Warning: spoilers ahead!
Spring of 2020. Birds were singing, COVID-19 was turning the world upside-down, and I was finishing my senior year of high school. On May 15th, Avatar: The Last Airbender dropped on Netflix in the United States, and I, like many others, rejoiced. Finally, an easy way to watch this childhood classic! Something else to fill the endless hours of quarantine! Without a doubt, convenience and boredom were two factors that prompted so many young adults to binge this kids show last year. They weren’t the only factors, though.
See, I had already been watching ATLA before May 15th. My best friend, who has reminisced about the show to me for as long as I can remember, sent me a link to watch it earlier that spring. I don’t remember what this site was, but it was sketchy to say the least. Starting up an episode was like starting up an ancient car; it only worked sometimes, with finesse, and it stuttered once it began, regardless of your wifi capacity. I won’t dwell on the occasional weird ad that popped up in the corner. By the time May 15th rolled around, I had worked my way through season 1 on this site. Was I thrilled that I no longer had to? Abso-freaking-lutely. But would I have continued to, if it hadn’t become an option on Netflix? Yeah, I think I probably would have.
Why? Why put up with this annoying (and probably illegal) streaming option for a show that I hadn’t even watched as a kid? And once it dropped on Netflix, why was I so hooked? Why was everyone so hooked?
For those who don’t know, Avatar: The Last Airbender is an American, anime-style cartoon that ran on Nickelodeon starting in 2005. It takes place in a world with four distinct societies: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. Some people, called benders, can magically manipulate one of the elements. One person every generation, called the Avatar, can manipulate all four elements, and is the only one who can resolve the ongoing war between the Fire Nation and everyone else. The show follows Aang, the current Avatar (and last airbender, hence the name). With the help of his friends, he journeys through the different societies to learn the different elements and eventually defeat the Firelord, thus ending the war.
For many of us, spring of 2020 was a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Our lives, which had once been fairly predictable, were suddenly anything but. The normal rules of the world changed. Things that we’d always taken for granted as permanent disappeared. Everything seemed up for question. For those who’d loved ATLA as a kid, the show was a ticket to simpler times. Even I, who had never seen it, felt warm, fuzzy nostalgia for the stories I’d heard about it growing up. The ATLA universe really isn’t any less screwed-up or messy than our own (more on that later), but we see it all through a younger, more innocent lens. Mai may be chucking knives at people, but they always manage to pin the victim’s clothes to the wall, rather than their guts. Likewise, the darker scenes are interspersed with the kind of endearing friendships and goofy kid humor that make everything seem okay. (“My cabbages!!!!”).
That being said, some of the themes explored in this cartoon world are anything but lighthearted. At its core, among other things, ATLA is a show about the consequences of war. We see that. There’s death and destruction. We see refugees, colonization, and prisoners of war. We even see Aang grapple with the genocide of his people. In the Earth Kingdom, we get slapped in the face with corruption, bureaucracy, and shady government stuff that rang very true last year. These darker, more complicated themes kept me, as a young adult, genuinely engaged, despite the fact that the show was intended for kids. They made me think and kept me guessing. More importantly, they made the show pack an emotional punch. There’s a reason it’s still taken seriously.
The characters are just as complex as the world they inhabit. Somehow, each member of this little animated crew contains multitudes, and once you get a glimpse, you crave episodes like “Zuko Alone” and “The Beach'' even more. The show is full of characters who walk the line between hero and villain. Some, like Jet, whose questionable choices are brought on by the effects of trauma, make us question the line between right and wrong. Others, like Zuko, put us on the edge of our seats, waiting desperately for him to embrace his good side. Zuko’s redemption arch especially hooks us, and when it eventually resolves, it’s so satisfying. Every character wrestles with internal problems of some kind. They argue, they screw up, and sometimes they make wrong choices, but ultimately they’re all lovable and strong in their own way (including the numerous female characters!). In short, they’re real. They gave us something to grab on tight to, and root for. Not to mention, they just made us laugh. I think I speak for more than just me when I say that sometimes, after a long day of quarantining, watching Sokka face-palm at some crazy person was exactly what I needed.
At a time when it felt like the world might be ending, ATLA was a safe, nostalgic space to see very real issues reflected. It’s a show about staying strong in the face of fear and impossible odds. It’s both serious and silly, dark and innocent. It’s fun. And above all, it’s hopeful. Really it’s no wonder we all turned to the Gaang for entertainment last year. Like cactus juice, they’re the quenchiest.