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Tear Jerker: Avatar: The Last Airbender
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Hell, Aang's back story in general. He's the Avatar. The monks tell him before he's sixteen, unlike the traditional customs, because of war. He makes friends with Monk Gyatso, and then Aang runs away. He gets frozen and wakes up a hundred years later, with no idea what happened to his culture until he actually sees his best friend, dead, a skeleton. Then he flips his shit.
Before his HeelFaceTurn Zuko's desperate attempts to gain the approval of his father and restore his honor in his eyes becomes ever more tragic considering the huge emphasis most Asian cultures place on filial piety. According to Confucious, "In serving his parents, a filial son reveres them in daily life; he makes them happy while he nourishes them; he takes anxious care of them in sickness; he shows great sorrow over their death; and he sacrifices to them with solemnity." Zuko sincerely believed that it was entirely his fault for being banished because he tried to defy his father by opposing the general's decision to use Fire Nation soldiers as sacrifices in the war against the Earth Kingdom. And considering how devotion to one's parents was often associated with one's devotion to the state, Zuko wasn't just defying his father, he was defying the Fire Nation itself. Is it any wonder why he had so many issues to deal with!?
The entirety of Zuko and Azula's relationships with their parents. Zuko's is very much implicit. He was barely tolerated by his father, and when he dared to speak out against him, he was forced into a life or death duel with him. Rather than kill his own son, he simply opted to mutilate his face, and send him off to exile on a Snipe Hunt. When the object of his hunt became apparent, Ozai immediately wrested the responsibility of capturing Aang, and gave it to another officer. Both Azula and Ozai spent the better part of the series playing on his insecurities and fears, and treating him as nothing more than a tool to be used and discarded. The more implied one is Azula, though. Ozai is a piece of work, no one will dispute that. He used Azula as much as he did Zuko. A major contributing factor with her Villainous Breakdown was her realization that her father, who she thought loved and treasured her, saw her as a tool just as he did Zuko. Just a stronger and more useful one. He foisted his new-useless title on her, and headed off on his world conquering rampage with little more than a pat on her head. However, while Zuko had Ursa and Iroh to help him build a foundation, Azula had no one. Her mocking comments of how her own mother saw her as a monster rand hollow at the height of her breaking point, and one has to wonder how much of her behavior could have been altered if Mom would have just given her a few more hugs. Azula felt as much of a sting of parental abandonment, and in it's own way, that's almost sadder because she had no one there to pull her back.
Judging by some brief flashbacks into Zuko's early youth, like in "The Storm" or even from Ozai's story in "The Promise", it seems that Ozai wasn't just a sick psychopath. It implies that Zuko actually had fun with him and that once they were a happy family, that Ozai was an alright father. Going along with the lesson Roku taught that "nobody is born evil" it makes it all the more sad that a family that could have grown to be so much more was torn apart so savagely and completely. It really is sad to see the family that was apparently so happy and content get savaged to the point that only two of them ended up doing the right thing. And as of now, of the two good ones, only one of them is confirmed to have survived.
The Zuko redemption story is completely heartbreaking, especially considering that Aang saves Zuko's life multiple times, he constantly forgives him for his past misdeeds and treats him like a friend, yet it takes three seasons for Zuko to accept that hunting him down simply for being the Avatar is the wrong thing to do.
Zuko's unfailing loyalty to his family despite everything they've done to him. It took him so long to break, and frankly, the Gaang is lucky that he ever switched. But at least they don't have to worry about him betraying them.
Peace Excerpt all the way. Listening to it makes you feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of your shoulders. No more fighting, no one's chasing the Gaang anymore. They can finally rest now.
After rewatching the series and finding out the rest of Katara's backstory, her exchange in the first episode is like a punch in the heart.
Katara: [while penguin sledding] I haven't done this since I was a kid!
Aang: You still are a kid!
Her people are the victims of systematic genocide and she grew up in a decimated village just scraping by. She's fourteen, but Katara has been an adult with adult responsibilities since her mother's death when she was eight made even worse by the fact that Kya sacrificed herself to prevent the Fire Nation from discovering her Waterbender daughter and killing her. No chance to learn waterbending, fall in love (the only person within five years of her age in their tribe is her brother), or do anything but survive and hope that the war would end someday.
Sokka's failed attempt at attacking Zuko in the second episode suddenly seems a lot less funny in the wider context. Like Katara, he had to take on a lot at a young age. By the start of the series, he's wound up in the raid that killed his mother, seen all the adult males leave to fight in the war (which must have been done as a last-ditch effort), and he's trying to live up to the expectations of a 'man' of the tribe and be the warrior his father is.
He's not just trying to live up to the expectations of 'a man' in the tribe - as of the start of the series, he's the only "man" left in the village. It's his responsibility to protect the ones who can't protect themselves (which is everyone). The last time a Fire Nation ship came to the village, people - his mother - died. Sokka's not desperate because he's trying to prove his manliness, he's desperate because he's the village's only line of defense.
The whole series manages to put a war into perspective, but what's really tearjerking is any moment involving Hakoda and his children. As much of a warrior he is, he is still a father. He left his children to defend a village, knowing that if anything serious did come their way, his own son and daughter, the last things he has in this world, would be at the forefront of the fighting. Anytime with them together, like in the Awakening and Day of Black Sun, you can visibly tell that while he's proud of Sokka becoming a capable warrior and commander, a part of him is slowly dying seeing his son on the front lines, and he's not able to be there to help Sokka.
And this fanart, really drives it home. Be glad you've never had to hunt your dinner.
In addition to being a CMOA for Sokka, the attack on the village in the beginning of the series is utterly heartbreaking. Sokka knows that he hasn't got a chance, but he's all the village has left. He decided in cold blood to sacrifice his own life in order to maybe give what's left of his family another few minutes to try to run.
One of the single greatest tearjerking moments in the first season was in "The Southern Air Temple," the series' first Wham Episode. When Aang chases after Momo, he follows the lemur into a tent and discovers Monk Gyatso's skeleton, surrounded by a dozen dead firebenders. Considering that the episode had been very lighthearted up to this point, with Sokka and Katara doing their best to indulge Aang and hide the awful truth from him, the moment where he finally understood what happened was enough to bring on tears. Then he went into the Avatar State, prompting this line from Katara:
Katara: Aang, I know you're upset... and I know how hard it is to lose the people you love. I went through the same thing when I lost my mom. Monk Gyatso and the other airbenders may be gone, but you still have a family! Sokka and I, we're your family now!
The end of the episode as well. Appa flying away from the temple with Aang and Momo in the saddle looking back as it slowly shrinks into the distance and is obscured by clouds. He's literally leaving what was once his entire world behind again, but this time with the knowledge that it's pretty much gone and that he, Appa, and Momo are the only things left of it. The music doesn't help.
Also, you have to remember that, while Gyatso died a hundred years ago, to Aang, that was a few days ago. He was playing pai sho with Gyatso very recently. He must have already known that everyone he knew was likely dead, but this is the moment that he was really forced to grips with it.
Gyatso: "Aang, I'm not going to let them take you away from me." But Aang was already gone. Aang and Gyatso never got to say goodbye to each other, to make it worse.
A small one. Bumi, for all of about 5 seconds, was actually sane when Aang finally figured out who he was. At this point it's a pretty good tearjerker, since he's the only person left from Aang's childhood.
It's the long lasting friendships that get this troper, particularly when you see Aang and Bumi sliding down the mail chute. Also goes for when it's revealed that Aang's friendship with Gyatso transcends lifetimes, as Roku was also his friend.
Becomes Harsher in Hindsight when the Gaang shares a moment like that. Toph wonders if friendships can transcend lifetimes, then the rest of the Gaang hold her hands to reassure her that yes, they can. It's really cute and heartwarming, but then The Legend of Korra shows that unlike Gyatso, who lived long enough to befriend Aang, Toph didn't live long enough to befriend Korra.
This exchange from "Imprisoned":
Haru: Katara, thank you for bringing my father back to me. I only wish there were some way—
Katara:(Turns away) I know.
In the episode where Katara steals the Waterbending Scroll, she is trying to learn some moves. Aang performs the waterbending moves with ease, and politely tries to show a frustrated Katara how it's done. Katara totally blows up at the poor kid about bragging and being "so incredibly gifted." Aang's lower lip trembles, and he looks like he's going to cry. Katara immediately apologizes for the outburst, but it was sad to see young Aang so hurt, like a real kid his age.
When the other airbender children wouldn't let Aang play with them, because he's the avatar, seeing him as an unfair advantage to either team.
When we see a 13 year old Zuko get his scar. When he proclaims he won't fight his father, he bows before the Fire Lord and looks up, shaking and sobbing in fear as Ozai stands in front of him. The look in his eyes and the scream that follows is haunting.
To say nothing of the look of betrayal, pain, and absolute despair on Iroh's face as he turns away to avoid seeing his brother do such a horrible thing.
And next to him Azula is grinning like a maniac. If it's your first run through the series, you don't even know who that girl is, and probably didn't notice her at all, but when you go back and see it again, the fact that Azula is enjoying this shit just makes it all worse.
Sokka's flashback in "Bato of the Water Tribe" of him begging Hakoda to let him fight with the men, then crying when they embraced. "I'm really going to miss you". *SNIFF*
When Sokka and Katara left Aang? No matter how stupid it was for Aang to hide the map to their father, his expression when Katara says she's leaving is heartbreaking.
And don't forget when Sokka yells at Aang for hiding the map.
If you think about it, just a few episodes ago, Katara told Aang that she and Sokka were his family now. Then news of their father comes up and they seem to completely forget that fact. Aang was afraid that they were going to leave him now that they could find out where their father was (even though they did say they had to stay with Aang, but he had left already). This is shortly after Aang had discovered that everyone he knew and loved (except Bumi) were gone. He would have been completely alone, with no one to help him pull through. This itself is a tearjerker as well.
In "The Deserter", when Aang accidentally burns Katara. Sokka shouting, "You burned my sister!" can bring the tears.
The Mechanist: When Aang gets angry at him for disrespecting the temple, he very somberly explains that he is there as a refugee trying to help his people, especially his son. When the Gaang finds out that he is making weapons for the Fire Nation, he looks so broken. He did all of this to protect the people at the temple, and to ensure a good future for Teo, whom he clearly loves very dearly.
The scene where Iroh finds the ship bombed by pirates. His face when he believes that Zuko was murdered was one of the strongest examples of his love for Zuko in the first season.
It's the way he frantically yells Zuko's name, sees the wreckage, and then repeats his name in a grief-stricken voice that really drives it home.
The scene between Iroh and Zuko in "The Siege of the North, part 1" before Zuko leaves to infiltrate the city and capture Aang really brings home how Iroh's love for Zuko is really no less genuine than, say, Katara and Sokka's mom's love for them.
Iroh: "I'm sorry, I just nag you because, well, ever since I lost my son..."
Zuko: "Uncle, you don't have to say it."
Iroh: "... I think of you as my own."
In Part 2 when Zuko has an unconscious Aang in that cave and is talking to him about how much his life sucks and all the issues he has. He's really vulnerable at that moment, even though he insists that he's strong and that he doesn't care that he's "unlucky."
Sokka (softly): She's gone. (He hugs her body tightly) She's gone.
And then what happens after she gives herself up. She appears as a ghost, an angelic, beautiful ghost that whispers "Goodbye, Sokka... I'll always be with you..." before kissing him one last time, and disappearing.
In The Avatar State, when Azula attempts to lure Iroh and Zuko onto her ship by saying that Ozai regretted banishing Zuko and wanted him back. The utter happiness in Zuko's demeanor at being accepted and loved again is shattered when Azula's guard reveals Zuko was meant to be a prisoner the whole time. The look on his face is heartbreaking.
This bit of dialogue between Iroh and Zuko the night before, which is yet another reminder that Zuko has thrown away three years of his life chasing after his father's love, and never once realized that what he wanted was right in front of him the whole time:
Zuko: Did you listen to Azula? Father's realized how important family really is to him. He cares about me.
Iroh:I care about you!
Katara trying to explain to Aang in "The Avatar State" why she's afraid of him continuing to try to induce the state,
Katara: I'm not saying that the Avatar State doesn't have incredible-and helpful-power. But you have to understand; for the people that love you? Seeing you in that much rage and pain is really scary.
Aang: I'm really glad you told me this. But I still need to do this.
Katara: I don't understand...
Aang: No, you don't. Every day, more and more people die. I'm already a hundred years late. Defeating the Fire Lord is the only way to stop the war. I have to try.
Katara: I can't watch you do this to yourself. I'm not coming tomorrow.
In "The Swamp", Katara sees what she thinks is her mother thanks to the Swamp's mysterious powers of illusion. Despite knowing her mother is gone, she clings to this Hope Spot, believing that her mother didn't really die... only to find a tree stump. Having this faint sliver of hope dashed, Katara breaks down sobbing.
Toph's confrontation with her parents at the end of her debut episode. As the creators themselves put it, despite Toph's arrogance and toughness, it's kind of sad how she just grew up so lonely. And it's made more tearjerking if you realize that this confrontation is the only time in the entire episode that either of Toph's parents have even spoken to her directly. The glance that Aang, Sokka, and Katara trade with each other just sells it.
Aang: I'm sorry, Toph.
Toph: I'm sorry too. Goodbye, Aang.
"Zuko Alone". Pretty much all of it. Especially the flashback, when you see a young Zuko, worried and panicked, asking where his mother is—to which his father doesn't make any on-screen reply. Just the look on Zuko's heartbroken face. And going back to the present day and seeing Zuko being driven out of town thanklessly after taking care of the thug problem, even by the kid he saved, is a true tearjerker.
The scene with the death of Zuko's cousin, Lu Ten. When Zuko has a flashback to when his mother got the news and we see the look on Ursa's face... that quiet sorrow for a soldier lost in battle is heart breaking.
Then Ursa has to tell her kids that their cousin has been killed. Poor Zuko looks shocked, and even Azula looks sad and stands with respect.
It's a small thing, but when he uses his firebending to defeat the earthbending thug, the music playing is reminiscent of the Fire Nation army's theme, often played to indicate danger. Even if he tries to hide it, Zuko can't get away from his darker side.
Zuko yelling at the Gaang to leave after Iroh is shot in the chest by Azula. It should be narm, it should be over the top, but it isn't.
Just the look on Zuko's face when Iroh first gets hit. The only family member he has left who still loves and supports him, and for all he knew at that moment Iroh could have died, this right after Zuko had insisted on separating and traveling alone. Had Iroh died, he would never have even gotten to say goodbye.
Iroh's flashback to him and his son, Lu Ten, laying on a hill.
Specifying, in "Bitter Work", there's a short flashback with a younger Iroh playing with his son, only for a quick Mood Whiplash to Iroh mourning before his son's grave, in the rain. "My beloved Lu Ten. I'll see you soon."
Zuko's Rage Against the Heavens at the end of "Bitter Work", flying right by what would be narm and into something genuinely heartbreaking. Even the heavens deny him.
Zuko: You've always thrown everything you could at me! Well I can take it! And now I can give it back!
"I'm sorry, Appa". Toph is forced to let Appa be kidnapped in order to hold up the Library. She was genuinely trying to save Appa while keeping the library up, but not even Toph, the self-proclaimed Greatest Earthbender in the World, could do both, and that about crushes her. It doesn't help that she's inexperienced as a sandbender and can barely see.
It's even worse when the others escape from the library, which they were only able to do because of her efforts. Aang absolutely rips into her for not saving Appa, even accusing her of wanting Appa to be kidnapped.
This leads to some Fridge Brilliance: Toph revealed in the finale that she's been working on her sandbending. Why? Probably because she never wants to be helpless in the sand and let anything happen to her friends again.
The last scene in "The Desert", when, after all the suffering he felt after Appa is kidnapped, Aang finds the kidnapper, freaks out and goes into the Avatar State. He seems ready to unleash hell on earth, until Katara calms him down by pulling him out of the air and putting him in a tight embrace. They both start crying.
The look on Katara's face◊, behind Aang. She was so resigned, that she just instinctively reached out and hugged him. She kept the Gaang together through the desert, wild creatures, Aang's depression, Appa's disappearance, Toph's blindness in sand, Sokka's hallucinations, and they made it out alive, thanks to Katara. And now. . . this. She's so tired.
Looking closely at the hug between Katara and Aang shows Aang crying while still being in the avatar state. The pain of losing Appa is great it moves not only Aang but the 10,000 year old spirit inside him.
What makes this especially powerful is that this is the first time in the series Aang has any control over the Avatar State. "TELL ME WHERE APPA IS!" is him keeping control, and the only time he speaks in the Avatar State with his own voice before totally losing it.
And in combination of "Appa's Lost Days" and "The Desert," Appa is being captured by the Sandbenders, and over his shoulder he sees a giant mushroom cloud of sand. He knows that that's Aang flipping his shit trying to find him, but Appa can't get to him.
Iroh's story in the episode "Tales of Ba Sing Se", period. It starts off as lighthearted (he plays with some children and gets a mugger to turn his life around), then hits you with Mood Whiplash when he visits his son's grave and bursts into tears while singing, ending with a dedication to Iroh's voice actor Mako, who died shortly before the episode aired.
It's even more tearjerking because Iroh, the one who's usually able to stay cheerful no matter what, starts singing "Little Soldier Boy", the same song that he used to comfort the boy earlier in the episode, and starts sobbing about halfway through, and you realize that the song was for Iroh's son, who died in the very war Iroh's trying to stop (and in the same place, no less). And then the dedication to Mako... *sniff* It's overwhelming.
The writing on the top of Lu-ten's picture can be roughly translated as: "To General Iroh, see you after we win the war. Your loyal son Lu-ten."
It's even more saddening since most of the other Tales of Ba Sing Se shorts (bar Momo's, mentioned below) are rather funny and/or cute, and then they hit us with Iroh's...
Leaves from the Vine. Listen to that song once and you will be bawling at the end.
Also The Tale of Momo in Tales of Ba Sing Se, his absolute forlorn expression as he tries to search for Appa is just heartbreaking. Momo, the cute little comic relief pet is shown having dreams, flashbacks, and compassion for other creatures, all within a few heartbreaking minutes.
"Appa's Lost Days" and seeing what poor Appa had to go through.
Especially the dream sequence, when we get to see how Aang and Appa met. "I guess we'll always be together. Always..."
Or the fact that when he sees Suki again, he is so scared of her that he won't let her approach him for some time.
The part where Appa, tired, hungry, still searching for Aang, battered and worn out from all the traveling, lands outside the little cave...and then a raging porcupine-boar comes running out of nowhere and attacks him. The look on Appa's face and the way he's snarling and roaring as he fights this enemy makes it quite clear that he is enraged and exhausted beyond belief. So much so that he spends several days just laying in the den, as though he had finally lost his will to find Aang and was just waiting for the next bad thing to come.
The whole scene of Appa in the circus. It actually won a Genesis award for its disturbingly accurate portrayal of animal abuse in the circus. Enough said.
And while he's there, Appa sees a boy who reminds him of Aang who helps inspire him to escape. It's either cute, extra heartbreaking, or both.
Jet's death was sad enough, but the way Toph says "he's lying" pushes it straight into tearjerker territory.
Jet: Don't worry. I'll be OK.
Toph: (whispers) He's lying.
Just before the death itself, the line that snaps him out of it: "You're a FREEDOM-fighter, Jet!" It's not the trauma of losing his village that pulls out of his brainwashing, but the memories of his friends and what they all believed in together.
When Aang was finally reunited with Appa. All the pain that Aang had shown throughout Appa's absence made it so much more meaningful.
The Guru episode when Aang opens his air chakra, and is then seen facing all the Air Nomads, who then vanish into smoke and ascend up, while Aang reaches out to them, all the while Guru Pathik is narrating.
In the same episode, when he reaches the seventh, final, chakra: he is asked to give up his "worldly attachments" - that is, his love for Katara. He refuses to give up his love, even for the control he's been looking for the entire season. In the next episode, he goes back on his decision, temporarily leaving Katara to fight off Azula and Zuko alone in order to enter the Avatar State, which fails.
Aang being backshot with lightning, falling to the ground below and Katara cradling his dead body in her arms in the second season finale. Remains the single most shocking and sadistically cruel moment in the entire series.
when Katara uses the spirit water on Aang, and nothing happens for a couple of seconds. She just gasps and holds him close.
Katara's encounter with Hakoda, where she tells her father that she knew and understood why he left the village, yet even then she couldn't help being angry... and they embrace.
Hakoda: I would lie awake missing you so much it would ache.
Also "The Boiling Rock". We see how alike Sokka and Hakoda are, how Sokka really wants - and gets, already had - his father's approval and pride. Plus Hakoda has tears in his eyes when he realises the guard was Sokka.
The moment in "The Headband" where Zuko goes to visit Iroh. Whatever resentment you may have felt toward him from his failed Heel-Face Turn in the second season finale just melts as you realize just how conflicted he is over it. One of the most heartwrenching cases of Conflicting Loyalty ever depicted in Western Animation.
Zuko: Please, I'm so confused.
A two-fer in "The Runaway", one sad and one super-sweet. Sokka confesses that after all these years, he can't even remember what his mother's face looks like (sad). In the next breath he explains that, now, every time he thinks of his mother, he sees Katara's face (sweet).
And a third one. When Toph started crying and confessed that she actually did miss her parents and was sad that they were hurt. Until then, we mostly got the impression that she felt imprisoned by her parents and possibly didn't even like them a lot for those reasons.
Not to mention in the same conversation with Sokka's confession about forgetting his mother's face, Toph admits that Katara cares about her - the real her - more than even Toph's own mother did. Similarly to the above tear jerker with Sokka, this is both heartwarming and sad.
Even though The Beach was a mostly funny episode, the scene with Zuko walking to their old vacation house and remembering all the happy times he and his family had there when he was younger was really heartbreaking to me. Maybe it's the music.
Maybe it's just the flashbacks. Especially one with Uncle Iroh holding a happy baby, probably Zuko, as his son Lu Ten builds a sandcastle laughing (or, considering this is Zuko's flashback, the laughing boy building the sandcastle is actually Zuko and the happy baby in Iroh's hands is Azula).
And look at the family portrait of Zuko's family. Zuko sits below his father and Azula sits below her mother in stark contrast to the parental favoritism we usually see. They all had some sort of emotional connection at some point.
After watching the finale, rewatching "The Beach".
Azula: I could complain about how Mom always liked Zuko more than me, but I don't really care. (She then looks into the dying fire, looking like she would cry if there weren't people around) ... My own mother thought I was a monster... She was right, of course, but it still hurt!
Roku's death. The guy was left to die by his former best friend, and then to top it all off, his dragon curls up around him just before the ash covers them so that they can die together... and then it cuts to baby Aang, and Roku fading away. And then Aang turns around and starts looking for Roku in the void.
Fang choosing to die beside Roku is especially heartbreaking. Imagine in the same scene, instead of Roku and Fang, its Aang and Appa instead. Fang wasn't just a mount, he was a friend and animal companion for life, just like Appa is for Aang. The pain of those two being separated is almost too much to bear.
Hell, all of 'The Avatar and the Firelord.' The fact that Sozin and Roku were such good friends, the fact that the viewer knows it will all end horribly... the first thing Sozin narrates:
Sozin: As I feel my own life dimming, I can't help but think of a time when everything was so much brighter.
All of Hama's flashbacks in "The Puppetmaster" about how the Fire Nation systematically captured all the Waterbenders in the Southern Water Tribe though hit and run raids are tearjerkers. At the start of the flashback, we see Kanna (Katara and Sokka's grandmother) and Hama having a cute friendship moment and then the black smoke appears along with the Fire Navy ships. Hama is the last Waterbender to be taken away in chains while Kanna is looking on and crying. Hama later reveals that she spent decades in a small cage in a Fire Nation prison and that the reason why she went Ax-Crazy was because of the horrible way she was treated. The Fire Nation basically committed genocide against the Southern Water Tribe. When Hama was a young woman, the Southern Water Tribe was much bigger with fancy ice buildings everywhere. Now it's basically a bunch of tents and a couple of igloos.
What was particularly poignant about that episode is how the capture of all the Waterbenders was illustrated: no dramatic fight scenes or anything, just a group of warriors holding their ground, but fading out little by little, until only one is left. That, and the way Hama walks when she finally escapes. It's sort of off-kilter, and illustrates not just her broken mental state, but is also probably a result of the physical damage she took in her years as a captive.
Sokka's line: WHERE... IS... SUKI?? If not a Crowning Moment of Awesome for Sokka, than at least it was heartbreakingly badass.
When Azula began talking about Suki - the guy looked like his heart had been torn out. And then, he goes up to AZULA, slams her against the wall, and his expression. He looks like he'd duel Ozai himself for her.
The ending to the Day of Black Sun. The adults give up the children and willingly surrender when it becomes apparent that there is no escape. Haru and Teo's moments are especially tearjerking, since Haru's father just got out of prison, while the Mechanist is giving up his disabled son to live alone, with the very possible result that he will never see his son again. Sokka's reaction to him having botched the invasion plan, and the sad flight out made it especially unbearable. It's only Katara's reassuring smile that saved it from being a total downer ending.
Well, that and Zuko's successful Heel-Face Turn, which gives the episode - as he's determinedly following Appa's flight path in a hot air balloon - that final shred of hope.
Special attention has to be given to Aang's reaction. He's the Avatar. This is what he'd been preparing for, what he felt so insecure about, and he failed to even confront the Fire Lord. You can feel his shame and incredible guilt as he has to face the army of people who believed in him to communicate this failure - and among the people he's let down and whom are going to be left behind is Katara and Sokka's own father. And just before that, there's the private moment where he visibly breaks up into tears, another reminder that this is a little boy forced to carry so much weight, and Katara's trying what she can to comfort him. His address to the army is fittingly simple and heartbreaking: "Thank you all for being so brave and so strong. I'm going to make it up to you."
The Western Air Temple. Zuko has followed the Gaang in order to teach Aang firebending and help him stop Ozai. He walks up to them and begs them to accept him, knowing that he'd be hopelessly outmatched if they, with good reason, chose to attack him. He actually kneels, head bowed, arms forward, and asks them to take him as a prisoner if they can't accept him as a friend. He's not hoping to find friendship, or support, or forgiveness. He's just looking to do some good at last. It highlights how different he's become to the haughty, proud, self-centred, angry jerk he was at the start of the series. And while he's kneeling like that, face down and completely vulnerable, Katara water-whips him in the face, leaving him backing away like a wet, whipped dog. Fortunately, Zuko's able to bond with each of member of the team as time goes on- but Katara's grudge against the Fire Nation as a whole keeps her from trusting him, which forces Zuko to do the one thing that will gain her friendship- bring her mother's killer to justice.
When Zuko was teaching Aang how to redirect lightning, was I the only one who found it completely wrenching just how casually he could talk about the fact that his own father tried to kill him? And as if that isn't bad enough, The Promise really drives it home, when Zuko gets to join a mixed-nationality family for dinner and later marvels at the fact that they "didn't challenge each other to Agni Kais" - while talking to his uncle's portrait. Normal family life is completely foreign to him.
Katara's dark night of the soul in "The Southern Raiders," especially the end:
Katara: But I didn't forgive him. I'll never forgive him... But I am ready to forgive you. (runs to Zuko and hugs him hard)
In the same episode, Kya (Katara and Sokka's mother) performs a Heroic Sacrifice by claiming to the Southern Raiders' commanding officer Yon Rha that she is the last of the waterbenders, in order to save her daughter Katara. Yon Rha immediately executes her.
Sokka tries to get Katara to reconsider her quest for revenge, reminding her that Kya was his mother too. Katara snaps back, saying "Then you didn't love her the way I did!" What's worse is that Katara's words are actually justified; in "The Runaway," she heard him confess to Toph that he barely remembers what his mother looked like.
Katara's rage when she confronts the man who she suspects killed her mother and then confronting the real man. She's usually a calm character who while she can get angry, is generally reasonable. Seeing her pushed to the point where she'll use even the blood-bending technique that she despises is very unsettling.
The entirety of that episode is powerful. You realize Katara is trying to avoid thinking about what happened to her mother and takes it out on Zuko from the get-go, and when she does find out who the culprit is, Yon Rha, she's ready to end his life. Yon Rha is terrified out of his gourd the moment he realizes the impact of his murder. Instead of acting snide and arrogant, he's on his knees, pleading for his life, even offering up his crabby old mother's life so Katara can get even. But, that only lets Katara discover how pitiful the man's lot in life became after retirement, and that keeps her from killing him- barely. She bitterly spares him because she knows she won't get satisfaction out of his death, but with the promise she will NEVER forgive him for his actions- which leaves the poor guy reduced to a sobbing wreck in a rainstorm. You can tell the man feels remorse, but because of what Katara said and did, the guilt will always haunt him.
While not a really huge tearjerker that can hit you hard as some of the other examples on this page, Zuko in "Ember Island Players" when he sees the scene in the play of actor-Zuko betraying Iroh. The scene on stage is humorous but it's the these lines that him and Katara exchange after they see it that really hit hard.
Katara: You didn't really say that did you?
Zuko: I might as well have.
At the end of The Ember Island Players, as the Gaang were leaving the area and were visibly disturbed by the play. How they're all unable to bring up the fact that the play's ending has a high probability of actually occurring, because they've just faced the fact that they're just kids all alone on a quest that could very easily get them killed.
Also from the episode, Sokka silently weeping as he watches the scene of Yue descending to the heavens. It shows that he's still hurting about what happened to her. Also sad that Suki doesn't appear very sympathetic.
On the other hand, Sokka seems more upset that he's seeing something dramatic rather than actually thinking about Yue. Perhaps the fact that Sokka seems more concerned about the play than Yue is a Tear Jerker in itself, though.
Zuko and Iroh's reunion in the Grand Finale. Their prolonged embrace, the tears streaming down both their faces, and their voices... All building up to one heartstring-yanking moment.
That scene is so awesomely emotional, it really needs to be spelled out. It starts with Zuko outside the tent, paralyzed with shame at his betrayal of his Uncle. He only goes in once Katara gives him assurance (a tearjerker in itself, given that Katara used to hate him). When he goes in, he finds Uncle asleep, so Zuko kneels and waits the entire night for Iroh to wake up, all the while stewing in his own shame. When Iroh wakes, he turns away from Zuko as Zuko makes his apology, giving the impression that he's actually ashamed of Zuko and angry at the betrayal. It's only when he turns around and fiercely embraces Zuko that you realize that Iroh was just trying to keep it together because he was filled with such joy and pride in his adopted son for finding his way back to the light.
He actually turns around, grabs Zuko by his tunic, and PULLS him in to an embrace so fierce, it looks like it might break ribs. It is one of the most moving scenes in TV and animation history.
Just think of all Iroh has done for Zuko, and it's all so much worse. He left his comfortable palace to sail around the world with a moody, biting, selfish, ungrateful teenager, who pretty much tells him off and then betrays him, sending Iroh to prison. And Iroh was so kind and so patient and so loving the whole time.
Zuko: -after Iroh hugs him, about to cry- How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me!
Then there's the fact that Zuko honestly did not expect to be forgiven - not just in this instance, but when he first joined the Gaang as well. His own father treated him so badly that he had no idea what healthy relationships were like.
Princess Azula's gradual mental breakdown throughout the Grand Finale, starting with a bit of minor paranoia during the second half-hour, then going to a full sobbing breakdown in front of the mirror in the third half-hour following a hallucination in which Azula sees her mother Ursa telling her that she loves her, but she refuses to believe it. The last we see of Azula in the series is a scene of her lying chained on the ground in hysterical rage, tears streaming down her face. As hideously evil as she had been throughout the series, those final moments made a lot of viewers realize that beneath all the psychotic evil, Azula was still a sad, scared little girl who just wanted her mommy to love her, and attached herself to a bastard of a daddy who used this to raise her into a villain.
Azula becomes an even more tragic character when one spends a moment considering her family. She's Zuko's sister. That means that, like Zuko, she is a direct descendant of both Sozin and Roku. Azula had the same potential to turn around her family and the Fire Nation that Zuko had, and instead became this twisted, evil, mentally unstable, manipulative monster. The fact that she could have been the one to redeem her nation and family like her brother just makes the person she developed into even more sad; the most tragic monsters are the ones who had the potential to be heroes.
Also consider this the probable reason why Azula turned out psychotic and Zuko sympathetic was that she was the talented one. This meant she spent more time with her sociopathic father who encouraged her to villainous tendencies. This is probably also what drove a wedge between and her mother, as it is perfectly reasonable to assume she was genuinely concerned about the direction Azula was headed in. Meanwhile Zuko's lack of talent, lead to his status as their father's unfavorite, meant he wasn't as influenced by their crazy dad.
After reading the comic "The Search" which takes place after the third season of Avatar:TLA, it can be assumed that talent or lack thereof had nothing to do with it. Ursa wrote a letter with a lie that Zuko was not Ozai's son but the son of her true love to see if Ozai was spying on her. When Ozai confronted her, she mentioned who perhaps she even wished that the lie was true. Ozai, being the sadistic bastard that he is, decided he would "respect her wish" and never treat Zuko as his son. It could be further imagined that Ursa possibly distanced herself from Azula, before she took after her sadistic father, to keep Ozai from possibly deciding to do the same to Azula and further declare that all that Ursa loves will suffer.
How the Last Agni Kai starts:
Azula: Iím sorry it has to end this way, brother.
Zuko: (in his stance) No, youíre not.
They're siblings, who more or less actually do care for one another, but with this one sentence, Zuko accepts that his sister is a total psychopath who wants him dead and that the only way to stop her is to fight her, possibly to the death.
Word of God even says on the DVD commentary was that this was the exact intention: to show that this was not a happy victory, particularly not for Zuko, and that he was very unhappy about having to duel his own sister. It had to be done, but it's obvious Zuko wishes it hadn't.
The background music. Oh, the background music. It's just so incredibly mournful. You barely even hear the blasts of the fire-bending over it, and the way the scenes keep shifting between that and the energetic fight between Aang and Ozai... whenever the scene switches back to Zuko vs. Azula, it's a little jarring. In a very sad way.
Katara's presence also adds another dimension of heartbreak. Here she is, someone who was raised with family as her core and was able to comfort a broken Aang by letting him be part of their family. And now for her final battle, she has to confront this: a family - a brother and sister, like her and Sokka - that is so broken that it is beyond repair. This must have disturbed her greatly - and she must have felt great trauma from Zuko getting hit by lightning after what had happened to Aang - but like in the desert she still endures and only shows vulnerability after she's taken Azula down.
The part where Toph is dangling from an airship with Sokka just barely holding onto her. When she starts crying because she realizes they're both at the end- they're both about to die. Just watch the .gif◊.
Her utter vulnerability is what makes the scene. Because she is blind and can only "see" vibrations through her feet, the fact that she was dangling helplessly hurt. Her entire world has just become Sokka's hand.
When Sokka is holding onto Toph and tells her not to let go. Toph, who is totally vulnerable and dependent on the strength of Sokka's grip, only responds with a choked-up "Aye-aye, Captain." These two characters have gotten to such a point in their relationship where not even death can make them doubt the other.
Oddly enough, Sokka's "I don't think Boomerang's coming back" and "Goodbye, Space-Sword". He threw both away KNOWING they were gone forever, without hesitating for a second, all to catch Toph.
It hits even harder with Boomerang. Through the entire series, Boomerang always came back, no matter what happened (discounting the time Sokka was stuck in that hole, since it was barely a foot away from him and he didn't really throw it). You know things are bad when Sokka gives up on Boomerang coming back.
That begs the question: exactly where did they land??
During Sozin's Comet during the Agni-Kai when Azula fakes out Zuko with the lightning and sends it towards Katara; watching Zuko jump in front of it for her just really does it.
That whole situation, when you think about it. How badly did so many things have to go for two teenage siblings to end up in a fight to the death for the fate of their nation? The music runs with it, playing a mournful dirge rather than an epic battle theme, and it all ends up with Azula, an emotionally beaten young girl, chained to the ground and thrashing around helplessly. There's no way that victory could have felt good for someone as empathetic as Katara.
Early in the very last episode, Avatar Aang, Sokka is lying precariously on the edge of an airship with Toph dangling over the edge by his arm. Sokka sacrifices his two weapons to take out a pair of firebenders who attack them, but then six more come. Sokka's grip on Toph begins to loosen . . .
Sokka, distressed: I don't think boomerang is coming back, Toph. It looks like this is the end.
Toph begins to cry
It gets resolved in like, a second, but it still gave this guy the feels.
When Aang takes a third option to defeat Ozai in the finale, the Lionturtle's encouraging speech about the strength of the heart and Aang's determination not to kill Ozai, risking his life and his own soul to do the right thing.
Seeing Aang dressed in the monk clothes. Just, remembering, that he really is the avatar. The war is over. The nomads are gone, but in a few generations, there will be more. Just seeing Aang, looking like Gyatso, with all his wisdom, and his pain and suffering behind him cranked up the water works to 11.
The very end, where Katara and Aang kiss is just beautiful - they don't even need words.
The end. Just the characters, and the black words "The End." It's all over. The End.
They're having tea in Iroh's little shop, and suddenly everyone is friends. Mai and Suki playing Pai Sho. Sokka doing his silly paintings, Zuko serving the tea, Toph being snarky as usual, Katara kissing Aang. And it's perfect. The sky is perfect. And then it's the end.