Sozin's Comet: The Path of Zuko
We actually covered most of Zuko's pre-fight stuff previously. So quite a bit of the pre-fight time will be spent with Azula and Ozai.
The Phoenix King
How come I always have to get the sake? You listen well... for thirty years, you make the fish, I get the sake. If this were the military, I'd be General by now!
Hattori Hanzo Oh, so you'd be General, huh? If you were General, I'd be Emperor, and you'd STILL get the sake! So shut up and get the sake!
But first, let's find out about how Zuko learned of the Scouring of the Earth Kingdom. We get a flashback to Zuko walking into that war meeting from Nightmares and Daydreams
. Ozai actually welcomes him and says that they waited for him. Zuko sits down to Ozai's right, then asks one of his generals to report.
The general talks about earthbender rebellions within the Earth Kingdom slowing down efforts to consolidate their holdings. The general suggests, after they get done smashing Aang's little invasion during the eclipse, that more Fire Nation troops be transfered to holdings in the Earth Kingdom.
Ozai cites Zuko's experience among the people of the Earth Kingdom and asks him if more troops will stop them. Zuko thinks about it and decides that as long as the people of the Earth Kingdom have hope, they can survive anything. Naturally, Ozai starts thinking about destroying their hope. Before Zuko can correct him, Azula jumps in, suggesting that they take their hope and their land, and set it all on fire
That's why Azula is Daddy's Little Psychopath. Ozai decides to use Sozin's Comet to burn down the Earth Kingdom and build a new society on the ashes. Naturally, his generals are 100% behind this.
Zuko says that he's ashamed for not speaking out against the plan. That he got his Father's love and respect, but he'd lost himself to get it. And now we finally
understand Zuko's cryptic line from before, about how "During the meeting, I was the perfect prince. The son my father wanted. But I wasn't me."
I'm somewhat ambivalent about this. On the one hand, the writers were pretty clever here. Much like the lead-in to The Crossroads of Destiny
, the writers play on the fact that the audience knows what the right path is. They know that Zuko needs to join the Gaang, so when he does, you don't really question why
But on the other hand, if you do
question it, you don't get a satisfactory answer for 9 episodes. For all that time, you're left wondering why Zuko did it, or equally validly, why the writers didn't bother to give him an actual reason. Coupled with the fact that there are very good reasons
for Zuko to tell them (and no: being ashamed of what he didn't say before Ozai is not sufficient reason to keep his peace on this point), and you're left wondering why the writers didn't just tell us this earlier.
Imagine what would have happened if Zuko told them about immediately. Or perhaps after a few days with the Gaang. So from The Firebending Masters on through to this episode, the series would have been about finding a way to stop the airship fleet. They'd have to infiltrate the Fire Nation again, thus exposing themselves to danger. So no safe, secluded hiding spot. They'd have to actually be out there doing something.
Instead, we get a bunch of stand-alone episodes that are fine character pieces, but ultimately do nothing for the overall story itself. It ultimately weakens Zuko's character.
We skip ahead a long way, to after Zuko starts to take the Gaang to find June. We cut to the Fire Nation capital. We see Ozai being carried somewhere while hundreds genuflect in his presence. Azula's following, but her trademark *sting* is still missing. She also looks pissed, and tell the people carrying her to move faster.
She eventually catches up to Ozai as he is standing on a raised platform. She's expecting to go with him, but he decides that he's going to burn the Earth Kingdom without her. Azula starts getting upset by this. She speaks the line, "You can't treat me like Zuko!" with such anger and pain, you have to know that this is her greatest fear. Indeed, that may be what drove her to be what she is: fear of Ozai making her out to be a failure like Zuko.
Ozai tells her to shut up, but she keeps babbling about how it was her idea and she deserves to be there. Then Ozai tells her that he needs someone to watch over the Fire Nation. Why, I don't know; it's not like he's going to be gone very long. This perks Azula up, and Ozai says that, for her loyalty, she will be rewarded by being made Firelord. Azula apparently thinks this seems appropriate, even though it isn't at all. But she asks what he'll be doing.
Ozai tells her that he will be reborn as the Phoenix King, the supreme ruler of the world. And his attendants place a mantel and helm on him as he says this, and various flag bearers hoist a new symbol in front of the traditional Fire Nation flags.
So, Ozai gave Azula the Firelordship while simultaneously telling her that it doesn't matter, as he ascends a much loftier position. So shut up and get the sake, Azula!
At the Seams
Trust is for fools. Fear is the only reliable way.
—Azula, lying to herself
The next scene of interest comes in the camp of the Army of the White Lotus. Zuko approaches his uncle's tent apprehensively. Katara comes over, and for the third time, we have the same conversation about Zuko being apprehensive about Iroh. She cheers him up and walks away. Zuko slowly enters, softly speaking Iroh's name, only to find that he's asleep. So Zuko just sits down.
Cut to morning, when Iroh wakes up. He sees Zuko out of the corner of his eye, and then turns away. Zuko starts talking about how sorry and ashamed he is of what he did and so forth. As he breaks down crying, Iroh suddenly grabs him and pulls him into a big bearhug. Iroh says that he wasn't angry with Zuko, just sad that he had lost his way.
As nice as this scene is, wouldn't it have been so much more effective if this
was the first time Iroh spoke to Zuko? And if they didn't have that useless and horrible chat in The Avatar and The Fire Lord
, everything would have been better.
So cut to a more detailed breakdown of the breakfast scene. Zuko asks Iroh to come with them to fight Ozai. Iroh thinks about it for a second but says that it won't turn out well. He says that he doesn't know if he can beat Ozai (what, even with all his super-special-awesome Sun Warrior firebending?), and even if he did, it would be the wrong way to end the war. That history would see it as a brother killing a brother to take power.
Really, Iroh? History is written by the victors
. It seems that history will see it however you want them to. Oh, and your brother murdered your father and stole power from you
; history can just as easily see this as Iroh taking his rightful place on the throne from a power-mad and murderous usurper.
Since, you know, that's the truth.
Iroh says that the proper way to end the war is for the Avatar to beat Ozai. When Zuko asks if he'll take up the throne, Iroh says that Zuko has to do it, due to his idealism and "pure heart."
The people of the Fire Nation don't strike me as the sort who would take well the idea of some outside power putting his own puppet on the throne. Remember: the Avatar has effectively been a legend for a hundred years, not an actual force in the world. I could easily see the Fire Nation people looking on Zuko as weak, because he didn't truly take
his Firelordship; he was given it. The people of the Fire Nation respect strength, and the only reason Zuko became Firelord is because he had a powerful friend. Fire Nation history might not be very kind to Zuko either way.
When Zuko points out the many mistakes he's made, Iroh says that that's part of the reason why he specifically must rule. Because Zuko restored his own honor, he's the only one who can restore the honor of the Fire Nation. Whatever.
The Blind, Snarky Earthbender asks what happens if Aang doesn't return. Iroh just says that destiny will take care of it. To justify this, Iroh says that he had a vision of taking Ba Sing Se when he was a child. Now he sees that his true destiny was to take it back
to liberate the Earth Kingdom. Except that taking back Ba Sing Se will do jack squat for the Earth Kingdom; it'll just save Ba Sing Se. It will do nothing for the legions of Fire Nation soldiers roaming the Earth Kingdom.
But this is apparently his reason for summoning the Army of the White Lotus. Iroh says that Zuko needs to head into the Fire Nation to take control once Ozai is taken out. But he says that Azula will be waiting. How can he possibly
know that? Oh, right: destiny.
Oh, and what happened to history seeing it as, "a brother killing a [sister] to grab power?" Because that's what it is. Zuko needs to take out Azula because she's next in line for the throne once Ozai goes down. How would this be any different
from Iroh taking on Ozai?
Zuko says that he can take her, but Iroh reminds him of reality. He'll need help, so he naturally picks Katara. Not the badass metal-bending BSE; he's taking the one who needs to have a source of water to be dangerous. Against a super-powered Azula
and whoever else she might have around her.
Honestly, I'm really starting to wonder if the writers just love winding the Zutarans up
, just to tear them down at the end?
Cut to Zuko and Katara getting ready to leave on Appa. Zuko asks him what his plans are after the war is over, and Iroh says that he'll be making tea, of course. Because that's what Iroh's about now: tea. He sends the pair off, saying that "Today, destiny is our friend."
Only because the writers are on your side.
We fast-forward to before Sokka, Suki, and the BSE make it to the airship base. Cut to Katara and Zuko flying on Appa. Zuko's worried that Aang may not kill Ozai, that he might lose. Katara seems to dodge the point, saying that she has faith that he'll return.
Cut to Azula, being groomed by numerous servants. As she takes a bite of a cherry, she bits into a pit and becomes displeased. She takes a circuitous way to point to the servant that she might have choked on that cherry pit, the "severity of your crime." The girl begs forgiveness, and apparently that word is
in Azula's vocabulary. Rather than incinerating her on the spot, she simply banishes the girl. She then tells the rest that her feet need scrubbing, and she won't have "poor foot hygiene" impact her first day as Firelord.
... OK crazy lady, whatever you say...
A bit later, we cut to Azula on her throne, not properly attired nor is her hair appropriate. But the blue flames do give her a nice ambiance. A few Dai Li agents enter and kneel, asking if something was wrong. Azula says that it took them five minutes to arrive, by which point an assassin could have killed her and escaped. Azula calls them disloyal, but the head agent says that they would never betray her. Even Crazy Azula can see through that, saying that they probably said the same thing to Long Feng before they joined her and left him hanging. Because that's exactly what happened. So she banishes them. And she tells them to "send in the next group on your way out."
After Sokka and his group have hijacked an airship, we cut to Azula's old handmaidens approaching the throne. They exposite that she has banished all of her servants, Dai Li agents, and even the Imperial firebenders. Azula explains her actions by saying that they would have betrayed her eventually, just like Mai and Ty Lee. Oh, so this is all just fallout from when Mai broke Azula's mind. And I can't ignore this any longer.
This is all here for exactly one reason: to explain how Zuko and Katara can possibly be a threat to Azula. Because it's just Azula, alone. If she had superpowered firebenders flanking her, there's no way that they could defeat her. So the writers did an end-run around logic and just had her go crazy and banish everyone. Yes, it does make sense in context (which makes it better than most of the heavy-handedness of the finale), but it is still a naked and transparent way of weakening Azula to the point where we can buy that the previously unstoppable badass firebender can actually be stopped. Because otherwise, there simply is no way to rationalize what follows.
In a 4-part story with so many contrivances, it's not surprising that even things which are properly justified can come off as problematic.
Anyway, this scene ends in Komedy! as Azula banishes one of them, but they can't figure out which one.
Cut to the Army of the White Lotus, on the outskirts of Ba Sing Se. Iroh has a great ring of fire that is swelling in time with his breathing, and he talks about how a firebender can only feel that level of power once every hundred years. He then dramatically forces the fire into a ball and hurls it at the wall, shattering it instantly.
Did you like that bit? Because that is the last
bit of ass-kicking that you're going to see from Iroh in the series. No, really.
The Army then attacks, with Pakku bending a wave of water (from where?) that allows Mary Sue to slide down and take out a bunch of guys with his sword. We see Jeong Jeong flying atop a jet of fire, using walls of flame to take out dozens of tanks.
And now, back to Azula. She's in her chambers, trying to fix her hair by herself. Being crazy, she fails, so she attacks her bangs with scissors. But she cuts it slanted.
The Breaking of Azula
Then, Ursa appears behind her, saying that she always had beautiful hair. She's apparently there for her daughter's coronation. Or maybe Azula's crazy. Azula tells "Ursa" not to act proud, because Azula knows that Ursa thinks she's a monster. Ursa says that Azula's confused, that she used fear to control others, like Mai and Ty Lee. Azula speaks the page quote.
And now a bit more is revealed about exactly why Mai's comment broke Azula's brain. Because fear isn't
a reliable means of control. It's not enough, and Mai showed her that her entire worldview was BS. And when Azula says that even Ursa fears her, Ursa says that she loves Azula, which grinds what's left of her mind into dust.
Wait. You want to be Firelord? Fine. Let's settle this; just you and me, brother. The showdown that was always meant to be. Agni Kai!
—Azula, being awesome
After Sokka starts taking out airships, we cut to Azula's coronation. Only the bare minimum of people are there. The Fire Sage holds up the Hairpin of Firelordship and is about to proclaim her Firelord, but then Appa shows up, bearing Katara and Zuko. When Zuko declares that he will become Firelord today, Azula mocks him. But something about Katara's forcefulness makes her realize that she doesn't have backup, so she challenges Zuko to an Agni Kai
using the page quote.
Which Zuko accepts, per his idiocy. Katara immediately calls him on this, saying that Iroh told him he couldn't take Azula. But Zuko says that she's not on top of her game, and that nobody else will have to get hurt.
Unless of course, you lose
Cut to a courtyard, where the pair of them square off. This battle is epic and subdued. The music is quiet and reserved, honoring the fact that two strong characters are facing one another in a climactic confrontation. The animation is exceptional, and Azula's movements properly emphasize her growing instability. The biggest thing this fight has going for it is emotional resonance
. It matters to the plot, but it matters to the audience and characters more.
Azula, in the hierarchy of evil in the Avatar-verse, is The Dragon
, not the Big Bad
. The latter has always been reserved for Ozai. But there is often a problem with a long-running story with a Dragon and a Big Bad.
Namely, that the Dragon is the one who is actually doing the evil.
The Big Bad often just sits around
; the Dragon is the face of the enemy. Which means that what matters most to the audience is seeing the Dragon be defeated, because it's the Dragon who is out there being evil.
The fight between Aang and Ozai was destined from the beginning of the show. It's the premise of the series. But this fight, between Azula and Zuko, is the real attraction. It has the emotional impact of having the real villain in a duel. The villain the audience wants to see, rather than the one we've been told to see. I'll get into this more in the Aang section.
The other thing it has for emotional resonance is the fulfillment of both of these characters' arcs.
Here is Azula, driven mad by the betrayals she has suffered. Betrayals all ultimately caused by Zuko. She saved Zuko
from a lifetime serving tea in Ba Sing Se. She is the reason why he was able to return home. She worked him into her plans. And how did he repay her? With lies and betrayal. More than that, as his betrayal influenced the betrayal of others.
She wants Zuko dead. She needs
him dead. He is the personification of everything she hates. Loved by the mother she hated for loving her back. Hated by the father she always feared would turn that hatred towards her. The eldest born, thus the likely successor to the throne that was deservedly
And here is Zuko, at the moment of narrative climax for his character arc. For so long, he has thought he knew his destiny. But now he's following his true destiny. He told his father off, joined the Gaang, and atoned for his past crimes. And now, he must face his greatest foe: his sister. The woman who lied to him. The woman who made him lose himself at Ba Sing Se, who convinced him to commit his greatest betrayal: that of his uncle. She was the one who was born lucky, while he was lucky to be born.
And now he must face and defeat her.
This fight is exactly what Azula called it: "the showdown that was always meant to be." This is Zuko's destiny. This is Azula's destiny. It is the essential conflict of their characters made manifest. This is a fight that isn't just cool to look at; it makes you feel
Which is why it's sad that there's one crucial element missing from this fight: a story.
In terms of what happens, the fight can be summed up as follows. They firebend at each other, and it's beautiful. They firebend some more; still beautiful. One attacks, and the other blocks. The other attacks, and the first one blocks or dodges. This keeps going until Zuko does his signature breakdancing move that knocks Azula on her ass.
Why did that move hit? I can't say. And if I can't say, then you've failed to tell a story in your epic duel.
There is very little psychology
to this fight. There is no narrative to this fight. We do get a bit of character, as Azula is very mobile as usual, while Zuko prefers to stand in one place like a turret. But other than that, there is nothing. You can literally take this fight and re-edit it in a different order. And except for the final hit, you wouldn't be able to tell that it was being shown out of order.
When Zuko makes his final hit, there is no sense that this attack is any different from the rest save for the fact that it's a signature Zuko move. There was no build-up to this moment, no real narrative climax or flow. It just sort of happens.
It's a beautiful fight between two great characters with lots of history together, but it doesn't really say very much.
And [father] considers you a miserable failure...
—Azula, telling it like it is
So Zuko gets his hit in and Azula goes down. Zuko then feels the need to say, "No lightning, today? What's the matter; afraid I'll re-direct it?"
Zuko, are you out of your mind?
You just told Azula what you were planning to do! WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT?!
Yes, there's every chance that Ozai told her about that little trick that he pulled, but on the off chance that he didn't
, why not keep that one in your back pocket? He gained absolutely nothing by telling her this. And I know this isn't the first time (so a point for character consistency), but come on!
So naturally, Azula summons her lightning. And fires it at Katara (who somehow managed to avoid the masses blasts of fire being flung about indiscriminately during the fight). See Zuko? Thats what happens when you tell someone competent what you're going to do; they do something else.
Now, since this is the moment of narrative climax for Zuko's character arc, you would reasonably expect him to leap to the side, grab the lightning, and fry Azula up like a sausage. That's really the only narrativistically appropriate thing
to happen. Azula being defeated by her own lightning is a fitting end for her character, even moreso when cast back at her by her hated brother. And the only more fitting end for Zuko's character arc than using the move that his uncle taught him to defeat Azula, would be him directly summoning the lightning himself, using a move that he hadn't been able to use until now.
Neither happens. Zuko leaps to the side, grabs the lightning, and falls over with a burn scar on his chest.
... why? I just don't understand this show.
OK, it's a kid's show. So you can't have Zuko actually murder Azula on-screen. And heavily implying it would probably also not fly. But can't they contrive a way to have Zuko stop her without actual murder? OK, considering what happens in the next
story arc, maybe they ran out of contrivances.
Having Zuko lose like this is terrible from a narrative perspective. But on top of this is the sad fact that he failed at doing The One Awesome Thing Zuko Has Ever Done: redirect lightning. Was he unable to do it because of Sozin's Comet? Was it because he dove to the side? Was he afraid for Katara's life and got distracted?
The show never tells us. It only tells us that Zuko failed. AGAIN!
To have the character who always fails at everything they do fail again at the moment of narrative climax for their character arc
Cut to a bit with the Army of the White Lotus. Bumi takes out some superpowered firebending tanks using moves that Toph could easily perform. Then cut to a shot of Iroh at the threshold of the palace. He burns off the Fire Nation insignia, revealing the Earth Kingdom symbol behind it. Um OK Iroh, but don't you think there are more important things you could be doing than creating SYMBOLISM!?
Anyway, back to the real fight. Since Zuko's down, who takes up the flag? Katara. Rather than having Azula be defeated by Zuko, which would mean something for their characters, she's going to be defeated by Katara. Which means nothing for either character and is entirely devoid of any emotional resonance whatsoever.
Katara rushes to Zuko's aid, but Azula denies this. Katara is able to take cover behind a pillar, which somehow doesn't break under Azula's superpowered firebending. Katara tries to attack where she last saw Azula, but of course Azula is never where you last saw her.
Katara is able to momentarily escape the blue flame, and she finds herself over a sewer grate. And then she sees a chain, and she gets an idea. Azula eventually tracks her down, and as she prepares to deliver the killing blow, Katara pulls the water up from the sewer, trapping both of them in ice.
Of course, Azula just firebends herself free and... oh wait, she doesn't do that.
People desperately try to defend this by saying that firebending requires breathing. And since Azula's completely encased in ice, she can't breathe. Which would be fine, if we hadn't had that scene back in Siege of the North
when Zuko melted through ice while under a deluge of water. So the only possible explanation is that Zuko knows some bending technique that Azula doesn't.
Well if that's the case, then it is incumbent upon the writers to tell us this.
And not right now
, by simply having Azula look incompetent. It has to have been set up properly. Thus far, all we as the audience know is that Azula is, generally speaking, the better firebender. The show established this and thus far, nothing has been said to change that fact.
But why care about little things like series continuity? We've got to have Katara defeat a superpowered Azula somehow
So Katara partially melts the water with her breath, so that she can move. I guess we can just forget about that bit back in The Waterbending Master
, where Pakku was able to disable her bending entirely by immobilizing her. Then she slowly moves behind Azula, using the chain she picked up to bind Azula's hands and tie them to the ground. Of course, Azula does nothing to stop this, even though her hands are right next to Katara's and she's in the water rather than ice. Not even so much as a scratch with her fingernails. Once tied down, Katara lets the water go.
To recap: Azula > Zuko = Katara > Azula. Somehow, I don't think the math works on that one.
After tying Azula up, she goes and heals Zuko. Even though last time it required spirit water to revive someone, Katara's able to do it with sewer water. I guess the damage wasn't as extensive this time or something. They thank each other, then get up to watch Azula.
Goodbye, Azula's dignity. You will be missed...
And here we see that the mighty have truly fallen, as the last of Azula's mind shatters
. She writhes about spewing fire impotently until she breaks down crying.
A moment of silence please
, for Crown Princess Azula. I'm so sorry for what they've done to her. She was the best thing this show had going for it, and she deserved better than this... indignity
This was decent, overall. The hand of the writer could nakedly be seen setting up the final battle. But the Zuko/Azula fight was quite good, though it could have been so much better if it actually told a story. It's just too bad the end of the fight was a complete letdown, with Zuko's final moment marred by his inability to actually accomplish something, and with Azula having the indignity of being taken out by a waterbender who not 7 months before couldn't hit a target directly in front of her.