Azula is an extremely complex villain – and also a fascinating psychological case study!
She possessed a rare intelligence: like a chess player, she plans her every action strategically with a deep awareness of where each action might lead. Rarely caught off guard, always prepared for a vast array of possibilities. Azula was a girl in total control.
However, shaky foundations supported those extreme levels of self-control:
“Trust is for fools; fear is the only reliable way … even you fear me!”Azula talking to a hallucinated image of her mother.
Avatar: The Last Airbender: Book Three: Fire, Episode 20 (Sozin’s Comet Part 3: Into the Inferno).
Azula controlled, influenced, and outright manipulated people with the use of fear. But when people feared something more than they feared her – such as living a life with love – people turned their backs on her. Despite all of her prowess, excellence, and foresight, she was unable to overpower people’s desire for love.
Azula, then, is almost like a typical villain in a typical ‘good vs. evil’ story … emphasis on ‘almost’.
Actually, Azula’s story is a genuine tragedy. Despite her obvious leaning towards the ‘evil’ end of the moral spectrum, Azula’s eventual downfall to insanity is really quite sad. Especially since there are signs throughout the series’ that her character has the potential to undergo redemption. As a viewer of the series and reader of the graphic novels/comics, I never wanted her to succeed in her missions. Yet, I still feel like I rooted for her throughout.
One of the great things about the Avatar franchise, in general, is that the lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are extremely blurry. Azula’s character reflects that theme beautifully.
This article will tell Azula’s story as if she was the main character. Perhaps you, dear reader, will root for her, too!
Without further ado: The Tragedy of Azula.
Azula’s Life Story
Azula Before the TV Series
Azula was born to her father Ozai and mother Ursa – a couple who couldn’t have been more different in personality types.
On the one hand, Ozai was an aggressive, power-hungry son of the Fire Lord. After Azula’s birth, he even stole the throne from his older brother Iroh, who would have been the Fire Lord by birthright. He influenced people by instilling fear into them, by use of his superior firebending.
On the other hand, Ursa was the sensitive, gentle granddaughter of the previous Avatar, Roku. In her worldview, love was more powerful than fear/anger. She hoped that she could pass such perspective onto her offspring.
Azula’s older brother, Zuko, used to happily play with her in her early years. But Azula began to resent him somewhat as she grew older.
She displayed natural firebending skills and instincts from a young age, whereas Zuko was an extremely slow learner. As a result, Ozai gave Azula much encouragement and positive feedback, while regularly scolding Zuko’s apparent weaknesses. Conversely, Ursa seemed to direct much more of her attention toward Zuko.
Azula, then, harbored beliefs that Ursa loved her less than she loved Zuko. Thus, resentment and a negative feeling colored the perception she had of her mother … and also of Zuko. The siblings’ relationship, in fact, would go on to be a quasi-continuation of their parents’ relationship.
Enjoying Zuko’s Plight
Azula regularly teased Zuko as they grew up. She once set his butt on fire for tattling on her after she set a bush on fire in the Royal Court’s gardens. Later, she tricked him into diving onto her friend, Mai, both of them falling into a fountain as a result.
But she even took a sadistic pleasure out of seeing Zuko treated harshly by their father.
One time, at dinner, Azula criticized her and Zuko’s firebending tutor, calling him a “dummy.” When Zuko defended the tutor, Ozai completely shut him down. He lambasted Zuko for having mastered 14 fewer firebending techniques than Azula, despite being 2 years older than her.
Ozai then told Zuko that he almost discarded him at birth because he was so underwhelming. Their father then told them that Azula was “born lucky,” whereas Zuko was “lucky to be born.”
Azula smiled victoriously at the devastaed Zuko. She displayed no sympathy for her emotionally-tortured brother.
She even teased Zuko when she overheard Fire Lord Azulon ordering their father, Ozai, to kill his first-born son.
“Dad’s going to kill you!
… really, he is ”Azula to Zuko, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Two: Earth, Episode 7 (‘Zuko Alone’).
Zero remorse. Azula’s bitterness towards her brother, likely due to their mother’s preference of him over her, meant that she felt in competition with him. Victories like this one, where Ozai attacked Zuko, were always enjoyable for her.
Motherlessness: Ursa’s Banishment
A psychoanalyst would observe that Azula learned a lot from her parents’ relationship.
Ozai dominated Ursa. There are implications that Ozai even physically abused her. And in using his ability to strike fear into Ursa, Ozai always had the final say in decision-making.
Observing this, Azula learned that striking fear into people would be the most effective way to get what she wanted in life. She perceived Ursa’s tendency to show love instead of aggression as an ineffective approach … especially after she disappeared.
Ursa pleaded with Ozai to spare Zuko. Azula was not lying! Fire Lord Azulon genuinely ordered Ozai to kill his first-born son! Ursa, then, struck a bargain with him: she would leave the Fire Nation, never to come back, in return for Zuko’s life. Ozai agreed, and Ursa disappeared – considered “missing” by the rest of the Fire Nation.
This made Zuko’s life increasingly difficult, but Azula was freed from the criticisms of her moralistic mother. Ozai took Azula deeper under his wing. And Ozai, after poisoning his father, became Fire Lord soon after Ursa’s banishment.
Naturally, Azula grew up to become the cold, clinical, ruthless opponent she was always going to be. The scars of her motherlessness wouldn’t be visible for many years.
But more on that later … Years passed by, Azula turned 14 years old, and she was extremely powerful. Next, Ozai banished Zuko. And the events leading to Azula’s downfall were set in motion.
Azula in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Two: Earth
Hunting for Zuko
Azula took great enjoyment in seeing her father burn the left side of Zuko’s face – permanently scarring him.
The Ozai banished Zuko (who was accompanied by fan-favorite Uncle Iroh).
Not long after that, when Ozai learned of Zuko and Iroh’s post-banishment antics, he branded them enemies of the Fire Nation. Then he honored Azula with the task of hunting them down to capture as prisoners.
Azula tracked down Zuko and Iroh with relative ease. And, in an attempt to trick them into coming aboard her ship, she convinced Zuko that his father wanted him home again. But then the captain of her ship accidentally referred to Zuko and Iroh as “prisoners” within their earshot. He ruined Azula’s facade! As a result, Zuko and Iroh quickly escaped.
Recognizing that she might need some extra help, Azula enlisted the help of her old childhood friends: Ty Lee and Mai. Together, “Ozai’s Angels” (as nicknamed by fans of the Avatar franchise) formed a seriously bad-ass trio!
While Azula recruited Mai in Omashu (a Fire Nation colony in the Earth kingdom), she sighted the Avatar for the first time.
In an attempt to capture him, Azula negotiated with Mai’s baby brother Tom-Tom. She was willing to allow her friend’s sibling to remain captive with their enemy in an attempt to take the Avatar prisoner. An approach typical of her cold, calculated attitude.
The ploy didn’t work, though. Lucky for Mai, the Avatar returned Tom-Tom to his rightful family (feeling morally obliged) before leaving Omashu and the threat of Azula.
Ozai’s Angels hunted and chased the Avatar for several weeks after that. Azula successfully tracked him but was eventually cornered by Team Avatar, supported by none other than Zuko and Iroh. Feigning a surrender, she caught her attackers off-guard by swiftly striking Iroh with a lightning bolt.
Sneaky. Lawless. Quick-minded. Azula: a force to be reckoned with.
Azula’s Coup of Ba Sing Se
Azula’s persistent energy was perhaps her most impressive trait in The Last Airbender series. Failing to capture Zuko and Iroh, followed by her failed pursuit of the Avatar, she never stopped making moves. Her attention turned, almost immediately, to the walls of Ba Sing Se.
This was a city her uncle Iroh had previously attempted to conquer but failed due to the defensive prowess of the city’s walls and the strong will of the city’s people.
Governance in Ba Sing Se, though, had slackened off since then. Azula tried to take advantage with the use of a giant drill. The drill reached the wall, but Azula’s plans were once again thwarted by the Avatar and his friends, who destroyed the great machine from the inside.
Not long after this disappointment, Ozai’s Angels met and defeated the Kyoshi Warriors in a battle. Following an impressive victory, they took the Kyoshi Warriors outfits as disguises and infiltrated the government of Ba Sing Se.
Due to Azula’s intelligent planning, they managed to fool the Earth King. Ozai’s Angels were about to conquer Ba Sing Se from the inside out – much like how the Avatar stopped her giant drill.
And after conspiring with the unfaithful Earth minister, Long Feng, Azula took control of the city. Not only that – she betrayed Long Feng and took control of his armed forces, the Dai Li. She was a legitimate conqueror, succeeding where her Uncle Iroh had failed during his previous attack on Ba Sing Se.
Crystal Catacombs: Killing the Avatar
While in a position of power, Azula arrested Katara of Team Avatar, who wanted to inform the Earth King about Zuko’s presence in Ba Sing Se. Azula went on to capture and arrest her brother, too, locking him up alongside Katara in the Crystal Catacombs beneath the city.
Despite her unfavourable treatment of Zuko, Azula managed to manipulate him back into helping her. When she seemed outnumbered and troubled in battle against Team Avatar, she convinved Zuko that she had imprisoned him in the Catacombs in expectation of this exact moment. She told him that this was his opportunity to regain his father’s honour. Zuko obliged.
And, in yet another display of her sharp mind and senses, Azula managed to strike the Avatar with lightning. Not only did she strike and seemingly kill him – she did so as he was in the Avatar State. The wound she inflicted upon him appeared to have been fatal. And the Avatar cycle should have been broken, due to him being in the Avatar State.
It was Azula’s crowning hour! She had conquered Ba Sing Se, got her brother back, and killed the Avatar. A Fire Nation Princess, indeed.
Azula in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Three: Fire
Even after such successes as she managed in Ba Sing Se, Azula did not stop. She continued to plot and scheme just as before.
The Fire Nation welcomed her and Zuko back as war heroes. However, sensing that her brother was hiding some information, Azula chose to credit the killing of Avatar Aang to him. Ozai, then, restored Zuko’s honour. But Azula was protected from any backlash, should the Avatar have somehow survived.
Typical of Azula’s plotting, this gave Zuko the impression that she was looking out for him while actually improving her own situation. Smart!
The Beach (Book Three: Fire, Episode 5)
This episode was perhaps the most significant in all of Azula’s character development.
It was the first time throughout the Avatar franchies that we saw true vulnerabilities in the Fire Nation Princess – and it was also the first time we saw any empathy from her.
Along with Zuko, Ty Lee, and Mai, Azula visited Ember Island for a holiday (that none of them really wanted).
Azula decided not to tell people they met that she was Princess of the Fire Nation. It would be interesting, she thought, to see how people treated her without that information.
As it happened, she found it extremely difficult to socialise under such circumstances. While playing a simple game of volleyball at the beach, she couldn’t curb her incessant competitive drive. When trying to flirt with a boy at a party, she repelled him with her rhetoric – the language of a Princess, it turned out, was far different from that of ‘normal’ people (who would’ve guessed it?!).
Later, though, when Zuko was asked to leave the party, she sought him out. In fact, Azula knew exactly where she would find Zuko in his moment of sadness and urged him to come join her with Ty Lee and Mai.
This was a fascinating moment because it suggested that Azula actually sort of cared about Zuko.
Okay, so she didn’t display such care again throughout the series! But the fact that she was able to display empathy this one time, at least, proves that she isn’t a psychopath … and also proves that her status as a villain is redeemable (hypothetically, at least).
Azula’s “Sob Story”
When Zuko, Ty Lee, and Mai recounted traumatic experiences from their childhoods, Azula considered their pain to be overdramatic.
But then she did something out of character: she spoke about traumatic experience of her own childhood. She calimed that her mother, Ursa, liked Zuko more than her. That her mother thought she – Ursa’s own daughter – was a monster. We see Azula’s face appearing to express suffering and regret at such memories.
“She was right of course, but it still hurt!” she then said, snapping back into the cold, unmovable personality that she had built herself upon for so many years.
This was smart foreshadowing of Azula’s destiny in this series. The childhood scars that Azula skilfully hid beneath her perfectly maintained hair were beginning to be revealed…
And this perspective actually raised a lot of questions about her childhood. Ursa was often portrayed as a morally upright person in the series. However, given Azula’s feelings on the topic, it seems quite possible that Ursa actually had a nasty streak of her own.
Is it possible that Azula was the biggest vicitim of the entire Avatar series? Perhaps that’s a bit much … but what happened to her next certainly supports such a theory…
Mai and Ty Lee Betray Azula
Following the end of her holiday in Ember Island, Azula helped to implement the Fire Nation’s plan to protect itself against an attack during the solar eclipse. The eclipse removed firebenders ability to bend, and enemies of the Fire Nation saw that as the perfect moment to fight.
Azula, though, was aware of this plan from her time undercover in the Earth Kingdom. Her slickness – once again – worked to the Fire Nation’s benefit.
But after this success, Azula’s sureness of self began to slip.
The obvious turning point towards her deterioration was when Mai – one of her sole, trusted allies – betrayed her in favour of Zuko. During the solar eclipse, Zuko had turned against the Fire Lord and left the Fire Nation to join Team Avatar. When he was helping Sokka to save his father from the Boiling Rock (Fire Nation prison), Mai prevented Azula from making the move that would’ve stopped and possibly killed Zuko in completing his mission.
“You miscalculated – I love Zuko more than I fear you”Mai to Azula, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Three: Fire, Episode 15 (‘The Boiling Rock, Part 2’)
And when Ty Lee chose to take sides with Mai, chi-blocking the Fire Princess, Azula’s self-control began its disintegration.
Azula’s father, Ozai, named her as the new Fire Lord, to rule the Fire Nation – which happily surprised her. Ozai, meanwhile, promoted himself to a position he invented for himself: the Phoenix King – supreme ruler of the entire world.
Despite such a success, Azula’s mental health plummeted.
Likely as a result of her friends’ betrayals, she grew suspicious of almost everybody around her. She banished some of her servants, she banished Lo and Li – her personal agents from the Dai Li – and even banished the Royal Procession (elite firebenders who had traditionally served the Royal Family for years).
Just before her coronation as Fire Lord, Azula struggled to style her hair the way she wanted it. In a mild rage, she cut off her fringe. As she did, her mother appeared to her in the mirror:
“What a shame! You always had such lovely hair!”Azula’s hallucinated image of Ursa, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Three: Fire, Episode 20 (‘Sozin’s Comet Part Three: Into the Inferno’).
Azula engaged with her hallucination fairly naturally. It was as if seeing her mother came as no surprise, in fact (could that suggest that she had hallucinated such things before?).
In an expression of the philosophy that had driven her life to that point, Azula shouted at her mother.
“Fear is the only reliable way … even you fear me,” she said…
… to which her mother replied: “No, Azula. I love you. I do.”
This brought a tear to Azula’s eye. She then proceeded to throw her hairbrush at the image of Ursa, smashing the mirror to bits.
Azula was literally going insane.
Azula was confronted by Zuko and Katara right before her coronation. In response, she challenged her brother to an Agni Kai – “the showdown that was always meant to be.” To her credit (and despite her questionable sanity) this was a smart move on Azula’s part. Outnumbered, she knew she couldn’t defeat Zuko and Katara. But one-on-one she stood a much better chance.
Zuko agreed, telling Katara that he thought he could manage to fight her alone. “Something seems off about her,” he said (oh really, Zuko?!).
Azula’s fighting was wild and unpredictable, although perhaps even more dangerous than before. Zuko’s fighting style, however, was relaxed and controlled. And for the first time in their young lives, Zuko got the better of his sister.
She surrendered. But, as we should know by now, that didn’t mean she had stopped fighting! Azula shot a bolt lightning at Katara who was stood to one side. Before he could strike her, though, Zuko dived and took the strike himself. Katara then proceeded to battle Azula herself.
Katara outsmarted the deranged Azula, chaining her to the floor. Chained up and her physical control taken from her, Azula’s deterioration was complete.
Azula breathed fire all over the place, without any degree of control, while crying manically. The Tragedy of Azula, and her fall, reached its lowest point.
Mental Institution: Admission and Release
Azula was locked in a mental institution following the defeat of the Fire Nation. Zuko pitied Azula for her descent into insanity and decided an instituion would be a better match than the prison he’d sent his father to.
After about a year of life in the asylum, Zuko visited her to discuss the whereabouts of their mother.
At this point, Azula had actually made friends with some of the inmates and displayed relatively compliant behaviour.
Zuko asked if she’d be interested in helping him to find their mother again. He requested for her to engage their father in conversation. Azula agreed.
But she later refused to tell Zuko what had been said between her and Ozai.
Avoiding Zuko’s cross-examinations, she asked him if he’d ever been chi-blocked. Zuko told her he hadn’t been. She then explained that one’s flexibility is significantly increased moments before their bending returns after a chi-block … and she demonstrated by escaping her straitjacket.
Shooting lightning at Zuko, she escaped.
Azula headed to an old secret passageway of Ozai’s. There, she knew, some undelivered letters of Ursa’s during her missing years had been stored. Azula burned all the letters, except for one – which contained information suggesting that Zuko was not Ozai’s son.
Zuko demanded information about the letter, but Azula – in old-fashioned Azula style – negotiated with him.
She agreed to tell him what the letters said … but only if he allowed her to join him on his hunt for their mother.
Joining Team Avatar’s Ursa Mission
Zuko eventually submitted to Azula’s demands, and the former Princess of the Fire Nation joined up with her former foes – Team Avatar.
In the early stages of the mission, Azula and Team Avatar (predictably) didn’t get along well. She underwent conflicts with Katara and Sokka, eventually insisting that everyone keep away from her.
Rumours of Ursa’s journeys post-banishment led them to Hira’a, where she had grown up.
During that journey, however, Azula behaved erratically. She hallucinated images and voices of Ursa more and more, acting unpredictably, and generally making a nuisance of herself. She even jumped off Appa, the flying bison, mid-flight in an attempt to escape.
Clearly, travelling with Team Avatar wasn’t going to be a smooth-sailing journey…
Saving Team Avatar
One evening, Azula hallucinated Ursa in a river reflection. She argued intensely with the image of her mother, revealing a secret plot that she had devised to murder her when she met with her.
Then Azula declared, mid-rage, that she was intent upon revealing Zuko as an illegitimate heir to Ozai’s throne. She planned to use Ursa’s letter as evidence and take the throne for herself.
Zuko arrived soon afterwards and asked who Azula had been talking to. She reacted defensively, attacking him and causing Katara to contain her with ice-bending. Azula then proceeded to accuse Team Avatar of conspiring with Ursa to nullify her extraordinary power.
But the group were attacked by a Wolf Spirit as she protested. The spirit spat wasp moths at them, which Team Avatar struggled to deal with. At this, Azula convinced Zuko to free her from the ice. He did so … and she defeated the Wolf Spirit.
Saving Team Avatar provided another new perspective of Azula’s personality. It was another hint that her character could be redeemed.
Later that night, Zuko saw his sister shivering and talking to herself in her sleep. He covered in a blanket, suggesting that he felt Azula does, indeed, have ‘good’ within her. Zuko still held out hope for her.
However, Zuko also found the letter Azula was hiding…
Azula Fights Zuko Again; Arriving in Hira’a
Zuko was, of course, stunned by the contents of the letter. Ozai not being his real father would have meant Zuko was an illegitimate Fire Lord – a bastard.
Azula, meanwhile, woke up to hallucinate Ursa again. Ursa told Azula to accept that she was not destined to be Fire Lord. But Azula acted out angrily, once again. And she quickly turned her anger towards Zuko when she realized the letter was missing…
She accused Zuko of conspiring with Ursa to thwart her and proceeded to attack him. Zuko, though, insisted that she stopped fighting with him.
“Why do we always have to be like this?” he asked her. She eventually agreed to make a sort of peace with, and they undertook the last stages of the journey to Hira’a.
In Hira’a, they met a man named Noren who invited the team into his home. There, they met his wife Noriko and their daughter Kiyi.
Azula became angry (again) when the group criticised her (again). She told Kiyi – who was around 4 years old – that she used to give her dolls a “headcut” instead of a haircut. And then she offered to give one to Kiyi’s own doll. It should go without saying, but Kiyi was a bit freaked out by that…
The Forgetful Valley and The Mother of Faces
As tensions flared up between Azula and Katara (whose motherly instincts apparently kicked in), Zuko decided that, after the team visited the Forgetful Valley, they would end the mission.
More drama inevitably ensued in the valley – of course it did! But Avatar Aang eventually meditated himself into the spirit world and brought a spirit back with him. The Mother of Faces.
It was from this spirit of the Forgetful Valley that Azula and Zuko learned about their mother, Ursa.
The Mother of Faces had given Ursa a new face: the face of Noriko. And memories of her previous life had been erased.
They soon realized that it was Ursa whose home they had been welcomed into back in Hira’a. Azula almost immediately burst to get back to Hira’a and to Noriko. Zuko and Sokka sensed something bad might be about to happen, so they chased after her.
Azula Attacks Her Mother
Immediately, Azula broke into Noren and Noriko’s home to confront her mother.
She was ready to kill Noriko/Ursa, when her mother apologised to her:
“I’m sorry I didn’t love you enough”Noriko/Usa to Azula, Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search, Part Four (graphic novel).
Azula teared up, hesitating, when Zuko separated her from their mother. Naturally, Azula attacked Zuko again – and scolded him for not giving up the throne to her. After all, she asserted, he didn’t want the throne anyway.
Zuko refused to give up the throne, though, and Azula ran off into the Forgetful Valley. Her brother searched for her in the ensuing weeks, but didn’t find her. Azula, it was clear, didn’t want to be found.
It was also revealed that Zuko was Ozai’s son, in fact. When Ursa’s memories were restored, she explained that she lied in the letter to her ex-husband.
Disguised as The Kemurikage
It was quite some time before Azula appeared again.
But during her time in the Forgotten Valley, Azula’s mental health recovered, to some extent. Her conduct when returning to the Fire Nation served as evidence of that. But during her time away, a number of things changed in her outlook.
She accepted that she would never become Fire Lord. Azula also accepted Noriko’s child, Kiyi, as her own blood. She even stopped being loyal to Ozai! But most significantly, she stopped hallucinating.
What she didn’t do, though, was fulfil any sort of redemption arc! Nevertheless, she got back to something like her previously cunning self.
In doing so, Azula devised a plot. The beginnings of the plot included the recollection of how her old friend, Mai, used to have nightmares about the Kemurikage.
The Kemuriage were mythical dark spirits. Fire Nation parents used to scare misbehaving children with this story (including Mai). They explained that the Kemurikage would take them away if they were disobedient. Azula, along with the followers that she enlisted, decided to disguise herself as the leader of such spirits. With her team, she kidnapped several children … including Mai’s young brother, Tom-Tom.
After that, she even attempted to kidnap her half-sister, Kiyi. But Zuko and others caught her in the act.
Azula revealed her identity by shooting lightning at her brother, who redirected her attack habitually … only for Azula to redirect it back at him. A fascinating development in the evolution of their conflicts!
Azula eventually succeeded in kidnapping Kiyi and locked her away.
Last Appearances (so far!)
Azula worked in alliance with Mai’s father, Ukano, who was still loyal to her father, Ozai. Ukano’s ‘New Ozai Society’ had attempted (and failed) to capture Zuko a number of times, with the desire to overthrown him and install Ozai on the throne.
Azula’s plan, however, was not consistent with Ukano’s desires. She was using Ukano to put pressure on her brother, Fire Lord Zuko.
In another battle with Zuko, Azula revealed what her intentions had been while disguised as the Kemurikage.
She told Zuko that she no longer desired the throne – instead, she wanted to turn Zuko into a leader who rules by fear, not love. And moreover, she told Zuko that she believed she had succeeded. During the kidnappings and attempts on his life, he had begun to rule much more like Ozai had ruled before him – and Azula’s words really struck a chord with the young Fire Lord.
After their battle, Zuko and Mai recover the kidnapped children. But Azula disappeared once more, in a cloud of smoke.
Her final appearance showed her dressed as the Kemurikage and watching Zuko give a public address to his people, from a nearby rooftop. What happened to Azula after that is yet to be revealed. Rest assured, though! This page will be updated as soon as any updates come to fruition 🙂
Azula was a memorable villain, more so even than the series’ main villain (Ozai).
She’s intelligent, crafty, humorous, beautiful, and just a outright bad-ass! Okay, so she was a snide, calculating, daughter of a dictator … but she was that way in the most likable manner imaginable.
There is still much hope among fans of the series that she might be redeemed from her villain status. It would be a long journey for Azula, especially given the events during the graphic novels.
But the potential is there. And I’m sure such a story would sell extremely well!
Here’s to you, Azula!