I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. So much so that I, in fact, wrote an entire piece on why it’s a damn masterpiece. I will always stand by that, but I do have one teeny weeny complaint about ATLA – energy bending. It’s not that I’m unhappy with energy bending per se, it just felt like a bit of a hack.
From a narrative standpoint, I feel that having Aang kill the Firelord is the only ‘true’ ending. Aang starts off the series afraid and running away from his responsibilities, and this selfish act descends the world into chaos. Throughout the show, he learns what it means to assume this responsibility and protect the world from a man that has thrown off its balance. To rid the world of this man who has committed countless atrocities, justice must be served by the keeper of the world, regardless of personal feelings. As Avatar Yangchen aptly put it,
“Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the world”.
But there’s a massive problem – Nickelodeon. At the end of the day, ATLA is a show aimed at children and showing a character being killed on screen by the good guy is bound to cause a huge reaction from people (parents) who don’t care to know the context. Killing the Firelord was probably rejected by the network itself.
Energy bending presents a logical and actually, excellent alternative to killing the Firelord, but its execution left much to be desired. To explain what I mean, I came up with 3 simple steps that could possibly help to eradicate how underwhelming energy bending feels by addressing its root problems.
1. Have the lion turtles be properly foreshadowed
This one is simple enough – give the lion turtle some screen time. I remember there being so much confusion surrounding the lion turtle when the episode aired, because people weren’t paying attention to the lion turtle motifs (and why would they?). This made the lion turtles, and in turn energy bending seem randomly tossed in. Preventing this is why proper foreshadowing is so important. I don’t think it’s necessary to show the whole huge-ass thing or go into its lore, but it’s important for the characters to acknowledge the existence of such a legendary creature beforehand.
This is where I bring in an instance where the lion turtle makes an appearance in the earlier episodes. In Wan Shi Tong’s library, as Aang is flipping through a buch of scrolls, he comes across an image of the lion turtles. This moment is perfect for foreshadowing. For the foreshadowing to work, one of two things must be explicitly mentioned about the legendary lion turtle – its intrinsic connection to the universe or its role as a sort of deity, according to legend.
2. Have Aang consciously search for and find energy bending
The 3rd season of ATLA revolves around Aang’s character conflict; of his inner battle between choosing his values or his duty to the world. The biggest issue with energy bending is that it solves this conflict all too conveniently – Aang no longer has to choose between the two now that this power has been thrust upon him. This, of course, does not have to be the case. All we need is a little bit of re-framing to show that Aang solves this conflict by finding a solution that addresses both of his desires.
Firstly, Aang should come up with the answer of ‘energy bending’ by himself, even if he needs help to reach this answer. This is absolutely vital for both this step and step 3 as you will see later. Next, instead of making energy bending an alternative, it should be Aang’s resolve. Have it be an answer he actively searches for the night before the battle, instead of having him sleep walk into it. Have its power be considered “unavailable” to Aang, and have him be determined to use it anyway by making his spirit unbendable, which is f*cking difficult.
So the question now is, how will:
1. Aang come up with this answer &
2. make it his resolve? Well…
3. Have the knowledge of energy bending be explained to Aang by Guru Pathik
The fact that energy bending is explained by the lion turtle has always struck me as being misplaced. This is because Aang is not an active participant in the process – he simply acquires the skill like in a video game instead of actually learning it, like in the way he learnt about the Avatar state and chakras. This made his use of energy bending feel unearned.
Here’s where I bring in my underused King – Guru Pathik. Dude was so knowledgeable about the body’s energy flow and the avatar state, he would have been perfect to help Aang realise that energy bending is possible. Aang could have easily used the lion turtle to reach Guru Pathik spiritually. We can even tie in previous plot threads – Guru Pathik could emphasize what a difficult feat energy bending would be given Aang’s failure to open all his chakras. This gives Aang the chance to strengthen his resolve, too.
Let’s put it all together for a cohesive story shall we:
Legendary lion turtle have been established as the keeper of the universe by Wan Shi Tong during the episode “The Library”.
Just before he is destined to fight the Firelord, Aang feels uneasy and abruptly leaves to go talk to Avatar Roku. Just as he is about to set off, a lion turtle appears before him and he is awestruck and drawn to it. On the lion turtle, he talks to the past avatars and then the lion turtle itself, which shows him the act of energy bending (no dialogue).
Confused, Aang uses the lion turtle to channel Guru Pathik, who helps him piece together what makes the Avatar so special – their innate ability to bend all the elements through the common thread that ties these elements together: the energy that flows through one’s body allowing bending to be possible. Aang realises what the lion turtle was showing to him but does not reveal what exactly this innate power is.
Aang returns to fight the firelord and the time to use energy bending arrives. We then see a continuation of Aang’s conversation with Guru Pathik. Aang realises that if he stems the firelord’s energy flow, he can take away his bending. Guru Patick explains how there are extremely severe complications – energy bending is dangerous because your own spirit has to be unbendable and Aang’s previous failure to open all this chakras may mean his own energy is not stable enough to withhold the power of bending another person’s energy.
Aang is confident in his will to both fulfill his duty and uphold his morals; stating that he will never turn his back on the world ever again and the present continues. Aang takes away the firelord’s bending and restores balance to the world.
Whelp, I put way too much time thinking about this lmao. Hope you enjoyed my alternate ending! All pictures are used for commentary purpose.