Let's Talk Philosophy: The Season Finale of "Avatar: The Last Airbender"
Avatar: The Last Airbender has made a resounding comeback with it's release on Netflix a few months ago. Those who grew up with the animated epic were able to revisit, while newcomers were able to become fans. Avatar is one of the best written shows in television history with it's pacing, character arcs, and it's ability to make adult themes and mix of philosophies accessible for a younger crowd without talking down to kids like they are unintelligent. The writers understood that there are kids who are ready to have these conversations, and are seeking a higher level of art to consume in an entertaining way. Among other things, Avatar teaches kids (and adults) about: war, genocide, love, hate, forgiveness, mercy, religion, faith, and hope. It exemplifies how the world can be filled with darkness, but there's light too. The philosophy of the show really comes to the forefront within the series finale. Split into four parts, it is within part two that Aang, the series protagonist and eponymous 'Avatar: The Last Airbender,' must make a decision about how this story is going to end. For those of you who have yet to watch the show and don't want to know what happens- first of all, you've had twelve years- what are you doing reading this, and second, spoiler alert...
Aang disappears on a floating island that moves throughout the ocean. While there, he talks with four of his past lives, each from the four nations/elements: Roku (Fire), Kyoshi (Earth), Kuruk (Water), and Yangchen (Air). The discussions are based on the major existential crisis Aang is dealing with over how he can defeat recently crowned Phoenix King Ozai without killing him. Each of his past lives give Aang a piece of advice on how they would deal with the situation. Let's take a closer look...
Roku was the Avatar immediately before Aang. He grew up in the Fire Nation, and was best friends with the man that would wipe out the Air Nomads and plunge the world into a one hundred year war. It is during this conversation that Roku really takes the blame for the entire war (up until this point in the show, Aang had always taken the blame saying he should have been there to stop it,) but Roku steps up saying he should have acted sooner. Instead he was like Neville Chamberlain letting smaller acts of aggression go in the name of peace and friendship until it was finally too late. Roku's wisdom for Aang: You must be decisive. Some solid advice, but not really helpful for a teenager that can't decide. With this advice, Aang only knows that he must make a choice. There isn't a gray area in this situation, and he can't wait for someone else to make the choice. As Avatar, he is burdened with the freedom and obligation to choose the world's fate. Aang needs more solid direction. So he goes back further to another Avatar.
Kyoshi is another familiar Avatar for those that watched the series. She is part of the main plot line all of the way back in season one. In that previous episode, the viewer learns more about her life- that she fought to defend a small village against a coming conqueror and in the process he fell to his death. What she says in the finale, however, is what she thinks of his death after the fact. The entire time, Aang had been thinking of his death as an accident. But Kyoshi responds that, to her, there is no difference. She would have done anything to stop him including killing him herself. She knew at the same time he fell to his own doom Kyoshi had already killed him in her heart. She ends the conversation with her bit of wisdom: only justice will bring peace. This is an interesting philosophy to bring up. Aang is grappling with the fact that he must kill Ozai while his past life, the very past life that has admitted to killing someone, is telling him that only justice will bring peace. This begs the question: is killing someone ever just? Is there a certain line that should not be crossed, and, when it is, then death is deserved? That would mean that murder can be good and the death penalty is valid. But who decides what sin is deserving of death? If anyone could surely the Avatar, bridge between the physical world and spirit world, would be able to make that judgment. But the decision is left in the hands of a thirteen year old. Ultimately, Kyoshi's advice just brings up more questions to ponder and Aang is left repenting that he ever asked Kyoshi for advice being that he now must decide: is human fairness, is justice, the actual result he is looking for?
Next Aang talks to Avatar Kuruk from the Water Tribe. Kuruk explains that he had a relatively easy time as Avatar in the physical world. Everyone worked out their own problems and there was not a dire need for a peacekeeping Avatar. So he spent his life on himself- going with the flow and falling in love with a girl named Ummi. But because he was not more attentive he was not prepared for when Koh, a face stealing spirit, stole the face of Ummi. He blames himself for not being more assertive. His advice for Aang: you must actively shape your own destiny and the destiny of the world. It's a literal call to action from the most laid back Avatar. In some aspects, Kuruk was the closest Avatar to Aang. Both sought fun over fights and were focused on the girl they loved. And this is why Kuruk's call to action is so important. He is reinforcing exactly what Roku already told Aang, but because of their similar personalities it means more coming from Kuruk. Not only does Aang have to be decisive, he also must act on his decision. At this point, Aang only foresees a future that he must kill Ozai.
The final Avatar conversation Aang has is with Yangchen, the Air Nomad before him. She grew up with the same philosophies as Aang and so she understands his point-of-view more than any other. She knows what Aang means when he talks about following the monks in trying to remove himself from the world to reach enlightenment. But she has a new piece of wisdom for him: selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the world. If Aang truly desires to put the world before himself, then he must forfeit his own beliefs in order to save the world. It is heart wrenching, but this is the final piece of wisdom that Aang hears that solidifies what he already knew- he must kill Ozai. But from a certain perspective, he always knew that. Because really all four of these conversations were with himself which means he knew where it was heading from the start. He just wasn't willing to accept it. But what if he was wrong? True, all of the Avatars had a solution, but what if it wasn't the best solution? Shouldn't we all reach past a good solution to go for the best solution?
Aang has one more conversation before confronting the Phoenix King. It is with the very island he has been sitting on this whole time; an island which is, in fact, a giant lion turtle. In the world of the Avatar, the lion turtles are said to have taught bending to the original Avatar and so is the perfect creature to give Aang one last piece of wisdom. He teaches Aang the history of the first benders who did not bend elements, but energy itself. The Lion Turtle shows Aang how to bend the energy of others, removing their bending, while warning that in order to do it their own spirit must be unbendable. With this advice, Aang is able to defeat Ozai in a way none of his past lives could have foreseen. And that is because they were all seeking the solution the wrong question.
Aang was looking for advice on how to be victorious against Ozai when really he should have been asking the question all Avatars should be asking themselves: how is balance restored in the world? The Avatar's duty is balance, not victory. This is front and center in the first episode opening monologue (which is different than every other episode's opening) in which Katara states, “My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked.” The key to saving the world was always to achieve balance and never to achieve victory. The two ideas had been misconstrued through time becoming one idea when in reality they have two completely different meanings. Aang was meant to save the world. That's true. That's a fact. The Avatar is meant to achieve balance in the world. That's true. That's a fact. Aang was meant to save the world by achieving balance. That is the key.
All in all, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a lesson in a third path. Similar to the philosophy in Star Wars, (*see my previous article on the Jedi) Aang found that there was an alternate solution to the problem at hand that was the best solution. But just because it is the best solution it does not make it easy. It takes patience, thought, and advice from others. It finds justice in mercy. And it seeks balance over victory.
(Cover Photo: Looper/Nickelodeon)