Out of the many children’s shows out there, none of them can compete with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Not only is it hilarious, but explores mature topics in a nuanced manner. From classism to environmental conservation, the show allows viewers to reflect on the value of not only peace but forgiveness and pacifism. Today, I wish to touch upon how the show’s handling of trauma and loss reflects these themes, and what the viewer learns from it.
Our protagonist, Aang, is the titular “Avatar” and “last airbender”. His character at the beginning of the show is what one would expect of a 12-year-old: fun-loving, somewhat naive, and adventurous with a sense of humor. He possesses a deep respect for life and freedom, refused to eat meat, and often reluctant to fight.
Within this carefree exterior, however, Aang hides a great deal of guilt surrounding the loss of his people. He also carries a heavy mental burden surrounding his duties as Avatar. We witness this many times throughout the show, but a particular moment I wish to put focus on is in Season 1, Episode 3: The Southern Air Temple. In this episode, Katara, Sokka, and Aang all travel to the temple where the air nomads raised Aang. Though Sokka and Katara are aware of what happened there, Aang is not. When he storms into a hidden room to unexpectedly find skeletons of not only his people, but friend and mentor, Monk Gyatso, he is devastated to learn the truth.
Aang explodes into the “Avatar State” but is calmed by Katara. The trauma of this moment haunts him throughout the show. He uses this to assert himself as the Avatar to solve every and any problem he can.
According to his sister Katara, Sokka was initially skeptical, abrasive, sexist and immature, and always sharp-witted. Patriotic and long to hold a grudge, he strongly desired and eventually meted out vengeance for the Fire Nation’s decimation of the Water Tribe and the death of his mother. He held little interest in the mysticism surrounding bending and preferred to solve problems using his strength and his wits. He tended to be rash, however, and his pride often led to embarrassment. When Sokka was humiliated, his versatility made for a heartfelt apology and changing of his ways. A good example of this was when he apologized to Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors for saying that boys were better than girls
However, before his development, we see his doubt slip through in the trauma of losing his father, mother, and overall lack of a male role-model.
Katara has a warm, compassionate, and caring personality and often acts as a motherly figure to the group. She displayed deep affection for those she traveled with and was fiercely protective whenever danger threatened their safety. Her inner strength kept Aang and their friends together through their most difficult experiences, even in the absence of parental figures. While the team traveled through the Si Wong Desert, she was able to hold the group together in their most desperate moments.
Her motherly attitude is shaped by her past trauma of witnessing Fire Nation soldiers killing her mother. According to Sokka, she largely prevented their family from falling apart. She took on many responsibilities to fill the void left by their mother, so much that he pictured her in place of their mother.
Invited to a war meeting by his uncle, the young prince was instructed not to speak. However, when one general outlined a plan to sacrifice an entire division of new recruits in a diversionary maneuver, Zuko fiercely spoke out against the general’s suggestion. He saw it as a betrayal of the recruits’ patriotism. The insubordinate outburst, seen as a grave insult, made Fire Lord Ozai (and Zuko’s dad) demand the prince participate in an Agni Kai (a fire duel). He agreed, unaware that it was his father, and not the general, whom he had insulted.
Upon turning to face his opponent, Zuko surprisingly found himself against his father; he immediately became penitent and fell to his knees, refusing to fight and tearfully begging for his father’s forgiveness. Ozai declared his refusal a sign of cowardice and another display of disrespect, affirming that “[he] will learn respect, and suffering will be [his] teacher”. Ozai went on to banish Zuko from the Fire Nation.
During his exile, Zuko was a bitter, impatient, and complex young man, akin to a tragic villain. More than anything, he wanted his place as heir to the Fire Nation throne and his father’s love. Zuko forced himself to believe, that capturing the Avatar would make these wishes come true.
What Does the Show Do?
“I used to think this scar marked me – the mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever.
But lately, I’ve realized:– Zuko
I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.”
Through all of these characters’ trauma, the show provokes themes of loss and abuse at the hands of war. While the gang does indeed fight the Fire Nation and in the war throughout the show, their personal journies emphasize forgiveness and pacifism as opposed to the pursuit of revenge.
Aang could have taken his rage and used it to kill the man responsible at the time: Fire Lord Ozai. However, in the final battle, Aang takes away Ozai’s bending, so that he can no longer harm anyone. It is here we remind ourselves that pacifism in trauma is not a weakness. Rather, it is an alternative path to resolving conflict that prevents more violence from occurring.
Furthermore, both Sokka & Katara cited revenge regarding the loss of their mother. Katara especially so in Season 3: Episode 16, The Southern Raiders. However, upon encountering the older man, clearly humbled by his situation, Katara chooses to leave him in his misery, alive. She proceeds to hatefully call him weak, pathetic, and empty. He has become someone whom she cannot bring herself to kill for revenge. She understood that perpetuating a cycle of violence was unnecessary.
Finally, Zuko had multiple chances to enact revenge on his father and sister. Especially for the emotional and physical trauma they put him through. However, throughout the three seasons wholly, we see Zuko evolve from someone fueled by violence and rage. He becomes someone who embraces peace, pacifism, and most significantly, forgiveness. Through Zuko, we see the path to healing emotionally from trauma is not linear. Further, however, it teaches us that the path of violence can only lead to more violence.
In summary, the show emulates pacificist theory in regards to both healing and forgiveness.
And though we may have our scars from our past, we are free to move forward when ready to.