As a kid, I’ve always demanded retribution for all the wrong things that bad people did in the movies. But recently, the attitude towards villains has changed in literature and pop culture. Readers, fans, viewers now want a redemption story.
I love that because it shows how we, as consumers of media, have evolved from identifying with and rooting for the protagonists to locating bits of ourselves in the other characters.
There’s something even more beautiful in insisting to find the complexity in the story’s antagonists. Every time we allow another layer of complexity in how we interact, we develop our empathy muscles.
This leads me to Azula. There’s a funny scene where Uncle Iroh and Zuko deliberated whether they should go to the earth kingdom despite the risk of getting caught and sentenced to death OR face the possibility of being handed over to Azula. They chose the earth kingdom.
I felt like I needed to mention that because we already know Azula is powerful. We are already terrified of her AND YET the characters in the show needed to reinforce that to us, the viewers, for comedic relief sure, but perhaps also as a subtle reminder in case we forget of just how much we should fear her.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, it was interesting to me how Azula started out fully self-actualized, but ended up unhinged.
I can trace the start of Azula’s mental demise with these three triggers:
Trigger #1 Mai betrays her for Zuko because she loves Zuko more than she fears her. This is shortly followed by Tai Lee chi-blocking her. Tai Lee chose Mai over her.
Trigger #2 Fire Lord Ozai, who’s always treated her as the superior child, leaves her out of the mission – abandoning her (the same way she has seen him treat Zuko).
Trigger #3 After banishing her servants, she imagines her mother. Azula tells her that ‘trust is for fools; fear is the only reliable way’ and accuses her that even she fears Azula. Her mother disagrees and tells her that she doesn’t fear her. She loves her.
I remember being so confused with that particular scene with her mother. Why wasn’t her mother saying she loves her redemptive? Why did it end up driving her insane?
I think one answer could be that love can’t be redemptive if you don’t accept it. She went insane because accepting love means letting a force outside of yourself in. And Azula, with all of her self-reliance and sufficiency, cannot do that.
The three triggers above are interwoven to lead us to her character’s culmination. Fire Lord Ozai leaving her out of the mission is a fantastic way to remind us that he very much played a major part in this.
For one, it must have also been so messed up for her to watch her father banish her brother. By seeing her brother banished, she solidified a worldview where your place in the family is revokable. A family isn’t there to love you, but to keep you in line.
I think this makes her relationship with herself quite complicated. She sees herself as perfect, strong, impenetrable. She’s never had to doubt her place in the throne because she’s perfect (not loved, perfect).
Mai saying, “I love Zuko more than I fear you” is also such a great way of guiding us to the kind of relationship she has both with her friends and her brother. Finally, her mother saying that she doesn’t fear her, but loves her is an undoing of an identity she has cultivated about herself.
A part of me wants to think that she perceives love as a weakness – so she couldn’t accept her mother’s love and went insane instead. But I think there’s another possible answer that might bring back the humanity of Azula and it’s this: this conversation with her mother is something her mind conjured. Her mother didn’t really say this – she did. And if that’s the case, then this is a desire to hear her mother say that she’s loved. To know that somebody, anybody, doesn’t just fear her but loves her too. Perhaps the way Mai loved Zuko.