The Zuko/Azula Shipper’s Guide To/Optimistic Interpretation Of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – a.k.a Contentbending In Pursuit Of Flamin’-Hot Incestuous Love, a.k.a. Delusions Of Zucest – Part I Of V: Episodes 1-27

Happy New Year! My first post of 2011 – how exciting!

If you haven’t caught on yet, Avatar: The Last Airbender is on my mind right now. I’ve slowed my procession through the 61-episode series in order to better savor it, and I’m making a pit stop before beginning the third and final season in order to recap all of the Zuko/Azula goodness to be found so far. There will be two parts that cover the first two seasons, and then tree parts that cover the final season. Links are at the bottom.

If you’d like to check out what I’ve already written on the franchise: The Movie, and A Movie/Cartoon Comparison.

They’re long, but if you if you haven’t seen the cartoon series or the movie and you still want to read my post, you’d be better off reading the other ones first in order to get a more complete picture of this fictional world and to get a summary of the first season (which is equivalent to the movie). I will be providing you here with tonly the bare minimum as it pertains to Zuko and Azula

Also, I did a post on my recommendations of the best Zuko/Azula fan creations and a bit of a debriefing including a comparison of Azula to some other fictional characters in similar situations.

Warning: Spoilers for the movie, and for the first and second seasons of the animated television series. I have next to zero knowledge of the third season and haven’t seen any episodes. The only thing I have done is research the characters ages – information which hasn’t necessarily been available to me so far.

First – casting. I already discussed the voice talents for Zuko and Azula, but they are so talented that it bears repeating.

Dante Basco voices Zuko. He’s going on 36, FYI. Remember that for when I later tell you about how I envision both Zuko and Azula as being older that we’re canonically informed that they are.

If you recognize his voice, it might be because he played Rufio in Hook. Don’t get me started. (If you don’t know which one Rufio is, then there is something wrong with you that needs to be rectified immediately. But I’ll give you a hint: he’s the only lost boy who looks like he wound up in Never Never Land after World War II.)

While I don’t feel qualified to critique Dante’s voice-acting, I can say that his voice is part of what makes Zuko Zuko, and I like Zuko very much.

Grey DeLisle voices Azula, and besides having an awesome name, she also has a great voice. She’s going on 38!!! There’s nothing wrong with being almost 38 years old, but remember, she is voicing a 14 year old! But as I already stated and will state undoubtedly again, Azula and Zuko really ought to be older than we’re told that they are.

Anyway, Grey’s great. She’s perfectly menacing without letting you forget that you’re dealing with a beautiful girl, and she adds enough inflection into Azula’s speech for me to analyze, so I couldn’t be more grateful.

What’s the very bare minimum that you need to know? Well, here are the Basics:

OK: there is the Fire Nation, the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads.

Among each of these peoples are born benders, people who can manipulate the elements that their domains are named after. There is also the Avatar, a religious figurehead (able to bridge the human and spirit worlds) who is born into one of these populations, but who can bend all four elements. The avatar is reincarnated each time he is killed into the next element’s population. However, if he is killed while in the Avatar state, the cycle is broken. (I’m not sure the Fire Nation knows this.) The Avatar State is a sort of trance where the Avatar becomes a conduit for the power of all of the Avatars of the past, and where he is incredibly powerful.

100 years ago: Sozin’s Comet passed overhead, giving the firebenders great power. Fire Lord Sozin used this opportunity to begin his plan for global domination. Also at this point, Aang, the 12 year-old Avatar, and an Air Nomad, was frozen in a glacier. The Fire Nation, in an attempt to kill the Avatar, completely wiped out all of the Air Nomads.

Present day: the Fire Nation was been waging war for all this time. They have control of some villages in the water and earth tribes, but have not been able to conquer the big cities, especially Ba Sing Se, the dwelling of the Earth King.

Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe find Aang in the ice and free him. They are now on a quest to save the world. Sozin’s comet is coming again, meaning the firebenders will grow very powerful, but there is also a solar eclipse coming, a time when the firebenders will be temporarily bereft of their powers = a good time to invade.

The current Fire Lord is named Ozai, and he has a wife, Ursa, and two children: Zuko, and the younger Azula. He as well as both of his children are firebenders.

As is his brother, Iroh. Their father, Fire Lord Azulon, died suddenly and disinherited the elder Iroh of the throne.

Iroh’s son, Lu Ten, was killed during his unsuccessful siege of Ba Sing Se.

When Prince Zuko was 13 (three years ago), he spoke out of turn to a general in his father’s war room in an attempt to spare some new recruits who were going to be sacrificed in a battle as a diversion. He was challenged to an Agni Kai – a fire duel. However, it was his father that he had to fight, and Zuko didn’t know that when he agreed to the duel. He refused to fight his father, and his father called him soft and banished him to toughen him up, promising to return his honor if he brought the Avatar to the Fire Nation. Iroh went with him. Now Zuko’s unending task is to capture the very slippery Aang and take him back to the Fire Nation so that he can go home, and so that his honor will be restored.

And that is that.

Zuko is an angry 16 year old (or 19 year old, as I prefer to think of him). He’s got Avatar tunnel vision, and he doesn’t believe in fun. He has no sense of humor. No happiness. He has been hardened by a harsh world.

Iroh carries the great weight of his son’s death, but he is a very funny and wise man who likes helping people. He’s insightful, and a powerful firebender – “the dragon of the west”. He likes tea and the ladies. And he is very patient with Zuko. Zuko is very lucky to have him.

Azula is a sort of phantom during the first season; there are four “encounters” with her, but she never has any lines.

Our introduction to Azula, if it could be called that, occurs in Chapter (episode) 13: The Storm.

While Uncle Iroh is making excuses for Zuko’s proud and disrespectful behavior towards him and the crew by explaining the circumstances of his departure from the Fire Nation (which, unlike in the movie, is apparently not common knowledge), Zuko sits upstairs, thinking wistfully/angrily/torturedly of home.

We see a flash of an image of two children chasing each other on a grassy hill, with an adult behind them. The following image of Zuko standing with his mother (we know it’s her simply because Daddy Ozai would never do that), her arm around him, is, I think, a reasonable indication that his mother is the aforementioned adult. Further analysis of the first image-memory (the hairstyles of the children, the color of their clothing, their heights, the outstretched arms) indicates (to me) that Azula is chasing Zuko. No surprise there for those of us who know Azula a little better.

Why do we like this scene? Well, although the emphasis is clearly on Mommy Ursa, Azula being present in Zuko’s recollection at all is telling. The purpose of this scene is for us to sympathize with Zuko as we are learning that he cannot go home, and that he desperately wants to. Iroh is revealing to us the harsh side of Fire Nation life, while that image is countered by Zuko’s rosy reminiscing, reminiscing which includes Azula. And not just her presence, but him and her playing. This is going to become significant as we learn more about Azula, because it wasn’t always good times for the two siblings. Instead of Zuko remembering a happy time when Azula wasn’t around, he chooses a good memory of him and Azula.

You’re thinking that I’m overthinking this, aren’t you?

See, I’m an excellent analyst.

Our second reference to Azula also occurs in this episode, but you wouldn’t notice it unless you already knew what you were looking at. Iroh is narrating Zuko’s Agni Kai duel with Ozai, and in the flashback we see a young woman standing next to Iroh. Azula was supposedly 11 when this event occurred, but Azula and Zuko don’t act their age, and given how they’re animated and what’s written for them, they’re more likely in their late, late teens. That’s how I’m going to think of them, and I encourage you to do the same.

Anyway, that’s Azula. She’s standing next to Iroh, watching, and smirking. The look on her face could be in the dictionary next to smirk. Evil smirk. She even lifts her fist anticipatorily as Iroh explains that he turned away while Ozai burned Zuko’s face. Azula definitely didn’t look away. So this is a very interesting contrast to our other vision of Azula in this episode.

So, although Azula in Iroh’s is shown immediately before Zuko’s nostalgia, one could suppose that they’re happening concurrently, and it’s only in Zuko’s memory that Azula is given an identity. In Iroh’s flashback, she’s just a girl who’s standing next to him for all we know. Her placement with Commander Zhao and Iroh, men of importance, lends to the idea that she’s significant, but she could be anybody. As I’ve already pointed out, she certainly doesn’t look like an eleven year old – she could be a woman.

Our third vision of Azula transpires in the season finale Chapter 20: The Siege Of The North, Part 2, through Zuko’s own words. It’s the first time we hear her name and know for sure who she is. He has kidnapped Aang, and while Aang is unconscious/meditating, he says to him: “I finally have you, but I can’t get you home because of this blizzard. There’s always something, not that you would understand. You’re like my sister. Everything always came easy to her. She’s a firebending prodigy. And everyone adores her. My father says she was born lucky, he says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck, though. I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that has made me strong. That’s made me who I am.”

This reveals a lot about Zuko’s character (his beautiful maturity), about Azula (her abilities, her idol-status, the ease with which she achieved them), and about how he feels about her. Actually, there’s a remarkable lack of acrimony towards Azula in his tone. He’s angry at the universe, not her. Given what we later see in flashbacks, and the way he greets her the first time they see each other, the relatively neutral tone he uses here is interesting. Despite what he says, he is jealous and bitter. But he’s taking issue with her firebending – how good she is, how easy it was for her to be good when he had to try so hard – not with her personality, which we soon enough learn, is rather caustic. (hee!)

This idea of everyone adoring her is pretty interesting, because there isn’t much evidence of it that I’ve seen (through the end of the second season). She inspires followers, but it’s out of fear, not “adoration”. She’s the apple of Daddy’s eye, but we never see him be affectionate. She has two friends, but they act like partners, not friends. And everyone else would rather swallow a sword than interact with her.

And finally, the last image of the entire season is Azula’s wickedly grinning face as her father says, “I have a task for you.” As he speaks to her, he says, “Your brother is a failure”, giving us her identity.

There’s not much to analyze there, though it’s a great entrance. And it’s not overblown – Azula is the primary antagonist for the second season.

It does make me wonder about why Ozai decided to send Azula. Why send your daughter, the princess, who is supposed to be 14 years old, on a mission like this? Unless…it was because he thought that Zuko would be more willing to go with Azula. Unless Azula has that sort of power over him. Ozai must realize that Zuko and Azula don’t really “get along”, and yet he still chooses to send her.

Yay, season two!

I can’t complain about her second entrance…she is every inch the princess, even if she does her own dirty work.

In the season premiere, Book 2: Earth, Chapter 1: The Avatar State, Azula leaves the Fire Nation with her own ship and entourage. She intimidates the bejesus out of her crew, and then heads directly for Iroh and Zuko’s location.

In the movie, her task is to keep Aang from mastering earthbending and firebending. In the cartoon, it seems that her task is to capture the Iroh, and Zuko, but of course, the Avatar will always be top priority.

Uncle Iroh, who is sort of psychic, has a foreboding nightmare of Azula’s advent, but doesn’t put it to good use.

Her entourage includes two old bitties who watch her practice her firebending. We’re never told who they are, or why they’re there. It’s very strange. I found them kind of terrifying. I wonder if we’ll see them again.

Iroh and Zuko are having a conversation, when Azula suddenly greets them from a dark corner like a creature of the night. “Hello, Brother….Uncle.” Iroh is definitely an afterthought.

Zuko’s reaction is telling: he’s not scared, he’s angry: “What are you doing here?” Despite his neutral tone in describing her, and his happy memory, it’s quite clear from his greeting in this scene that he’s been carrying around some grief towards her. He is not happy to see her. Or, he doesn’t want to show it.

Azula feigns offense at his discourtesy, but certainly doesn’t show surprise. “Have you become uncivilized so soon, Zuzu?” she asks, stepping towards him. The Fire Nation strikes me as a sort of Roman Empirewith their idea that the rest of the world is uncivilized, imitating Sparta instead of Athens. They’re not exactly wrong…the Fire Nation has machines…all on their own. The other impressive edifices and collections we find amongst the other peoples, like the great library, are creations of the spirits. The Fire Nation has already had their industrial reovolution, and they’re embracing their manifest destiny.

Zuzu!

“Don’t call me that!” Zuko roars, and I take it from his tone that she has called him that before, and he has repeatedly told her not to. Besides provoking Zuko, the nickname also 1) invokes the past, 2) creates intimacy. Obviously, I like it a lot. It’s especially funny given that he’s the older brother. She could conceivably be called Zuzu as well. In fact, Zuzu is a name I’ve always liked, and now I can name my next pet Azula and call her Zuzu.

Azula gets to the point and explains that their father regrets sending Zuko away, and has heard plots to overthrow him, and wants his family close. I think it’s all a set up for her to say this ironic line: “Family are the only ones you can really trust.”

Zuko is silent, he turns to stare out the window thoughtfully as he has a habit of doing. She’s a little peeved that he’s not overjoyed. Iroh moves to explain that Zuko is just a little overwhelmed, and Azula snaps his head off: “Don’t interrupt, Uncle.” Geez, she really doesn’t want someone butting in on her conversation with her brother. Even though Iroh is the one who is now a traitor (because he helped restore the Moon Spirit which helped the Northern Water Tribe defeat the Fire Nation) and who therefore would probably be the most relieved by the news, Azula considers this to be a moment between her and Zuko and she doesn’t appreciate him there. In fact, I’m sure she would have preferred to encounter Zuko alone because she could manipulate him better.

Then she has the audacity to become aggrieved because she’s “not a messenger” and “didn’t have to come all this way”. Rich!

Zuko’s defenses break down, and he no longer acts angry and suspicious with Azula, but treats her like a normal brother would treat a normal sister: intimately, looking for reassurance and insight into their parent, no agendas.

She leaves to let them think it over. If she was a little smarter, she would have dealt more carefully and specifically with Iroh who is much sharper than he seems.

Iroh is suspicious – he has never known his brother to regret anything. Zuko says, “Did you listen to Azula? Father’s realized how important family is to him. He cares about me.” Zuko doesn’t just want to go home and retrieve his honor: he’s desperate for his father’s love as well.

Iroh responds: “I care about you!” Awwww. Breaks my heart! Iroh should not have to compete with that douche-wipe Ozai for Zuko’s affection, love, respect, or devotion. Azula…a different matter. Obviously, I’m prejudiced, but you should not make light of the bond between brother and sister. Zuko and Azula, however, are not typical opposite sex siblings because they are competitive with each other in the same arena: firebending (which is not usually the case with opposite sex siblings). They are typical (fictionally stereotypical, that is) in that Daddy favors Daughter, and Mommy favors Son, and vice verse.

The line “Did you not listen to Azula?” is rendered ironic a few episodes later when Zuko clings desperately to the idea that “Azula always lies”.

“In our family, things are not always what they seem,” Iroh adds. I’m hoping I can quote that later and make it sound dirty or incestuously prescriptive.

Zuko isn’t buying what Iroh’s selling; he insults him (many insults, all untrue), and then storms out. We’re sympathetic, because Zuko is so desperate to believe what Azula said that he’s lashing out at any threat of falsification. But it’s a step backwards for Zuko to something so immature.

We’re rewarded in the next Zuko scene when Iroh comes running up behind him to join him, and Zuko’s so happy to see him!

“Family sticks together, right?” Iroh says. Dirty!

Then we’re flashed the memory-image of Mommy with her hand around Zuko’s shoulder again as Iroh puts his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, showing us, I assume, that Zuko has a loving family member in Iroh (as if we didn’t already know)…and maybe that he’s finally now realizing that. Except no, of course not. Iroh’s gardbraces bare a resemblance to Ursa’s collared dress…it could almost be him in the flashback.

All is repaired!

Or, another possibility: Iroh just wanted to be there to say “I told you so.”

The Fire Nation ships are quite impressive. They look expensive. I hope the Fire Lord will be able to take funds out of Commander Zhao’s estate in order to replace the one that Zhao blew up in his attempt to murder Zuko.

“Brother…Uncle…Welcome,” Azula greets, standing up on her deck as Zuko and Iroh proceed down the dock. Again, Iroh is the afterthought. There’s a rawness to the way she says “brother”, like it means something, like it’s layered.

(Reminds me of how Padraic Delaney as George Boleyn on The Tudors would say “Sister” to Anne.)

They bow to each other. I’ve tried to institute this in my family, but it doesn’t seem to be taking.

Azula plays Zuko good when she says to her (incompetent) subordinate, “Set our course for home, Captain”. The emphasis on “home” is particularly calculatingly cruel.

Poor Zuko…he just wants to go home. She looks at Zuko as she says it, and he repeats “Home…” quietly to himself.

Unfortunately for Azula, the captain accidentally refers to Zuko and Iroh as “the prisoners”, and the cat-feret is out of the bag.

Azula is not pleased.

Zuko isn’t pleased either.

I think it’s funny that Iroh was suspicious from minute one, and yet that never comes into play.

Zukey knocks some of the crew out of the way, and I’m not sure why, but instead of running, he heads straight for Azula. Interesting… He has been training with Iroh for three years, but does he really think that he’s better than Azula?

“You lied to me!” he accuses. Serves him right when she replies, “Like I’ve never done that before.” She walks away, leaving her guards to take care of it.

Does she not want to get her hands dirty? Or does she just not want to battle Zuko, because this is not the only time she walks away. She doesn’t go very far, and he battles his way up to the deck. Uncle Iroh is calling out, “Zuko, let’s go,” but Zuko doesn’t even hear. He’s too intent on fighting Azula. He thought she was bad before, but now she’s given him hope and then slaughtered it in a blaze of betrayal.

They spar for a little, but she throws him aside and then she pours salt into the wound: “Father thinks you’re a miserable failure for not finding the Avatar. Why would he want you back home except to lock you up where you can no longer embarrass him?” The good thing about this cruel statement is that it means Zuko wasn’t looking at a death sentence, just imprisonment. Azula didn’t completely lie: Father did want Zuko home.

Well, you can imagine that this incites Zuko even more than calling him Zuzu. He flames on, so to speak.

She insults him by fighting him with her hands instead of with fire (my interpretation). I don’t know, maybe she just wanted to touch him?

Somehow she’s stronger than him, because she’s winning without even firebending. Someone’s been lifting weights. And someone hasn’t (I’m looking at you, Zuzu).

And someone has been filing their nails…because Azula gives poor Zuko a nasty scratch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t scar.

She finally holds him in place, and gets a significant look in her eye while he gets a terrified look in his eye. Then she shoots her special blue lightning at him.

He tumbles backwards down the ramp and is dazed, but slowly raising himself up…

…as she gathers up another spark circle.

Fortunately, badass Uncle Iroh has defeated everyone else: he grabs Azula’s hand and redirects the energy she has collected towards a cliff, and then he throws her in the water. I guess lifting teacups really works the biceps. I can’t imagine that Azula was gathering up a killing blow, but I’m sure it would have knocked Zuko out for a good while.

The way I see it, Azula didn’t use fire against Zuko at first because she didn’t really want to hurt him. She only did it eventually because she had to. I wonder if she riled him up to see what he was made of? Or maybe she was just trying to teach him a lesson that he needed to learn about being gullible.

She declares that Zuko and Iroh are now fugitives, and Zuko accepts his fate by cutting off his Fire Nation traditional hairstyle (thank God!).

Wow, that was a lot.

Chapter 2: The Cave Of Two Lovers marks the second time (not counting encounters with Katara) that Zuko has been in a close situation with a beautiful young woman and has neglected to show the least bit of interest in her, to her face or otherwise.

The first time was in Book 1 – Chapter 15: Bato Of The Water Tribe, when Zuko and Iroh employ the services of a woman and her super-smeller pet to hunt down Aang. I wondered why Iroh didn’t try and set the two of them up, and then I realized that Iroh wanted her all to himself. No joke.

In this instance, fugitives Zuko and Iroh, who come across rather more like refugees, are helped by a woman and her daughter. The daughter, by relating to Zuko (she’s lost her father, she has scars on her legs from being burned by Fire Nation soldiers), stirs a response in him, but not what you’d expect.

He never shows any regret for being Fire Nation himself (and not just Fire Nation, but son of the Fire Lord!), and he never looks her way. He’s mostly suprised. He can relate and empathize with her, but he never makes the connection between her suffering and the badness of the Fire Nation, aka Daddy.

She tries to touch his scar, but he pushes her hand away.  That’s when she shows him hers. He’s underly sympathetic, I thought, but the kid’s got a lot on his mind.

At the end, Zuko and Iroh slip away in the night, stealing their hosts’ ostrich-horse. Iroh chides him, but Zuko reminds him that if they don’t ride, they have to walk, and Iroh hops aboard. Not even Iroh is perfect.

My point is that maybe his lack of interest in these girls is because of his interest in Azula (wink, wink).

Chapter 3: Return To Omashu finds Azula abandoning her royal procession for an “elite team” consisting of her and two of her friends from the Royal Fire Academy For Girls:

Ty Lee (the peppy circus performer, able to block chi using touch and thereby prevent others from bending)…

…and Mai (who shoots daggers – I don’t know how – and who is defined by her lack of enthusiasm about anything and everything, and her laziness).

I thought adding these two friends was kind of a strange idea – who’d expect Azula to have friends? – but I guess she needs someone to bounce her conversation off of, and they split up a lot, so in the end it was a good idea. And I like both of them – they add to rather than detract from the show. I’m always wary, because adding new characters can be so hit-or-miss.

Azula’s methods of getting Ty Lee to join her are underhanded (I’m still not sure if Ty Lee was aware of that, or not), but Mai joins freely. Ty Lee says to Mai: “It’ll be interesting seeing Zuko again, won’t it, Mai?” implying that Mai rather fancied Azula’s older brother, and Mai’s smile confirms it. “Stay away, bitch!” I yell, but no one seems to hear me, so my warning will go unheeded.

Azula’s friends only add to the idea that she’s older than her comically alleged 14 years: Ty Lee has run off to join the circus – a little young, isn’t she? And Mai is handling a hostage trade for her brother’s life. Mai has a particularly old-sounding voice, with a distinctly sexually-active undertone. I don’t mean to say that she talks like Marilyn Monroe sings Happy Birthday to the president, only that there’s a quality to her voice that makes her sound older than 14.

In Chapter 5: Avatar Day, Zuko splits from Iroh and heads off on his own. I don’t know why. It’s possible he wanted to continue to steal without getting scolded for it, or maybe he thought Iroh was slowing him down. I really don’t understand it. But that’s what happens. Iroh acts like he understands, but he follows Zuko, watching out for him from afar.

Chapter 7: Zuko Alone is one of my favorite episodes ever because it’s all about Zuko – the title doesn’t lie! Aang and the gang don’t have any scenes – it’s 20+ solid minutes of Zuko-y goodness.

Zuko isn’t doing great on his own: the road is treacherous, he’s down to a few copper pieces and he’s weary and hungry. He is about to steal a chicken right off the spit, but then he sees that it belongs to a pregnant woman and her husband, and he moves on. If we didn’t know if already, we have proof that Zuko is decent. The town where he lands is being run by a group of earthbenders who are supposed to be defending the good citizens from the Fire Nation, but instead have become thugs. Zuko covers for a boy who throws some rocks at them, and Zuko’s bravery gets him invited to the boy’s house. The mother tries to offer Zuko a meal, but Zuko is too proud to accept charity (though not to steal…?) and she picks up on that right away, telling him that he can help fix the roof. The boy tries to strike up a friendship with the taciturn Zuko, and ends up stealing his broadswords (which Zuko uses as the Blue Spirit, and when he can’t firebend). Zuko finds him practicing in a field, and trains him a bit, and then gives him a knife that Iroh had given to him many years ago, with an inscription about perseverance. Zuko ends up defending the town after the boy is kidnapped, but has to reveal that he’s a firebender in order to do it. I’m not sure why – a surge of pride, perhaps – but he stupidly decides to reveal exactly who he is. As if a firebender wasn’t bad enough, now you’ve got the Prince firebender staying with you. Everyone turns on him, including the boy (whose older brother is MIA in the war with the Fire Nation).

But all of this is only half of the episode. The other half consists of Zuko’s flashbacks to his childhood, which are far more appealing to us because they contain Azula!

Interior Courtyard Of The Fire Nation Royal Palace

There are plenty of referents (the departure of Ursa, the death of Lu Ten, the siege of Ba Sing Se and Iroh’s failure, and the death of Fire Lord Azulon, father of Iroh and Ozai), but none of these help us calculate how old Azula and Zuko are in these flashbacks. It doesn’t really matter, though.

Flashback #1: Feeding the turtle-ducks.

Zuko says, “Hey Mom, do you want to see how Azula feeds turtle-ducks?”, and he throws a rock in the water.

There’s so much to analyze in that one little line. 1) Zuko and Azula spend enough time together that he knows her habits and opinions on any given subject, 2) much of this time is spent alone, since it’s their own mother to whom he is giving the demonstration, 3) Zuko has enough interest in what Azula does to find it worthy or remembering, passing on, and even imitating, 5) Zuko likes to think and talk about Azula, and 6) Azula has a (bad) influence on Zuko.

Mommy asks why he did that in disapproving tone, and Mommy turtle-duck comes up and bites Zuko. Zuko grows angry at the turtle-duck, not seeming to understand, and Ursa explains that “mothers are like that”. She pretends to bite him, and they laugh and hug. Awwww. We learn that Mother Fire Lady was kind and loving. How did she end up married to Ozai? No doubt we’ll learn it was an arranged marriage. Well, somebody arranged something right because look at their two totally awesome, kickass kids!

Flashback #2: Girls are crazy!

Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee are doing cartwheels in the lawn. Ty Lee (who is an exceptional acrobat) does a spectacular cartwheel after Azula has just missed her landing, and Azula pushes her down and laughs.

Mai is sitting against a tree, and turns her head to look at Zuko as he and his mother walk by.

Mai blushes, and Azula notices. Now, not a lot gets past Azula, but still, I have to wonder how she came to notice.

Azula whispers something to Ty Lee, and then runs over to her mother and brother and asks her mother to make Zuko play with them, stating that they need a fourth for equal teams. At this point, I’m wondering if Zuko has any friends, or ever did. You know, ones that weren’t his mother.

Zuko views cartwheeling derisively and refuses.

Azula calls him a dum-dum and explains that cartwheeling isn’t a game and that they’re going to be doing something else. It’s a little nitpicky of her, don’t you think?

“I don’t care…” he responds, showing us he was just as angry however many years ago as he is now, “…I don’t want to play with you.” Ouch! Who are you calling a dum-dum now, Zules?

It’s nice to see them on equal footing. Well, she’s running circles around him in terms of manipulation and firebending, but he’s not afraid of her, not afraid to stand up for himself with her.

So, I’d like to think that Zuko just doesn’t like sharing her with her friends, but it seems most likely that he and Azula have played before, and it doesn’t usually turn out well for Zuko, although his primary protest did seem to be rooted in his negative attitude towards cartwheeling. The good news here is that Zuko’s interest in Mai seems to be zero.

Azula crosses her arms and makes an expression of muted displeasure. Does she just not want her plan to be thwarted, or does it actually bother her that he doesn’t want to play with her?

Her expression turns into an encouraging smile: “We are brother and sister! It’s important for us to spend time together,” she declares buoyantly. I’m hoping this is her lifelong personal philosophy, kind of like Degrassi’s Fiona Coyne’s “Brothers are forever” philosophy. “Don’t you think so, Mom?” she adds with an angelic smile and tilt of the head.

Ursa cements herself into my heart by saying “Yes, Darling, I think it’s a good idea to play with you sister,” Ursa says to Zuko, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Just for a little while,” she reassures, walking away. Poor Zuko: fed to the lions by his own mother! Or: parentally-approved incest, as I view that statement.

Azula explains the game – you knock the apple off the other person’s head. She shoots fire at the apple, and it catches on fire as it sits on poor Mai’s head. Zuko dives at her, pushing both of them into the fountain. I guess he was trying to save her? I’m not really clear, because he could have just knocked the apple off. He looks like he was practicing tackling.

“See, I told you it would work,” Azula laughs with Ty Lee. “Aww, they’re so cute together,” Ty Lee replies, pointing at Mai and Zuko.

“You guys are such…” Mai begins, never finishing. Might I suggest “bitches”? An oldie but a goodie.

Zuko leaps up and storms away. “Girls are crazy!” he declares in exasperation to his mother as he passes her on the sidewalk – she was heading out to share with him a letter from Iroh. Zuko should really look at a larger sample size before he starts making universal declarations like that.

Well, its disappointing to see Azula setting Zuko up with Mai. But is that what really happened? For the life of me, I can’t get a handle of Azula’s motivation during this scene. I can only assume that she wanted to humiliate her brother (its pretty easy to do that to him, especially in matters of boy-girl relations I would imagine) and her friend because Azula finds humiliation amusing. There’s also the best friend/brother match-up ideal. Viewers like it because it’s clean cut/one big happy family, writers like it because it reduces the number of characters, sisters (might) like it because 1) it increases their future influence in their brother’s life, and 2) they are more likely to see their brothers on a day-to-day basis in the future. If that’s Azula’s reasoning, then it’s a good thing. She knows Zuko is going to marry somebody someday, it had might as well be Mai, whom she can influence and maybe even control.

Flashback #3: Uncle Iroh’s Letter

Uncle Iroh must have been a different man before his son died, because he makes a joke about burning Ba Sing Se to the ground. Zuko and Azula laugh (Ursa doesn’t). This may be the only time Azula finds her “fuddy-duddy” uncle amusing. Ty Lee immediately remembers him as funny – another thing we like about Ty Lee.

Iroh sent them gifts: a pearl dagger with the inscription “Never give up without a fight” – the same dagger he gives to the boy, and which the boy refuses to take once he learns who Zuko is. Good, I say. Zuko never should have given it away.

Iroh’s gift to Azula is a doll. She doesn’t like it. I guess she’s just not the type to like dolls. –

She burns it. But I bet she enjoyed doing that, so don’t feel too bad, Iroh.

Azula had a mind for political machinations even when she was in the single digits. She says, “If Uncle doesn’t it make it back from war then Dad would be next in line to be Fire Lord, wouldn’t he?” I love your ambition, Azula, but wishing for your Uncle Iroh’s death when I’m around is not good for your health.

Mom’s a wet blanket (a very good thing to be in the Fire Nation): “Azula, we don’t speak that way. It would be awful if Uncle Iroh didn’t return. And besides, Fire Lord Azulon is a picture of health.”

“How would you like it if cousin Lu Ten wanted Dad to die?” Zuko asks, displaying more empathetic tendencies that we see in the present.

“I still think our dad would make a much better Fire Lord that His Royal Tea-Loving Kookiness.” I can’t really blame her for that opinion.

Well, Azula may be a lot of things, but she’s actually rather honest, isn’t she?

When the flashback begins, Zuko is out in the field, but it ends with him lying in the hay, sleeping. It’s a waking flashback and a dreaming flashback. Or is it? This is when the little boy steals the swords, and Zuko knows it’s happening, so did he wake up while the boy was in there, or was he awake the whole time?

I think Zuko’s speech about his broad swords is very interesting: “You’re holding them wrong. Keep in mind these are dual swords. Two halves of a single weapon. Don’t think of them as separate because they’re not. They’re just two different parts of the same whole.”

Is it all right if I take that speech as a metaphor for Azula and Zuko, whether there is basis for it or not? It does follow immediately after a series of flashbacks that were all primarily about her.

The kid tries again, and succeeds, and Zuko smiles! That’s right, Zuko smiles! I’m not sure I believed that he knew how to.

Flashback #4: The Death Of Lu Ten

Azula is chasing Zuko around the lawn, but they’re both laughing and her fingers aren’t smoking so it seems to all be in good fun. Ursa gets delivered a letter: Lu Ten is dead. I love how sad she is – what an uncommonly sympathetic woman. A tear runs immediately down her cheek. I think I love her as much as Zuko does. The flashback is short, but it ties into the present day with the family receiving a similar letter about their own son. So Zuko is still empathetic after all. I wonder how close he was to Lu Ten? Lu Ten was a lot older if he was dying in battles while Zuko was still a turtle-duck-feeding, but not cartwheeling little boy. We don’t get to see Zuko’s extended reaction in the flashback – he’s still in shock. Azula is in the background.

Flashback #5 – What is wrong with that child?

Zuko is in love with his dagger, and he practices all the time.

Azula likes to watch (wink, wink).

“You waste all of your time playing with knives, you’re not even good,” she puts down. I can’t wait for her to see what he can do now.

His cheeks turn red – it looks just like a blush, but I suppose it’s supposed to be an angry flush. “Put an apple on your head and we’ll find out how good I am,” he contends, shaking his fist at her. Kinky! Good at what, Zuko? Oh, knives. Right.

Is he going to be throwing the knife? Because I saw a very interesting French movie about a girl in a circus who got off on having knives thrown at her. That sounds like it be kind of Azula’s thing.

The apple-on-head is a clear callback to the earlier flashback – I like how it puts Azula and Mai, the “love interest”, in parallel positions. Hmmm….

“By the way, Uncle’s coming home,” she says, rising out of her chair and walking quite a distance over to him.

“Does that mean we won the war?” Zuko asks, and I’m grinding my teeth because I know that he just set Azula up to insult His Royal Tea-Loving Kookiness.

“No, it means uncle’s a quitter and a loser,” she replies. Again, I can’t blame her for that opinion. He’s certainly no loser, but he is a quitter. I don’t have a military education, but I’ve seen Ba Sing Se, and it seems to me that if you’re going to siege it for 600 days, you had might as well keep going, because it can’t survive forever. Iroh explains that he was tired, that his men were tired, and that he had just lost his son, but war is no time for grieving and being tired, Iroh!

“What are you talking about? Uncle’s not a quitter,” Zuko defends. Awww.

“Oh yes he is,” Azula responds. “He found out his son died, and he just fell apart.” What a brat! “A real general would stay and burn Ba Sing Se to the ground. Not lose the battle and come home crying.”

“How do you know what he should do? He’s probably just sad his only kid is gone, forever.” Awwww, Zuko. So sweet. You tell her!

I like how Azula winds and twists around the columns in this scene. That’s usually a seduction strategy.

Mom shows up, and announces that their father has requested an audience with Fire Lord Azulon. I guess there aren’t any Sunday dinners in this family.

“Fire Lord Azulon? Why don’t you just call him grandfather? He’s not exactly the powerful Fire Lord he used to be,” Azula scoffs. “Someone will probably end up taking his place soon.” I’m not sure that eight year old (or whatever) Azula really remembers Azulon’s glory days, but point taken.

“Young lady, not another word!” Mommy scolds. “What is wrong with that child?” she asks herself after Azula has run out. It’s kind of sad to see that Ursa doesn’t really love Azula. Maybe she never did, and that’s why Azula is so screwed up?

Flashback #6 – Pomp

Ozai has his children “perform” for his father. First he asks them questions about history…Zuko stalls while he thinks, Azula recounts perfectly a textbook answer. Then Ozai has her demonstrate some new firebending moves that she has been working on.

Zuko watches on jealously. “You’ll never catch up,” she whispers snidely to her brother, just as their father calls her a prodigy and compares her to her namesake.

The hint of smile on Ozai’s face as he watches his daughter. They don’t like to show us his face.

Zuko jumps up and does his own self-initiated demonstration. *shakes head*

He keeps falling – I guess there’s a kick when they shoot fire? But he keeps hopping back up. That’s why we love you, Zukey. Azula watches on, derisively.

“I failed,” he says quietly to his mother, who puts her arms around him and guides him out of the center. She tells him that she loved watching him because he keeps fighting even though its hard.

Azula loved watching him too…it was just with sadistic pleasure.

Azulon is impatient, and just as cold with Ozai as Ozai was with Zuko. “Why are you wasting my time with this pomp?” He tells everyone else to go.

Azula grabs Zuko’s hand and pulls him into the curtains where they can eavesdrop.

Since they’re still children I won’t say anything about them being pressed up against each other in a cramped little space.

Ozai should get some credit for trying to convince his father to give him the crown (that’s what he’s doing, by the way) instead of killing his way there like a certain daughter of his might have been thinking. Ozai points out that Lu Ten is dead, but he has two thriving children = secured line of succession. Plus Iroh is away (“who knows when he’ll return?”) but Ozai is right there.

“You dare suggest I betray Iroh? My first born? Directly after the demise of his beloved only son? I think Iroh was suffered enough. But you? Your punishment has scacely begun.” Azulon says, outraged. I’m surprised, because honestly, it seems like he would want his children in brutal competition, just given the sort of man he is. Maybe he has always preferred Iroh? That seems wildly unlikely, but he sure doesn’t treat Ozai very well. Have you seen Stardust? In that, the heir to the throne was the only brother still living. They kill each other off until only the winner remains. Fantastic movie – see it!

Zuko gets scared and runs away, but Azula keeps listening.

I like this little scene because Azula automatically pulled Zuko to join her. Even though she was mean to him earlier, and enjoyed his suffering, she still likes his company. She knew she was going to find out some good dirt, and she wanted Zuko there with her.

Flashback # 7 – Azula Always Lies

There is a decadent shot of Zuko’s bedroom before we close in on him. I don’t know why I find that suggestive…maybe it’s because of “The Video”.

Azula throws his door open and leans against the door frame, because she’s cool. “Dad’s going to kill you,” she sing-songs.

“Really, he is,” she says, so he’ll know that she’s serious.

“Ha, ha, Azula,” he scoffs, sitting up. “Nice try.” His response kind of makes you wonder what kind of horrible things she has been saying to him.

“Fine. Don’t believe me. But I heard everything. Grandfather said Dad’s punishment should fit his crime. ‘You must know the pain of losing a firstborn son by sacrificing your own’.” Geez, I see where Ozai gets it from. On the other hand, Azulon may be overestimating Ozai’s feelings for Zuko.

Zuko calls her a liar.

“I’m only telling you for your own good,” she replies. No tone: she means it. Even her facial expression lacks the indication of subterfuge or sadism, and that almost never happens. She’s not a nice sister, but she doesn’t want Zuko to die; she warns him.

“I know, maybe you could find a nice earth kingdom family to adopt you,” she then says, and I hate her for making light of the situation again. Or maybe she just wants to live a fantasy where he’s not her brother?

At least she wants him on the run, so he’ll live. In fact, under the circumstances, it was excellent advice.

“Stop it, you’re lying, Dad would never do that to me.”

“What is going on here?” Mommy asks, walking in. Don’t you ever knock, Ursa? A few years later and God knows what they could be doing in there… if we’re lucky.

Azula has done her seductive column dance again, this time around the bed posts, subtly winding her way closer and closer to Zuko until she’s sitting down next to him on the bed.

“I don’t know,” Azula replies innocently. I’m sure that works sometimes, but she forgets who she’s dealing with. She knows she’s got a dark, cruel streak, but she doesn’t try very hard to hide it from Zuko or from her mother.

“Come on, it’s time for a talk,” Ursa says, grabbing her daughter’s arm and dragging her out of the room. At first I thought she was going to reprimand her, but now I think she’s going to interrogate Azula to find out what she knows. And it’s a good thing she does, because Zuko might have died otherwise.

Zuko is sitting up in bed, his arms wrapped around him, practically rocking, and he chants to himself: “Azula always lies. Azula always lies.”

And then magically we’re in the present, and Zuko is lying out in the grass repeating the very same thing to himself: “Azula always lies.” This is one instance where he definitely wasn’t sleeping – he was laying there in the grass, thinking about Azula.

You can see why it’s ironic that he earlier was so eager to trust what she had said about Ozai.

Azula may lie sometimes, but I’m pretty sure she was telling the truth this time.

I love this mantra of Zuko’s. She’s dug herself so deep down inside of him that he actually has to meditate to get her out, to remove her hold on him for just one second. She’s not just some sibling he left behind – Azula is a part of who he is.

Flashback #8 – Ursa Leaves

Zuko is sleeping. I don’t know how he ever got to sleep, but he did.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to protect you,” she says, hugging him goodbye. “Never forget who you are.” Then she disappears out the door. She’s wearing a hooded cape – normal travel clothes, or is she being sneaky?

Zuko has been knocked down in his fight with the earthbending thugs. This memory gives him strength, and he rises up in a cloud of fire. Uh-oh. Who Zuko is is not the person to be right now, Memory Mama! (No matter how sexy he is!),

 

Flashback #9 – Where is she?

Lest we think that the flashbacks were about Mom, we’re given one last one featuring Azula.

Zuko wakes up the next morning, vaguely remembering what had happened. He leaps up, running down the hall, calling out to his mother. He passes by Azula, who is caught red-handed playing with Zuko’s dagger. I guess Iroh will know what to give her next time.

“I’ve gotten caught wanting something that belongs to Zuko…I’ve never been so ashamed.”

She hides behind one of the columns, but I’m not sure why because she immediately reveals herself.

“Where’s Mom?” Zuko demands.

“No one knows,” Azula responds. Apparently she’s ahead of all of the news. “Oh, and last night grandpa passed away,” she informs him.

“Not funny, Azula. You’re sick,” he replies. While those are both true statements, the implication that she’s playing mean games with him is unfounded, because once again, Azula isn’t lying. Yes, Azula is sick. But in what ways?

“And I want my knife back. Now!” He walks towards her, moves to grab it, but she evades him easily.

“Who’s going to make me? Mom?” Azula taunts. That’s a pretty clear indication that Zuko had been tattling on her for years, and his mother had been standing up for him. It’s kind of too bad that their mother is such a nice lady, because evil girls with evil mothers make for interesting stories – I think of Cruel Intentions 2 off the top of my head. That might have been the only interesting thing about that movie.

However, she lets him swipe the knife back.

“Where is she?” he demands of his father after he runs out to the turtle-duck pond. Ozai’s back is to him, and he doesn’t turn around.

We are given absolutely no scenes revealing to us anything about Ozai and Ursa’s relationship. Is Ozai sad in this scene? He did just lose his father, but his father was douchenozzle. It’s hard to say. It almost seems to me that he is sad, but that’s an awful big jump to make from some squiggly lines filled in with black – they don’t exactly emote.

Flashback #10 – Azulon’s Funeral

The final flashback is Azulon’s funeral. His family is named, and then Ozai is crowned, as was his “dying wish”. They all bow to Fire Lord Ozai, and Zuko looks at Azula, who is smirking with evil pleasure, and then back out again with wide eyes. I don’t know what he’s so freaked about.

So, Azulon dead seems like a pretty big coinkidink, no? I don’t think he committed suicide, which means that someone killed him. Azula? Maybe, but probably not. Ozai? Maybe, but he seems to do even his backstabbing and usupring through official channels. Ursa? She does not seem like the type to kill, but maybe she’s just biting like the turtle-duck mother, to protect her young. Ding ding ding! That’s my guess…or maybe it’s supposed to be obvious. She killed Azulon to save Zuko (so that Ozai wouldn’t be punished and Zuko wouldn’t have to be sacrificed), but she’s not a very good assassin and now she’s on the lam because everyone knows it was her who did it. How does Ozai feel about his wife now? Pretty damn grateful, I would imagine. He went from bowing, chastised son to Fire Lord practically overnight thanks to her. Or literally overnight – it’s hard to tell.

Zuko moves on out of town, and the episode ends. Poor Zuko.

To continue: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

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6 Responses to The Zuko/Azula Shipper’s Guide To/Optimistic Interpretation Of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – a.k.a Contentbending In Pursuit Of Flamin’-Hot Incestuous Love, a.k.a. Delusions Of Zucest – Part I Of V: Episodes 1-27

  1. Himitsu says:

    Yeah! I am so glad you wrote this. I enjoyed your analysis. I support three incestuous pairings and you’ve written about two them, Prince Nuada & Princess Nuala and Azuko, so you rock.

    I agree Dante Basco makes Zuko Zuko. I love Grey DeLisle’s voice for Azula. Zuko and Azula do seem to be older than their ages. Some people even argued Katara and Azula were not the same age. I think Azula’s age comes into play quite a bit at the end of the series.

    Azula is one of my favorite ATLA characters. Did you know she’s the fire bender shown in the opening credits? I’m glad the creators changed her from a boy to a girl, not just because of zucest. However, zucest is wincest. This is the first incestuous pairing I’ve written a fan fic about and my first MA+ fic. I never thought I’d write literoica about cartoon characters (no worries they are adults in my story).

    The images of Azula chasing Zuko when they were children seemed so happy. I always thought it was interesting that Azula ended up chasing Zuko again but it was not for fun. It was a cruel twist of fate in a way or better yet a cruel twist of Ozai. Maybe he wanted to destroy what remained of Azula and Zuko’s relationship or maybe Azula was the only one he thought could bring Zuko back. Either way Ozai would be the winner.

    OMG, you picked up on the Zuko’s everyone adores Azula. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. There’s nothing other than Zuko’s words to suggest Azula was adored. Everything you said about Azula’s interactions with others was correct. Zuko said everyone that includes him so maybe he was projecting his own feelings on Fire Nation ;-). Maybe Azula changed dramatically in the three years of his exile. Azula was lonely without Zuko. She was able to produce lighting after Zuko left, the cold fire according to Iroh ;-).

    Love your points under Flashback #1: Feeding the turtle-ducks. It was much better than the haters claiming Azula was a sociopath that killed turtle-ducks after this episode :-/ It’s interesting how Zuko has a mantra that Azula always lies. Azula states she lied to him in the past. Zuko isn’t naive so he must want to believe Azula even when she lies. I also agree Azula was warning Zuko about Ozai. As for the Mai, I have my own theory that comes into play later in the series, but for now I am going to jump on the Azula did it for humiliation purposes train. I also like to think she did it stop him from liking girls at least for a little while longer. It’s kinda funny to think he associated Mai with falling in water and being humiliated for a while. I wish they would do an Azula alone episode.

    • Shipcestuous says:

      This comment means so much to me because almost of the criticism I have ever gotten has been about these Zuko/Azula entries, so I’ve become rather sensitive about them, and receiving a positive comment is very reassuring. I’m just so glad to know that you enjoyed reading it.

      Thanks not just for taking the time to comment but for writing such a thoughtful comment and bringing up some discussion points. I do think it’s sort of misleading to consider Azula and Zuko to be their canon ages. While they are still young in many ways they are not the same as someone their age would be in real life in our modern world, you know?

      I knew Azula was the firebender in the opening credits but I had no idea she was originally conceived as a boy. That would have been interesting and different but I’m so glad that Azula is Azula just the way she is.

      I love that about Azula chasing Zuko when they’re just kids and then her chasing him in a different way when they’re older. That parallel gives me so many feelings. I’ve never really considered why Azula was the one who was sent to retrieve Zuko. I guess I always supposed it was because she was considered the most competent for a task like that, but the idea that Ozai thought that only Azula would be able to convince Zuko to return is an intriguing one. In the end it’s sort of true. A lot went into his decision but Azula’s ability to manipulate him plus the familial feelings he had left for her were no doubt major factors. I’m sure Ozai knows that having his children tightly united would spell trouble for him, but I think favoring Azula has always been the only thing he needed to do to keep things tense between them.

      Yeah, I certainly never got the impression that Azula was adored by anyone except for Ozai. And perhaps the grandfather. I do like the idea of Zuko projecting both his feelings of inferiority towards her and his feelings of adoration onto the world as a whole, perhaps to keep from dealing with them.

      Did Azula learn to do the lightning only after Zuko left? Because if so that’s definitely interesting. That could definitely be bent in a shippy way.

      I think the only reason Zuko would need to say to himself, “Azula always lies” is if it was always his inclination to believe her. If there was something in him that always wanted to believe her. And I think that’s clear enough because of how easily she can manipulate him and get under his skin.

      An Azula alone episode would have been amazing.

      • Himitsu says:

        I’m definitely reading the other sections when I get a chance. You have awesome insight to their relationship. Don’t worry about the negativity aimed at this pairing. If this was an anime Azuko would probably have a huge following with tons of fan art. However, it’s a Nick cartoon it draws a very different fan base. I only watched it at first because of the Asian influence & the awesomeness of the animation (specifically the fights).

        As for the Azula’s lightning, she is only shown with that capability after Zuko left. Her flames also changed to blue at some point. I like to think of her without Zuko and being stuck with only Ozai, who I believe wanted her to be a mini-Ozai/weapon, left her cold enough to produce lightning.

        Azula Alone would be a fantastic episode but the creators say after Korra they will be done with Avatar animation wise.

        • Shipcestuous says:

          Yes, that’s true about the fanbase.

          I’m glad you’ve found some of what I’ve written insightful. I try to look at all the different angles.

          I agree about Ozai. He wanted her cold and that’s what he got. I’m really in love with this headcanon that Zuko’s absence is what allowed Azula to become so cold that she could produce blue lightning.

  2. Fan01 says:

    Can you write about The Simpsons o Gravity Falls?

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