The Four Elements… of a Good Show

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Sarah Neal

Avatar the Last Airbender has three seasons; Water, Earth, and Fire. Each season is named after the element Aang masters in those episodes (Photo courtesy of Sarah Neal).

Water, Earth, Fire, Air. Long ago, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created an amazing show on Nickelodeon. The show they created, Avatar the Last Airbender,  is a show about a 12-year old boy, Aang, who was frozen for 100 years. While he was frozen, the Fire Nation army attacked the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, and wiped out the Air Nomads, who raised Aang, the next Avatar. The Avatar is someone who can control all four elements. With this power, they help the world and restore balance.

This show demonstrates war in the eyes of pre-teens and teenagers, accurately represents Japanese, Chinese, and Inuit cultures, shows physical and mental parental abuse and how each character reacts, deals with sexism and multiple characters with disabilities, and includes environmental messages that make kids take the destruction of nature seriously. These are just some of the elements that make this show so ahead of its time. 

The main characters in the show, Aang, Sokka, Katara, Zuko, and Toph, have grown up in a world at war. Sokka and Katara, part of the Water Tribe, lost their mother to the Fire Nation. Shortly after, their father left for war leaving them to watch over the Southern Water Tribe. Aang, an Air Bender, is the last of his kind; he lost everyone he loved to the Fire Nation but was unable to do anything because he was frozen. Zuko is the banished prince of the Fire Nation. He was physically and mentally abused by his father and sister throughout his life. His only parental figure is his Uncle Iroh, who lost his son in the war. Toph was born blind but learned how to see by sensing vibrations with her earth bending. Her parents were very protective of her and didn’t allow her to go anywhere without a chaperone, so she ran away with Sokka, Katara, and Aang. 

Each of the nations is represented by a different culture. The Fire Nation is Japanese. It’s represented by a large island in the west. The Earth Nation is the largest and represents China. It’s a large area whose capital is surrounded by an indestructible wall. The Water Tribes, which are on each pole, represent the Inuits. The people of the Water Tribe naturally have darker skin and behave in the same way as the indigenous people of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. 

In the show, many strong female characters are introduced. There is a group of all-female warriors, the Kyoshi, who live on an Earth Kingdom island. When Katara is denied as a water bending student in the North Pole, she fights for the right to train with the men and boys of that tribe. Azula, who is a villain in the show, is respected by her father and chosen to be the next Firelord. 

Aang, who was raised to believe all life is sacred, is told from the beginning that he needs to kill the Firelord. He shows his spiritual nature every time he encounters an animal or any living creature and is noticeably devastated when he sees a forest burnt by the Fire Nation. Throughout the series, he denies the fact that he might have to kill the Firelord and actively searches for another way to defeat him, even though there was seemingly no possible way. Even in the final battle between Ozai and Aang, he still refuses to take his life. He almost dies protecting his beliefs, but he upholds them and defeats the Firelord without killing him. 

This show has so many lessons to be learned. It teaches about choosing your families, the importance of adventure, knowing self-worth, and how violence is never the answer. These are absolutely important ideologies for young kids to learn, and it helps that the show has a perfect balance of humor and seriousness, which is why it’s one of my favorite shows. The scenery is flawless and each character has dynamic development. Even Zuko, who thinks his purpose is to capture the Avatar, ends up helping him defeat his own father. Avatar the Last Airbender was my favorite show as a kid, and it’s still my favorite show now.