Nearly two decades after it premiered on Nickelodeon, Avatar: The Last Airbender is getting a new rebirth of attention on Netflix. That’s partly because we’re all stuck inside and craving something nostalgic and enjoyable to watch, but, like a world savior miraculously sprung from an iceberg, Avatar feels more than ready to meet the moment on its own terms. The show is a genre smoothie of anime, American kids’ cartoons, Westerns, and Joseph Campbell “chosen one” story structure, but it succeeds best at developing its own engrossing and expansive universe. The bones of the series are already strong, with everything set in the aftermath of the Fire Nation’s sudden attack on the world’s other nations and Aang the Avatar attempting to put everything back in balance. But Avatar also fills its seasons with one-off episodes and story lines that give a real sense of place and stakes to everything else that’s happening. Sure, you care about Aang, Katara, and Zuko, of course, but you also end up getting invested in everyone they meet along the way, from the bumbling King Bumi to the poor cabbage guy.
Given that I have a lot of extra time on my hands, and because I recently watched all of Avatar on Netflix, I’ve taken it upon myself to rank all those minor characters across the series. The basic criterion: I’m excluding any characters who have a major arc on the show. This is, of course, subjective, but basically they can’t be a central figure in more than three episodes, can’t be the Avatar, and can’t be a primary antagonist or part of the roughly defined network of primary characters and their love interests and/or counterpart antagonists. I love Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai as much as any reasonable person with a soul, but it feels unfair to pit them against that fortune teller from one random episode in season one. I’m also leaving out any nonhuman characters (sorry, badgermoles) and previous incarnations of the Avatar (technically, they all are the same person). Finally, I’m keeping this list to 45 of those characters; tons of people appear throughout the seasons, but it seems best to focus on those who at least make some form of impression and 45 as a number just looks nice.
It’s also worth noting that this ranking is based on a combination of animation, writing, and vocal performance (and unfortunately, though Avatar’s characters are nonwhite and from Asian- and/or Native-associated cultures, most tend to be voiced by white actors, something Netflix’s live-action reboot will supposedly change). Finally, I’m leaving out characters from the sequel series The Legend of Korra just because there’s enough on our plate with one show and I don’t want you to have to get CBS All Access, where Korra streams, to follow along — though you should, just to watch The Good Fight. On to the madness!
45. Fire Lord Sozin
Okay, right out of the gate we’re fudging the major-minor distinction, but even though Sozin’s actions loom over the whole series, he really gets the spotlight only in his big flashback episode with Roku. Anyway, he’s ranked last because he’s a total asshole who abandoned his friend to his death so he could conquer the world. (Do Roku and Sozin have doomed-love-affair vibes? Totally. Does this make the Dumbledore-Grindelwald thing feel like a rip-off in retrospect? Completely.) Imperialism isn’t cool!
44. Earth King Kuei Hou-Ting
Let’s move right along through the royalty here with the dorky and oblivious king of Ba Sing Se, who loves his pet bear almost as much as he loves completely not anticipating the activities of his militarized secret police. Proving Avatar’s case that most people in charge are generally idiots, the Earth King never really has to take responsibility for presiding over the messed up regime that propped him up, and his goofy shtick just wears on me personally.
43. Master Yu
He’s Toph’s earthbending teacher who, first, does not respect her abilities, and second, tries to kidnap her. Not cool!
42. Xin Fu
He helps out with the whole attempt to kidnap Toph, which, let me reiterate, is not cool, but hey, she did learn how to metalbend as a result so that’s a sweet upside. Also we have to acknowledge that he does pull off some pretty cool earthbending in his earthbending tournament.
41. Long Feng
If we’re gonna put the Earth King on here, we should probably also list his head of police, who’s just generally pretty evil. Still, you’ve gotta appreciate his hustle. It takes a lot of work to fool an entire city and consistently schedule brainwashing sessions for various dissidents.
40. The Mechanist
You have to love a guy so obsessed with the lost Air Nomads that he developed incredibly advanced flying tools, but I can’t support anyone who collaborated with the Fire Nation for so long. Sure, he turned around in the end, but that doesn’t make the whole weapons-supplying thing okay.
As the Mechanist’s son, he’s not implicated in his dad’s whole weapons-supply collaboration, and he gets to fly around in some cool Da Vinci–esque contraptions. I support this.
37–38. Oma and Shu
The mythical, Romeo and Juliet–style inspirations for the city of Omashu, whose love also led to creation of the earthbending concept. Their story is a nice moment of Avatar devising some folklore of its own, but it’s surpassed by an episode with another bit of folklore …
35–36. Jin Wei and Wei Jin
In season one’s “The Great Divide,” the characters encounter warring tribes who have conflicting myths about how their progenitors betrayed each other, leading to continuous Hatfields and McCoys–style feuding between them. The ultimate reveal is that Jin Wei and Wei Jin were just 8-year-old boys who got into a fight while playing a version of soccer. A great example of some of the “so dumb they become funny” jokes Avatar excels at.
An earthbender who helps Aang and his friends along on their journey early in their adventures, Haru suffers by simply not being as fun as some of the other people they meet on the way. Still, he gets to come back later and help Team Avatar in its larger battles with the Fire Nation, so good for him.
33. Big Bad Hippo
Continuing the trend of talking about the earthbenders, we’ve got one of the contestants in the earthbending tournament. I respect the name and the fact that he later helps in the defense of Ba Sing Se, but it’s just not as funny a bit as …
32. The Boulder
A little Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson joke for the kids.
31. Fire Lord Azulon
Not the greatest, by virtue of being a Fire Lord, but given that he’s Iroh and Ozai’s father (both major characters, okay? You will not find them in this ranking!) and he was killed by his own son, we’ll give him a little sympathy.
30. Admiral Zhao
While most of the Fire Nation is either entrenched in deeply complex dynastic politics or pretty much faceless, we have to appreciate Zhao, whose whole bit is that he’s entirely too hotheaded (heh) to manage his powers well. He’s terrible, but I appreciate the swing at some fun characterization.
29. Master Pakku
He’s an important figure within the Avatar world, being a highly skilled waterbender and a crucial part of the Northern Water Tribe, but as a character, he doesn’t bring a ton to the table. A few sarcastic remarks, an intense devotion to tradition — we get it! Adults love rules.
Speaking of annoying adults, we’ve got Arnook, the head of the Northern Water Tribe and a guy who loves rules so much that he comes across as exaggeratedly stern. But he loves his daughter Yue a ton and has a good heart, so he gets points for that.
27. Monk Gyasto
Aang’s original teacher back before the Fire Nation invasion, Gyasto is a cool guy and one of the better mentors Aang gets during his travels, to the point where Gyasto resisted the other monks’ attempts to force him into superintense Avatar training. Still, none of the mentor figures in Avatar stand out as the most fun, probably because the show is so anti-authority in general.
26. Jeong Jeong
A firebender who attempted to retire in peace away from it all, he has the most pathos of any of the bending masters whom Aang and his friends run into along the way. Plus, he does get to shift into badass mode once he’s trying to fight off Zhao, so we respect that he’s keeping things sharp.
25. Master Piandao
Rounding out our succession of authority figures, there’s Piandao, who is ostensibly a Fire Nation swordsman willing to teach Sokka some skills but who turns out to be a member of the secretive White Lotus and ends up protecting Sokka once he reveals himself to be part of the Water Tribe. I admittedly have a soft spot for Sokka episodes, but it’s also just fun when the show pulls off a little twist like that.
24. On Ji
23. Professor Zei
This anthropologist was willing to give up everything to be buried beneath the earth in a giant, sinking library just because it contained nearly all the knowledge of the world. Frankly, it’s impressive when anyone knows themselves that well.
22. Chief Hakoda
He’s Sokka and Katara’s long-lost father, and he’s here to save the day! I appreciate Hakoda’s presence as a character, and for making Sokka and Katara happy, but the show ends up using him as a plot device so often (down to Sokka having to rescue him from prison) that he doesn’t get to fully come to life as much as you’d want.
Friend of Hakoda, unburned by as much plot … more fun!
20. The Sun Warriors
Personally, if I had access to deep, powerful fire skills as well as the ability to commune with two actual dragons, I would not isolate from the rest of the world but potentially do more to try to make it better. But that’s just me.
19. Combustion Man, a.k.a. Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man
He’s super-buff and super-mean and super-silent and super-deadly with his whole superpowerful third eye, but there’s something about Sokka’s insistence on that nickname that’s stupidly endearing.
18. The Ember Island Players
You have to admire a TV show that, just an episode before launching into its finale, decides to have all the main characters pause and watch some randos act out a parody of all the rest of the show. Insufferably meta? Sure. But Avatar’s dorky humor is half its fun, and I personally respect the art of the theater.
17. June … and Nyla
Just a dark, serious woman and the humongous, terrifying molelike tracking animal she rides around on, hanging out, having fun.
16. Aunt Wu
A classic little one-off character, Aunt Wu is a fortune teller who holds sway over a small village and then inadvertently puts it in danger by insisting that a nearby volcano won’t destroy said village. The volcano erupts, of course, but Aang and friends step in to save the place, proving, as Wu insists, that she was right all along because the volcano didn’t destroy anything. You’ve gotta respect a skilled, precisely imprecise scammer like her.
15. Princess Ursa
The drama! Not counting her appearances (not to spoil anything, but …) in other Avatar properties, Ursa gets a short but brutal backstory as Zuko’s loving mother, who tries to save him from being killed by his own father only to be banished from the kingdom as a punishment. All in all, pretty noble stuff, though it’s brutal how she keeps overlooking Azula, feeding into her daughter’s descent into power-madness.
12–14. Tho, Due, and Huu, the swampbenders
My roommate will yell at me if I don’t rank the swampbenders high on this list, and for (mostly) good reason. They’ve developed a highly specialized form of waterbending that gives them power over vines, and they have a cool, powerful swamp to live in. The southern-redneck caricatures are a little weird, but it’s nice to see characters who aren’t directly related to royal bloodlines getting some power. Anyway, it’s rude that Korra forgets about the swampbenders entirely. Justice for swampbenders!
11. Kanna, a.k.a. Gran-Gran
As Sokka and Katara’s grandmother, she’s just an all-around calming and supportive presence.
10. King Bumi
The strange shenanigans and full-on wild animation of the eccentric king of Omashu are the closest Avatar comes to adopting the tone of The Emperor’s New Groove, which can, of course, only be a compliment.
9. Princess Yue
You’ve gotta be pretty cool if you leave your boyfriend behind to literally become the moon.
An old woman who has gotten so good at waterbending she can bend blood when there’s a full moon, Hama is probably the spookiest of Avatar’s one-off characters, with powers so strong they later become a big part of Korra. Plus, she offers temptations to Katara, bringing a folkloric “be careful what you wish for” edge to her episode.
4–7. Pipsqueak, Smellerbee, Longshot, and the Duke
This classic bunch of goofy but supportive rogues and freedom fighters who work alongside Jet mark the moment where Avatar’s character design gets most Looney Tunes. There’s Pipsqueak, who turns out to be the big guy; the Duke, who’s really the smallest one; Longshot, the silent one; and Smellerbee, the group’s primary female member. My biggest frustration is that they didn’t get to do more together.
Ah, Jet, the source of many a sexual awakening for Nickelodeon-obsessed nerdy millennials of a certain age who first learned about the attractive abilities of an oral fixation from his. Jet’s so suave, so serious, so reactionary in his revolutionary politics — all you want in a man, really. Too bad he suffered one of Avatar’s most brutal deaths in the battle over Ba Sing Se, even if the network kind of cut around the reality of it. Farewell, Jet. You and your permanent mouth leaf were too good for this world.
2. The Cabbage Merchant
Let me just refer you to the following tweet:
1. Joo Dee
The woman who famously insists, “There is no war in Ba Sing Se,” is an icon, a meme reborn in the coronavirus era, an emblem of the frightening surety of authoritarian regimes while also being a tragic figure within them. Technically, we meet at least two Joo Dees, since the woman who guides Aang and friends around Ba Sing Se is summarily replaced when her façade starts to crack, but that’s part of what makes her (or both of them?) such an indelible minor character. After you’ve gazed, just once, into that rictus of a smile, this children’s cartoon will confirm that the world holds horrors far beyond what you’re ready to comprehend.