The parallels of ATLA

Photo by Blake Israel

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008 and was recently relaunched on Netflix in 2020. The animated series will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite childhood show and seems to endure despite its existence as a children’s cartoon.

While my seven-year-old mind could barely comprehend the deeper themes of the show, I loved it for exactly what it was – a cartoon about the adventures of Aang and his friends.

I quickly latched on to the show for its endearing characters, witty humor, and well-written episodic narratives, none of which I was explicitly aware of at the age of seven.

After rewatching the show recently, I now understand that much more lay beneath the surface of my favorite childhood cartoon. All of my favorite aspects remained just as they were, yet the story became more powerful and the struggles of the characters became more realistic.

My attention was no longer on the entertaining cast of characters, but the deeper problems each episode focused on. The innocent cartoon of my childhood was ripe with political corruption, genocide, abuse, and systemic injustice, yet the series made these topics digestible for children and adults alike.

I found myself staring at a screen and seeing our world inside it, the characters facing what we ourselves face today. The rise in popularity of “Avatar” was initially sparked by a wave of nostalgia, but the show evolved into a reflection on the parallels between the fantasy world and our own.

Aang’s story shows the horrors of warfare, imperialism, and oppression, while his personal trials teach viewers the importance of acceptance, responsibility, and adaptability. Rather than a form of escapism, “Avatar” provided viewers with a fresh perspective and a reminder that problems cannot be solved without a call for action and change.

“Avatar” also provides viewers with another point of view – one that comes from the fact that the show draws its inspiration from cultures across Asia.

This feature, while striking considering the predominantly western themes and settings in most children’s shows today, has always been one of my favorite parts of the series. The contrast in culture, design, narrative, and setting made “Avatar” different from other cartoons, and this uniqueness added Asian representation that is not often seen in western media.

The show was truly bold when it came to political, social, and cultural themes. While the series was upfront about difficult topics, each scene left viewers with a sense of reassurance and hope.

When the series finale aired in 2008, around 5.6 million viewers, including myself, tuned in to see Aang fulfill his destiny and restore balance to the world.

Nevertheless, the compelling story endures as new viewers join Aang once more on his journey. I suspect that “Avatar” will remain a popular animated series for years to come.