The Avatar: The Last Airbender World Is A Messed Up Dystopian Wasteland

Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t just a fantastic animated show, it’s one of the best pieces of television ever produced (and if you loved it, you can check out our list of more shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender). It’s exceptionally well-plotted, has an incredibly intricate yet accessible world, great fight scenes, and characters you instantly fall in love with. But if you really think about the world and the show itself, you’ll start to find some things that are pretty messed up. Seriously, it’s about a group of small children on a dangerous and extremely emotionally stressful quest to save the world. That's objectively pretty horrifying. 

When you delve into everything these kids have gone through, it’s easy to draw conclusions about the world that put them in that situation. Sure, the Fire Nation was pretty awful, but what about the forces of good that are constantly putting Team Avatar in harm’s way? Or the inherent classism associated with bending? For all of it's bright colors and madcap action, Avatar: The Last Airbender is much darker than you think it is. 

  • Non-Benders Are Basically Second-Class Citizens

    Bending is an incredible power. It doesn’t matter what element you can control, if you can bend an element there are a lot of possibilities for you in the world. But if you’re just a normal person who doesn’t have access to the elements (which seems to be a majority of the population), then you’re kind of screwed.

    Keeping up in a fight is more difficult, as is simply getting by. Think about it, why would a foreman hire a non-bending laborer to work on a construction site with their puny arms when a bender can move hundreds of pounds of stone by doing a little Tai chi? The only professional sport that we see in the series, pro-bending, can only be played by benders. So say goodbye to your dreams, normal athletic child mired in poverty. If you can't shoot fire out of your hands, you're basically human garbage. Benders, for the most part, rule the world.  

    To the credit of the writers, they do address this problem in the first season of The Legend of Korra. There’s a revolt among the "common" people against the benders and it makes a lot of sense. The terrifying name of this movement? The Equalists. They just want to be treated equally. Is that so much to ask? 

  • Responsibility For The Entire World Rests On The Shoulders Of One Individual

    The Avatar represents the balances of the four elements (fire, earth, water, and air), and the four nations they represent. The Avatar is so important to this balance, in fact, that Fire Lord Sozin starts planning a genocide the moment Avatar Roku dies.

    Because an Avatar isn’t around to stop him, Sozin is able to invade most of the known world. Of course, from that day forward Sozin becomes paranoid another Avatar might show up to stop him. But seriously, if the world is that reliant on one person to keep it in line… it’s not much of a world is it? That would be like if there was one policeman in New York City. 

  • If The Avatar Is Unstable, The World Is Screwed

    So, if the entire world is subject to the whims of one person, the system of the Avatar universe has a pretty huge flaw: if the Avatar is a bad or unstable person then the world is at their mercy. Sure, Avatars are mentored by their past lives and are generally taught to respect all life… but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll listen to those influences.

    Imagine if Avatar Roku had joined Fire Lord Sozin in his invasion of the world. A lot more damage would have been done. 

  • Fighting Skill Is Determined By Uncontrollable Celestial Events

    Firebenders are strongest during the day, as they draw power from the sun. Waterbenders are strongest at night, as they draw power from the moon. Factor in the influences from comets, eclipses, and even solar flares and you have a very complicated time table required in order to keep track of all the best times of the year to fight.

    The Fire Nation specifically engineers a lunar eclipse (they kill a fish that's also the moon, it's a whole thing don't ask) in order to invade the Northern Water Tribe. While that was a man-made event, waterbenders must get terrified any time there's a lunar eclipse that someone could murder their whole family. Ditto firebenders for solar eclipses. That would be a profoundly horrifying way to live.  

  • Ghosts Are Real, And They Can Literally Rip Off Your Face

    The Spirit World is a pretty f*cked up place. A lot of it is dark, lonely, and humans can get lost there for all eternity. It's also home to the accurately named Koh The Face Stealer. First off, he’s a giant centipede-like creature. Ew.

    As if that wasn’t bad enough, if one shows any emotion around him he’ll rip off your face and keep it for himself. And yes, he totally has a huge collection of faces. So that's charming. Additionally, after he takes your face he can wear it himself whenever he wants. For reference, this show was rated TV-Y7. Does this sound like appropriate material for a seven-year-old? 

  • The War Has Gotten So Bad, Children Have Resorted To Terrorism

    It's a bad time for the world at large at the beginning of the original series. The Hundred Years War has ravaged nations and torn apart countless families. Unfortunately, that means a lot of orphans. The problem is so bad, in fact, that some orphans formed their own terrorist group. Or maybe they're noble rebels. Depends on your perspective, but either way they do some pretty jacked up stuff.

    Led by Jet, the so called "Freedom Fighters" were driven by hatred for the Fire Nation and went to extreme lengths to lash out at firebenders everywhere, regardless of military association. In the episode “Jet,” Team Avatar has to stop the group from wiping out a Fire Nation-occupied Earth Kingdom town full of civilians (including women and children). You know things are bad when even the children get that desperate.