Although it is an animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender has never hidden away from tackling mature topics. The series itself has gone to some seriously dark emotional places, which is surprising considering it came from a network such as Nickelodeon.
Over the course of the series' three-season run, Avatar has given moments and stories that have caused shock, elation, and tears. Looking back over the course of the entire series, there are any number of heartbreaking and tragic events that come to mind. They can't all be listed here, though, so here are our picks for the saddest moments in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Being the Avatar means wielding power unimaginable to most. The most frightening use of such power comes to fruition when the Avatar enters the Avatar State: a powerful trance-like experience where all the bending powers of past Avatars accumulate into the current iteration. Though powerful, it is a traumatic experience for both witnesses and the Avatar.
In the Season Two opener, Earth Kingdom General Fong tried to forcefully trigger such a state in Aang after their victory at the North Pole. To do so, he entrapped and threatened to murder Sokka and Katara. This moment is incredibly disturbing and distressing to watch. The emotion conveyed in Aang is one of pure desperation, and it is hard to see if you're a fan of the character.
When it comes to deep-rooted and tragic characterization, Momo the lemur is not the first Avatar character to come to mind. Granted, for most of the series, Momo is mostly just comedy relief. He is there as a fun sidekick and to help out in fun and creative ways. But, like many of our characters, even Momo has had a moment of beautiful tear-jerking emotion.
In "The Tales of Ba Sing Se," Momo gets his own vignette of an episode among the six shown. Set while Appa is missing, the entire episode centers on Momo looking for him throughout Ba Sing Se. Whether it is Momo mistaking a cloud for his friend or falling asleep in Appa's footprint, the short will leave you sobbing.
The finale of Season One is one of the most impressive episode arcs of the whole series. Full of awe-inspiring moments such as Aang's use of the Avatar State, the murder of the moon spirit, or the journey into the spirit world, the finale held some of the biggest moments of the whole show. One moment in particular, though, was incredibly heartbreaking.
Princess Yue, whose life had been saved by the moon spirit, sacrificed her life force to bring the spirit back to life. In doing so, she ascended into the spirit world (presumably). To have such a great character and powerful love interest for Sokka leave was devastating, but the way Yue bowed out was equally beautiful.
When Team Avatar is journeying through the Fire Nation, they came across an innkeeper woman who claimed to have been a lost water bender from the Southern Water Tribe. Hama, the innkeeper, had been kidnapped by Fire Nation soldiers and imprisoned. During this time, she discovered she could control the water inside humans, titling the ability, bloodbending.
This horrific act appalled the team, but Hama demanded that Katara use it. Finally, after threatening the lives of her friends, Katara was forced to use it against Hama herself. This moment was disturbing in that Katara's agency was ripped away from her.
While the Season One and Season Three finales were major. jaw-dropping battles, the second season's ending was far more tragic and horrifying. After attempting to master the Avatar state, Aang, Toph, and Sokka return to Ba Sing Se only to find that Katara has been kidnapped. Not only that, but Iroh comes to them begging for help in finding Zuko, who has also been kidnapped.
As the episode comes to an end with a battle in the underground city, Zuko, who had hinted at turning sides, betrays Katara and joins Azula against the team. As Aang attempts to enter the Avatar state, he is shot down by Azula and nearly killed. The entire team is nearly destroyed, and the capital city falls to the control of the Fire Nation.
When animals are put through the wringer, it creates some of the most heart-wrenching storytelling imaginable. This exact scenario happened to everyone's favorite Sky Bison: Appa. Midway through Season Two, Appa was kidnapped by raiders in a desert while Team Avatar investigated the Spirit Library. This set off a journey that was emotionally harrowing for the viewers, let alone for Appa.
After his abduction, Appa was sold to an abusive circus owner for a short period, is attacked by Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai, harassed by wild animals, and eventually captured by the Dai Li in Ba Sing Se.
A very early moment in the series, but a crucial one, was Aang's discovery at the Southern Air Temple. Only the third episode in, The Southern Air Temple instantly solidified Avatar as a more mature series than anything Nickelodeon had previously produced. Aang, Katara, and Sokka traveled to Aang's former home in search of the other Airbenders. Sadly, what they discovered was a horrifying example of the Fire Nation's inhumanity.
Apart from the decay and ruin of the temple, the human cost was even more terrifying. In an effort to weed out the avatar, the Fire Nation committed genocide against the Air Nomads, killing all of Aang's companions and his mentor Monk Gyatso. This triggered the Avatar State within Aang for the first time. This traumatic and heartbreaking sequence is a turning point for the characters and the series as a whole.
When it comes to tear-jerking tragic backstories, no-one has it worse than Prince Zuko. While the Prince is still a privileged imperialist who is son to the most powerful individual in the entire world, that doesn't mean he doesn't have problems too.
There are two incredibly heartbreaking moments for Zuko. First is the disappearance of his mother Ursa. Ursa was the only family member, apart from Iroh, who connected with Zuko on a healthy or positive level. Unfortunately, she was forced to leave the palace and abandon her children after learning of her husband's intentions to kill Zuko. It's one of many tragic instances in Zuko's life.
While Ozai never followed through and murdered his son, he did eventually traumatize him emotionally and physically. Upon being invited to a war meeting, Zuko spoke out in defiance in regards to the lack of empathy for civilian lives. As punishment, his father challenged him to Agni Kai, a firebending duel.
Being only a boy, Zuko had no chance against his father. When faced in battle, Zuko pleaded with his father to show mercy. Instead, Ozai permanently scarred him, resulting in the signature fire shaped scar across his face.
The single most heartbreaking and tear-jerking moment of the entire series lasts barely over a few minutes, but its impact had reverberations beyond the narrative of the series. In the anthology episode "The Tales of Ba Sing Se," Uncle Iroh's story, The Tale of Iroh, is the strongest piece of storytelling in the entire series.
Iroh spends a day traversing the city, interacting with multiple citizens. Throughout this day, he gathers supplies for what he calls "a special occasion." By the end of the episode, it is revealed that this is Iroh's late son Lu Ten's birthday. He remarks on his grief and ends the story singing a lullaby. The final shot is bookended by a memorial for Iroh's original voice-actor, Mako Iwamatsu, who had recently passed.