I’m 27 years old rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender.
My girlfriend never watched it, and we’re bored, so I decided to put it on last week.
All I can say is, “WOW!”
We’re now through two seasons and about to finish the whole show.
What an incredible series for children and young kids to watch. The themes it covers are pretty deep, touching on politics, spirituality, racism, ageism, feminism, and nationalism — just to name a few.
I was surprised how elegantly they covered such complicated issues while making what is, for all intents and purposes, one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
I thought it would be cool to look back on the show as an older man and talk about some of the biggest lessons it taught me as a young kid. Here are a few.
1. Too Much Nationalism Is A Bad Thing
In one episode Aang gets trapped inside a Fire Nation school. Even though he could just leave at the end of the day and never come back, the writers decided that Aang was going to enjoy it.
That was excuse enough to continue showing how Fire Nation children were educated.
In school, Aang is shocked to see how the kids are semi-brainwashed, and told a version of history that made the conquerer Firelord Sozin look better than he was.
All through the Fire Nation are murals and statues of their heroes. They recite the Fire Nation “pledge of allegiance” before class. They’re told not to dance. Everything feels very, well, North Korea.
It’s clearly over-the-top as you watch the show.
Later on in a vision Avatar Roku comes to Aang and says something like “We are not really four nations, but one nation.”
In short, we should all be working together and living together in harmony. We need to look past the short-sighted idea of nationalism sometimes.
Cross-reference that with the fact that the Avatar is the master of all four elements. He or she can bend water, air, fire, and earth at will.
The Avatar represents the entire world, not just one of the four nations. They are in prime position to unite the world together since they’ve learned the disciplines and culture of each of the four nations.
In one episode, Uncle Iroh teaches Prince Zuko about the ideologies of the four nations. “Why are you telling me this, Uncle?” Zuko asks.
Iroh replies that we need to travel and take lessons from each culture to get a better understanding of ourselves and the world. In short, we can learn a lot from others and we can’t just find truth in one avenue of thinking while ignoring everything else.
What a powerful lesson to teach young people — it’s one that I took to heart all those years ago.
2. There Are Good And Bad People Everywhere
In Season three there’s an episode called “The Puppetmaster” about a creepy water-bending woman living in the Fire Nation.
At first the kids are spooked by her, but upon further research they find she actually comes from the same water tribe that Sokka and Katara are from.
They are basically like family.
Later on we find out she was captured by the Fire Nation and held prisoner for decades. In jail she learned a more sinister kind of waterbending called “bloodbending” in which she can control other people’s bodies by bending the blood in their veins.
Surprisingly, we find out she’s a villain who’s been controlling Fire Nation civilians, forcing them to walk up a mountain at night time via blood bending where she then captures them and holds them against their will.
I assume she does that to get back at the Fire Nation in some twisted way.
That was such an important episode because all through the show the Fire Nation is the villain. It’s almost as if it leads you to believe that ONLY people from the Fire Nation can be bad. But in this episode, a member of Sokka and Katara’s tribe is the villain. Someone that’s almost like family to them is doing disgusting deeds.
In another episode Sokka learns how to wield a sword from the Fire Nation’s greatest swordmaster. It’s one of my favorite episodes.
Sokka hides his Water Tribe identity from the master for fear he won’t train him. At the end of the episode we learn the master knew the whole time he was a Water Tribe member and decided to train him anyway.
He was a good man.
I love that the show takes time to demonstrate there are good and bad people from everywhere. Many times in the series, though, a character from one Nation helps people of another Nation, and the people turn ungrateful after they find out where their savior comes from.
That’s my next point actually.
3. People Will Discriminate, Even If You Just Saved Them
In one of the saddest episodes, Prince Zuko defends Earth Nation civilians against a local band of dirty soldiers — who are also coincidentally Earth Nation.
The soldiers abuse their power to push people around — the very people they’re sworn to protect. Zuko stands up for the civilians, opting to engage in sword combat instead of Fire Bending (to hide his identity).
His adversary proves too much with swords, though, and Zuko is forced to use his firebending to save himself and the local civilians.
After he fire bends, and drives off the dirty soldiers, something crazy happens.
The whole village turns against him. The whole village starts hurling rocks at him even though he just saved them. They couldn’t look past his nationality.
They didn’t understand that there are good and bad people everywhere. Your nation or race doesn’t define whether you are good or bad — your character does.
It didn’t stop them from discriminating.
The lesson? People will discriminate. Even if you just helped them.
4. Always Endeavor To Find A Non-Violent Solution
In the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang faces off against Firelord Ozai.
In the episodes leading up to his showdown with the Firelord, Aang is faced with a very difficult question..
‘Am I going to kill the Firelord?’
The creators of the show needed to find a solution. This was a kids show at the end of the day. If Aang used deadly force to neutralize the Firelord, then what kind of a message is that sending to young people?
I think they found a very wise solution.
After a whole lot of battling, Aang uses his powers to take away Ozai’s bending. Ozai is kept alive, but he’s powerless, rendering him a non-threat.
I thought it was such an elegant way to solve the problem.
Without power, it doesn’t matter whether someone is alive or not. Taking away their power is the important part, not whether they live or die.
Out of all the great messages this show gives to children, this one was my favorite. There is always a third option. The Avatar acts as the bridge between ideologies throughout the entire series. He is constantly finding a “third solution” to unite people.
Many times in life we may think there’s only two choices to solve a problem. Avatar taught me there’s always more than two if you endeavor to find it.
5. People Deserve Second Chances
There’s a character named ‘Jet’ who’s introduced to us in Season 1. At first he seems like a cool guy living with a rag-tag group of freedom fighters in the woods, but that changes after he reveals his plan to destroy a Fire Nation dam which will also destroy a village down-stream.
He apparently didn’t care about the lives of innocent Fire Nation civilians, since he thought they all deserved death anyway.
They end up foiling his plan and we don’t see any more of Jet until season 2, when he comes back a “changed man.”
He ends up reuniting with the Avatar and friends, helping them discover a crucial location in the Earth Kingdom, but he’s later killed by assailants.
It’s the first time we see someone die on the show.
Jet redeemed himself later on in the series. Even though he masterminded an unthinkable act of terrorism in the first Season, the writers managed to bring him back and make us feel bad when he died.
Even Zuko, the antagonist throughout basically the whole show, redeems himself before the series ends.
I think that’s why I give people the benefit of the doubt so much. I think that’s why I try to believe in people even after they’ve wronged me. Sometimes people redeem themselves, and we need to give them a chance to do so.
Thank you for that, Avatar.
I’ve learned so much from this series. I never even talked about how it deals with feminism, or ageism, or spirituality. It would take an entire book to talk about all that.
In many ways, the lessons this show taught me have echoed through the decades, and are still influencing me as a full-grown man today.
Yes, I’m going to show Avatar to my kids, and I can’t wait for them to watch it and learn from it with me.
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