THE (S)HE-RO'S JOURNEY 3: Villains and Dragons and Fire, Oh My!
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
--THE YIN-YANG RABBIT HOLE SERIES - If you haven't at least read this opening sex, language & violence content warning with its (non)binary discussion of the Feminine & Masculine polarity, I suggest you do before reading any of this series. If you skip it...well...you've been warned.
--THE (S)HE-RO'S JOURNEY - Not Your Customary Character Arc
--THE (S)HE-RO'S JOURNEY 2 - Balance: The Disturbance In My Force
For the past two posts, I've gone off at length about why I was so heartbroken over the way Star Wars ended its Skywalker Saga, and rest assured, there is more to be said about it. But today we're switching perspectives to a story that gives me what I need for a full "Hells Yeah!" satisfaction, rather than an "I can live with that" ending. (Or the desire to Force-choke somebody.)
The subject of today's post was also created as a kid's show, yet tackles important life issues. Like Star Wars, it is also told in three distinct acts (with other spinoff material), and it's set in a fantastical world where an Evil Bad Guy with his Evil Empire has taken over and oppressed everyone in their path. These other Dark Siders have also stooped to subjugation, brutalization, and even genocide in their quest to "bring enlightenment to the world." They are also on track to use a super-weapon to enforce this rule once and for all, and therefore have "peace"--the Bad Guy's way.
On the other side, we have another ragtag rebel force assembled en route from a variety of plucky characters determined to save the world from the Evil Empire, including a pair of endearing, non-human, comic relief pals. Foremost among this band we also have a Chosen One with extraordinary powers, who struggles with love vs. attachment. He even abandons his training and responsibilities to save a friend when he has a vision of her peril. And he shoulders the impending destiny of defeating evil and restoring Balance to the world.
Over and over, we hear about this destiny. Restore Balance. Kindle Hope. Bring Peace--inner peace to ravaged spirits and harmony to this war-torn world.
And by the end of it, oh they do.
Is the story perfect? Nah. Do I care? Nope. Is the balance and peace permanent? Of course not. But yin-yang is not a static force. It's eternally in motion, like life. (8)
Remember all those binaries I've been blathering about, all the way back to the beginning of this whole series? The subject of today's post doesn't just talk about Balance. They DO Balance between them all:
Anima and Animus.
Yin and Yang.
Dark and Light.
Violence and Innocence.
Protection and Vulnerability.
Romance and Quest.
Sex and Power (Since it's a Nickelodeon show, it's understated but it is there. C'mon, the shirtless bird-flutter moment, the Fire Dance duet in the cave, the tent-licious third-wheel moment...)
Masculine and Feminine.
Responsibility and Personal Desires.
Mercy and Wrath.
Trauma and Healing.
Love and Attachment.
Hope and Despair.
Nature and Machine.
Destruction and Creation.
Finally, it restores the original symbiosis that used to exist between the currently warring sides: Earth, Air, and Water against what has become the Evil Empire of Fire.
See? We even use the familiar hellacious motif of Fire = (D)Evil, paired with that classic demonized Yin/Feminine/Dark Side symbol, the serpentine Dragon. (8)
But there are a few major deviations to this customary trope that my favorite animated series uses. This tale runs a good chance of being my favorite TV series period. Like, if there could Be Only One forever and ever, I would take a serious moment to make sure. But it's highly likely that this show would be The One.
Yes, indeedy, I'm talking about Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
(And no. NOT the abomination of a movie that couldn't even be bothered to get the pronunciation of main characters' names right. Seriously?! "Soak-ah"?! What the--? Did y'all even watch the show?!)
Okay, I'm not here to go off about that. I'm here to tell you why this kid's cartoon gives me what I need. Why I binged it so hard, so obsessively, and for so long that it gave me a flat butt. (Covid and an abrupt lack of martial arts and dance classes may have also contributed.) Why, upon finishing the first binge, I turned around the very next day and started at S1E1 all over again, but this time with a spreadsheet open to analyze what, precisely, they had done to me as storytellers, and how.
So buckle up. I'm about to go full-on Gnork. (Geek, nerd, and dork, duh.)
Warning: Avatar - The Last Airbender spoilers ahoy! In my best Snape-voice: OBBBBviously.
For any of y'all who are not familiar with this masterpiece of deep, mythological, philosophical life-changing lessons disguised as a kiddy cartoon, this is where it starts:
Woooot! That just makes me so happy.
What they didn't tell us in this opening is that the show is called The Last Airbender because that's what Aang is. After learning that he was the Avatar, he ran away. While he was busy accidentally freezing himself into an ocean bubble for a century, the Fire Nation wiped out every other living Airbender because they knew the next Avatar would reincarnate into the Air Nomads.
But they missed one.
RESPONSIBILITY & PERSONAL DESIRE
When we begin, Zuko, the banished Fire Prince, is on the hunt for the Avatar. Capturing him will restore Zuko's inheritance of the throne and his lost honor--or so he believes. But it is two Water Tribe siblings who find Aang and release him from the ice. As the seasons continue, our Avatar-in-the-Making travels around the world in his quest to master the other three elements. He learns Water and Earth, but loses control of Fire and vows he'll never Firebend again!
Who needs stupid Fire when you're the only Air Badass in the world!
Shenanigans ensue. Battles are won; battles are lost; hearts are broken; hope is rekindled. Aang eventually does learn Firebending from the most unlikely person ever: Zuko, along with revelations from the long-lost masters of the art. The series culminates with The Big Battle when the Fire Lord is pumped up on the super-steroids of a comet. Our Hero now faces his greatest test.
Cue spooky music: How can Aang defeat the Fire Nation, bring peace to the world, and restore Balance to the elements without killing the Big Bad Guy, Fire Lord Ozai?
Because Aang, like his exterminated people, is a vegetarian, a nomad, and a pacifist. Normally, the Avatar has to put aside personal preferences, desires, and honor for the sake of maintaining Balance in the world. But Aang also carries the sole burden of keeping the Airbender traditions alive on his shoulders. Child-sized shoulders. Because in spite of this violent world he's been charged to make right, he's still a sweet, sensitive, fun-loving kid who wasn't ready to become the Avatar and lose his innocence.
So how can he possibly balance those three conflicting needs?
TRAUMA & HEALING
LOVE & ATTACHMENT
One of the biggest complaints about this series is that the final battle and Aang's dilemma are resolved with two "shaky plot conveniences."
I actually had to choose the Phone-A-Friend option myself to come to terms with the outward-jutting rock he gets thrown into at the precise spot in his spine where his energy has become blocked--in the heart-chakra, fittingly enough. He'd been blasted with lightning at the end of Season 2, which has been preventing him from going into the Avatar State and whupping Four-Element butt.
With some help, I realized my issue the other day: I had my logical Fight Analysis Brain on and it kept saying, "Pfffft, that would never happen! C'mon! There just happens to be a rock in the perfect shape and he just happens to get thrown into it at the exact--"
Because this is a Fantasy cartoon using a vivid, slow-mo metaphor to encapsulate trauma triggering, not a realistic combat sequence. Thanks, Cowboy, for walking me through this one, because my subconscious got it. My heart got it. But my over-thinker, hyper-literal brains kept getting in mah way.
Yes, indeed. Like always, we're back to the dastardly heart, personal love, and that pesky thing called Attachment, which was Aang's big issue to begin with. From his earliest days, he had only been able to go into his superhero Avatar State in extreme peril or rage, so a Guru offered to teach him how to access it at will and control it by opening and healing his chakras.
This scene is one of my favorites in the show, and deserves a moment unto itself. I'm a passionate believer that these techniques should be taught in every school. The first time I watched it, I had to hit Rewind and then pause at each chakra so I could personally update my own chakras alongside Aang. (Since I'm not the Avatar, it takes me a little longer than it takes him. Heeee!)
Yeah. This from a "kiddy show."
My first three-month initiation into this type of cleansing and balancing sparked one of the most revelatory healing transformations in my life.
And just like with Aang--BLAM!--it was immediately challenged. Go figure. That catastrophic loss gave me a wad of scar tissue in my spine at the precise location of my heart-chakra that makes it impossible for those vertebrae to flex correctly. Eventually, my spine took a sharp jag around it and started twisting my ribcage, as well as everything above and below it.
Over and over, I work with this wound. Over and over, I regain the ability to collapse in mourning of what I have lost, then to stand up straight again. Over and over, I relearn how to love myself enough that I'm willing to stand up for myself. I learn to open my arms and love others, as well as receive their love, and to release my greedy, grabby attachment to it.
I have an even worse wound in my neck--in my throat-chakra. These original childhood wounds come from having my voiced needs ignored or pooh-poohed, my "NO" violated, my truths shut down, ridiculed, punished, or attacked, and especially from that big choke-chain I put on myself as a result. When I dance, I tell many secret truths in an enigmatic medium you can interpret as you will. But when I write--and actually post it--it is nothing short of revolutionary for me to tell you who I am.
I am still extraordinarily uncomfortable doing it. But I do it anyway, because it helps heal this most damaged of all my chakras.
There is also no surprise to me that I have so many hip and pelvic issues, which are connected to the issues in the base of my spine and my sacrum. Fear-fear-fear and the sense that I don't belong among the breathing because there's just "something intrinsically wrong with me, and always has been"--Chakra 1. And of course, the aspect of Chakra 2 that Nickelodeon didn't cover: sex-trauma, sex-trauma, sex-trauma.
The body does truly keep the score. (6, 7)
But the more that I work with these energetic issues, the faster my body heals; the more techniques I discover to heal my body, the easier it is to release the locked energy in their corresponding mental/emotional issues.
Due to this symbiosis, I'm a fan of approaching them from both directions simultaneously.
With Aang at the end of Season 2, he had just finally released his attachment to his love for Katara, which was the final chakra key that had been preventing him from accessing the Avatar State. The angelic choir sounded. Avatar Aang arose, glowy eyes, glowy arrow 'n' all and--
He got zapped by lightning and then got dead. Katara and her Spirit Water resurrected him, but when he enters The Big Battle against the Fire Lord, he still carries that wound in the center of his spine. Even learning all four elements can't unlock his Avatar State, because it's his greatest traumas all wadded up in his heart chakra that block him.
Attachment to and fear of losing more of his heart-people than he's already lost.
Fear of Firebending and the fact that he accidentally burned the girl he loves with it.
Fear of being the Avatar at all.
Zuko's backstabby moment of betrayal.
Plus, with that lightning zap, Aang lost a really important battle and almost died in the Avatar State which would have ended the Avatar cycle for all time.
Oh yeah, and he's still the Last Airbender so his people would have died out, too.
With old, deep, unhealed trauma wounds, all it takes is the most perfectly placed fingertip on just the right button at just the right moment. BOOM. Trauma trigger. If we haven't already done significant inner work on the issue, it can explode us. Implode us. Cripple us. Shut us completely down. Whereas, once the foundation for healing has been laid and we've diligently practiced working with it, a re-triggering of a trauma can be the greatest liberation moment of our lives. (6, 7)
That's what the "convenient" rock now represents to me. The precision re-triggering of Aang's greatest traumas, the moment he takes to draw within and address them, and the unblocking of his greatest power as a result.
INNOCENCE & VIOLENCE
MERCY & WRATH
The other big complaint is the Deus Ex Machina of Aang defeating the Fire Lord using a different kind of bending than we've ever seen before. He learned this skill when he got lured onto a mysterious island just before the Big Battle. Turns out, the island is a ginormous and ancient LionTurtle, who teaches him how to bend the energy in a person, rather an element. With this power, Aang takes away the Fire Lord's bending instead of killing him.
Sure, I wish the LionTurtles had been a little more overtly mentioned throughout the series. Otherwise, I don't have a problem with this, because Aang is the bloody Avatar. If anybody is going to be able to summon a LionTurtle out of his butt, it's the Avatar!
But it's really not out of nowhere. He's only been calling out to every force in the Universe about this and asking everybody he knows. He even begged every incarnation of his Avatar self to help him figure out how to fulfill his destiny without having to off his enemy. He's been sending out this energy for episode after episode before the Big Battle.
That's why I didn't find it the cheap kind of Deus Ex. I mean, it's not like the LionTurtle appeared in a magical flash from the clouds, and it certainly didn't do the work for Our Hero. This mystical creature emerged off the coast in the middle of the night. I figured that it had been swimming toward the Avatar's desperate plea for awhile before it snuck in and sent out its own call.
The way I took it was that the LionTurtle came to bestow this teaching the same way the Gugu knew he had to teach Aang the chakras. Bwong. Because the Avatar needed it and it was time--something everybody in this world who is super attuned just knows.
After centuries of Avatars offing enemies or getting snuffed by them whenever they show mercy and don't kill, somebody was finally ready for this ancient Medicine. You have to be Unbendable to use it, and Aang has been refusing to budge on three conflicting needs: fulfilling his destiny as the Avatar by defeating the Fire Lord, yet keeping the ways of his people alive and staying true his own heart and honor code by not killing Ozai.
Aang is determined to find the Balance among this tricky trio, and nothing is going to convince him otherwise. Hence, why the LionTurtle bestows this boon upon Aang of all Avatars--because for episode after episode he's been making himself Unbendable.
And yeah. Not killing the Fire Lord left holes for future conflicts.
War and Peace are no more static or perpetual than Day and Night, than Inhale and Exhale, than Creation and Destruction.
I don't need Peace Forever & Ever to feel satisfied with a Happy Ending. I am okay with the fact that it will always be Peace For Now. Just like the Romance genre's Happily Ever After is usually more like Happy For Now. I mean, how would we continue growing and learning if everything got to a place of comfort, peace, and happiness and just...stayed there?
That's a fast way to take things for granted. To get lazy and sloppy. To rest on laurels. Struggle is often one of the potent pieces of growth and true joy. And rest assured. Eventually, somewhere, somehow there will always be a new Bad Guy.
MASCULINE & FEMININE
ROMANCE & EPIC QUEST
SEX/LOVE & POWER
Speaking of Happy Endings, I had no problem with all the slow-burn development of the romantic subplots in this series either. I didn't even have my usual issues with the Big Kiss Ending of Aang and his love interest, Katara, because their connection had been so thoroughly developed from genuine friendship and partnership. Plus, they're kids. We know they have tons more growing up to do before they can really be together, and this is our subplot, not our main plot.
I loved that, although there was a momentary Love Triangle energy, it did not derail anything. Neither did the romance aspects ever change who anybody was. In fact, romance only augmented the characters' development and brought out the best in them. They certainly weren't put in the ultimatum of Personal Love OR Heroism...Sex OR Power. Attachment to love needed to be released, yes, but in the end, all our (s)he-roes and redeemed villains got to have the love they needed most, whether romantic or not.
The Warrior Woman whupped Warrior Boy's butt and embarrassed him until he got over "getting his ass handed to him by a girl." Then he devoted himself not only to learning from her, but to loving her. This connection was an important part of Sokka's transformation into Warrior Man.
And no, he didn't lose his Dick Card when it happened--cross-dressing included. It only highlighted his inner strength while his outer strength grew to match it. He also didn't have to out-warrior her once he'd grown into his teeth solely because he has the penis. Even him rescuing her from prison didn't transform her into a suddenly-helpless damsel. They were true partners on and off the battlefield, only becoming better and stronger for their connection.
The same was true with Aang and Katara. I mean, come on. He's the Avatar. So even though she's a Waterbending prodigy who works her butt off, he still outpaced her--and yeah, she had to learn to stuff her own ego about being bested. He had to learn not to be a clueless chest-puffer about it. And then it wasn't a friggin' issue anymore.
The issue also didn't have anything to do with the fact that she was a girl and he was a boy. They were just benders--Waterbender and Avatar. Teacher and student, then fellow students, then allies. Friends. Slowly, tentatively, sweetly falling in love.
Even Fire Prince Zuko firebending romantic lanterns on a date or giving seashells and ice cream to his slit-eyed, pursey-lipped, sourpuss girlfriend wasn't out of character due to romantic tripe. On his date, he totally shut down--classic Zuko for where he was in his arc. Then later, Mai stayed sour-pussy until she could... sorta... grudgingly... well, okay... melt a little bit. And Zuko's romantic efforts were some of the earliest seeds of his final break from his father's yoke. It was a long-lost echo of the sweet, sentimental boy he had been alongside his mother before he lost her and was indoctrinated into Evil Daddy's expectations, ruthless punishments, and triangulation against Evil Sister Azula.
Zuko's romances contributed to his bigger arc, instead of distracting from or derailing it. In the end, it's one of the things that saved his butt when Mai realized that she loved him more than she feared Azula--another powerful transformation moment, and another Dark Sider redemption arc.
A double-header, actually, because Mai's best friend also Turns in order to save Mai from Azula's lightning zap. Thus, Ty Lee is rewarded with the sisterhood she's always longed for when Azula throws her in prison.
Crusty, badass Earthbender Toph doesn't get a romantic arc either. Instead, she gets what she needs even more--connection, belonging, trust, and the love of a new Chosen Family to replace the one who never understood her. Iroh gets a badass brotherhood and the thing he wants most: he gets his nephew back. And do NOT get me started on Appa & Momo's tales. I will start bawling again never stop.
Le-siiiigh...le-swooooon. Love twuely does conquer all.
At least in the Fantasies I love most.
Commercial Break: Something I realized as I was corralling these Bitmojis. When it comes to Romance, I'm like...a strange combo of Team Azula. I'm as pessimistic and prickly as Mai, yet as sproingy, sentimental, and sunny as Ty Lee, while Azula's attempts to chillax at a party and flirt hit waaaaay too close to home.
Seriously. I felt called out.
Annnnd now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Brought to you by
🔥🔥 SUPER🤘SERIOUS🤘SHIT! 🔥🔥
(I may or may not have needed to rewind that scene. Several times. Ahem.)
FORGIVENESS, REDEMPTION & TRANSFORMATION
This is probably the biggest reason why I adore this series so hard. I don't only mean Aang's satisfying transformation. Starting as the goofy kid who just wants to play and is always zipping out of conflict, responsibility, and danger on a speedy air-bubble...through reluctant but responsibly atoning Avatar-in-Training...into Avatar Aang. *cue angelic choir again*
I don't only mean Katara's transformation into a Waterbending Master when she started out teaching herself in the boonies of the South Pole. Or brash, lone-wolf Earthbender Toph into The First Metalbender and an integral member of the Gaang. Or all-heart, shaky-confidence Warrior Boy Sokka into Battle Badass and Haiku Master of Wooing.
More than anyone, I'm talking about good ole Zuko. Go figure our walking, growling flame-thrower has one of my favorite character arcs EVER WRITTEN. Naturally. This redeemed villain actually has an arc far closer to the Heroine's Journey (what I prefer to call the Balance Arc) than the Hero's Journey (the Quest Arc). (1, 2)
A refresher in case you missed it:
Our banished evil-empire Fire Prince starts out desperately seeking approval from the Masculine, he's been separated from the Feminine, and he's on a massive, single-minded quest. Then he gets everything he ever wanted, realizes how hollow it is, and abandons it all, making multiple blunders and descents until he finally heals countless wounds and imbalances inside himself before arising to bring this elixir to the world as the new and improved Fire Lord.
Oh yeah, and in the bonus material, he completes the full Balance Arc by reconnecting with and restoring his mother as well as eventually learning how to stop reaching for the One Ring of his family's inherited toxic, oppressive, fire-hoser ways.
Even the classic demonization of Fire gets a transformation arc.
The main goal of the Airbender trilogy is not the annihilation of evil. Otherwise Aang would have snuffed Ozai in the final battle. Rather, the main goal is to genuinely bring Balance back to an unbalanced world. So within, so without. So over and over it's made clear that Fire is not inherently bad, that it's really about how the element is used and for what purpose.
In the words of the Sun Warrior Chief: "Fire is Life. Not just Destruction."
As a quintessential Fire Sign,"The Masters" was the most inspiring scene of them all for me--and yes, I bawl every time. Up until this moment, nearly all we've seen for three seasons is that Fire is power, anger, destruction, and oppression under the guise of "bringing enlightenment to the world."
Zuko's firepower has always come from rage, so he's lost his juice now that he's fighting alongside the Avatar against the Fire Nation. At the same time, Aang has been too terrified of losing control of fire again, so he remains unbalanced in all four elements and thus, unable to truly BE the Avatar.
They seek out the key to Firebending from its source:
And check it! Zuko doesn't have to sacrificially die to be redeemed from his years as a Dark Sider. Neither does his uncle Iroh. This is another brilliant transformation and redemption arc that makes me sigh in wondrous YES.
ANIMA & ANIMUS
PROTECTION & VULNERABILITY
DESPAIR & HOPE
Uncle Iroh wasn't always the grinning, bath-lounging, wise old mentor we meet at the start of the series. He was once the Dragon of the West. As Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, he was a conquest-driven, fire-breathing, dragon-slaying general. But as we just saw, he didn't actually slay any dragons. He learned from them and painted his rep with that dastardly deed to protect them.
For Iroh, everything changed during his most infamous siege of the Earth Kingdom's capital when his son was killed in battle. He abandoned the siege, lost his father and his throne to his younger brother's scheming, and went into deep mourning. Iroh wandered. He wept. He kicked back, became a tea connoisseur, and went hedonistically to seed.
Although the Dragon never truly lost his Badass Card, he needed this counterbalance to heal and become his best, most powerful self. His is another Heroine's Journey Balance Arc, and when Iroh nurtures his long-abandoned Anima--his gentleness, his joy, his relish in life's pleasures, the way he tends to his nephew Zuko like a bristly, weed-infested flower garden, and thus tends to the hole in his own heart as he mourns his son...he gains Balance inside himself.
From there, he is able to address one of the final legs of the Heroine's Journey before the integration of Animus and Anima: he has to heal his wounded Masculine. Just like Zuko needed to purify his inner fire from the toxicity of rage and oppression, Iroh undergoes one more dramatic transformation before the series culmination. Because alas, Balance in this world of Evil Fire Lords and their unbalanced heirs doesn't mean that the world's problems can be solved by clinking tea cups and laughing around the Pai Sho table.
Nope. In preparation for the final battle, Iroh has to resharpen his weapons--the sword of his warrior's mind and the strength of his body to wield it--now purified for the cause of defeating his brutal brother, liberating the city he had once sworn to conquer, and helping to set all four nations free.
And oh, he does!
But without ever losing anything that makes him the Iroh who teaches us, inspires us, and makes us all sniffly with his songs and his dragon-sized hugs. Because Iroh is deeply balanced. Not only between War and Peace, Anima and Animus, Destruction and Creation...but in the way he has versed himself in all four elements although he can only bend one of them.
"In the darkest of times, Hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaing of inner strength."
It can absolutely be dangerous to dance with our Dark Sides, just like it can be dangerous to dance with fire. (And dragons.)
To hammer home the fear and revulsion of it, the American Monomyth keeps retelling the tale that the only way to find true redemption from going into darkness and violence is self-sacrificing death or obscurity. Or to just kill the villain. (And the next one. And the next...)
I, like Aang, have always needed to believe there is another way. I search for it.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
4) Avatar: The Last Airbender
--Unbendable Aang: Why I was thrilled with the ending - because Aang remained true to his heart and beliefs, and to the ways of his exterminated people.
5) Zuko & the Heroine's Journey/Balance Arc
--Reclamation of Zuko's Mother
--The Tragic Fate of Evil Sister Azula. (So far.) - Why children need a healthy balance between love and ambition
6) Trauma & the Body
--One of the best books I have ever read in my life: The Body Keeps the Score - Brain, Mind & Body in the Healing of Trauma
--Don't want to read the book? Here's the basic premise of what trauma does to the body and why talking about it, even in therapy, so often doesn't solve the problems: Short Version. Or Long Version by the author himself
—A few of the myriad healing techniques discussed in the book: EMDR, Yoga, Mindfulness & Support Network. These are only a few the book covers.
7) Trauma & Triggers
--Identifying and Overcoming Trauma Triggers: It's not merely feeling uncomfy or offended by something someone says. It's a significant symptom of trauma and can completely hijack your nervous system.
--Why I don't give specific trigger warnings in my writing. And why, if I could guarantee that people had to go through the general content warnings in the front page of my blog before choosing to access any posts, I would do away with them all together.
--Why I have no more tolerance for the platitudes of toxic positivity that says I "shouldn't" feel what I feel.
8) Transformation & Myth
--Transformation of Myth Through Time: Why the Devil has horns
--Denigration of the Feminine/Yin/Darkness: Eden and the Serpent was not about the "fall of man," it was about "the fall of the Goddess"