(Rating Out of 15)
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As far as I’m concerned, there are three major instances in the entire finale that reach the level of brilliance and emotionality of the best episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender. And I finally get to discuss them in detail!
The Reunion of Zuko and Iroh
Of the three best moments of the finale, this is probably the one that needs the least explanation. We all know that Zuko is undoubtedly the best character in the series, with Iroh arguably in a close second, and that the relationship between the two was always the most consistently realistic, entertaining, and heartfelt. It goes without saying that their reunion after so much turbulence and inconsideration on Zuko’s part would be a joy to behold.
Zuko is painfully sincere in how sorry he is about his mistakes, but Iroh will hear none of it, as he’s merely thankful that his nephew—virtually his son—finally saw the light and returned safe and sound. It’s a beautiful Prodigal Son moment.
There are two things here that really hit me personally.
First, when Zuko initially finds Iroh, he’s sound asleep. Here is this kid, finally prepared to see his uncle again, apologize for his wrongdoings, and absolutely certain that he is unworthy of forgiveness. There’s so much suspense already, and he hasn’t even entered the tent. When he finally does, Iroh isn’t even awake to acknowledge this minute act of bravery. There’s just something so remarkably real about that.
Second, this shot.
It’s gorgeous, and it perfectly conveys the tension of this scene. We can only assume that this is Zuko’s point of view, and whether Iroh will turn around to forgive him or spit on him (hell, if he’ll even turn around at all) is unclear, even to the audience. The expression on Iroh’s face is also too ambiguous. So when he finally turns around to embrace Zuko in a hug, it’s a relief for everyone. Simply perfect. (It even ends on a nice little joke. Great touch.)
Firelord Ozai vs. the Avatar State
You know, I really do love Avatar despite its flaws–it definitely filled a void that need filling–but I often believe it’s a great show in spite of creators DiMartino and Konietzko, not because of them. It’s the same way I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas, or The Dark Side of the Moon and any given band member of Pink Floyd. Sure, they got the ball rolling, but there were just so many forces that shaped their final products that attributing their success to just one or two major players is a crime. In the case of Avatar, especially in light of Korra, I’m very reluctant to call DiMartino and Konietzko “geniuses,” as they are so haphazardly called from time to time.
That said, there is one attribute of theirs which I am willing to admit comes anywhere near the title, and that’s in their ability to generate sympathetic for the villains of their stories.
I’m not really talking about Zuko, who was always in a sort of literary limbo as far as good and evil goes. I’m talking about Firelord Ozai, Azula, and even Tarrlok and Amon/Noatak in Korra. Somehow, at the very last minute, these guys are able to prove to us that these villains are worth some emotional investment.
While I consider Azula’s breakdown the stronger example, DiMartino and Konietzko really pulled off a miracle when they made me care about Ozai, who up until this point was just a one-dimensional evildoer.
You know me: I barely care about Aang, so his final battle with a cardboard cutout of a villain was never going to move me, no matter how wonderfully the final fight is animated and executed. After a while, it gets boring seeing Aang run away or deflect a blast and then hear Ozai recite some borderline cliché proclamations of victory.
But then something happens. Aang accidentally unlocks his Avatar State and completely overpowers Ozai, to the point that it’s Ozai who must run away and Aang who chases him.
Now, there are a few reasons why this turn of events truly crosses into genius territory for me.
First, it’s just a neat reversal of fortune; second, this is no longer even a fight between equals. The Avatar clearly has more power than a Firelord, even if he is powered by Sozin’s Comet; finally, and most importantly, our sympathy is completely with Ozai for the duration of this chase.
Previously, DiMartino and Konietzko tried to hammer it in our heads that Ozai was a human being worth sparing in Parts One and Two of the finale. They expressed this through Aang, who could not accept that killing was the only answer. Intellectually, the argument could go both ways. Killing Ozai would be good for humanity, but then it would also go against Aang’s upbringing as a humanitarian and a monk.
Now consider this bit of wisdom from film critic Roger Ebert on what cinema can do:
The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best…Cinema is not very good, on the other hand, at intellectual, philosophical or political argument…If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason…
This is precisely how DiMartino and Konietzko get us to care about Ozai.
Consider what happens to Aang after he goes into the Avatar State. It’s like he’s no longer even human. He may still occupy Aang’s body, but the spirit is gone and replaced with an unstoppable*** force of destruction. Honestly, every time Aang’s Avatar State arises, it scares the shit out of me.
Clearly Ozai feels the same way, and after a failed attack, he does the sensible thing and runs away. And as he does, he exhibits an emotion we have never seem Ozai exhibit before, but is completely understandable given the circumstances: fear. It is that very fear that finally gets you to realize, “Wow, he is human after all!” And then right before Avatar Aang is about to destroy him, and you see the total helplessness and terror on his face do you think, “Sweet Jesus, no one deserves to die like that!”
Of course, they ruin it by having Aang not kill him—or rather, Ozai ruins it by reverting back to his usual boring self—but that’s just fine. Through the purest use of the power of cinema, even if for a few minutes, DiMartino and Konietzko trick us into feeling sorry for the main villain, thus driving their point home. It would probably be the most incredible thing they ever did in the entire show if they didn’t manage to even outdo that.
The Fall of Azula
Perhaps the most brilliant thing about Azula’s downfall is just how furtively it crept up on us. Of all the villains in Avatar, she was the most cunning, confident, and frightening. Her victory in “Crossroads of Destiny” seemed to imply that she was unstoppable. Sure, this being a kids’ show, we knew she had to go down somewhere. But how were we to know that her defeat involved a complete mental collapse? How could we even comprehend it would be so moving?
Frankly, I believe this is the greatest moment in the entire series, even better than the whole of “The Southern Raiders.” Great as that episode is, its impact is slightly marred by the fact that Katara’s decision not to kill the man who murdered her mother could rightfully be called “predictable” given the kids’ show principle. Additionally, the whole episode rather uplifting in its own gloomy way. This is not the case with Azula: not only was this demise unforeseeable, but its implications are much more grim. Given the fact that we never see she for for the rest of the episode afterwards, the show seems to imply that there is no hope for her. She’s beyond help, a tragic case of getting imprisoned within her own head.
To top it all off, the demise is masterfully told. Literally everything works, and everything aids in humanizing Azula. Her voice acting—courtesy of Grey DeLisle—is fantastic, her character animation is the best in the entire series*, the humor is funny, the drama is tear-inducing, the music is great, etc. There’s not a single wasted or boring part. It’s perfect, and that’s definitely something I say a lot about anything in Avatar.
I remember lot of people found Azula’s downfall unconvincing and a little too convenient. Those people are wrong. It is most convincing for a reason proposed by animation historian Michael Barrier as it relates to Dumbo:
A character’s abrupt turnabout need not be in the least unconvincing, if that character’s reality has been established before the change occurs…People…are highly complex beings who are capable of a lot of things, good and bad. If a film makes that complexity real, an abrupt change can be far more convincing than a change that occurs as the result of planting some prop…Let me point to an abrupt change in a character’s behavior at the end of a film, a change that bothers no one—a change that seems perfectly natural, in fact, because we have gotten to know the character. At the climax of Dumbo, when Dumbo is falling from that great height with the magic feather in his trunk, and Timothy is begging him to fly, we have no reason to believe—from the plot mechanics alone—that Dumbo will respond.
The entire third season had been slowly shedding the facade that Azula put up to control people until it reveals what she was all along: a spoiled, snobbish, paranoid, control freak and Daddy’s girl. Or to be more precise, as Plato would put it: a spoiled, snobbish, paranoid, control freak and Daddy’s girl with a soul.
Azula’s demise takes up about eight scenes in the entire finale**, and they’re all fantastic. Since this is technically the final review and the best part of the show, I’ll indulge in examining all of them.
The One Where Azula Gets Left Behind And Promoted to Firelord
Did Firelord Ozai know that Azula’s sanity was slipping, or did he just plan on leaving Azula behind from the getgo? Most likely the latter, because it’s not like that silly-looking armor and those Phoenix King banners were made overnight. (That little unscheduled attack on the Western Air Temple in “The Southern Raiders” probably didn’t help Azula’s case either.)
Needless to say, Azula takes it about as well as a teenage girl who was just told she couldn’t go to senior prom. This is probably the first time we ever see her argue with her father (is this the first time we see them interacting at all?!), and it would seem almost normal except for the fact that Ozai, as far as can be told, only sees his children as pawns in his path to glory. If we’ve learned anything from Zuko, it’s that Ozai’s children never really saw it that way. Luckily, Zuko saw the light and bailed. Azula was not so lucky, but continues to believe she has her father’s love.
This is most apparent after Ozai tells her that he is making her the new Firelord. Azula responds with the most innocent and grateful tone as she says, “Really?” I have no idea what it is about the way voice actress Grey DeLisle delivers that line that sends me over the edge. Is it that there’s so much sincerity and love in that word being directed towards someone who does not reciprocate at all? I’m not sure, but whatever it is, it makes me want to vomit every time I hear it; it’s one of the most subtly depressing moments in the series. Long before the actual mental collapse, Azula is already long gone.
There two more notable aspects of this scene.
First, this is the last time the old, confident and totally-in-control Azula shows up before disappearing forever. It’s when she asks her father if things are ready for their departure. This is, of course, undermined by Ozai’s change of mind, but it’s an extremely important moment that makes reminds us of just how the mighty has fallen.
Second, we never see Azula’s reaction to Ozai’s proclamation of himself as the Phoenix King. I’d like to think that she immediately realized that she was being given the short end of the stick by her promotion to Firelord, which only contributed to her downward spiral, especially her mistrust in every single human being. One can only wonder…
Azula Damn Near Turns Into Joe Pesci
Now officially begins the descent into paranoid madness. They couldn’t have started off in a more terrifying fashion.
Azula accidentally bites into a cherry bit, which is humiliating enough for anyone who’s done the same. But then she accuses the servant holding the bowl of cherry for trying to kill her before her coronation as Firelord.
There’s only one thing about this scene that confused me. Are the servants supposed to pick all the pits out of the cherries before they’re giving to royal for eating? Because that would make sense, and it would explain why the servant acknowledges it as a “mistake.” Or is this just Azula’s paranoia overriding logic? Can someone explain this one to me?
In any case, the scene is downright terrifying. This one little “mistake” appears to have damn near cost the servant her life; she’s powerless to argue with Azula’s reasoning for as to how the cherry bit got there and why, and the mixture of confusion and fright on her face is marvelously drawn. But the most telling shot in the scene is of the other servants, who know exactly what’s happening, but are just as confused and powerless to stop it.
Of course, the servants gets banished instead of killed, but holy shit! This is actually more suspenseful than Katara’s decision not to kill (name?) in “The Southern Raiders.” We know Katara can’t kill anyone (due to contractual obligations related to her “hero” status), but Azula? She killed the fucking Avatar. Why wouldn’t she kill a servant over a silly cherry bit?
I honestly don’t know if I’ve explained the emotional power of this scene well enough, so here’s this: this scene is comparable to the infamous “What do you mean I’m funny” scene from Goodfellas. You cannot watch either scene without fearing for the accused character’s life.
Azula Banishes the Dai Li
If the previous scene was scary, the next two (and-a-half) are mercifully funny.
Azula orders the Dai Li to come to the throne room simply so she can banish them like she banished the cherry pit servant. Her reasoning? It took them too long (five minutes) to respond to come to her rescue, if such were the case. You’ve got to love how cruelly logical her justification is for getting rid of them: they betrayed Long Feng even after pledging loyalty to him, so why wouldn’t they betray Azula the same way?
The punchline occurs at the tail end of the scene, when as the group of Dai Li agents leave, Azula immediately tells them to send the next group of agents to the throne room. One really has to wonder if she is just giving each group of agents the exact same speech before banishing them.
Azula Nearly Banishes the Twins
This next humorous scene has the Twins, Li and Lo entering to query about why Azula has banished practically all her servants and guards. The answer is, of course, so they can’t betray her like Mai and Ty Lee did. Naturally, Azula takes offend when the two suggest she postpone her coronation as Firelord to regain her senses. So much so that, if it weren’t for the typical twin mistaken identity, the two of them would be banished.
It’s interesting that Azula even begins to distrust her own father, believing he sent the twins because he thought she couldn’t handle the role of Firelord on her own. Remember that this is the one person who ever looked up to, idolized, and pledged total loyalty to. The fact that she’s even remotely come to doubt him really suggests just how far gone Azula is. (Even worse: considering Zuko’s escape from his father’s influence, Azula’s doubt at this point is too little too late.)
It’s also telling that Azula connects her mistrust for everyone around her with the betrayal of her two closest friends. How “close” they were is obviously debatable, but you could say that, in her own special way, Azula did kind of love them. In that sense, she made the same fatal mistake that Charles Foster Kane did: she could only accept love on her terms, and under Azula’s terms, that meant fear played a part in all her relationships. But you can win love with fear, just as you can win love with power.
Speaking of Citizen Kane, isn’t it interesting that Azula and Kane’s problems ultimately begin with their relationships with their mothers? Maybe this isn’t exactly special to either character—the mother is usually the most important figure in our lives—but as their tragedies are concerned, it’s still pretty intriguing.
Speaking of mothers…
Azula Cuts Her Hair, and It’s Very Depressing
This is where it stops being funny and just becomes sad. Granted, it’s funny that Azula blames her hair for another screw up and punishes it by cutting it off, but then it’s…not. Maybe it just hits to close to home for me. I mean, Azula really fucks up her hair, and how is she going to explain that to people? Tell them that her hair “betrayed her?” That’s just as bad as John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, during his crack addiction, carving holes into his skin, convinced that there were bugs crawling in his veins. He even tried to show Keith Richards one of them, but then exclaimed that it got away…
Anyway, it that weren’t bad enough, Azula imagines that her mother Ursa is actually there with her. But the thing is, even within Azula’s imagination, no matter how much she berates her mother, Ursa continues to express just how much she truly loves Azula.
Before I even begin to analyze this scene, I just want to praise DiMartino and Konietzko and company for the sheer audacity of this scene, and how in spite of everything, it works beautifully. This isn’t the first time a character has hallucinated or even talk to themselves, but it is the first time it’s been taken to almost Shakespearian heights. This is a total head trip moment, and one of the most purely cinematic moment in the entire series.
But all of the scenes, this is the one that finally reveals the ultimate truth about the poor girl. Her conversation with “her mother” reveals that no matter how much Azula wanted to believe that her mother thought she was a monster, deep down in her soul she knew that her mother honestly loved her, unconditionally. It’s the “unconditionally” part that Azula cannot accept. Azula always used fear to influence people and pure logic to fulfill her desires. So the fact that her mother loved her for no rational reason at all—quite unlike her father, who saw her as a means to an end—goes against everything she thought to be true. How could anyone love a self-admitted horrible person such as Azula?
And that’s the fatal flaw of Azula: she hates herself. She has no reason to love herself: she’s not a perfect Firebender, despite her immense talent and technique; she needs to scare people so they can even acknowledge her; everyone she interacts with is merely a pawn in her ascension to glory; and, as far as we know, since she can’t love her brother that way, she’d rather kill him instead.
In essence, Azula’s personal world is built solely on logic, and something as irrational as love has no real place in it.
Also, Ursa only appears in a mirror. Azula shatters the mirror with a brush to get of her, but she also gets rid of her own reflection. How symbolic…
The Incestual Ag Ni Kai Begins
So did Azula just banish all of the citizens in the area, or just her officers? I ask because this entire crater town is empty. Convenient for the following fight between Azula and Zuko, and I suppose you could say it’s just more symbolic of the loneliness that Azula’s path in life has lead her to. Even Zuko gets an audience for his eventual coronation.
This is kind of a pet peeve, but I wish Zuko didn’t spell out to Katara why exactly he knew he could take on Azula alone. (Then again, maybe the fact that it was spelled out, but then Katara still came back anyway was the point.) These two are brother and sister, they know each other well enough to know intuitively if something is wrong with the other. Zuko could quickly tell that the usually cool, calm, collected Azula is trying way too hard to intimidate him.
Admittedly, there’s not really that of note in this segment than the plot point of the two siblings fighting to the death. That’s fine. It’s still done very effectively. I cannot overemphasize just how brilliant the animation of Azula is in her final moments.
Zuko Nearly Dies
Speaking of animation, one of my friends shared a quote from philosopher Jeremy Bentham that I believe to be invaluable to anyone who wants to be an animator (or wants to create a great character):
…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
As far as character animation goes, this is one of the key questions that determines whether a character will be endearing or not. After all, the ability to suffer—and, by extension, to die—is one of the few things everyone has in common. If you can somehow fool an audience into believe that these moving lines on paper can feel and suffer, then their desires, failures and triumphs become our own; we don’t just witness their journey, we feel it.
They did it most successfully with Zuko, Iroh, sometimes Katara, and, for a brief moment, Ozai, and now they’ve done it with Azula. Her fight with Zuko—up until his sacrifice—generates rather conflicting feelings. We know she’s the villain, we know she has to lose, and we kinda know that we should be happy about her defeat. And yet…it’s sad to see her lose. I think part of this has to do with the fact that she clearly does not have the upper hand here. Unlike their last fight in “The Southern Raiders,” which was more or less a fight between equals, Zuko is the one in control. Azula is just barely able to keep up, and when she get injured, it’s painful to witness. I guarantee that if Katara hadn’t shown up to give Azula an easy target for her lightning, Zuko would have redirected it and killed his sister.
But I suppose it reflects well on Zuko that he sacrifices his own life to save someone else’s rather than take a life. It reflects well on the writers, too, that Katara’s re-appearance was subtle and wasn’t telegraphed. She just re-appears, and only Azula picks up on it and thus uses it to her advantage. In that sense, we can attribute Katara’s mistake to human error rather than lousy writing.
Azula Is Finally Brought Down, and It’s Very, Very Depressing
I suppose Katara was the only one between herself and Zuko who could bring down Azula without resorting to killing (since “The Southern Raiders” proved she was clearly incapable of it), and it’s admittedly quite thrilling to witness.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, upon first watching this confrontation, thought Katara actually froze herself and Azula in some sort of nobel sacrifice. But no, Katara just immobilized Azula long enough to simply chain her down so she couldn’t Bend, move, or destroy things anymore. It would be anti-climatic if it wasn’t so cool.
I suppose the Marxists in the audience can make some meaningful connection between Azula’s “peasant” comment and the fact that a proletariat like Katara could defeat a bourgeoisie like Azula and yada yada, oh well, whatever, never mind. As for me, I’m more concerned with what happens afterwards. After Azula is chained, after Katara heals Zuko in a teary-eyed fashion, and even after Azula attempts to assert her ferosity and dominance one last time.
It’s the moment when Azula breaks down and cries.
As with “The Southern Raiders,” I know a lot of it has to do with my personality. For example, one of my biggest fears in the world is insanity. I simply cannot bear to witness someone—not even a fictional character—lose their grip on reality so completely that they can no longer function mentally. It’s too horrifying.
But I think it goes a little deeper than that. This is a character who has finally lost everything with little-to-no hope of ever recovering: her “friends,” her royalty, her family, her certainty, her sanity, and, most devastatingly, her self-worth. Her attempts to keep from falling through her usual methods only make things worse. And now she’s been brought down by a Waterbender who didn’t even have the courtesy to kill her. How humiliating.
And so she cries. As with Ozai, this is something we’d never seen from her, and yet given the circumstances, what else could she do? I think what finally makes this even more powerful for me is that when she starts crying, she still tries to hold back and maintain some remnant of dignity. It’s a wasted effort. She’s already too far gone.
This is the greatest moment in the entire series for me. I wasn’t expecting to feel this sorry for a villain, nor was I expecting such a depressing sense of inescapable despair from an American animated kids’ show. I honestly can never watch this moment without crying. Hell, I can barely think about this moment without being on the verge of crying. The only other thing that’s ever been able to do that to me is John Lennon’s song “Mother.”****
There. I just positively compared a product of DiMartino and Konietzko with that of my favorite Beatle this side of George Harrison. That’s about the highest compliment I can give.
*I’m almost certain that the animation was great because the storyboards of Azula in the finale were all done by one woman whose name escapes me. The feminine charm, I’ll call it, really helps bring the character to life.
**Well, technically it’s nine scenes, but I’m not counting Zuko’s flashback.
***Yeah, Azula proved otherwise, but she got very lucky.
****Listen at your own risk.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.
That is all.
Also, Ian, I greatly appreciate your concern for my well-being. All hasn’t been well in the land of Marshall Turner, but it’s getting better. Thank you.
And thanks to everyone else for their patience. If you still have it.
– Marshall Turner
– Marshall Turner