- Azula’s Meltdown
Something I admire about Avatar is that it was willing to explore dark, and sinister undertones for a children’s show. Azula, one of the series’ best villains, is a prime example of that. At first glance she just seems bossy and quick-tempered, but the literal peaks into her psyche show how disturbing of a character she really is. Azula’s need for violence and to instill fear in those around her, even her closest friends, was born out of abandonment and neglect issues. From Azula’s perspective, Zuko seemed to be the favored child in Ursa’s eyes. Azula honestly believes that to come off as threatening is to maintain control of those around her. What else would she have?
In preparation of her coronation as Fire Lord, Azula is tying her hair when a few strands come loose. Instantly triggering anger, Azula cuts her own hair to maintain that semblance of control. In her mirror she sees a manifestation of her mother, Ursa, but we know this is her own psyche speaking to her. “Even you fear me,” Azula says to her mother. It’s gut wrenching to know that it’s really Azula’s mind speaking to her when the apparition of Ursa replies, “No, I love you, Azula. I do.” Oh my gosh. I’m so heartbroken every time I see that. The tears flow as Azula picks up a hairbrush, throws it at the mirror which shatters to pieces as Azula collapses to her knees and sobs.
- Aang and Zuko’s Pasts
The Book One episode “The Storm” was a beautifully crafted episode that brought the origins of Avatar’s protagonist and antagonist into the light. How did Aang become trapped in ice for a hundred years? Why is Zuko so short tempered and obsessed to capture the Avatar, and how did he get that scar? This episode was the one to answer those questions.
Aang was living happily among the people of the Air Nation. He had already mastered the art of airbending and thus earned his tattoos. When he learned from Monk Gyatso that he was the next Avatar, Aang was too overcome. It’s tradition for the Avatar to become aware of their destiny around age 16, but the monks wanted Aang to begin mastering the other elements due to increasing threats from the Fire Nation. Not only did Aang become ostracized by the airbender children, he grappled with the fact that his destiny as the Avatar was one he never wanted. One night he left a goodbye note to Monk Gyatso and departed the Air Temple with Appa. Aang and Appa were overtaken by a terrible storm at sea, but we find that he instinctually went into the Avatar state and froze Appa and himself to stay alive.
Zuko and honor are synonymous, so Iroh brought Zuko along to a war council between the Fire Nation’s leading military figures and Fire Lord Ozai. Iroh, beforehand, warned Zuko not to speak during the meeting. When Zuko openly questioned a general’s tactics, the Fire Lord took that as a slight against him. Zuko would have to defend his honor via an Agni Kai, a perilous duel between two firebenders. Zuko was shocked to see that it was his own father he would have to do duel. “You will learn respect”, threatened Ozai, “and suffering will be your teacher.” Zuko refused to duel his father. Because of that, Zuko received a terrible burn to his face, and was banished from the Fire Nation. Have mercy. His only way back home, and to restore his honor, is to capture the Avatar.
- Final Agni Kai
How incredible it was to see Zuko come full circle for this one. I almost went with the moment when Zuko talks down to his father and decides to join team Avatar. But like Zuko said, taking down the Fire Lord is the Avatar’s destiny. Azula likes to talk, and in episodes past, she was able to manipulate Zuko into attacking Aang just when we thought he was going to turn over a new leaf. Fast forward to the final episode when Zuko shows up with Katara to stop Azula from becoming the new Fire Lord.
Bear in mind, the pressures of leadership and the fact that Azula lost her only friends has taken its toll on her already fragile mind. Katara cautions Zuko to be wary, but he can see that Azula is not herself. With Sozin’s Comet in the planet’s orbit, giving firebenders augmented strength, the battle between brother and sister was both a spectacle marvel and an emotional struggle. Much of the battle is silent, where a dramatic musical backgrounds comes front and center to the visuals cues. The exchanges between red and blue fire looked fiercely beautiful. Then Azula attempts to kill Katara with lightning, but Zuko absorbs the full on attack instead. Katara outsmarts and chains Azula. As Katara begins to heal an alive and grateful Zuko, Azula spits fire in a heart wrenching tantrum that reinforces how hollow she feels at her core.
- Zuko Apologizes to Uncle Iroh
The finale of Book Two saw Zuko sitting on the fence between the good guys and the bad. Throughout the season we were convinced that Zuko was willing to abandon his birthright. Iroh, having lost his own son, became a surrogate father for Zuko and loved him unconditionally. He was more of a father and mentor than Ozai could ever hope to be. After coming to live a peaceful life in Ba Sing Se for the majority of Book Two, Zuko returns to his selfish ambition in a last ditch effort to please his father for the wrong reasons, forsaking what Iroh taught him.
It’s joyous to see Zuko make amends first with himself, when he truly understands how wrong he had it all along. Defying Ozai, joining team Avatar, and learning the true power of firebending were all great highlights in Zuko’s redemption arc. You see, before Zuko found his path, an imprisoned Iroh would refuse to speak with Zuko. When the time came to face his uncle after making all his wrongs right, Zuko begged his uncle for forgiveness on the verge of tears (and we were too). Without a word Iroh envelops Zuko in a loving embrace (oh man, I’m getting teary eyed just thinking about it).
“I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I feared you had lost your way.” Oh. Man. Geez. Pass the tissues please.
- The Tale of Iroh
Avatar fans will know why this has to be number one. “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”, as I mentioned earlier, gives viewers an insight into the show’s characters that we hadn’t seen before. Iroh gets a turn in this episode. The audience is tricked into thinking this is another one of Iroh’s happy-go-lucky, proverb rich stories… and it is. Iroh is shopping and collecting odds and ends most likely to satisfy his portly gut. He consoles a crying child with a lullaby. He comes across a would-be thief who fails miserably to rob him. What does Iroh do but show the thief a proper attack stance and then offers him some tea. What?! But it’s a segway into some serious Iroh knowledge when he helps the thief understand that he doesn’t need to resort to such desperate measures.
By the end we witness the most beautiful moment in the entire show. After spending his day helping complete strangers, Iroh sets up a picnic under a tree as the sun sets. Only, it’s not a picnic, but rather a shrine to his deceased son whose birthday it just happens to be. We learned that Iroh’s son, Lu Ten, died in combat.
“Happy birthday, my son. If only I could have helped you.” The tears are already flowing at this point, but I begin sobbing when Iroh sings a song that practically turns into a lament. A song about a soldier boy who came marching home. However, unlike the song, Iroh’s own soldier boy never came marching home again. Iroh was technically next in line to the throne of the Fire Nation, but he abandoned his birthright over the grief of losing his son. Oh man… you just have to feel it for yourself.
Well, that’ll do it for this list of gut wrenching moments from Avatar The Last Airbender. I’m already thinking of my favorite ugly crying moments from The Legend of Korra. Look out for that one on Mammoth Gamers. For now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be tearbending for the rest of the week.