by Bethany Benkert, Ball State University
Avatar the Last Airbender is a fantastic television show (which is much better than the live-action movie) that ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. It features a world where some people can control, or “bend,” water, earth, fire, and air. It also features a world under siege where the only hope from the oppression of the Fire Nation is the Avatar. A waterbender, Katara and her brother discover Aang, the fated Avatar, frozen in ice one hundred years after the start of the war and help him prepare to face the Fire Nation.
I am going to show how Avatar the Last Airbender engages with post-apocalyptic themes, especially through the distortion of time, to create sympathy for the characters, thus creating a connection with the audience.
One line from the opening is: “Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked” (“The Southern Air Temple”, 00:00:13-00:00:16). I would like to draw attention to that phrase, “Then everything changed.” In James Berger’s book After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse he says that, “A post-apocalyptic theory of trauma discovers that events happen and, to borrow Yeats’s apocalyptic rhetoric, ‘things fall apart’ and ‘change utterly’—but that remainders and reminders, signs and symptoms survive” (26). After the Fire Nation attacked the world, everything changed; it did “change utterly.” There are still signs of this trauma, even one hundred years later. It is through this trauma that the audience is able to connect with the characters and recognize the impact of the apocalypse. The show portrays this trauma through the use of temporal sequencing.
Berger says, “Temporal sequence becomes confused. Apocalyptic writing takes us after the end, shows the signs prefiguring the end, the moment of obliteration, and the aftermath. The writer and reader must be both places at once, imagining the post-apocalyptic world and then paradoxically ‘remembering’ the world as it was, as it is” (6). The audience has to be able to remember the world as it was to realize the full impact of how it is like after. They must see the world before it changes to both understand the world in its post-apocalypse state and to empathize with the characters.
Children often empathize with Aang because he is portrayed as a twelve-year-old boy. However, he also epitomizes Berger’s ideas about temporal confusion. Kids are able to relate to his age, but then realize the magnitude of the apocalypse because Aang is at once one hundred years from the past and a twelve-year-old boy in the present. This is further complicated by the fact that the Avatar is reincarnated. Aang holds all of the knowledge of his past lives somewhere inside of him. As he worries about mastering the elements, a previous Avatar tells him, “I know you can do it Aang. For you have done it before” (“Avatar Roku: The Winter Solstice, Part 2”, 00:19:11-00:19:17). Aang is at once a twelve-year-old boy in the present, a being from a hundred years ago, and a person who holds the power of thousands of years of previous Avatars.
Aang must come to grips with the ancient power inside of him, but he also must deal with both the loss of his past and with the destruction of the present. In one episode, “The Southern Air Temple,” he must come to grips with the genocide of his people. Aang has to deal with the post-apocalypse when they visit a deteriorating temple, which was once Aang’s home. The show first provides flashbacks that portray the temple teeming with life. Aang is shown training and playing games with his mentor. Then it contrasts this image with the desolation of the temple. Since Aang has been frozen for one hundred years, in his mind this temple was home only days before, but he is forced to view it after a hundred years of destruction and decay. There is even as scene, rather dark for children, showing the body of Aang’s old mentor. However, Aang’s reaction when he realizes the extent of destruction the Fire Nation has wrought upon the people he loved shows why the scene is necessary to sense the full impact of the apocalypse. Because the audience was able to see what the temple was like before the destruction they are able to understand Aang’s reaction and empathize.
Another character that audiences often connect with is Zuko, who was the comfortable prince of the Fire Nation before being banished and told to hunt for the Avatar. Through Zuko the audience sees what the world was like after everything changed, but before personal apocalyptic events affected his character. In contrast, through Aang’s flashbacks the audience sees the world as it once was, before the everything changed and he was frozen. Both Aang’s flashbacks to over a hundred years ago and Zuko’s flashbacks to a couple years ago are treated with equal weight even though there is such a time difference between them. The show is able to focus on the distant past, the recent past and the present all at the same time, and display how they are all interconnected. The show is able to portray both the lead up to the apocalypse, the current post-apocalypse, and a hope for the future simultaneously.
Avatar the Last Airbender is a wonderful television show, full of beloved characters and a fascinating storyline that uses the distortion of time to engage with the ideas of the post-apocalypse and create sympathy for the characters. It effectively portrays a world in need of hope and its realization of that hope, a message that resonates with all ages.
“Avatar Roku: The Winter Solstice, Part 2.” Avatar the Last Airbender, season 1, episode 8, Nickelodeon, 15 April 2005.
Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Konietzko, Bryan and Michael Dante DiMartino, creators. Avatar the Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2005-2008.
“The Southern Air Temple.” Avatar the Last Airbender, season 1, episode 3, Nickelodeon, 25 Feb. 2005.