Deus ex Machina in Avatar: The Extraordinary Spirituality of Avatar Aang
While I was writing reviews for the last four chapters of this beautiful series I found myself defending several plot points that many Avatar fans have correctly labeled as deus ex machina, a rather prosaic plot device in which some entity swoops in to solve the unsolvable conflict.
I know what you’re probably thinking already: this guy…
I want to argue - please note I am not opposed to the labeling of this plot point as a deus ex machina - the appropriateness of the Lion Turtle’s Intervention by addressing Aang’s extraordinary experience as the Avatar.
I think it prudent to declare myself now: I believe the inclusion of the Lion Turtle, the reactivation of the Avatar State, and Aang’s rediscovery of energybending in the finale to be far less contrived than the average fan, because of something I am generally loath to believe when it comes to reality, something that happens to be integral to this beloved series: destiny.
The idea of destiny is constantly harped upon in Avatar: The Last Airbender, as Prince Zuko struggles to find his path in life, as Iroh discovers his portended purpose to free Ba Sing Se in the finale, and as Aang rises to the challenge of defeating the Firelord and saving the world. Destiny is a quaint idea, to say the least, and an easily understood one at that. Whether we realize it or not, we are all guilty of assigning some greater meaning to occurrences that are more likely than not simply generated by the randomness of our chaotic universe. The beauty of fiction is that writers can assign such purpose or meaning, and univocally, this happens throughout the entire series of Avatar.
My theory of Aang’s destiny requires acknowledgement of the peculiarities of Aang’s life as the Avatar. As everyone knows, he was trapped for an entire century in the Avatar State, which preserved his body by pumping pure spiritual energy through him. This, in conjunction with his already heightened spirituality - as an Airbending Monk he is spiritually predisposed to serenity - makes Aang intimately tied to his past lives. After all, the combined power and knowledge of all his past lives coursed through him for 100 years! I am inclined to believe this is incredibly unique for an Avatar.
In light of this anomaly, Aang has quite the few Spirit World encounters in the single year of his travels during which we follow him as a viewing audience. He actually befriends a Spirit, merges with another in a terrifying display of power, and journeys through the Spirit World itself on two separate occasions. He enters the physical realm of the Spirit World for the first time within a month or two of his awakening and discovers his higher purpose: to stop the Firelord before the comet arrives. Now the timing of this seems too good to be true, improbable. He is lost for an entire century and is awakened, quite conveniently, the year of the Comet’s return, and this doesn’t seem at least somewhat planned or predestined? On the contrary, I believe Aang’s reawakening was directly influenced by the Spirits, or whatever higher power governs the Avatar world, and that a large part of his journey was Spiritually scripted.
For example, Admiral Zhao attacks the Northern Water Tribe with knowledge of the Moon and Ocean Spirits mortal forms, has been planning to do so for quite some time, and has known of their existence for even longer due to information he stole from the Spirit Library. This then could explain why Koh knows of the danger they are in during the Siege of The North. Either that, or Koh is privy to some grand design of the universe, or is responsible for the chain of events. Regardless, the Avatar’s reawakening in time for this assault on the Northern Water Tribe, and his arrival there before hand, moreover, seems almost as predestined as the safety net the Moon Spirit created for itself in Yue. Combined, Yue’s sacrifice to restore the Moon Spirit and Aang’s spiritual intervention in acting as avatar to the Ocean Spirit to oust the Fire Nation proved to be the perfect opposition to Zhao’s threat.
That is merely one example of Aang’s connection to the Spirit World and the oddly coincidental, or rather, predestined nature of his journey. Aang’s connection to Roku and his fluency in all things spiritual made his mastery of the Avatar State almost laughably easy, and he succeeded in the end of Crossroads despite the fact that Azula shot him. He was there, in the Avatar State, having reached it by simply meditating.
Next, while he was unconscious for several weeks, recuperating, Aang traveled through the Spirit World and individually reforged his connection with the previous four incarnations of the Avatar Spirit, further tethering him to the Spirit World and providing him with another opportunity to directly traverse the alternate plane.
Now, with all this backstory in place, I find it hard to believe that some fans cannot see the influence of the Spirits, or the powers of the Avatar universe, having a hand in the plot of the finale. The Lion Turtle is, as far as we know, as old as the world itself and a manipulator of spiritual energy. His arrival on the eve of the Comet screams kismet to me, as if he would have come for Aang no matter what by some higher decree. The Universe simply would not tolerate the abuse of the great power it bestows upon its children of Fire twice in a row, and so it sets in motion a plan to use the Avatar, frozen in ice and hardwired directly to the realm of the Spirits through the Avatar State, by awakening him and guiding him through the trials and tribulations that face him in the war-torn world.
One of the clearest examples of the Spirit World monitoring Aang’s actions and nudging him back on path is in The Awakening when Aang runs away and nearly expires in his attempts to escape a storm. Unprompted, the Spirit of Roku appears to Aang and inspires him to keep calm and carry on. Not only Roku, but the Moon Spirit herself, Yue, graces the Avatar with not only her presence, but also her physical assistance in augmenting his Waterbending and safely guiding him to The Crescent Island (a highly spiritual place, if you ask me). It’s as if Aang, cracking under the pressure and ashamed of his failure, is ready to give up here, but the Spirit World directly intervenes, picks him up, and puts him on his feet again. As if the Spirits are telling him, “Nope, sorry, we’ve got plans for you, little one.”
I see little difference between this and the intervention of the Lion Turtle. I think of Aang’s spirit as a power source or a beacon of energy. He is, as all Avatars are, a bridge between the Spirit and Physical Worlds, so it is understandable that the Lion Turtle, manipulator of this sort of energy, seeks him out in his time of need. Yes, this intervention is as if the higher power of the Avatar World directly reaches in and affects Aang, giving him the wisdom and power he needs to prevail, but how is this unprecedented? In light of all that I’ve pointed to, I figure this is just another example in a series of similar occurrences.
To address a final point many seem to have problems with: Aang’s reactivation of the Avatar State during his fight with Ozai. First off, I would like to begin by pointing out that whenever the human vessel of the Avatar Spirit encounters great stress, marked by a release of certain powerful hormones in the body (including epinephrine, aka adrenaline), the Avatar State is triggered as a defense mechanism. It is logical to presume that Aang’s epinephrine levels were high enough at the point just before he entered the Avatar State to have automatically triggered it, without any meditation. Secondly, while barraged by Ozai, curled up in his Earth Sphere, Aang enters a state of utmost concentration, likely attempting to invoke the defense mechanism himself. Thirdly, I believe that his encounter with the Lion Turtle, and the light that was given off when the creature touched both his head and chest, helped to free Aang’s chi, beginning the process of reforging his pathway and permitting him to enter the Avatar State once again.
All of this accumulates to allow for the mechanism to trigger the moment outside force is applied to the area of chi-blockage. That this happened the precise moment after Ozai broke through his defenses was, again, fated. I am suggesting, once again, Spiritual involvement through this confluence - the Lion Turtle’s part, in particular - as well as in the actual triggering. Also, Aang was in such dire need that it is quite possible the Spirits stepped in and actually dragged him into the Avatar State. The ensuing rampage and Aang’s Avatar State dialogue with Ozai (“Firelord Ozai! You and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world, and now you shall pay the ultimate price”) suggests the absolute wrath of the Spirits. Ozai’s defeat was imperative.
This argument of mine has been forming for quite some time, in response to those who seem to ignore the subtleties of the series, and those who shit on the finale or Aang’s character for how he ends things. He ends things by exceeding all expectations, taking everything the Universe hands him and following through. He was ideal, embodying the peace he wished to establish in the world by quelling the wrath of the Spirits, proving his purity, and robbing the Firelord of his ability to further disrupt the balance of the Avatar World.
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