Warning: this post contains spoilers for the show Avatar: The Last Airbender.
A bit over two years ago, my good friend Chris (Just Chris) suddenly started ranting and raving about this television show he had just recently become addicted to. Like many people, the more someone rants about something, the less likely I am to check it out on my own accord. But Chris so rarely raves about anything so fanatically, and this idea did indeed sound intriguing, so I decided to seek out this object of his adoration and investigate it for myself. That show was called Avatar: The Last Airbender, and when I finally checked it out I was not disappointed. Okay, that’s a lie: I was highly disappointed with myself for not jumping on his advice and checking it out sooner than I finally did.
I’m not going to bother with even trying to hold back my fanboyish enthusiasm here, and go right ahead and say it: Avatar is a cartoon on Nickelodeon, and it is the best television show I have ever seen. I say this despite my total rabid love of The Wire, Farscape, and Battlestar Galactica. This is a television show that has made me scream cries of excitement, froth angrily, and even pause it on multiple occasions to deeply, chest-heavingly sob. Other shows and movies have evoked these feelings separately, but no other show has done so with such regularity, intensity, and reward. In no other show have I felt such an intense bond with the cast of characters, on both sides of the story’s primary conflicts.
I remember shortly after I got into watching it, Chris said to me at one of our viewing parties, “This is what I want my roleplaying to be like.” I wholeheartedly concur. Every time I start to even idly muse about this show, a gosh-billion game ideas spring out of my imagination and dance seductively with the parts of my brain which contain nothing but pure childlike glee. I want so badly to play in a game in which the action is as beautifully choreographed and the comic moment are as well-timed as in this show.
I actually started writing this post last year, but never got around to completing it until just now, while basking in the afterglow from re-watching it this past weekend. See, I managed to get the new Lady into the show, and she was totally in love with it. I’ve been re-watching the whole series with her, and even after several viewings, there are still moments in the show that get me every time, no matter how many times I see them. When Iroh sings the song to the memory of his son in Tales of Ba Sing Se, I have to leave the room or I totally lose it. Even hearing it from a room nearby, I can’t hold back the nearly-choking tears – hell, even thinking about it right now I’m getting a bit teary-eyed. When Zuko finally stands up to his dad and gives him the what-for in Day of Black Sun, Part Two: the Eclipse, I cry tears of excitement, as this is the moment I have been waiting for since the series began, the apex of his transformation into a force of good, of his development as Aang’s perfect foil.
But Sozin’s Comet… that four-arc set of episodes is truly the pinnacle of the epic, both in the telling of a story and in its technical achievement. The animation is the best of the entire series, and it’s obvious in their style, attitude, expressions, and actions that each character has grown and changed so much. Aang is now looking like the man he will become, Zuko is no longer the emotionally uncertain lost child, Katara has evolved into a woman and a master of her art, and Sokka has grown from a wise-cracking over-confident boy into a wise-cracking leader of men whose confidence is both weathered and deserved. Toph, well, she’s still there mostly for comic relief, but we love her all the same.
The animation and action of those four episodes is pure seat-gripping intensity. Both of us were hit with fits of squeals and “oooh!s” as the characters each faced their action-packed destinies on the day of the comet. Even the return of the “great masters” was handled well: powerful and packed with a mighty punch, but not so over-played as to upstage the more important tension behind the fights of the main cast.
My only complaint is the handling of the motivations and attitudes of Ozai and Azula. If you know me at all, you also know that a absolutely loathed the character of Azula. I have never been a fan of bad guys who are “evil for the sake of being evil,” and Azula is no exception. From her first appearance she was portrayed as a Grade A Bitch, and she never got any better. In the beach episode, the writers had a clear moment to actually give her character some more definition and depth, but instead they squandered it on just making her even more insane and evil. Ozai, while less gonzo-nutso-bonkers than his psychotic daughter, was just as bad in the “I’m Bad Because I’m Bad” department. I prefer villains that have depth and more human motivations than simply “Kill Everyone!” and “Rule The World!” and their ilk. The handling of Azula’s defeat was just a bit weak, and her descent into lunacy was not a satisfying conclusion to her character’s involvement in the epic.
But the defeat of the Firelord, and the battle of truly epic proportions that preceded it, were perfect. Aang did not compromise his morals when the moment came to follow through, and the menace was eliminated in a deserving (and ultimately emasculating) manner. I think that the days that follow would make a great stage for a role-playing game setting, as the nations struggle to rebuild themselves, and the Air Temples are reestablished. All things considered, the conclusion was a good one, a well-written end to this story.
Now, I want the next part of the story to begin.