Earlier this week I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I was struck by how much the character of Sokka reminded me of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both Sokka and Xander are comedy sidekicks who, over the course of the series, evolved into a more serious role. They were normal guys in a group of people with supernatural powers, all of whom kept leveling up and getting more powerful. Many episodes involved their romantic interests. The big difference between them is that Sokka’s character arc was handled much better than Xander’s. Sokka had a clearer role, was given more interesting things to do, and became a strong contributor to the group’s overall success.
(By the way, I’m going to spoil both Buffy and Avatar. I’m also focusing on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and not its continuation in comic books.)
Xander Harris was the everyman to Buffy’s super-powered slayer. He was goofy and jokey. He often got the worst from monsters and magic, from an insectoid teacher who planned to mate with him and then kill him, to a love spell that went awry and caused all the women in Sunnydale to chase after him. As part of the Scooby Gang, he remained in his regular-guy role throughout the series. The Scoobies began as the comparatively ordinary friends who helped Buffy, but as time went on that shifted. Willow learned magic, as did her girlfriend Tara. Buffy dated a vampire, a highly-trained soldier, and another vampire. Newcomers to the group had supernatural powers and connections to the supernatural world, like Oz the werewolf and Anya the ex-vengeance demon. Only Xander remained without either.
The writers never seemed sure what Xander’s true role was, despite him helping defeat several of the series’ big bads, the major villians of each season. In season four he was the “heart” component in a spell to defeat Adam, that season’s big bad. In season six, his love for Willow stopped her from destroying the world. He was variously identified as having heart, as seeing truly, and as having courage, but those characteristics shifted throughout the series and left him without a well-defined role. He spent most battles on the sideline. He provided moral support, not insight or fighting prowess or knowledge.
The other Scoobies were also unclear about Xander’s role, something made explicit in the Xander-centric episode “The Zeppo”. In it, everyone but Xander was occupied fighting some world-ending terror. Xander was left to fetch donuts and fret about not being cool. During the episode he manages to lose his virginity to the slayer Faith, pal around with a psychotic undead student, and stop that student from blowing up Sunnydale High. This gives him new-found confidence, but none of the others learned what he’d been up to, or even really noticed his absence. Only the audience sees what has happened, and also gets to see how melodramatic and over-the-top the Scooby Gang’s efforts are without Xander’s leavening humor.
Sokka has a lot of similarities to Xander. Everyone in his group has crazy strong elemental bending powers: Aang the Avatar and Airbender, Toph the Earthbender, and his sister Katara the Waterbender. Their enemies are similarly powerful benders. Sokka provides comic relief, spending many of the early episodes grumbling about not having enough meat to eat, making sarcastic asides, and often being the butt of slapstick events.
Sokka diverged from Xander in how he developed skills and talents that gave him a very specific and needed role in the Avatar’s group. Sokka’s inventiveness and native curiosity led him to create several useful weapons. His planning made him the group’s tactician.
Like Xander, Sokka had his own soul-searching episode, “Sokka’s Master”. In the third season Sokka felt that he wasn’t contributing to the group, and so ended up studying with a renowned swordmaster. He trained with the master and became a credible swordsman, even creating his own sword out of metal found in a meteorite. In his absence while he trained, Sokka’s friends noticed he was gone, in marked contrast to Xander’s. The group discovered that they needed his planning and missed his joking.
Nowhere is the difference between Xander and Sokka more pronounced than in the Avatar series finale. Sokka contributes directly and importantly to the fight to stop the Fire Nation. His plan brings down the airships raining fire on the Earth Kingdom. Towards the end he stops two Firebenders from killing him and Toph by throwing his boomerang at one and his meteorite-metal sword at the other in a striking display of martial prowess.
Sokka also maintained his comedic role throughout the series, even as his serious contributions increased. Xander became more mature as Buffy went on at a cost to his comedic impact. Sokka, however, was both comedic and serious. In the finale, at the climax of his plot, he knocked a Firebender off of an airship by throwing his sword at him. As he watched his sword tumble to the forest below, he plaintively cried out, “Bye, space sword!”
Sokka was a much more satisfying character than Xander. He evolved and became a more deeply-realized person throughout the series without downplaying his sense of humor. He contributed directly to battles, making Sokka more of an equal to his companions than Xander was to his. Avatar’s structure undoubtedly made this easier: the series had a definite end, allowing the writers to craft a satisfying character arc for Sokka without having to deal with an open-ended series. The character of Xander points out some of the pitfalls of taking a sidekick known more for comedy and putting him or her in a more serious role; the character of Sokka shows how it can be done.