Thursday, January 23, 2014

Television in 2013, Part III - Avatar: The Last Airbender

Book One DVD cover art Book Two DVD cover art Book Three DVD cover art

This post contains one major spoiler for the end of Book Two and an implied spoiler for Book Three. Sorry, y’all; I can't properly discuss my reaction to the series without bringing these things up.

Last week, I told y’all about my first super-awesome life-changing show of 2013. I encounter such shows so seldom that I figured SUPERNATURAL was it. I’d had my amazing show for the year. Maybe even for the next couple of years.

That was before I gave in to peer pressure and borrowed the first disc of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER (hereafter, ATLA) from the library.

Peer pressure is probably too strong a term. It’s not like my friends badgered me relentlessly as I took my sweet time starting the show, but they did remind me every so often. "This is great stuff," they told me. "You should watch it. You’ll like it."

"Okay," I said. "I’ll get it from the library."

Then I kept forgetting to, you know, do that.


I did eventually remember to borrow to the first disc, though, and it made a most favourable impression. I promptly requested the rest of Book One1 and got down to watching it.

By the time I’d finished, I was desperate for more--but the library, alas, had only a few discs from Books Two and Three. Horrors! Thankfully, Netflix Canada had the entire series available to stream. I waited until I had enough spare time to actually make use of the service, then signed up for the free trial2.

You can guess what happened next.

Summary time, now! Novice waterbender Katara has always clung to the legend of the Avatar, the one person who can control all four elements and broker peace between the world’s powers: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. It’s been a hundred years since anyone saw the last Avatar, though, and in that time the Fire Nation has attacked and colonized almost everyone else.

Bloody Fire Nation.

Katara and her brother, Sokka, are frustrated they can’t go fight the Fire Nation alongside their father, but they find their own way to help the cause when they discover a boy frozen in an iceberg. Aang, the long lost Avatar, is a personable enough guy once they’ve thawed him out, but he can’t begin to save the world until he’s mastered all four elements. To that end, he embarks upon an epic quest to harness his magic, with plenty of support from Katara and Sokka.

Katara isn’t the only person who still believes in the Avatar, though. Zuko, exiled prince of the Fire Nation, can’t return home until he’s cemented the Fire Lord's power by capturing the Avatar.

And Zuko would very much like to go home.

Friends' enthusiastic recommendations aside, I always thought ATLA was, well, a simple kids’ cartoon with cute bits and some jokes and plenty of fun, standalone adventures that didn’t necessarily lead to anything big. You know; the sort of thing I watched when I was part of the Under 10 crowd and hadn't had much truck with since then.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this.

ATLA is most definitely appropriate for all ages, but it doesn’t shy away from darker or more involved storylines. It assumes its viewers will understand what they see, no matter how subtly the information is laid out, and that they’ll remember small details many episodes down the line. It offers reminders here and there, most notably in its "Previously On..." segments, but it rarely writes down to its audience.

The series respects its characters, too. Each one of them changes and grows in response to the story. There’s little in the way of black and white morality, whether we’re talking about our core heroes or the supposedly villainous Fire Nation. Everyone does some good, everyone messes up, and no one’s triumphs or failures are without consequence.

It’s frickin’ awesome storytelling: epic, but also profoundly personal. ATLA isn’t just a story about some kids who save the world. It’s as much about how these young people evolve along the way.

As is so often the case, the personal angle drew me in far more effectively than the epic premise. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact moment I began to love the characters, but it all clicked into place midway through Book One, when I realized how much I liked Sokka. Sokka, who initially seems like kind of an asshole, is basically the Obligatory Grumpy Character of ATLA, and I am an Obligatory Grumpy Character junkie3. He’s more than just the one who complains about everything, though; he’s an innovator with great ideas, he gets preoccupied with weird things, he believes he can draw (even though he totally can’t), he’s fiercely loyal to his chosen family, he recognizes his limitations but tries to overcome them, and he’s so committed to the mission that he has to be reminded that occasional breaks are a good thing. He also becomes rather less grumpy as his horizons expand.

I love the hell out of Sokka, y’all.

gif of Sokka cheering with INTENSEFANGIRLING overlaid on the image

Once I realized how much I loved Sokka, I started thinking about how and why I loved the rest of them. Katara won me over almost right away with her loyalty, her willingness to believe in a better world, her determination to master her own magic and help Aang master his, and her compulsion to look after everyone else even if it means they won’t like her quite as much. She doesn’t exactly embrace the role of Group Spoilsport, but she’s willing to accept it if it helps the others out.

gif of Katara knocking five Fire Nation soldiers over with a stream of water

Aang himself is fairly laid back and cheerful, despite the weight he carries. He’s willing to look on the bright side in most instances, and he’s genuinely committed to helping people, even though he wishes being the Avatar maybe didn’t cost him quite so much on a personal level. He embraces Katara and Sokka because they let him be a kid as much as a legend, providing some much-needed balance to what could otherwise be a life of hefty responsibility. Above all, Aang wants to live in a way that won’t hurt anyone. When he gives in to despair, it’s usually because he can't see a way forward without causing harm.

gif of Aang crying with #SENSITIVEAVATARPROBLEMS overlaid on the image

The core group eventually befriends Toph, an earthbender who agrees to teach Aang despite her overprotective parents’ wishes. Toph is a total badass who doesn’t take crap from anyone (though it must be said that she hands a fair amount of it to others, particularly Katara). She knows both her talents and her limitations, and she lives in a way designed to optimize the former and minimize the latter. She’s stubborn, but she’s not unwilling to experiment with new attitudes if the others can demonstrate some reason why she should change her view.

She invents a new kind of magic, too. SO MUCH BADASSERY.

I love her to bits, but I get the impression some segments of the fandom aren't as fond of her as I am. I admittedly haven’t delved too deep, but I keep coming across fanworks that highlight everyone except Toph. I’ll choose to believe this is because those fanartists realize Toph doesn’t need their validation, not because they dislike her4.

gif of Toph saying I don't car what I look like. I'm not looking for anyone's approval. I know who I am.

The four of them are a family, along with Appa (Aang’s flying bison friend, who is also their primary mode of transportation) and Momo, a lemur they meet at Aang's childhood home. I’m a total sucker for anything with a focus on families, particularly siblings, so they warm my wee, family-loving heart.

ATLA doesn’t limit its awesome characterization to the obvious good guys. The main antagonists get just as much thoughtful attention as the people they strive to vanquish. Zuko’s Uncle Iroh won me over shortly into Book One because he’s such a contradiction. We’re told Iroh is a fearsome general who cut a bloody swath through the Fire Nation’s enemies (ie, everyone), but we see a quiet, contemplative man who enjoys games of strategy, values good tea above gold, exhibits infinite patience with those who question him, and loves his angry nephew as though Zuko were his own child.. He’s peaceful, for all that he rides around on a warship and belongs to the most warlike people in the world. His mistakes are all mistakes of the heart, intimately tied to his love for his own son and for Zuko.

He’s still a force to be reckoned with, though. When Iroh needs to act, he does so with a speed and competence at odds with his calm demeanor. He’s a kind, caring person who’s also a total badass when the need arises.

Iroh just might be my favourite.

gif of Iroh pouring tea and saying 'the secret ingredient is love.'

Then there’s Zuko.

The show initially presents Zuko as your standard Bad Guy. He’s angry, driven, intolerant, and determined to accomplish his goals no matter who he has to destroy along the way. And as soon as we have this Zuko firmly in our mind’s eye, he begins to crumble. We start to see Zuko as a kid shaped by his circumstances. He’s been on his own for three years at the start of Book One, his father having mutilated him and kicked him out of the country for--gasp!--having opinions on things, and he’s convinced himself that he has to be a certain type of person if he’s to regain his rightful place in the world.

gif of Zuko angrily spurting some fire from his hands then storming off.

Slowly, the writers force to Zuko question what he knows about his own goals, and about the Fire Nation’s plans for the world. They strip away his illusions and bring him to a place where he can more or less choose who he’s going to be.

I began cautiously rooting for him from "The Blue Spirit" (S1E13) on. By the middle of Book Two, I was firmly in the, "Go, Zuko, GO!" camp. I wanted Zuko to get his life on track and achieve his full potential. I wanted him to be someone who could take pride in himself.

As a general rule, the more invested I am in a show, the more I talk to the characters. I had a lot to say to Zuko during this period. First I tendered the odd comment; then I whispered encouraging things (because TV characters will totally listen to your suggestions).

Then I screamed at him.

There was profanity involved. A lot.

My dog got really frickin’ tired of hearing me shout, "ZUKO, YOU STUPID FUCK!"

Because in the Book Two finale? Zuko behaves exactly like a 16-year-old who’s been denied his home for the last three years and is suddenly offered the thing he thinks he wants most in the world.


gif of Tyra Banks shouting 'I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you!

At that moment, I realized ATLA had become more than a fun way to while away a few hours. I was deeply, painfully invested to an extent I hadn’t expected so soon after SUPERNATURAL.

Wow. Okay. I was furious at Zuko, but I was gloriously happy to be so.

I have a lot of ATLA-centric emotions even now, well over a month after I finished the series finale. And Zuko lies at the core of many, though not all, of them. Iroh might be my favourite (might; I also love both Toph and Sokka awfully much), but Zuko is the character who most fully captivated my imagination. The character I rooted for, and screamed at, and ultimately came to believe in.

I feel vaguely bad about calling him a stupid fuck. Not bad enough to stop, but bad enough to mention it.

On a much lighter note, ATLA’s superb characterization isn’t the only thing I loved about it. The worldbuilding is delightful, what with the attention it pays to the southern hemisphere5, its many cultures, and its global focus. Aang and his friends go everywhere and talk to everyone from impoverished villagers to soldiers to royalty. We spend a fair amount of time within the Fire Nation itself, too, seeing how the war has impacted the commoners who’ve had no say in it. The writers give us as complex a portrayal of the invaders as they do the people they invaded.

The worldbuilding also features a multitude of unusual animals. There’s no such thing as a duck or a turtle in Aang’s world, though there might be a turtle duck, or a platypus bear, or a tiger moose. When the characters encounter a regular old bear, they’re stymied.

gif of Katara saying 'The king is having a party at the palace tonight for his pet bear.' gif of Aang saying 'You mean platypus bear?'
gif of Katara saying, 'No, it just says bear.' gif of Sokka saying, 'Certainly you mean his pet skunk bear.'
gif of Toph saying, 'Or his armadillo bear.' gif of Aang saying 'Gopher bear?'
gif of Katara saying, 'Just... bear.' gif of Toph saying,

This delights me.

I also love the characters’ willingness to roll with whatever comes their way, no matter how silly it is. I got such a kick out of the brief period where they call Zuko’s assassin Sparky Sparky Boom Man without a hint of irony, and remain somewhat saddened at their quick switch to the more sensible Combustion Man. I love how Aang and Sokka expect Katara to protect them when something scary happens. (Regular-strength scary, that is. Everyone’s willing to fight when they’re up against the likes of Sparky Sparky Boom Man.) I love the cabbage seller who travels the world pandering his wares from his oft-destroyed cart. I love how the narrative ignores the trope that says Katara and Zuko ought to have a thing. I'm somewhat less enamoured of its support for the trope that Katara and Aang must have feelings for one another, but I do love how quickly Katara shuts Aang down when he tries to push her into it. She doesn’t rule it out, but she makes it clear nothing will happen until she’s ready, and he’s just gonna have to respect that.

And there’s this great episode, midway through Book Two, where the writers give the characters a chance to just do stuff. Katara and Toph go to a spa and shoot down some haters, Iroh celebrates his son’s life, Aang helps a group of zoo animals find a better home, Sokka participates in a poetry slam, Zuko goes on a date, and Momo becomes frenemies with some of Ba Sing Se’s animal residents. Only Momo’s story furthers the plot in any way; the rest are simply a chance for the characters to step away from their mission and have fun.

Most of all, though, I love how often the characters reference their various in-jokes and preoccupations. In Book Three, for example, each of the characters except Toph goes on a life-changing field trip with Zuko. They’re all aware they’ve gone on a series of life-changing field trips with Zuko. They talk about the wider implications of their life-changing field trips with Zuko. Toph laments her own lack of a life-changing field trip with Zuko.

The phrase "life-changing field trip with Zuko" comes up more than once, is what I’m saying. And I giggled at it every single time.

gif of Toph clutching Zuko and saying,

I giggled an awful lot, really. I’ve heard some folks criticize ATLA’s humour as "juvenille," and I suppose they're right, but that never stopped me from enjoying the jokes. If it’s wrong to laugh at the humour in a caroon aimed at the 8-12 demographic, I don’t want to be right.

Friends, AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER gave me a hell of a lot to love on every level. It quickly wormed its way into my heart and has taken up permanent residence there. You will oblige me if you'll watch it your own self so you, too, can know the magic of screaming profanities at Zuko.

Me, I'm hoping to get my hands on the comics that continue the story. My library doesn't have them and they're a bit on the expensive side, even in digital form, so I shall stalk the Dark Horse website in search of sales. Wish me luck.

This terrible, horrible, masochistic part of me is tempted to watch the live action movie too. Must... resist... that... way... lies... pain...

  1. These days, my library lets you borrow an entire season of TV at once, but they used to break them up into individual discs. They’ve had ATLA for so long that some of the discs have been decommissioned and a great many of the others barely play. Like, I missed the part where everyone met Suki, and I got the first season finale in fragments. I let the librarians know about this when I returned the relevant bits of Book One, but the materials were back on the shelving carts by the time I’d finished browsing the stacks. Sigh. I stress out about bringing such matters to the librarians’ attention, even though I know that sort of thing is important, so I was embarrassed for days after that. Hell, I’m still embarrassed. And I worry for whoever borrows the discs in the future and only gets little chunks of certain storylines.

  2. Netflix Canada’s selection differs from Netflix USA’s, a reality of which I must constantly remind well-meaning Americans who’re all, "You should watch this great thing! It’s on Netflix, so it’s easy to get!"

    Uh, yeah. Easy for you; not necessarily easy for the rest of the world (though we do have some great stuff that isn't available to Americans).

    Since Netflix Canada is missing so many lauded shows, I was surprised at just how much I was able to watch. They had more than enough material to keep me glued to my TV screen for months on end. I promptly switched from a Netflix doubter to one of those people who sing its praises at every available opportunity.

    I watched Books Two and Three of ATLA, two and a half seasons of THE NANNY, a variety of favourite older movies, some newer movies, and about a third of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK before my free trial ran out. I fully intend to get the service back as soon as I have enough spare time to make use of it again.

  3. You know, the one who complains a lot. I’m all for rethinking (or even abolishing) certain character tropes and archetypes, but you will pry the Obligatory Grumpy Character from my cold, dead hands.

  4. Except, it’s okay if you dislike her. I don’t get it, but it’s okay.

  5. Want to win me over quick? Set your story in the southern hemisphere and/or make some of your characters southern hemisphere dwellers. The northern hemisphere gets far too much attention.


  1. This post is a thing of beauty. :)

  2. Hahahaha, you should definitely resist the action movie. I do not hear good things about that.

    Poor you that your library has begun splitting up DVDs! I was going to complain that this wasn't streaming on Netflix and that I would therefore have to go alllll the waaaaay to the library to get the DVDs, but I hereby withdraw that ridiculous complaint. The libraries in New York split up TV seasons that same way, and I hated it.

    1. I don't understand why they keep letting M. Night Shyamalan make movies. It's been years since he got decent reviews, and other fans have led me to believe the ATLA adaptation is particularly bad. Apparently they whitewashed everyone except the Fire Nation? Argh. I'm scared to look for more information on it because I'm pretty sure I won't like what I find.

      That said, one friend (who hasn't seen the series) did love it. She tells me she saw it twice in theatres. So, I guess it didn't alienate everybody.

      Fear not! My library has stopped splitting up DVDs. They did it for maybe the first year or two they offered DVD rentals, but they started keeping them together as soon as they introduced a wear-and-tear fee. It's a shame they never regrouped all the series they parcelled out prior to that, but at least it's possible to borrow newer things all in one go.

  3. I really must watch this one day.

    1. Yes, you must! It's fantastic. It takes relatively little time to watch, too, because each episode is only 22 minutes long.


    Fingers crossed about Dark Horse sales! (Or about your library eventually getting them). The comics are very, very good. I also recommend Legend of Korra as long as you keep it firmly in mind that it's very different from Avatar.

    1. I don't WANT to do it, Ana! Really! I don't! Some dark force compels me!

      Luckily, I have to show some initiative in order to give into the force's demands. Given that it took me months upon months to request the actual series, I think I'm safe for now.

      I've got my fingers crossed my library buys LoK soon. I'd love to see it--and I will show immediate iniative if it appears. :)