The Moral Complexity of The Last Airbender Goes Back to One Episode

Avatar: The Last Airbender’s politics and characterizations are acclaimed to this day for their complexity, and it all started with “The Storm.”

Avatar: The Last Airbender debuted in 2005, but its legacy as one of the most thematically rich and morally complex television series aimed at young audiences remains to this day. As a gold standard of fiction that works for audiences of all ages, from the outset the series introduced audiences to topics like war, genocide, and pacifism that were sureties of its bravery to tackle. mature subjects.

However, one episode in particular took the show’s moral complexity to the next level. The series’ twelfth episode, titled “The Storm,” broke the mold when it came to classic depictions of good and evil, showing how the world of Avatar and the characters that inhabited it were far more complex than they previously seemed.


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The first eleven episodes of the series have done an admirable job of establishing Avatarthe overall plot and the main actors. Frozen in an iceberg for the past hundred years, young airbender Aang awoke to find the world in disarray after a century of war as the Fire Nation sought to overwhelm the world. Aang’s role as the Avatar, the only individual powerful enough to stop such massive forces, drove him on a quest to master his abilities before the Fire Nation could complete their mission. Hunting down Aang on behalf of the Fire Nation was the banished Prince Zuko, whose scarred face and violent temper made him a menacing threat.


For all that the series would become throughout its run and all that fans would remember about it, it’s easy to forget that it was only in “The Storm” that the moral complexity that defined the series differentiated its premise from the usual “good versus evil”. binary. This episode saw Aang and his friends facing a huge storm that forced Aang to reflect on the events that led to his suspension in the iceberg, his thoughts paralleling those of Zuko’s Uncle Iroh telling the story of the how Zuko was banned. The result is that the heroes and villains and the cultures they represent turn out to be much more complicated than they first appear.


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Aang’s childish naivety quickly won favor with audiences early in the series, but it’s not until “The Storm” that the viewer learns that he’s actually turned away from his Avatar duties and tried to run away. Confronted by his Air Nomad elders trying to fast-track his role, Aang just wanted to play games with his friends and pretend the world was normal. By trying to run away from that, he put the world in jeopardy. Far from being universally hailed as a hero, the episode wisely includes the perspective of an average Earth Kingdom citizen to show the multiplicity of perspectives where the Avatar is concerned as he blames Aang for “the hundred years of war and suffering”.


Just as the hero’s virtuous purity is questioned, audiences also learn that Zuko is more heroic and likeable than they had reason to previously imagine. Although the teenager has a hard front of obsessively searching for the Avatar, Iroh’s story reveals that it was Zuko’s urge to stand up for the Fire Nation soldiers that first got him. earned the Agni Kai that marked him at the hands of his father. At the end of the episode, Zuko shows the same concern for his crew, prioritizing their safety over his own search for the Avatar. By the end of the episode, the hero’s flaws are established while the villain’s virtues shine through, showing that the battle between good and evil is never really that simple.


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Previous episodes certainly hinted at such complexity. It was only two episodes before “Jet” introduced the ragtag group known as the Freedom Fighters whose rebellion against the Fire Nation threatened innocent lives, showing that there were far more than two sides to the conflict. centenary that ravaged the world. However, showing the complexity of the world and the complexity of the characters are two extremely different things, and it will be necessary to wait for “The Storm” so that the first season of Avatar dive into those depths.

Zuko and Aang then had other parallels in their character arcs that proved to be hugely entertaining throughout the series. But more importantly, they present an important lesson about the rarity of a completely black and white situation. For all its fantastic color and shine, in many ways, Avatar was all about the moral grays of the world.

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About the Author

Sharon D. Cole