‘Avatar’ and ‘Korra’ both explored mature themes like death, war, and depression.
While it’s not uncommon for shows ostensibly aimed at kids to tackle mature themes, few shows have ever done so with more intelligence and generosity that Avatar: The Last Airbender. The beloved Nickelodeon series (and its sequel The Legend of Korra) owed that clarity of vision to two men, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who set out to craft epic stories that remained, at their core, deeply human. Throughout the run of both shows, the pair of showrunners injected narratives not only with real stakes, but with personal problems that personal decisions that helped children understand contingency, accountability, and how one thing leads to the next.
On Avatar, death was always in the cards; from the moment that Aang found out his destiny – to stop the Fire Nation from conquering the world – he believed that he had to kill Firelord Ozai. The series never shied away from the morbid nature of his quest, even using it to create some of The Last Airbender’s stickiest dilemmas. In “The Storm,” for instance, Aang runs away because he does not think that he can kill someone, even if it means stopping a war. He’s scared despite being all too familiar with the consequences of inaction. His personal narrative runs counter to the flow of the show and feels, because of the nature of DiMartino and Konietzko’s work, more important.
But the realities on the show were never just internal. Along the way to Avatar’s extremely grand finale, the Aang Gang also encountered genocide, collateral damage, corporal punishment, and war. And none of this could be written off to a one-dimensional evil. The Fire Nation, while at odds with the protagonist, is not assumed to be homogenous or purely malicious.
To get such a mature and consistent point of view across three seasons and 61 episodes, the creators of Avatar had to finesse what they would show without ever transparently retreating from a hard truth. Learning how to do this took time and doing it required a willingness to push back on the studio and on each other.
Fatherly spoke to both DiMartino and Konietzko about the process of making a truly smart and challenging children’s show and that one thing that Nickelodeon wouldn’t let them put on…