Avatar: The Last Airbender ended just about a year ago. The 3rd part to the series finale ran on July 19th, 2008. There have been numerous pieces about the show and why it’s so amazing. It stands out for having one of the most satisfying finales of any show. And I could throw a similar article onto the stack. I could talk about how gorgeous the art is. I could talk about how it does amazing world building, or how writers of TV and film should study it for how to write nuanced and earned character arcs for all age audiences. I could talk about how it elevated “kids shows” in much the same way that Pixar has elevated Disney’s animation from kids movies to family movies. I could talk about Prince Zuko is one of the greatest characters written for TV and how it’s some of the best acting that you’ll ever hear from Dante Basco (who also portrayed Rufio in Hook). I could do all that but I won’t. Instead I’ll tell you all about how Avatar saved me from depression when I was unemployed.
A bit over six years ago I was working at a tech job, chugging along, not fulfilled but not altogether unhappy, when I was let go (and replaced with the boss’ son, make of that what you will). There were signs had I been looking for them, including some shady uses of temp workers in positions that had previously been held by permanent employees. But one Friday I was called into the main office, told I was being let go after about five years of service, and my severance would be that I could leave at lunch but get payed for the rest of the day. I tell you all these details not to throw shade at my previous employer, but to frame my exit. It was sudden, it was surprising, and it just felt wrong.
Those that know me well know that I thrive with structure. So rather than letting myself fall into bed and never get out, I set up a strict schedule. I gave myself a concrete deadline for moping and mourning (so Jewish) of a week and a half. I then laid out a morning routine so I wouldn’t get into the habit of waking up later and later, eventually becoming some sort of nocturnal Morlock. I set a daily goal of jobs to look for, a rolling goal of applications to send out, and a short list of people to try to network with to put out feelers for other places to apply to. This schedule forced me to remain diurnal, clean, well-groomed, and active in my job hunt no matter how few positive responses I got.I
The problem with said schedule and pushing myself like that was I would often complete my daily tasks by early to mid afternoon, and would then have hours alone with nothing to do and no drive left with which to do it. I led a dual life, active and engaged job-seeker by morning, silent and depressed couch potato by afternoon.
Depressed TV watching is, for me, some of the worst TV watching. That’s when I feel the need to consume with a maximum drive but the need to think with a minimum. Basically, I want to watch a lot of TV and movies but they have to be stupid and, often, terrible. And so one day I picked a random kids cartoon I had heard about and had access to. And so I started my marathon viewing of Avatar.
I know there’s a lot of shade thrown at media consumption as self-care, and I don’t claim that all TV decompression is actual self-care, but this show actually helped me deal with my unemployment without having a meltdown. The show is marketed toward kids. Like, 8 and up. So there’s a simplicity and lightheartedness that is immediately apparent. As escapism it seemed to be working. But as I kept with the show I noticed surprising depths to it. The art was lovely, but then it becomes apparent that each elemental fighting style is choreographed completely different. Then Zuko, the hot-headed antagonist, started to be a deep character. Then Sokka, the dumb comic relief, started to carve out a deep arc. And, most touching for me, was the character of Iroh (voiced but the acclaimed Mako until his passing during the show). Zuko’s doddering uncle, he’s part of the ostensibly villainous Fire Nation, yet seems to waver between a comic-relief old man and an active, self composed pacifistic trying to survive in the midst of a war. By the second season there’s a filler episode entitled The Tales of Ba Sing Se (season 2, episode 15) which follows a handful of characters through slice-of-life vignettes. Iroh has a story that seems to come out of nowhere, but also does not feel like shoe-horned in ret-conning. His motives both going forward and looking back at past episodes becomes crystal clear. And I challenge anyone to watch his segment without at least tearing up.
Essentially, the show caught me off guard and tricked me back into feeling a whole spectrum of emotions. I love this show so much. Part of my fondness is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels; It can be a simple, colorful show you can drop in front of little kids. It can also be looked at as a wonderfully detailed and lovingly written epic fantasy. And for me it there’s also the aspect of giving me a little faith in people and hope for the future at a time when I just wanted to curl up and be numb.