Seasons and Themes
Earlier, I stated that you could divide Avatar: The Last Airbender into a 3-act structure. The first act ended with The Chase
; it dealt with worldbuilding, character setup, and so forth. The second act ends in the middle of this season. And the third act is where Zuko joins them and they have the final battle.
However, there is another division one could apply to the series. You could see the three seasons as Establishment
Season 1 was the idealistic season. When Aang met new people, they were generally friendly. The Avatar inspired hope wherever he went. Yes, there were unfriendly people, but these were either specifically villains or learned the error of their ways by the end of the episode. Everyone in this season is exactly who they appear to be. Every time Aang trusts people, it works out well.
The season 1 villain was made of the thinnest cardboard. He barely got a personality before he was unceremoniously killed off. He was evil, but it wasn't the interesting kind of evil. He was boring evil: he did bad things, but with no real style or substance. He was straightforward, unsubtle, and dull.
Zuko had his own little arc here. He even fights the season 1 villain at the end, though for his own reasons (revenge at attempted murder). From an omniscient perspective, we can see that Zuko is very much a part of the Gaang, even though nobody is aware of it.
Then season 2 shows up. It turns all of this on its head. Now, villagers are more often than not antagonists. Aang gets imprisoned and threatened with execution for something that happened 370 years ago. The Gaang gets all the way to Ba Sing Se, only to find out that the Earth King is a puppet under the control of the Dai Li, who become their enemy.
In this season, when Aang trusts people, bad things follow.
Now we get a villain who knows what she's doing. She plays on her enemies' weaknesses. She doesn't have any more reason for being evil than Zhao, but her kind of evil is interesting. She's more than a physical threat; she's a mental one, clever and resourceful on top of her prodigious firebending talents.
And then there's the path of Zuko. He helps villagers deal with some asshole Earth Kingdom soldiers, only for them to ostracise him when he tells them who he really is. He finds that he must give up pursuit of the one thing that gives him any hope for the future, meaning that his future will be spent serving tea. And then, at the defining moment of his character, when he must choose between his obviously evil sister and the path that his uncle has laid out before him, he picks... his obviously evil sister.
He is supposed to join the Gaang; we know
this. And from the omniscient perspective, he's already a member. Until here at the end, he says no.
In season 1, at the moment of narrative climax, Aang goes into the Avatar State and kicks a lot of ass, saving the NWT. In season 2, at the moment of narrative climax, Aang goes into the Avatar State and gets shot in the back,
nearly killing the Avatar forever.
Season 2 is the season of cynicism.
Ultimately, what we see in season 3 is a reinforcement of the idealism at the heart of the Avatar-verse. It is a triumph of idealism over cynicism
. But it isn't a naked triumph; it isn't a curb-stomp. Aang isn't the wide-eyed idealist he was in season 1. He still has his ideals, there are still things he will not do. But he's not the innocent, optimistic, trusting soul from season 1.
Yeah, getting shot in the back and losing the Earth Kingdom capital kinda has that effect on you.
Zuko finds that after everything he did, he still has a chance at a Heel-Face Turn
. But the Gaang doesn't immediately accept him; he has to earn it. More from some than others, but there are consequences for his prior actions.
At the moment of narrative climax, Aang gets lucky and the Avatar State is triggered. But he doesn't win solely with the Avatar State; he backs off in order to not kill Ozai so that he can use his Deus Ex Machina power to un-power him. Indeed, the great debate over what to do with Ozai is an expression of this triumph. The writers are saying that if you hold true to your ideals, then maybe a Giant Lion Turtle will show pity on you and bequeath you a power (that was likely removed from the world for a very good reason) that will allow you to maintain your idealism while still doing what you need to do.
But nowhere is the triumph of idealism seen better than in Mai: "I love Zuko more than I fear you." It is the embodiment of idealism over cynicism; she didn't take the pragmatic approach. She threw herself bodily into death for whom she loved. And she came out alive on the other end; she even brought Ty Lee along with her. And that triumph was two-fold, as it destroyed Azula's entire worldview, which was built on the cynical view that fear is the perfect means of control.
In the end, those who accept the Avatar-verse's worldview are rewarded, and those who do not are punished.
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.
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.