Television

Avatar: The Last Airbender Picked the Wrong Romance

Aang dips Katara in a dance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Nickelodeon Animation Studios.

This article is part of Shipwreck, a recurring series about disastrous fictional relationships. It also contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Despite ending more than 12 years ago, Avatar: The Last Airbender has managed to retain a fiercely loyal fanbase. For proof, look no further than the animated series’ popularity on Netflix, where it has been in the Top 10 list in the U.S. almost continuously since May. While aimed at children, Avatar is a complex story about a war between four nations that are each partially made up of people who are able to control, or bend, one of four elements: earth, water, fire and air, and the peacekeeping Avatar, who can control all four. The characters begin as recognizable archetypes—Aang the Chosen One, Katara the goody-two-shoes, Sokka the comic relief, Zuko the single-minded villain—but one of the many joys of the show is how it manages to subvert and upend these neat roles. The emotional heart of Avatar comes not from a grandiose triumph of good over evil but from the subtle and rich ways we watch these central characters grow and prove that trope isn’t destiny. Though the ending is, in many ways, foretold, there’s very little predictable about the way we get there. Which makes one of the show’s few missteps all the more disappointing.

In the very last scene of Avatar, Aang looks out over the world he’s just saved, having defeated the enemy he’s been preparing to fight for three seasons, when Katara enters, blushes prettily, and the two share a kiss. 12 years later, this still makes no sense. From the beginning, it’s clear that Aang, a preteen monk who was frozen for 100 years, has a crush on Katara—who wouldn’t imprint on the first face they see after being encased in ice for a century? Throughout the series, there are plenty of attempts to get her attention and a few kisses under some questionable circumstances, most of which seem to leave Katara, who is a little older and significantly more mature, more confused than interested. After one of them, she even tells Aang off for not respecting the fact that she isn’t sure about a romantic relationship between them. There are a few other flirty scenes sprinkled in here and there, but for the most part, the apparent romance between them is one of the least developed elements of the show. There are, of course, objectively more important things going on, like fighting a fascist regime, and it’s for the better that for the majority of its runtime, the show doesn’t force the two together—until it does.

The shoehorned romance between Katara and Aang is maybe the only sour note in Avatar’s plot, and it’s even more disappointing coming from a show that crafted a redemption arc that prestige dramas like Game of Thrones should envy. For most of the show, Katara is like a mother towards Aang, comforting him, nagging him about training, even going so far as to pretend to be his mother at one point. The romantic pining is almost entirely one-sided up until that very last scene and, though fervent Katara/Aang shipping point to the two’s mutual affection as evidence that they’re fated lovers, there’s a stark difference between her interactions with Aang and with the one man that she shows actual romantic interest in, a freedom fighter named Jet. Katara’s ambivalence aside, that she and Aang end up together is weirdly retrogressive message to send, as though she’s a prize for his persistence and heroism. It also undermines one of the central ideas of the show: that of a chosen family, an ethos shown most compellingly by Zuko’s arc.

When we first meet Zuko, he’s a one-dimensional bully with major daddy issues chasing the heroic trio around the globe. By the time he crosses over to the good side in the third season, we’ve seen him not only painstakingly confront his own demons but actively attempt to atone for his mistakes in the past. His redemption is never inevitable, so when it’s eventually earned, it’s even more satisfying. When compared with the quietly meticulous work of Zuko’s redemption, the seemingly predestined nature of Katara and Aang reads as even more slapdash.

In fact, the show laid a better groundwork for an enemies-to-lovers relationship between Katara and Zuko than the friends-to-lovers one it ultimately ended on. When he’s hunting down the trio, it’s Katara’s necklace he holds onto, creating an initial friction between them heightened by their two opposing elements: water and fire. Later, some of the most important beats of Zuko’s redemption arc involve Katara: In the Season 2 finale, the two are trapped in a cave where Katara sees his softer side and the seeds of Zuko’s eventual redemption are sown. When he joins the gang in Season 3, it is Katara he has to try the hardest to win over, and when he helps her find the man who killed her mother, he enables one of the more pivotal moments of her entire storyline. In the series finale, the two take on Zuko’s sister together, a corrective to the previous season’s finale where he betrayed Katara to take his sister’s side. That Katara trusted that there wouldn’t be a repeat betrayal is evidence enough for me that the two could have had something. Even the actors who voice them agree!

Until those final moments, Avatar was unafraid to deal in gray areas and resisted easy moralizing. The showrunners continually demonstrated their ability to craft surprising storylines, to develop characters’ ambitions and backstories in single moving scenes so that no conclusion felt unearned. That’s what makes it so disappointing that in the final moments of a genre-changing show, Avatar went for the unearned, predictable pairing, just to tie everything up in a neat bow.