Book Three: Fire
The first episode, Awakening, catches us up on the aftermath of Crossroads of Destiny. Katara did indeed save Aang. The young heroes were able to join with Hakoda and they took over a Fire Nation ship. Their invasion plans are modified slightly since the Earth King in is hiding, traveling the world as a peasant; they’ll gather together their ragtag team of friends and allies.
While the heroes hide out in the Fire Nation, Zuko’s princely title is restored. Lo and Lee announce to a crowd that their clever and beautiful princess Azula found her brother in Ba Sing Se and together, they took down the city and the Avatar fell. And the Earth Kingdom fell. After three years, the Fire Nation’s prince has returned. There are cheers from the crowd. But Zuko soon discovers that while he desired his father’s love and affection and believed that redemption of his honor lay with him, in conforming to what was expected of him, he lost himself. He visits Iroh in prison and begs advice, but his uncle is silent; this is still Zuko’s journey and one he must travel himself.
The Headband is silly for the most part, but does establish that not everyone in the Fire Nation is evil. Just like not everyone in the Earth Kingdom is good. A whole nation cannot be condemned. The heroes help out a Fire Nation village in The Painted Lady, Katara declaring sharply to her brother that she “will never, ever, turn my back on people who need me!”
Sokka’s Master brings to the forefront Sokka’s dejection that he is not as powerful as the benders. They urge him to find a master and Piando, the greatest swordsman in the Fire Nation agrees to teach him, even after secretly knowing that the young man is Water Tribe. Sokka gains confidence and an ally.
The Beach exhibits that even the scary and villainous Fire Nation young people are still teenagers. We learn a lot more about their dynamics. Ty Lee ran off to the circus to prevent becoming part of a matched set with six identical sisters. Mai’s mother was demanding and she was forced to stay quiet and well-behaved as a child (following the old adage that children are to remain seen, not heard). Zuko reveals that he’s angry at himself, confused about right and wrong. Azula gives a tiny insight, claiming that she does not care that her own mother thought she was a monster. Azula’s military tactics are so ingrained in her that she exercises them at the volleyball-type game (after Zuko dramatically removes his robe and doves appear out of nowhere and there are screaming girls).
The Avatar and the Fire Lord explains more fully the connection between Aang and Zuko. Zuko’s paternal great-grandfather was of course Fire Lord Sozin, while his maternal great-grandfather was Avatar Roku and they incidentally were best friends. Until Sozin’s ambition drove them to separate paths. He wanted to share the Fire Nation’s prosperity with the world and expand his realm into an empire. Roku showed Sozin mercy due to their friendship and Sozin even helped Roku stop a volcano, yet he still left him to die. Iroh finally speaks to his nephew, explaining that Zuko needed to learn this history to understand the battle within himself between good and evil. He has it within him to cleanse the sins of previous generations and restore balance; just like Aang as the Avatar.
The Runaway broadens the relationship between Katara and Toph. Toph bucks at Katara’s motherly nature, since she ran away from parents who were constantly telling her what she could and couldn’t do and never listening in return. And Katara sees a child, someone to care about. We also get insight from Sokka as to a reason for this; she stepped up when their mother died at a young age and by this time, doesn’t know anything different. Both Sokka and Katara deserve a hug after Sokka’s statement that he doesn’t remember his mother’s face, because Katara has filled that spot for so long. The episode ends with Katara helping Toph write a letter to her parents.
Katara is again in the spotlight in The Puppetmaster, when the four young heroes cross paths with Hama, the last waterbender from the Southern Tribe, in a small Fire Nation village. Except she’s bitter and exacts revenge for her treatment by kidnapping villagers during the full moon, when she has the power to bloodbend (using waterbending to bend the water or blood within a body). Katara eagerly takes lessons from Hama at first, except she’s scared and questions the morality of bloodbending, but when Hama makes Aang and Sokka fight each other, she has no choice but to use bloodbending to stop Hama. She sobs to Sokka and Aang afterwards.
Nightmares and Daydreams gets odd at the end; when Aang hallusicantes from sleep deprivation, Momo and Appa can talk. To help, the other three make a soft bed for him, encouraging him that he’s ready for the showdown; he’s been training since the day he met Katara and Sokka. On the other side of the war; we get a glimpse of Zuko’s life as an accepted prince. Servants waiting for his every whim, adoring fans, an affectionate girlfriend; yet when he finds out that there is another war meeting that he did not know about, his old insecurities come back. However, his father halts the meeting and sends for him. He was at the Fire Lord’s right hand, the “perfect prince,” but Zuko wasn’t himself.
The Day of Black Sun arrives. The heroes change back into their old clothes and here we can see the changes months of traveling have wrought; they’re leaner, they’re older. Katara wears her hair different, looser. Sokka’s hair has grown in and he looks more like a warrior. Aang shaves his head and wears a partially revealing top. Toph dons armor. They’re reunited with old allies and during their last break before battle, the teens’ bid each other a farewell. Aang gives Katara a quick kiss and sets off for the palace. Yet, when he arrives, the palace is empty; no Fire Lord in sight.
The Fire Nation was prepared for the invasion, a callback to Azula’s infiltration into Ba Sing Se as a Kyoshi Warrior. Hakoda is injured during their invasion and Sokka takes over as the leader. It’s Sokka who figures out that the Fire Lord would be in a secret bunker near the capital, not hiding on a remote island. He takes Toph and Aang, while Katara remains with Hakoda to continue healing him. Azula is still a few steps ahead and is waiting for them with Dai Li agents, distracting them from the Fire Lord. Even without being able to firebend, she eludes their attacks. Just when they’re ready to ignore her and find the Fire Lord, she taunts Sokka with information about Suki. Sokka demands answers, not willing to let another woman he cares for die, draining the last of their time. When they rejoin the rest of the invasion force, the Fire Nation has resumed their attacks, forcing Hakoda to instruct Katara and Sokka to escape with Aang; they are their best chance in the long run; Aang has to be free in order to keep hope alive. Bato makes the decision that the young members flee on Appa; the older ones will accept capture.
Zuko’s path has him change back into traveling clothes, removing the image of a prince. He vows to set things right. The first step: finally confronting Ozai.
“I’m not taking orders from you anymore.”
“You will obey me, or this defiant breath will be your last.”
“Think again! I am going to speak my mind, and you are going to listen. For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted. But really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me, a thirteen-year-old boy to an Agni Kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?”
“It was to teach you respect.”
“It was cruel! And it was wrong.”
“Then you’ve learned nothing.”
“No, I’ve learned everything! And, I’ve had to learn it on my own.”
Zuko quietly informs the Fire Lord that if the world doesn’t want to destroy itself, it needs peace and kindness, and openly acknowledging Iroh’s influence. He’s going to free him, then join the Avatar to bring down Ozai. When Ozai questions why he doesn’t just kill him himself, Zuko replies that the task is the Avatar’s destiny; he will discover his own.
Ozai has one final taunt: information about Zuko’s mother. Ozai admits that he was willing to kill Zuko years ago, but Ursa proposed another plan in order to protect Zuko. A plan in which she committed vicious treason. She was banished as consequence. Ozai growls that Zuko will not be so lucky, the fading eclipse granting Ozai the ability to shoot lighting, which Zuko deflects and disappearing in the aftermath. When Zuko arrives at his uncle’s prison cell, he finds that Iroh has already escaped.
The final shot is Zuko following Appa in his war balloon.
They end up at the Western Air Temple, which is built upside down underneath a cliff. For Zuko, it’s come full circle; the Western Air Temple was where he started his search for the Avatar a week after he was scarred and banished. Now, he approaches the core four heroes, offering to teach Aang firebending. They do not trust him at first, for good reasons. Well, Toph, is willing to give him a chance, but she startles him and he accidentally burns her feet. When they go to confront him, Combustion Man (an assassin Zuko had hired to cover the fact that Aang survived Ba Sing Se) attacks and Zuko fights against him. This convinces Sokka. Zuko’s apology to Toph, speaking of the danger of firebending, convinces Aang. Katara goes along with the rest of the group, but threatens Zuko in private later. They both know he’s struggled with right and wrong in the past and she will not hesitate to permanently end Zuko’s destiny if he turns again. A glimpse that these characters are not children any longer. They’re involved in a war and hard calls will have to be made.
I love Firebending Masters; it shows more background into how bending was developed in different nations. We’ve already learned at the North Pole that the first waterbenders learned the push and pull motions from the moon. Toph tells of how the badger moles were the original Earthbenders, using it as she does, as an extension of themselves since they too are blind. Aang says that the original airbenders learned from the sky bisons.
Zuko and Aang must learn from the original firebending masters because Zuko’s change in sides has affected his firebending. Dragons are the original firebenders but they were hunted to extinction in the past hundred years; Iroh reportedly killed the last dragon. However, an ancient civilization has ruins near to the temple, so the two young men hope to discover some sort of knowledge. The ancient civilization is actually still secretly alive and lead the Fire Nation Prince and Avatar to the spirits Ran and Cha to judge whether they are worthy. Ran and Cha are a pair of red and blue dragons. Iroh had not killed them; they had judged him and found him worthy of firebending knowledge; he lied to protect them. Aang and Zuko are shown visions of the true nature of firebending; fire is life, not just destruction. Aang gains the confidence to try firebending again (after burning Katara in season one) and Zuko has found a new source for his inner fire, a drive to bring peace rather than typical rage.
After their return, Sokka is desperate to rescue his father and other warriors. The invasion was his mistake and thus his job to fix. “I need to regain my honor,” Sokka tells Zuko. So the two sneak off to Boiling Rock prison. Once there, they find Suki, but no Hakoda. They gain a few minor tagalongs who utilize their first escape plan (and fail) while Zuko, Sokka, and Suki stay another day to discover if Hakoda is part of the new transfer of prisoners. He is. Sokka catches him up and they develop a new plan; take the warden captive and ride out on the gondola.
Wrenches are thrown in the work when first Mai, then Azula and Ty Lee show up. Mai wants answers as to why Zuko left. To her, he is a traitor while he sees it as part of his destiny to save his country. Azula and Ty Lee attempt to stop the heroes’ escape and the teens face each other on top of the gondola. Mai takes Zuko’s side on the ground, giving them the opportunity to get away. Azula is furious. But when she goes to eliminate Mai, Ty Lee sides with Mai, using her chi blocking to take out Azula. They do not have the chance to flee; Azula orders them locked up.
The two-part episode does a good job of showing Zuko and Sokka interact; they’re a similar age and it’s been pointed out by fans that they both have younger sisters that are naturally gifted benders, both are missing mothers, and desperate to prove themselves to their fathers. They even reminisce over girlfriends on the flight to Boiling Rock. During their escape, Sokka catches Zuko when the prince leaps from the platform for the departing gondola. And through the battle on top the gondola against Azula, they effortlessly cover each other.
Boling Rock ends with the Water Tribe family being reunited. Only to have to break apart at the beginning of The Southern Raiders when Azula attacks the temple, hoping to become an only child. Brother and sister face off again, allowing the core heroes to fly away on Appa (and another daring rescue for Zuko…please stop attempting to fall to your death). But when they’re all joking around the fire later, it’s clear that Katara still does not trust Zuko. Zuko approaches Sokka, inquiring about the day his mother died. It seems as if Katara has tied her anger about that event to her anger at Zuko, and he cares about what she thinks of him. We flash back to the raid on the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka went to help his father and the other warriors when the black snow began to fall. Katara had gone to their mother, only to find a strange man in their hut. Kya, their mother, soothed Katara and sent her after her father. When the rest of the family returned, the man was gone and their mother was dead. A few more questions reveal that the group responsible was the Southern Raiders. Zuko offers to take Katara to their headquarters where she can exercise justice. Aang counsels forgiveness. Katara’s not sure she can do that. Sokka even advises that Katara let go of her rage; Kya was his mother too. “Then you didn’t love her like I did!” is the biting response. Just, ouch.
Katara willingly uses bloodbending to get her answers, unsettling even Zuko. When she faces Yan Ra (a despicable man, offering his own, admittedly annoying, mother as recompense) she almost does it. They discover that Kya had died protecting the last waterbender of the South Pole. Katara is ready to unleash all her power as a master, shooting ice daggers at him, seconds away from ending him. But she won’t become the same as him, empty inside. Back at their camp, Aang is proud of her; but she didn’t forgive Yan Ra. She is however, ready to forgive Zuko.
The show does its own recap special; The Ember Island Players where the teens engage in a popular fanfic plotline, watching their own story play out as a stage performance. Their characters are exaggerated and annoy the heroes. Katara is overly dramatic, Toph is a man, Aang is a woman (oftentimes in traditional theatre, teenage boy parts are played by young woman, a popular example is “Peter Pan”), Sokka speaks only in quips. For Zuko, it’s his worse mistakes shoved in his face. The show-within-a-show plays up the fan pairing of Zuko and Katara, which upsets Aang. But it’s the end that really depresses our heroes; as a play put on in the Fire Nation, Azula and Ozai successfully kill Zuko and Aang, Ozai declaring “the world is mine!” and the crowd cheers. There is horror in the teenagers’ eyes.
Everything comes to a head in this season. It also really showcases that this war is being decided by children/teenagers. The main characters range between twelve and sixteen years old. Sokka is fifteen and takes charge of two major battles. Zuko is sixteen and crowned Fire Lord. Aang is twelve and confronts Ozai.
The latter half of the season, Aang has been struggling with the dilemma of how to put an end to Ozai, claiming that violence is never the answer. He even greets the tyrant at their final battle saying they don’t have to fight. He was taught as an Air Nomad monk that all life is sacred and he cannot take another person’s life, no matter how horrible they are. The final duel starts with Aang fleeing from Ozai; he’s on the defense. Ozai shoots lightning at him and Aang redirects, like Zuko taught him; he has the perfect opportunity to end Ozai, but points it away. Ozai calls him weak, like his people, who are not worthy of existing in his world (megalomaniac much?). His last stand was to create a ball of rock surrounding him, but Ozai broke through. When that happened, a perfectly positioned nub of rock presses in on his scar, helping him unlock the Avatar State. He comes back powerful and effortlessly bends all four elements into an orbit around himself. Now it’s his turn to chase the self-proclaimed Phoenix King. This is the first time we’ve seen fear in Ozai’s eyes. Yet even then, when he is controlling all that power, Aang comes back and cannot deal a killing strike. Aang’s last mystical journey on the back of a lion turtle taught him to bend the energy within a body resulting in the Avatar taking away Ozai’s bending. (There’s a really cool visual where their bodies are overtaken by blue [Aang] and orange [Ozai] representing their wills. Ozai almost overtakes Aang, but he comes back stronger and brighter).
The final Agni Kai between Azula and Zuko, “the showdown that was always meant to be” is tragically beautiful. It is destructive and at least on Azula’s account, she has the intention of killing her brother. And it is quite possible that Zuko is willing to kill his sister, facing her so no one else will get hurt. But the imagery of blue and orange fire meeting, paired with the music, quiet and almost soothing in the background, is powerful. This isn’t some upbeat ride into danger or fanfare when the hero saves the day. We can hear the roar of the fire, balls of flame propelled at one another.
And Zuko has to taunt his sister (they’re still teenage siblings) about shooting lightning at him. He was not as successful the second time, primarily due to Azula shifting her aim to Katara. He’s unprepared and the angle is wrong and it’s not dissipated properly. It gets too close to his heart and he collapses. So Katara and Azula face off. Katara out tricks the princess, freezing her then chaining her to a grate. Finally, Katara is able to heal Zuko, exchanging thanks for saving each others’ lives.
We gain some sympathy for Azula in Book Three. All her life, she has been her father’s favorite and now that he’s bent on world domination and titles himself as the “Phoenix King” and Supreme Ruler of All, he passes on the now insignificant title of Fire Lord to Azula, explaining that he needs her at home. She fires back that “you can’t treat me like Zuko!” And with the betrayal of Ty Lee and Azula, her former staunchest supporters, Azula is paranoid. She’s learning that fear is not the best tactic to retain supporters. Mai told her “I love Zuko more than I fear you.” Azula banishes her servants, the Dai Li agents; everyone she was once close to, leaving her alone. She envisions her mother in the mirror, claiming that she is proud of her and loves her. Azula throws her hairbrush and cries. Zuko tells Katara that Azula is slipping; he can take her. When Katara defeats her, she’s left screaming and breathing fire before breaking into sobs. As the hallucinated Ursa says, Azula is confused. Like Zuko, she lost her drive. Her purpose for so long was to follow her father and now that Ozai has essentially cast her aside, she’s lost. Everyone she’s ever cared about, she’s pushed away.
Touching on the themes running throughout the show, the core troupe of heroes became their own family and that group was certainly more important than blood family. That is most clear in Zuko’s case, with both his sister and father the major threats, but he’s learned to rely on his uncle’s teaching. Katara fights to keep her family together, except she keeps getting ripped away from her father. Toph and Katara face off over the issue of family roles in the group. Zuko’s destiny is to restore the honor of the Fire Nation now that he has struggled and suffered and followed his own path. Ultimately, what all the young people learn through their adventures is that they can shape their own destinies and they decide on their own honor.
There are some paired-off couples at the end of the show, after Zuko has been crowned Fire Lord and promises to aid the Avatar in guiding the world into an era of peace. Sokka and Suki are together, exchanging a brief kiss before they’re separated during the air ship takedown. Mai returns for Zuko and there’s a kiss, though she warns him to “never break up with me again.” And the final shot of the show, before the ending title card is a silent scene between Katara and Aang, where they exchange a deep kiss.
I have to admit, I am in the camp in the fandom that prefers to pair Katara and Zuko. They’re a bit closer in age to one another and the show even demonstrates the awkwardness of younger Aang and older Katara. Aang takes the idea of stage-Katara together with stage-Zuko too seriously and pushes a kiss when she says she’s confused. Also, there’s the dynamic of opposites. They’re opposite elements and started off on opposite sides of the war; but they’re both passionate and they make a good team. Reminder, this is my opinion, others may have different views.
SWCLC; has an awesome slightly AU (alternate universe) series called “Airbender’s Child” (I don’t want to give away too much, but it does involve Zuko in the gang a lot earlier). Also has an excellent story “Arranging Marriages” (again, AU) and a “Proposal” series.
ChannelAwesome: the Nostalgia Critic has an entire series of vlogs (video logs) on each episode of Last Airbender and a load of other content.
HelloFutureMe: also has a lot of content on Last Airbender and other categories that are near and dear to my heart.
Next Time: we continue down the path of memory lane to Disney, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves