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The Series: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: “Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.” So begins the beloved Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Set in a fantasy world where people have the ability to manipulate the elements through a technique called “bending,” Avatar: The Last Airbender follows 12-year-old Aang, an airbender and the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, the lone person with the ability to control all four elements. Discovered frozen in the ice by two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka, Aang finds out that he has been missing for 100 years, during which time the Fire Nation has waged a violent war against the other nations. Now it’s Aang’s duty to master the other three elements and stop the Fire Nation before it conquers the world.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Many essays have been written about the rich world-building and the tremendous character work of Avatar: The Last Airbender (including some by yours truly). But what I want to talk about is how this animated children’s show sensitively handles the deep wounds and everlasting consequences of war.
When the series begins, war has become a fact of life for the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender, who have been forced to grow up too fast and deal with more trauma than children should have to. Seen through the optimistic, naive eyes of Aang, the devastating effects of war become all too clear.
The characters that kick off the action of the series, Katara and Sokka, are victims of war. Their mother was killed when their village was raided by the Fire Nation, and they haven’t seen their father, who has been off fighting in the war, in years. Aang arrives like a breath of fresh air, urging them to enjoy themselves and play. “I haven’t done this since I was a kid!” Katara exclaims during a round of penguin sledding with Aang. “You still are a kid!” Aang responds.
Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender as an adult, I become uncomfortably aware of how young these characters are. Aang is not even a teenager yet, but carries the burden of saving the world on his shoulders, while teenagers Katara and Sokka possess the trauma of people twice their age. This is par for the course for any fantasy epic, but the amazing thing about Avatar: The Last Airbender is that as fantastical as the world is, and as often as we’ve seen the epic hero’s journey before, the series treats these traumas and emotional scars with a respectful realism.
This is not just a world of magic and myth, but one where child soldiers will gladly sacrifice lives to gain a foothold against the Fire Nation, where former prisoners of war can become monsters as terrible as their captors, where you can feel sympathy for characters on both sides of the battle. Witnessing these terrible effects of war is part of what turns the series antagonist Zuko into a reluctant antihero. And interrogating the consequences of war is what elevates the series from a children’s cartoon into one of the best animated series of all time.
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