For a show that usually aired under the “Y-7” rating, Avatar: The Last Airbender could be surprisingly mature. Fans still cherish the series to this day, and a big part of that has to do with how TLA refused to talk down to its audience. The world of Avatar is one with a history of violence, strife and war, and it never shied away from that — even if it meant depicting some of the most brutal deaths in kids show history.
Though The Last Airbender was still finding its footing in the first season, things got heavy pretty quickly. Aang had just awoken from a century long Captain America-style iceberg nap, and found that the world he knew had changed drastically. For one, his people had completely vanished from the face of the planet — hence the title of the series. When Aang finally reaches his old Air Temple, he’s shocked at what he finds.
Piles of ancient corpses blanket the ground, remnants of a battle between the Airbending Monks and the Fire Nation soldiers. In the center of it all is one Airbender, having seemingly fought off dozens of attackers before finally falling in combat.
As we see in flashbacks, Aang actually knew this guy; his name was Monk Gyatso.
This wasn’t like The Goonies, when Mikey has a heart-to-heart with the skeleton of an old pirate named One Eyed Willy. Gyatso was Aang’s mentor, and basically the closest thing he had to a father. And here was his corpse in front of Fire Nation soldiers, implying that Gyatso likely burned alive.
Up to this point, the gravity of his situation hadn’t really hit Aang. Though he was under the ice for 100 years, only days had passed for him — he was still just a kid, after all. It was in this moment that Aang had to come to accept that, on top of his responsibilities as the Avatar, he was truly alone.
We’re already digging into the rough stuff, so let’s take a break and watch Sokka nail this dickbag with a boomerang.
For a good deal of the third season, a silent assassin had stalked the Avatar and his friends. Though Sokka had made light of their pursuer by nicknaming him “Combustion Man,” this dude’s powers were no joke. Through considerable focus, CM was able to shoot what were essentially psychic bombs out of his forehead. According to his backstory, the bounty hunter discovered his abilities when he was just a Combustion Boy, but blew his arm and leg off before he learned to properly channel his substantial powers. The incident left him with metal prosthetic limbs, which honestly only made him more badass.
So how did this guy go out? Well, when Sokka conked this guy on the noggin, it apparently messed with his chi. So Combustion Man had a little accident.
Wow. On one hand, a giant explosion is a pretty painless and rad way to die. But on the list of Embarrassing Punk-Ass Fatalities, nuking yourself with your own forehead eyeball laser is up there with Boba Fett getting nailed by a blind Han Solo and flying into the Sarlacc Pit. The show even makes sure to remove any ambiguity of Combustion Man’s demise by showing his metal arm flying towards the camera (you can see it at the end of the GIF). Think about it: If CM hadn’t been in that accident as a kid, that may well have been an actual bloody limb flying at the screen on Nickelodeon.
Jet’s departure was a little less clear. After getting seriously whaled on by the nefarious Long Feng, the freedom fighter lay motionless on the ground. Everyone around him seems certain they’re looking at a dead man. Though Aang and his friends don’t want to leave Jet, the other freedom fighters insist they’ll take care of their leader.
Remember, Toph’s seismic abilities are such that she can sense whether someone is telling the truth. Though we don’t see him anywhere in the series after this, Jet is done for. The creators even confirmed as much; it seems as though Nickelodeon stopped the show short of confirming that Jet passed on, probably because they didn’t want a kid dying on their kids network.
You know what’s messed up? Nickelodeon is sooo against showing child murder, but they’re up for killing fish any day of the week.
Okay, so that’s not just any fish. That’s Tui, a lunar spirit that lives at the North Pole. General Zhao, one of the Fire Nation’s leading assholes, wiped out Tui in an effort to weaken the Water Tribe. To be clear, killing this magic fish was basically the equivalent of murdering the moon. This is obviously bad for everyone, not just Waterbenders.
Though a girl named Princess Yue sacrificed herself to bring Tui back and restore the moon, her counterpart, La the Ocean Spirit, was pretty pissed off.
In case you didn’t grasp today’s lesson: Don’t fuck with Water Spirits, because they will take the form of a giant human hand and drown you.
Zhao doesn’t show up for the rest of the series, but that doesn’t mean he was done with forever. He actually shows up in Legend of Korra. Decades after TLA, Aang’s kids Tenzin and Kya wander into a spirit forest while looking for their lost kin. After they become trapped in the Fog of Lost Souls, a familiar face shuffles by.
Yep, that’s our Zhao, still kicking years and years after his apparent death. Turns out the Ocean Spirit hadn’t dragged Zhao to a watery grave — it dragged him to purgatory. The Fog of Lost Souls itself is a living spirit, infecting its prisoners and slowly driving them insane. By the time the gang runs into Zhao, he’s been suffering in psychic agony for generations. Rambling borderline incoherent gibberish, Zhao mistakes Tenzin for his father, vowing to capture the Avatar once and for all.
I think we can agree that some fates are worse than death. In comparison, getting struck by lightning doesn’t seem so bad.
It’s easy to forget, but Aang actually died at the end of the second season. Even though he was in the Avatar State, Azula still managed to fry the poor guy. Of course, Katara managed to save Aang with water from Tui and La’s Spirit Oasis, but the instant reversal doesn’t negate the fact that millions of kids everywhere just saw the slaying of a preteen.
At least that emotional rollercoaster was relatively short-lived. Poor Uncle Iroh isn’t so lucky.
I know. I know. Bringing up Tales of Ba Sing Se is like repeatedly stabbing your emotions with a dull butter knife . But we can’t talk about deaths in The Last Airbender without acknowledging the most touching moment in the series. Though Uncle Iroh’s segment in this episode is short, it cements what we already know about him: He’s a kind old man who means well, even though he technically worked for the “bad guys.”
After witnessing multiple instances of Iroh’s kindness and selflessness, we see him walk up a hill and set up a small tribute. Then he starts singing. And crying. And then we start crying.
It’s a very private memorial service for Lu Ten — Iroh’s son, who perished in the Siege of Ba Sing Se. Iroh confesses that he wishes he could have helped his son. In a way, every stranger Iroh aids on his journeys is a stand-in for his son, who he never got to save. Earlier in the episode, Iroh sang the song “Leaves From the Vine” to soothe a crying boy. Now in front of the memorial, the lyrics take on a new and heartbreaking context.
Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home
If that wasn’t enough to onionbend your eyes, it’s worth noting that this episode is dedicated to Mako Iwamatsu, the voice of Iroh for the first two seasons. Iwamatsu, a beloved actor also known for voicing Aku in Samurai Jack, died of esophigal cancer not long before the segment aired. It’s okay to admit it: This hurts way more than lightning or fire ever could.
Tristan Cooper can be found on Twitter.
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