Prepare your brains to hear way too much about one of the greatest cartoons of all time (no subjectivity whatsoever… *cough*) Nickelodeon’s Avatar: the Last Airbender. I know it’s pretty old at this point and basically all that can be said about it has been said (and then some), but just humor me. Or not; you don’t have to suffer my nerdy machinations if you don’t want to.
For those of you who know the show, you’ll have no trouble following along. For those of you who don’t, and who don’t mind spoilers, I’m going to try to summarize as little as possible just to keep things concise, so apologies for assuming my audience knows what the hell I’m talking about.
So, in 2017 I finished rewatching the show for the umpteenth time and as is typical when you’ve watched or read something multiple times, I started to question things. Mainly, I questioned the merits of the show’s climactic scene: in which our protagonist, Aang, defeats the unredemptively corrupt villain, Ozai, without killing him. Of course, basically everyone including Aang’s own damn past lives told him he’d have to kill him, but because he’s a monk (and because the show is TV-Y7, after all), he found a way around it. So here’s my thinking-too-deep question: did he, though?
the thing about villains
As viewers, (especially as American viewers,) most of us want our stories to exact righteous justice on the antagonists; that means if a guy is evil, a murderer, and/or devoid of any mercy, he more than likely deserves to die, and we want to see it happen. Sometimes we can accept a life sentence if the villain has done something redemptive or has a complicated personality, but if he’s just an evil mo’ fo, then by all means, die.
Such appears to be the case with Avatar‘s Firelord Ozai; others may disagree, but I saw no redemptive personality traits in him at all. He’s obsessive, abusive, genocidal, and tyrannical. The only thing truly holding our protagonist back from killing him is his own moral high ground, and so he struggles even though the antagonist has taken countless innocent lives and damaged countless others. Why does he deserve to live? What belief system could possibly condone that?
I would argue that Aang’s own reluctance to take a life is ultimately selfish, but that’s a whole other topic. In the world of this story, what’s actually important is that there’s more than one way to take a life. In the story, most of the characters derive their power from their ability to control one of the four elements. It’s what drives the conflict: one nation’s belief that they’re superior because their element has more power. (Well, you know how fire is.) Our beloved antagonist-turned-hero, Prince Zuko, lost his honor when his father (Ozai) exercised literal fire power over him. Other characters who don’t have the ability to bend an element (Sokka, Suki, Mai, etc.) find other ways to distinguish themselves as powerful, i.e., with physical weapons. So, for one thing, the characters’ senses of selfhood are defined by their relative power. In a world where humans can control the elements, this seems like a significant thing.
However, selfhood isn’t the same as life itself. Plenty of people in their world live and thrive without powers, though they seem to form communities around those who do, i.e., the four nations being named after the four elements and not just countries in themselves. But then there’s the spirit world, in which one who does have the ability to “bend” an element doesn’t retain it if they find themselves there; this happens with our protagonist several times. Since the spirit world is somewhere in between life and death, or at least beyond life, it appears that bending is an activity of the living. Humans bend the elements, and according to the highly credible fan websites I’ve visited, the original purpose of these powers was to help people survive. Survival, life, sense of self: it’s all wrapped up in the storyline.
and then there’s the lion turtle
Short version: Aang meets a very convenient lion turtle who teaches him how to “energybend”: a more metaphysical form of bending, shall we say. The best I could understand, it allows a pure-of-heart individual to “bend the energy” of another person. What this actually entails, I have no idea. What it means in the story is that Aang is able to defeat Firelord Ozai by taking away his ability to firebend. It doesn’t take an avid fan to figure out that Ozai derives much of his power from his out-of-control firebending. Hell, he burns his own son’s face just to teach him a lesson. Talk about bad parenting. But for Aang, being able to take away Ozai’s power without taking his life was the ultimate win-win.
But he did take his life, in multiple ways. Just not physically.
So, before Aang talked to the oh-so-convenient lion turtle, he talks to four past avatars, who all gave him variations of the same advice: “Just suck it up and kill the bastard.” He doesn’t want to hear that, but ultimately his character has one main obligation: to save the world, an obligation with which he’s struggled to accept throughout the show. It’s easy to see his failure to take out the major villain as a another act of denial, but supposedly he could’ve refused to do anything, even fight, since a fight in which he wasn’t aiming to kill his enemy was a fight he would ultimately lose. He tries to talk Ozai out of fighting, but yeah, like that was going to work. Ozai’s a fricking lost cause and everyone knows it. He was also too powerful to beat by sheer force (you know, hit him so hard it knocks him out, that sort of thing?) so there really was no choice but to kill him.
But since Aang’s moral code (the very stringent code of the TV-Y7 rating) restricts him from taking physical life, he arguably takes the villain’s spiritual life instead: his ability to exercise power over anyone, his source of self, the lifeblood of his authority. The force that was going to win him the war: his ability to burn shit up.
Alright, so is that a long shot? Yes, but wait, there’s more. The Avatar universe draws its influences from a variety of Asian cultures, most of which place a great emphasis on personal honor. It’s Prince Zuko’s whole obsession in the first season… and the second season, for that matter. In Japanese culture especially, the warrior code states that defeat is dishonorable, and that in order to preserve one’s honor, the warrior had to take his own life. Ozai was defeated: the ultimate dishonor. Even though he wasn’t dead, Aang actually did something to him that was far, far worse, if one takes into account the show’s cultural influences: instead of a quick, painless death, Ozai was not only deprived of his power, but was also forced to live with his dishonor and failure for the remainder of his sad, miserable, life. Assuming he lived very long afterwards. Therefore, in a sense, Aang really did kill the Firelord: he killed everything that made the Firelord an effective human being. Take that, TV-Y7 rating!
so what can you learn from this?
Well, aside from getting a fresh perspective on an (at this point) older TV show, then I think the real takeaway here is that you don’t have to kill off your main villain–there are different ways to go about it, and they can be highly effective, especially if your main character has a specific moral code or you’re operating under certain cultural bounds, fictional or not. I used to be really disappointed in the fact that the Firelord didn’t die at the end of Avatar, but now I think I can appreciate the fact that death isn’t always the answer within a storyline!
Oh boy oh boy, what a ride. What did you think of my nerdy rant? I need to rewatch this show again, by the way. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it!