Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
When I say that my brother and I watched Avatar before Avatar was cool, I find the need to clarify two points:
- Yes, I am asserting my #hipstercred.
- No, I’m not referring to the 2009 Avatar—the one that was awesome in IMAX 3D, less awesome on your home TV, and downright disappointing when you realized that James Cameron had just ripped off Pocahontas and added a dash of blue people.
The Avatar I’m talking about is a cartoon that ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. Jon and I discovered it shortly after it started airing. We loved it. Here’s the opening sequence:
Honestly, the video summarizes the show better than I can, but for the sake of those who skipped it, I’ll take a crack at it here. Subtitled The Last Airbender and abbreviated ATLA, Avatar imagines a world populated by “benders”—people able to manipulate, or “bend,” one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, or air. Aang, the show’s protagonist, is a twelve-year-old airbender, and also the title’s Avatar, the sole person capable of bending all four elements. In that capacity—and with the help of his friends—Aang alone can save the world from ATLA’s big baddies: the industrialized Fire Nation and its rabidly imperial leader, Fire Lord Ozai.
DISCLAIMER: Any resemblance between the Fire Nation and nineteenth-century Europe, or pre-WWII Japan, is entirely coincidental. They wouldn’t get “political” on a children’s program, would they?
If they did, eleven-year-old Jon and thirteen-year-old Ben didn’t notice. Sprawled on the couch after school, the two of us were too caught up in everything else the show had going for it to lament the nuggets we missed. The animation, the voice-acting, the world-building—all of it floored us. The story alone, a classic hero’s tale blended with elements of Eastern philosophy, ran circles around our usual Nickelodeon fare, and the characters—Aang, Katara, Sokka, and the rest—were all of them funny and flawed and sincere.
Naturally, ATLA didn’t remain just “our thing”: its fan base swelled, and the show went on to win multiple awards during its run. That whole time, though, Jon and I kept tuning in for reruns and new episodes alike, as often as they aired. When the four-part, two-hour series finale aired in 2008, we plastered ourselves to the living-room furniture, cranked up the audio, and watched in awe—and with a certain amount of sadness—as the show of our early teens came to a close.
Five years have passed since then, and ATLA survived, somewhat. A sequel, which improves upon the original, followed in 2012, but Nickelodeon deemed it a financial risk and hastened its termination. For the most part, ATLA now exists outside TV, its legacy carried on by legions of loyal cosplayers, by a panoply of official and unofficial spin-offs (including some remarkable “canon” graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang), and by a big-budget movie, directed by M. Night Shyamalamadingdong, that time has yet to bury.
And also by my wife and me.
Early in our relationship, Jes and I discovered that we had both watched Avatar back in the day, and since then, we’ve collected all three seasons on DVD, intending eventually to watch them together. This we finally did over the past two months. We finished last week.
It was a bittersweet moment, finishing. Much as it had been for 2008-me watching the finale with Jon in the living room, 2015-me didn’t want the show to end. Jes and I had logged twenty-plus hours with these characters, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them—to watch their story end, any more than I wanted my own to end.
But that was only part of the bittersweetness. The rest comes from a place harder to articulate, a place 2008-me would not and could not comprehend. I can’t watch Avatar as I once did. For me, the show’s too knotted up with my own yearning for the childhood I’ve left, for the afternoons I spent with my brother, for our old box of a TV, for our parents making dinner while the two of us sat. More than that, the show has gotten confused with my wife now—with the simple pleasure of sharing something I love with someone I love. Dustball-like and while no one was looking, Avatar’s gone and accrued the baggage of the life I’ve lived, and try as I might, I can’t separate the two.
And I feel I’ve lost something because of that. Or gained something.
Snapping the final disc back into its cover, I told Jes we’d have to do this again next year. She laughed. But I think she agreed. We’ll be back, I know, Schwarzenegger-like, some years ahead—back to watch Aang and Katara fall in love again, back to watch Toph invent metalbending again, back to watch Sokka wave his arms and shout ridiculous things like “Airship-slice!” again. We’ll be back, and everything will be the same, and everything will be different.
So until then, Team Avatar.
 Absolutely they would. In the final episode of ATLA’s sequel The Legend of Korra, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino made waves when—SPOILERS, PEOPLE—they bucked the usual guy-gets-girl ending and instead paired protagonist Korra off with her close friend Asami.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.