Photo Credit: Damian Mauville
On May 15, Netflix brought “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to streaming, and with it, brought back what was possibly my favorite show from my childhood.
The show initially started in 2005 and went until 2008, so if you aren’t expecting spoilers to be in here, you’re in the wrong place, just warning you now.
Anyway, I rewatched this show with the optimism that everything I loved back when I was 8-11 years old would hold up as an adult. And, despite friends saying this would happen, I did not think that I would come out of a second watch with more love for this show than ever before.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is wise above its years and is crafted for much more than its supposed child demographic, and that became increasingly obvious as the show continued to find its footing in later seasons.
Each book is a blast, but once the show is rolling in Book Two, there is a noticeable uptick in drama, tension and emotion that most live-action dramas could only hope to achieve.
I’m only going to briefly talk about the show and all of its glory before getting into the major subject, but I would be amiss if I didn’t touch on the show as a whole, starting with the story arc. There is such a tough balance between slowing down to build up characters and speeding up to get through an extremely expansive plot, and this show nails that, almost.
There are some throwaway episodes that, while entertaining, do nothing to build up the world, the plot or the characters, but there’s maybe three of those across 61 episodes. Most of the time, show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko bring the energy and development in strides each and every outing, and it made for a show that was effortless to binge through a second time.
Next up, aesthetically, this show is gorgeous, both visually and especially sonically. The final battles in “Sozin’s Comet” are some of the best moments of action in any show I’ve seen, and there are plenty of other remarkable pieces throughout the show – Azula striking Aang, Toph metal bending, Fight at the North Water Temple, to name a few – that always live up to the immaculate amount of hype that surrounds them.
This kid’s show made me cry a few times, so there’s that. Am I a softy? Absolutely, but if you didn’t find yourself choked up during “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” then that’s your problem and not mine. Past that, there’s multiple moments of heartache, trauma and defeat that hit me to my core, as well as the positive moments that come through various reunions and victories.
Throughout it all, you feel what the characters are feeling, and that’s a credit to the outstanding writing that this show has to offer. Of course, this leads to the biggest thing this show has above almost any: character development.
Aang’s arc, Katara’s arc, Sokka’s arc, Toph’s ark, Iroh’s arc, Azula’s arc, freaking Appa’s arc? They are all magnificently done, and worthy of their own praises that I simply don’t have enough words for. But there is one character in this show that manages to shine above them all. He might be my favorite character in any show I’ve ever seen, and that is Prince Zuko.
I love Zuko for so many reasons, but the largest one is because he has quite possibly the most complete and satisfying arc that any character has had throughout any show that I’ve watched, and that starts right at episode 1.
Immediately, we as the audience think that Zuko is a jerk, and why wouldn’t we? He has that signature bad guy scar, he’s actively hunting down the protagonist of the show, so immediately he is always in our minds as someone to root against. I am aware I’m stating the obvious, so just bear with me.
That initial thought, and continued thoughts as Aang, Katara and Sokka continue to run into him, is the thought the protagonists will have about Zuko for 2 ½ seasons while we continue to see his side of the story and lose more and more of that disdain toward him.
By the end of Season 1, once you hear the backstory on the scar, once you see him as the Blue Spirit and even after he tries to steal Aang, I found myself not as much rooting for Zuko’s current motives, but certainly rooting for Zuko to figure himself out as he continues to throw anger in the face of his problems.
This just grows stronger and stronger throughout Season 2 as he becomes even more of an exile and grows an even more dynamic relationship with Iroh, who, by the way, is such a perfect character to be a mentor for Zuko, and has his own amazing backstory and conflict going on.
The “Zuko Alone” episode is a standout for this, bringing together all this backstory to show where he has come from, how far he has developed, while now showing the fear he instills in others by simply using firebending. It is a key moment for the audience to see, and it is a key moment for Zuko’s development.
But then, in the Season 2 finale, Zuko betrays all that progress for a final shot at redemption, for one more moment to do what he has always been told was right, and it is a gut punch to watch.
From there, after getting everything he wanted from his father and from his nation, it was all for nothing, and when he finally figures out what his arc is truly meant to be, it is an outstanding moment in the show, and from there he is terrific to watch as he slowly gets incorporated with the group.
I love his individual quests with the crew, especially him and Aang’s trip to learn firebending, and I love the added animosity Katara shows after he specifically backstabbed her in Season 2. There is just so, so much done right with this character, and it is done in a more mature way than the vast majority of dramas at any level can pull off.
But my favorite moment is in his final fight of the show when he faces off against Azula. This is a magnificently shot fight with amazing moments throughout, but the fact that Zuko wins not by defeating his sister, but by protecting someone he cares about who then takes it to her and wins? Absolutely damn brilliant, and displays how much he has grown in a perfect piece of symbolism.
I know I’m not the first to talk about how amazing Zuko’s development is, but it was the thing I loved the most about rewatching this masterpiece of television. There are plenty of other things I adored that I didn’t get to, including the brilliant pair of episodes used for the solar eclipse, or the Kyoshi warriors or Appa and Momo.
There’s just so, so much that this show does right, but so much of it is encapsulated by how well they turn an antagonist to an anti-hero to a pure hero by the time the show is done. You’re invested in Zuko from episode 1, and every new tidbit of info gained from then on just adds and adds into what feels like such a complete and satisfying character arc.
Credit to Dante Basco for brilliantly voicing this character, and credit to everyone who worked on this show to make it such a delight for both 10-year-old me and 22-year-old me.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a remarkable show because it never falls flat, always cares about its characters first and has the perfect balance between the highs and the lows. And, because it has Prince Zuko, truly one of the best-made characters I have ever watched.