar. All of this is brought to a head neatly when Aang goes in search for a peaceful means to end the conflict, one without death, and is failed by the previous incarnations of himself. Not one counsels anything other than a death sentence, which helps draw out the hopelessness of the epic four-episode long mini-movie. Speaking of which, I also really liked that the "Black Sun" story arc ended up being a dud, not just because it meant we got to see Aang and the Fire Lord embrace their full power with the coming of Sozin's Comet, but because it setup a different feeling second half to the season. We were still exploring their world, but the stakes had somewhat changed, and instead of travelling around it was a nice chance of pace getting to go on jail breaks, revenge quests, and dragon training, which all felt somehow more grown up then what we'd seen before, and that felt right.

It's also fascinating to see the slighter darker routes that the show treads in terms of bending. Both Katara and Toff learn about some of the "advanced" forms of control and manipulation that their powers allow them, which are fun extensions of the logic at the heart of the shows magic system. Toff's, of course, is a little more light hearted (and incredibly useful), but Katara's blood bending falling in the edge of mind control was an unexpectedly sombre consideration both of absolute power and of the mental toll that war takes. It also lends a huge amount more weight to her revenge plot line, which gives her a nice hint of real depth as a character you don't often see in a kids show. These are well balanced by Zuko and Aang's discovery of the wealth of fire bending capabilities, letting them both see that fire is not merely destruction but also light and life. That said, I was disappointed that Zuko's own journey didn't result in a dazzling light display in his fight with Azula; I feel it would have been fitting to see him master all the colours of fire and put her in her place, having boasted for three seasons of her control of blue fire.

I do feel like the way in which Aang ultimately wins is both clever and a little bit too deus ex. Sure, a giant lion turtle (I will miss this world's inventive animal mashups) tells him of a time before the Avatar when nature kept tabs on powerful benders, but it really wasn't a clear explanation and left you just a little confused as to what was going to happen. Even with the flashback I'm still not sure I know what was said between the two of them! Still, it gave us a truly epic final fight sequence, Aang unlocking his Avatar state and truly mastering the elements, will Toph, Suki and Sokka battle the air fleet, which felt pleasingly simple and still high stakes. On the other side of the world, I genuinely wondered at points if Zuko or Katara might not make it through, but again the fight was well paced and the conclusion, with Azula in chains having a meltdown, felt deserved.

Also, I really like that we learned that three of the four elemental bending techniques were first discovered by animals: dragons, mole badgers and air bison. They never mentioned where water bending came from though... Which wasn't the only mystery left over. We never find out what happens with Zuko's mother, or the ultimate fate of Suki and Sokka. As mentioned above, the white lotus and a few other small pieces are left in the air, but the most sinister was the demon Koh. When Aang and Koh meet, the demon practically promises to find Aang again, so I was expecting him to crop up – so much so that I thought the mysterious island was a trap of Koh's devising and Aang's insistence on seeing its face would be a major road bump! Still, no sign or mention of him, so I guess it was forgotten about or not as ominous as I thought. Also... the episode about the play was a bit weird and definitely a waste of time...

Finally, whilst I'm largely in the "children falling in love is creepy" camp, I did also cheer a bit when Katara and Aang kissed at the end. As I say, I'm sad to see the show end and lose these friends, but it was a great ride and I'm extremely glad to have taken it. It's still definitely a kids show, but the story and world building holds up well enough for anyone to enjoy.

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