Azula's Fragile Strength (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
One of my least favourite developments in Avatar happens at the end of The third part of The Search comic. We learn that Ozai treated Zuko as less than a human because he was petty and wanted to put his wife through a lot of pain and anguish. While I love that it shows the sociopathic, narcissistic and uncaring nature of Ozai, the show already did a great job at making Zuko's unfair treatment larger than a simple plotpoint.
The show, giving us no confirmed reason as to Ozai's disgust for Zuko, let us imagine the kind of villain he is. I saw it as him respecting power over anything else, and Zuko could never even measure up to his younger sister. As they grew up, he decided to put his efforts into the one who proved to be a natural dictator rather than waste time and energy to train and indoctrinate Zuko.
This simple development allowed us to witness the humanity within Ursa and Iroh, frame Ozai as a seemingly irredeemable villain, and perhaps most importantly, gave us one of the best arc television has to offer. But I want to discuss the other side of this family, Azula.
I am willing to go on record and say that she is simply one of the best villains ever written. Many villains manage to steal the scene they are in, but Azula reads it ahead of time and dominates it. From something as small as manipulating her old friend into giving up a career she loved to fighting five of the best benders in the world without breaking a sweat, she does not show a weakness as a villain, which is a big no-no in the writing industry. However, for any overpowered character, the Achilles' heel is psychological. This should not be confused with mental, as she is perhaps the smartest character in the show.
As with many psychological characters, her problems begin with her parents, in two vastly different ways. First, her father.
Continuing the trend of Ozai's respect for power, Azula was seemingly the prodigal child from the beginning and she was not even worried about ever losing that title to her less-skilled, emotionally weak and morally conflicted brother. When showing her new moves to her grandfather, Ozai broke his frown. He used to always let her know that his love is fully conditional, and she has to stay physically and mentally the strongest person.
For Azula, being a leader, a warrior and a tactician was simply her birthright. Zuko was given the same teachings and advantages as Azula, but she towered over him. She had no reason to break out of a cycle of improvement and appreciation from her father. This also meant avoiding the pitfalls that make Zuko weak. This is where her relationship with her mother comes in.
At Ember Island, Azula casually let us know that her own mother thought she was a monster, and then sarcastically continued, saying that she was apathetic towards that. This is a complete lie. She did not hate her mother because she saw her as someone who could make her weak, she disliked the fact that she would not see her as someone deserving of more admiration for being stronger. This is why Azula is a self-proclaimed monster. If she is a monster, that means she never had control over being the way she is, and not getting enough love from her mother was inevitable. She embraced her monsterhood until one day, when she miscalculated.
Having been stabbed in the back by the two people she trusted the most, Azula began panicking. Her power, which was her intimidation, had been stripped away. Someone broke free of her hold. She began spiralling backwards into a state of total distrust and made her calculation on the basis of who is likely to betray her.
Her brother had a rather similar moment of being betrayed, and that too by Azula herself, so why did he not devolve into the rabid monster her sister did? The simple answer here is disillusionment. After being turned into an enemy of the fire nation, Zuko roamed the earth kingdom, witnessing first hand what his war is doing. Zuko got to see the burnt leg of the girl who healed them and gave them dinner. We never got "Azula Alone", because that would have required some level of moral conflict that Zuko faced. No, her curse was her power, her status and her birthrights. She was never destined to redeem herself.
Once she became the Fire Lord, she was given validation for her power. At that moment, only one person could make her weak: the one that never saw her as a powerful entity, but as a little girl trying her best to be SEEN as powerful. Ursa, in Azula's vision, gave Azula the final push by telling her that she loved her. She needed her mother not to love her, because then, she would have a strong reason to be a monster.My " mother didn't stop me from becoming one, she didn't care, she never did. Father has always loved me, and the more I embraced my real self, the more love I got."
Now, she has no reason to not take the path her brother did. Until the very end, Azula is, and will always be a monster. A villain. One of the best villains on television.
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