Why yes, I did just finish my Avatar re-watch. What gave it away?
One thing I don’t often touch on in these analyses is Negative Character Arcs. To explain briefly: a Positive Change arc is where the character overcomes their Lie and changes for the better; these are what you see most often in fiction. Negative Change arcs are the exact opposite: where a character succumbs to their lie and changes for the worse.
You see this most often in antagonistic characters, for obvious reasons. Generally speaking, the audience doesn’t usually want to watch their hero fall to the dark side (with a few exceptions). It’s a compelling arc for the antagonist. What could be more fun than watching a bad guy lose his shit?
Enter the subject of today’s article: Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, daughter of the Fire Lord.
Azula is the fan-favorite Avatar villain by a landslide! Seriously, there’s not even a comparison! She’s charismatic enough to be enjoyable and terrifying enough to be a true threat! Not only does she get some of the best fight scenes, especially in Book 3, but she also gets some of the best character development!
See, Azula is a victim of circumstance. She is a product of her father’s evil and the times they live in. If she weren’t raised by a psychopath in a time of war, maybe she’d have turned out to be a normal child. Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to do that. And in the end, it drove her completely insane.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
The Want: Firelord Azula
Azula’s goal is really not all that interesting. Hell, it’s not even that prescient in the story. All she really wanted was to make her father proud and become the Fire Lord. Simple, boring, effective.
This desire has motivated practically every action Azula has taken. She worked to be as perfect as possible to avoid losing her father’s love, like Zuko did. When her father promised to make her Fire Lord near the end of Book 3, she seemed happier than we’d ever seen her. If Zuko was the favored child of their mother, than Azula wanted to be their father’s favorite; after all, he was the one who chose who got to be Fire Lord.
But that’s not what makes her character so fascinating. That comes with the next three.
The Lie: Rule By Fear
From her very first scene, we see exactly what kind of character Azula is. She’s heartless, cold, clever, brutal, and almost entirely dishonest. She’s such a good liar that she even tricks Toph, who can literally sense it when you lie! But more than anything, we learn one thing: she’s a tyrant. One that rules through fear.
Azula doesn’t trust anyone. Not her friends, not her servants, not her brother, not even her parents! So, in order to keep people around her (and in line with her desires), she ruled by fear. Even her two friends, Mai and Tai-Lee, can’t really be called that. They’re simply too afraid of her to not give her what she wanted.
But then Book 3, Episode 15 happens.
The Wound: Betrayal
Here’s what is incredibly fun about Azula. See, with most traditional characters, their Wound is something that happened long ago. Typically it’s something that happened before the story starts. But Azula is an exception. We get to see her Wound as it happens in the story!
Before the Wound happens, Azula makes it clear that she has no regrets. No sorrows. Nothing. She acknowledges that sad stuff has happened to her, like how her own mother saw her as a monster, but she never cared. Or at least, she never thought she did. Simply put, she was a really good pretend-sociopath. So good, in fact, that she managed to convince herself it was true.
But then Mai and Tai-Lee betray her. Mai’s love for Zuko overpowers her fear of Azula. Tai-Lee’s genuine friendship with Mai was strong enough to break the terror the princess held over her. Her two best ‘friends’ gained the courage to betray her. Her ‘rule by fear’ method completely backfired.
When this happens, Azula’s convictions completely shatter. She no longer has faith in her methods. And since she has no ability to trust any other way, she finds herself completely alone. Isolated. As far as she knows, there is no way for her to earn anyone’s loyalty or friendship. Fear didn’t work and she couldn’t show true love. So she was completely alone.
Here’s where the Negative part of her arc kicks in. In a Positive Change arc, Azula would realize the problems with her old methods and grow into a better person. But she didn’t do that. She doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down! Unfortunately, doing so never dissuaded her doubts. In the end, it only made her into a paranoid maniac.
Now add the weight of her father’s expectations and the responsibility of ruling a country onto her shoulders? Yeah, I think you can see why she cracked. Because god damn, does this poor girl crack!
The Need: A Mother’s Love
On the surface, Azula isn’t a very sympathetic character. She’s cruel, she has no problem hurting or tormenting our heroes, and even seems to take pleasure from hurting others! How can I describe her as a ‘poor’ girl? Clearly, she deserved what she got!
And yes. I’m not denying that she’s a horrible person who got her comumpance. That much is fact. But if you look beneath the surface, you can understand and sympathise with her.
In the finale, we see Azula slowly losing her mind. She fires all her assistants, her bodyguards, everyone. In these scenes, as she slowly loses her mind, she has a conversation with her imaginary mother in the mirror. Azula confronts her, claiming that she always saw her as a monster and never loved her like she did Zuko. But her mother denies these claims. She states that she did, in fact, love her. How could a mother not love their child?
Here’s where we can find the tragedy in Azula. She was envious of Zuko, who was always closer to their mother than she was. She tried to make up for it by pleasing her father, who only saw her as a tool for his own ambitions. By pleasing her father, she became a twisted person that tormented everyone around her, especially her brother. Her mother wasn’t horrified of her; she was horrified of what her father was doing to her.
If Azula ackowledged that, she might have become a better person. She might have healed and become a happier person. But again: she didn’t. She refused her mother’s love, sticking with the belief that she was only seen by her parents as a tool and a freak. By denying the embrace of her mother, she let herself succumb completely to her madness.
Is she forgivable? Oh, hell no! But if you really look at her, you can understand and sympathise with her. She wasn’t born a monster. But her father turned her into one.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is widely considered to be the best cartoon ever for several good reasons. The animation, the world building, the action scenes, the comedy, I could go on and on. And I will this Saturday for my full review! The point is, there is one factor that stands well above all the others: the characters.
People still love and talk about these characters to this day! Even without the Netflix release bringing this show back into the limelight, there are still people that will bring these guys up! Aang, Soka, Katara, Zuko, Iroh, Cabbage Guy, name a character, people still love ’em! The cast of this show is phenomenal!
Unfortunately, the villains have a problem. They’re all flat, one-dimensional, and kind of boring. No one cares about the Fire Lord beyond his battle with Aang. No one cares about Admiral Xao. Hell, I can’t even remember the name of the dude who controlled Ba Sing Sei from the shadows! These guys do their job for the story, yes, but they aren’t especially deep or memorable characters!
All except for one: Azula. On the surface, she’s just another one-dimensional evil machine. But when you really look at the finer details, there’s a lot to talk about here!
That’s why Azula is my favorite character! She’s a villain with an incredible, almost unnecessarily high amount of depth! Out of a catalog filled with evil, one-dimensional characters, she stands higher than anyone! She may not be Fire Lord! But she’s definitely the Queen of the Baddies!
Not that there was much competition.