I have a lot to say about Avatar: The Last Airbender. A children’s show with a lot of adult fans, Avatar dealt with mature themes in surprisingly nuanced ways, featured three-dimensional characters and an increasingly serialized plot structure, and generally did all of the things children’s shows, at least American ones, generally avoid on the assumption that kids are stupid. The show’s unprecedented success is testament to the fact that kids are, in fact, not that stupid, and don’t like to be treated like they are.
One level of complexity that Avatar was never afraid to explore was moral ambiguity, the blurring of the line between good guy and bad guy. Primarily, this was done through the character of Zuko, who starts out Aang’s nemesis and eventually becomes an important ally. Zuko, who appears in every episode, is every bit as much the protagonist of the story as Aang, if not more so, and the way in which the two characters serve as foils for one another is perhaps the most successful aspect of the show’s writing.
It is often said that a good way to find the main character in a work of fiction is to look for the character that changes the most. By that definition, Zuko is unquestionably the main character of Avatar. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, he goes from a somewhat sympathetic villain, to an aimless wanderer, then becomes a much less sympathetic villain before finally joining the heroes.
Zuko doesn’t just realize one day that he’s working for the wrong side – he has to go through a long emotional journey to get to that point. He has to learn that he is capable of thinking for himself and making his own decisions, he has to learn why his father and his country are in the wrong, and then he has to build up the courage to actually do something about it. By the end of the series, he is a completely different person.
Aang, in contrast, struggles to master all four elements and understand his place in the world. In the process, his character undergoes very little permanent change. Often he is given advice by some spirit advisor and ignores it in favor of the morals and values he has stood by since the beginning of the show – for example, the Guru in the Southern Air Temple tells him to let go of earthly connections, meaning his feelings for Katara, and he says no. Aang’s big victory at the end of the series, his refusal to kill Ozai, is again a result of him ignoring his spiritual advisors and sticking to his guns, maintaining the principal of pacifism he has held dear since the beginning of the show.
Ultimately, the most important message of Avatar is that it is our choices, not our destinies, which define us. For Zuko, this is demonstrated by a full two and a half seasons building to the moment where he must make the right choice. For Aang, it is the realization that just because everyone expects him to take the Firelord’s life, that doesn’t mean he has to go against his true nature and do it. And while “violence is not the answer” is a fine message to leave kids with, I think Zuko is ultimately a much better role-model for younger viewers. The message of his story is that no matter where you come from, who your parents were, or how many times you’ve screwed up in the past, it’s never too late to make the right decisions, and that you are ultimately the person who decides what the right thing to do is. And that’s a message a lot of kids need to hear.