I've seen it commonly argued that Azula is a sadist and a killer and I disagree whole-heartedly for various reasons. For one thing, she is still a child, a child from an abusive and dysfunctional home at that. For seconds, I've always felt as though she has really done nothing different than any other character at the end of the day. I also believe that redemption is very possible for Azula. I wanted to elaborate on this by pulling things from old debates and articles I've written, just to throw my opinions into a more organized format instead of having to re-type the same points every time the discourse is brought up.
I'd like to first address the argument that she was born
evil. This is a very common one I've noticed in the fandom and I disagree so very heavily. She was raised
evil, not born evil. Let's be honest; the only parent who paid attention to her was Ozai. And she didn’t have Iroh like Zuko did. Honestly I think that the whole point of them being siblings was to show how it could have turned out either way; Azula was the youngest child she could have easily been the ‘failure’ child. If she had her mother and Iroh and Zuko had Ozai the script would have been reversed.
I’m pretty sure the whole point (or at least one of the major ones) of her character was to show how different kids can react to the same abuse under certain situations. If Zuko can be redeemed so can she, if his misdeeds can get a pass hers can too; by this I mean--once again--that the roles could have easily been flopped. Zuko was the male heir, he very well could have been the favorite of Ozai. In which case he would have turned out more like Azula. And before you say that it isn’t true; think about his season one personality. He may not have been cold an manipulative like Azula but he had a hot and explosive temper. How many times have we seen him snap on Iroh? We've seen him burn much of Kyoshi Island down. I’m not saying he’s a bad dude anymore. I am saying, though, that he had the potential to remain that way if Iroh was taken out of his life and all he had was Ozai.
Azula is the perfect foil to Zuko. had she been the one to get banished things might have been very different for her. It would have been a degrading and humbling situation. She probably would have had Iroh. And in this case she would have had her mother; a softer influence. As opposed to Ozai who trained her to lack empathy. In fact, in this situation, the very person who had shaped her and raised her into being evil has been taken out of the equation.
A few weeks ago I made a post comparing Azula to my two other favorite characters; Bellatrix and Regina. People treat Azula like a Bellatrix when she is more of a Regina.
For those who aren't familiar. Bellatrix is a Harry Potter character, she is known for and is one of literature's go to examples of a sadist. Bellatrix has tortured people to insanity, she murders people, and (in the movies) destroys Hogwarts property and sets Hagrid’s hut on fire. And she does it all while laughing gleefully. She gets a kick out of it and loves it. She’s unrepentant. She doesn't just not understand human emotion/just doesn't get why it's wrong. She knows that she is causing pain and distress and she takes satisfaction in doing so.
That’s why it drives me nuts when people say Azula is a sadist and a killer. I feel like people either don't know what those words mean or they exaggerate the hell out of Azula's actions. She hasn’t killed anyone (save for Aang, who came back) and she certainly isn’t a sadist.
For that, I see her as more of a Regina, more specifically an Evil Queen Regina; sad and angry and in a lot of pain. She was an abuse victim. Does this make her a good person? No. Does it excuse her actions? Not really. But that, as I see it, is how it is.
So let’s go back to Regina. Regina was also an abuse victim who became the abuser. She had a lot of hurt and a lot of insecurities and those lead her to hurt and even kill people. But via help from the right people (Emma and Henry) and a lot of patience and second tries she ended up with what I think is one of the best redemption arcs that a show has done. She’s still sassy and she still has a mean streak but she has learned to channel it in a healthier way. She learned to use her former dark magic for good rather than evil. At times she still lashes out. Because, at her core she is still Regina and that darker part of her will always be there.
Regina’s arc is what I can see for Azula. Who was also abused in almost the same way as Regina (high expectations and a lot of mental molding). Azula is like Regina in that she turned into the abuser. She became exactly like her dad in the same way Regina became like her mother. The difference is that Regina put up some more resistance–but (unlike Azula) Regina was in her teens when the abuse truly started whereas Azula was being shaped and raised wrong from the start.
That said, I feel as though Azula has the potential to be like Regina in terms of redemption as well. The girl is 14. That alone is why I find it very hard to understand why people are so convinced that she cannot change. She is very young she has a lot of time to learn and grow. Ages 11-17 is the puberty stage, i.e the prime time for change and growth. Regina was well into adulthood when she realized that she needed to change. If someone like Regina, who was more than 28 years into a horrible cycle can be redeemed I don’t see why a 14 year old girl can’t with the right help.
That said, I don’t want her to get a Zuko style redemption. I’d like her to get a Regina style one; where she uses the things that made her evil to do the right thing. Where the dark side of her is still very much there and comes out on occasions and she kind of fears that. Better yet I want Azula to have an Azula style redemption where the dark side of her is still there and it either doesn’t bother her or she kind of enjoys it.
To put things simply; some people treat Azula like a Bellatrix when she more closely aligns with Regina in terms of history and personality. For it I feel like Azula can have an ending more like Regina’s than Bellatrix’s.
Is Azula an evil person? I don’t think so. Bellatrix is evil. Ozai is evil. Is Azula an asshole. Big time. She’s not nice. She’s not easy to get along with. But she’s also the kind of mean girl you meet in high school. Do I hate my high school bully? A little. But is my high school bully evil? Not really, she’s just a bitch. And that’s kind of how I see Azula; she’s not evil. She’s a bully and/or an asshole. And bullies/assholes have room to learn and make amends.
So is Azula a good person? No. Does she have the potential to be? Absolutely.
Azula isn’t a sweet innocent cinnamon roll, but she isn’t the worst person in the Avatar universe and she isn’t pure evil either. She’s very damaged. And damage has the potential to heal or break worse.
Another argument that I have seen a lot is that since Avatar is a kid's show, Azula is the closest thing they can get to having pure evil and a killer. So I'll dig into that.
If I’m being honest I don’t really think that being a kid’s show makes a difference. Children’s shows can incorporate dark themes; they just have to be more sneaky about it. In that way I do agree that children's shows have to beat around the bush.
Where I start to disagree is when people claim that Azula is the closet thing we have to a killer in Avatar (and I'm not even going to factor in the deaths in LoK); Azula’s killing of Aang is no worse than when Toph trapped two people who can't metal bend in a metal container and left them to starve to death--granted it was revealed that they escaped but, just like Azula, the action was taken and she put little thought into what would have happened if they weren't found.
Hell I'd say what Toph did is more
sadistic as it is much more prolonged than a quick lightning bolt to the chest. The reason it is overlooked was because the scene was played for laughs.
To make a better, more solid comparison. What Azula did to Aang is no worse than when Aang capsized those ships in Siege of the North. The death of the soldiers on board is implied. This spirit
is Aang/was created by him. It killed Zhao.
What about the Blue Spirit? Zuko and Aang had to have killed a bunch of Fire Nation soldiers in their escape attempt when they dropped them off a really high wall, onto a concrete ground.
Zuko and Aang have a higher body count than Azula. They have a lot of collateral damaged and it’s off screen that’s why I think it gets glossed over. I love Aang but I'm 90% certain that he has the highest body count via collateral damage.
I think that all of that collateral damage is also glossed over because they are good guys. And death when it comes from protagonists is usually always overlooked or given a pass. But at the end of the day they still killed people. Death is still death.
And tbh, it’s not that much different than what Azula did. Azula’s kill was a war kill, just like their kills were. She was a child soldier who took out a fellow child soldier. I’m just going to post an even older thing I wrote about this; “When Sokka took down those war balloons people probably died on impact or drowned. But no one is calling him a murderer. Why? Because he was in combat. And the same goes for Azula. They were all just kids–kids shoved in the middle of a war. Any deaths they caused (though awful all the same) were war kills. That’s different than outright murder. In my mind, these kids were all child soldiers. The only reason Azula gets more shit is because she was on the ‘wrong side of the war’.”
Combat kills =/= murder. Soldiers are not killers in the same way someone who kills for vengeance is. I found an article here that sums up my pov pretty well; https://science.howstuffworks.com/is-war-murder.htm " Murder isn't simply the act of killing someone. It's a legal term that defines an unlawful killing. The adjective unlawful makes all the difference. One person shooting another on the streets may be murder, but on the battlefield it's condoned." Azula did not shoot an unarmed citizen or a random peasant. She shot a combatant. One who was going into the Avatar state at that.
Remember Aang's high collateral damage? Most of that happens when he is in the Avatar state. And he was going into the Avatar state. He very well could have killed Azula and she knew it. At that point Aang's control over the Avatar state was not a thing and his anger was unchecked. I have no doubt that he would have/could have killed Azula if she didn't strike first. This is a very clear cut example of a solider facing a solider from the other side. Azula simply shot first and was simply on the 'wrong' side of the war. Had Aang struck Azula first I feel like the audience wouldn't be calling him a murderer.
Is it good, absolutely not killing someone is never good. But Azula isn’t a killer, she is a soldier who made one kill that was nullified in the end. Overall it is a very dismal situation; the fact that two literal children were put in a situation where one was going to have to kill the other/felt like it was necessary to go to such extremes.
As for the sadism thing, I have to disagree there as well. A sadist, by definition is someone who tortures and hurts people for fun and enjoyment. Azula does not. Azula has stopped a torture session before because it was not needed. I'm referring to the boiling rock. She interrupted the session and declared that they should stop fussing with the prisoner because he wasn't hiding anything. Azula doesn’t hurt for pleasure or enjoyment, she does it for war/combat. Which imo is different very than sadism. She doesn’t seem to enjoy causing pain, she doesn’t really show blood lust. The only person who she enjoys bothering is Zuko, so I’ll give the opposition a point there. But overall, Azula isn’t a doesn’t seem to get much satisfaction out of making people suffer. She has the thrill of the conquer, but not of pain itself.
To pull one final quote I've said in the past on this matter; "And then there’s the whole Azula is a murderer discourse. I’ve been in it a few times stating why I didn’t think that she was; or at least no more than the other characters. Bottom line, she only killed Aang but he came back so does it even count? Second line, she had a pristine opportunity to kill everyone in Ba Sing Se (or at least the war/ruling figures) but she chose a bloodless coup instead. Line three, when Sokka took down those war balloons people probably died on impact or drowned. But no one is calling him a murderer. Why? Because he was in combat. And the same goes for Azula. They were all just kids–kids shoved in the middle of a war. Any deaths they caused (though awful all the same) were war kills. That’s different than outright murder. In my mind, these kids were all child soldiers. The only reason Azula gets more shit is because she was on the ‘wrong side of the war’.
I bring this quote up because I want to point out that even if we were to cut the scene where Azula stops the warden from torturing a prisoner we still have very solid proof that she is not a sadist. In fact she very actively
avoids killing if she can. She lead a bloodless coup. The only people she attacked when taking Ba Sing Se were the kings and generals and other militia force members. And she didn't kill nor torture them. She had them imprisoned. Hell, the Earth King himself got away and she didn't even bother tracking him down because he wasn't a threat. I can name hundreds of villains who would have sent hunters after the Earth King just to get rid of loose ends. Azula did not. And this was the Earth. King
. A king! She didn't kill nor torture Long Feng either and he very directly tried to double cross her.
Even in combat Azula is as bloodless as she can possibly manage.
Her killing of Aang was pretty much an anomaly and it happened somewhat because he had backed her into a corner.
Other than him, her hands are clean. And no, it isn't because she had other's do the work for her. She pretty much does everything for herself and her hands are still clean. She has never ordered the death of anyone.
Even at her worst, when she is literally in the middle of a breakdown she still doesn't become a killer nor a sadist--save for Zuko, so again I do give the opposition that. Other than that she opts to banish servants and soldiers instead of killing them for what she, in her delusioned state perceived as them trying to kill/conspire against her. Even when the darkest side of her came out, she still was not sadistic.
So let's delve into the heart of the argument. "Azula is the closet thing that Avatar could have to a sadist/killer without actually being one." I also have to disagree here because they showed both Jet and Zhao permanently dead. By this logic, Long Feng would be the most evil that Avatar has to offer because he has the one on-screen and permanent death. Hell, Aang is more of a killer with that logic as that death he caused was also permanent and on-screen. In fact, Aang's kill is more upfront than anyone else's in the show. Of course I’m NOT saying that Aang is a killer or a bad guy, because he isn’t. But he is a good example of how Avatar has shown death before so temporarily killing is canonaly NOT the worst thing that Azula could have done. A permanent death is. But again, I point back at the child solider thing–she was just on the wrong side of the war.
I also find it really hard to comprehend why people think that Azula is the closest to a sadist when this show has Zhao, Long Feng, and Ozai. They are all adults and they all have shown no indication of wanting to change. Zhao decided that he was going to kill the moon, which in turn killed Yue--another on-screen death that proves that Azula and her temporary kill aren't the closest that this show can get to showing death. And when doing so didn’t bat an eye, in fact he tried to relish in his victory.
Long Feng had no qualms about stealing a kid’s bison to lure him in. Nor in abducting Jet and literally brainwashing him just like a brainwashed an army of women (*CoughJooDeeCough*) in an attempt to brainwash an entire city. Long Feng also had no qualms about trying to use Azula for his own gain--but again this is glossed over because 1. Azula was the victor and 2. Azula is an antagonist.
But if you really think about it and strip it down to the core it's kind of disturbing. We have a grown man looking at a 14 year old and think about how he can try to manipulate her into doing his dirty work for him so that he can double cross her, throw her in prison. ("Now comes the part where I double cross you. Dai Li, arrest the Fire Nation princess! I said arrest her! What is wrong with you?!")
Ozai has on screen burned his son’s face and seemed to get a kick out of it. In fact Ozai regularly gets a kick out of tormenting Zuko. In the comics he smiles when he tells Ursa that she has to comply to his demands.
In the comics, he smiles when he tells her that if she tried to take Azula and Zuko with her to her banishment that he'd kill all three of them. His own family. And ultimately he was the one who went ahead with burning the Earth Kingdom to the ground so that a new 'better' race of people could 'rise from the ashes' with him as their ruler.
Azula is not the closest thing to a sadist and a murderer that this show has to offer; Ozai is. And Long Feng is the closest to a killer. Hell Mai’s uncle, the warden is more of a sadist; he order the torture of multiple inmates. He was the one who demanded that the line be cut. He got kicks out of humiliating his inmates and making them kiss his feet. Azula didn’t even display arrogance enough to make her subjects kiss her feet. At her worst, when she was literally insane. She still didn’t kill anyone. At her worst she was still more humane than Ozai and Zhao.
I also wouldn’t underestimate what children’s shows can do. My friend IRL and I were talking about this and he pointed out that Teen Titans (which has the same target audience as Avatar) has a villain, Slade who is a great example of a children’s villain with a body count and a sadistic streak. I feel as though kids’ shows are a lot darker than people make them out to be.
My point here is that Azula is not a sadist or a killer. She’s not even the closest thing this show has to a sadist or a killer, especially if we get in to the Legend Of Korraside of Avatar (where heads are literally exploded and we see the uncensored torture of Korra herself).
My other main point is; yes Azula done some shitty things. But a lot of that has to do with her upbringing. She isn’t a full on Ozai yet, the creators have stated for themselves that she can change and I think that it has been hinted at.
Like I’m sorry, but it bugs the hell out of me when people imply that others are ‘delusional’ or ‘crazy’ or throw out a, “have you even watched the show?” Over interpretations and opinions. There is some pretty concrete proof *see above* that (at least at some point) Bryke believed that Azula was redeemable.
I can see the argument that Azula can’t be redeemed in the same way as Zuko because, well of course not! But to write off the possibility of a redemption arc entirely? I disagree very much and apparently the writers do too?
I've seen it said that "she could change but she didn't." Which is a fair point. But I'd like to reiterate that she is still a child and that the comics are still on going, hence why it’s hard for me to see people still writing off the possibility entirely. She has shown a softer side in the beach episode. And (this is my interpretation only) I do believe that the comics have planted the seeds for and have hinted at a redemption. In her own twisted way, she was trying to help Zuko be a better leader which is different than actively trying to take him down.
Even better, when she 'dropped' the letter in The Search Aang outright says that
Granted Sokka argues the opposition. But it was meant to remain unclear. And I like to be optimistic and say that they're going to act on what Aang said.
So to give a TL;DR: Azula is still very young and she is the product of her environment. It has been hinted that she can be saved. And even if she isn't redeemed there is very concrete and canon proof that she is not a killer anymore than characters like Aang and Zuko nor is she a sadist.