When Netflix announced they would be adding Avatar: The Last Airbender to their streaming platform, I literally squealed.
Avatar is not only one of the best cartoon shows ever to air, but one of the best shows in existence period. The way it is able to tell stories with such mature themes like war, death, and prejudice while appealing to people of all ages, races, and countries is nothing short of masterful.
To this day I cannot think of a single show that is as universally loved as this one.
However…that isn’t to say everything about the show is perfect.
In my opinion, the romances in this show are its greatest Achille’s heel. A lot of the usual care and maturity that is placed in every other element of the show is strongly absent when it comes to the “development” of these relationships, and it often acts as a hinderance to the overall story.
That isn’t to say all the relationships in this show don’t work, but they tend to be very hit or miss.
Emphasis on miss.
Now that Avatar has been thrust into the public eye again, I’ve decided to take the opportunity to air some grievances I have with some of the more popular relationships (or “ships”) in the show in a series of blog posts.
Because I apparently really enjoy making people angry, let’s start with discussing the show’s most noteworthy couple: Aang and Katara.
In The Beginning Was Kataang
When the series begins, Aang and Katara have a lot of chemistry.
Aang’s exuberance and carefree attitude complements Katara’s loving, compassionate nature perfectly. They both share a true passion for helping those in need and, for all appearances, have a deep spiritual connection with one another.
Like any great couple, they make up for what the other lacks. Since her mother’s death, Katara has had to take on much more adult responsibilities, and so when Aang arrives, he is able to remind her that she is still a kid and needs to have fun. Conversely, Katara’s maturity helps Aang become more grounded and secure in his position as Avatar and less negligent and flaky of his responsibilities.
Everything changed when the Fire Nation season attacked.
Up until the Season 2 finale, the show makes a reasonably compelling case as to why these two could potentially form a meaningful romantic relationship. However, as soon as Season 3 comes around, all attempts to make them out to be a feasible couple are unceremoniously dropped.
There are some quiet, introspective scenes with them together, but more often than not, they end with one of them shouting at the other. Gone are the scenes where they hug it out or share hope-filled speeches with one another, replaced by bizarre dream sequences and painfully awkward confrontations.
The Beginning of the End
When Aang and Katara meet outside of the submarine prior to the solar eclipse, Aang kisses Katara before immediately taking off to take down Ozai.
Her reaction to the kiss is not surprise, nor wonder.
This reaction was the first true indication to me that there was something not quite right about this pairing. While it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for her to be shocked at his unexplained advance towards her, I hadn’t anticipated her looking so sad by it.
I think the question on most people’s minds at this point is why? Why is she so upset if she’s supposed to be so in love with him?
Well, apparently the writers’ didn’t want you to think too deeply about it, because it is never explained.
In fact, this scene isn’t addressed again until the season is more than halfway over.
We will get to that later.
The Southern Raiders
I knew from the start Katara and Aang would be together by the end of the show. Subtlety has never been Bryke’s strong suit in the romance department, so it was obvious to the point of redundancy.
Even after the jaw-dropping kiss, I thought for sure the creators were going to make Kataang endgame. Why else would they commit so much time to attempting to charm us with Aang’s frankly childish crush, if not for it to ultimately pay off?
However, once The Southern Raiders aired, I seriously called into question whether or not they had changed their minds.
In this episode, Zuko—hoping to win Katara’s approval as a member of the gaang— tells her he knows the identity of the man who killed her mother and offers to help her find him so she can bring him to justice for his crimes.
While it would be out of character for Aang to co-sign on this plan, his moral condescension in this scene is frankly staggering. They way he talks to her is less like a concerned friend (and prospective lover), and more like a pretentious shoulder-angel that is above human emotions. He spouts platitudes, casts unsolicited moral judgements on her, and continuously asks her to forgive the man who ruined her life because “righteousness.”
You would think this would be a great opportunity to develop their relationship more considering the emotional weight Katara is under in this episode.
I can’t think of a single reason why Katara and Aang couldn’t have shared a moment where they discuss the issue in private. Aang could have told her he was worried because he loves her and thinks this could potentially wind up hurting her and Katara could have either evaded the “I love you” or done her “I don’t know right now” routine. Instead they never discuss the incident one-on-one and it’s never addressed again after this episode.
I’m all for the central focus being on Katara and her struggle, but it’s bizarre that the events of this episode wouldn’t have a long-lasting effect on their future interactions.
The Southern Raiders was a huge eye-opener for me as a viewer. While I wasn’t the most ardent supporter of Katara and Aang, I didn’t think it was a completely outlandish possibility for them to become a couple. However, this episode truly shines a light on how far they have grown apart as characters.
Aang—in spite of his growth throughout the series—is still a child with painfully unrealistic views of how the world works. Views which unfortunately, more or less, go unchallenged in the narrative.
In fact, I believe the creators did Aang a massive disservice in the long-run by giving him this cop-out of an ending. If he had been willing to set aside his own selfish desires to be the hero the world needed him to be, he might have proved himself a worthy partner for Katara. Instead, she is handed to him on a silver platter like a token rather than a human being with agency. This not only cheapens Katara’s character growth, but Aang’s as well.
But I digress.
Katara, on the other hand, is a pragmatic character by this point. She still has an optimistic spirit, but she has been burned many times and sees the world in darker hues than her wide-eyed season 1-2 counterpart. She isn’t the guileless little girl from the Southern Water Tribe that needs to be rescued from her provincial life anymore. She’s a warrior physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
It becomes clear in The Southern Raiders their differences no longer complement, but outright conflict with one another.
Their age difference is no longer a gap.
It’s a chasm.
This, however, isn’t the final nail in the Kataang coffin for me.
That honor belongs to the next episode.
The Ember Island Players—The Death Knell of Kataang
In The Ember Island Players, the Gaang discover a play about them performed by the titular Ember Island Players. They attend the event expecting to have a fun night out, only to find themselves portrayed as caricatures that emasculate, humiliate, and trivialize their inner struggles. During the play, the character of Katara fauns over the character of Zuko. Upon seeing this, the real Aang becomes enraged and leaves, forcing Katara to go after him to try and calm him down.
I’ve transcribed the following scene because I believe it incapsulates perfectly what is wrong with this pairing . All of Kataang’s foibles are on display here and even the most gung-ho Kataang supporters are reluctant to defend it.
Aang: Katara, did you really mean what you said in there?
Katara: In where? What are you talking about?
Aang: On stage! When you said I was like a brother to you and you didn’t have feelings for me.
Katara: I didn’t say that. An actor said that.
Aang: But it’s true, isn’t it? We kissed at the invasion. And I thought we were going to be together. But we’re not.
Katara: Aang…I don’t know.
Aang: Why don’t you know?
Katara: Because we’re in the middle of a war and we have other things to worry about. This isn’t the right time.
Aang: When is the right time?
Katara: Aang, I’m sorry, but right now I’m a little confused.
**Aang kisses her; Katara pulls away in dismay**
Katara: *angrily* I just said I’m confused!
Katara: I’m going inside.
Let’s do an autopsy of this scene: When Aang is talking about his romantic feelings towards her, she acts uncomfortable. She tugs on her hair. She hugs herself. She avoids eye contact. When Aang kisses her, she recoils instantly and lashes out in frustration.
What about this exchange is supposed to convey to the audience that Aang’s feelings are in any way reciprocated?
From where I am sitting, there is no room for ambiguity or nuance. It’s quite clear to anyone with the mental maturity of a gnat that this is a rejection of Aang’s advances pure and simple. The only way it could have been more obvious is if she came out and told him “I’m not interested in you.”
So why doesn’t she? It could be any number of reasons. Perhaps she is worried that such a rebuff could effect his performance on the day of the comet. Perhaps she is simply attempting to spare his feelings because she wants to maintain a friendship with him in spite of her lack of romantic interest in him.
We will never know.
Because this is the last one-on-one conversation they have with one another in the entire series…
They never talk about her initial rejection of his advances, nor her inexplicable turn-around.
They are just thrown together literally at the last minute and the credits roll.
Aang flagrantly disrespects her boundaries, makes emotional demands on her, invades her personal space, and his reward…is a kiss?
Nothing is resolved. Nobody grows. It’s all just forgotten about and we’re meant to accept this ship into our hearts as the show’s One True Pairing…
When you do some digging into behind-the-scenes interviews with the creators, their decision to “give” Katara to Aang is a little…you know…
I’m not one to shout the s-word because I believe it’s trite and overused at this point, but when you treat an otherwise well-written character with brains, ingenuity, and heart as a commodity for the main character to get as a reward, it’s hard to think of it as anything else but.
If they reconciled before the kiss, or bothered to explain her hesitancy at all I could forgive this, but…they don’t.
As far as I’m concerned, Katara’s reluctance to be with Aang can only be categorized as one of two things: One, a paltry attempt on the writers’ end to drum up superficial tension before the big finale; or two, a bigger indication of what’s wrong with this pairing.
Before this scene, I found Katara and Aang’s relationship to be a bit dull and predictable. However, after the series finale, I found this ship downright insulting.
What sort of message does this send? If you force yourself on someone long enough they will consent to you? You know what’s best for your crush even though they don’t? You don’t have to grow or be a better person for the one you love?
The amount of immaturity exemplified in this scene is downright mind-boggling and I still can’t understand why people defend this pairing even to this day.
One would think that the post-series comics would be a perfect way to iron out the more problematic aspects of Aang and Katara’s relationship, but you would be wrong. If anything it makes the Kataang relationship look even worse than the show did. If that is even possible.
The Promise (which takes place directly after the series finale) shows a happy love-struck Aang and Katara who are totally enamored with each other and…I’m not gonna lie, it’s probably one of the cringiest things I’ve ever seen.
Katara is so out of character in these comics, it’s genuinely painful to read. When she isn’t calling Aang “sweetie”, she is busy reminding all and sundry that the Avatar is her boyfriend all the time.
And I mean all the time.
Someone please explain to me how you can go from “Aang, I’m sorry, but right now I’m a little confused” to “BE THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN!!”
Okay, so she doesn’t say that last line exactly, but she brings up the two of them potentially having children together…even though they are both less than 16 years old at this point.
It would also seem she has very little to do with the plot now that she’s the Avatar’s Girl, apart from complain about the fangirl’s vying for his attention.
She’s the Avatar’s rock and that is now her only function.
I can’t be the only one that sees something wrong with this.
This is Katara. She is a master waterbender. She can bend people’s blood for godsake. What have you done to my girl?
While I’m aware Avatar is so much more than its romances, I can’t help but feel like they had an effect on the overall quality of the show. Is it still a wonderful program? Of course. But I believe it could have been even better if the creators hadn’t been so hell-bent on keeping the Aang and Katara ship afloat.
But they aren’t the only poorly contrived relationship.
Next up is Mai and Zuko…
Thank you for reading!