Avatar: Does Azula Deserve Redemption?

Throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender, the main threat may have been Fire Lord Ozai, but it was his daughter Azula who stole the show. The menacing mastermind could appear downright sociopathic at times, but later insights into her backstory made the character almost sympathetic.

So, with the comics expanding her story and other Avatar projects offerings villains redemption arcs, it makes one wonder if Azula can earn forgiveness.

Fire Nation War Meeting

The first the audience ever sees of Azula is as a child visibly enjoying her older brother Zuko's maiming at their father's hands during their infamous Agni Kai. When Book Two allowed her to step into the spotlight, it became clear that she was every bit the ruthless and uncompromising emotional manipulator Zuko just wasn't -- and it was by comparison that Zuko gradually became more of a hero. Treated as the prodigy, there was little reason to see Azula as anything other than a cold-blooded villain at the beginning.

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As the series wore on, however, it seemed there was more going on in the princess' head than cold calculations. The episode "The Beach" went a long way in humanizing Azula as a secretly insecure teenage girl far more comfortable going to war than going to a party. Her inability to win her mother's favoritism toward Zuko disrupted the prodigy's obsessive exceptionalism, and following the betrayal of her friends Mai and Ty Lee, she spiraled into madness with hallucinations of her mother, revealing a vulnerable underside.

The comics continued to tease out that madness in The Search, with Azula still crazed while joining the adventure to find her mother. By Smoke & Shadow, the princess seemingly recovers from her psychotic state almost to the point of overcorrection. The last the canon shows of Azula, she became wholeheartedly committed to an insane vision of the future whereby her antagonism provokes Zuko into being an ever greater Fire Lord. She essentially declares herself a super-villain at the end of the story before disappearing.

However, that doesn't feel like a natural ending point for her story. Redemption arcs are a common trope whereby fan-favorite villains join the cast of heroes after undergoing a moral discovery and path toward atonement that redeems them. Much of Azula's actions are bracketed by her age, and even despite her mature demeanor, it's hard to forever condemn the actions of a 14-year-old. Yet, at the same time, Azula's actions involved outright killing, abusive manipulation and the destabilization of entire countries.

Azula holding onto rock with hair flowing

The best answer for her is to instead opt for a happy medium. Azula is too perfect of a villain to be enjoyable as a hero, but more importantly, her crimes were so detestable that it would be uncharacteristically broad for Avatar to gloss them over with her redemption. Truer to the world would be to revel in the moral grays of a villain who fans can sympathize with without forgiving, something Azula becomes when she is a mentally unstable child with insecurities and trauma that provoke her actions.

Owning up to her villainous status and becoming callous to her flaws should not last long, though. Wherever the Avatar franchise picks up with Azula, it's paramount that her story returns to where it was most interesting.