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Avatar Aang: The Last Airbender

“With Roku gone and the great comet returning, the timing was perfect to change the world. I knew the next Avatar would be born an Air Nomad, so I wiped out the Air Temples. But somehow the new avatar eluded me. I wasted the remainder of my life searching in vain. I know he’s hiding out there somewhere, the Fire Nation’s greatest threat. The last Airbender.

-Firelord Sozin

Avatar: The Last Airbender is among the most important pieces of western animation ever made. I know it, you know it, anyone who has watched all 61 expertly crafted episodes knows it. I fell in love with this series at the age of seven and I could gush about it for hours, literally. From the thoroughly unique world inspired by eastern culture, to the iconic hard magic system that has almost become synonymous with the idea of elemental magic. There is just so much to love about this series, especially if you're as big of an epic fantasy nerd as I am. To keep this from being too wordy, I'm only going to focus on what I believe to be the most important relationships which helped Aang complete his quest. Master the four elements in under a year and defeat Firelord Ozai before Sozin’s comet returns. These pivotal connections are centered around, monk Gyatso, his animal guide Appa, his lover Katara, and prince Zuko.

Its no secret that the culture of the Air Nomads is inspired by the buddhist monks of Tibet. Their shaved heads, the orange loose fitting robes, and their isolated mountaintop temples are clear indicators. They are an enlightened people who have found inner peace by detaching themselves from the world around them, so their society differs greatly to that of the other elemental nations. At the Southern Air Temple, Aang learned that every life has value, “even the life of the tiniest spiderfly caught in its own web.” These teaching turned Aang into a vegetarian and a pacifist. We see this pacifism in nearly all of Aang’s battles, defeating opponents by being quick or clever, never with the brutality we know he’s capable of. Aang like every other airbender was raised without the concept of parents, likely to start them down the path to detachment early. Yet in spite of this, it is clear that Aang’s airbending master Gyatso was like a father to him. Gyatso was unusual compared to the other elders of the Southern Air Temple, while the others were stern and stoic, Gyatso retained an almost childlike playfulness. A trait that clearly rubbed off on Aang through all the wacky antics the pair got into. As told by Aang, Gyatso taught him everything he knows. Which was likely quite a lot seeing as how at 12 years of age Aang already possessed the tattoos of an airbending master. Aang carried Gyatso’s words and teachings with him through every step of his journey.

After revealing to Aang that he was the Avatar, the elders of the Southern Air Temple planned to have him separated from Gyatso and sent off to the Eastern Temple to continue his training. Their strong bond was in direct opposition with the most important teachings of the Air Nomads. Aang overheard the conversation on his future and decided to run away from home on the back of his sky bison Appa. Here we see the tragedy of Aang and Gyatso’s relationship. Gyatso goes to Aang’s room to assure the young avatar that he would not let the elders break them apart. The Avatar has always mastered the elements through years of living in each of the four nations, yet the elders wanted to shelter Aang from the world he was destined to protect. Ive always thought that Gyatso’s goal in this scene was to escape with Aang and guide him on his journey to becoming a fully realized Avatar. Sadly, Gyatso was too late. One hundred years passed before Aang was reunited with the man who was essentially his father, only Gyatso was long gone. He was a corpse, surrounded by the corpses of fire nation soldiers. The men who exterminated his people. It was the first time we see rage push Aang into the Avatar State. The souls of a thousand Airbender avatars roared through the body of a 12 year old boy who just learned he'd lost everything. “But, you were right. And if the Firebenders found this temple, that means they found the other ones, too. I really am the last Airbender.”

The genocide of the Air Nomads wiped out Aang’s entire culture from existence. He would've felt entirely alone in the world if it was for his animal guide Appa, the enormous sky bison. If you're familiar with anime I'm sure you're also familiar with the term “mascot character.” They are essentially cute animal characters who seemingly exist to sell merchandise. For Book 1 and good portion of the Book 2, Appa feels like a mascot character. His main purpose is to transport team avatar around the world and moments of comic relief. About halfway into book 2, all of this changes when Appa is captured by sandbenders. In the span of a few episodes, we learn how much Appa truly means to Aang. We also get to see Appa become a fully realized character himself in the episode titled “Appa’s Lost Days.” Besides the elderly King Bumi, Appa is the only companion Aang has left from his own era. From the moment they met, the boy and the bison were inseparable. Appa is so much more than just a pet for Aang, he’s all that remains of Aang’s extinct culture. After Appa’s capture, we see Aang go through all five stages of grief as he desperately searches for his friend. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all showcased in a single 22 minute episode. The only comfort Aang feels is when he and Appa are reunited through flashbacks in his dreams. Their time spent separated gets so much more depressing when we follow Appa’s viewpoint. He’s abused by a fire nation circus, bloodied by a boarcupine, and ultimately recaptured by Ba Sing Se’s shadow ruler Long Feng. We see him go through so much suffering just to be caged yet again. When the two are finally reunited, you can see the sense of relief they feel to finally be together again. If you have a pet, you know they they are so much more than a furry creature that lives in your house. They become your family. I like to think that when Aang passed away quietly in his sleep at the age of 66 Appa followed shortly after. It would be such a beautiful end to their lifelong friendship.

When Aang emerged from the iceberg, the first face he sees is Katara’s. Her aqua blue eyes and kind smile had our protagonist down bad from the jump. It was love at first sight on Aang’s end. Katara and her brother Sokka were with Aang from the beginning The moment the water tribe siblings freed him from the iceberg their destinies were forever intertwined. Aang’s return gave Katara hope for the future, she truly believed he would save the world. What I love about their master-student dynamic is that Aang started out far more advanced than Katara was, but they grew in the art of waterbending together. It wasn't long before Katara became a master and Aang began to treat her with the same respect he gave to Gyatso. He may have been a kid head over heels for the girl who freed him from the iceberg, but when they were training Katara was his master.

For essentially the entire series Katara and Aang were playing that “will they, wont they” game that is so popular in storytelling. While Aang’s feelings were clear, in Katara’s eyes he was still a goofy kid she saw as a little brother. Katara may have loved Aang but she wasn’t in love with him, and thats what makes all the difference. The moment I realized they were endgame came in the book two finale titled “The Crossroads of Destiny.” In this episode, Aang abandons his Avatar State training to free Katara from imprisonment in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se. Even though the wise Guru Pathik told the young avatar that if he left now, he may never again unleash the power of his past lives. When presented with limitless cosmic power, Aang instead chose to rescue the girl he loved. In the episode’s waning moments, Aang resolves himself to let his attachment to Katara go in order to save her. He rises from the crystals, his eyes and his tattoos giving off the iconic glow, and the audience is sure he's going to save the day. But then Azula’s lightning strikes. Katara catches his smoking body, and team Avatar makes their escape as the impenetrable city is conquered. By Aang’s own words he had died in that cave, but Katara brought him back. He gives Katara a weak smile of assurance and she cried as she embraced him, gasping with relief. If that isn't love then I don't think i'll ever truly understand it, keep in mind, I'm talking about two animated teenagers. Im not one to analyze romance, in fact, most romance stories nauseate me with the unrealistic standards they set. But when the war is over, when all of Aang’s goals are realized and Katara joins him on the balcony overlooking the sunset of Ba Sing Se. The two lovers share their first real kiss and the series ends. That scene melts my cold black heart every time, especially when you remember Katara became his wife and the mother of his three children.

Zuko is a character who could have an entire study dedicated to him. One of the greatest redemption arcs ever told is centered around the banished prince of the fire nation. He began the story as Aang’s enemy, capturing the last airbender was the only way his honor could be restored, it was his only means of returning home. Its easy to see that Zuko isn't your generic “Saturday morning cartoon” antagonist. His motivations are justified, the audience knows he isn't evil, and Aang knows it too. Despite being constantly followed and attacked by prince Zuko, Aang still hoped that maybe someday they could be friends. In book 1, after Zuko risked his life to rescue Aang from Admiral Zhao, Aang says to Zuko “You know what the worst part about being born over 100 years ago is? I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. Before the war started, I used to always visit my friend, Kuzon. The two of us, we’d get in and out of so much trouble together. He was one of the best friends I ever had…and he was from the fire nation, just like you. If we knew each other back then, Do you think we could have been friends, too?” Although Aang’s sincere words didn't change Zuko in that moment, they did leave a lasting impression. When Zuko attempts to prove to team avatar that he's a changed man, he repeats those words back to Aang. It takes time, but eventually he turns the hearts of each of the people he's hurt. Together, Aang and Zuko uncover the true meaning of firebending in one of the most beautifully animated moments of the entire series. Zuko learned to use his powers without being fueled by rage and Aang learned to let go of his fear of it. Their relationship molded both young men into better people, despite spending most of that relationships on opposite sides of a war. When all is said and done, It is Avatar Aang and Firelord Zuko who usher in a new era of love and peace.

What impresses me the most of Avatar Aang’s character isn’t his kind heart in the face of so much misery or his magnificent bending prowess. Its his dedication to his responsibility as the Avatar. A twelve year old boy with the literal weight of the world on his shoulders and he bore that weight bravely. One of my favorite frames is of Aang and Ozai’s long awaited meeting. A scrawny little boy facing off against the most dangerous man on the planet. A man who represents 100 years of fire nation imperialism. A man who relished in the idea of killing the last Airbender. Going against the advice of his passed lives, Aang defeated Ozai on his terms. He chose to take away the power Ozai used to murder and threaten over becoming a murderer himself. For years after the series ended this act left a bitter taste in my mouth, Ozai deserved to die for his crimes, and Aang being the one to do it would've felt like justice. But as Ive grown older and wiser I've come to realize that its simply because Aang is a better man than me. This goofy bald headed kid is a character I hold in high regard. Avatar: The Last Airbender is very dear to my heart, a series that manages to do so much right without ever losing its heart. Avatar Aang remains an inspiration to me nearly 16 years after the day we met.

Thank you for reading :)

The same goofy kid, over 40 years later :')

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