The other Avatar

Been continuing to watch the other Avatar–the one with animation and without bioluminescent plants, also known as The Last Airbender–and finished the final season this weekend.

I wouldn’t call it perfect by any means–too many episodes that felt a little like filler (yet always with some crucial detail tucked in that meant I couldn’t quite skip them), along with moments that should be lapses in judgment on the part of the characters, but turn out to work anyway (breaking in and out of prisons, in particular, seems to be remarkably easy for our heroes and impossible for anyone else).

But I loved the characters, and I loved the big-picture arcing and plotting of the thing, and I adored the way most of the series often passed the Bechdel test without breaking a sweat–sometimes passed it during battle scenes, even, because this wasn’t a series in which we were limited to one token kickass girl on stage.

And I especially loved the way this series messed with expectations.

*** Deep spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. ***

The most striking case of this was the end of season 2. Anyone who’d been reading/watching stories for a while knew how season 2 was supposed to end. The season 1 villain, Zuko, spent most of season 2 on the run, getting his butt (and his pride) kicked, and was slowly coming around to realizing his people and his nation–the Fire Nation–were doing real harm and that he needed to join the good guys on their quest. (The good guys needed him, too, though they didn’t realize it yet–Fire was of the four elemental magics our hero, Aang, needed to learn to control, and pretty much everyone who controlled it was their enemy.)

So we come to the final climactic scenes, the grand battle in which Zuko–who’s been hunted by the Fire Nation himself this season–is supposed to turn around and save the day and our heroes in the final hour. His sister, Azula, offers him the final temptation: join me, and you can come home, and have your honor back, and all will be well.

And Zuko … decides this sounds pretty good. He turns on our heroes, the entire earth kingdom they were trying to save falls, Aang is nearly killed by a lightning-wielding Azula, and our heroes leave on the run while fire nation troops march in. Meanwhile Zuko returns home, and is welcomed by the father who banished him, and … gets everything he ever wanted, pretty much.

It will all go bad later, of course. But for now, Zuko’s story, rather than Aang’s, has had its happy ending, and the audience stares, stunned, as our wounded, beaten heroes run for their lives and the curtain drops.

Once I managed to get my jaw up off the floor, I loved this.

The other playing with expectation I adored arced through to the end of the third season. One of the very first characters we meet, Katara of the water nation (whose story I thought this was, until near the end, nearly as much as Aang’s), loses the necklace her fire-nation murdered mother gave her early on, Zuko finds it, they clash a few times over season 1, and the audience–or me, anyway–thinks they’ve figured out what must come: romance! Fire and water, hating each other, clashing, falling in love in spite of themselves. I felt clever for having figured this out, was even kind of looking forward to watching it.

But no. Katara and Zuko have their conflicts, but in the end they’re friendship-based conflicts, and in the end I was glad–because instead they both pair off with people they actually instinctively get along with, have things in common with–people who are not their opposites, but in some way like them. So Zuko hooks up with goth-girl Mai, whose bored cynicism complements his moody angst (“I don’t hate you.” “I don’t hate you, too.”) And optimistic, able-to-hold-our-heroes-together-when-no-on-else-can Katara hooks up with idealist Aang, though it takes getting through the war before she can really contemplate it. (Along the way Katara’s cheerfully goofy warrior brother hooks up with an also-cheerful kickass warrior woman.)

We talk about opposites attracting, but in the real world, in my experience at least, it’s having at least some common ground that’s the basis of real relationships, whether or not there’s are differences mixed in amid that. Stories don’t often recognize this–the sorts of relationships in which sparks constantly fly lend conflict to stories, after all–so I loved that this series did recognize it, and avoided a sort of cliche-relationship that it would have been easy to include. Conflict isn’t true love, after all–it’s just conflict, and as such needs to be dealt with and resolved.

Common ground is the stuff of true love. In searching for true love, we should look for those who are at least a little bit like us–who get us. Yes.

A fun series–it does well many things I like seeing done well, has lots more going on than one at first expects, and is satisfying in the end.

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