Rivers of ink, countless keystrokes and endless minutes of video and audio have sliced, diced and dissected this series, each minute and each typed character being a testament to the phenomenon of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the fanbase it has inspired (it's strangely hitting Netflix US only on May 15th). This post, yet another drop in the ocean, is the culmination of trying to provide a justification of why I keep revisiting the series year after year. Spoilers ahead.
Avatar is popular and special for fairly obvious reasons: extremely well-written characters and associated character arcs, the extremely well-imagined world inhabited by them, the humor and mostly well-written dialogues and lastly, the entertaining (if fairly straightforward) overall story.
But there's also another not so well-discussed ingredient that makes it pretty compelling (at least to me): the show's constant effort to subvert common fantasy story tropes in unexpected ways.
It was around the third time I was watching it, and I was at the episode 'The Fortune Teller', which is about the trio of Aang, Katara and Sokka visiting a village where there was a famous fortune teller whose predictions were always accurate. We've been down this road in most other epic fantasy sagas; said fortune teller gives you a rhyme that you can comprehend about 10% of currently, and then it sets you down the road to beat the villain, along with some handy clues.
But the whole thing is continuously played for laughs. The prophet ominously declares that Aang is at the forefront of the war between good and evil, the last hope for the world, and our hero just….shrugs it off ('yeah yeah, we already knew that!'), more interested in his future dating life. Then the episode moves on to a volcano that's about to erupt, and sets up the future romance between Aang and Katara. The whole notion of 'destiny' and 'prophecy' is mocked. The writers were just getting warmed up.
Enter the second season, and we get Toph, the earth-bender, who's introduced in a hilarious parody of the WWE; there's a character called the 'Boulder', (a clear reference to the Rock), who gets his groin torn by this seemingly frail, 12-year-old, blind girl. She ends up winning the tournament, and later becomes the brash, tough member of Team Avatar.
Most fantasy stories also have what I call a cult of the ancient, where ancient powers/ideas/things eventually end up helping the protagonist emerge victorious. Here too, we get the equivalent of Yoda teaching Luke Skywalker the old ways of the Jedi in the form of Guru Pathik, who promises ultimate power to Aang through Buddha-like detachment. In a surprising turn of events, this advice almost kills Aang, and in the rest of the series, he follows the direct opposite of the man's advice (relying on his comrades instead of pushing them away), all the way to the end, and it works out just fine.
The most surprising one of them all is how the main antagonist, the Fire Lord, gets absolutely no characterization. Hell, we don't even see the man's face till the final season. What instead fills the gap as a proxy is the devastation and suffering the Fire Nation causes in nearly every place the protagonists visit. There is no in-depth psychology, no Pensieve plumbing the depths of his mind and his past actions; the man is pure evil, a target to be taken down, nothing more or less. The twist at the very end also comes not from whether Aang beats the Fire Lord (everyone and their mother knows he's going to), but how he does it without killing him and sacrificing his pacifist ideals.
These instances apart, the show is littered with other subversions: Aang's first instinct as the hero was to run away from his problems (not something you'd expect a Chosen One to do), Zuko's first big moment of redemption becomes his biggest failure, and so on and so forth. This is a show that's pretty self-aware, and we even get a penultimate episode entirely dedicated to poking fun at all the previous episodes till that point(the absolutely brilliant 'Ember Island Players').
The main appeal of this series comes from how each protagonist's arc is explored thoroughly on their way to taking the Fire Lord down. I doubt any show has anything even remotely resembling an episode like The Tales of Ba Sing Se, a filler episode on the surface with zero visible movement in plot, but is a master class in using fleshing out characters very effectively in just under 5 minutes per character, through very slice-of-life incidents. It's a lesson in economical storytelling. For a show that's just 3 seasons long with 20-minute episodes, every major character comes off as a protagonist in their own right, with their own incredibly detailed and satisfying character arcs. The series doesn't go directly from plot point A to B; the creators make sure the world and the characters seep into you in the process.
But true to its nature as an animated show,it also very, very effectively, uses conventional storytelling as well. We get the mandatory "last surviving member of a tribe and the chosen one", wise old men, redemption arcs, the epic predictable climax, the epic predictable romance,and the happy ending. Coupled with the incredible animation and choreographed battles (and just scenes in general), legendary music and crisp editing especially in the climactic episodes, this is a watch for the ages.
Even though it's all so predictable, the proclamation of the end of the war followed by Aang and Katara finally acknowledging their love for one another at the end, leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling in the stomach, immediately accompanied by a profound sadness that envelopes your heart when you know your journey with these characters has come to an end (for the umpteenth time). Every time I finish the show, my fingers assume a life of their own, scouring the internet for the comic book sequels, my body instinctively reacting to my desperate need to hang out with Team Avatar just for a while longer, but this only lasts for a few hours at most(no, the sequel series does not fill the void). Until maybe a year or two later, when the memories get foggy enough that I rejoin Katara and Sokka fishing in the icy expanse of the South Pole once more.