Avatar: The Last Airbender was released on Nickelodeon several years ago as a kids’ cartoon, but as fans of the series will attest, it is more than simply a kids’ show. The themes within the series are complex, and they ring true even while re-watching the series as an adult.
One only needs to look at Zuko’s characterization in order to see just how complex the themes in Avatar can get. In season one, Zuko is introduced as Aang’s enemy. Seeming to have no sympathy for the Avatar or his friends, Zuko’s aim is to capture the Avatar and bring him to his father in the Fire Nation.
As a viewer, it’s easy to see him as a villain. After all, he doesn’t mind attacking Aang and his friends and pays no heed to the fact that succeeding in bringing Aang to Ozai would result in the death of a twelve-year-old boy. But it is also made clear throughout the series that Zuko is not a person with solely malicious intentions.
On the contrary, he is shown to be a victim of his circumstances who simply wants to restore his honor. Zuko is driven by his need to feel loved and accepted by the father who has banished him. Therefore, Zuko’s evil actions are a result of his desire for acceptance. This makes it hard to classify him as just a villain or as someone we should feel sympathy for. It is truly something to show an antagonist in a children’s show who is not completely evil, but who instead shows the depth we’d expect from a well-developed character.
Similarly, another theme that Avatar showcases is the theme of working with one’s enemies in order to achieve a common goal. For example, the line is blurred between enemy and ally when Iroh is clearly seen helping Aang and his friends defeat common enemies like Zhao and Azula. Even though Iroh helps the protagonists defeat Zhao in season one, he accompanies Zuko (the protagonists’ nemesis!) and helps him evade punishment from the Fire Nation, and then he teams up with the protagonists again in season two in order to defeat Azula.
This can be confusing for the viewer because Iroh is helpful to the protagonists in one moment, and then accompanies their enemy in the next moment, only to team up with them again at a later point. This shows that just because someone helps you to defeat a common enemy at one point does not mean they will stay by your side in other moments, which is a complicated idea to make sense of for a show meant for children. Does Iroh truly want to help the protagonists, or does he do what he does out of convenience for himself? These are just some of the questions that viewers probably ponder while watching Iroh switch sides constantly. Overall, Avatar tells us a story of enemies working together in order to achieve a common goal without it being made clear whose side they are truly on, and this is an aspect of the story that adults will appreciate.
In addition, a harsh truth that the show conveys is that sometimes in life, we lose what we once had and never gain it back. One would normally expect a children’s show to present a happily ever after where the hero regains all that he has lost. But in Avatar, even though Aang has lost his entire culture, he never gains it back. Every single Air Nomad has perished at the hands of Fire Lord Sozin’s army, except for Aang himself. He is still a child, but he has lost everything and can never return home to the people who raised him and grew up with him. Instead, he must move on from his past and forge a much different life for himself with his newfound friends.
In this way, The Last Airbender shows that sometimes villains do win at the end of the day, and nothing can reverse what they have done. All that can be done is to move on. Therefore, Avatar conveys the message that sometimes there is no use in fighting to recover what’s been stolen, as there is no way to restore it. I think we can all agree that this is quite a dark theme for a children’s series.
All in all, these are just a few reasons why Avatar: The Last Airbender is more than a kids’ show. Avatar delivers some strange and sometimes harsh truths that children may not pick up on while watching the series. Older viewers, however, will certainly absorb these themes and gain a deeper appreciation for the show as a result.
Featured image via Vanity Fair