Avatar Aang and the Vitality of Joy

by thethreepennyguignol

Okay, so I know that I’m significantly late to this. And I know that I’ve been talking an improbable amount about projects that Dave Filoni has worked on in the last few days. But I’m ready, it’s here, it’s time: it’s the Avatar: The Last Airbender article-post-meridian.

I finally watched the iconic Nickelodeon show for the first time over the course of this lockdown over the last few months, and bloody hell, it’s – it’s really as good as everyone says it is, basically. The character work is brilliant, the fantasy setting (and I say this as someone who has little time for that genre) is gorgeous, the stories are inventive and manage to balance that Clone Wars ratio of being suitably family-friendly without coming across as insipid or too clean-cut.

But this would be a rather pointless article if all I did was talk about how great this show is and how much it deserves a few seasons of your time – if you exist anywhere near the world of pop culture, you’ve already been told that a hundred times over, and you don’t need to hear it again. No, I want to talk about one person in particular, and that is Aang.

The Last Airbender of the title, Aang emerges into the show as a twelve-year-old boy, frozen in ice for a century, holder of the title of Avatar – and therefore, pretty much the most important person in the entire world. And let me tell you, Aang is one of my favourite leading characters in recent televisual memory – because he’s actually a nice guy.

And not a Nice Guy, with a fedora-tip and a slightly creepy grin; no, Aang is just a damn decent human being(/conduit for ancient Avatar powers, but you know). I’ve watched so many shows, set in worlds as bleak of that as ATLA – after all, when we open the series, we’re in the middle of a decades-long war, a war that has claimed the lives of families and ruined the societies of the people we’re following. In any other show, it would be downright easy – obvious, even – to create a leading character emotionally bloodied by the stress of the war, brooding, dark. You know the type.

But ATLA rejects that, completely. Aang, across the entire three seasons of the show, is a character committed to the importance of joy as a weapon against the drudgery and destruction of war. Aang is an optimist, fundamentally, a character who seeks self-expression through what he enjoys most – dance, music, food, sharing his skills and his passions with the found family he loves. He’s still a kid and he still acts like it, in a lot of ways – in those hopeful ways, the ways that mark him as an optimist, the ways that so many of the children who have grown up in the war have been denied.

Much of the show at large is built around this idea of returning childhood to the kids who have been stripped of it, and Aang is at the centre of that idea. Not just because he’s the one who’s meant to bring the war to an end, but because he’s someone who has escaped the adultifying impacts of the conflict. He’s a beam of light in the middle of the show, one that feels like a distinctly authentic and consistent reminder of what matters most in the world of ATLA – love, joy, and creating a world where the dissemination of those things is a necessity, not a luxury.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Aang in the middle of it all, are intent on reminding their audience that the point of war and conflict is not to win, to grittily emerge from the battlefield covered in blood but victorious. It’s restoring a world that has space for celebration and happiness as a standard. And, right now, I think that’s a message we all need to hear.

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(header image via Medium)