Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.
Warning: Major spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar isn’t perfect, but its season finales are pretty damn close. Each of the show’s three seasons ends with that mix of breathless emotion and precise plotting that you only achieve when you’ve thought your story through carefully in advance.
Season 3’s finale, set in the Fire Nation, is grand and operatic. Season 2’s finale, in the Earth Kingdom, is intricate and dark.
And season 1’s finale, in the Water Tribe – Siege of the North – is a master class in pacing, escalating tension, and pitch-perfect payoff.
The plot’s a bit complicated and I won’t try to explain it all, but basically, the Fire Nation (bad guys) is invading the Northern Water Tribe (good guys) with a massive army. The waterbenders (sorcerers, essentially) are stronger when the moon is out, so the Fire Nation general has a plan to kill the Moon Spirit, effectively destroying the moon itself and throwing the entire planet out of balance.
Things are looking bad – it seems like he’s really going to do it –
And then he really does it.
The moon vanishes. The world goes dark. Everything on the screen turns black and white. The Fire Nation is rampaging through the streets. Even the general himself seems horrified by what he’s done. As one character succinctly puts it: “There’s no hope now. It’s over.”
And then Aang, the goofy little kid who would rather braid necklaces than fight anybody, who never wanted to be the Avatar, steps forward, eyes glowing with pure light, and says, in a voice like a chorus of angels:
NO. IT’S NOT OVER.
The precise mechanics of what Aang does are less important than the triumphant music, the gorgeous interplay of color and light and dark, the climax of a conflict that has been brewing for three episodes (and, to a lesser extent, the whole season), that finally reaches its breaking point.
This is what we in the editorial world refer to, professionally, as “wicked sweet.”
Avatar is a criminally underrated show, and – at just 61 episodes of 22 minutes each – the time commitment is minimal. Aang is cool. Spread the word.