As much as I love Iroh, and his amazing relationship with Zuko, sometimes I wonder… why’s he so devoted to helping Zuko, but not Azula?
He’s willing to forgive Zuko again and again for his mistakes, but Azula, who he’s never bothered to give even one chance, is definitively “crazy and needs to go down”?
In “The Avatar and the Firelord”, he tells Zuko that the source of his inner conflict is that he is descended from Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin, and this causes good and evil to be at war inside of him, and Iroh believes that the good side will win out in the end. However, he fails to realize that Azula has the same lineage of Zuko and has the same conflict within her. Why isn’t she given a chance?
Now I’m not trying to turn Azula into a woobie; her issues were much more serious and ingrained into her than Zuko’s, and it definitely would have been much harder for her to overcome them, but why doesn’t anyone give her the chance?
In fact, the reason that Azula is so much more messed up than Zuko is because nobody gave her a chance in the first place. From the flashbacks we see in “Zuko Alone”, it’s clear that Ursa has an unspoken preference for Zuko, and while I’m sure she does try to do what she can for Azula, she seems to get frustrated with her daughter easily. That’s minus one positive role model for Azula. (In fact, we don’t even know if the apparition of Ursa during Azula’s breakdown was what she really would have said in that situation. Maybe Ursa really would have dismissed Azula as a monster; we only saw the reaction of Azula’s hallucination of her mother, which represents everything she didn’t get from her mother in reality.)
As for Iroh’s relationship with Azula when she was younger, it’s much more left to the imagination, but there are a few disappointing implications. At age eight (or so; that’s my guess of her age in the flashbacks in “Zuko Alone”) she already seems to harbor a dislike for Iroh, chastising him for giving up on the siege and hoping fervently that Azulon will revoke his birthright. Why does she hate him so much? “Because she’s crazy and evil” is an easy answer to jump to, but people, even kids, rarely do things without a real reason.
I think the reason is the same as the reason that her relationship with Ursa was, well, less than ideal: Iroh seems to like Zuko better, too. This is my interpretation of it based off of Iroh’s letter and gifts to the children that he sends from Ba Sing Se - a very unique dagger with an inspiring inscription for Zuko… and a doll for Azula.
Not only is this sexist, but it’s clear that Iroh hasn’t spent much time with Azula at all and doesn’t even know her in the slightest if he thinks that’s the kind of gift she’d like.
So far that’s two positive role models for Zuko and none for Azula. Who’s left for her to look up to? Her father and grandfather. Do they like her more than Zuko? It would appear so… But why do they like her more than Zuko? She’s good at firebending. Fullstop.
Well, that’s enough for a little girl with no other appealing options to latch onto, so it makes sense that she hones her firebending to an insane degree and takes any opportunity to show it off for them so she can be praised. So she can be loved.
So there’s a couple of role models for her, but they’re not the good kind. Here’s a refresher: Azulon told Ozai to kill his firstborn son for disrespecting his older brother. And Ozai, although we never find out if he was going to go through with it if Ursa hadn’t stepped in, still was willing to burn and banish said son years later for making a comment out of turn.
Well, that about explains were Azula gets her cruel and sadistic tendencies. But what about the deeper problems? Namely, her belief that fear is the only way to control, or even interact with people on a basic level, that love is unreliable and unattainable?
Remember how I said that Ozai liked Azula more than Zuko? Yeah, I was lying. He doesn’t. Sure, he’s proud of Azula. She’s one of the greatest firebenders the world has ever seen, and she’s got the fierce, dominant personality that she copied from him. Yes, Azula would make a great successor to Ozai…
If she was a boy. But she’s a girl; she’s the Princess, she isn’t going to take over when Ozai dies (hypothetically of course, because the Phoenix King lives forever! Muahaha). Zuko is. While he’s more than happy, tickled pink, in fact, that Azula is powerful, it doesn’t change the fact that Zuko is the eldest son, and thus, the heir to the throne.
(The fact that she’s made Fire Lord during Sozin’s comet doesn’t even contradict this, because Ozai only gives her that title once it’s rendered meaningless by his rise to Phoenix King. It’s clear that she isn’t ruling alongside him, or in line with him, and he’s only trying to pacify her to keep her out of the way.)
It’s no wonder, then, that Azula develops a younger-sibling inferiority complex to Zuko. You don’t notice it at first because she’s constantly asserting how much better she is than Zuko at everything. But that only reveals how much it gets to her. She calls him “Zuzu” and “dumdum” to assert dominance over him and gets back at him in the only ways she can, through manipulation and mind games, but at the end of the day, he’s still the Crown Prince, and she’s still the Princess. He’s still loved unconditionally by Iroh and Ursa, and she is still prized by their father only for her skill.
Here’s where I start to marvel at the writing of this show and how unbelievably complex and beautiful it is. Zuko and Azula are exact inverses of each other. Outwardly, Zuko is a failiure. He’s a scarred, banished, disappointment, and can’t even succeed at the one task he devotes his all to, capturing the Avatar. But despite that, he shows tremendous inner strength, never gives up, and has a high capacity to love since he is loved. Azula, on the other hand, is outwardly perfect. She’s beautiful, powerful, and doesn’t let her emotions get the better of her… or so it would appear. Only at the very end to we glimpse what she’s like on the inside: misguided, scarred, and faithless in love.
She’s Zuko inside out, but nobody, not her parents, not her uncle, not her friends, ever noticed. And that is why her breakdown at the end is so heartwrenchingly poignant; it’s the same struggle we’ve been following in Zuko for three seasons but in reverse; whereas Zuko has finally put all the pieces together correctly, Azula’s puzzle, which she’d assumed was already completed, shatters all at once.
Azula is such a layered character that I can’t help but love her more and more the more I think about her. Once more, I applaud Bryke on their incredible ability to paint such a vivid picture even in one character.