When I think of Nickelodeon, nothing spectacular comes to mind. In my family, their shows are seen as kind of dumb. Well, I’ve never seen one of those, so I don’t know anything about that. What I do know is that one of their very old shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is not what I expected. This show has become really popular over the last few months since it came on Netflix. People have been going on and on about the good messages and wonderful story. Well, I’m definitely into that kind of stuff, so I’ve been watching it over the last couple of weeks with my sister.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world with Four Nations, each of which is based on its own element. People in these nations that have been “given the gift” can bend either water, earth, fire or air. This means they can basically move that stuff around if they do by doing martial arts next to it. The cultures and countries are based on a lot of different Asian countries and their histories and religions. The nations are involved in a war that has been going on for 100 years. Only Aang, the Avatar, can stop it. The Avatar is the only person who can learn to bend all four elements. Together with two friends, Aang spends the first season trying to get to the North Pole to learn waterbending.
Season 1 has 20 episodes. These can be watched one after the other, but if you’re more of a one-at-a-time person, each episode has its own major conflict. Basically you can enjoy each episode on its own, but there is an overarching story. Nearly each episode has something to do with the bigger plot or character development. There is only one filler episode. More information is given through flashbacks and conversations. Flashbacks are fuzzier so it’s clear that what we’re watching is past. The main goal in the first season is for Aang to learn waterbending. For this he needs to go to the North Pole so he can find a master to learn from. Our characters meander quite a bit before getting to the North Pole, but that’s kind of the point: Aang is still a 12-year-old kid having fun.
Aang is an airbender. According to the monks he lived with, he is chosen to be the Avatar. This responsibility overwhelms and burdens him. Not only does he feel like he can’t handle literally saving the world, he also feels very guilty because he has been gone for 100 years. Yup, that’s right: he’s been stuck in an iceberg since the beginning of the war. Aang has a huge sense of responsibility but is also really silly. He barely loses his cool, but when he does he is pretty impressive. He protects people even if it’s dangerous for him and takes his role as Avatar very seriously.
Katara is a waterbender from the South Pole. She and her brother Sokka find Aang and accompany him to the North Pole. She is very motherly and loyal and is rather bossy. She walks a fine line between being nice and too nice. This means she is very sweet to strangers but is sometimes too naive to realize they are taking advantage of her. However, once she gets angry at somebody, she is very fierce. At the South Pole, she is the only water bender left so she hopes to learn more about it at the North Pole together with Aang. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother.
Sokka is Katara’s older brother. He is the only older male left in his tribe and feels a big responsibility to protect Katara. He is actually really intelligent but his “cool” behaviour, obsession with eating, complaining and other such silly behaviour kind of hide this. It seems as if Katara and Aang are the leaders of the group, but often Sokka is the only sensible one. The only reason the others don’t listen to him is because he often boasts and then can’t follow up on it. He is the biggest comic relief in the show, although pretty much everyone does hilarious stuff throughout the show.
Following the trio around is Zuko, a 16-year-old banished prince from the Fire Nation. He needs to capture the Avatar to restore his honour. Zuko is very impulsive, even by my teen standards. He is easy to anger and very emotional. He has a hard time controlling himself and bursts out in anger a lot. He can bend fire, so obviously we see him throwing it at a lot of peole. On the other hand, he is also very determined. He keeps on keeping on, no matter what. He has a stunning amount of endurance.
Zuko is accompanied by his uncle Iroh. Uncle Iroh acts very calm but he can actually fight like a pro. Iroh only wants food, tea and a nice lady to spend some time with. He’s just really chill. Iroh teaches Zuko firebending. He cranks out proverbs every 10 seconds and laughs at everything. The only time you don’t see him with a smile on his face is when he is in combat. Uncle Iroh used to be a general under the firelord, who is trying to conquer all four nations. We don’t find out why Iroh decided to join Zuko, but I hope we’ll find out more about his backstory next season.
Almost every episode has its own moral. These include “the ends do not defy the means”, “don’t hurt innocent people”, “women are not worth less than men” and “just because a certain people group have a bad reputation does’t mean every single member of that group is a horrible person”. However, the show itself also has big messages. Firstly, the idea that having bad parents and a toxic environment can make someone corrupt. Upbringing is an important part of becoming who you are, and if your experience growing up was particularly bad you can grow up to become a very unkind person.
Friendship and equality are very important in this series. Everyone in the trio protects each other and though they may have fights, it is clear that Sokka, Aang and Katara have love for each other. In the beginning, Sokka still believes women aren’t made to fight but should do the cooking and the cleaning. He soon learns that women can be even better at fighting than men and that men should learn to cook and mend clothes, too. The word ‘sexist’ is even used in the first episode. While I think it’s good that the show sends out messages that boys shouldn’t mock women for doing what they love, I still do believe that there is a ‘natural order of things’ as Sokka says. That doesn’t mean you can’t step out of that order, it just means that gender stereotypes are usually true.
Another issue that is important is using common sense. Usually it’s Sokka who’s the only one who doesn’t get carried away with some cool-sounding idea that turns out to be bad. Aang just trusts everyone and Katara falls for people who act nice, not just people who are nice. Usually this common sense type thinking ties in very well with the message that you should write your own destiny, not depend on what others tell you it will be. The show does put a lot of emphasis on not putting common sense above having fun. Sokka is often right about sketchy figures, but he does have a boring time when he could be having fun.
This show has a lot of good messages, but it’s also clearly based upon New Age beliefs and Eastern religions. For example, we see ying and yang, though it’s never spoken out loud. The ying and yang is, in this case, not about good and evil being in balance, but the ocean and moon spirit belonging together. Of course, the elements are a very important part of the plot. Spirits, the spirit world and reincarnation are pretty crucial too. Lastly, the airbenders are basically Buddhist monks. So those parts are rather un-Christian. Personally, I don’t think it’s wrong to watch it, as long as you’re aware of it. So you need to think about what you’re seeing and realize which parts are good and which parts are bad. But if you just watch movies because it’s moving images, then maybe watch something else so you don’t get your beliefs all mixed up.
It might be a good idea for parents to watch this with their (younger) children, and not only because of some of the morals. Even though this is a children’s show, there is a lot of violence in it. Aang’s entire people has been killed during a mass genocide (he’s the last airbender, geddit?); people get physically and mentally scarred for life; people’s parents are dead, gone or don’t care about them; there’s a full-blown war going on… However, we never see blood. Scars and burns are shown, but it’s nothing very upsetting. There are also some creepy monsters. One is a forest spirit that’s angry its forest got cut down, another is Koh the face stealer, who only shows up in the finale. He’s pretty much what it says on the tin: if you show any emotion, he steals your face. The entire scene with him is very unsettling. Koh even says. “it’s been a while since I added a child’s face to my collection.” Yeah. Only one death is actually shown, and even there it’s not very explicit. I’m going to be honest, I think this raw portrayal is very good. The show is very honest about war and death. It can be rather upsetting, however.
The scenery and animation in this show are way better than I expected from something that was made in 2005. The only times it looks really weird is when people open special kinds of doors. The show tries to make it look 3D, but it just looks like it’s from some really bad video game. This only happens twice, though. The action scenes are really amazing. They look very fluid and cool. There’s a lot of childish sound effects, but only where they’re actually funny.
Shortly, this show has some great characters, jokes and messages. However, it also includes Eastern mysticism and unchristian parts. I think this show is actually very good to watch with your children as it has wonderful messages and can lead to a lot of conversations about important things. It’s also a cool show for teenagers like me and even for adults. The sound effects may be a bit childish but the jokes stay funny, the scenery, animation and action scenes look awesome and the story is actually good. Since A:TLA (guess what that stands for?) has been around for 15 years, you’ll be able to find lots of fan content online. I think you could even say that older people can appreciate this show more than children, because the plot and ideas really don’t get silly when you’re not 8 years old anymore. It’s an awesome show. Just watch a few episodes and you’ll see why.
UPDATE: After thinking things over, and learning some more about worldviews, I have changed my opinion on this series and no longer recommend it. I still think it is very well made, but it shouldn’t be watched by those who are still young in their belief: what you watch influences you, even if you don’t notice it. The worldview in Avatar: The Last Airbender has a lot of Christian themes, but is essentially anti-Christian. –July 2021