tek's rating:

Avatar: The Last Airbender, on Nickelodeon
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Setting & Backstory

I adore this show. So, what's it all about? Well, first of all I should mention that it turns out not to be quite as anime-influenced as I'd first thought it was going to be, before it started. Anime obviously is an influence, yes, but it's more influenced by various elements of traditional Chinese culture, religion, and mythology. Even the four different bending skills which are at the heart of the series (more on this later), were each designed with their own basis in a specific real-world martial arts discipline... I should also say it's a fantasy show; more specifically, I suppose you could call it wuxia. Another important aspect of the series, which has been a central element of countless works of fiction, involves the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. (Yes, some stories throw in a fifth element, be it metal, spirit, void, or whatever. This one has just the classic four.) And I must say, this is perhaps the best utilization of these elements as a plot device that I think I've seen, in animated or live-action shows/movies. It is set in a world much like ours, but also rather different. Its level of technical development I would say seems to range from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. In any event, there are several ways you can definitely tell it's not exactly our world (not to say it's necessarily another planet or something, just... not our world). One of the most interesting differences is the abundance of creatures not to be found in our world; some are quite similar to familiar animals, others very strange indeed. But they're all totally cool.

And then there are the people. The world is divided into four cultural/geopolitical groups: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Some people in each group are born with the ability to "bend" (that is, to manipulate, and in the case of firebenders, seemingly create) their people's native element, though this natural ability takes a great deal of training. (It is an interesting and entirely apt counterpoint that firebenders draw strength from the sun, while waterbenders draw strength from the moon. Not sure about airbenders and earthbenders, though.) Bending is useful in various ways, from utilitarian, to playful, to artistic. Mostly, though, it's used for battle. However a bender is using his or her element, it's a sight to see. Especially the battles. Anyway, of all the benders in the world, only one, known as the Avatar, can master all four elements. The Avatar (much like the Dalai Lama) is reborn into each generation, in a continuing cycle: Water, Earth, Fire, Air. He (or she, for the Avatar is as often reincarnated female as male) keeps the peace and balance between the four groups, and is also the bridge between the physical world and the spirit world. S/he will have no conscious memory of his/her past lives, so must relearn each bending skill, in the order of the cycle. (Though the current Avatar can sometimes communicate with past Avatars, through meditation.)

112 years before the start of the series, Avatar Roku (of the Fire Nation) died, and the next Avatar was born into the Air Nomads. Normally, the monks who raised and taught him would have informed him of his identity as the Avatar when he turned 16. However, they chose to tell the new Avatar the truth when he was only 12, because they feared the Fire Nation wanted to start a war to take over the world, and they wanted to speed up his training, to prevent this. But Aang, though an exceptionally gifted airbender, was basically just a fun-loving kid at the time, and didn't want to be the Avatar. And so... he disappeared. Fire Lord Sozin took advantage of an approaching comet to launch a devastating attack, and the Fire Nation apparently wiped out all the Air Nomads (knowing the next Avatar would be among them, and not wanting him to rise to oppose them). Of course, all of this is backstory, which is slowly revealed over the course of the first season....

Book One: Water

The series actually begins 100 years later, when a 14-year-old waterbender named Katara and her 15-year-old brother Sokka find Aang, who has been frozen in an iceberg near the South Pole all this time, and has no knowledge of the war that's been ensuing in his absence. They free him, but they're surprised to find he's an airbender, since they've all been gone for a hundred years. They also free his ten-ton, six-legged, beaver-tailed flying bison, Appa, who was frozen with him. It isn't long before Katara and Sokka discover that not only is Aang an airbender, he's also the Avatar. When he learns the Fire Nation is getting very close to finally completing its war of absolute global conquest, he has no choice but to face his destiny, and try to put an end to the war.

But first, he has three elements to master. The series is comprised of three seasons (called Books), each with 20 episodes (or chapters); actually, Book Three has 21 chapters. We can assume that at the start of the first season, Aang is already essentially a master airbender, which is why there will only be three Books. Book One is "Water," the next element in the cycle after air; Book Two will be "Earth," and Book Three, "Fire." ...Unfortunately, Katara and Sokka's tribe is very small. All the men, including their father, Hakoda, left two years ago to fight the Fire Nation, and so far have not returned. (Their mother, Kya, had been killed several years earlier, in a Fire Nation raid.) All that remain are women, the elderly, and children (of whom Sokka is the oldest; he prides himself on being his tribe's "greatest warrior," but no one really takes him seriously). There is no one there who can train Aang as a waterbender, nor is there anyone to train Katara, whose own skills at this point are minimal (though she obviously has incredible potential). So Aang will travel with Katara and Sokka (and Appa as their transport) to the North Pole, to find a waterbending master for the two of them. Early in their journey they are joined by a cute little winged-lemur they meet at the Southern Air Temple, where Aang grew up. He names it Momo.

Along the way they will have many adventures, and we also sometimes see flashbacks to Aang's life 100 years ago, including both play and training with his guardian, a master airbender named Monk Gyatso, as well as other people he knew back then (being a Nomad, of course, Aang had friends in every nation, including the Fire Nation). By the time they reach the Northern Water Tribe at the end of Book One, both Katara and Aang will have already improved their waterbending skills impressively, but of course they'll still require a master to further train them. And they're not the only ones whose skills improve along the journey. While Sokka starts out as little more than comic relief- a sarcastic and arrogant buffoon who's always complaining about just about everything- he becomes a better warrior, and his skills at tracking and other things also become apparent, as do traits that, really, were always there: intelligence, courage, loyalty, and family bonds, to name a few. Not that he ever stops being sarcastic and funny... In fact, most of the characters on this show are pretty funny. The humor is generally fairly simple, but no less clever and amusing for its simplicity. I can't stress enough how terribly funny I find this show.

Of course, in the course of their travels they meet many interesting (and often amusing) people, some of whom will become friends, and some enemies. The chief among these enemies is a 16-year-old firebender named Prince Zuko, whose father, Fire Lord Ozai, had banished him from the Fire Nation two years earlier. His only hope of ever returning home and restoring his honor lay in capturing the Avatar. But since no one had found the Avatar in a hundred years of searching, nor expected to by this point, this was never a real promise. However, when Zuko learned of the Avatar's return, it gave him hope, and he would be dogged in his pursuit of Aang and his companions. (We eventually learn just why he was banished, and why he is always in such a foul temper. A great part of all of this has to do with how he received his very prominent facial scar, but his reasons, while related, go much deeper than that...) Zuko is accompanied by his uncle, General Iroh, who is himself a master firebender, and continues training Zuko in firebending during their search for the Avatar. While Iroh is a great and well-respected warrior (albeit famous for his loss at the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se- where he also lost his son, Lu Ten), he is now much more mellow, contemplative, and amusing, and seems more interested in drinking tea, playing Pai Sho, shopping for a great bargain, or organizing ship's Music Night, than in hunting for the Avatar. (Actually, I shouldn't say "now"; in flashbacks we'll see that Iroh has pretty much always had this side to him.) Still, he is a wise counsel to and good influence on his nephew, but nevertheless can't keep Zuko's single-minded determination or temper entirely in check. I do want to say, however, that I find Zuko to be one of the most compelling sympathetic villains of all time. Once you get to know him, and more about his past, you can't help but feel for him, and to see, as his uncle does, that there must be some good in him. Even Aang wishes he and Zuko could be friends instead of enemies, and... well, it can't hurt to say that most fans hoped and expected this might eventually happen, as well.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh aren't the only ones hunting the Avatar. While they have but a small ship and crew, when news of the Avatar's return becomes common knowledge, other Fire Nation soldiers will seek to capture him. Chief among these is Commander Zhao (later promoted to Admiral), who is even more hot-tempered than Zuko, and far less honorable. He also commands far greater resources than does the exiled prince, of course. The two of them will often be at odds in their respective attempts to capture Aang, and will end up fighting each other on more than one occasion.

However, dodging his various pursuers isn't Aang's only concern. About halfway through Book One, Aang enters the spirit world, where he learns that he must travel to the temple of his former incarnation, Avatar Roku, on the Winter Solstice. There, Roku appears to Aang and informs him that while learning each element normally takes years, Aang must master all four by the end of the summer, when Sozin's Comet will return, giving the Fire Nation enough strength to win the war once and for all (this will happen at the end of Book Three, which means the entire series covers a period of roughly 3/4 of a year). ...After several more adventures, Book One concludes with a thrilling three-sided conflict at the North Pole, the various results of which set the stage for Book Two in a way that will, if you're anything like me, leave you desperately anxious for the next season to begin... But I won't spoil anything that happens in the finale, except to say... Zhao will no longer appear in the series after this.

Book Two: Earth

Book Two introduces us to Zuko's younger sister, Azula, who we've had brief glimpses of in Book One, though we never heard her speak, until now. Iroh and Zuko have been branded failures and traitors, and are now on the run from the Fire Nation, themselves. They no longer have a ship and crew, only each other. Iroh is quite adaptable to changes in circumstance, and tries to get Zuko to learn humility... but Zuko seems unable to accept their new poverty and hopelessness. It makes matters far worse that Azula is now pursuing them. She is a firebending prodigy, and seems to be a sociopath... and she was always Ozai's favorite. Of course, this season we'll also see more glimpses of Zuko's past, before he was exiled, and learn more about Azula, their parents, Ozai and Ursa, grandfather Azulon, and Iroh. However much we learn, though, is never enough, and while it's awesome, it also whets the appetite for more. Anyway, Zuko's growth and potential metamorphosis into a better person is an important aspect of the season. Oh, and we'll eventually learn that Iroh is a member of a secret society called the Order of the White Lotus, which transcends the divisions between the four nations. Not much comes of that in Book 2, but we'll see more about it in Book 3. I should also mention that joining Azula in her hunt for both her brother and uncle, and for the Avatar, are her friends, Mai (a gloomy girl who sighs a lot) and Ty Lee (a circus performer with the pinkest aura ever). While not firebenders, they each have their own impressive fighting skills. Other Fire Nation soldiers we'll occasionally see are the "Rough Rhinos," who ride komodo rhinos. They're led by Colonel Mongke.

Meanwhile, Katara's waterbending skills improved sufficiently while at the North Pole that she's been declared a master, and when Aang and his companions continue their journey, she becomes his sifu (teacher). Of course, this being the Earth book, he also needs an earthbending sifu, and a quarter of the way into the season, he finds one: a 12-year-old blind girl named Toph Beifong (btw, very few characters in this series appear to have surnames, and those that do, like Toph, all seem to be from the Earth Kingdom). Like Zuko, she has her own daddy issues, and also an attitude. But she's a very powerful bender, and can also be funny and sarcastic, kinda like Sokka (the two of them have some great exchanges). However, when she decides to travel with Aang, against her father's wishes, her father claims Aang kidnapped her, and sends two earthbenders, Xin Fu and Master Yu (formerly Toph's teacher, though he apparently had no idea how powerful she was) to hunt the Avatar's group and bring Toph home. (This is actually fortuitous, because it eventually leads to Toph inventing metalbending, a subskill of earthbending that had apparently never been done before.)

Another important aspect of Book Two is Aang's attempt to master the Avatar State, a powerful trancelike condition the Avatar can enter to draw on all the power of past Avatars, but it's also dangerous in various ways (which I won't spoil). And at one point Appa will be bison-napped, and the gang will spend several episodes without him (which of course leads to an emotional reunion). And they'll learn of a secret that could be of great use against the Fire Nation, concerning a solar eclipse known as "Day of Black Sun," but they have to get to Ba Sing Se to inform the Earth King... which will be more difficult than it sounds, because once there, an elite group of sort of secret police called the Dai Li, led by an earthbender named Long Feng, try to keep Aang and his friends away from the king, who has no idea there's a war at all. In fact, citizens are not allowed to speak of it anywhere in the city, and those that do are taken away to be brainwashed. Seriously. Anyway, in addition to meeting plenty of new friends and foes this season, we'll also see plenty of old ones from time to time. The entire season is supposed to be "darker" than the first season, and while there's plenty of humor... there's also certainly plenty of darkness. The season ends... not quite as spectacularly, in my opinion, as did Book One, but it was still awesome, and some very big things did happen, which I'm dying to mention, but... I don't want to spoil anything. It is really hard, though, to say anything about the next season without first explaining how this one ended. I will mention, however, that I always thought the end of Book 1 was kinda like the end of Star Wars episode IV, and that the end of Book 2 was a lot like the end of Star Wars episode V. (Shockingly, the end of Book 3 didn't really remind me of Star Wars episode VI.)

Book Three: Fire

Book Three also has a fair amount of darkness. I must say, the dynamic of the show just keeps changing (between seasons as well, sometimes, as within seasons), for Aang's group as well as for Zuko. (Many fans have noted that Aang and Zuko parallel or mirror each other, in various ways, throughout the series.) Aang and his friends are now travelling incognito inside the Fire Nation, while waiting for Day of Black Sun, when they, along with Sokka and Katara's father Hakoda, his group of Water Tribe warriors, and other folks our heroes met throughout Books 1 and 2, will stage an invasion of the Fire Nation capital, and Aang can confront Ozai. But all of our heroes will have personal issues to deal with before that, and personal growth. Meanwhile, as Aang is struggling with self-doubt, Zuko is back home, enjoying his old princely privileges, the long-sought respect of his father, and a renewed romance with childhood love Mai. ("Wait, what?" you'll be asking. "He spent all of Book 2 even exileder than he was in Book 1, and now all of a sudden he's home with his honor restored and everything? How the heck did that happen?" ...See, I told you it was hard to explain Book 3 without spoiling Book 2.) I will say that he feels some guilt over... what he did at the end of Book 2, though for a time he refuses to admit that to himself. Also, while most people in the Fire Nation (including Ozai) believe the Avatar to be dead (Not... spoiling!), Zuko believes he may be alive, so he sends a powerful mercenary to hunt and kill Aang. The gang take to calling the guy "Combustion Man," and he's practically unbeatable, so they always just end up running away. Of course, it isn't long before Zuko begins realizing that in spite of finally having everything he's always wanted, he still isn't happy, and it will take some time for him to fully understand why that is.

Well, Black Sun occurs halfway through the season, and there's some incredible action and plot development. Ultimately the invasion fails, because Azula and Ozai had known about it for months, and were prepared. (Which is just as well, considering the series' climactic battle must be more dramatic with Sozin's Comet stacking the odds against our heroes, rather than the eclipse giving them the advantage, ne.) And yet, the seeds of Aang's eventual victory are planted here, on the Day of Black Sun, because... um, I can't tell you. But it has to do with something fans had been waiting for a very long time; and like I said, the dynamic of the show frequently changes. The latter half of the final season represents probably the most dramatic paradigm shift yet. (Although personally I think the effect of this change was slightly impaired by the fact that the show took nearly 8 months off between halves of the season, and then aired the final 10 episodes in a single week. Of course, this is hardly the first time the series took a frustratingly long hiatus...) I should also mention that the season has plenty of amazing revelations about the past, including the start of the war 100 years ago, and Zuko's heritage, and whatnot. Also, along with all the drama, there's always plenty of humor, and I must say more fanservice than the first two seasons (particularly in the episode "The Beach"). Heh. Oh, and I also need to mention, btw, that for most of the first half of the season, we didn't hear Iroh speak, and then in the second half, we didn't see him at all (except in flashback) til near the end of the series. His presence was sorely missed (but even when not speaking, he was still always awesome).

In any event, there were a number of adventures for the gang to have before the finale. More secrets to be learned about the past. Time spent for both Zuko and Aang's group to adjust to the major dynamic change. Aang finally learning some firebending. A prison break, in which Sokka was reunited with Hakoda as well as Suki, a warrior he had first met in Book 1. And who now becomes his girlfriend. (I do hesitate to mention Suki's return, since for some time after an episode in Book 2, fans wondered if she was dead or alive. I hate to deprive you of that concern. But hey, there are plenty of other characters whose fate you can still worry about.) Katara confronts the man who killed her mother. And... the gang attend a play that's about them, which is hilarious, and recaps most of what's happened throughout all three seasons. It's amazing how much the playwright knew about, but also how much was just so deliciously wrong. And of course it ended with Fire Nation propaganda... And it was full of sly references to the things the fandom talked about. (This is hardly the first time the show's creators have made allusions to the show's fandom; most notably prior to this, they made a few hilarious, non-canonical super-deformed shorts, which you could probably see online, and which are also included in the Book Two DVD box set.)

And then, finally, the final four episodes ("Sozin's Comet" parts 1-4) aired back to back on a single night, as a movie. Which, really, is for the best. As much as I'd like to think of them as four separate episodes, they really do play out more as a single plot, albeit so full of different elements that I felt it could have easily been stretched out even longer than it was, to more fully dwell on each aspect of the story that was finally coming together. An important aspect was Aang's inner conflict over what to do about Fire Lord Ozai; he had no desire to take a life, no matter how monstrous a person might be, and yet there seemed to be little chance of stopping Ozai without killing him. Aside from that... as always, we continue to see old faces (most notably Iroh and the White Lotus, most of the members of which fans, until now, had only guessed at) show up to play their respective parts. And lest we forget, the comet we've been waiting for since Book 1 is now here, giving Ozai and all firebenders tremendously enhanced power. Which is, incidentally, not the only advantage the Fire Nation had on its side. (We see something major come into play that was hinted at near the end of Book 1, the potential scope of which was finally revealed during the Black Sun invasion. Sokka, Toph, and Suki now work together to deal with this threat.) Of course, Aang will have an indescribable battle with Ozai, just as Zuko and Katara each have incredible battles against Azula, who is in a terrible mental state after a certain incident during the prison break I mentioned earlier. Just what that incident was, I won't reveal, but it was something I'd been looking forward to since early in Book 2. Didn't happen quite the way I expected, or at quite the time I expected, but that's something that's true of many predictions fans tend to make throughout the series. There's so much you can't help but expect to happen, and most of it does, sooner or later... but if it doesn't happen the way you expected, even if the nature and/or timing at first somewhat disappoint you (whether it happens earlier or later), chances are you'll eventually end up thinking the way it does happen is actually better than you'd imagined, and more organic to the overall plot of the series, as well as to the episode in which it happens.

Well. I feel like I've spoiled entirely too much already, but believe me, I've left out a lot, throughout my descriptions of each season. I'm certainly not going to reveal any details of how all the various conflicts are resolved at the end, but I will say that it's an incredibly happy ending all around. Plenty of it was predictable, and plenty of it was surprising, but all of it was brilliant. Though some fans may have different opinions about some aspects (for example, shipping preferences, but I must say my favorite ships all won out in the end). And... there are a few plot threads which are not resolved, the most notable being a cliffhanger set up by a question Zuko asks, which receives no answer. About something fans have been wondering since Book 2. (It will finally be revealed several years after the series ends, in the 3-part comic book story The Search.)

Final thoughts

Well. I want to say I think this show is sweet and innocent, but never naive; simple, yet simultaneously complex and intricately plotted. Very cute, and funny, and often silly, but it can also be very serious and dramatic, with some deep themes, and interesting, complex characters, relationships, and backstories. Aang still loves to have fun, and can still be childish, but he's also maturing- as evidenced by his obvious but unspoken (at least for the first couple seasons) crush on Katara, his deep and abiding guilt over not having been there for his people a hundred years ago, and his determination to make a difference in the present. And Zuko is just a whole bag full of daddy issues. Really, there aren't any one-note characters here (at least none of any real importance, though I am a fan of the cabbage merchant, and crazy foaming guy...) I just find it all very clever and beautiful and charming and fun and touching and endearing and cool. Of course, fiction has always had a greater ability to affect my emotions than does real life, so maybe it's just me, but this show can move me to tears of both joy and sorrow. I truly love these characters, the writing, the whole story, the animation, the acting, the humor, the incredibly cool battles, the music, the attention to detail, the characters' facial expressions and body language, the whole world that's been created here... everything. (And of course, the girls are very easy on the eyes.)

I must also say that the series seems to have an unparalleled skill at foreshadowing; sometimes it's obvious that a future event is being set up, sometimes it becomes obvious in retrospect, and sometimes you may not catch it until rewatching earlier episodes. Events may be foreshadowed which will happen later in the episode, later in the season, or in a future season. Amusing little seemingly trivial comments or subplots may later be shown to have far deeper signficance than you could have imagined. The creators are able to use such foreshadowing and other cool bits of incredible consistency and continuity throughout the series, because they basically had the whole 3-year arc planned out in advance. Rather like JMS did with the 5-year arc on Babylon 5. You gotta love planning ahead.... But as glad as I am that the creators stuck to their 3-year plan instead of extending the series, I'm also glad that more stories would be told via comic books, as well as the spin-off series The Legend of Korra. There are plenty of issues that still need exploring, even if this particular story has been told perfectly, in full.

Oh, and by the way, the acting... yeah, I think they got some pretty good voice talent for this show. Iroh is voiced by Mako, who's certainly had a long and distiguished career, though I know him best as the voice of Aku in Samurai Jack, one of my other favorite animated shows ever. (Sadly, Mako died after completing work on the first two seasons; in Book 3, Iroh will be voiced by Greg Baldwin, who does a respectable imitation.) Katara is voiced by Mae Whitman, best known to me as the title character of the series "State of Grace," and also as George-Michael's girlfriend, Ann, in "Arrested Development" (she later did other things of interest to me, including "Parenthood," and voicing the title character in Tinker Bell). Zuko is voiced by Dante Basco, who I mainly remember as Rufio in the movie Hook, though he also plays the lead in American Dragon: Jake Long (a cartoon which includes other Avatar voices, most notably Mae Whitman as Rose). Azula is played by one of my favorite voice actors, Grey DeLisle, who's done lots of shows I enjoy. The other lead actors (Zach Tyler Eisen as Aang, Jack DeSena as Sokka, Jessie Flower as Toph, Cricket Leigh as Mai, Oliva Hack as Ty Lee, Jennie Kwan as Suki) aren't as familiar to me, though I think they all do an amazing job, as do the guest stars. Some of whom are of course familiar from other things. The one who chiefly comes to mind is Rene Auberjonois (Odo from "Deep Space Nine"), who was in a few episodes. And Scott Menville (who I mostly know as Robin from "Teen Titans") did various voices in different episodes. Other familiar names include Jason Isaacs (as Zhao), George Takei, Mark Hamill (as Ozai), Clancy Brown (as Long Feng), Sab Shimono (as Gyatso and one or two others), to name a few of the many who appeared over the three seasons. Not to mention all those whose names are less familiar to me....

Sigh. No matter how much I say, I'll always feel like I'm forgetting things, like I'm not praising it highly enough, like there's just... more that should be said. For some time, I have been describing the series by saying "It's like if Shakespeare wrote wuxia" (with addenda like "...if he wrote in a modern American voice, threw in some crazy hybrid animals, and was forced to write a show aimed at kids, while still making it accessible to adults...") And I've always said that I feel kids could watch the show and enjoy it, and then rewatch it several years later, when they're more mature, and think "Wow... this is so much more awesome than I realized the first time." And more recently, I started thinking how sometimes you can build something up in your mind, and then be disappointed. So that sometimes it's best to lower your expectations; sometimes they'll be exceeded, but even if not, at least you might avoid disappointment. But with Avatar, my feeling is that no matter how much you build it up in your head, no matter how much you look forward to the season or series finale, let alone any random episode... you will not be disappointed. You could expect it to be the best thing you've ever seen, and it may very well exceed your wildest expectations, nevertheless. I'm sure not everyone will agree with that assessment. Some will think it's just pretty good, some will think it's okay, some will even think it sucks. But I gotta say, personally, after seeing the entire series... it is hands down my favorite television show ever, live-action or animated. It has the best balance of humor and drama, of the epic and the intimate, that I think I've ever seen. Not to mention some of my favorite, most complicated, well-developed, and compelling characters of all time.

Yeah, I'm getting redundant. Sorry. But I swear to you, I'm not saying enough. Oh, and I need to mention that, in addition to the comics and spin-off I mentioned earlier, there was a live-action movie, The Last Airbender, which was basically a retelling of Book One. (Though it was nowhere near as good as the TV series itself.)

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Btw, Avatar is also my favorite series for which to make AMVs. I originally had some on YouTube, before Viacom made them delete everyone's fan stuff. So for years, they haven't been online, but I'm finally going to start uploading some of them right here.