Avatar: The Last Airbender has become one of the most revered and acclaimed children’s television series since its debut in 2005, and it’s vastly enjoyed by young and older folks alike. Though the show has a rich and beautiful animation style, and its characters are dimensional and diverse, this praise is given because of its fearless attempt to comment on real problems.
Avatar never shied away from the issues that come with war, and it’s a worthy example of how shows for younger audiences can still educate viewers on controversial topics while remaining watchable and child-appropriate.
There were many examples of prejudice throughout the series, and though skin color wasn’t an implicit bias, it was certainly a factor in conjunction with ethnicity. Azula called Katara a “peasant” multiple times, as she was filled with a superiority complex rivaled by no other, and it’s no coincidence that she singled out one of the darker-skinned characters of Avatar.
The Fire Nation was really the only discriminatory group in the show, and as Azula showcased, the majority held this belief that they were better than everyone. Luckily, Team Avatar didn’t face many issues in the Earth Kingdom villages they traveled to, and the theme was more of an undercurrent compared to others.
The whole storyline in Ba Sing Se was truly a masterpiece. Long Feng was a clear diabolical villain, and yet, political figures like him exist everywhere. Corruption is a very real part of politics, and the Dai Li organization was a great fictionalization of all the secret policing and icky law enforcement that goes on in the real world.
The idea that Long Feng ran the nation through a “puppet king” was also a great facet of the Ba Sing Se arc, and the series was very successful at conveying this complex political idea to a younger audience.
Azula’s breakdown in “Sozin’s Comet” was a beautiful end for her character, story-wise, but it was also a very sad and complicated example of emotional trauma. She was deeply affected by Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal in “The Boiling Rock,” and this inner turmoil connected to a lot of the issues she had with her mother.
The final mirror scene in “Sozin’s Comet” ended with Azula sobbing over the idea that her mother could have ever loved her, or that anyone could have loved her, as she always used fear and intimidation to control people. It was a fitting end for her character arc, and it represented the extreme hardships that come with trauma and emotional baggage.
Though Avatar: The Last Airbender was mainly a commentary on human problems, the creators didn’t forget to explore issues of animal rights, and the major extinction of most dragons, sky bison, and lemurs was very affecting within the series. It added to the sense of isolation for Aang as one of the last relics of Air Nomad culture, and it was a large factor in the episode “The Firebending Masters.”
Fans were very fortunate that Legend of Korra revealed the return of small bison and lemur populations, and Zuko’s pet dragon, of course, but it was still a very heartbreaking part of the original series.
Zuko explained this concept best when he talked with his father in “Day of the Black Sun.” In the episode, he says, “Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. And somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness.” It’s an important glimpse into Zuko’s mindset in seasons 1 and 2, but it’s also incredibly relevant in imagining how civilians can have national pride in unjustifiably violent countries.
Like the Fire Nation, children in other immoral societies are often fed lies and propaganda growing up, “indoctrinated” to believe things without a critical eye. Avatar represents this phenomenon very effectively, and it’s one of the most complex and interesting parts of the series.
Though the kids watching Avatar: The Last Airbender might not have realized it, they were getting a thorough history lesson on what imperialism looks like. Like Europe and the Americas, the Fire Nation colonized and ravaged the Earth Kingdom by the end of season 3, and the main difference was simply the weapons they used.
Avatar even manages to tackle historical revisionism in the episode “The Headband,” when Aang realizes that the Fire Academy textbook teaches students that the Air Nomads had a formal military. Sozin defeated the peaceful monks by ambush, yet when Aang voices this truth to his teacher, she fiercely defends the false version of history. It’s a very, very familiar-sounding situation, and one that only points to the increasing relevance of the show.
When a serious death occurred in the series, it didn’t just pass over. It stuck. Avatar really succeeded in communicating what loss feels like, and most of the main characters were shaped in significant ways by the hardships they endured. Katara held on to her mother’s death all through the series, mentioning it in multiple episodes, and it was also a major factor in her friendship with Zuko.
Sokka kept Yue close to his heart after her departure in “The Seige of the North,” and the series demonstrated how it was okay for him to still cherish her memories as long as he moved on, and he ended up very happy with Suki. The point of loss in Avatar wasn’t to dramatize or fill out a character’s backstory; it was real, intentional, and a topic that the creators took with a lot of gravity.
Most of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender survived until the finale, and the show generally favored imprisonment or “spiritual” death instead of murder whenever a significant character left the series. The creators clearly understood the gravity of what it means when someone is killed, and they didn’t throw it around lightly.
The two most serious deaths were Kya (Katara’s mother) and Jet. Yon Rha killed Kya in a raid on the Southern Water Tribe, and Jet was slain by Long Feng in “Lake Laogai.” Both died in order to protect their loved ones, and though only two implied “murders” may seem like a small amount for a series about war, a little goes a long way.
Zuko suffered a tremendous amount of violence at the hands of his father, and this emotional damage took a serious toll on his character. His scar was a visual reminder of his father’s wrongdoings, but Zuko didn’t fully understand what it meant until his breakthrough in “Day of the Black Sun.”
He finally confronts Ozai during the eclipse, and while this decision reflected his maturity and character transformation, it also told a powerful message about abuse. Particularly, the importance of standing up for oneself. Self-guilt and blame around abuse are legitimate issues, and the series was very sensitive and earnest in its attempt to understand and portray this type of damage.
Fire Lord Sozin’s massacre of the air nomads was by far the heaviest topic of the entire series, and it was introduced early on, all the way back in “The Southern Air Temple.” Aang’s heartbreaking discovery of Monk Gyatso’s skeleton was a keystone of his character development and motivation, and it set the tone for what Avatar would accomplish.
Without the nomad’s elimination, the stakes would have been much less meaningful for Team Avatar, especially Aang. This violence gave a concrete example of what the Fire Nation was capable of, and it also gave a unique sense of relevance for a children’s show. Genocide is a real, devastating, and unforgivable part of human history, and Avatar really tries to grapple and make sense of it in a sincere way.
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