The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra Break Boundaries: The Top Five Most Thought Provoking Moments in the Avatar Universe
When we think of children’s shows in America, often time’s images of bright anthropomorphic cartoon animals, large quantities of campy bliss, and simple, but entertaining, content often come to mind. While Avatar the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra have their fair share of all three of those ubiquitous cartoon qualities, they evolve past the simple images, music, and themes in traditional American cartons and grow to become a truly impactful, thoughtful, critical, and subversive piece of work. How does it do this? Well simply put, both Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra treat their children and teen based audience with respect and pushes them to understand large concepts of equality, grief, pacifism, anarchy, order, spiritualism, justice, peace, marginalization, queerness, and much much more. In this list we will count down the top five most thought provoking moments in which Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra broke the mold for children’s shows and challenged its audience to think.
(In this list, I wanted to separate the ideas of thought provoking and subversive. Generally, I wanted to focus more on intellectual stimulation, and less social subversion and social justice. While this is an important topic, that is another list we must compile!)
5. Wu Shi Tong’s Library
Avatar the Last Airbender, Book 2 (Earth); Episode 10 – The Library
“You think you’re the first person to believe their war was justified? Countless others have come here seeking weapons or weaknesses or battle strategies”
– Wu Shi Tong
During this mid-season episode, Katara, Sokka, and Aang set off into an ancient spirit Library to discover knowledge that can help them defeat the fire nation. However, during the latter half of this episode, the keeper of the Library, a spirit known as Wu Shi Tong, attempts to prevent the group from leaving the expansive collection of books and scrolls with knowledge of an eclipse which could help the group defeat the Fire Nation. With Wu Shi Tong’s words, he challenged the notion that the war that the Avatar was fighting was morally right or justified. He challenges the audience to think about war itself and asks the audience to confront topics about peace, justice, politics, and morality in a way no children’s show had done before. This line from Wu Shi Tong pushes the audience to think critically about the show’s central conflict and asks the Avatar to consider his own morals and methods. This theme would continue to grow and run throughout the rest of the original Avatar series.
4. Toph and Katara’s Day Off
Avatar the Last Airbender, Book 2 (Earth); Episode 15 – Tales of Ba Sing Se
“One of the good things about being blind is that I don’t have to waste my time worrying about appearances. I don’t care what I look like. I am not looking for anyone’s approval. I know who I am”
– Toph Beifong
In this episode, we see Toph and Katara go to the spa for a relaxing day off. We see as they are leaving, a group of girls start making fun of Toph’s appearance. In this scene we see not only a character deal with issues of bullying and self-esteem, but the intersection of disability and societal expectations of feminine beauty. This seen employs the audience to think about beauty and self-esteem in an organic and thoughtful way that develops the characters into well rounded people that face common problems just like every other child. Not only does this scene send out positive messages about self-esteem and self-image, it represents disability in a show in a way that has largely not been done in any mainstream American television.
3. Toph’s Idea of Balance
Legend of Korra, Book 4 (Balance); Episode 4 – The Calling
“What did Amon want? Equality for all. Unalaq? He brought back the spirits, and Zaheer believed in freedom…the problem with those guys is that they were totally out of balance and took their ideologies too far”
In this scene, we see Toph and Korra discuss the idea of balance, a central theme of the Legend of Korra. This scene asks the audience to critically examine its villains in a way that considers not only their actions, but their motivations. The show prompts the audience to understand its plot in a thoughtful way that seeks to learn and grow from past experiences. This scene employs its audience to use introspection to grow and come to a better understanding of how to use balance to become a more effective, grounded, and thoughtful person. Furthermore, this scene emphasizes the idea of balance as method to view past experiences in order to move forward from trauma and depression. This kind of critical examination is rare in T.V. in general, but especially uncommon in a children’s program.
2. Korra’s New Path
“I’ve realized that even though we should learn from those who came before us, we must also forge our own path”
- Avatar Korra
Legend of Korra, Book 2 (Spirits); Episode 13 – Light in the Dark
During this last scene in Book 2 Korra elaborates on the need to both learn from the past, and grow towards a distinct future which is actively and thoughtfully crafted. This theme is reflected throughout much of book 2 and employs its audience to think of history through a critical lens. Rarely do we see children’s show approach the past in such a critical way. Korra’s new outlook on past Avatar’s, and her literal separation from her past lives, sends the clear message that the future is not just a continuation of the past, but a critical evolution of it.
1. Avatar Aang’s Pacifism and Conflict
Avatar the Last Airbender, Book 3 (Fire); Finale – Sozin’s Comet
“The true mind can weather all the lies and illusions without being lost, the true heart can tough the posion of hatred without being harmed.”
- Lion Turtle
In the finale of Avatar the Last Airbender, Aang is forced to confront the conflict between one of his fundamental principles (pacifism) and his duty to the world. This thematic conflict would eventually end in Aang using his perseverance and conviction to find another way to defeat the Fire Lord. This scene challenges the audience to critically understand what is important and when to stand strong on their belief’s and morals. The dilemma of killing the Fire Lord still presents the Avatar audience with critical questions around compromise, morality, conviction, and justice that resonate with all people. These are hard questions that often have no right answers. Avatar doesn’t look down on its audiences but rather presents this complex moral dilemma to enrich the story and prompt the audience to think about conviction, right, and wrong.