Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Being one of the most critically acclaimed shows ever made, ATLA does not cheat its way into the realm of the legendary series. Through rich worldbuilding, carefully designed narratives, well-rounded characters with a vast ocean of thematic depth in a kids’ show, this story, primarily about a kid trying to fulfill his destiny contrasted to another one trying to establish one, does not let the analysts down.
I specifically want to discuss the themes of fatherhood in the show, everyone from Gansu, the humble farmer who gave the unnamed wayfarer with a burn scar on his face a home, to Ozai, the one to give him that mark.
From the start of the very first episode of Avatar, Katara lets us know that the tribe has no adults, and the oldest functioning fighter of here is a fifteen-year old whose voice hasn’t cracked. We are, for two full books, told only that Hakoda, her father, just had to leave to fight in the war. His presence during this time felt purely to remind us that he exists.
In Book 3, we learn that there is a very strong reason for such. There is a noticeable absence of any adults in the Gaang. Every single member faces their own issues with their parent(s), whether it be losing them in a genocide or abandoning them as a means to fulfill her potential. For Katara, however, we learn that her father’s presence is as prominent as it is in the series.
When he left for war, she felt the abandonment of the last person who was universally assigned to be there. To mentor her, to give her a crying shoulder. She could never get herself to even rationalise her anger. Being the “adult” of the group, she is designed to coordinate them, from getting Toph to volunteer some work to leading them out of a deadly desert.
But as the third book opened with Katara trying to maintain distance between herself and her father, we can feel a hint of immaturity from her we are not used to witnessing. The most powerful scene during this episode, and definitely one of the most hauntingly heartbreaking moments in Avatar, comes when Katara expresses her absolute disdain for Aang’s actions. The world needs Aang, but she needs him too. She needs him to be here, and safe, ensuring each others’ safety and treading their destinies together.
Hakoda immediately takes the hint. Fighting to defend his home was not a choice for him, it was more along the lines of an ultimatum. He either goes to fight the Fire Nation, or he lets them take his land, he lets them take the last waterbender of the South. As she rushes forward to seek comfort in her father’s embrace, she does not blame him. She just doesn’t understand why she can’t get herself to accept this, to stop feeling this unnecessary pain.
This scene is perfectly contrasted with another tense scene, a milestone for Avatar: the revelation of Ozai.
Before this scene, Ozai is never seen from above his nose. The show creates this perfect immersion for us to experience it as Zuko does. He always sees him in the shadows. When he flunks a skill move his little sister masters, all that is left for us to see is what he can: the disapproving frown of his father. He can never get himself to look him in the eye and keep his head up with pride. Remember this word.
The love of his father is, like anything else in the world he knows, is a commodity to be earned. With his mother out of the picture, his desperation for that ability to look him in the eye skyrockets. Zuko’s need for this destiny his father set out for him culminates in the beginning of its third act, his invitation back to the fire nation, and his invitation into the throne room.
Having his head as low as it ever was, he lets his father decide his fate then and there. As he builds up his reasoning for banishing and scarring his own son, Zuko anticipates the worst that could happen, only to be blindsided by a genuine and comforting “Welcome home.”
Here is where we get to look into his eyes, as does Zuko. He does not look like a tyrant or a monster. He could be any man in the world dressed in royal clothing. The threatening gravel of Mark Hamill keeps us tense even at the safest points of the conversation. As he begins to praise Zuko for the lie, he begins to feel threatened for his life, as this man, his father, may end him once he learns the truth.
Ozai, being the worst father ever to both Zuko and Azula, provides us the opportunity of perfect contrast towards Iroh, and back to the heartbreaking realisation that he is not, in fact, the perfect father.
Going back into his history further, we are brought to remember The Siege of Ba Sing Se, performed in a legendary attack by The Dragon of the West. Here, Iroh brought his son along to perform his nationalistic duty and earn glory and satisfy the zeal to prove your power. It is here that he loses Lu Ten. Distraught, he ends his successful siege and decides to return home to heal, where he learns that he has also lost his father and his sister-in-law.
As he saw Zuko facing his brother, no, the Fire Lord in an Agni Kai, he is left to forever remember that it was his decision, once again, to allow Zuko to practise his nationalistic zeal and enter the War Room. Unable to, once again, do anything to stop the atrocities before his eyes, Iroh, in his guilt, decides to accompany Zuko in his banishment, perhaps never to see home again.
Iroh himself never wished to hurt Zuko any more than he already has. He does not demand to go back. He lets him develop his power and intellect on his own, trying to fulfill his unattainable desire: to be smarter and stronger than Azula. To do something so despicable and horrifying, his father will accept him once again. Once the two manage to desert Fire Nation, he puts his life’s purpose as the guide towards Zuko’s destiny.
At Ba Sing Se, Iroh celebrates the life of the son that died right outside these very walls. The attack on this city has marked Iroh, in the fire nation, as a disgraced general, a failure to keep going and attack, but he himself sees it as his failure as a father.
At the moment of truth, at the crossroads of destiny, Zuko chooses to abandon everything he learned that spring in favour of the easier destiny that has been set for him. This is Iroh at his lowest, having lost the last ounce of purpose his life had built up to, his second failure as a father. Where once Iroh left Ba Sing Se because he did not wish to be there, he is now taken from that very city, set to die in a cold prison cell of the palaces he called home.
The most beautiful scene in the entire series came up at its very twilight as the betrayed old man, as quickly as he could, jumped to hug and forgive the dumb kid who found his way all by himself. Despite the tragic loss of Mako Iwamatsu, Greg Baldwin, in this scene, didn’t hold back any punches to give us back what was precious and feared had been lost forever.
Zuko, of course, had another mentor, another father. Gansu, the father of Lee and Sensu. It might seem like he is just a mere plot device to segway Zuko into his flashbacks, but his value cannot be diminished. As Lee kept pushing the stranger for his name, it was he who respected Zuko’s decision to bury what he was and try to move on.
Once the Earth Kingdom soldiers broke the news of Sensu’s upcoming death through the hands of his very brothers he was trying to defend, Gansu went on to rush to the battlefront to try to save his son. The war Zuko is trying to keep going, the one Aang could stop, is the one that may claim the lives of half this family.
At his brutal reclamation of his title as the prince of the Fire Nation, Gansu, the wise Iroh-figure is nowhere to be found. It was the Fire Nation’s war that claimed the son and father in this family, and Zuko’s attempt to fix the symptoms by fighting the bullies was nothing more than a bandage on this family that has forever been scarred.
Lastly, there is another family that has its life affected by the war, but unlike the poor family we just witnessed, their issues are more internal. Lao and Poppy Bei Fong have all the money anyone can ask for, but they cannot cure their daughter’s blindness. She strolls in their gardens with armed men, where the other side of this wall may, at any moment, be overrun by the enemy combatants.
Their fear manifested into distrust of Toph’s abilities, not getting her to ever push her limits. One night, when their helpless daughter, who was supposed to be a secret to the world, is kidnapped at the courtesy of the Avatar, Lao is left to sit at an arena, made witness to the most powerful earthbender in existence. A natural conclusion under different circumstances may seem that Lao accepts that Toph is highly capable and the parents need to build trust. This is war however. Strong people die all the time, and the greatest warriors constantly lose the battlefront, get captured or worse. They could not let Toph leap into dangerous territories in a world that will NOT be kind to her.
Toph, of course, declares it to be the final straw and leaves, no contact or anything. The parents are forced to deal with their inability to ever keep their daughter safe, as she refuses the privilege of staying off the warfront. In the finale, as she was hanging on to her closest friend, unable to see anything below or above her, among the brutally loud blaring of dismantling airships, as he says, “I don't think boomerang's coming back, Toph. It looks like this is the end.” She finally sheds tears, the twelve-year old who never reconciled with her parents.