The Disappointing Dullness of “Sozin’s Comet”

Recently, after weeks of Netflix binging, my wife and I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. I had never seen it before, and overall, yeah, pretty good show. And normally, I’d be able to just kind of leave it at that. But Avatar isn’t supposed to be a pretty good show. Avatar is supposed to be an amazing show. It’s a show that is still celebrated today as one of the great works of animated television. When Game of Thrones ended and everyone was mad about it, I saw a lot of people recommending Avatar as an antidote. And specifically, they were recommending it as an epic fantasy story that sticks the landing. As I was going through the show, I was having fun, sure – it’s a really cool world populated by some absolutely superb characters. But I wanted to get to the end, because the ending of a story tells you so much about the story as a whole, and because I had heard so much about the ending of this particular story.

And it turns out the ending of Avatar is…not great.

I can already hear the sounds of a thousand die-hard Avatar fans slapping their hands to their foreheads. Look, I don’t enjoy this any more than you do. I wanted to love this. And I’m definitely not doing this to take a dump on your nostalgia. But as an adult watching this show in 2020, I think the ending is a near-total failure on multiple levels, to the extent that I’m fascinated by all the different ways in which it doesn’t work. This isn’t just any bad ending – “Sozin’s Comet”, the final 90-minute episode of the series, relies heavily on deus ex machina, actively undermines the show’s themes and characters, and shows a shocking disregard for the idea of set-up and payoff. I’m not analyzing this because I want to make Avatar fans feel bad – I am an Avatar fan, and I felt really let down by this. And the show as a whole is good enough that it’s worth exploring what went wrong.

(Incidentally, I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the show and the characters, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t attach an explanatory rider sentence to the first instance of every name or plot element, and just in case you’re skipping to the words in all caps, SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENTIRELY OF AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.)

 Part 1: Let’s All Say A Nice Thing About “Sozin’s Comet”

So before I proceed to get really mad about this, I thought it might be nice to point out a few things about “Sozin’s Comet” that I liked. And here they are.

  1. Sokka taking down the Fire Nation fleet basically with science. I love Sokka, I think he’s a great character, and while I think this episode does him dirty by having him lose his bad-ass space metal sword after randomly throwing it at some people, that’s relatively minor and largely made up for the fact that he blows up a bunch of zeppelins with physics and geometry. It’s a great payoff to his character, and as we’ll see, there is very little of that in this episode, so good job, Sokka.
  2. Zuko’s reunion with Iroh is legitimately heartwarming and I love it.

Okay, so that was a short list. How about this: here are some more things that I like in isolation, but dislike in context. I’m glad they happened, but they contribute to one or more problems with the episode. Those are as follows:

  1. Aang doesn’t kill Ozai. I don’t like how we got there, and we’ll get deep into that very soon, but yeah, outside of context, it’s nice that Aang manages to win without becoming a killer.
  2. I like that Katara is the one who defeats Azula after Zuko has been taken out of the fight. Again, lots more to say about this later, but Katara is great and I’m glad she got this victory, if nothing else.
  3. While we’re on the subject of Katara, I like that she and Aang finally get together at the end. What can I say, I’m a romantic. It’s a moment the show absolutely doesn’t earn, but it made me happy anyway.
  4. The visual design and concept of the lion turtle is absolutely incredible, and I really wish I didn’t hate literally everything else about it.

I think when I’ve started using the word “hate” it means we’re done saying nice things, so let’s get into “Sozin’s Comet” and why it’s a terribly written piece of narrative storytelling.

Part 2: Something He Has To Do Himself

The seeds of failure in “Sozin’s Comet” are planted at the very beginning of the episode. Since nearly the beginning of the show – since the eighth episode, to be specific – Aang and his friends have been working toward one specific goal: Aang must master all four elements and defeat Fire Lord Ozai prior to the arrival of the titular comet, which will grant Ozai enough power to conquer the world. The entire narrative is built around this premise and this deadline. However, at the beginning of “Sozin’s Comet”, with the deadline three days away, we learn that Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph have decided offscreen that Aang isn’t ready, and that they should just wait out the comet and face Ozai after its passing. It’s a truly bizarre choice. Their rationale, according to Katara, is that they were struggling to meet the deadline in order to end the war, but the war essentially ended when the Fire Nation conquered the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se, so they might as well wait.

Beyond the fact that giving up and waiting for the comet to pass seems wildly out of character, especially for Katara, this is strange on multiple levels. For one thing, Aang’s conversation with Avatar Roku in the eighth episode of the show made it clear that Ozai will conquer the entire world, and even with Ba Sing Se fallen, there are still plenty of places the Fire Nation hasn’t defeated yet – notably the Northern Water Tribe. But even if the war is effectively over, Ba Sing Se fell at the end of Season 2. Why has the idea that they are no longer tied to their previous deadline never come up before in Season 3? Granted, for most of Season 3 they were working on a specific invasion plan that ultimately failed, but even in the time between that failure and the finale, the kids are still working toward finishing Aang’s training. There’s a reason Zuko is so surprised to hear the change of plan – it comes out of nowhere in both plot and character terms.

It’s even more odd from a narrative perspective, as Zuko immediately gets the Gaang back on schedule by telling them about his father’s plans to use the comet’s power to massacre the Earth Kingdom. Because of this, the deadline suddenly returns. So as far as the plot is concerned, this opening piece about the kids wanting to give up and wait is essentially meaningless. That means it has to have something to do with the characters, and despite the fact that Katara is the one who gives the explanation, it’s Aang for whom this decision makes the most sense. His entire arc to this point has largely been about his relationship to being the Avatar and the responsibility that comes with it, and he frequently doubts his own ability to live up to the lofty expectations of those around him, and this beat plays into that directly. He’s not sure he can do it, so his friends assure him that they will be right there beside him to help. Again, this is in keeping with the themes of the show – friendship, unity, solidarity. Season 3 even begins with an episode in which Aang tries to infiltrate the Fire Nation by himself, but can’t. Time and time again, Avatar has reminded us that Aang can’t do it alone, and that he doesn’t have to. His friends will be by his side.

And then everybody splits up and Aang faces Ozai himself.

Sure, it doesn’t happen as quickly as I made it sound just now, but that is basically what happens by the end of the finale. Sokka, Suki, and Toph take on the Fire Nation fleet, Zuko and Katara go to fight Azula, and Aang confronts the Fire Lord all by his lonesome. At one point, Suki even sees the fight from above, and says “Shouldn’t we be helping him?” Sokka replies with “The Fire Lord is Aang’s fight.” Which…why? When was that decided? Is it important all of a sudden? Because I distinctly recall all of you agreeing to help him fight the Fire Lord. The only reason Aang is alone in the first place is that he wandered off for no reason in the middle of the night (more on that later). Very little in the show to this point suggests that Aang’s character arc has anything to do with him standing alone against evil. If anything, it suggests the opposite. Zuko does have a line earlier in Season 3 where he tells his father it’s Aang’s destiny alone to defeat him, but are we supposed to suddenly treat that as dogma when it would make so much more narrative sense for the entire group, including Zuko, to face Ozai together?

The decision to split the kids up also reveals a terrible inefficiency in the way “Sozin’s Comet” uses characters. The Order of the White Lotus reveal, while satisfying in the immediate moment (outside of Pakku’s inclusion; get that sexist piece of crap out of here) serves no narrative function, opting to re-take Bai Sing Se despite the fact that the occupation of that city has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the final battle. Sokka and Katara’s father, Hakoda, does not appear during the final battle, nor do any of the members of the former army he’s hanging out with. Chit Sang, the Fire Nation prisoner who escapes Boiling Rock along with the rebels, also never appears. Nor do Mai and Tai Lee, Azula’s former cohorts who turned against her at Boiling Rock, have anything to do with the final battle – Mai appears at the very end to get back together with Zuko, while Ty Lee joins the Kyoshi Warriors for no apparent reason. Essentially leaving these two out of the finale is particularly egregious, as they had been relatively major characters for the last two seasons and had arcs of their own that were simply never resolved. Their role, it seems, was entirely fulfilled upon abandoning Azula, because they serve as the impetus for the first (and arguably most insulting) of the finale’s three great deus ex machinas.

Part 3: Women Be Crazy

So Azula, the psychotic murderous powerhouse who has functionally served as Avatar’s primary villain since the beginning of Season 2, and one of most demonstrably competent characters in the entire series, gets turned on by her two lieutenants and immediately falls into paranoid insanity. Why? Unclear. It’s an absolutely out-of-nowhere shift for her, one that asks the viewer to believe that Azula cares so much about these two people that their betrayal would completely destroy her mental well-being. Azula has never indicated that Mai and Ty Lee are that profoundly important to her, and she herself is, as previously mentioned, a psychotic murderer. Why would she suddenly become distrustful of literally everyone standing between her and her enemies? And yet here she is, sending away, among others, the highly trained Dai Li guards she lured away from the Earth Kingdom. No narratively satisfying comeuppance for those traitors; they just leave and are never seen again. And maybe all this would make sense in the context of some kind of broader Azula character arc, but she really doesn’t get one. She isn’t seen again after being defeated by Katara, and it’s not as though there’s any sort of depth to her character hinted at earlier in the series. “The Beach,” an episode centered around the foursome of Azula, Ty Lee, Mai, and Zuko, delves deepest into Azula’s inner life, but even that episode, by the end, makes a gag out the idea of Azula having character depth. After her three companions take turns telling each other about their difficult childhoods, Azula can only answer by saying that her mother thought her a monster, and admitting that she was right. This is the character we’re meant to believe comes totally unhinged after Mai and Ty Lee betray her?

There are really only two possible reasons for this last minute change to Azula. The first is your basic, run-of-the-mill sexism. I can’t help but notice that Azula’s slide into madness occurs immediately after her father names her Fire Lord. The trope of a woman rising to power and then going insane is a pervasive one, and one that supports a general Western cultural notion that women are unfit to serve in leadership positions. That’s probably not explicitly why the creators of Avatar decided Azula should fall apart, but it likely informed the specific direction of the beat, and why there’s no build-up to it. Women just be crazy, you know? Why wouldn’t it be believable for a female Fire Lord to go mad?

The other reason for this decision, and likely the more intentional one, is to remove any obstacles standing between Azula and her incoming opponents, Zuko and Katara. I can’t think of any other explanation. You need the two of them to show up in the Fire Nation to dispatch Azula, and you don’t think it’s plausible that the two of them can bypass Azula’s defenders, so you have Azula send those defenders away. Personally I think it would have been kind of cool to see Zuko and Katara fight through the palace to get to Azula, and you could have used the screen time spent on Azula going crazy on that fight instead, but it’s fine. Azula is nuts, she sends everybody away, leaving herself all alone to face Zuko and Katara.

Then things get even weirder. Despite it being his idea to bring Katara along for backup, Zuko tells her he wants to face Azula himself, saying that he can sense something different about her (it’s the crazy, in you case you were wondering). So they fight, and it’s basically a standstill with Zuko looking like he could probably win. So Azula targets the watching Katara with lightning, and Zuko jumps in front of it to save her. Then Katara takes Azula out on her own.

None of this makes any narrative sense. If it was important for Zuko to face Azula alone, why doesn’t that pay off? Is Zuko sacrificing himself meant to be a big character moment for him, despite the fact that selfishness has never really been one of his main traits? He’s already worked hard to earn the trust of the Gaang, and he worked especially hard to earn the trust of Katara, so what exactly is served by him jumping into the lightning?

More importantly, why is Katara here at all? She has little to nothing to do with the story between Zuko and Azula. I’m glad she got a solo victory against one of the show’s biggest villains, but why didn’t she get to spend the finale doing anything related to her character whatsoever? Replace her with Toph in this sequence and literally nothing changes. So why is she involved?

In a different show that made more sense, the answer might be something like “because of the obvious love triangle going on between Katara, Zuko, and Aang. But about that…

Part 4: There Is No Love Triangle

There just…isn’t. There are hints of one! The circumstances are deliberately set for there to be one! And for maybe ten minutes of the episode immediately preceding the finale, “The Ember Island Players,” it seems like it’s actually happening. But no, nope. There’s like one line in “Sozin’s Comet” where Zuko and Katara are mistaken for a couple, they both issue loud corrections, and that’s all there is to it. Neither the romantic relationship between Katara and Aang nor the hints of one between Katara and Zuko play any sort of role in the final battle or the episode as a whole, and at the end, Zuko gets back with Mai and Aang gets together with Katara. That’s it. It’s one of the more egregious examples of a setup without a payoff, and the inclusion of a big emotional story beat that wasn’t in any way earned. There is no advancement of the Aang/Katara romance between the moment in “The Ember Island Players” when Katara runs away from Aang’s kiss, and the last shot of the show, where she doesn’t. Nothing about their relationship has changed during that time. And yeah, it still made me happy, because I wanted it to happen, but that only lasts a few minutes before you start wondering why there wasn’t an actual reason for it.

And the craziest part is that there was an extremely obvious way the love triangle could have been used to fix another part of the plot. But we can’t get into that quite yet, because it has to do with the Avatar State, and the second deus ex machina.

Part 5: The Avatar State

So Aang has this thing he can do. It’s called the Avatar State. It makes him super-powerful and basically impossible to defeat. But he can’t willingly enter the Avatar State — it’s just something he does when he gets desperate, or angry, or afraid. Most of the big fights in the show involve the kids getting their asses kicked until things get so bad that Aang enters the Avatar State, at which point the fight is resolved.

At the end of Season 2, Aang goes and meets up with a guru, whose deal is never really explained. This guy says he can help Aang open all his chakras, after which he will be able to enter the Avatar State at will. Aang unlocks the first six, but fails to unlock the seventh, which requires that he emotionally detach himself from Katara. After failing to do this, the guru tells him, Aang will not be able to enter the Avatar State at all.

In the Season 2 finale, when Aang and Katara are fighting Azula and Zuko, Aang decides the only way to win the fight is to let go of Katara and enter the Avatar State. He does so…but then Azula shoots him with lightning from behind, briefly killing him and leaving him with a weird hole in his back for the rest of the show. Though his life is saved, this re-locks the chakra, sealing Aang away from the Avatar State permanently.

This is interesting on multiple levels. Aang’s relationship with being the Avatar, and subsequently with the Avatar State, form a good piece of his character. It’s tied up with his feelings for Katara, with the tried-and-true conflict between the seemingly responsible act of turning away from your emotions and your relationships in exchange for the power you need to do what is necessary, and the more selfish but also more human act of refusing to do that and finding another way to do what is necessary, because cutting yourself off from emotions and relationships isn’t worth any amount of power. For most of Season 3, it seems as though the choice has been made for Aang, since he couldn’t access the Avatar State even if he wanted to. And crucially, it basically never even comes up in conversation for the entire last season of the show. Everyone just kind of assumes that’s it for the Avatar State, and Aang gets back to loving Katara. Iroh, possibly the single wisest character in the show, even praises the trade-off explicitly, telling Aang that love is a better choice than power. As the finale begins and the kids discuss the prospect of confronting Ozai, the Avatar State isn’t even mentioned.

And then, during the final battle, Ozai is clearly superior, chasing Aang around the battlefield, he’s got Aang on the run, he finally corners him and gets ready to finish him off, and Aang suddenly finds himself able to enter the Avatar State again, because a rock got pushed into the hole in his back.

…okay?

So according to the internet, the reason this occurred is because the lightning bolt locked up a bunch of energy in that one spot in Aang’s back, and the rock released it, and because he had successfully let go of Katara that one time and opened the last chakra, he instantly had Avatar State access. So the fact that his feelings for Katara are a huge part of Season 3 just doesn’t matter, because he already symbolically let her go before? What exactly did Aang have to sacrifice in order to re-enter the Avatar State? Because as previously mentioned, he ends up with Katara at the end, so really he didn’t have to let her go at all, I guess? Going into this episode, I could have sworn that something was going to happen to make Aang think Katara loved Zuko instead of him, which would then result in him finally “letting her go” and entering the Avatar State. Then later she could reveal that she actually loved him after all. I’m not exactly wild about that concept, but it makes narrative sense, and it’s the only reason to have the love triangle in the first place. But “Sozin’s Comet” instead opts to ignore the romantic relationships between characters completely until it’s time for the female love interest to reward the male hero with her affection at the end of the show.

The most frustrating thing about all of this is that Aang’s renewed access to the Avatar State allows him to pretty much instantly win the fight with Ozai, despite the fact that the Fire Lord is supposedly supercharged as a result of the comet. As soon as Aang gets all blue and glowy, the climactic final battle, which had to this point basically consisted of Ozai chasing him, now consists of him chasing Ozai until he finally catches and defeats him. It’s an odd choice to have the Avatar State equate to an instant victory against the Big Bad of the entire series at the exact moment he’s most powerful, considering there’s no build-up or established tension in the question of whether or not Aang can enter it, but the show writers clearly weren’t interested in the battle’s central tension being “can Aang enter the Avatar State,” or even “can Aang defeat the Fire Lord.” Instead, by having Aang enter the Avatar State due to a random event and use it to immediately gain the advantage over Ozai, the tension of the battle shifts to “will Aang kill the Fire Lord?” And in a way, that makes sense. From the very beginning of the finale, we saw a shift in that direction – it was clearly intended to be the crucial question of the episode. The problem is that, like the rock going into Aang’s back, the answer comes out of nowhere, and Aang ends up not having to make any hard decisions at all thanks to the third and final deus ex machina.

Part 6: The Lion Turtle In The Machine

Toward the beginning of the finale, while Aang and his friends are asleep, a mysterious island appears, and we can hear the vague sounds of wordless chanting. Aang sleepwalks over the water and sleepswims over to the island, which promptly disappears. Neither the chanting nor Aang’s sudden sleepwalking is ever explained.

In the morning, Aang and the island are gone. This basically sidelines the rest of the kids for the majority of the finale while they fruitlessly search for him until finally giving up and going to find Iroh. Aang, meanwhile, wakes up on the island and uses his newfound free time to meditate on the question of whether to kill Ozai, communing with previous Avatars throughout history. All of them tell him he has to kill the Fire Lord. But Aang eventually realizes that the island he’s on is moving, and that it isn’t an island. It’s a lion turtle, a massive creature that is ancient intelligent and, apparently, extremely wise in the ways of bending. Again, the appearance of the lion turtle at this crucial hour is never explained and seems to have been random chance. Aang speaks with it, though we are not immediately privy to the most important parts of their conversation.

Later, after entering the Avatar State and defeating Ozai, Aang is faced with the question of killing him and ultimately decides not to. Not because he’s decided that his principles are more important than the threat posed by the Fire Lord, but because he’s found a third option offscreen. Via flashback, we learn that the lion turtle taught Aang how to bend another bender’s energy. Aang puts his hands on Ozai and begins the process, shining with blue light. Ozai shines with red light. But then, the red light begins to spill over and cover Aang, as well. Via voiceover we learn that “to bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable or you will be corrupted and destroyed.” Just as Aang begins to disappear entirely beneath the cascade of red, his own blue light surges and sweeps over both his own body and Ozai’s, signaling his success. Ozai, Aang proclaims, is no longer a firebender, and thus, no longer a threat. He has managed to neutralize the Fire Lord without killing him.

“I took his bending away,” Aang says to his friends when they arrive.

“Who taught you that?” Toph asks, understandably.

“A giant lion turtle,” Aang replies with a smile, neatly lampshading the entire stupid thing.

This is just such a cop out. It’s absolutely unbelievable to me that “Sozin’s Comet” takes the viewer on a long and convoluted journey specifically designed to make it so that at the story’s climax, the main character doesn’t have to make any difficult choices, learn anything about himself, undergo any sort of meaningful change, or experience any sort of meaningful emotion. He just shows up and wins, because there happened to be a rock and a sea creature nearby. It’s great that Aang figured out a way to stop Ozai without killing him, but he didn’t do anything to earn that knowledge. It was just handed to him. He didn’t do anything to figure out how to enter the Avatar State again. He literally stumbled into it. When faced with hard decisions that directly engaged with the show’s themes of personal responsibility and the difference between childhood and adulthood, as well as the broader themes of war and colonialism, he was gifted a way out that didn’t have any consequences to those around him. And the only potential consequence to himself came in the form of a last-minute “BUT HIS SPIRIT MUST BE UNBENDABLE” addition, which provides a vague sort of tension for precisely 24 seconds before being immediately resolved. We don’t even know why Aang’s spirit is unbendable – given his character thus far, it seems like it might be a little bendable, and nothing about him has changed over the past three seasons to suggest otherwise – but it is, apparently, because he isn’t corrupted or destroyed. Even for a kids’ show, this is straight-up bad storytelling, and even for a kids’ show, I would expect a better hero, and a better moral, than this one. “Remember, children – life can be hard sometimes, and growing up is difficult, but don’t worry, because if you’re ever faced with a situation where it seems like there are no good choices, a fucking lion turtle will show up and find one for you.”

Part 7: The Fix

Normally I don’t do a lot of “here’s how I would have done it” stuff, but I think in this case, I think there are a few ridiculously obvious solutions, and several more came to me after just a few minutes of consideration. So to finish up this extremely long rant about children’s television from the mid-aughts on a somewhat positive note, here’s my bullet point pitch for how to do “Sozin’s Comet” right.

  • I think the fix starts all the way back in the Boiling Rock episode. I would have something go wrong with the final escape, resulting in Suki being re-captured. Two reasons for this: one, it makes Sokka’s decision to stick around and help his dad escape rather than escaping with Suki earlier on more poignant, and two, it leaves her in the Fire Nation, where I have plans for her.
  • I would probably just totally scrap “The Southern Raiders.” This episode does a lot of Katara character work that could be saved for the finale – though it would hope this new version of the finale would handle her character better than “The Southern Raiders” does. Let’s just move forward assuming she still has to deal with her anger at the Fire Nation for killing her mother.
  • There are two ways you can go with the love triangle: Have it pay off at the end somehow, as mentioned previously, or scrub the various hints of the love triangle forming leading up to the finale. Personally, I’d go with the latter option. Just get rid of it. I would change the conversation between Aang and Katara in “The Ember Island Players” to be about how they can’t really do the relationship thing until the war is over. Maybe Katara, ever optimistic and full of faith to this point, is starting to question whether or not they can actually win without Aang having access to the Avatar State. Aang tells her that it required letting go of his feelings for her, which leaves both of them even more unsure as to whether or not those feelings are a good thing. Something like that.
  • So, now we’re actually in “Sozin’s Comet” proper. Let’s keep the stuff at the beginning with Aang wanting to give up and Zuko revealing his father’s genocidal plans, at least for the most part. Instead of Zuko being the last to know, everyone assumes they’re moving forward with their plans to defeat Ozai before the comet arrives, but Aang tells them he wants to wait because he’s not ready. They all make arguments against this idea – except maybe Katara, maybe she surprises everyone by tentatively agreeing with Aang – but Zuko seals the deal by revealing Ozai’s plan.
  • So they start formulating plans of their own, which start with finding Iroh, since they’ll need all the help they can get. Just like in the original version, Zuko tells the kids that Iroh will be a great help with taking on Ozai, and they use June to find him. Basically everything with the Order of the White Lotus happens as originally written, only Aang is there, too. In the face of Aang’s self-doubt over not being able to enter the Avatar State, Iroh reiterates that it’s a good thing. Oh, and not a single word of Zuko and Iroh’s reunion is getting changed. That shit ruled.
  • Back in the Fire Nation, Ozai crowns himself the Phoenix King and names Azula the new Fire Lord. He and his fleet set out to raze the Earth Kingdom. Azula almost immediately proves herself to be a monstrous tyrant – not crazy, but definitely evil. She starts executing prisoners, enforcing draconian laws, your standard tyrant stuff. I know she only has a couple days to do this, but she can still hit her own people hard and fast in that period of time.
  • Instead of Zuko coming back to claim the title of Fire Lord from Azula, Azula is undone by three escaped prisoners from the Fire Nation dungeons. Mai and Ty Lee team up with Suki to escape Boiling Rock, then travel to the palace and confront, and ultimately defeat, Azula. Not only does this give Mai and Ty Lee something to do that’s tied directly to their characters, it also gives Suki a victory against Azula, who had defeated and imprisoned her before. In the original version of the story, Suki doesn’t really have much to do after being rescued from Boiling Rock besides “be Sokka’s girlfriend.” And as a bonus, if Suki and Ty Lee become close while all this is happening, it would explain how and why Ty Lee comes to join the Kyoshi Warriors.
  • Back in the Earth Kingdom, the kids manage to get a message to Hakoda and the rest of their followers who had been forced to ditch them previously. When the fleet arrives, they attack, while the Order of the White Lotus re-takes Ba Sing Se. The kids, meanwhile, prepare to take on Ozai themselves, despite the fact that Aang still can’t enter the Avatar State and Katara is growing increasingly nervous, a feeling that expresses itself in the form of uncharacteristic anger at the Fire Nation.
  • In the final battle with Ozai, it’s him against Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and Toph. Sokka actually gets to use his cool meteorite sword, and he directs the tactics of the benders, allowing us to see them using their abilities in concert in a variety of cool ways. Despite Ozai being stronger than ever due to the comet, the combined forces of the kids and their friendship has him on the ropes, until…
  • …he kills Sokka. Yes, I said it. Yes, I hate it, too. But if this whole question of whether or not Aang is going to kill Ozai or not is actually going to matter, Aang has to suffer some real consequences at the man’s hands. Sokka is kind of the perfect person to die in this situation, as he’s the “normal one” who doesn’t have any powers, and Katara losing another member of her family to the Fire Nation can push her over the edge. She uses bloodbending against Ozai, setting him up for some massive attacks by the others. Zuko delivers a comet-charged blow that brings his father to his knees, but steps aside so Aang can be the one to finish the job.
  • But of course, he doesn’t. Even after Sokka’s death, he refuses to kill Ozai. Zuko and Toph both insist, but he won’t do it. Katara is finally fed up and says she’ll do it herself. Aang steps aside and tells her that if she has it in her to murder him in cold blood, she’s more than welcome to do it. It’s clear this is a potential turning point in their relationship. Katara basically does the same thing she does in “The Southern Riders,” almost killing Ozai with icicles before stopping at the last moment and letting them melt away. In the reverse of the usual situation, Aang’s faith in her has been rewarded. They throw him in some kind of special prison or whatever – between the four of them and the Order of the White Lotus, they’re powerful enough to build something that can contain him, though they acknowledge that keeping him alive is potentially dangerous. Vigilance is the price of not crossing the line into murder.
  • When it’s all over, things happen mostly as they do in the original. Zuko takes the title of Fire Lord peacefully instead of by force. Toph gets a moment of reunion and reconciliation with her parents, who are finally able to accept her for who she is. Sokka gets a memorial. And Aang and Katara share a kiss that’s actually earned considering everything they’ve gone through.

So yeah, that’s my first draft for a proper Avatar finale. I’m sure I missed a bunch of stuff and made even more problems, but hey, that’s why it’s the first draft of a hypothetical thought experiment. I’m just trying to convey some of what I hoped “Sozin’s Comet” would deliver, but didn’t – a satisfactory payoff to the show’s characters and themes, without relying on lazy storytelling. In a series like this, I don’t want Aang winning the day because of last-minute worldbuilding. I want him to grow as a character, to make hard moral choices, to go through some shit and come out a better person, and to win because his friends stood by his side. I want an end to Avatar that leaves me breathless, not hollow. Because that’s a version of this story I’d happily show my son when he gets older. As it stands…I’m not entirely certain I want to.

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