Well, I’ll be dammed, this might just be the best animated show I’ve ever watched.
It’s not a short list, either. I grew up on anime, and comics so, of course, that means I also watched every animated version of my comic favorites from The X-Men series (it’s on Disney+, guys, if you haven’t watched it) to Batman and Superman and even the Justice League animated series. So to be here, in the year of our Lord 2020, where everything is bleak and absolutely nothing makes sense, saying that Avatar: The Last Airbender is the best animated show I’ve ever watched? Those are big words.
No regrets, whatsoever.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a superior show not because it’s the prettiest one (have you seen the new Sailor Moon? I always get so distracted by the beautiful animation that I can’t pay attention) or because it has the most groundbreaking plot (you’ve seen one battle between good and evil, you’ve seen them all), but because it manages to give us so many great characters – and allows those characters to grow, evolve and yes, bond.
Zuko, Toph and Sokka really stand out among them. Sokka starts off the trend of treating character progression the right way, even if his progression is faster. He’s brash, a bit rude and misogynistic when the show starts, and he acts first, thinks second. That he would grow to become not just the biggest cheerleader of everyone, but the strategist of Team Avatar is a testament to how, with enough time and consistent writing, every character can made out to be something better.
Then there’s Toph, the spoiled brat with immense power and a prickly attitude that shows us that no, you don’t have to overhaul a character to make it likeable. Toph changes, yes, becomes better at human interactions, makes friends, and hell, becomes even more of an earthbending badass without ever becoming someone unrecognizable from the girl we first met.
Which leads us to Zuko, and probably the best redemption arc I’ve seen on a TV show to date. Of course, this is all because the show clearly knew they were redeeming Zuko from the beginning – we always see his bad deeds from the perspective of a lost, angry boy desperate for his father’s approval. He’s always the victim of someone more powerful than him, and though he lashes out in anger and does bad things because of it, it’s always easier to redeem a character who isn’t just doing evil things for the sake of it.
The show takes its time with his redemption arc, too. In fact, I’d argue that they took too much time in Season 3, we didn’t need twelve episodes of him figuring out his shit in the Fire Nation when he’d been on this journey for over a season. But the time helps Zuko, and it helps us see him in a different way. By the time he approaches the gang with his absolutely horrendous opening line of “Zuko here,” we want them to accept him, because we also want the best for him.
We want the best for all of them, and that’s why the episodes after Zuko joins the Gaang are the best of this season – and this show. There are adventures, and bonding all around, but most importantly, there’s balance. And there’s a sense of found family that almost leaps off the screen.
Ironically, because I’ve seen intense ship arguments in this fandom, I ship absolutely nothing. In fact, the idea of ships just distracts me from the only thing I care about in this show, and that is to see these teenagers happy, together, and maybe with Uncle Iroh serving them tea.
This is particularly surprising because I’m usually the type to want a ship. Perhaps that just proves how badly written shows are, that sometimes I stick around for a ship when I wouldn’t stick around for the rest of what a show is given me. But if Avatar: The Last Airbender (and lately, Stargirl) are any indication, what I(we) want out of TV is to care for people, to care for their relationships, no matter what those relationships might look.
And yes, fine, it’s always good to have the kind of ending Avatar had – because the fight between good and evil is only fun if good wins, and this is an animated show, after all.
It’s especially good when the writing can be cohesive enough that the things that happen make sense within the context of the show you thought you were watching. Yes, Ozai needed to be taken down, but would we have really wanted Aang to kill him? Was Aang ever that person? Would we have wanted Zuko to be the one to beat – and possibly kill his sister?
The answer is really no, and the fact that the show recognizes it makes it even better. The journeys of these five kids were always the point, and yes, they grew and they changed, they found each other and they lived through the kind of adventures that bond you together forever, but they never truly lost the good parts of themselves. They just found better ways to harness all their power.
So, here I am, absolutely amazed at what this show accomplished and also super, super sad to see it end. I will move on to The Legend of Korra, but I get the feeling it won’t be the same. It can never be. You can’t recreate lightning. All you can do is make a different, but equally compelling journey.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is available to stream on Netflix.