The Impossibility of Forgiveness in ‘Southern Raiders’

The “Southern Raiders” episode of 'Avatar: The Last Airbender’ defies the ubiquitous notion that forgiveness is essential, allowing Katara to not only refuse to forgive the man who murdered her mother, but also exact revenge upon him.

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The notion of forgiveness manages to be both entirely nebulous and unignorably ubiquitous. It defies clear definition; some say that it’s a process of absolution, while others say that it’s a means of surrendering ill feeling toward one’s wrongdoer (the first hit on Google merely defines forgiveness as “the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven”). The alleged necessity of forgiveness in order to heal, grow, and move on is nonetheless endlessly touted. The burden of forgiveness also necessarily falls on the marginalized and harmed; it is the victim who is told that, while their pain may not be their fault, it is they who must initiate the process of resolving it. It is for this reason that I am so enamored by “Southern Raiders,” the 16th episode in the third and final season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as it imagines a situation wherein a wronged individual — series regular Katara — refuses to forgive.

Throughout the series, Katara is characterized by her rage. This rage stems from her ongoing oppression under colonial rule and the trauma that has been inflicted on her as a result. Katara is a racialized character belonging to the fictional Water Tribe — which is coded as Inuit — and has lived under colonial rule and occupation by the Fire Nation for her entire life. Furthermore, and most crucially, the Fire Nation is responsible for the murder of her mother, which, in addition to her father’s departure to fight in the war, has forced Katara to grow up and take responsibility in a way that no 14-year-old ought to. Katara is an Indigenous woman who has faced severe loss, who continues to suffer under a violent colonial regime, and who is deeply traumatized as a result. Of particular note is Katara’s unabashed and enduring hatred for the Fire Nation, a hatred that boils over in this episode as Katara has to contend with her mother’s murder.

Katara ultimately decides that she will seek revenge on the person who killed her mother, aided by Zuko. Before her departure, however, there is a brief stand-off with two other principal characters: show protagonist and staunch pacifist Aang, and Katara’s brother Sokka. It is here that the episode’s most striking exchange of dialogue takes place: Aang urges Katara to forgive the man who has caused her pain, insisting that it is the only way through which she can heal. Katara says that she cannot just stand around and do nothing, causing Aang to tell her that forgiveness is hard, to which she retorts that it is impossible. Unfettered by Aang’s pacifist beliefs, Katara goes on her journey.

It’s impossible. Katara’s statement, paired with her angry blue eyes and her steady tone, does not leave room for further discourse. Katara refuses to entertain a reality wherein her healing can only be facilitated by what she sees as absolution of the man responsible for her trauma in the first place. There is no consideration. There is no benefit of the doubt. Katara refuses to forgive. And, true to her word, the episode ends without Katara ever forgiving her mother’s murderer.

In visual terms, the episode is distinctively dark. Katara and Zuko begin their journey at night, during which the sky is a motionless dark grey. It soon begins to rain, and then to pour. The journey, save for a hiccup wherein Katara and Zuko mistakenly attack a Fire Nation general who they wrongfully believed was the killer, is quiet; the only sounds are that of the rain, the wind, and the echoes of the dark atmosphere. This episode, through its artwork, uses the device of pathetic fallacy to validate Katara’s emotions. The rage and grief she feels are so overwhelming that her surroundings aptly mirror them. This is particularly true in terms of the pouring rain. Katara is a waterbender, meaning that she possesses the capacity to mould and wield water for everything from healing to fighting. The torrent of rain, therefore, not only profoundly mirrors her emotions, but is an in-universe encouragement for Katara to enact revenge, to gain catharsis through a means more tangible than forgiveness.

When Katara is finally faced with her mother’s murderer, she discovers that he is an elderly man living in a simple village with his nagging mother. The way that he is depicted, both in the show’s present temporality and in flashbacks of the moments leading up to his murder of Katara’s mother, work to ironically decenter his importance. In rhetoric about the importance of forgiveness, proponents often claim that forgiveness is necessary because harboring ill feeling toward the wrongdoer actually gives them power. However, here, the man is utterly powerless. He is a shell of the person he once was: a retired general who is now frail and bitter. Even in the flashbacks of the moments leading up to the murder, the man’s appearance is distorted so that he cannot be fully seen; his Fire Nation regalia is fashioned in such a way that his only distinctive feature is his eyes. If eyes are the window to the soul, then this purposeful artistic choice both literally shrouds his being while also emphasizing his evilness. We notably never even see the actual murder take place because we don’t need to. The episode refuses to exploit Katara’s trauma by depicting her mother’s death in graphic detail, and instead allows Katara to take centre stage.

When Katara is ready to enact her revenge, she holds literal dominion over nature. With a few movements of her hands, the pathetically fallacious world bends to her will: the rainwater solidifies, sharpens into blades, and hurtles toward the cowering murderer, who shields himself, preparing for impact. But the impact never comes. The icy daggers hover in the air, inches away from the man’s face, and then, with another movement of Katara’s hand, the ice liquefies and drenches the man. He is soaked and shaken, but not dead. Katara leaves him crying into the soil; pathetic, as she aptly calls him. Aang misinterprets this pardoning as evidence of forgiveness, for which he congratulates her. But Katara is sure to correct him: she hasn’t forgiven him, and asserts that she never will.

Katara’s emotional resolution is conveyed through a shift in her environment. Gone are the rain and wind and darkness of her journey, replaced by the serenity of a bright orange sunset. Through this enduring adherence to pathetic fallacy, the episode maintains that Katara’s internal resolution was not, and could not have been, facilitated through forgiveness. “The Southern Raiders” deems forgiveness, for Katara at least, to be an impossibility.

In a world that so often privileges forgiveness as medicinal and that also unilaterally discourages feminine, racialized wrath, “Southern Raiders” imagines a reality wherein traumatized people — specifically, racialized women — are both centered and able to work through their grief and trauma in the way that they see fit. This episode does not place the onus on the scorned person to enact pardon, but instead allows her the space to grapple with the feelings that come with her trauma, to entertain the possibility of even violent revenge, and to say that it is okay for her not to forgive  — one can heal without it. In this way, “Southern Raiders” offers a space for restorative justice. This episode imagines a world wherein survivors of trauma are at the forefront and are able to heal on their own terms, irrespective of moralization from those who do not grapple with the same pain.

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