Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Season 2: Good Character Development and a Catastrophic Failure of Worldbuilding

Table of Contents for Avatar: the Last Airbender NickToon show

Review of Season 1 

Review of Season 2

Episode 1: Earthbenders can’t bend metal, but can bend… fireworks which are made from metallic ingredients? What? How can this possibly make sense?

Episode 2: Katara randomly says one of the names of the hippee companions, “Mokou”, but… the side companions of the hippee group never even introduced themselves. Contrived cave trap reasons to create forced romance instead of Katara and Aang growing to like each other naturally.

Episode 5: Massive tonal dissonance. Aang, Katara, and Sokka talk of the urgency of finding an Earthbender in Episode 1, but by Episode 5, they’re wasting time in one city to clear a previous Avatar of their name, for a crime that happened 300 years ago. It doesn’t make any sense to waste time on this, when they know innocent people are losing their lives in a war against the Fire Nation.

Episode 6: Katara physically assaults two strangers to get information from them; similar to Azula strong-arming one of her teammates by making increasingly dangerous circus tricks to force her to join. Protagonist-centered morality at play.

Episode 7: Zuko and Azula’s mom says “What is wrong with that child?” to Azula. Zuko given idiot ball during boring portion related to “save kid from bandits” episode. He and Iroh previously discussed how they would face possible execution of people discovered their identities and yet he openly proclaims it in a town that he knew hated the Fire Nation for all the devastation and loss they suffered from the Fire Nation’s aggression on the Earth Kingdom.

Episode 10: Fetishization of children. The camera zooms in on Toph’s feet when she has her feet propped up on another chair in a relaxed pose. Toph is 12 years old. Since Westerners constantly give Japan ridicule claiming this is somehow the sexual perversion of children, this applies to Western created shows too or should just be accepted as blatant racism against Japanese creative designers.

Sand Benders don’t really make sense: creating an “air twister” is “earthbending” now.

Episode 12: Zuko is easily swayed by Jet and unable to think of the obvious ramifications of his actions. Zuko aids in moronically passing the food to the refugees on the ship or otherwise doesn’t comment on it, making it obvious who stole the food that they were secretly trying to obtain. Idiot Ball, yet again. Also, in the Avatar group’s story section, naming a baby “Hope” is not a unique name; banal writing for the forced story arc involving the pregnant woman.

Episode 12’s naming of “Ba Sing Se” explanation as impenetrable city establishes more than one language and yet no context or meaning for how this other language exists in the world, its history, or why it is no longer used. The fact the meaning had to explained to the main cast opens so many worldbuilding problems. What happened to this other language?

Episode 13: At the end of Episode 12, Aang stops a drill from piercing a wall and is right by the wall which he can fly up towards, but in the opening of Episode 13, he and the gang – which were previously covered in mud from stopping the drill – are in a train filled with civilians. Furthermore, what happened to the rest of the Earth Kingdom soldiers that Ty Lee knocked out? Did the Aang gang just leave them on the ground? While some were seen hospitalized, were they all recovered? The coherence doesn’t make any sense. It’s like they forgot the conclusion of Episode 12. There is no explanation how they suddenly got on the train.

Character Development at the Expense of Worldbuilding

            Zuko’s story arc shows very good character development, but it unfortunately comes at the expense of the worldbuilding. Frankly, Zuko and Iroh’s story doesn’t make much sense from a logical standpoint. The Earth Kingdom depicts various villages angry and vengeful towards the Fire Nation due to the ongoing war between the countries; Zuko’s entire story arc depicts various villagers who have lost loved ones, who are immediately suspicious of any firebender refugees, or who despise Zuko for being Prince of the Fire Nation even when he tries to do good actions. This is all depicted throughout Book II. All of this has the thin veil of credible worldbuilding, but a deeper inspection reveals serious flaws that destroy the coherence of the story. I hate to say it, but Zuko’s entire story arc for Book II of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a massive plot hole. The moment Iroh and Zuko had wanted posters revealing who they were dispersed throughout the Earth Kingdom and they experienced bounty hunters coming after them; such as the two former teachers assigned by Toph’s father to locate and capture Toph to bring her back; the worldbuilding for the entire series fell apart. It simply doesn’t make sense why Zuko isn’t easily recognizable due to his facial features and especially because he’s traveling with Iroh. Iroh is world-famous for his failed siege at Ba Sing Se. It’s an established fact of the story that the siege was long, bloody, and his own son died in it. Even if, for the sake of the argument, not all people were like the bounty hunters looking to make quick cash by bringing Zuko and Iroh to Azula because they despised the Fire Nation, it absolutely stretches suspension of disbelief beyond acceptable levels for why there aren’t Earth Kingdom civilians and soldiers chasing after and attempting to murder Zuko and Iroh. Entire villages should have been chasing them out with a dangerous degree of mob violence. This is an especially egregious failure of worldbuilding because Zuko and Iroh themselves acknowledge in the show that being caught by the Earth Kingdom is a death sentence due to who they are. It doesn’t make any sense why they weren’t captured and imprisoned by the city-state security within Ba Sing Se when everything is operated in a very controlled, authoritarian system.

However, the final death blow to Avatar: The Last Airbender’s worldbuilding comes from the end of the Book II story arc involving Azula. Azula taking over based on “divine right” absolutely destroyed the credibility of the worldbuilding at the end of the Season for the entire show. It effectively becomes dead, because that plot twist is both a massive plot hole and probably among the worst written portions of the entire story. Please understand that is not an exaggeration and please try to keep within the context of the show itself from how viewers experience it. Azula’s family has been at war with the Earth Kingdom since she was a child. Iroh attempted to sack the city back when she was around seven-years old. Azula herself attempted to drill a hole into their outer wall to sack the city. People throughout Zuko’s entire story arc in Book II are shown to loathe and have horror stories of losing loved ones to the Fire Nation throughout multiple Earth Kingdom villages. The people within Ba Sing Se have known of and lost loved ones due to Iroh’s siege and no amount of information control by the Dai Li Secret Police could ever hide a giant wall shaking, even if we assume refugees only spill into the lower sectors of their City-State. Furthermore, there would still be people alive to remember the failed siege and they would have personally lost loved ones to Iroh’s war campaign. Iroh himself is shown to be visiting his late son’s memorial grave by a tree in the outskirts at Ba Sing Se. The people within Ba Sing Se are depicted to hate the Fire Nation because they personally lost loved ones. Why on earth would any of the Dai Li Secret Police ever betray their secret leader, Long Fang, who rules Ba Sing Se from the shadows for the woman whose uncle waged a war campaign that more than likely killed their loved ones, who less than a month ago tried to destroy their peaceful City-State by breaking through it with a giant war-drill in order to sack the city, and who doesn’t have the best interests of their City-State? Why capitulate to the princess of an enemy country that they’ve been warring against for almost a decade? The more you analyze this entire story arc, the worse the worldbuilding problems become. Thus, it cannot be called a serious story because you have to play mental gymnastics to justify what is clearly poor quality writing at best.

Even prior to the plot twist of Azula taking over, there’s no real explanation given for how or why Long Fang can’t work with the Earth Kingdom Generals and the Avatar to hash out a war plan to protect Ba Sing Se or how it could possibly negatively impact their economy when refugees are already pouring in from the outside. The deeper one looks at this entire plot and story arc, the worse the plot holes become. All this to say that while Avatar: The Last Airbender might be a good and even excellent Nickelodeon Cartoon show, it cannot be considered a serious contender for worldbuilding. I couldn’t help but note that the various countries don’t even really have names; “Fire Nation”, “Earth Kingdom”, “Water Tribes”, and “Air Nomads” are templates. They are not actual names to designate different civilizations. Overall, I feel I’ve given this show enough of a fair chance. It’s good for what it does, but the worldbuilding is actually quite poor and clearly overhyped beyond anything it actually deserves recognition for and the plot requires Zuko to be a walking plot hole for the entirety of Book II. That is not a snide comment or an exaggeration . . . that is precisely what Zuko is throughout the Book II story arc.

To end on a more positive note, I believe Aang, Katara, and Toph are all well-written characters who fit exceptionally well into the tropes that they’re meant to fill. My favorite fight scenes are practically any fight scene involving just Aang versus Azula as they’re the most entertaining and creative to the point I found Zuko’s interference in the first encounter to be annoying; Ty Lee’s fighting is actually fun to watch but I’m dismayed how pointless Mai’s character seems to be that I wonder why they didn’t just make Ty Lee and Mai into one character with two sets of fighting styles. I honestly wish Azula’s character was deeper because she’s such an entertaining foil for Aang and she’s probably the best villain the show had due to how great her personality and fight sequences clashed with Aang’s. It was the closest the show ever had to a compelling personal conflict between protagonists and antagonists, but the one-dimensional manner in which Azula is written weakens the entertainment value. The only aspect I disliked from the Aang crew was the protagonist-centered morality. When Sokka and Katara steal, the narrative treats it as an act of “goodness” whereas if Zuko steals, then it is wrong or evil. Nevertheless, the story arc involving Appa’s kidnapping is among the best written of this show. Aang is beside himself with anger and possibly hatred; he’s lost so much that he’s unable to handle the idea of losing his beloved pet who was always a constant in his tumultuously short life. He let’s loose his anger by shouting at Katara about how she’s useless and nearly kills the Sand Benders after the Chief’s son tries to portray them as thieves by using the false-flag of the sand ship that he left for them to discover so that he could claim victimhood. All the poorly written moments trying to push Aang and Katara as a pairing in the first season have nothing on this wordless moment involving Katara that show the depth of her character without her needing to speak a word. Katara looks depressed and deeply upset at the lost opportunity of possibly getting themselves out of the desert due to Aang’s uncontrollable hatred. Yet, instead of lashing out at him for entirely justifiable reasons or to have any sort of comeuppance moment since Aang had previously shouted at her for being useless; she grabs Aang in his Avatar state and simply hugs him because she knows deep down that he doesn’t know how to process his anger and hurt from losing Appa. That is how you write a romance scene; no japes, shitty three-way triangles, or destiny bullcrap. Just simple, wordless compassion for the other person in their moment of need. This was probably the best writing in the show that I’ve seen of the two seasons and it still isn’t enough for me to continue because of how poorly written and mismanaged (in terms of worldbuilding) the entire story arc of Zuko is.

General Bizarreness or I’m reading too much into it: Many of these supposed “Eastern” aesthetics seem to be based on artistic depictions of Native Americans and they’re always given villainous roles. The negative Native American cultural themes seem to extend even so far as the Cactus in the desert in episode 11 of Season 2, which makes Sokka hallucinate. Perhaps I’m overthinking this though.

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  1. Pingback: The Pro-Genocide Narrative of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Season 1 | Jarin Jove's Blog

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