When Avatar: The Last Airbender first started airing in 2005, I was nine years old. One would think, and I have thought this many a times, that this show would be right up my ballpark. After all, I watched similar shows like Xiaolin Showdown and Samurai Jack – in other words, I was a fan of the western animation that held eastern ideals, cultures and influences with such high regard. Sadly, Avatar never crossed my oblivious path, until now.
I was always going to come round and watch it; the hype, the reviews and love is just to great to ignore a show that ruled over my friends and people whose opinions I value.
Trusting them entirely, I dived straight into Book One of Avatar knowing only a few things. The main character is a kid called Aang. Aang is the Avatar. The Avatar is someone that can control all four elements (air, earth, water and fire). I knew a destiny was involved and that’s pretty much it.
Before we get into specifics, I must give my overall thoughts on the first book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course watching the show as a 20-year old who feeds on dark live action shows and films week-in-week out could have made me numb to the ever-so hopeful and optimistic values at the heart of this show but it didn’t. Because, at the end of the day, this is a kid’s show that does what all best narratives geared towards children do: it treats its audience with respect and knows that kids have an extremely high level of intelligence. There are missteps, and we’ll get to them later, but overall Avatar: The Last Airbender plays like a much smarter cartoon than some of its stablemates that aired around the same time.
It sets these foundations very early on. The senses of purpose and destiny, stalwarts in this sort of story, stem from Aang. The feelings of independence and care come from Katara. The need to feel valued and worthwhile are abundant in Sokka. But it is the fire inside Prince Zuko that really makes this show shine. More often than not, I found myself gravitating towards the deeply fractured soul that Zuko really is, completely forgetting what age range this show is actually geared towards.
Book One is also narratively sound. Bigger and vaster things are hinted out but they are never overplayed or overused to dilute them, which is a huge pitfall for cartoons. The writing is tempered and more often than not flows freely. But the best thing about the writing is perhaps the hardest thing to describe … it’s the heart. You get the feeling that each writer genuinely believes in the intentions and personalities of each specific character and that seeps off the screen.
‘The Southern Air Temple’ sets the tone very early on whilst ‘The Blue Spirit’ is a standout because of Zuko. Of course there are episodes, such as ‘The Great Divide’, that really drop the ball and feel more like a shoot-around-the writers’-room filler episode, but for the most part Book One is a solid watch.
The two part finale, ‘The Siege of the North’, doubles down on all the strengths of the season. Zuko comes to the fore with his internal conflict very much mirroring the external conflict between nations. Aang’s development as the Avatar comes full circle with the Avatar state and it is a sight to behold because the writer’s played coy with it. Sokka, a character who I initially thought to be a simple comedic out-ball, gets one of the best emotional arcs towards the end of Book One … it was genuinely heartbreaking to watch it play out the way it did.
Listen, I had high expectations for Avatar: The Last Airbender simple because of all the hype, all the talk and all the love. I am happy to say that it lived up to it. The sign of a good show, that has long since finished, is forcing me to say ‘Just One More Episode’. Avatar: Book One did that throughout and that is the biggest compliment I can give to this series.
Next Up … Book Two.