In the fourteenth episode of the third season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Katara takes a long-needed journey with Zuko to find the Southern Raiders in the hopes of confronting the man who murdered her mother. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
Sometimes, I feel like I am a man consumed by rage.
It’s a feeling I’ve had to fight down for years, and while I do think I’ve been able to control my anger in much more positive ways in the recent past, it’s still something that flares up from time to time. I grew up angry for a lot of reasons, and anyone who’s followed Mark Reads or Mark Watches knows that I have a past that is RIFE WITH TRAGEDY. I poke fun at it now because it’s one of the ways I cope with it. Straight up: I did not have a pleasant childhood or teenage experience, not by a long shot, and the things that happened to me from a fairly young age created a time bomb.
(Just as a warning, but there will be discussion of abuse, bullying, homophobia, anger issues, and other such emotional trauma below. If this is possibly triggering to you, just wanted you to know so no harm is caused.)
My anger is caused by the things that were done to me. There’s no doubt about that. I am angry that my parents, specifically my mother, did such horrible things to me in the name of love. I’m angry that I was regularly treated as less than a person, as an outcast, as one to be disgusted by, as one who was never trusted, and as one not deserving of positive affection. I’m angry at the pain that both of my parents caused me for being brought up to believe that homosexuality was such an abomination that the slightest sign that I might not be straight was met with violent, traumatic repulsion. I am angry that I grew up in a household where it was perfectly acceptable for my parents to call me a faggot and tell me they’d rather have a dead son than a gay one.
I am angry that I had no support system at school. I’m angry that I was picked on for being brown by the white kids, and then picked on for being not brown enough for the other brown kids. I’m angry that I was beat up for being queer, that I was cut and stabbed and dunked in toilets and locked in classrooms, and when I did exactly what I was supposed to and told an adult, I was told not to be so gay.
I’m angry that I did not have a childhood, that I had no childhood friends who could visit me, that I was never allowed out of the house except for school, that I couldn’t stay up past seven in the evening until I was sixteen and ran away from home, that I couldn’t visit other friends or socialize or have a boyfriend (or a girlfriend for that matter) because everything that wasn’t focused on getting perfect grades was evil or satanic or unbecoming of a God-fearing Christian.
I’m still angry that the guy who was my very first boyfriend was an emotionally manipulative waste who used me for affection, money, and emotional support, all the while cheating on me and planning to kick me to the curb once he didn’t need any of that. I’m still angry at a lot of the institutionalized fuckery I faced in junior high and high school that led me to want to end my life because of how much systemic homophobia was built into the “support” system I was supposed to turn to.
I’m angry about a lot of things. And that’s ok.
My problem, at least for a full decade of my life, is that I had nowhere to take that anger. I lived in a household that urged me to keep everything to myself. If I was silent, that meant I was obeying. This is now wonderfully ironic because holy shit I talk so much. If you had known me as a fourteen-year-old little teenager who loved No Doubt and Minor Threat and Bad Religion and wanted to be best friends with Monique Powell because omg she is amazing, and THEN you met me as I am today, you would see to dramatically different people. I was able to speak in class and in front of large audiences rather easily, but I was otherwise a silent, introspective, and frighteningly shy person. That was because the world around me told me to keep it all to myself. The one time I did reach out and try to get help, I was shamed for the actions of other people. And my parents were certainly not the sort of people to want to discuss the finer intricacies of a heteronormative society and how misogyny can creep into the gender roles prescribed to men as well. They were more interested in making sure I was a perfect student, that I did what I was told, and that I feared God every waking hour of my life.
That anger built up over years. Imagine not having a soul in the world to talk to about feeling like you want to end your life, or your desire just to get a hug from your own mother, or wishing you could have a semblance of normalcy to your teenage years. I am very aware that the term “normal” is pretty awful most of the time, as it suggests there’s only one experience that is the accepted narrative of being a teenager. For me, though, it actually is a great way to explain why I felt so much sadness and rage from such a young age: The majority of the people around me, and the vast majority of narratives on television and in the books I read, described coming of age stories in a very specific way. Obviously, the spectrum of human experience should never be whittled down to some hegemonic entity, but some of the most basic things that many people go through were denied to me. I had no teenage romance, no high school sweetheart, I had no childhood friends to get into shenanigans with, I was refused driving lessons, I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at anyone’s house, I wasn’t allowed to play in the neighborhood, I wasn’t allowed to do anything that some people see as the quintessential experience. For me, the word “normal” is not offensive in this context. I wanted those things, and on days when my depression rears its head unexpectedly (as it generally does), I think back to those years and I still want them. And I honestly don’t think that is a bad thing, to want to have experiences that allow you to relate to other people.
Here’s a great example. I loved J.J. Abrams’s recent movie, Super 8. I’m a sucker for emotionally-heavy science fiction like that, so it was right up my alley. I thought that Abrams captured the creativity and the infectious energy of childhood innocence brilliantly, and those child actors, who made up most of the movie, held it all together. But the movie had a second meaning for me: I could not relate to a single second of it. I know it seems hyperbolic for me to say I had no childhood friends, but I am not exaggerating. I had none. I had people I knew at school, and by the time I got to high school, I was closer to some more than others. Until I ran away from home when I was sixteen and in my junior high, I had not a single meaningful or emotionally intimate relationship with anyone. Not one.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s ruined my ability to hold lasting relationships and if it’s a cause for why I seem to drift from person to person, why I’m so reluctant to let people get close to me. I did not grow up with that experience at all.
It all culminated in a period in my life, right around the time I turned twenty, where all that anger that had been bottled up and repressed for years began to turn into a festering wound. I wanted revenge. As I learned more about the world around me and what experiences my new set of college friends and classmates had gone through, I knew I had missed out on everything. I had been denied so many experiences that might have given me a much more positive outlook on my past. And I wanted revenge for it.
However, it wasn’t a fully-formed concept at all. How exactly to you get revenge on your parents? Years later, when my very first serious relationship crumbled after I got dumped on MySpace (literally, one of the funniest things ever, but only in hindsight), I went through the same thing: How can I get revenge on this guy? How can I inflict the same amount of paint that was put on me?
It’s….absurd. I think about it now, as someone who has been letting go of my anger instead of keeping it inside of me, and I cannot understand how I thought I was going to pull that off. What I did understand, though, was my desire for closure. I knew that, at heart, I had no closure at all. Until a few years ago, I never really communicated to my mother what her actions had done to me, and that fact ate away at me, as if she was getting away with it. To me, it was the simple idea that I thought she had no idea what she’d done that made me feel so enraged. (She did know, though, and I’m happy to say that my mother and I have never been closer than we are now.)
I never did get closure on my first relationship, though, and I think there will always be a part of me that resents that. But that part is smaller and smaller as the years go by. I don’t want to suggest that pain always lessens with time, but it did for me. I never did confront my ex to tell him that what he did to me severely fucked me up for years, that I still have trust issues that plague my heart, and that I haven’t escaped the sensation that I lost time to him that I’ll never be able to get back.
But what can you do when anger starts being so goddamn tiring?
Anger has been a companion in my life since I was at least eleven or twelve, and it’s always been by my side to exhaust me, to derail me, and to make me feel that something is wrong in my head. Anger can be a beautiful thing, and it has certainly done wonders for me as an activist. But I’m tired of all that anger. It’s too present. It’s too persistent, and it’s too distracting. What am I supposed to do?
I’m supposed to watch “The Southern Raiders.”
It wasn’t until this episode that I saw something I’d never even noticed before: For three entire seasons, anger has been floating just under the surface of Katara. I honestly never even considered her an angry character; her moments seemed few and far between, always a necessary reaction to what was happening around her. It took an episode that parallels her life with Zuko’s for me to see the obvious: Katara had no outlet for her rage. She had bottled up the terror of her mother’s death, the unfairness of it all, and when she found that outlet, she let it all out at once.
“The Southern Raiders” not only acts as the third episode where a member of Team Avatar spends time alone with Zuko, nor is it just about revealing one of the only “mysteries” in the show’s canon. It’s a way to completely contextualize everything we’ve seen in a new light. Was Katara always working to vindicate the memory of her mother? Was she always this close to erupting in anger?Were her actions motivated more by this memory than anything else?
Well, it’s not that complete. Obviously, Katara is a much richer character than having a singular motivation for everything. But that’s what this episode does: it gives a new layer of Katara that quickly makes her one of the most intriguing and fascinating characters on the show. I especially love that the writers waited until the very end to give us this story, too.
For me, though, it’s not even a matter of seeing myself in Katara’s journey. Of course, I can relate to the anger that comes from trauma deep in one’s past, but I found myself more interested in where Katara would go than where she came from. (Don’t get me wrong, though; the flashbacks were some of the best things this show has ever given us.) I wanted to see what decision Katara would make when she finally faced her anger and rage. And I mean that literally: What would she do when she finally looked upon the face of the man that stole her mother away from her?
I can’t deny that it was utterly horrifying to watch Katara use blood bending again without the slightest hesitation, and it was a sign to me that this anger of hers had now become all-consuming, so much so that she was willing to discard any personal moral rules she’d set for herself. And in the process, she discovers that fully giving in to that anger has caused her to make a grave mistake: It’s not the right man.
I think people may have jumped at the possibility to criticize Katara for this, and maybe people even complained that Nickelodeon would show such a dark character turn to children. I, on the other hand, grew an immense amount of respect for Katara out of jealousy: She was able to confront her anger in a way I wish I had the courage to do. Yes, she made a mistake, but I can’t deny that there will probably always be a part of me that feels my life is eternally out of balance for the things done to me, and I do have a desire deep down in my heart that the guys who bullied me in junior high end up blowing up in a freak snowmobile accident or something, or ten years down the line, I’m some mega-awesome billionaire and one of them sits down for a job interview at my office and I get to tell them that they ruined my life as a kid, so NO, I WILL NOT GIVE YOU THIS JOB, and I’ll get to cackle maliciously as they sulk out of the building and get hit by a comet. It’s obviously an irrational desire. I know that. And I know there are so many systemic forces at work to keep life unfair for the people who don’t fit into the world’s normative design.
All that’s left is release. Watching Katara confront the actual man who killed her mother and then prepare to end his life, only to stop at the last moment, was an empowering thing to witness. I don’t even care if it was expected because it’s done with such a respect for the pain that it still causes her. Even as she relents and walks away, she’s not joyous. It doesn’t answer all of her questions. She doesn’t feel like skipping into a field of chocolate chip cookie flowers. She’s exhausted, depressed, and dejected. But she found a release that didn’t destroy her. And it’s not always about forgiveness, either. She doesn’t forgive Yon Rha for what he did, but she knows that she’s let her rage spill over to her view of Zuko. That hug and those words of forgiveness are just so powerful to witness. We know she means it, and we know that she’s found a way to move on.
I suppose that is all I can hope for, isn’t it? And that’s not even really a bad thing. I hope that there’s a day when I’m not bogged down by my past and that I can move forward without the weight of my trauma. Even if that day never comes, I know that, for my own life, letting go of my anger is not a betrayal to the truth or an insult to my memory. Sometimes, it is the only way to survive without tearing everything else down.
Surviving is perfectly fine with me.
- OH MY FUCKING CREYS baby Katara and baby Sokka just seriously throw me off a cliff you are so cute. The best part is Sokka throwing a snowball onto the back of a downed Fire Nation soldier.
- Best chilling moment after the blood bending scene: Katara revealing to Yon Rha that her mother lied about being the last waterbender in the tribe by MAKING THE RAIN STOP. holy shit.
- omg WHALE TAIL ISLAND.
- Good god, that opening battle between Azula and Zuko was SO INTENSE. The image of both characters falling into the mist is just so unsettling to me.
- So Katara and Sokka’s mother is finally given a name: Kya. Ugh, MAYBE THE MOST DEPRESSING FLASHBACK EVER.
- “So can I borrow Momo for a week?” “Why do you need Momo???” SHRUGS.
- OH MY GOD SOKKA WAITING FOR SUKI IN HIS TENT. One of the best jokes of the entire series.
- “That’s cute, but this isn’t Air Temple Preschool, it’s the real world.” SICK BURN.
- THE ENDING. THE ENDING. oh my god that final line is so haunting. I AM SO UNPREPARED.