By Alex Barasch
July 5, 2020
fifteen-year-old cartoon is an unlikely contender for most-watched show in America. And yet when “Avatar: The Last Airbender” arrived on Netflix, in May, it rose through the ranks to become the platform’s No. 1 offering, and even now it remains a fixture in the Top Ten for the U.S. The series first ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon, and swiftly made a name for itself as a politically resonant, emotionally sophisticated work—one with a sprawling but meticulously plotted mythos that destined the show for cult-classic status. Last summer, after “Game of Thrones” flubbed its finale, fans and critics held up “Avatar” as a counterexample: a fantasy series that knew what it wanted to be from the beginning.
Like all such stories, “Avatar” (created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, and no relation to the James Cameron blockbuster) demands some exposition. In a world where nations are defined by their connection to one of the four elements—water, earth, fire, and air—maintaining the peace falls to the Avatar, the only person who can achieve mastery of them all. Just as the Fire Nation launches an attack, he vanishes. The series begins a century later, when a twelve-year-old boy named Aang is discovered and revived by a pair of Water Tribe teen-agers—and the Fire Nation is well on its way to global conquest. The first two episodes are largely what you’d expect: world-building punctuated by moments of whimsy. In the third, Aang returns to the temple where he was born to find the aftermath of a genocide. He is, he discovers, both the Avatar and the last of the Air Nomads.
Where earlier shows might have hinted at such an atrocity for adult viewers’ benefit, “Avatar” is overt, taking seriously its young audience’s capacity to confront the consequences of endless war. Moral ambiguity abounds, and people from all nations see the conflict as, variously, an opportunity or a tragedy; there are Earth Kingdom citizens who have become cynical or apathetic after generations of fighting, and those from the Fire Nation who are fully capable of doing good. Aang, like the monks who raised him, is a pacifist at heart, but the series makes it clear that his is not the only way of bringing balance to the world. On the eve of his confrontation with the Fire Lord, one of his past lives—a warrior named Kyoshi, who has killed would-be conquerors before—counsels that “only justice will bring peace.”
While that larger conflict looms, the series is less interested in dramatic clashes between armies than in relationships and realities on the ground. Aang and his companions spend much of their time in villages ravaged by the war, and among the refugees displaced by it. As they venture farther into the world, Konietzko and DiMartino marry the more traditional “monster of the week” format with longer-term story arcs and character development. Early episodes are largely self-contained, but the heroes’ relationships and emotional states don’t simply reset at the end of those twenty-two minutes. The protagonists change the course of the war and are changed by it in turn, accruing new abilities, beliefs, and anxieties as they go. They’re allowed to fail—sometimes catastrophically—and to atone in ways that take multiple seasons to come to fruition. Zuko, the prince of the Fire Nation, is introduced as a storm cloud of teen-age angst and unresolved trauma, blinded by the need for his father’s approval and the Fire Nation’s distortion of its history. Under the guidance of his uncle, who challenges his preconceptions, Zuko makes slow, painful progress toward redemption, and is eventually forced to reckon with the cost of his country’s exceptionalism. As a child, he says, he had been taught that “the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world.” After travelling the globe in pursuit of the Avatar, he has seen enough to recognize the “amazing lie” for what it was: “They don’t see our greatness. They hate us—and we deserve it.”
When “Avatar” won a Peabody Award, in 2008, the judges praised, among other qualities, its “healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.” Despite these themes, it never mistakes darkness for depth of meaning. It’s often funny, and sometimes silly, tempering weighty material with humor befitting its twelve-year-old hero. In 2020, that balance allows it to function as both a comfort watch and a means of catharsis. “Avatar” engages directly with the perils of encroaching authoritarianism, and the inaction, inadequacy, and abuses of the bureaucrats and military leaders tasked with fighting it. It also offers a universe in which such crises feel surmountable. The show is beloved by political commentators ranging from the Times’ Jamelle Bouie to The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who pledged, following its arrival on Netflix, to “just do tweets about Avatar until November.” A subsequent exchange captured the series’ quasi-escapist appeal: “Tired: Tweeting about American politics / Wired: Tweeting about Ba Sing Se politics,” Grace Segers, a reporter at CBS, wrote, referring to the Earth Kingdom capital, where a ruthless police force operates with impunity under an incompetent king. “Could be nice to cover a less oppressive gov’t,” another user replied.
Since its première, in 2005, “Avatar” has spawned graphic novels, video games, and a sequel series, “Avatar: The Legend of Korra,” which broke new ground with a same-gender romance between two central characters, Korra and Asami. Last year, Netflix announced a new live-action adaptation. (The less said about “The Last Airbender,” M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 attempt at the same, the better.) “Avatar” has also cast a long shadow in animation, where its influence can still be felt: writers and directors who made their names through the series have gone on to play key roles in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “Voltron: Legendary Defender,” and “The Dragon Prince.”
Perhaps the clearest successor comes not from a former writer but from an early fan. Nine years ago, Noelle Stevenson was a college student posting fan art of characters like Zuko and Korra on her blog. When Korra and Asami officially became a couple, in the series finale, Nickelodeon ruled that the two were allowed only to hold hands—but the hard-fought moment made bigger strides seem possible to those watching, Stevenson among them. This year, as a showrunner in her own right, she succeeded in advocating for a more demonstrative queer relationship in “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” which now sits alongside “Avatar” on Netflix. “There was not anything like this on TV,” she said, of the slow-burn lesbian love story at the heart of the series. “And then Korra starts happening, and Steven Universe starts happening and that wall starts getting chipped away.”
“She-Ra,” too, embraced subject matter once deemed unsuitable for its demographic, and has been rapturously received by children and adults alike as a result. The fresh proof of concept is heartening—now that “Avatar,” like its protagonist, has returned after too many years away, it seems likely that the next generation of showrunners is once again watching.
Alex Barasch is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.