Since I’ve been re-watching Avatar, several people have asked me what kind of bender I am. The S.O. opines often that I am a firebender, but to be honest I’ve never felt completely connected with any of the bending disciplines. The character that I feel the greatest connection to, actually, is Sokka.
(For the record, the S.O. is definitely an airbender. If anyone was wondering.)
Sokka is the weak link in the Avatar team. Actually, I only use that term because I was listening to the Revisionist History podcast recently and Malcom Gladwell was talking about weak link versus strong link thinking. Specifically, what he said was that some people focus on improving the strong link in a team (in this case, Aang) because they think that will give them the best chance of success. But often, success in a given community or sport will hinge on the weak link – the character that, at face value, has the least power or strength. Despite his skill with a boomerang, Sokka fits.
At first blush, it looks like the plot of Avatar is all about leveling up Aang. He’s the main character, he’s the chosen one, and he’s the person the plot revolves around. But on the rewatch it quickly becomes apparent: Aang can’t succeed at anything on his own. Yeah, the kid is hella powerful, but so what? Power is not the only thing that wins the fight. No matter how much Aang levels up, he can’t do it on his own.
You need strategy. You need your team.
Sokka is not a bender. He’s the oldest, but he’s not the best with people either. His greatest strengths are, ironically, his pessimism and his ability to come up with schemes. Sokka is concerned with the basic aspects of living – money, food, a place to sleep. He’s practical. He’s loyal, too. When he gets the chance to join his beloved father at various points in the series, he chooses not to, knowing that Aang needs him. It is Sokka who discovers the Day of Black Sun, who pushes for them to invade the Fire Nation at that time. It nearly works, too. In the final battle, it’s Sokka who focuses on the bigger picture – preventing the Fire Nation soldiers from destroying the Earth Kingdom – playing an instrumental roll in the action.
Sokka isn’t the only non-bender with exceptional physical skills. Mai and Ty Lee both show that benders are not the only power on the battlefield. He’s also not the smartest non-bender we see. The Mechanist is far more skilled in inventing, though Sokka does his share. He is a generalist, and while that doesn’t mean that he is flashy, the breadth of his knowledge is its own power. Sokka knows what his team’s skills are, and he comes up with strategies that play to those skills. They may not always work out, but at least he has a plan – and he’s always quick to come up with something else. He is not the leader of their group – Katara comes closest – but he is the brains behind the operation, even if his friends sometimes take potshots at his logic.
(And his propensity to drink cactus juice.)
Could Aang have won without Sokka? It’s possible. More likely he would have been captured by the Fire Nation long before without Sokka and Katara’s help. But even assuming he survived, and won the battle with Ozai, Aang would not have been able to protect the people he was fighting for without Sokka’s strategies and support. He may be the weakest link, but that makes him no less integral.