TV

The Supporting Cast of Avatar’s Redemptive World

Toph, Azula, the Order of the White Lotus, and Others

Bryan J. / 11.5.20

Our exploration of the gracious themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender continues. To start at the beginning, go here.

I‘m routinely struck by how richly the Bible presents its side figures for our consideration. Entire books and songs have been written on biblical figures that only appear in one chapter of the otherwise massive text. An example: Jesus heals a man born blind in John 9, who is subjected to a pseudo-inquisition on the matter by the local religious court. The event produces a domino effect that ends in Christians across the globe singing “’twas blind but now I see,” a famous lyric from the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace.” Those are not Jesus’s words, but the words of a side character in Jesus’s story.

Good side characters enrich our stories and help to amplify the main themes of a narrative. To that end, I wanted to touch on a few side-characters and side-matters as we get closer to the end of our series exploring the gracious themes that can be found in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Toph

Fans of the series will bristle when I call Toph a side character, but the blind earthbender was only introduced half-way through the series. She lacks the space that the other principal characters have had to navigate their story line. At the same time, Toph’s discovery of metalbending is a foundational contribution to the show’s understanding of power and weakness.

Metalbending is not one of the initial four types of bending in this fantasy world. Captured by a pair of bounty hunters at the end of season two, Toph is imprisoned in a metal box. “Even you can’t bend metal,” jeer the bounty hunters, who are taking her back to her overbearing and restrictive family. Toph is blind, and so she uses her feet and her bending to feel vibrations in the earth around her. Trapped in her metal prison, she begins to meditate and sense the earth that remains in the impurities of the metal. From there, Toph is able to bend that impure metal in order to make her escape from her “impenetrable” prison. 

We are led to think that her miraculous discovery of a new bending technique is related directly to her blindness. And I think it’s a profound statement that, in what the world saw as her great weakness, Toph finds her greatest strength. “I am the greatest earthbender in the world,” she playfully yells after her escape, now the world’s first metalbender, and it was her blindness that led her to that (self-proclaimed) title. One of the great ironies of that John 9 passage was that the blind man could see Jesus’s power, but the visually unimpaired Pharisees were spiritually blind to the miracle standing in front of them. Perhaps the wounded, the blind, and the handicapped are unique channels to perceive the movement of grace in the world. That certainly was the case for Jesus’s ministry.

Azula

I also wanted to speak a special word of grace and sympathy about the character Azula, the show’s powerful villain that provides a foil to all four of our principle characters. Ruthless, cunning, and powerful, the Fire Nation princess perfectly exemplifies the values of her dictator father. It’s little surprise that Fire Lord Ozai, when he makes his final attempt to take over the world under the Phoenix King moniker, leaves her in control of the Fire Nation in his absence. This apple did not fall far from the tree.

What makes Azula’s character remarkable, however, is how the writers of the show bring forward the serious mental illness that her worldview creates. Despite all the power of her family and her natural Firebending aptitude, we discover that she is a psychotic mess. She’s unable to flirt with other teenagers at a party, she cannot hold friendships outside of fear and intimidation, and the pressure to be perfect is always on her shoulders. Her breakdown at the end of the series is a welcome development, primarily because of its realism. It shows how Azula’s worldview of power is fundamentally unsustainable, and it’s given to us as viewers in a sympathetic light. The show’s writers suggest that we, too, might have a psychotic breakdown if we were to grow up in the same environment and experience the same pressures as Azula.

The showrunners suggested that, one day, Aang and his friends would work to rehabilitate and redeem the unhinged Fire Nation princes, and I think that would be a wonderful ending to her arc. Azula’s story continues in a couple of post-series comic books, and sadly, she does not seem to recover or experience redemption. More comic books can be written, however. One can hope.

The Order of the White Lotus

As the final battle of the series approaches, we find that a number of the show’s adult and senior mentors from all three seasons have joined together to fight alongside the heroes. What’s remarkable about this secret society is that it’s composed of citizens from across the entire fantasy landscape of the show. Firebenders have joined with earthbenders and waterbenders, forming a super-team connected by the bonds of wise old age. “All old people know each other,” jokes King Bumi, a side character who appears briefly in all three seasons.

As these sage and elder benders have grown old, they’ve recognized how matters of nationality are inconsequential. It’s not just that firebenders like Iroh and Jeong Jeong are willing to defect from their own nation and fight against their homeland’s tyranny. The group’s earthbenders and waterbenders are also willing to set aside international grudges to work alongside their former enemies to achieve peace. During the show’s final battle, this team of super-benders free the capital of Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation’s occupation.

There’s something beautiful about how the writers made space for the grey-haired generation to get a win in this otherwise kids-focused show. Not only do they pour their collective wisdom and talent into the show’s primary heroes, but they create the conditions for the heroes to achieve a total victory, defeating the hoards of nameless soldiers while the heroes defeat the show’s villains.

The Legend of Korra and the Shyamalan Film 

There is a sequel to the original Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series, which is also on Netflix. The Legend of Korra follows the next reincarnation of the Avatar — a young woman named Korra — and her friends as they struggle to keep peace in the world. It is not nearly as beloved as the original series, and that’s OK. Not every TV series needs to merit 15,000 words of cultural criticism.

The reason why the spinoff show is not as beloved has to do, I think, with the archetypal storylines explored in this series. Aang and his friends represent the power of motherhood and fatherhood and forgiveness and childlike faith. In the Legend of Korra, the storylines tend to revolve around political matters. Korra and her team are challenged to stop a war based on social class, fight off powerful anarchist terrorists, and intervene in regional insurrections. The Korra series also has the “midichlorian” problem, where the storytellers decide to explain in detail the mystical and spiritual elements of the show, depriving them of their mystery and awe. The original Avatar series isn’t just good because the world-building and fantasy elements were fun (and they are fun!), but because the stories and characters were so well shaped. The character development simply isn’t as strong in the show’s spinoff series.

It goes back to a foundational Mockingbird truism: the matters of the heart are what matter most, and the trappings of political, social, and career demands are important, but not ultimate. Zuko’s choice of mercy over power, Korra’s growth into an archetype of motherly love, Sokka’s lessons in humility, and Aang’s refusal to give up his childlike faith — these are reflections of something deeper at the core of our humanity, and they cut closer to the bone than who might win an election. Call it a dominant psychological motivation or call it the God-shaped hole in our hearts. Either way, The Legend of Korra is a fine show with fun fantasy elements, but its predecessor is the superior series.

Also, do not hesitate to skip over the 2010 Shyamalan film adaption of the show. It’s famously bad.

Our next installment in the series will be the final installment. Stay tuned!