Gordon Cormier as Aang in Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender

Netflix’s ‘Avatar’ Forgot Aang’s Most Important Season 1 Lesson

With any adaptation, a shift in narrative structure is expected, especially if the season lengths and episode lengths differ dramatically. Some of the story changes made in Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender are understandable; one, however, completely changes the point of Aang, Katara, and Sokka’s journey.

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The original Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon is split into three seasons. Each season, or “Book,” sees our heroes set out on an important mission: Aang needs to master the remaining three elements. Aang is already a massively talented airbender when he first comes out of the ice, but without the skills to wield Water, Earth, and Fire, he’ll never be able to save the world or master the Avatar state. While each season sees Team Avatar travel the world, make new friends, discover far-away places, have adventures, and fight various battles, Aang’s bending lessons are always the main goal. So, where was that in Netflix’s show?

Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender season 1 follows most of the events of “Book One: Water”—though it does shift them around significantly—without actually teaching Aang any waterbending. He doesn’t do it at any point in the live-action series. He never even seems curious to learn, either. Team Avatar hops from one place to the next, Katara learns the basics of waterbending from an ancient scroll, and that’s it.

If anything, it seems that the first season of Netflix’s live-action Avatar is more about Aang learning about the spirit world and his role as a bridge between the two realms. That is undoubtedly a major part of his duty as the Avatar, but it shouldn’t have eclipsed his need to learn waterbending.

In the original cartoon, Katara is the one who teaches Aang the basics of waterbending, but they struggle together—Katara has never had a proper teacher either, so the group decides to head to the North Pole with the hope of finding a waterbending master for both of them.

In the Netflix version, Aang’s indifference to learning the ancient art of waterbending forced the show to find a different reason to head to the North Pole. Instead of wanting to learn, or at least acknowledging that it is his duty as the Avatar to learn, he has a vision that the Northern Water Tribe is going to be attacked, and that jumpstarts the final two-episode arc of season 1.

It’s an unnecessary change. Needing to learn how to waterbend is a perfectly acceptable reason to travel somewhere. It is a major part of Aang’s Avatar journey.

Instead, before Aang, Katara, and Sokka arrive at the North Pole in Netflix’s show, it is Aang who teaches Katara to waterbend, imparting the knowledge that he learned from his airbending Masters. That’s all well and good, but then why doesn’t Katara return the favor? And why, when they arrive in the North and Aang confesses that he doesn’t know any waterbending, does no one offer to teach him? Katara gets sent off to learn how to use waterbending to heal with the other women, a scenario straight from the original show, and her subsequent duel with Master Pakku is a shot-for-shot recreation, too.

But when did Katara actually learn to fight like that? The women certainly didn’t teach her how to fight, though they, too, joined the battle against the Fire Nation. Suddenly, and without preamble, Katara is recognized as a waterbending Master, which, of course, solves the problem of who is going to teach Aang to waterbend in the future—but that presents another issue.

What happens if Netflix’s Avatar gets renewed for a second season? Will they rush over Aang’s waterbending lessons? Will they just skip over them entirely? Given the series’ eight-episode season, they may decide to tell the audience that Aang learned how to waterbend off-screen in between seasons.

Netflix’s trademark slow production schedule means the children will undoubtedly age much quicker than they do in the cartoon. Time skips will be involved. Why not take the easy way out and say that Aang has already learned how to waterbend by the time the new season releases? That way, they can focus on Aang’s earthbending, Toph joining the group, and keep pushing the story forward. But if they were so quick to dismiss Aang’s need to learn waterbending, why not skip over his earthbending, too? Why is one discipline more worthy of screen time than the other?

On the other hand, if they do include Aang’s time learning to waterbend, it will inevitably take away from his time learning to earthbend. Either way, a major part of Aang’s journey is simplified and overlooked. Learning the art of waterbending, earthbending, and firebending isn’t just a matter of skill. With each element, Aang learns to look at the world differently and learns to appreciate how each element has its own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, in “Book Three: Fire,” Aang needs to learn the hardest lesson of all—while Fire has the power to destroy and cause harm, it is also warmth, and light, and life.

Will he still learn that same lesson now that the live-action series has seemingly abandoned the cartoon’s simple, straight-forward narrative structure? I’m not so sure.

(featured image: Netflix)


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Author
El Kuiper
El (she/her) is The Mary Sue's U.K. editor and has been working as a freelance entertainment journalist for over two years, ever since she completed her Ph.D. in Creative Writing. El's primary focus is television and movie coverage for The Mary Sue, including British TV (she's seen every episode of Midsomer Murders ever made) and franchises like Marvel and Pokémon. As much as she enjoys analyzing other people's stories, her biggest dream is to one day publish an original fantasy novel of her own.