Things start going very poorly for our heroes in today’s Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Episode 3.20 involves suicidal plans, ill-advised one-on-one battles, a psychological breakdown, lightning, and lots and lots of fire.
Please note that while the summary will remain spoiler free (aside for everything up to and including the current episode, of course), the subsequent commentary (and comments) will not be. If you haven’t already seen the series, go do it now. This post will be waiting for you when you come back.
Note: I would like this rewatch to remain spoiler free for The Legend of Korra. Please choose your comments wisely. If you wish to discuss Korra, you can do so on these posts.
Sozin’s Comet plows through the sky, and Katara tries to reassure Zuko that they can handle Azula. Zuko confesses he’s not worried about his sister—he’s worried about whether or not Aang will be able to kill Ozai. He wonders if Aang will lose, but Katara is quick to reassure him that Aang won’t. She believes that Aang will come back.
Three servants prepare Azula for her coronation while a fourth offers her some cherries. Azula takes a bite, but she finds a pit inside the cherry. She confronts the servant about the pit and asks why the servant decided—on the most important day of Azula’s life—to leave a pit in the cherry. The servant says that it wasn’t a decision, it was a small mistake.
The answer does not please Azula, and she demands that the servant tell her what could have happened if she hadn’t sensed the pit in time. The servant suggests that Azula might have choked, and Azula says that the servant then understands the severity of her crime. The frightened servant begs for mercy, which Azula grants since it is a special day. She banishes the servant and then orders the remaining three servants to get back to their work.
Azula has surprisingly dexterous toes.
As the eel hound swims toward the island, Suki comments on how Sozin’s Comet actually looks beautiful. Toph says it’s too bad then that the Fire Lord is going to use the comet to destroy the world.
Sokka et al. reach the shore and creep to the lip of the crater. Unfortunately, they’ve arrived just moments too late—the airships are taking off. Toph uses her earthbending to catapult Sokka, Suki, and herself onto the nearest airship. The three of them rush inside as their airship joins fourteen other airships in following Ozai toward the Earth Kingdom. (Ozai stands out in front of the lead airship like a mermaid on the prow, trying to look majestic but mostly looking like an idiot that doesn’t know anything about wind speed.)
Several Dai Li agents appear before Azula in the throne room (now with fun blue flames!) and ask if everything is all right. Azula tells them she’s not all right and asks them how long it took them to arrive. The confused agent says it took a few minutes, and the princess corrects him—it took five. Azula points out that an assassin could have snuck in, killed her, and escaped in that time.
The agent apologies, but Azula demands to know if they will be treating the new Fire Lord with tardiness and disloyalty. The lead agent protests that the Dai Li would never betray her. However, Azula guesses that they told Long Feng much the same thing. She banishes the Dai Li and tells them to send in the next group on their way out.
I really like that the flames are blue for her.
Sokka et al. make their way to the airship’s command room. Toph uses her metalbending to bust down the door and make herself a suit of armor so she can take out the Fire Nation soldiers.
Sokka congratulates Toph on her performance and has Suki take the helm. Suki asks what they’re going to do about the rest of the crew, and Sokka orders her to take the ship down to the water. He then gets on the intercom and orders the crew to the bomb bay—they have a birthday to celebrate!
The crew gathers in the bomb bay and makes awkward small talk. One of the soldiers is quite excited that the captain remembered his birthday. Unfortunately, the bomb bay doors open and the whole crew gets dumped into the ocean
Sokka looks determined and tells Ozai that they’re coming for him.
I think this is the closest to an Evil Face that I’ve ever seen on Sokka. Very nice.
Azula is lounging against a pillar in the throne room when Li and Lo show up. The women ask why Azula has banished her servants, the Dai Li agents, and the Imperial Firebenders, and Azula claims that none of them could be trusted. Sooner or later, all of them would have betrayed her like Mai and Ty Lee did.
Li and Lo tell the princess that they are concerned for her wellbeing, which instantly makes Azula even more paranoid. Azula guesses that Ozai must have told them to talk to her and mutters about how Ozai doesn’t think she can handle the responsibility of being Fire Lord. She says she will be the greatest Fire Lord in history.
Li and Lo agree, but one of them suggests that Azula postpone her coronation considering everything that happened today. Azula immediately turns around and demands to know who said that, and when the twins point to each other, she orders them to settle it via an agni kai. Li and Lo protest—they aren’t firebenders.
Ultimately, Azula banishes one twin (mistakenly calling her Lo) and tells the other twin she can stay. After the princess walks out, Lo and Li look at each other in confusion, uncertain which one of them is actually banished.
That’s a pretty impressive side-eye you have there, Azula.
Fire Nation tanks form up in the main streets of Ba Sing Se. Bumi tells the city that the Order of the White Lotus has arrived, and Pakku says they are going to set the city free. Iroh comments that a firebender can only experience this kind of power every hundred years. After a few deep breaths, Iroh compacts a wall of flames into a fireball—and hurls it through Ba Sing Se’s wall.
The Order of the White Lotus attacks.
Azula tries to get herself ready for her coronation, but she is struggling with her hair. In frustration she uses a pair of scissors to unevenly hack off her bangs.
Ursa appears behind her in the mirror and comments on how it’s a shame—Azula always had such beautiful hair. Azula asks what her mother is doing here, and Ursa claims she couldn’t miss her only daughter’s coronation. The princess tells her mother not to act proud because she knows Ursa thinks she is a monster.
Ursa denies this and says that Azula is confused because she has always used fear to control people, like Mai and Ty Lee. Azula rounds on her mother, declaring she has no choice in the matter. Trust is for fools, and fear is the only reliable way to control people. Azula claims that even Ursa fears her, but Ursa insists that she loves her daughter.
Azula cries for a moment before she screams and hurls her brush at the mirror. The mirror shatters, and Ursa disappears. Azula drops to her knees and weeps.
I’d offer you a hug, but I’m pretty sure you’d just stab me.
The airship fleet approaches the Earth Kingdom, and Sokka et al. note with dismay that they’re not going to be able to catch up to the lead airship in time. Ozai draws on the comet’s power to hurl a massive ray of fire down upon the ground.
Aang sees the approaching fire and tells Momo to flee. Then he uses earthbending and firebending to take out the lead airship’s propellers.
Ozai spots Aang, and the two of them stare at one another for a moment. Then Ozai strips off the cumbersome parts of his raiment and rockets his way to a pillar near Aang.
Sokka watches the airship as it crash-lands and realizes that Aang is back.
Good luck to you, Aang.
Ozai is pleased that the universe has delivered Aang to him after generations of Fire Lords failed to find him. Aang tells Ozai that he has the power to stop what he is doing and end the war here. Ozai agrees that he has the power—all the power in the world. He bends huge plumes of fire, and the fight begins.
Sokka cheers Aang on from his airship. However, when Suki asks if they should help Aang, Sokka declares that Ozai is Aang’s fight. They need to keep the fleet from burning down the Earth Kingdom. Toph asks how they’re supposed to do that, especially since she can’t see beyond the airship they’re currently on.
Sokka shouts “airship slice,” much to his companions’ confusion. He takes the helm and forces the ship higher and to the side.
Meanwhile, the rest of the airships reach the shore, and the soldiers begin setting the Earth Kingdom on fire. Toph can feel the heat—or sense the light?—from the airship and marvels at how much fire there must be.
The extreme maneuvering Sokka is forcing the airship to do is making it fall apart. Sokka tells his friends that it will be a rough ride and orders them to the top of the airship. Suki asks what they’re supposed to do after that, and all Sokka can say is to watch each other’s backs—he’ll let her know what to do next if they make it that far. He gives her a kiss, and then they rush after Toph.
Their ship slams into airship after airship, but their ship breaks apart after several impacts. Suki end up crashing onto one airship while the piece Sokka and Toph are on keeps going. She shouts to Sokka and Toph that she is okay and to finish the mission, though Sokka is horrified.
The piece he and Toph are on crash into the next airship. Sokka manages to protect Toph from falling debris once they land.
The Fire Sages are about to crown Azula the new Fire Lord, but they are interrupted by Zuko and Katara’s arrival. Zuko declares that he is going to become Fire Lord, which makes Azula laugh. However, Azula decides that they can settle the question of the throne with an agni kai, which Zuko accepts.
Azula smirks at the response, and Katara points out that Azula is playing Zuko. The princess can’t take both of them, so she’s intentionally separating them. Zuko insists that he can take Azula this time. Katara points out that Zuko had said he would need help, and Zuko reveals that there is something off about Azula. He thinks she’s “slipping,” for lack of a better term, and says that this way no one else will have to get hurt. Katara accepts the response.
The siblings square off for the agni kai. Azula claims that she’s sorry it has to end this way, but Zuko quietly points out that she’s not sorry at all. She throws the first blast of fire, and Zuko meets her. When the first flames die out, Azula goes on the offensive.
Can I just say that the music and lighting are gorgeous for the agni kai? Because they are.
The fight between Ozai and Aang continues, with Ozai also being on offense. Aang uses air, water, earth, and fire to counter Ozai’s attacks, though he continues to be on defense.
One of Ozai’s attacks catches Aang by surprise, and he gets slammed back into a pillar of rock and falls to the ground. Aang manages to recover quickly enough that he can escape the next few attacks, including several blasts of lightning.
Aang is ultimately forced to redirect lightning. However, instead of sending it back at Ozai, Aang decides at the last moment to shoot the lightning off into the sky instead. He collapses from the strain.
Ozai resumes his attacks, and one of the blasts hurls Aang off a pillar and knocks him unconscious. Aang wakes up just in time to waterbend himself a softer landing. He gets to his feet and sees Ozai rocketing down to meet him.
Did you not learn from Zuko before?
The agni kai lights up the Fire Nation capital.
Azula gets knocked down by one of Zuko’s attacks, and he taunts her by asking why she isn’t bending lightning today. He guesses she’s afraid he will redirect it, so Azula decides to show him lightning—by shooting it at Katara instead.
Zuko collapses, having intercepted (and poorly redirected) the lightning that was meant for Katara. Before Katara can rush to his side, Azula throws another blast of lightning to stop her. The princess cackles and charges Katara.
Aang flees from Ozai and barely manages to encase himself in a sphere of earth before the man reaches him. Ozai calls Aang weak—just like the rest of the Air Nomads. He claims that they didn’t deserve to exist in his world, and tells Aang to prepare to die.
Aang huddles inside the sphere while Ozai sends blast after blast of fire at him.
…is it too late to switch sides?
The low points in any story are almost always my favorites because that is when our heroes get to be their most heroic. The harder our heroes are hit, the more satisfying it is to see them get back up. “Into the Inferno” is all about getting our heroes to these low points, and it is a delicious ride.
Perhaps the only plot thread in the last two episodes that doesn’t follow this pattern is the liberation of Ba Sing Se, so it should come as no surprise that I think this is the weakest part of the finale. While it’s neat for Iroh to come back to Ba Sing Se—a city that is the site of great personal grief—as a liberator instead of a conqueror, this plot has almost no emotional depth. Perhaps if the show had framed the liberation in terms of Iroh repaying his debt to the city for the six hundred days terror he unleashed upon it, it would have worked better. The show could also have framed it as a way for Iroh to atone for the loss of Lu Ten in a war he now realizes was wrong—or something.
Instead we get nothing more than a long montage of the Order of the White Lotus being awesome. Granted, it’s a very fun montage, but the feeling of “oh, cool” doesn’t really have much lasting impact on me compared to the other parts of the finale. I suppose you could argue that Iroh burning the Fire Nation flag off the palace in the next episode is supposed to be highly symbolic and all, but it doesn’t really work for me. It’s not Iroh’s fault that Azula took over Ba Sing Se, so it doesn’t have the same impact as if Zuko had led the liberation. Rather, this whole sequence comes across as a mixture between an important strategic decision and a plot thread that also conveniently removes all potential adult allies our heroes could have had on their far more important missions.
In stories aimed at kids/teens, I am all about not letting the adults interfere in the plot, but only if I can believe why the adults aren’t interfering. Liberating the biggest city in the world is an important strategic goal, of course. But if everyone sincerely believes that Ozai has the ability to burn down the Earth Kingdom
even though I’ve already pointed out how ludicrous that is, shouldn’t you be able to spare some White Lotus people to make sure that plan can’t be carried out?
You’ve got the potential of hundreds of thousands of casualties if Ozai succeeds, plus the loss of resources that Ba Sing Se needs. I’ll handwave Ba Sing Se’s ability to feed itself on the land inside its walls
I don’t believe it one bit, but there’s no way that there’s enough land inside the city to also address its wood, meat, coal, textile, etc. needs, too. Plus there’s the fact that a continent-wide forest fire is going to completely screw Ba Sing Se over on fresh, clean water. You might be liberating the people of Ba Sing Se just so they can die of thirst/starvation/smoke inhalation afterwards.
…it was really fun seeing the Order of the White Lotus show off, though. Iroh’s attack that blasted through the walls? Awesome. I was amused to note that they only showed Piandao briefly, from a distance, and he—conveniently—only sliced through weapons and not people. (My roommate is of the opinion that the soldiers didn’t fall down simply because they hadn’t realized yet that they were dead.)
In contrast, Sokka et al.’s storyline worked much better for me, even though it doesn’t hit its lowest point until the final episode. It helped that I could believe in the urgency of their task—but more importantly, I could believe those kids were in actual danger. The White Lotus just gets to be cool and show off their impressive bending capabilities, but Sokka and Suki can’t bend, and Toph’s feats are restricted to the metal on the airships. (Not that this in any way decreases her awesomeness. Did you see her armor?)
Toph faces an even further restriction due to the lack of earth and her inability to see at crucial points in the plot. Watch how often Sokka grabs her by the hand or otherwise helps her since she can’t see. (I thought it was especially sweet when he shielded her from falling debris.) Suki and Sokka have to catch Toph after she catapulted them onto the ships because she couldn’t land on her own. I can’t imagine how scary that has to be for Toph—her world suddenly has huge, gaping holes in it. She never enjoyed flying on Appa, and now she’s trapped on airships with hostile forces under extremely dangerous circumstances.
Granted, most of the dangerous circumstances are self-inflicted. Sokka, your plan for taking out as many airships as possible is very clever, but you can’t deny that it was leaning toward the suicidal end of the spectrum. And I’m glad that the show pointed that out in the episode itself. When Suki asked what they were supposed to do after climbing to the top of the airship, the only things Sokka would say were 1) watch each other’s backs and 2) he’d update her if they made it that far.
It was a grim little moment, but I loved it and the brief kiss that followed. Especially since Suki totally accepted what he said. Of all our heroes, I think Sokka, Suki, and Toph got the hardest and most dangerous mission. (Aang, Zuko, and Katara make their own missions harder by the restrictions they place on themselves, i.e. not taking a life and dueling Azula solo.) Sokka and Suki are definitely aware of how much is at stake, both for the world and for themselves.
This makes the moment when Suki falls behind all the more heartbreaking. Sokka shouts Suki’s name, but Suki just shouts that she’s okay and that he needs to finish the mission. She doesn’t want him worried about her, all by herself on a hostile airship that is less than structurally sound after the bulk of their
battering ram airship crashed into it. She needs him to focus on the mission and forget about her.
Then Sokka said no, and I realized that, from Sokka’s POV, he may have very well just gotten his second girlfriend killed. This incident isn’t perfectly parallel to Yue’s sacrifice, of course, especially since Suki doesn’t ascend to a higher plane of existence, but I’m pretty sure the emotional impact is still close enough for Sokka. He was supposed to guard Yue, and he was Suki’s leader on the airship mission. I’m certain in that moment that Sokka was suddenly keenly aware of the possibility of losing his second girlfriend to this war.
As for Aang’s part in the finale, I don’t have much to say about it for this episode. Mostly because I wasn’t that surprised by any of it. Of course Aang would offer Ozai a chance to end the war, and of course Ozai would shoot the offer down. Of course Aang would be seriously outclassed by one of the best firebenders in the world when he was focus primarily on being defensive. The visuals were impressive, make no mistake, but that can’t make up for a sequence that was very predictable.
The one part that surprised me was when Aang redirected Ozai’s lightning. Not that he could redirect lightning (Zuko taught him that back in “The Phoenix King”) but that Aang would instinctively move to redirect that lightning back at Ozai. That moment where Ozai suddenly realized that he could die was beautiful—especially when Aang realized he could kill Ozai right then.
And then Aang chose not to.
I think that’s a powerful moment, for all I hate how the lion turtle is a narrative cheat
and how they don’t even show us the entire conversation with the lion turtle until it becomes relevant, which is even more of a cheat. Aang has the means and opportunity to go against his principles, but he decides that Ozai’s life is still something worth preserving despite all the terrible things the man has done.
What’s very interesting to me is that Aang gets to make this choice twice, once as himself, and once in the Avatar State. The previous four incarnations all thought that killing Ozai was the way to go, but Aang is still able to override them and take his third option. And you know what? I like that Aang can stick to this decision once he’s made it, even if I just can’t reconcile myself to how these events were all set up.
Of course, with his second-best chance to deal with Ozai shunned, it came as no surprise that Aang ends this episode huddled in a sphere of earth and trying to withstand Ozai’s firebending. Lucky for him, Ozai is going to end up giving Aang one of the keys he needs in order to win. It’s like Aang is the hero or something. >.>
And now we hit the point in the commentary where I throw up my hands and say I have no idea what to do with Azula. Well, that’s not exactly true—I have many opinions on the subject, but they’re all tangled up and I apologize in advance if the flow of this doesn’t make sense.
I’m not an expert in psychology by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m just going to say that it seems unrealistic to me that Azula would go from sane to hallucinating her mother in just three days. Azula’s breakdown would have been much better served if we had seen a more gradual change in her.
Pacing issues strike again!
I’ve theorized that the first cracks in Azula’s armor started after the Day of Black Sun invasion, when Ozai found out that Azula had lied about who “killed” Aang. Unfortunately, we don’t get the hint that any kind of rifts had formed between Azula and Ozai until “The Phoenix King,” seven episodes later. Even then, it’s questionable about whether or not Ozai’s treatment of Azula changed at all, or if Azula was simply just freaking out over the possibility of being treated like Zuko.
The next big tipping point in Azula’s breakdown was Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal at the Boiling Rock. But we don’t get to see the emotional fallout of this until now, five episodes later. Sure, Azula’s glee over killing Zuko and unbound hair in “The Southern Raiders” are supposed to be hints that things are not all fine and dandy with her, but they could also plausibly be interpreted that Azula’s just really excited to finally get Zuko out of her life permanently. Or that she’s happy to get revenge on yet another person in her life that abandoned her.
But instead of watching a gradual change in Azula, we get a headlong crash into crazy that evokes pity much more than it does sympathy—which is such a shame. I think Azula’s character would have been much better served if the show had remembered that Azula also carries Roku’s blood and that her legacy is the same as Zuko’s. Then her fall could have more squarely focused on the tragedy of choosing the wrong path instead of the unintentional implication that ladies go crazy when they get power.
And wow, does Azula get paranoid and crazy fast. I like how the show escalates Azula’s actions by having her banish people, starting from nobodies (lady that holds the bowl of cherries) up to the people she ought to trust the most (Li and Lo). What’s even more interesting is how these people also bring up the things she’s terrified of.
Azula is pissed off to have bitten into a cherry pit, but the thing that makes her really upset is when the servant says it was a small mistake. “The Avatar State” established that Azula cannot tolerate imperfection, and this incident is a great way to remind us that she is terrified of falling short of perfect.
Azula banishes the Dai Li for tardiness—an assassin could have killed her!—and disloyalty. She is well aware of how she got the Dai Li to turn on Long Feng, and she knows what it’s like to have her two best friends betray her, too. Azula knows that she has yet to be enough for anyone to be loyal to her, and the Dai Li only supported her because she seemed a better bet than Long Feng.
But the banishment that makes me saddest is when Azula kicked out Li and Lo because she thought Ozai was using them to spy on her. The two women go to Azula because they are concerned that she has banished her servants, the Dai Li agents, and the Imperial Firebenders. I really do think they were worried about Azula as a person, and not just their future Fire Lord. (Anyone else think they’re the closest to mother figures that Azula’s had since Ursa’s disappearance?) But at this point all Azula can see are her fears being thrown back at her. She suspects that Ozai doesn’t think she can handle the responsibility of being Fire Lord and takes Li and Lo’s interference as proof of it. But as sad as the twins’ banishment is, nothing can top Azula’s hallucination of Ursa.
It’s difficult to tell the difference between what is true, what Azula wants to be true, and what she thinks is true in this scene, and that frustrates me. I really wish we had gotten to see Azula’s side of the story when it came to her childhood and her relationship with her mother, but absent that, we have to rely on guesswork. Are we supposed to believe that this is what the real Ursa would say? Is Ursa supposed to be the manifestation of Roku’s legacy of good, offering Azula one last chance to turn away from Sozin’s legacy? Is Ursa just cobbled together from the memories Azula has of her mother’s treatment of Zuko?
I have no idea. All I can say is that whatever Ursa is supposed to be or represent, she gets Azula to at least acknowledge/articulate some important ideas, even if she doesn’t accept them:
- Ursa might not have thought Azula was a monster.
- Azula always uses fear to control people because she thinks it’s the only reliable method, and she believes she has no choice but to use fear.
- Azula believes that trust is for fools.
- Ursa might have actually loved Azula.
Whatever the evil things Azula has done in the show, this scene makes it very clear that Zuko isn’t the only one who would probably benefit from seeing Ursa again. I think this scene is one of the best at gaining sympathy for Azula. While “The Beach” hinted at Azula’s mommy issues, this scene was more powerful because we got to hear Azula justifying her behavior while simultaneously rejecting the possibility her mother actually cared for her. This scene doesn’t end with a glib remark—it ends with Azula falling to her knees and weeping.
All of this means that Azula is hardly stable when it comes time for her coronation. This does not excuse Zuko’s decision to face Azula on his own, of course. I’m pretty sure I facepalmed the first time I saw this episode, and I rolled my eyes when it came around this time. Zuko, I know you’re a hero now and everything, but you’re not the kind of hero who decides he ought to make sure there’s a level playing field when you take on the villain.
Then again, if Zuko had taken the intelligent route, we would not have been treated to the beautiful agni kai, so I will forgive him a little. The lighting during the fight is amazing, and so is the staging. I loved how the flashes of the different colored fire cut through the capital. And the sound, how it was just the music and the fire and Azula’s breathing—so gorgeous. It gave the first part of the fight a very melancholy feel, especially since the agni kai started with Zuko pointing out that Azula was happy about fighting him.
Unlike Zuko, Azula was the one to take the intelligent route. When she realized that Zuko was fighting better than her—and when he gives her the idea—she resorted to shooting lightning at Katara. It’s a nasty trick, but it is an excellent tactic, and it took Zuko neatly out of the picture.
It was an excellent way to hit our low point for this plot thread: Zuko twitching on the ground. That set up one of the major questions for the finale—could Katara defeat Azula in time to save Zuko?
This is one of my favorite episodes this season simply because it either hits or sets up the final low points for our heroes: Aang has been unable to defeat Ozai and is in complete defensive mode, Suki has been separated from the group, Sokka and Toph still need to take out the rest of the airship fleet, and Zuko is a twitching mess on the ground and possibly dying. In fact, the only thing going well right now is the liberation of Ba Sing Se.
But that’s okay. Next time our heroes get to show us exactly why they are the heroes of this series.
- I liked that this episode opened up on Zuko worrying about Aang’s ability to kill Ozai and Katara having faith that Aang would come back and win. It’s a nice character moment between the two of them.
- I counted. There is no way you could set the entire Earth Kingdom on fire with just sixteen airships.
- Even though this is a very serious episode, the show took time to throw in a couple of jokes: Toph thinking that Sokka was telling her to take the helm and Li and Lo’s confusion over which one of them Azula actually banished.
- Sokka’s plan to get rid of all the crew and soldiers in the first airship was completely unbelievable and hilarious.
- On a related note, all those folks are now going to drown in the ocean, as there’s no way they’re going to be able to swim to shore wearing all that armor.
- Did none of the other airships notice all the weird things Sokka’s airship was doing? Was no one suspicious when they jettisoned the entire crew?
- The animation in these last two episodes is really amazing. I’d apologize for the number of screencaps I’ve taken, but I don’t regret it in the slightest.
- Azula looks very vulnerable when she asks what Ursa is doing there, and her voice actually shakes. Major props to Grey DeLisle for her voice acting in these last two episodes.
- My first thought when I saw the Fire Sages was that at least Azula hadn’t gone crazy enough to have banished them before they could crown her Fire Lord. One must still be practical in one’s descent into crazy.
Just one more episode to go! Come back on Wednesday for Book Three: Fire || Chapter Twenty-One: Sozin’s Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang.