What Keeps Me Calm: Rewatching ‘Avatar, The Last Airbender’
Finding comfort in the time of a pandemic is harder said than done, trapped at home while the world is essentially at war with itself. It’s easy to feel small and helpless. I personally found comfort in immersing myself in this children’s show from 2005
Welcome to What Keeps Me Calm, a series of movies, television shows, albums, books, and other works of media that are comforting us during these incredibly stressful times. On particularly sad and disheartening days, there’s nothing better and more consoling than to turn to our favorite things to read, watch, and listen, as these offer a respite from the hardships we face collectively and individually.
If you’re like me, and you spent your grade school days defining your personality based on your Hogwarts house, Olympian parent, and what kind of bender you were, congratulations! You’re probably going through a quarter-life crisis. But, more importantly, you probably leapt at the chance to rewatch your childhood favorite, Avatar: The Last Airbender when it became available on Netflix. (We’re not alone—it was the most-watched show on the platform in the first week of its release.) If you’re not like me, and you didn’t grow up watching it, then I’m telling you that now is the perfect time to do so, with all three seasons primed for bingeing and a world that’s falling apart around us. To you I say, welcome.
Ever since I watched the series finale back in 2008, Avatar has been one of my favorite shows, but I hadn’t revisited it in some time. It was almost like a pristine memory I didn’t want to touch or taint, something I took for granted as a “favorite” but faded over time. There’s always a fear that the pieces of media you hold dear are only as good as the nostalgia they bring. That’s not the case with Avatar; though the nostalgia definitely plays a part. The show holds up as an all-around marvel and, I will venture to say, will go down in history as a timeless classic. I could talk your ear off about its technical merits—its masterful world-building, intricate story-telling, beautiful animation, and inspiring dialogue—but I’m sure there are hundreds of articles about that already. What this is really about is how rewatching this show from my childhood gave me comfort, joy, and hope in the time after the coronavirus radically changed our lives for the time being.
Essentially, Avatar is a show about a group of kids who take it upon themselves to solve the root of the world’s injustices—some out of duty, and some purely out of their desire to see hope in the world. I remember watching it being as early as 10 years of age, being captivated chiefly by the action, plot, and romance of it all. It was an exciting, high-stakes adventure story. The experience of rewatching it as a 24 year old in quarantine, in the midst of a pandemic, and a hundred and one other societal injustices just... hit different. In search of comfort and companionship, what I latched onto were the characters, each individually flawed, complex, and as real as my own friends. In my rewatch, I grew to love them as I watched them sort through their issues and grow into their own people in a world that, most of the time, was against them. Consider this my love letter to Team Avatar, the true MVPs of my quarantine.
I’ll start with the titular character, Aang. This is a character all about balance, though filled with so many contradictions just the same. An old soul in a young body, wise beyond his years and as childish as they come. He will do whatever it takes to make sure everyone around him is happy, so it’s difficult for him to accept that along the way to harmony, some people get left behind. As the avatar, he arguably has the biggest responsibility, but he’s also just a normal 12-year-old boy. It’s in those moments that make me love him—where all he wants to do is go penguin sledding, show off his air marble trick, or make stupid jokes. I never related to him more than when he selfishly hid the note from Katara and Sokka’s father so they’d stay with him. At the core, he’s just a little boy who wants to be with his friends. So when you do see him making difficult choices—choosing to forgive, making compromises, and facing his demons—you know the strength that must have taken. What makes Aang so lovable is that he chooses to see the good in people, and in the world, despite all signs pointing in the opposite direction. We all wish we could be so strong.
Every group has a designated ‘mom friend’ and this group has Katara. If Aang’s a Hufflepuff, she’s definitely a feisty Gryffindor. Despite having a reputation for being calm and serene, I realize she’s actually the most fiery and passionate of the bunch. She wants what she wants and won’t let anyone stop her, sometimes to her own detriment. In Katara I saw an incredible power over her own life. Even more than Aang, she’s on the journey because she chooses every day to be there. It’s Katara who isn’t afraid to use her voice to speak for the people. We saw this with Haru and the earth benders, and then again when she was the Painted Lady. She’s almost unfazed by the difficulties that come along their way because she believes in her friends and what she is fighting for.
Toph plays a crucial role in everyone’s story, not in the least Aang’s. She provides the gift of perspective. Toph quite literally sees the world in a way only she can, a way no one ever thought to try. It’s because of this that they begin to expand their world view throughout the series, solving problems from all sides. It was only she who considered allowing Zuko into the group even after everything he’d done, because she could see what everyone else couldn’t. She’s so unapologetically herself, stubborn and unyielding as she is. This confidence and self-love are the reasons she was able to grow fully into her abilities and stretch the limits of her powers. We could all learn a thing or two from that!
Whether you’ve seen the show or not, chances are you’ve already heard of Zuko’s legendary redemption arc. I believe the reason he was so successful all boils down to his perseverance. He is someone who literally never gave up. Backing down was never an option even when he only had one person in the entire world on his side: His uncle in season two. More than that, he is extremely competent and capable. Any time that his plans failed in the entire series, it was only because he had no allies and the odds were constantly stacked against him. Once he figured out that the problem wasn’t him, but where he placed himself, he began to find his path. If he were one to give up, he’d have been paralyzed by self-pity. But instead of doing that, he found a new objective and went after it. It wasn’t raw power (ehem, Azula), but perseverance and discipline that kept him going. If I could choose anyone to be on my side in a fight, it’d be Zuko.
Lastly, let’s talk about Sokka. This is about what gave me comfort, so I’ve saved my favorite for last. Everyone knows Sokka for being the show’s comic relief and granted, he fits that role just fine. But let’s not overlook his naturally self-sacrificing nature. This is a guy who very seriously committed himself to protect his entire village as a young boy. He’s also the best at making do with what little he has. Despite being the only non-bender in the group, he’s not afraid to fight alongside them, and often comes up with the plans that end up saving the day. He makes a show out of complaining a lot throughout the series—about being hungry, not being appreciated enough, and constantly getting the short end of the stick. (I mean, his first girlfriend turned into the moon! That’s rough, buddy.)
But despite it all, he never stops enduring whatever is thrown at him. When Aang tells him to clean up after Appa, he’ll indulge in a theatrical “why me” moment, but do it anyway. You can tell he secretly doesn’t mind the suffering, as long as his friends and loved ones don’t have to do it. That’s what makes him such a good leader. There’s nothing he won’t do to keep those around him safe, to protect them from hardship. Aang will find compromise but Sokka will endure. In the episode with the fortune teller, he’s told he will live a life of misery. In a sense, it comes true, because he’s always ready to accept the worst that comes to him. All this along with a natural talent for puns? A disposition towards life we all wish we had.
Rewatching the show was a welcome group hug, a reunion with old friends. I honestly can’t think of anything that’s brought a purer smile to my face in the past three months. Finding comfort in the time of a pandemic is harder said than done, trapped at home while the world is essentially at war with itself. (But hey, there’s now war in Ba Sing Se, right?) It’s easy to feel small and helpless. I found comfort in immersing myself in this children’s show from 2005, where young people are faced with adversity, discrimination, violence, and isolation. Where each person discovers and grows into their own power against these forces. They make mistakes but they don’t give up. Isn’t that something we all need to see more of in dark times like that our own? If that inspires you to go out there and make your voice heard against our seemingly hopeless situation, that’s amazing. But if all it does is bring you a small piece of comfort amidst so much hurt, that’s enough, too.
Check out last week’s edition of What Keeps Me Calm, featuring The Midnight Gospel. What Keeps Me Calm is published every Friday.
Photos from IMdB