Library Blog

Why you should watch: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Why You Need to Watch – Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar the Last Airbender isn’t your average Nickelodeon cartoon. For me, one of the most exciting pieces of news I have heard in the last year or so is that Avatar: The Last Airbender is finally back on a streaming service: Netflix for the first time in recent memory. My excitement for this news isn’t for me, I own the whole series and have rewatched it yearly for a decade, my excited stems from the fact that finally, my binge watching friends and the rest of the world can stream what is the greatest television show I have ever seen. This is a controversial statement for sure, but no other television show has captured me or been as effective at storytelling and character development. Avatar, in its guise of a lowly Saturday morning Nickelodeon children’s cartoon somehow captures lightning in a bottle. Everything about this show, from storytelling, to pacing, to character development, to animation or visuals, and to worldbuilding is superb

Avatar tells the story of a world of four nations, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air and the people who live in these nations. Some people in this world are born as powerful benders able to manipulate and control the element of their respective nation. The story follows Aang, an airbender from the nomadic Air nation who is born as the once a generation Avatar with mastery of all four elements. The Avatar is reincarnated once a lifetime with the ability to access the wisdom and guidance of all former Avatars to maintain balance in the world between the nations and between the material and spiritual worlds. Aang, being forced into his role as Avatar too quickly due to signs of aggression from the Fire Nation flees home, is lost at sea due to a storm and reflexively calls on his Avatar powers to encase himself in ice to protect himself.

Avatar Aang riding his sky bison Apa.
Aang and his sky bison Apa.

Aang, and the Avatar, is lost from the world for 100 years, until two children from the Southern Water Tribe find and free him from his iceberg. In the 100 years Aang has been gone, the Fire Nation has attacked the other people of the world, killing all of the Air Nomads, and has the people of all other nations engaged in a fierce 100 year war, that the Fire Nation is getting closer and closer to winning. Avatar is Aang and his friends’ journey to restore balance to the world.

Avatars story and character threads speak to plethora of ideas much deeper and more thought provoking that your average children’s story. One of the main (and most awesome) characters is blind, and the story frequently deals with how to live and grow through disabilities or setbacks. Some of the major points it touches are: censorship, the horror of war, dealing with grief and loss, moving on from the sins of your past, how to handle feeling weak and powerless, sexism, racism, how to learn from failures, how to handle your girlfriend being turned into a moon (that’s rough buddy), and honestly so much more. Also, due to exceptional planning from the writing team Avatar somehow encapsulates this story and all its lessons in three seasons where every episode feels deliberate, well thought out, and only one or two feel like they miss the mark.

Meme of Sokka telling Zuko

My only major gripe with Avatar is how long it takes to build to its tremendous crescendo, so many people I’ve talked to about this show say they watched some of season 1 and stopped watching. And while I love season 1, the second and third seasons get better and better respectively, with the finale being the ultimate and perfect example of how to finish a Television show. The depth displayed by this show and its writing only really are hinted at until they really start to flourish and grow 2/3 of the way through season 1, with the episode The Blue Spirit. This episode is worth mentioning because it sets into motion easily the best plot thread of the show, the development and redemption of the first villain, Fire Nation Prince Zuko.

Meme of Zuko standing in doorway saying

Zuko (sorry Sokka) is my favorite character, and his development from a bratty Fire Nation Prince into the steadfast and worthy man he becomes is the key to the success of this show. Zuko’s struggle to deal with his life and past failures, offset by Aang’s sometimes cocky, headstrong, and carefree attitude do so much to bring depth to the show. Zuko struggles with his much stronger prodigy sister, and he is banished and marked forever with a scar on his face by his father for speaking out of turn. He is driven to find the Avatar and defeat him to restore honor to his name. Zuko’s struggle with his own moral compass, aided by his wise and loving Uncle Iroh the disgraced Dragon of the West, original heir to the Fire Nation throne and former General of all Fire Nation forces (and easily another of the best characters in the show), is heartfelt and touching. Every twist and turn in Zuko’s story pull at your heartstrings, as you reluctantly fall in love with him, only to watch him make mistake after mistake. His ultimate shift from hunter of the Avatar to a member of Team Avatar, is one of the most rewarding experiences in storytelling.

Two photos of Zuko side by side, showing Zuko angry at first and happy in the second.
Zuko season 1 from Zuko season 3 physical transformation is representative of his spiritual journey throughout the series.

While this is all happening, each episode seems to touch on some other major life issue that never seems to preachy or out of place. Even episodes that start to look like filler bring unexpected depth, with one of the most emotional moments in the entirety of the series (that always brings tears to my eyes) set in a literal filler episode made of short stories (brave soldier boy, come marching home…). Even the recap episode (obligatory in television shows for some reason I can’t figure out) is hilarious and pokes fun at itself. My name is Toph because it sounds likes TOUGH!

Every character is amazing and cool in their own way, with even plain old Sokka who can’t bend an element like everyone else in the group (and the meat and sarcasm guy), getting his own character development arc that gives him his own awesome set of skills. Half of Team Avatar is made of powerful women, one of whom as previously mentioned is blind. Aang is a vegetarian and never takes a life in the show. The bending arts are all inspired and informed by a traditional martial arts form, and the world is filled with beautiful and respectful representations of a variety of Eastern cultures, that are not frequently found in Western Television and Film.

A photo of a young girl named Toph.
Toph Beifong is Team Avatars earthbender. She is blind and "sees" the world with echolocation and is one of the coolest characters of the show.

This show has it all and is accessible and fun to watch for children and adults. If you haven’t watched it in its entirety now is a great time to do so. If you have watched it, I think you will agree with everything I’ve said here, Now is your chance to watch or revisit the wonderful world of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

PS: Shout out to those who understood my lame jokes and clears throat:


Water Tribe out.

Gif of two water tribe characters Sokka and Katara walking out of a building.