There’s a joke buzzing around social media that claims Avatar: The Last Airbender plays the same role for Gen-Z and younger millennials as the Harry Potter franchise did for its corresponding generation. There’s some truth to it.
In an era of increasing media fragmentation and personalized algorithms, it’s rare to witness a cultural phenomenon that captures the attention of so many people like ATLA did. The ability to share references, discuss favorite episodes, react to the announcement of Netflix’s upcoming live-action series and admire Prince Zuko’s remarkable redemption arc creates a wonderful sense of community. It serves as a reminder of the power of pop culture to unite people from all around the world around a common interest.
This sense of community was very evident here amongst our writers. This is especially so because, for many, this was the first show that didn’t patronize its young audience and successfully conveyed the complexities of authoritarianism and war while also reminding us of the transformative role of hope, friendship, and kindness in shaping the world.
In our Slack channel, one of our writers asked: Which scene made people realize, for the first time, why they connected so deeply with the show? We’ve compiled a list of the moments our writers fell in love with ATLA to celebrate the 15 year anniversary of the shows finale.
Aang and Zuko’s road to friendship
Aang and Zuko are foils right from the beginning of ATLA. In order to restore his honor in the Fire Nation, Zuko’s main priority throughout the first part of ATLA is to capture Aang.
Naturally, the two cross paths often during their cat-and-mouse game, but eventually, Zuko joins the Gaang in Season 3. The show plants early seeds for Zuko’s turn to the good side, adding nuance to Aang and Zuko’s foils.
“’The Storm’ is when I realized how good this show actually was. That episode presented a well-told parallel narrative of Aang and Zuko, and how they came to be as we see them in Season 1. There’s also the moment at the end of “The Blue Spirit” when Aang tells Zuko ‘We could have been friends’ that stood out to me when I first watched it. That friendship potential was there from the beginning.” [Katey Stoetzel, TV Editor]
Aang’s love of animals
Throughout ATLA, Aang shows a propensity for loving animals with the child-like glee of the 12-year-old that he is. Of course, he has his flying bison companion Appa, who is more to Aang than just a way to travel the world. While Aang is the last of the airbenders, Appa is the last flying bison, and together they represent what’s left of their home. When Appa gets kidnapped in Season 2, Aang’s response is full of grief and anger that’s hard to look away from. On his journey to get Appa back, Aang connects with all of the captured animals in Ba Sing Se and frees them all in “Tales of Ba Sing Se.”
But even before we really knew him, Aang showed us early on his love for animals in the first episode. “[The moment I loved the show] is the otter penguin slide in Episode 1. That scene was giving Miyazaki. It was so magical.” [Phylecia Miller, Staff Writer]
The mythology of the Avatar
Throughout the show, the audience learns about the role of Avatar right alongside Aang. Aang was early in his Avatar training when he ran away so there are many things he has to learn—aside from the three other elements—in order to fulfill his role as the Avatar. One character that helped along the way was Avatar Roku, Aang’s connection to his past lives. The first time we meet Avatar Roku in early Season 1, his wisdom and presence is a sight to behold.
“For me, it was the conversation between Aang and Roku in ‘Winter Solstice Part 2.’ Roku tells Aang about the impending comet and what he’ll have to do to save the world. He concludes by warning Aang about the danger lurking outside the temple. Roku offers his help if Aang is ready, and Aang responds by entering the Avatar State and confidently saying, ‘I’m ready.'” [Tyler Carlsen, Staff Writer]
The first fire benders
Late into the show, Aang learns about the first firebenders. Even though Zuko is teaching Aang firebending, more training is needed for the both of them in order to defeat the Fire Lord. They make their way to the original source of firebending to learn from the firebending masters in Season 3, Episode 13, “The Firebending Masters.”
“One scene that stood out to me is when Zuko and Aang perform the Dragon Dance. The animation in that moment is simply breathtaking and made me realize that, even as a child, this show operated on a different level.” [Pedro Graterol, TV/Film News Editor]
The first showdown
After a long journey of side quests and lore building, Season 1 culminates in an epic battle between the Northern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation’s navy. Zuko and Iroh operate in a third party capacity while Aang visits the Spirit Realm and comes up against Koh, the face-stealing spirit. It’s an action-filled two-part finale that truly showed what Avatar: The Last Airbender could do.
“I’ve been watching this show since its premiere on Nick, and one childhood memory that truly stands out is watching the Season 1 finale with my siblings. It was truly epic. We had no idea that television could be that impactful.” [Linda Maleh, Staff Writer]
Zuko and Iroh
One of the best relationships on the show is the one between Zuko and his uncle, Iroh. Zuko begins the show as a one-track minded angry teenager, trying to earn the honor he believes he needs to regain standing in the Fire Nation and with his father. Iroh is Zuko’s confidant in that endeavor, but as the show goes on, Iroh’s real role becomes apparent. He doesn’t care about Zuko restoring his honor in the Fire Nation, only that Zuko makes the right decision for himself. He also sees Zuko as his own son, so when the two clash about ideals, and eventually part ways, it’s a heartbreaking arc to watch unfold.
“I have so many favorite moments, but one that always sticks out and captures the heart of the series is when Iroh and Zuko reunite after Zuko’s betrayal. The small, sweet scene exemplifies the show’s compassion while highlighting the characters’ capacity for change.” [Ally Johnson, Editor-in-Chief]
Featured images and videos courtesy of Nickelodeon