to this day, I think Azula is probably one of the most interesting villains. Ever.
One of the really fabulous things about ATLA that I think is sometimes overlooked is not just this character arc, Azula’s character arc, which is often discussed, but rather the subtle and subtly evolving character arcs afforded each of the dangerous ladies, from Mai’s silent struggles with the repressive restrictions put upon her by her parents and how slowly as the series progresses she begins to break through to Ty Lee’s lack of a personal identity and almost instinctive molding of herself to meet the expectations of others—how they see her and what they think of her—to, of course, this: Azula.
Azula is introduced as the favored child to unwanted Zuko, the prodigy to whom firebending comes naturally where Zuko struggles and struggles with it, the natural successor to Ozai and Zuko, her opposite, the exiled prince. She’s cool, detached, amused by the struggles of others, in every way privileged over them and so certain of her absolute power that she repeatedly and willfully overrides the advice and suggestions of others, at times to her detriment. She’s cruel, even to the two girls closest to her, Mai and Ty Lee. She assumes loyalty from them (and affection from Ty Lee) and rarely allows them kindnesses (and when she does allow kindness, she only ever allows it to Ty Lee—who she also threatened till Ty Lee agreed to join her); it never once occurs to her that they might not follow her in all things. She is absolute.
But she’s also lonely and as much a victim of Ozai’s abuse as Zuko, though the abuse they each suffered took very, very different forms. Both were emotionally neglected in unique ways. Zuko was shunned, physically struck down, turned aside. Azula was elevated by her father and coddled by him, but in this, she was also removed from the love and guidance others—like her mother—could offer her. Ozai encouraged what flaws existed within Azula as strengths, and furthermore he encouraged her to think of others not as people, but as tools. Through Ozai, she learned to command fear of others instead of asking love of them; through Ozai, she learned to prioritize her own skill, her own power, her own—wholeness in herself, that she believed she needed nothing but herself. And certainly he provided her with ample demonstration of this: Ozai saw his own family as tools. Zuko dispensable, a sacrifice. Iroh dispensable, too. His own wife, Ursa, a tool to be manipulated to kill his own father, the man who blocked his path to the throne. Of course Azula would grow thinking that people were tools at her disposal: weapons to be used or obstacles to be broken.
And more than anything else, her relationship with Ursa is this quiet, subtle thread running through all of it. In “Zuko Alone,” we see how Ozai has already begun to favor Azula and spurn Zuko, how Ozai more than Ursa guides Azula. We see Ursa, frustrated and exasperated with Azula’s behavior—her disregard for the safety of her friends, her casual cruelty to Zuko, all encouraged and condoned by Ozai—thoughtlessly say that she doesn’t understand what’s wrong with Azula. And—well, for me, personally, I don’t think Ursa was abusive; I don’t think she favored Zuko over Azula, but rather that she tried to compensate for the obvious disdain and disfavor Ozai showed Zuko, and that she was truly at a loss as to what to do to help Azula or how to do it without contradicting Ozai. But when a parent says something like that—when a parent says there’s something wrong with you, or they, in frustration, say or imply that you’re irreversibly flawed—that sticks. It hurts. It wounds. And then Ursa vanished, and Azula was still just a child; she was nine, and her strongest memories of her mother shortly before her mother vanished—died, for all Azula knew, and certainly Ozai never spoke of Ursa to either of his children after—were that her mother thought her wrong. And between that and her father’s grooming of her, his teaching her that she was always right, the emotional distance he gave her even as he praised her, the competition he encouraged between her and Zuko, whom Azula perceived as favored over her by their mother (when Azula had been taught by her father that she was the smart child, the strong child, the best child), and the lack of real, true affection in her life (which certainly Ozai would never have encouraged—love a weakness, to be feared a sign of power and strength)—just. She would have told herself it didn’t matter. She didn’t need love. She didn’t need her mother’s love. Love is weakness. Caring for others is weakness. Wanting love of them is weakness.
But she did want love. She wanted her mother to love her. She didn’t want her mother to think her wrong, to think her a monster. She wanted her mother to love her as her mother loved Zuko. And then her mother was gone.
And of course, then, when she thinks she will be at Ozai’s side when they literally raze the Earth Kingdom, when he tells her she will not go with him, she says, “You can’t treat me like Zuko.” She’s supposed to be the favored child. She’s supposed to be the child Ozai loves, the child of whom he’s proud. And he leaves her behind. Then he tells her she will be the new Fire Lord, and Azula is, for that moment, truly speechless, truly touched—but he gives himself power over her, still, as the Phoenix King—because he will always have that power over her, because he does not trust her, because he does not love her, because to Ozai, even Azula is a tool. And it’s just—ugh! When people ignore that Azula is a victim of abuse, too, because she IS. She was deprived of love; she was deprived of guidance; she was only ever a tool to Ozai, his perfect child groomed to serve him that he might cement his own power.
Just—BLEGH. Azula’s entire arc is about fear and power and the absence of love and deception but especially self-deception, and it’s about wanting love when she doesn’t really know how to love, because nobody loved her; nobody taught her. All she ever knew was fear.
(None of this, of course, justifies or excuses the atrocities she commits or attempts to commit through the course of the series. But nor do those atrocities erase the tragedy of her own life. I JUST REALLY LOVE AZULA, SORRY.)