A man walks up to a tree inside a walled city. He lights incense for a makeshift memorial and begins to sing softly.
Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home
As the song goes on, the tears flow harder and the sobbing gets louder. With every passing second, it becomes clearer why this means so much. His words, his actions; everything begins to fall into place. He’s learned from his mistakes and is trying to right his wrongs. It’s never too late to do the right thing.
Even after 15 years, that motif, among many others, sticks with anyone who has come across it. That’s the significance of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which returns to Netflix on Friday.
The animated series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, originally ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon. It became so popular that even after its run on television, the show spawned comic books, a spinoff series, an incredible meme, a feature film that society has chosen to collectively forget, and a generation of lifelong fans, myself included.
The world in which the show takes place is segmented into four nations: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. Each corresponds to an element that select people of each nation control through a process known as “bending.” At the start of the series’ timeline, the Fire Nation begins a war to conquer the entire world. Aang is the Avatar and master of all four elements, and it is his duty to bring balance to the world. The problem is that Aang is just 12 years old. Scared by the responsibility, he runs away during a horrible storm and vanishes. A hundred years later, Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe find Aang frozen in an iceberg and decide to help him on his journey to become a fully realized Avatar who saves the world, all while by being chased by Uncle Iroh and Zuko, the Fire Nation prince who is looking to regain his honor after being exiled by his father. (The show explains this in great detail before each episode.) The grouping of Aang, Katara, and Sokka—or Team Avatar—engage in a life-altering adventure.
It’s easy to see why the show endeared itself to so many people in the short time it was on the air. The story, the characters, and the visuals are top shelf. There are few series that reach the heights Avatar reached, and none of them are made for children. In 61 episodes, the series brings incredible heroes, terrifying villains, wild story lines, great music, fun side adventures, and one hell of an ending. It’s essentially perfect.
All those are secondary, however, to the truly most amazing part of A:TLA—its heart. The series could have skated by on great visuals and stellar plot alone, but DiMartino and Konietzko chose pathos as the way to reach their audience. Avatar took hard issues not usually discussed with children like war, genocide, imperialism, and oppression and distilled them into incredibly poignant lessons on friendship, family, and forgiveness.
The idea that family you find means more than the family you are born into doesn’t just belong to The Fast & Furious franchise. In the third (!!!) episode of A:TLA, Aang learns that while he was frozen in the iceberg, every single airbender was murdered in an act of genocide by the Fire Nation. When he sees the remains of his former mentor burned to a crisp, he begins to lose his cool. Everyone he’s ever known, all the connections to his past and present identities are all gone. Aang is all alone, or so he thinks. Katara and Sokka, to a certain extent, know that same feeling of emptiness. Their father has been gone from their home for some time and their mother disappeared when they were both young. Sensing the same desperation and solemn loneliness that they themselves have felt, Katara and Sokka bring Aang into their family and become instrumental in helping him achieve his ultimate destiny.
Their travels span the entire globe: They visit different Water Nation tribes, new Earth Kingdom cities, and even the Fire Nation. The world our heroes exist in is deeply segregated, not only by distance but also by the ideals each nation holds. The people of the Water Tribes are fluid and vibrant. Earth Kingdom citizens are firm and inflexible. The Fire Nation is filled with natives that are spirited and volatile. Despite the enormous differences between each creed, Team Avatar makes connections and sometimes lasting friendships with people from every background: members of the Earth Kingdom, water benders, Fire Nation colonists, you name it. They learn that they have more in common with people from different backgrounds than they realize. Watching the preconceived notions of people crumble before our eyes is an important part of the show and rings true in our everyday lives. The idea that the world doesn’t have to be the segmented and disconnected mess that it is and instead could be a true melting pot of cultures and knowledge is critical.
Nobody is perfect. Sometimes we can get hung up on our failures and feel resigned to the fact that we may be what others say we are, but A:TLA spends a great amount of the series showing us that isn’t the case at all. That’s particularly the case for one character who goes on a personal journey that is unparalleled in all of media. Their transformation encompasses the whole story, with so many moments when it seems like they’ve figured it out, only to hit a snag and be brought back down. Eventually, with time and help, they find their inner strength and pull it all together. It’s an emotional journey from where they start in the series premiere to where they end up in the series finale. Their personal growth throughout the series shows that your destiny isn’t set in stone. Your past mistakes aren’t what define you, it’s the choices you make everyday that determines who you are. Of all the themes and ideas that A:TLA imparts, the belief that you aren’t defined by your past resonates the most. It’s always relevant, no matter when it’s first heard. It’s very easy to pigeonhole ourselves and feel like we are resigned to our fates when bad things keep happening around us, but the series refutes that idea. A:TLA demonstrates that our character isn’t tied to our past, but for what the future holds for us.
Times have changed considerably since the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender aired. Its original fans are more than a decade older, smartphones have made people more interconnected than ever before, and the world has become saturated with content. Despite all that, the impact A:TLA had has not waned. The Last Airbender subreddit has more than half a million members, despite the lack of new content in recent years. People remember every moment, every triumph, every heartache, and every running joke because the series is important. The lessons learned, the tears shed, and the hearts warmed even when just thinking or talking about Avatar are unmatched. It’s the lasting effect of a show that is still bringing people joy and motivation, years after its final episode.
It has been 15 years since people first saw the man sit at the tree and cry through his song and yet, every time they see it, the emotions felt are just the same, as if they are seeing it for the first time. There aren’t many shows that have that effect on its viewers, and that’s why having Avatar: The Last Airbender back on a streaming service is fantastic. It gives original fans the chance to relive the wonderful memories and it allows people who somehow missed its initial run on cable and streaming to dive in and finally understand what makes this show different from any other that came before it. Whether you ship Kataang or Zutara, think Azula was really just misunderstood, or even believe the true hero of the story is the Cabbage Merchant, the ideals and values that Avatar passes on will stick with people forever. It’s great to have the best American animated television series of all time back in our lives.