Avatar and the Importance of the Mundane
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #124. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Here’s the Thing is where Rob dumps his random thoughts and strong opinions on all manner of nerdy subjects – from videogames and movies to board games and toys.
In my experience, anybody who’s watched all three seasons of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender loves the show. It’s also been my experience that anybody who loves the show has the same answer (usually) when you ask them what their favorite or most memorable episode is. “The Tales of Ba Sing Se.” Keep in mind this is a series where most of the main characters can control primal elements like water, earth, fire or air, and is set in a world torn apart by a 100-year-long war, but this episode that follows each of the principal cast as they wander around the Earth Kingdom’s largest city is always the standout. Because here’s the thing: characters with superhuman talents are cool and usually take part in some incredibly badass action sequences, but it’s the more mundane day-to-day moments that teach us the most about who they are and why we should care.
At this point, we’re roughly halfway through the second season, so it’s not like we aren’t already familiar with everybody, but each of their stories helps to give us a clearer picture of who they are as people – not just as incredible martial artists and benders (the term used for people who can manipulate these elements). It brings them down to a more relatable, human level that’s easier to identify with than, say, being able to cover oneself in a protective suit made entirely of stone or use water to heal wounds in moments rather than days.
I won’t get into all of the six mini-stories that are featured in the episode, but in Katara and Toph’s trip to a spa, in particular, their conversation after Toph is openly mocked by some obviously wealthy brats, we can see that, yes, while Toph is very blunt and no-nonsense and strong in just about every sense of the word, she still has moments of insecurity and doubt. Meanwhile, Katara once again shows her capacity for empathy and caring about those close to her.
It’s also been my experience that anybody who loves the show has the same answer (usually) when you ask them what their favorite or most memorable episode is. “The Tales of Ba Sing Se.”
Or there’s Zuko’s story, where after an adorably awkward date with a local teenager, the banished Fire Nation prince simultaneously proves his fire bending talents as well as his capacity for caring about others despite his lineage. Before his inner conflict and temper get the better of him, anyway.
And then there’s Iroh’s story. Or as I fondly think of it: one of the biggest emotional gut-punches in the entire series. Things start out fairly mellow, much like the man himself. He wanders around town looking for supplies for a small picnic, imparts wisdom on some kids playing ball, calms a crying child with a song and even convinces a mugger to reconsider his path in life. Because that’s just how Iroh do. But then he finally makes his way to the top of a small hill and begins to set up his picnic, and it’s revealed that it’s his deceased son’s birthday and he’s been carrying the pain of that loss this whole time. The reason he’s always attempting to help or guide people is because he’s regretted not doing the same for his own son. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and I think now I need to go and re-watch the show again.
It’s moments like these that really get us to care about these and other characters. In this show, in a novel, in a movie, or in whatever else. Someone who can bend the elements to their will is cool, absolutely, but someone we can relate to on an emotional level is far more compelling.
Rob Rich is a guy who’s loved video games since the ’80s, and has had the good fortune of being able to write about them. The same goes for other nerdy stuff from Anime to Godzilla, and from Power Rangers toys to Transformers. He gave up on Twitter, because Twitter is garbage, but you can still find him on Instagram and Mastodon.