By: Madeline Ashby
March 4, 2021

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite animated TV series.



It’s hard to pick out what I love most about Avatar: The Last Airbender. Is it the stunning animation, which brought the sophistication, style, and grace to American animated series that had been sorely lacking since Paul Dini’s iconic noir-infected Batman show? Is it the action, which remains propulsive and breath-taking to this day, especially in the era of endless, incomprehensible Marvel battles royale made for too-dim 3D screens? Is it the worldbuilding, which in most respects takes the “novum” of element-bending powers to their logical conclusion, turning earth-bending abilities into metro transit projects and water-bending prowess into the lethal art of bloodbending? Is it simply the character work, wherein the people we come to know and love are given room to breathe and grow and change and break our hearts again and again?

It’s all these things. It’s more.

If I were to recommend the series to someone coming in cold, what I would say is that ATLA contains within it most every lesson that beginning storytellers need to learn. The story goes like this:

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang, and although his airbending skills are great, he still has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know about the premise. Imagine the Gospels as narrated by Mary Magdalene, with kung-fu. If that doesn’t excite you, well, you might want to ask yourself why you have difficulty accessing and allowing experiences of joy.

But what you really need to know about the show is that it’s a crash course in good dramatic storytelling in a visual medium. Being animated, ATLA sits squarely at the intersection of television, cinema, representational and sequential art. It employs techniques from all these media to tell a story that is narratively solid down to its foundations. Any drama is only as good as its script, and the scripts are beyond good: empires can rise and fall in the span of 22 minutes; a years-long shift in identity can crystallize in a single bolt of lightning.

Visually, the series carefully matches imagery to character development, and binds characters through subtle visual cues. Aang’s introduction positions him in a fetal cocoon of ice that shatters into a pillar of fire visible for miles, a harbinger of the tension between vulnerability and power he will carry throughout the series. Nominal villain Zuko, who has hunted the Avatar for three years, arrives on the scene in a huge and imposing Fire Nation cruiser in the series’ pilot episode, but floats away from the events of the first season finale on a mere raft of sticks. In the second season, Zuko’s Fire Nation armour is stripped away and his hair shorn in shame grows out; when it’s Aang who’s grievously wounded, his hair grows out in the same colour. When Aang takes a bolt of lightning from Azula it leaves a scar; when Zuko takes the same attack from his sister, it leaves a scar in the same place, as though the bolt shot through them both.

But even if it were a radio drama free of any visual information, ATLA would remain a strong story with lessons for how to spin a yarn with clear stakes, meaningful consequences (with one glaring exception in its finale), and escalating antagonists. Like other genre touchstones Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Farscape, ATLA is wise enough to know that there is always a bigger bad. The villains grow in fiendishness as the characters grow in maturity. It’s a series that never takes its young audience for fools, instead trusting that children are bright enough to understand that every villain comes from somewhere: from broken families or broken systems, from places where selfishness is rewarded and compassion punished. If melodrama is good versus evil and drama good versus good, then this series is never better than when it pits villains against each other, revealing the thousand ways one person can harm another through petty disregard or howling avarice or pure, unalloyed hate. It positions violence as both personal and systemic. It’s brutally honest about the costs of redemption. While the Avatar himself encourages peace and balance, the series never tells victims to forgive their tormentors at cost to themselves. It suggests that the ultimate act of healing might be nothing less than walking away from everything you’ve ever known.

The story is at once heavy as an avalanche and light as a breeze. It is as cold as the sea and as warm as a single, hopeful flame in the dark. It is all the elements of storytelling, from character to setting to plot to rhythm and melody, in balance with one another. It is one story, and a thousand stories. It’s an echo of every story you’ve heard and the promise of a new one to be born.


FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: SERIES INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Miranda Mellis on STEVEN UNIVERSE | Luc Sante on TOP CAT | Peggy Nelson on PINK PANTHER | Charlie Mitchell on COWBOY BEBOP | Mimi Lipson on THE FLINTSTONES | Sam Glenn on BIG MOUTH | Mandy Keifetz on ROAD RUNNER | Ramona Lyons on SHE-RA | Holly Interlandi on DRAGON BALL Z | Max Glenn on ADVENTURE TIME | Joe Alterio on REN & STIMPY | Josh Glenn on SPEED RACER | Adam McGovern on KIMBA THE WHITE LION | Jonathan Pinchera on SAMURAI JACK | Lynn Peril on JONNY QUEST | Stephanie Burt on X-MEN THE ANIMATED SERIES and X-MEN: EVOLUTION | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on THE JETSONS | Adam Netburn on NARUTO | Madeline Ashby on AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER | Tom Nealon on TRANSFORMERS | Sara Ryan on BOJACK HORSEMAN | Michael Grasso on COSMIC CLOCK | Erin M. Routson on BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD | Deborah Wassertzug on DARIA | Lydia Millet on BOB’S BURGERS.




Cartoons, Enthusiasms