I’ve made no secret of how much I adore Avatar: The Last Airbender. I didn’t discover it until a few years ago (after a friend bugged me endlessly to watch it) and my eventual experience bingeing it was life-changing. I wrote at length about what I think makes Avatar: The Last Airbender so magical, but the gist is that Avatar was able to imbue levity and colour into every facet: from its humour and character building, to its plot, worldbuilding, and visual design. It’s an absolutely delightful show, which makes it so much more effective when it hits you with an emotional hammer. I discovered Avatar at a difficult time in my life, and it helped me through a period of (what I now recognize as) depression.
My praise was high:
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a remarkably consistent piece of storytelling that retains its quality from the first episode to the last. In fact, even if pressed, I’d find it difficult to find a point in the entire series where pacing is ever an issue. Every episode, even the sidestory episodes that don’t directly involve Aang’s plot against plight against the Fire Nation, like the previously mentioned “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” all serve a purpose in the tale, revealing more about the characters and their world. There’s not a wasted frame, not a wasted word, and that’s something that can be said about so few pieces of fiction, no matter the medium.
A season of The Legend of Korra (a follow-up set in the same world with some of the original creators involved) was already out when I finished Avatar, and I unabashedly jumped on board, expectations unfairly high. Korra did many things right (and its third season is particularly good), but it’s much more of a roller-coaster in terms of quality compared to its predecessor. Though I enjoyed it in its entirety, and appreciate many of the elements it introduced to the series (Korrasami <3), it failed to capture me in the same way as Avatar. In a lot of ways, Korra was missing the heart and soul that made Avatar so special. It took itself a bit too seriously at times, its storytelling was fraught with melodrama, and thanks to never quite knowing if it would get another season, the pacing of the overall narrative was rocky.
One notable exclusion from the Korra staff was Aaron Ehasz, and now, with hindsight, I realize how many elements of Avatar likely originated with him. Ehasz (along with Justin Richmond) has returned to the world of YA fantasy with a new show on Netflix, The Dragon Prince. In many ways it’s the follow-up to Avatar that I’ve been waiting for.
The Dragon Prince is the story of Callum, Ezran, and Rayla, unlikely companions who are thrust into the middle of a thousand year old conflict between humans and elves. Much of the series revolves around the titular Dragon Prince, and the trio’s efforts to undermine their warring factions in an effort to build a bridge and renew the bond that existed between humans and elves until it was broken a thousand years earlier. Like Avatar, The Dragon Prince is full of wondrous magic, great action, beautiful set pieces, terrific characters, and rich relationships.
Avatar (and Korra) always did a great job with representation and diversity, and The Dragon Prince is no different. Though set in a stereotypical western European fantasy world—a trope Avatar purposefully broke away from—it’s full of a wide, varied group of characters. The core trio of Callum (a young mage), Ezran (heir to the throne), and Rayla (an inexperienced elvish warrior), fill predictable roles—its a coming-of-age tale from many angles—but the cast surrounding them is wonderful, and full of many secondary characters that breath life into the world. Ellis, a young girl from a mountain-side village, rides a wolf and brings to mind Binabik from Tad Williams’ classic Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. (So much so that I wonder if she’s an intentional homage.) King Harrow is a dreadlocked black man with a biological son and a white step son. Harrow’s late wife was a heroic and respected warrior. Siblings Claudia and Soren fill a complex role as both antagonists and friends of Callum and Ezran.
The human kingdom of Katolis eschews ridiculous online cries for “historical authenticity” and is instead filled to the brim by people of various ethnicities, and women fills all roles in the society, from guards, to mages, to soldiers, and beyond. It’s beautiful, and an extension of what made the worldbuilding in Avatar so unique at the time. This is not a homogenous fantasy world, and such worldbuilding implies a rich, labyrinthine history that extends well beyond what we’re shown in the episodes of the television series.
Not to mention the elves.
And then there’s Amaya. Oh, my heart. Callum and Ezran’s aunt is a tough, experienced solider tasked with guarding the viciously contested border between Katolis and the elvish land of Xadia. She’s a respected warrior, and fiercely protective of her nephews and the throne. She’s also deaf and mute. Amaya shows up midway through the series, and steals every scene she appears in. There’s one moment in particular in episode five, “An Empty Throne,” where Amaya visits a memorial for her late sister and signs, without translation, for an extended period of time. It’s one of the most emotionally stunning moments on the show, and speaks to a subtlety and respect for the audience that’s rarely seen in television aimed at kids (or adults for that matter.)
“That was very deliberate,” Devon Giehl, senior writer on the show, told Polygon when asked about the scene. “We went back and forth on it, but we decided that when Gren wasn’t speaking for her, she spoke for herself. The scene where she’s at her sister’s grave—we were worried, because it’s a show for children, that we might lose people. But then the animation came back, and she was so emotive, and it’s so beautiful. I think even in the absence of subtitles, it really stands on its own. And she’s a deaf character — we wanted it so that understanding what she’s communicating here is for the deaf audience.”
The level of effort and care that went into Amaya’s character from both the writers and the animators is obvious. As an example of the show’s respect, Amaya’s bio on the official website for The Dragon Prince describes her thusly:
Renowned for her iron will and ferocity in battle, Amaya is one of the highest-ranking generals in the army of Katolis. She’s both an immovable object and an unstoppable force: in a fight, she’s more likely to use her shield like a battering ram. Nevertheless, she’s fiercely protective of her nephews, Callum and Ezran. Amaya is often accompanied by Gren, her most trusted lieutenant and Sign Language interpreter.
She’s not described as deaf or mute—it’s only inferred in the final line, which mentioned her interpreter. Amaya’s physical disabilities are unique to her among the characters on the show, but never once is she pitied for them. Never once are her abilities questioned, even by her enemies. Her disability does not define her.
In many ways, Amaya showcases many of the elements that make The Dragon Prince so compelling. She’s layered and complex, evokes strength and compassion, and illustrates the power of diverse and unrestricted storytelling. There’s the old adage about turning a weakness into a strength, and Amaya rises above similar characters because her unique challenges require her (and the show’s writers) to approach situations from a new perspective. The show and its plot hinges on these unique character elements, and there would be no way to replace someone like Amaya with a generic general without having to rewrite major parts of the show. Avatar and Korra were great at this—Toph’s blindness, Aang having to constantly hide his tattoos, Korra’s PTSD—and it’s great to see The Dragon Prince continuing the trend.
Above and beyond the heroes, who are easy to root for, the show continues Avatar‘s tradition of having complex, morally grey antagonists. The elves are posited as the “big bad” off the bat, but it quickly becomes clear to princes Ezran, Callum, and Rayla that the situation is much more complex. In an era of political partisanship and extremism, The Dragon Prince is rife with themes that examine how ego, xenophobia, and tribalism are used as weapons by political leaders.
Where the villains really shine are in the subordinates. We meet Rayla as she’s planning with her fellow elves to assassinate King Harrow and his son, Ezran, but she emerges as a hero when she refuses to kill a human guard. Claudia, who begins the show as a clumsy bookworm who has Callum’s romantic attentions, is quickly thurst into a more complex role alongside her brother Soren as they do the bidding of their mage father, Viren, the king’s best friend and right hand man, as he orders a pursuit of the elves. Claudia and Soren are dogged in their pursuit, without quite understanding the stakes of the game into which they’ve been thrust. Misinformation and labyrinthine goals abound, and The Dragon Prince is unafraid to ratchet up the complexity of its layered story, trusting its readers, no matter how young, to follow along. It’s not exactly accurate to call this Game of Thrones for adolescents, but it’s not a far off comparison.
Like Avatar, The Dragon Prince relies heavily on its great cast of characters, but the worldbuilding around them is also integral. This time around there are two warring factions: humans (in Katolis) and the elves (in Xadia). A millennia before the show begins, the humans broke their peaceful union with the elves after a human mage discovered dark magic (the seventh Primal Source, joining the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Earth, the Sky, and the Ocean) and killed Thunder, the King of the Dragons, and destroyed his only egg. It’s suitably epic, and the writers do a good job of humanizing the various factions, while also keeping the tension high. The first three episodes are very tightly wound, taking place almost entirely in one location, but after that the world begins to breathe a bit and the series really hits its stride.
One of Avatar‘s most defining and admirable traits was the space given to the story. There was so much opportunity to explore the slow, quiet moments that exist between travelling companions, and this brought forth so many interesting facets to each character’s personality and conflicts. It’s rarely seen on television. There’s a rare goodness in these scenes. Because The Dragon Prince checks in at only nine episodes (as opposed to Avatar‘s 20ish per season), these moments are fewer and further between for Callum, Ezran, and Rayla than they were for Aang, Sokka, and Kitara; however, when they do crop up, they’re no less effective. There’s a particular moment during the eighth episode when the group is split up (along with a fourth companion) and having to bide time until a crisis passes. There are two parallel conversations going on that when taken together, gain a level of insight and context that would not be possible if the group were all seated together conversing. It’s just one glimpse at the potential for the series. When (not if) season two is announced, I hope we see at least a 13 episode order. It’s clear there’s enough character and story to fill more space than Ehasz and crew were given for season one.
Visually, the show is bright and vibrant with fantastic art direction, choreography, and cinematography. All of the characters visually stand out from one another, even if they fill a similar role within the universe, and are often marked by subtle visual clues that link their personality to their role in the story. The Dragon Prince makes an unusual attempt to marry its 3D-rendered/animated models with a low-framerate animation style that’s meant to emulate traditional hand-drawn animation. It’s a bit jarring at first, but I found myself become accustomed to it by the end of the first episode, and by the end of the first season I no longer noticed at all. In fact, thanks to this approach, there’s a level of care to the animation that makes it feel unique. The end result is that each frame feels uniquely crafted. It’s gorgeous, and matches or exceeds anything in Avatar or Korra.
In many ways, the first season of The Dragon Prince feels like a prologue to a much larger work. Like an epic fantasy novel, we’ve been introduced to the principal players, given a taste of a much larger world, and set on a path toward an enormous, world-changing conflict. It feels like we’re seeing the Hobbits flee The Shire, only for things to fade to black as soon as they set foot on the Buckleberry Ferry. In other words, I’m desperate for season two now. This is also a nice change from The Legend of Korra, which wrapped up its seasonal storylines, and didn’t have quite the same lingering effect.
Living up to Avatar: The Last Airbender is an almost impossible task, however, with The Dragon Prince, Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond have made a mighty attempt. It succeeds in many of the ways I expect from an Avatar follow-up, and also offers many elements that make it something unique. The Dragon Prince is beautiful, compulsive, funny, kind, and exhilarating, and, miraculously, exceeded my expectations.