Many consider Zhao as the first antagonist of Avatar the Legend of Aang, while others think that Zuko is the one who occupies that place but if these are the characters that people most link to the image of antagonist then why did we saw them fighting in the first chapters of the series?
Shouldn’t they go against the protagonists instead of fighting each other? or is it that both characters are much more than simple villains. Next, we will analyze Zhao, his history, and his development to answer the question of who is the true antagonist of the first book of Avatar the Legend of Aang.
Zhao (Avatar): His First Appearancee
Zhao first appears in chapter 3 of the first season when Iroh and his nephew disembark at a military checkpoint. After disembarking and exchanging a few first words we can see that war titles are very important to Zhao so much so that we can even see how he enjoys the moment when he had to correct Zuko for referring to him wrongly.
In that scene, we can see that Zuko who had a different upbringing than the vast majority of people in the Fire Nation treats the commander in a not very appropriate way being quickly corrected by his uncle who became a general and understands the importance of military positions and titles for the citizens of the Fire Nation. This is one of the most important points to take into account in the development of Zhao as a character. The relationship between the titles he obtained and power.
Zhao Hated Zuko and Iroh
In the eyes of the future admiral, Zuko does not deserve any respect, his devotion and loyalty were with the fire lord. the legitimate leader of that great empire. In his heart he understood that with or without the avatar Zuko would never be welcomed by his father, so the moment he lost the Agni Kai to the prince, Zhao burned with fury, he could not conceive that a disrespectful teenager who did not dare to finish the fight had defeated him. He was a commander, he could not afford a defeat, so he reacted dishonorably by attacking Zuko from behind.
From that moment on he had a grudge against Zuko and the avatar, partly because Zuko was everything that Zhao hated: He was young, and just by right of blood, he carried a title that, if it were not for his banishment would be higher than his own. Besides the fact that capturing the avatar would be a great blow to the exiled prince and would surely give him more status and reputation in the eyes of his compatriots.
His next appearances were chasing the avatar like the day when Aang contacted Roku or the day when the Avatar was captured by Zhao, but where the character was deepened a little more was in chapter 16 of the first season titled “The Deserter” in the said chapter our heroes pass through a city of the Fire Nation.
Zhao (Avatar) Backstory
There they learn of the existence of Jeong Jeong, a former Fire Nation admiral who decided to defect from his title. The avatar sees in the retired old man his only chance to learn the art of fire bending but encounters resistance to the tutor’s teaching.
After overcoming this scene Jeong Jeong tries to teach the avatar to master fire but he does it in a rather special way, trying to teach him the gentle side of the art because as fire can mean life it can also hurt. He teaches him to feel the sun as the main source of energy, the air as fuel, and discipline as the center of everything.
Although the avatar, being a very impatient boy, is unable to understand him, Jeong Jeong explains to him the dangers of impatience and the search for power by giving the example of a disciple who cared for nothing more than that and the dangers of taking that path.
We mention Jeong Jeong because the disciple the old man was talking about, who only wanted to burn and destroy, was Zhao.
Zhao Had a Massive Ego
The appearance of Jeong Jeong is not by chance, he is presented to show us the counterpart of the future admiral, just as fire means death and pain, it can also mean life, while one tries to teach the goodness of this art, the other only tries to destroy. It is necessary to understand the words of the master:
“Learn discipline, self-control or risk the destruction of yourself and everything you love”. This sentence lets us understand that the old man still regrets not having been able to put his disciple on the right path, if Zhao had learned from him, perhaps he could have escaped from that future full of punishment and torture that he had to live, although we will talk about that later.
Zhao arrives at Jeong Jeong’s home in search of the Avatar, where once again his title as admiral is trampled on by the others, as Jeong Jeong tells him that it has no meaning, something that bothers Zhao since his whole life was set on becoming someone in the army.
We see how his fury has no control, he mercilessly attacks the avatar, who manages to win without even landing a single blow, leaving Zhao to destroy his ships and, likewise, with his fire. At this moment we see again the lesson of his master “Learn discipline and self-control or risk the destruction of yourself and all that you love”.
Nothern Water Tribe
After this defeat, Zhao prepares a full-scale attack against the northern water tribe, recruits the entire crew of Prince Zuko, and sets off on a journey together with Uncle Iroh.
“In the future people will study in books the great story of Admiral Zhao, who managed to defeat the last bastion of waterbenders.”
Those were the words he commented to the former general, but what he had not said was what he understood as his greatest feat. Some time ago the general found an ancient scroll with stories about the spirits of the moon and the ocean, he discovered that both beings had descended to earth and had taken physical form ergo if that was true then they could be killed.
“They will call me Zhao the conqueror, the executioner of the last waterbenders, the moon killer, Zhao the invincible.”
As we can see the only important thing in his life was to leave a mark in the history books, his ambition was consumed by his ego.
“I am Zhao the conqueror, I am Zhao the invincible, me, me, me, me.”
Killing The Moon Spirit
He could not and would not think of anything but aggrandizing his image, and though the avatar and Uncle Iroh tried to make him understand that the moon not only benefited the waterbenders, but that it brought balance.
Zhao, blinded by his lust for power and renown attacked mercilessly, taking the life of the great spirit. He was interested neither in balance, nor in life, nor death, nor the present. He only wanted to achieve great things to be known as the great conqueror in the history books. Only to achieve his ambition since war titles were everything to him.
Consumed by his military lust and falling victim to the world corrupted by a war of over 100 years, his story ends badly thanks to the avatar’s anger and Yue’s sacrifice.
Zhao loses the battle succumbing to the anger of the great spirit of the ocean who in a fit of rage tries to take his life, the commander has the opportunity to save himself by taking the hand of the exiled prince but decides not to do so.
His ego and ambition consumed him so much that he could not think clearly and he preferred death rather than be helped by Zuko, a traitor of his nation. Although this can also be taken as the pride of a soldier depending on the point of view from which it is observed.
Decades later we can see Zhao in the valley of lost souls, with no way to escape. We can interpret the effect the fog has is to live the memories over and over again, being unable to alter or modify the inevitable supply of events. The way out of this effect is described to us as accepting your mistakes, your fate, and improving your thoughts.
Characters like Tenzing who were able to understand their failures and clear their fears were able to come out of this effect, but Zhao was so immersed in his ego and ambition that he spent decades repeating the same thing.
“I am Commander Zhao, conqueror and killer of the moon.”
It was all linked to his addiction with enhancing his image and renown.
Zhao: The First Antagonist
To conclude, Zhao was a good antagonist for the first season of ATLA, in which the producers were not very clear about the direction of the series, even being a character not so relevant had its development and outcome, we could delve into his past and understand why he ended up being the way he was.
But apart from being an antagonist, we can also see him as a victim. Victim of what we could interpret as the true antagonist of the series. To answer our initial question: who is the main antagonist of the series? Is Zhao an antagonist? Yes, but he is not the main one. In the beginning, Zuko was also an antagonist, but he was not the main antagonist either.
We could take the concept of the fire nation as the main antagonist, beyond the characters themselves, from a young age children are taught the greatness of the country and its ambitious project to share its wealth with the world through war. Children grow up with this idea of becoming a commander. Soldiers are respected and in general, everything revolves around this.
Final Thoughts On Zhao and The Fire Nation
This is why the fire lord Ozai, has virtually no dialogue in the series because he is representing evil in the overall concept of the fire nation. A nation that burns villages, takes the lives of innocents, captures and imprisons civilians, that just destroys whatever is in its path. This is why we consider the concept of “the killer nation” as the true antagonist. This concept cannot be fully reflected in any character, being all of them, including Admiral Zhao, victims of this world and a nation rotten by 100 years of war.