Today is the best day of my life. It’s the first day in 15 years that I don’t have to go to a weird video-streaming site, click out of all the pornographic ads, and wait for the world’s best show to buffer for 30 minutes before watching it. Today is the day that Avatar: The Last Airbender comes to Netflix.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated series that ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. It tells the story of Aang, a monk child with the unique power to manipulate (“bend”) all of the elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar universe is also divided into “nations” based on these elements, and the genocidal Fire Nation seeks to subdue them all. Aang, the Avatar, is the only person with the ability to restore balance to the world. The problem is, he’s only 12.
Our story starts a century after the Fire Nation first struck: Aang is discovered — preserved in an iceberg — by two teenage siblings, Katara and Sokka, who lost their parents in the interminable war. They make him a part of their family and go on to assist him on his mission.
What follows is one of the greatest storytelling feats in the history of American television. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Avatar is a cartoon; the world is lush and complicated, and many of the plots have strong political resonance. Its story, too, is a human one: The characters are imbued with a kind of complexity that’s closer to a prestige HBO drama than something that aired alongside Invader Zim. To watch them grow over three seasons is a master class in character building — particularly the profound journey of the show’s antagonist, a sexy and tortured Fire Nation prince named Zuko.
And while it has the hallmarks of a kid’s show, Avatar tackles big themes. It’s set in a world on the brink of collapse, where unchecked militarism and greed have caused widespread suffering and chaos. Several episodes follow the plight of refugees, survivors who are looking for safety after being displaced by Fire Nation occupiers. Others look at authoritarianism, with one episode revealing that a city is run by a shadow government of military police, unearthing a disturbing, 1984-esque propaganda campaign. It raises significant questions: about the human cost of imperialism and the dangers of violent nationalism. It also asks small ones, like whether your past defines your future, and what truly constitutes a family.
If you’re revisiting Avatar after a decade, you’ll find that it’s lessons are still relevant — they may even hit harder now than when you were a teenager. And if it’s a first viewing, welcome, I promise you this is a story you won’t regret spending time with.