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Avatar: The Last Airbender: Reflecting on Zutara and What Could Have Been

Katara and Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is finally on Netflix (US) as of May 15th, and Zutara is trending on Twitter. Suddenly, my skin is clear, my cabbages are flourishing, the sun is shining, and there is no quarantine in Ba Sing Se. Every time I happen upon a tweet from someone new to the ATLA fandom, declaring that Zuko and Katara should end up together, I am overcome with emotion and raise a proverbial cup of jasmine tea to their TASTE. I mentally welcome them to shipper hell, where the creators deride your choices and you just pointedly don’t give a damn. Katara rises with the moon, Zuko rises with the sun, and I’m here for it. Flameo hotman.

If you’re unfamiliar with Avatar: The Last Airbender and, by extension, Zutara, then allow me to explain. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a Peabody award-winning animated series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. The show follows Aang, a monk child who reawakens during a time of war, on his quest to master the four elements of water, earth, fire, and air and ultimately bring peace to the world.

ATLA is often hailed as one of the greatest television shows of all time due to its fearless exploration of mature themes (e.g. death, imperialism, genocide, forced displacement, animal cruelty, and spirituality), being a masterclass in both world and character building, and respectful integration of Asian and Aboriginal cultural, historical, and mythological elements.

Zutara is the ship, or romantic pairing, between the characters Zuko, the banished Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, hunting the long-lost Avatar in an effort to restore his honor, and Katara, the last remaining waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe, who protects Aang during his journey to restore balance to the world. Zuko and Katara’s relationship is complicated, to say the least.

They’re initially diametrically opposed foes, but through the writers’ infusion of rich nuance and sweet, beautifully human character arcs, their relationship organically grows into one of mutual respect and admiration. They see one another at their most vulnerable, even shameful moments and emerge having a profound effect on each other. The dynamic between Zuko and Katara, two people on opposing sides of the elemental divide, a story brimming with poetic symbolism and thematic relevance, had the potential to be the perfect execution of the enemies-to-lovers trope.

But it was simply not in the cards.

Kataang (Katara and Aang) became canon, and I am still gutted—gutted—at the what could have been of Zutara. It’s akin to commissioning a portrait and the painter just never bothering to finish the second eye.

In response to the squandering of Zutara’s potential, fans like myself have been observing Zutara Week, an annual event celebrating Zutara with copious amounts of fanfiction, fanart, poetry, and AMVs. It was originally created in 2008 by Greenifyme and Trishna87 on DeviantART. Lyndezart has been hosting the event since 2012.

Twelve years later, and Zutara week is still going strong. Even Dante Basco and Mae Whitman, the voice actors for Zuko and Katara respectively, have celebrated and created content for Zutara week.

In a 2017 interview, when asked about Zutara, Dante Basco said, “I rock with Zutara. I just love Zutara. I thought it was gonna happen and then it just didn’t happen. Who knows, I wasn’t around for how they wrote it. But it felt like they were writing in that direction and then they just kinda went the other direction. But I understand, it’s cool. I just like the idea of like fire and water together …”

Me too, Dante. Me too.

As the fandom-elected captain of the Zutara ship, Basco has honored us with a host of Zutara-themed poetry and merchandise. During Zutara Week 2017, Basco posted a recording entitled, “I Did Fall in Love,” which blessed us with Prince Zuko’s signature honeyed rasp confessing that Katara was indeed his first love.

We have no choice but to stan.

So, what is it about Zutara that commands such passion, dedication, and astonishing staying power? Why are people dutifully lining up and preparing for Zutara Week year after year?

I asked Lyndezart, Zutara Week’s current host, for what they believe is the reason behind its longevity and consistent fandom participation:

From my perspective, the main reason Zutara Week has been going strong since 2008 is because people… keep showing up for it. Every year, without fail, I get reminded of my annual duty through messages from fans who want to know, “When is Zutara week this year?” […] It’s not even something I fully comprehend. I enjoy Zutara Week after all this time because it’s wild to see where my art was in 2008 and how it has evolved to where it is today. Drawing these two characters annually has made my own progress as an artist very clear. I’m sure a lot of the artists and writers who participate annually feel the same way […] It has been wonderful to experience the commitment others have made to Zutara Week. It feels like a reunion every year. And watching individuals grow artistically every year is not a feeling I can accurately express in words but I know it’s worth feeding. It’s special […] I don’t get paid to run Zutara week, but I’m determined to keep it alive for as long as I can because it means something special to a lot of people for all sorts of reasons. Whether it’s out of tradition or intense shipping feels, people are showing up. So, I’m going to keep Zutara Week showing up for them.

The conclusion of the beautifully crafted essay “Why I Ship Zutara: A Long-Delayed Meta,” written by Dr. Revolution, offers a possible explanation as to the fandom’s unrelenting passion:

… [Zutara] doesn’t have all the answers, because like the polarity of the Sun and the Moon, it’s in that tension and that ambiguity that beauty flourishes. They don’t have to be perfect or even together, they don’t have to end up married or with children, it’s the mere potential of them coming together, all the endless possibilities and the inevitable, heartbreaking obstacles, that makes their relationship so utterly human and so utterly beautiful. Fire and Water don’t have to emulate each other to be essential. It’s the recognition of mutuality that creates balance, and wholeness.

And Dante Basco said simply,

Everything that’s canon isn’t always like the most fun thing to play with. It’s kind of fun to use your imagination and just go other places with it.

In my opinion, the fandom is bonded by a shared ache for Zutara’s squandered potential.

I think back to the simile about the missing eye in the portrait. The fandom allows for a space for us decide however which way we would like the eye to be drawn, thereby completing the portrait. We have the freedom to put the finishing touches on the piece, and the final result will always be magnificent in our eyes. Therein lies the timeless beauty of what could have been. 

Our imaginations run wild with its endless possibilities.
And rather than bemoan the what could have been, we indulge in it
And through that we create art, share it, and form family
And it’s something to be celebrated.
Year. After. Year. After. Year.

I believe Dante Basco sums up the sentiment best with his spoken word poem entitled “Zutara.”

Sometimes the feeling of what could have been

is stronger than what actually happened

because the memory of perfection lasts longer

and even though we didn’t end up together

it’ll never change the fact that you changed my life

forever

Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

And now I leave you with an image of Prince Zuko’s jawline, sharp enough to puncture the hull of an empire-class Fire Nation battle ship, leaving thousands to drown at sea.

(featured image: Nickelodeon)

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Taylor Cross is a Bay Area based freelance writer and full-time college student who loves to talk race, mental health, pop culture, and puns. When she’s not writing, you can most likely find her swaddled in a blanket, nestled into the corner of her couch, watching anime. Find her on Instagram @Freckled2z9s.