Full spoilers follow for Avatar: The Last Airbender.How many TV shows can you name off the top of your head that had an ending that met your expectations or appreciation of what came before? More often than not, we run into a series that overstays its welcome. Perhaps its story gets stretched to absurdity to meet the demand for more seasons (see Lost). Maybe its characters, perpetually upping the ante in shenanigans or drama, stray from their story arcs, becoming exaggerated parodies of their formerly endearing selves (think Andy in The Office, or Andrea in The Walking Dead). And sometimes shows pull a Dexter, and… well, we all remember Dexter.
It’s why shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are looked upon so fondly — not just because of their tight, condensed, expertly paced stories, but because their characters have consistent goals or motivations from the first episode of the show to the very last. These were shows where the creators were given the freedom to tell the story they wanted to share, but with an often underappreciated liberty in that they could do so in however many episodes they felt were needed.
Avatar: The Last Airbender demonstrated this particularly well when it ended over 10 years ago (on July 19, 2008). It was a show that had a clearly defined conclusion in mind with its three-season structure (each named for the respective element Aang would learn to master), and an ending that would come with Sozin’s Comet — a deadline that the protagonists had to meet in order to defeat the Firelord, teased back in the first season. Its four-episode finish benefited greatly from this structure, becoming one of the best series finales of any show ever. There are many reasons why, but it boils down to the culmination of three things — bringing its story full-circle, the increasing quality of its presentation, and most importantly, how it provided an immensely satisfying conclusion for its characters.
Avatar: The Last Airbender started off through and through as a kid’s show. Aang was goofy and fun-loving, Sokka was comic relief, and even all the anger and hate expressed by Zuko was tempered and juxtaposed by his lazy uncle Iroh’s one-liners and rimshots. But as the show went on, the characters began to experience the reality of the war-torn world they were living in. Aang was forced to accept his responsibility of being the Avatar. Sokka, after constantly getting his butt handed to him, realized he had a lot to learn about fighting and the world around him, and slowly set about rebuilding his confidence. Zuko, who over the course of his travels experienced the most change, began to question the man he was becoming under the shadow of his father.
The show’s evolution into something that tackled more adult themes was addressed wonderfully at the start of the finale with a beach party, which harkened back to the tone of the first season, reminding us of the carefree kids the characters used to be. Why grow up and be forced to face your fears when you can drink watermelon juice or make Appa-themed sandcastles instead, staving off the reality for just a little longer of the Fire Nation burning the world to the ground?It isn’t long, though, before Zuko reminds Aang that whether or not he wants to think about it, he has to kill the Firelord before the comet comes, which eventually sets the events of the finale in motion. A conflicted Aang goes off to confront Ozai, because despite his responsibility to bring balance to the world as the Avatar, he doesn’t see himself as a killer. Zuko and Katara head off to reclaim the Fire Nation from a power-mad Azula. Meanwhile, Sokka, wanting to help but always unsure of how to go about it, heads out with Toph and Suki, scrambling to fight what and where they can.
The show also brought back fan-favorite characters from earlier seasons with the twist that they all belong to “The White Lotus” — a secret society of the old guard dedicated to keeping balance in the world with members like Master Pakku, Bumi, Jeong Jeong, and Piandao. Its call-backs like these that not only allow us to remember how many characters we’ve met over the course of the show, but that also reinforce the importance of the global struggle they’re waging, giving extra weight to the battles to come — which would be the best of the series by the way.
Like the characters becoming better benders over the course of the story, the animators too improved their own craft with more incredible and elaborate fight scenes. That growth is never made more clear than in the finale. With the glow from Sozin’s Comet painting the entire sky with an orange, hellfire hue, Aang takes on a fully-realized Firelord. While the heart-pounding orchestral score plays, Ozai jets towards him, hammering home that there’s no running from this fight. Even with giant boulders, a vast lake, and his own infinite supply of air empowering Aang with all four elements — what we’d been waiting years to see — he’s still outmatched.
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Meanwhile, over in the Fire Nation, Azula challenges Zuko to an Agni Kai, and we’re treated to the best bout from the entire series (including the sequel series The Legend of Korra). Azula’s prodigious mastery of her power is represented by the blue flames which dance off of Zuko’s bright orange blasts. And Zuko’s tenacity is clear, the result of the newfound inspiration he received from dragons — the original Firebenders. His blows roar with a sound like an exploding gas leak, but he’s calm and collected, a reflection of the peace he’s made with his past. It’s visually amazing stuff, with the solemn music of “The Last Agni Kai” perfectly encapsulating the tragedy of two siblings on different paths converging for a final confrontation.
While anyone can watch the finale and appreciate it on an artistic level, it’s elevated to something more by giving each character moments that challenge them, demonstrate their strengths, and bring a fulfilling closure to their individual stories. Katara and Zuko defeat his sister, Azula (a power-hungry sadist who ends her journey in a well of her own insanity). Interestingly, she’s the incarnation of everything Zuko had originally always wanted to be. Iroh realizes that his vision of taking Ba Sing Se from the Earth Kingdom was not to conquer it, but to reconquer it back from the Fire Nation. Sokka (who in my opinion is the real hero of this finale) takes out the entirety of the Fire Nation fleet with nothing but persistence and ingenuity, shelters Toph from falling debris — sacrificing his space sword and boomerang to save her — and manages to spare a moment to kiss Suki, finally fully confident of his abilities. And of course Aang, who after struggling to bring himself to take a life, is able to tap back into the Avatar State and dominate Ozai, finding a way to defeat him by taking away his bending. He embraces his destiny as the Avatar while remaining true to the person he strives to be, an achievement which resonates with the name of the final episode: “Avatar Aang.”
If you can’t tell, I loved Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was one of those shows that I didn’t even realize my friends were into at the time, because none of us were willing to admit we were watching a cartoon, which is why I’m always grateful seeing it still talked about today with such admiration. One of the reasons many look back on it as such a success is because we were able to walk away with no major lingering questions (though to be fair, they could’ve at least told us in Korra if Zuko found his mom!). It did everything a finale should do; it provided a thrilling climax, concluded story arcs with earned confrontations, and gave us closure for the characters — characters which many of us in this age of the internet grew up with.
The finale is perhaps best summarized by contrasting it with a quote from Iroh: “I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you had lost your way.” Avatar: The Last Airbender never lost its way, or its place in our hearts, even now over 10 years later.
Read about the Netflix live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender right here. And what did you think of the original series? Let’s discuss in the comments!