Azula: Sympathetic Monster?...

I was really jarred by how the end portion of Avatar: The Last Airbender handled Azula.

For most of the series, Azula's characterization was very consistent: she was someone whose relationship to socioemotional considerations was that those are a weakness other people have. Azula and Zuko shared parents, but their respective relationships illustrated this dynamic through contrast:

For Zuko, his mother was a warm and loving parent, and when she disappeared this was a bit of trauma that seems to have permanently changed how he interacted with the world. His father was someone he respected and wanted to impress, and even after he was permanently scarred by the man he still seemed to desire to gain Ozai's respect. These relationships mattered to him on a deep and inescapable level, and even his relationship to Azula built on this idea: though virtually every interaction we see between the two is one where Azula makes Zuko miserable, when she first showed up in the show and acted like a caring sibling, he wanted such a scenario to be real desperately enough that instead of being suspicious on the basis of her past behavior he actually bought this inexplicable change completely up until an officer made the mistake of referring to Zuko and Iroh as prisoners.

Zuko can't stop craving positive familial relationships even when there's a persistent pattern of open and deliberate abuse.

Azula, meanwhile, is abhorrent to her mother and doesn't seem terribly bothered by this idea. Her father's unpleasant treatment of her brother is something to smile about, or even help arrange to happen. Zuko's suffering is a game, not something to be bothered by, because she doesn't care about him. She doesn't seem to care about any of them, or indeed about anyone at all except perhaps herself -and that's more assumed than actually illustrated.

This extends much further than just their immediate familial relationships. Azula's 'friends' are minions she coerces/terrorizes into working for her. Zuko starts the series with no peer-type friends that we ever see unless you count the edge case of Mai, but with a sister who treats emotions and social connections as a weakness to be picked on it would be pretty amazing if he did have any friends.

This is a very consistent point of contrast between the two characters, one that tells us a lot about Azula's character, and it's a character that's pretty difficult for most people to sympathize with. She's the kind of character that often gets labeled a psychopath or sociopath, and which is often treated as unambiguously an evil so dark that the audience is not intended to feel even slightly bad if justice comes in the form of a gruesome death or the like.

... and then the end of the series tries to tell us Azula wants the love of her parents. That she tormented Zuko because their mother always loved him and not her, and she couldn't understand why. That she did everything she did because she desperately wanted her father's approval, so much so that when he leaves her behind to go be Phoenix King this is pretty much the last straw for her sanity. That she actually did care about her friends, and tormented and terrorized them because... she thought making them fear her would do a better job of ensuring loyalty than making them love her?...

The whole thing is bizarre. In the first place, it's irreconcilable with literally everything about her character prior to this interpretation being invented. In the second place, the story is actively undermining it as it's introducing the concept: we get a flashback showing that Azula was a horrible little monster all the way into early childhood, and also get flashbacks implying that Ozai was actually a pretty okay father prior to his wife being taken away from him -and these flashbacks are happening after the series has started trying to sell us on the idea that Azula wasn't born evil. The first flashback I'm referring to directly undermines this idea by depicting Azula being a monster for no clear motive in early childhood: the second undermines it indirectly, by making it so you can't explain L'il Azula's awful behavior as being a product of her desire to chase her father's approval, since it goes back to before he was modeling/encouraging awful behavior.

More than the actual plothole/narrative plausibility angle, though, what bothers me most is... a thing that needs a bit more grounding.

So let's get to that.

One of the major background elements of Avatar is being humanizing and sympathetic. Our first 'antagonist' is Zuko, and though he's on the 'bad guy' side the show quickly lets us know what is motivating Zuko and makes it clear he's a figure deserving of sympathy and potentially even pity. He's not simply the enemy who we must defeat/foil/evade/etc, but a person who has good and reasonable reasons for his own actions, and it's just unfortunate they place him at odds with the protagonists.

Zuko is the strongest example of this, but especially in the first season it's fairly typical for entities to start out framed in a manner that suggests straightforward 'bad guy-ness' and then the story reveals that it's not as straightforward as that, or is entirely untrue. A rampaging spirit monster assaulting innocent villagers for no obvious reason turns out to be hurting and angry because of real metaphysical harm done to them, and once they are made to understand that things will get better and that the people they've kidnapped weren't behind it the rampage stops and the kidnapped people are returned. An insane and hostile king turns out to be an old friend playing tricks. Etc.

Unfortunately, the writers seem to have struggled to hold to this consistently. This humanizing, sympathetic approach to people is applied to a fair amount of entities, but... not to everyone, and even the people it gets applied to it gets caveats. With the semi-exception of Zuko's sympathetic backstory not showing up until the episode after the two pilot episodes, generally a hostile character is either revealed to be sympathetic before the episode they were introduced in ends, or the story never tries to humanize them. Zhao is a straightforward gloryhound villain whose karmic death is treated as wholly deserved, and no attempt is ever made to follow up on any possible tragedy in his death. We never meet any of his loved ones, let alone see them being heartbroken by his death. We never see him have any friends, or at least not any friends who aren't themselves treated as fairly one-dimensionally villainous. The one-off Fire Nation officers running prisons in the Earth Kingdom and the like are generally one-dimensional villains we're pretty much supposed to view as deserving a righteous punching. When we meet the Dai Li and their master, the whole thing is an Orwellian nightmare that's never suggested to have a sympathetic reason for existing, and which deliberately keeps its own king out of the loop on important matters because... it's a sinister Orwellian organization, that's just what you do if you're an evil power behind the throne.

Azula and, to a lesser extent, Ozai, end up suffering because the writers seem to have spent most of the story running on Villain Tropes Logic, and only later on remembered that this is supposed to be a narrative in which everyone is a person deserving of humane and sympathetic treatment. Ozai's handling is plausible enough, but this is more due to the fact that while Ozai's influence has been made apparent all the way back to the third episode of the series, Ozai himself has been a largely undefined shadow figure, motives and goals inscrutable enough you could drape just about anything over what we see and end up with something plausible.

Azula doesn't benefit from this murkiness. She's had a strong and consistent character that has been developed consistently and clearly on-screen over a notable number of episodes, and attempting to rework her into being a Terrible But Sympathetic Person is like building a house in a swamp and then when you realize you're not happy living in a swamp you... change the wallpaper.

This is obviously bad practice in the first place, but there's also a subtle dehumanizing element to this attempt to humanize Azula, and that is the thing I'm uncomfortable with. In effect, the story's handling tells us that the Azula we knew is not someone who it's okay to view with sympathy, or treat humanely or with empathy. It has to invent a new version of Azula who, instead of being essentially exempt from the usual socioemotional experience, is actually deeply tied into it and just being awful as part of that.

This is frustrating, because the Azula we knew could be treated in a humane and empathic manner. Just because Azula doesn't really value these kinds of connections and experiences doesn't mean she's inherently destined to be a monster where the only acceptable response is to put her out of everyone else's misery. A different environment could have shaped Azula differently -it's likely that she'd always have had a streak of pragmatism or ruthlessness to her, given what we see, but it's easy to imagine how Ursa could have made more of an attempt to understand why her daughter was eg torturing small animals for fun and then adjusted how she handled Azula's upbringing. The Azula we got has a backstory that paints her as almost feral, with a father who's barely present, a mother that doesn't really want to have anything to do with her, and no evidence of any replacement parental figures to shape Azula into thinking about the world differently.

If you take a girl who isn't all that interested in social connections in the first place, give her tremendous latitude and power simply because of who her parents are, and then never allow her to experience anything like a partnership to see the benefits it brings and understand what is necessary to reap those benefits, is it really a surprise when she ends up viewing the world through a lens that makes human relationships a weakness? She got all the power she could want without ever having to befriend anyone, and she got to see her father become a broken man when her mother was taken away, not to mention see how wimpy Zuko was as a child coddled by their mother.

This is easy to use as a base to keep Azula's awful canon behavior while framing her as a human being we should try to empathize and understand. Restructuring her motives into being pretty much the exact opposite of her entire character up to this point is unnecessary, a bit disheartening, and while the show could potentially have tried to make some 'No So Different' point about Azula and Zuko it... didn't. There's kind of an interesting point that the show is consistent about having them both be Sympathetic Evil when it's framing them as seeking the approval of their father, but it gets lost in just dismissing Azula as crazy where Zuko's behavior was treated as completely sane when he was doing pretty much literally the exact same thing.

It's a frustrating finish to one of the series' strongest characters.


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