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Why ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Was the Unsung Hero of 2020

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In the epic intro sequence for Avatar: The Last Airbender, our gal Katara (voiced by the wonderful Mae Whitman) says that she believes Aang (Dee Bradley Baker), the titular “Last Airbender,” has the power to save the world. And it seems she was right. Because about 15 years after Avatar first aired on Nickelodeon, the animated series had a major resurgence when all three seasons hit Netflix in May of this year, thus reaffirming out wills to live in this hellscape of a year that has been inundated by a pandemic, a contentious U.S. Presidential election, murder hornets, and more. Since Aang really did save the world this year, it’s only right that we show the guy (and all his crew) the love he deserves.

If you haven’t seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, first of all, just do it, ASAP. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, this is a show that can deliver both joy and emotional resonance to pretty much anyone. While many of my friends and I got into (re)watching it this year because we’d seen it in our childhoods during its initial run on Nick, you don’t need any prior experience or nostalgic ties to feel a connection to this show. Sure, on the surface, this seems like a kid’s show, but a rewatch confirmed that the show touches on some serious themes that are best understood by an older audience.

Avatar revolves around Aang, who was born the next Avatar, AKA the one person in their world who can wield and control all four elements: air, earth, wind, and fire. However, the responsibilities of being the Avatar terrified Aang to the point where he fled his airbending community — something I’m sure we wish we could all do this year — and shortly after got caught in a storm while traveling over water on his EPIC flying bison, Appa, which ended up getting them both frozen in ice. Shortly after, Fire Lord Sozin starts a world war while trying to expand his nation’s empire and ends up taking advantage of the Avatar’s absence by carrying out a genocide that wiped out every single airbender except for Aang. You know, just regular kid’s cartoon show stuff. 100 years after all of this went down, Norther Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka discover Aang and Appa’s frozen bodies, break ’em out, and boom, there begins the story of three young teens, their flying bison, and winged lemur (a big-eyed and curious lil fella named Momo) who set out to help Aang master all four elements and save their world from the Fire Nation’s tyranny.

Appa in Avatar: The Last Airbender
Photo: Nickelodeon

Now that you’ve got the gist of the show, let’s chat about how it was one of the biggest saviors of this whole year. I know that time has been almost an imaginary construct since COVID-19 started, as it is about just as hard to remember what we did a day ago as it is what we did several months ago, but just try your best to remember where you were in April and how you felt. April was when we all started realizing, “Oh no, this pandemic is going to last a lot longer than we thought, huh,” and that cold slap of reality had us all hitting our low points. But then everything changed when Avatar hit Netflix in May. For some, it offered nostalgia; for others, a complete escape from our crazy reality, and so much more. It also offered an escape from the loneliness of the pandemic, since the show is short and bingeable, it is easy to watch at the same time as friends. Anyway, whatever it did for people, it was clearly an instant hit all over again, breaking Netflix records for shows with the longest tenure in their daily Top 10, hitting 60 consecutive days, to put it on top of even Netflix Originals like Ozark.

This show has pretty much everything: lovable characters, hateable characters, characters who seem hateable but are actually misunderstood and who you grow to love and root for anyway, funny and wise old guys (WE LOVE YOU UNCLE IROH), characters who aren’t defined by their disabilities (Toph and Teo are especially badass and amazing), lots of laughs, plenty of pain, excellent animation, an impeccable and gripping story, rich and well-researched Asian influences and roots, and so much more. Avatar asks its viewers to step into this incredible world so different from our own, but which pulls you in and immerses you, thanks to the top-notch writing and character work. Every single episode with Avatar is one spent with your friends Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, maybe even (or especially?) Zuko and the rest of the gang, and that may be enough to abate the inherent loneliness that comes with living through a pandemic, even if only for a little while.

avatar the last airbender
© Nickelodeon / Courtesy: Everett Collection

So, thank you Avatar: The Last Airbender for whisking us away to a world far from here and for all of the laughs, tears, and lessons you shared with us while we were there.  Let us all mount our flying bisons, say “Yip Yip!” and fly off into 2021 carrying the spirit of the Avatar with us along the way.
Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix

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