I swear, this isn’t going to turn into an Avatar blog, but I just finished re-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (again) and a few things really struck me this time around. The first is that it really is written for kids. I don’t mean that as a negative, but often times when revisiting the fandom what sticks out in memory is how complex the characters are and how well the storytelling unfolds. All of this is completely true, but also? It’s written for kids; the show’s target demographic was 6-11 year-olds. Keeping that in mind it’s also so damn good.
Early into the first season there are three episodes in particular that struck me as a masterful way of conveying a lot of mature ideas. Within this thematic trilogy a lot of conflict is established between the main characters and the rest of the world. It’s a very shrewd way of adding layers and nuance to the show without having grimdark episodes or explicit exposition.
Keep in mind, this is a 20 episode season and this arc takes place within the first third of the first season. What these three episodes do is showcase sources of conflict. They teach the main characters all the different places they can expect resistance to come from:
- 1×4 The Warriors of Kyoshi – conflict from within
- 1×5 The King of Omashu – conflict from allies
- 1×6 Imprisoned – conflict from enemies
The Warriors of Kyoshi In this episode Aang, Katara, and Sokka end up on Kyoshi Island, the home of the previous earthbending incarnation of the Avatar. A group of warriors have modeled themselves after her, and eventually take Sokka in to teach him how to fight. In the village, Aang lets the local fame go to his head while Katara looks on with more and more annoyance.
What’s subtle and wonderful about this is that it quietly introduces the idea that strife and conflict can come from within a group. At the end of the episode the fire nation shows up and our trio flee, but for the majority of their stay in Kyoshi Island the group is received with a welcome spirit. Sokka starts out with a lot of macho boasting, the warriors quickly shoot down his bragging and show him up with skill. It takes a little while, but once he realized this he makes an offer of humility and the women decide to train him. Similarly, once Aang proves himself as the avatar, the townspeople give everyone he’s with a warm welcome and a safe place to stay. But in the middle of all this, it’s the shifting dynamics that threaten the group. Katara is both jealous of Aang’s fandom as well as annoyed with his embracing it. Sure, she feels like somewhat of an outside, now playing a smaller role in his daily life, but she’s also pushed out by his ego. Considering that this could have played out as a fun vacation-type episode, it’s shocking that the real danger to the group is their internal dynamic tearing them apart.
For 6-11 year-olds, that is a pretty scary thought. Hell, for adults it’s pretty disquieting as well. There’s a level of safety that’s normally assumed when the main characters are together and not in imminent danger. To introduce this situation as one that isn’t inherently safe is pretty intense.
The King of Omashu Aang, Katara, and Sokka come to the earth kingdom city of Omashu. They are greeted by the king and once he suspects Aang of being the avatar, he subjects him to tests of power while holding Katara, and Sokka hostage, with the threat of death for them if Aang takes too long or outright fails. In the end it turns out that the king is Bumi, a childhood friend of Aang’s, and was simply testing him in order to prepare him for what he will be facing in the future.
What this episode does it take the lack of presumed safety among friends and extends that to external allies. While the episode ends with Aang realizing they were safe all along, part of Bumi’s tests were making him think he was alone and without support. Bumi turns out to be an ally, but attempts to help Aang without providing him with a sense of safety. While the viewer may or may not agree with his methods, one of the things he tries to teach Aang is that the people he thinks are enemies could be allies and people he thinks are allies could turn against him. It’s not a call for utter self-reliance, but it is a lesson in truly knowing who you can and can’t trust is important and fluid.
Imprisoned In Imprisoned, the trio come to an earth kingdom town where people who have bending abilities are being shipped off to an off-shore prison by fire nation forces. In an attempt to free the prisoner, Katara gets herself arrested for (fake) earthbending and is shipped off to the prison. While there she organizes the prisoners while Aang and Sokka supply them with material to fight back with (in this case, coal for the earth benders).
It’s somewhat telling that the most obvious source of conflict is saved for last in these three episodes. Imprisoned shows the group that threats can come from people perceived to be enemies. Going in to the episode they knew they were up against the imperialist fire nation. Leaving the episode, the are aware of the same thing. But the previous two episodes have prepared them (and by extension, the audience) to be wary of threats from anywhere, so even when confronted with the obvious we’re now all trained to look more closely. The lesson that the crew learns is that a direct attack isn’t the best way to fight off the forces. It was to split up, empower the prisoners, and then supply them with the means to fight for themselves. While the external threat was obvious, the method of resistance is the complicated concept at work in this episode.
Imagine sitting down and trying to figure out how to teach young children that sometimes the best way to help people isn’t with the hands-on and straightforward methods of most superheroes, but a roundabout way that is at least as much support and education as it is confrontation. That is a pretty imposing goal. And yet… these three episodes do that, and so much more. The Warriors of Kyoshi also have Sokka learn a lesson on humility and sexism. The King of Omashu ends with Aang still close friends with Bumi. Even his trickery wasn’t a reason for Aang to lose the trust he had in his friend. Rather, he puts aside his personal comfort, selflessly absorbs the lesson Bumi was teaching, and leaves a wiser person. Imprisoned had all of our heroes take a step back and trust strangers to help themselves. Had everyone in the prison completely given up, there was a real chance that Sokka and Aang would have had a lot of trouble rescuing Katara. But that wasn’t their concern. Their obstacle was the fire nation but their immediate plan of attack was to give hope and organization to the resistance.
I have never seen anyone take these separate one-off episodes as a trilogy before, but I am certain that they are meant to be one. What’s really telling is that every one of these episodes has a character that comes back as a powerful ally later in the series. The Warriors of Kyoshi bring back, well the Kyoshi Warriors, and Suki in particular. The King of Omashu gives us Bumi who returns both as a passive ally when the group returns to the Earth Kingdom, as well as a member of the White Lotus during the final battle. Imprisoned gives the team Haru. The young teen wrongfully imprisoned in the beginning of the episode, he later returns as a tactician and leader of troops when Sokka attempts to attack the fire nation. I can’t believe that to be a coincidence, that the group coming through these difficult lessons all yield allies almost a year later (in the show’s timeline) as the show comes to a close.
The friends and allies they make at the very start of the first season are not only long-lasting, but also have been continuing the resistance without the presence of the avatar. There’s a very fulfilling concept in that these early moments of growth for our three main characters lead to the seeds of resistance being planted as they travel. It’s heartening to know that a kid’s show is attempting to tackle complex ideas of responsibility, trust, and teamwork. It’s also comforting that the hard lessons early on pay off in the future. That there’s an investment being made on hope, without an expectation to see direct results, only a subtle betterment of the world at large.