Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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Seasons and Themes
Rule of Destiny
When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.A piece of narrative fiction can be ultimately broken down into a non-linear combination of 3 elements: Plot, Character, and Theme. Plot is simply the sequence of events that happen in the story. Character is who is causing those events and what they think about them. Theme is, more or less, why we are seeing these people and these events in this story. Theme is what makes the Plot and Character matter. Which is why it's sad that so many works of fiction these days have weak or non-existent themes. It's easy to see why many works lack any real theme though. Plot and Character are things people see. They're something we understand from daily life. But Theme has no real-world counterpart, as life isn't generally convenient enough to organize itself to reinforce a particular theme. As previously mentioned, Avatar: The Last Airbender as a show focuses more on Character than Plot. The overall plot is about as formulaic as it gets: preteen kid must defeat the ultimate evil and save the world. Where this show puts its signature stamp is on its characters. But the series does have a thematic component. In general, a common theme of most ensemble-based kid's shows is the Power of Friendship. This show could have gone there. It definitely flirted with the theme on many occasions. There were many times where the Gaang only survived something because they were together. Perhaps the biggest was the ending of The Chase, where the extended Gaang included Iroh and Zuko of all people. This is emphasized by the fact that the extended Gaang had previously separated. Toph went off on her own, back when she had character. Zuko and Iroh had separated before then. But there they were, together again, acting as one to cow the real villain. But the theme is never really fulfilled; there's no through development of this theme in the overall story. There are just too many climactic moments that come down to 1:1 duels or fragments of the Gaang splitting off to deal with different things. Even so, there are still ways to retain the notion of friendship. The most important could have been through Aang's training in the elements. Imagine if each of the Gaang members had some signature move, some particular attack that was powerful and unique to their character. They would teach this move to Aang over the course of the series. And then at the end, these moves would be critical to Aang in his battle against Ozai. This would stress how important it was for Aang to learn not just the bending forms, but to learn them from those specific people. It would show that the spirit of Aang's friends were with him in the final battle, even though they were not there in physical form. But that didn't happen. Oh, Aang uses two of Toph's signature moves: stone armor and Toph-Vision. But he never does anything particularly evocative of Katara or Zuko specifically; it's just generic waterbending and firebending. Imagine the power of that scene when Aang wtfpwns Ozai if they had brought this theme to bear. He goes into Toph-Vision. Then he uses Katara's signature move to knock Ozai on his ass. Then he counters Ozai's firebending with a Zuko move. And finally, he performs some airbending move that is uniquely his own. It's an obvious thing, perhaps rather unsubtle. It's certainly been done before in other shows. But the reason it was done before is because it works. And if that's too overt for you, the writers are martial arts experts; they could have done this with a lot more subtlety. But they didn't. Because that's not the central theme of the show. Instead of friendship the biggest theme of Avatar: The Last Airbender is the Theme of Destiny. In the Avatar-verse, Destiny is a living thing. It is not merely a concept or an idea; it is etched in the very soul of the universe. The writers take an interesting tactic with destiny as a theme. Usually, this theme is looked on as a question of free will vs. fate. But in the Avatar-verse, very few people question that they have a destiny. And that's probably a very good thing, because in the Avatar-verse Destiny knows where you live. Just look at how the series plays out. Everyone who ever tries to work against their destiny comes out worse for it. Aang's destiny was to stop Sozin and the Fire Nation from conquering the world. But Aang, in a fit of 12-year-old Aangst, flees from his home to avoid his destiny as the Avatar. So all of his people save him are savagely murdered, and he's fast-forwarded 100 years so that virtually everyone he has ever known is dead and the world has turned to crap without him. Oh, and now he has 8 months to master 3 martial arts forms and save the world, or it's all over forever. It's no wonder that Aang's reluctant hero phase lasts only a couple of lines in the series; he remembers what happened the last time he tried running from his destiny. While Aang probably took it in the ass harder than anyone from Destiny, there's no question that Zuko was Destiny's most frequent bitch, if for no other reason than the fact that he kept getting it wrong. See, in the Avatar-verse, when you think your destiny is one thing but it's actually different, Destiny smacks you in the face until you get it right. Every bit of humiliation and pain he suffered in seasons 1 and 2 were all attempts by Destiny to straighten him out and make him join the Gaang. However, Zuko's both an idiot and really determined, a dangerous combination. So Destiny had to up its game. Zuko and Destiny played a game of brinkmanship, to the point where Destiny had to make an existential threat against the entire Earth Kingdom just to get him to pay attention. And Destiny even has vengeance: at the moment of narrative climax for his character, Zuko got punked out by his sister in mid-breakdown. Even Iroh got bitten by destiny. As revealed in the finale, he had a vision of himself taking Ba Sing Se in his youth. But he tried doing it a few years too early and for the wrong side, so Destiny reached out and snatched the life of his son as punishment. This even applies to nations. The Fire Nation shouldn't be out there conquering the world. So Destiny drains them of some of their identity. They lose some of their passions, becoming more disciplined and rigid under a totalitarian state. Firelords too become colder and crueler. Sozin started offering prizes for killing Dragons, Azulon ordered his son Ozai to kill his own child, and Ozai burned said son and banished him for speaking out in a closed war meeting. But Destiny rewards those who heed it. Katara and Sokka almost immediately accept that their destinies were "intertwined" with Aang's. Because they just met him. They immediately join Aang, and have trilling adventures. Katara becomes a badass waterbender, and Sokka becomes a badass leader. They both survive without any major personal issues; the worst thing that happens to them is when Yue sacrifices herself. They return home to a proud father, and they both have romantic interests in the end. And this is part of my problem with Destiny as it is presented in the series. For example, Aang is destined to learn firebending from Zuko. But neither of them know this. So the first time Aang comes across a firebender who might be willing to train him, he jumps at the chance. A very reasonable thing to do, given the circumstances. After all, what are the chances that the Gaang will run into another master-level firebender who could train him? But this show is built on the Rule of Destiny, not pragmatism, so he screws it up and burns Katara, making it much harder for him to eventually learn it correctly. In The Library, the Gaang finds information that would effectively end the series early. Well, Destiny won't have that: Aang's supposed to fight Ozai under the light of Sozin's Comet, and dammit that's what's going to happen. So every time they attempt to change this, things get worse. They go to Ba Sing Se to alert the Earth King and get access to his forces, only to find that it's under a police state. Oh, and then Azula shows up and snatches control of the city out from under them and almost kills the Avatar forever. Later, they try to invade the Fire Nation anyway, but Destiny gave them stupid pills and they don't remember that Azula already knew about the original plan, so it gets stopped. The loss of Ba Sing Se obviates the need for Aang to beat Ozai by Sozin's Comet, so Destiny said that Ozai'll just burn the world. Each time they try to end things early, Destiny Ensues and exacts a forfeit from them. Aang's near death and the loss of Ba Sing Se, then later the capture of the invasion force on the day of the eclipse. So basically, you have free will in the Avatar-verse. But Destiny will keep hurting you every time you try to exercise it in a way that would do something other than what it wants. And I generally don't like that idea. It makes cleverness, resourcefulness, and pragmatism meaningless, because the only correct answer is the one that is congruent with some mysterious, unknowable destiny. It means that it's OK to do the braindead stupid thing if you're following destiny's path because Destiny will have your back. Like Iroh's belief in the finale that Aang would fight Ozai, even though they have no idea where Aang is or how he would get to the fight. That kind of meta-thinking just hurts the verisimilitude of the show. I'm fine with destiny when it is a force that operates outside of the characters. But when the characters themselves get Genre Savvy and start using destiny as coherent, rational arguments for inaction, that's when it stops being an interesting theme and starts being a storytelling problem. The characters are willingly surrendering control of the outcome of their lives to some mysterious destiny, and it is presented as the correct, reasonable behavior. Destiny works best when you're not even sure it's there.
Typical point of view of someone who's afraid of destiny. Not that I blame you, "destiny" is a scary concept. She doesn't have any more reason for being evil than Zhao, She was raised by a Complete Monster since birth. I'd say that's enough reason for her to be evil. And before you say "but so was Zuko", no, Ozai mostly neglected or abused Zuko while Iroh was the one who truly "rasied" him. There was a big difference in how Ozai treated his children and that shaped them into the people they are.
Rather than scary, destiny is actually quite a foolish concept. In real life, it can neither be confirmed nor denied, always boiling down to vague predictions with multiple interpretations, or statements made after the fact altogether. And in fiction, it robs the action of any internal consistency, and all the characters of any agency. It's like having Aang not win his battles because of any of his own personal effort, nor anything he learned over the course of the story, but merely a stroke of luck and some barely foreshadowed new powers granted by happenstance... which is exactly what happened. The Gaang's worth as characters was made no greater than if they were random bystanders watching Ozai choke on his morning tea. And in the end, the story became not about Aang - the last Airbender - but merely about the Avatar - a random assortment of arbitrary superpowers, saving the day because
destiny the plot says so.
Because in fiction, this is what destiny really is - an open admission of railroading, of writers' inability to otherwise motivate their characters to follow the plot, or enable them to resolve any issues by themselves. And when it's openly affirmed, at least with a straight face, the whole story loses any meaning as a result.
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