WARNING: spoilers ahead!
I'm gonna start this manifesto off by arguing that Avatar: The Last Airbender isn't a kid's show, rather a show that is marketed at kids, but can be enjoyed by all ages. Because literally anyone can get something out of this incredible show. Truly a masterclass in storytelling.
In a world of elemental magic, Aang, the Avatar, awakens after a century encased in an iceberg, to a changed world. With the help of his friends, Katara and Sokka, Aang must master all four elements (air, water, earth and fire) and restore peace.
ATLA deals with very adult themes like war, genocide, politics, idealogy, honor and redemption - without taking itself too seriously. Thematically it's very similar to a show that's received far more praise, attention and industry accolade: Game of Thrones. But if you compare the two, it's clear which show is superior. Welcome to my TedTalk.
1. The writing is tight
In the words of Ernest Hemingway, 'the key to good storytelling is keep that shit tight,' (at least that's what was written on the back of a napkin I found).
After the success of ATLA Season 1, Nickelodeon ordered 2 more seasons - and only two more seasons (you can learn more about the show's creation in this documentary). This meant that the writers knew they only had 63 episodes to explore the characters, build the world and reach their planned ending.
Setting limits on a series' runtime compels show creators to consider every single minute of screentime; picking and choosing what to keep and what to discard – trimming the fat, so to speak.
If you don't have a plan, you end up losing the plot entirely and creating an eighth season full of haphazard nonsense. For the rest of time, fans will remember all the plot-points and characters, who were built up for eight years, only to be tossed aside, with less meaning than the time Samwell Tarley stole his family sword only to have it never mentioned again.
2. Azula V Daenerys
Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, is one of the most terrifying and unpredictable villains in the series. She's ambitious, powerful and can summon lightning; the rarest form of bending. When she's properly introduced in the second season, her quick temper and proficiency for manipulation is established. As the show progresses, her obsession with power and deep mental instabilities chip away at her. Finally, at the height of her power, she banishes everyone close to her, has a breakdown and gets committed.
Daenarys Targarian spends most of the series collecting new titles; 'khaleesi, queen of the ashes, mother of dragons, the unburnt et cetera', through various political and dragon-y maneuvers. Most significantly she's known as 'the breaker of chains'... until the LITERAL SECOND-LAST EPISODE when she's suddenly a crazed dictator? And we're supposed to believe, that this woman, who's overcome so much bad shit throughout the seasons, suddenly comes undone because her loyal servant is killed and her nephew rejects her sexual advances? Please.
3. One of these redemption arcs is not like the other
There are many parallels between Zuko, banished fire nation prince, and Jaime Lannister, the kingslayer. They're both on the wrong side of history; marginalised by past choices and misunderstood by the majority. But despite some bad behaviour in the beginning, like crippling a child (Jaime) or imprisoning a child (Zuko), a thread of sympathy slowly weaves its way into their stories.
One of the most important lessons in ATLA comes from Zuko's redemption arc; you can be a hero because of your mistakes, not despite them. In a scene that gives me FULL BODY CHILLS to even think of; Zuko begs his Uncle Iroh for forgiveness, who tells him, 'I was never angry with you. I was just sad because I thought you had lost your way. But you found it again.'
Jaime Lannister got so close to this kind of ending, but right when all the hard work is done and he's ready to become a fully-fledged hero, he runs off to die in his sister slash baby mama's arms. So I guess the lesson was, um… incest triumphs over redemption?
4. Speaking of Uncle Iroh
Uncle Iroh isn't in GoT, not even mentioned. He is, in ATLA. Your Honor, that's my entire argument I will take a seat now.
5. There are no Ed Sheeran cameos
Please don't come for me Ed Sheeran fans - he's undoubtedly talented - but when he popped up in GoT it was like watching a dog walk towards you on its hind legs; cute, but it ain't right. There's nothing wrong with the occasion cameo (and GoT has a few), but at least plaster him with white-walker makeup.
Anyway if the GoT writers wanted a sentimental musical moment, they should've looked to ATLA episode 'The Tales of Ba Sing Se'. In another emotionally orgasmic moment, Uncle Iroh sets up a memorial for his son who died in the war. He begins to sing: Leaves from the vine/ Falling so slow/ Like fragile tiny shells/ Drifting in the foam/ Little soldier boy/ Come marching home/ Brave soldier boy/ Comes marching home.
No matter how many times I re-watch ATLA, this part always destroys me. Not only does this moment develop Iroh's character, it's also a touching tribute for Mako Iwamatsu - the original voice actor for Iroh, who passed away after recording his lines for season 2.
6. The character with unique powers actually uses said powers to help the protagonists instead of being a secretive dick
I'm talking about you Bran Stark! He is that kid who takes all the credit on the group assignment without doing any of the work. Despite being one of the most powerful characters by the show's end, he picks up approximately none of the slack. Even in the final confrontation with the Night King, that was like 80% Arya, 19% Theon and 1% Bran - who only gets that one point because he was in the right spot.
Bran spends 4 seasons being carried around by Hodor (who Bran totally screws over) and 4 more acting hella smug and making heinous comments to Sansa (you know the one). Then he just gets to be king? FOR WHAT. WHAT ARE HIS QUALIFICATIONS EXACTLY? Did they cut out the parts where he learns war strategy? Or economic management?
Now let's look at a similar character in ATLA: Toph. She's feisty, she's blind, she can bend physical matter and tell when someone's lying - but you know what the best part is? She actually uses all these abilities to help the other characters to their end goal. Unlike Bran and his dumb bird powers.
7. Here for a good time, not a long time
Before you start burning GoT box sets, I just want to say that I don't want to discredit the 80% of GoT that was really amazing television. Seasons 1 through 6 were suspenseful, exciting, tragic, triumphant and gave people with nothing in common, something to talk about. It's just a bummer that the underwhelming 20%, was also the final 20%. Shows can recover from weak beginnings or mid-sections, but it's much harder to forgive a bad ending.
The proof is in the numbers: GoT had a total of 4,201 minutes of runtime, compared to ATLA with only 1,342 minutes. With a third of the runtime, the ATLA writer's did more with less, proving that a tightly plotted story (even one aimed at kids) can triumph over an epic with a 1.5B dollar budget.
I said, what I said.
To celebrate 15 years of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you can grab the entire series here on Apple, Google Play & YouTube with a special discount until the end of February.
Main Image Credit: Nickelodeon & HBO