Brow Beat

It’s Never Too Late to Start Your Avatar: The Last Airbender Journey. Here’s a Map.

A still from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Nick.com

Avatar: The Last Airbender was always going to be something special. Though ostensibly a cartoon made for children, the animated series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko snuck in adult themes and real-world problems like war, imperialism, abuse, loss, and cabbage-related vandalism alongside kid-friendly humor and silliness. It also featured a richly diverse cast of characters in an unmistakably Asiatic setting. Arriving on the scene in 2005, the show was one of the few among its Western cartoon contemporaries to feature an Asian lead character, alongside Disney’s American Dragon: Jake Long and Cartoon Network’s The Life and Times of Juniper Lee. With ATLA, though, a generation of Nickelodeon viewers was treated to a rarity for the time: an entire world of nonwhite characters not played for laughs or to hyperbolic extremes, but as the heroes and villains and laypeople of an entire epic.

ATLA aired on Nickelodeon for three season-long “books,” eventually spawning a similarly well-received sequel series as well as various spinoffs and tie-ins. (The less said about M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation, the better.) You might recognize the show’s most popular meme, but ATLA has permeated the culture in deeper ways, too, with its themes and narrative forming the basis for an entire landscape of academic theses. Eleven years after its end, the internet is still abuzz about the show’s very internet-relevant riches, including critics who continue to proclaim, correctly, that it is one of the greatest series ever made. Here at Slate, at least two of my colleagues recently traced the moment they realized they were gay back to its broodiest character, and not just because he was (and is) an absolute hottie.

Now, the show is coming back with a live-action Netflix reboot—this one sanctioned by the original creators—so if you missed it the first time around, it’s time to get caught up. Avatar: The Last Airbender opens 100 years into a war between four nations, each able to wield one of the elements: water, earth, fire, and air. You know, the way you used to imagine you had powers when it was particularly windy or rainy out when you were a kid. (OK, and as an adult, too.) Peace in this universe is historically maintained by a neutral power called the Avatar, who wields all four elements simultaneously and conveniently reincarnates into a different nation every lifetime so that no one group has a permanent tactical advantage. The war began with the fire nation’s attack on the pacifist air nation, throwing the world into a centurylong conflict and seemingly wiping out the Avatar, the one person who could restore balance.

The show is told largely from the perspectives of teenagers, including Avatar Aang, who missed the past 100 years because he was frozen in an iceberg. Emotionally and physically still a 12-year-old boy, Aang never learned anything beyond airbending and is initially more focused on his very ambitious tourism goals (riding elephant koi, otter penguin sledding in the South Pole) than the global war going on. He’s freed from the ice by two siblings from the Water Tribe. Katara is the last waterbender in the South Pole, who operates as the group’s faux parent, Aang’s constant cheerleader, and the voice of reason to her brother Sokka’s outright skepticism or suspicion. As the audience surrogate, Sokka is the regular guy who can’t bend any element and absolutely hates firebenders or anyone from the Fire Nation. All together, the trio made the first found family I really experienced as a teenager, and the bonds they forged through both serious and funny episodes still warm my heart.

However, this is war, and that means bad guys. The antagonist’s perspective is served by Fire Nation Crown Prince Zuko. Permanently scarred and exiled from his nation for reasons yet unknown, he has been tasked with a seeming fool’s errand, only allowed to return home once he has the captured Avatar in tow. Adrift for the past two years, the erstwhile royal’s hotheadedness seems to get the better of him at every step, costing him time and again as his Uncle Iroh, his conscience personified, worriedly watches.

Because ATLA’s plot is so intricate, new viewers really do have to start in the early days of Book 1: Water—not a bad season, but the weakest of the three by virtue of its foundational worldbuilding and historical exposition. That said, it’s fine to skip the kid-friendly but mildly exhausting two-part opener and instead begin with “The Southern Air Temple,” the series’ third episode, which sets up plot points that will develop into some of the show’s greatest moments, casually shows off all-too-brief snippets of its quality animation, and strikes a powerful narrative balance between whimsy and drama in just 25 minutes. Looking back, and rewatching it as an adult, “The Southern Air Temple” is the first time the show made me feel, and it still holds my attention today.

Aang, Katara, and Sokka have begun their journey astride Appa, a sky bison—the magic phrase to make him fly is, adorably, “yip yip”—from the South Pole to the North Pole, where Aang will learn waterbending, the first step toward fulfilling his destiny. First, they stop at Aang’s former home at the Southern Air Temple. Given that Aang has been frozen in an iceberg for 100 years, and nobody has seen an airbender in about as long, expectations of what they’ll find are mixed. Aang is delighted to show his new friends the only home he’s known, and we are gifted with delightful flashbacks of his seemingly carefree childhood, long since past, as the trio explore the now suspiciously empty and unkempt grounds. As they continue, Aang learns more about his past Avatar incarnations and goofs around like the child he is while Katara and Sokka confirm that the airbender temple’s end was far from peaceful.

Elsewhere, Zuko and his Uncle Iroh pull into port with an Aang-damaged ship and run into Commander Zhao (Jason Isaacs!), a scheming Fire Nation officer who unsubtly pries into their affairs. For the first time, we are introduced to a more nuanced view of the otherwise purely antagonistic and “edgy” Zuko. Even if his long-term goal is the complete subjugation of the other nations, the prince often appears to have a personal code of honor that conflicts with either his upbringing or his plans. Zhao’s presence opens the door to some of the world’s political intrigues and cements Zhao as an even worse antagonist (one with fewer scruples, and perhaps no morals) than the ones we’ve already met, forcing viewers to reconsider what makes a person relatively bad or good.

The episode’s dual climaxes—Aang’s discovery of the Air Nomads’ fate and a ritual fight between Zuko and Zhao—lay the groundwork for storylines and raisons d’être that continue for nearly the rest of the series. It is here that Aang discovers he is the last of his kind, a truth that shatters him to the point of unintentionally causing near-oblivion with an otherworldly force called the Avatar State, which causes Aang’s full-body tattoos to glow and unleashes the long-held power of his many past lives. That is extremely heavy stuff, both for a children’s show and for a third episode, and the entire scene is a powerful moment suspended between two radically different points in time—very much like Aang.

Meanwhile, Zuko’s long-held anger literally explodes out of him in a carefully animated fight scene that illustrates his raw power and innate ability against Zhao’s firebending mastery, condescension, and arrogance. It’s choreographed like a scene out of an action movie, with varied camera angles to provide the best view of searing hot combat as pounding drumbeats play, and for a 14-year-old episode, it is still breathtaking. Though emotional complexity alone is enough to keep me coming back to ATLA years later, reliving the team’s highest highs and lowest lows, the show’s animation and styling are still breathtaking: I find new details to pore over each time with renewed affection, the way you reread a long-loved but rarely touched book or comb through old yearbooks.

Even when I already know how it ends, I’m still wondering in the moment how much better and worse things will get for everyone. In the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, “The Southern Air Temple” leaves more questions than answers, but not just lame immersion-breaking ones like “How does a single animal survive for a century?” With just over 60 episodes, ATLA takes you on a whirlwind tour of a world in conflict—and how it’s affected not just the major players whose perspectives you get to see up close but the ordinary people from every nation. One hundred years of war have left deep scars on the land and in the populace, and watching renewed hope or skepticism bloom on every face that hears about the Avatar’s return really colors the happy-go-lucky nature of the team itself. After all, ending a world war and restoring peace to three nations are not small stakes. The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll understand. Yip yip.