It is a good feeling to be able to return to something you once loved years later and still love it—maybe even more than before. In addition to the feeling of nostalgia and the sigh of relief that this nostalgia is not marred by the thing actually being shitty upon revisiting, you are able to revisit with further-developed critical acumen and a greater appreciation for the thing.
Three years after having last seen it, and fourteen years after it debuted, Avatar: The Last Airbender holds up. It is still the best TV show I’ve seen. But for all the things that this show does exceptionally well—for how tight the story arc is even across three seasons, for how complex and human the characters are written to be, for how fascinating the world of Avatar is—there’s one major flaw in the writing that I wasn’t able to put my finger on until I watched it again and discussed it with Taylor. The problem is that Aang is not required to change in order to get what he wants.
This is frustrating to me as a former student of film and literature because it breaks basically every convention of storytelling—pick your favorite story structure template, and it will show the protagonist undergoing change. But it’s also just frustrating to me as a person because that’s not how humanity works, or at least that’s not how we’re told it should.
Aang, being an airbender and having been socialized as an Air Nomad, is used to being quick and clever to work around his problems. The first time we see this truly fail for him is when he begins trying to learn earthbending, which requires total focus, tenacity, and fearlessness. Aang does eventually manage to get it when he goes against his nature and stands up to the domineering Toph, but learning earthbending is not his ultimate character motivation, so it doesn’t count. I don’t make the rules. Sure, this is a sign of development for him, but he does not take this lesson in facing his problems “like a rock” to heart so deeply that he does not search desperately for a way to avoid his apparent destiny of killing Fire Lord Ozai.
And I know this is a kids’ show. Gritty realism is not always necessary or cool. But death, killing even, is not unprecedented in this story, and it is not always condemned. The Ocean Spirit, La, for all we know at the time, kills Admiral Zhao. When Aang seeks advice from the spirits of his past lives, Avatar Roku implies that he regrets not killing Fire Lord Sozin and tells Aang he must be more decisive than he. Avatar Kyoshi, who killed Chin the Conqueror, tells Aang that “only justice will bring peace.” Avatar Yangchen, an Air Nomad herself, tells Aang that the monks’ teachings are ultimately irrelevant to his duty as the Avatar and that he must sacrifice his own spiritual needs for the good of the world. So Aang comes to the realization aloud atop the lion turtle that he has no choice but to kill Ozai.
And still, he doesn’t. The previous Avatars, much older and wiser and having found themselves in similar positions to Aang’s, all but instruct him to do it and assure him he will be justified. Even Zuko, Ozai’s own son, tells Aang to do it. Even Sokka tells Aang the universe will forgive him. But he finds a clever, out-of-pocket way instead by taking away Ozai’s firebending. And in so doing, he does not sacrifice his own spiritual needs, his own vision of who he is as a peaceful, clever, loophole-finder. He doesn’t even have to sacrifice Katara, as Guru Pathik said he would. Aang gets everything he wants while still being who he always was. It’s not great storytelling, and it doesn’t feel fair.
What this is really all about is that, about a week ago, I quit Rowster—where I spent nine months—to go back to my old job leading trainings in Microsoft and Adobe software. I did it largely for the money, but also because I hope it will be better for me than I realized the first time around.
We’re supposed to look into the camera when we teach online classes—not at the camera feed of our own faces—but that’s where I look anyway. My hair is much shorter now, but on Friday, when I had to teach again for the first time since I left, I wore the same outfit I always used to. It’s strange to see your own face on a screen again and wonder if the last nine months really happened or if you’ve always been here, and to wonder if you’ve gotten what you wanted, and to wonder if you’ve changed.
Jeffrey (‘17) ultimately settled on studying film and media studies and French, though food is his greatest passion. He lives in Grand Rapids and is trying to teach himself computer science so he can, among other things, cyberbully Elon Musk.