In this article:
- Azula was born to Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, making her a princess of the Fire Nation.
- Because Azula was a gifted fire bender, her father liked her more than her older brother and honed her to become a ruthless fighting machine while rewarding her desires for power.
- When Azula finally snaps from the pressure of being crown princess, we see a different, more vulnerable side to her that we couldn’t have anticipated when we first met her.
Azula’s terrifying determination and Machiavellian view of the world make her one of the most terrifying characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. While she isn’t the real big bad of the show, she does act as the antagonist for many of the episodes, making her more memorable than her father, Fire Lord Ozai.
Her ruthless attitude to those around her makes it easy to forget that she’s actually still a child when the show starts. In case you missed it, Azula is Zuko’s younger sister, putting her in her early teens as Zuko is shown to be in his late teens. Underneath her cruelty and coldness, Azula’s youth makes her something of a tragic figure – the person Zuko would have been if he didn’t have as much help and support for getting away from Ozai’s abuse.
Azula’s Early Life and Why She Turned Out That Way
Azula was born to Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, making her a princess of the Fire Nation. She was born a few years after the birth of Zuko. Her parents named her after her grandfather, Fire Azulon, which proved to be auspicious as Azula quickly became a fire-bending prodigy compared to her brother who needed more time and instruction to grasp harder fire bending techniques.
She later developed a personality similar to her grandfather’s. Azulon was said to have ordered Ozai to kill his own son as punishment for trying to usurp Iroh as heir to the Fire Nation throne. So basically, ruthlessness runs in the family.
But she didn’t start out that way.
Azula and Zuko’s flashbacks in the show reveal that Azula was always trying to get their mother Ursa’s attention and wanted her approval, but Ursa would often overlook her in favor of Zuko as she was afraid of Azula’s naturally violent tendencies. This drove her to align herself closer to Ozai who she saw as someone she didn’t have to compete with Zuko for.
Since Azula was a talented bender, Ozai began to treat her “better” but only to use her as a weapon to further his own power. Their parents’ treatment of each other drove the siblings further apart until, by the events of ATLA, she mostly thinks of her brother as a nuisance while Zuko thinks of her as a monster.
When Zuko loses the Agni Kai to Ozai, he is officially driven out of the palace and Azula becomes the undisputed heir. This suited not only her relentless desire for power but also her desire to be loved, even if it was just the twisted, utilitarian way that Ozai favored her.
She aggressively trained herself to be an even better bender in the years of Zuko’s exile, improving her strategic abilities and her fire bending. All alone with no family, as even Iroh sees her as a monster that needs to be disposed of, Azula buys more into her father’s twisted idea of familial duty and love.
By the time she and Zuko meet again, the pressure of being a golden child, crown princess, and the need to be loved have driven her to a mental breakdown.
Azula Is Clearly Mentally Unwell
Duh. Azula starts hearing voices when we see her in her room during the latter episodes. She lashes out at her servants and talks to her mirror, thinking she’s seeing Ursa. This apparition of Ursa tells Azula what she desperately wants to hear: that her mother loves her and that she is worthy of being cared for in her own right.
A lot of video essays have diagnosed her with all sorts of mental illnesses ranging from depression to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Whichever it is, all of them point toward the true cause and reason for her lashing out: alienation.
It’s lonely at the top and no one knows it better than Azula. Surrounded by family members that only paid her attention for aggressive behavior, she learns that she has to utilize her position as princess and her talents to command those around her to form her social circle. If you want to make things simpler, because no one gives her anything freely, she learns to become a taker.
For all her swagger and confidence, Azula manages to be a tragic figure. On some level, she knows that power and control aren’t what she really wants. They’re just pale shadows of what she has never received before. But because she doesn’t have a frame reference for what that is, let alone how to form healthy relationships, she approaches it the only way she knows how: as a competition.
In “The Beach”, we see her trying desperately to connect with a boy she likes, but emotionally connecting with others on an equal field is so alien to her that she fumbles it every step of the way. The only form of relating to others that she understands is through power and the way she treats Mai and Ty Lee, despite it being obvious she craves their care, makes this even clearer.
Azula Is Terrifying but Oddly Sympathetic
There’s no doubt that Azula is terrifying and that she’s one of the cruelest characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it doesn’t make her descent into insanity any less tragic. It’s sad because we know Azula is mostly a product of her environment and that the adults around her, whether they intended to or not, have failed her.
The official comics that take place after the events of the show reveal that Ursa was alive this entire time and that she had essentially abandoned both Zuko and Ursa to their father’s abuse. Though Ursa can’t be blamed entirely for how Azula turned out, it’s worth noting that she says “What’s wrong with that child?” within earshot of Azula in one of the flashbacks. When Azula is older, she rants about her own mother thinking she was a monster.
Another thing noting in the flashbacks is that the two have no tender interactions. Only Zuko gets positive attention from Ursa and every interaction between her and Azula is a scolding (not that it wasn’t called for).
Iroh, the only father figure for Zuko, thinks of Azula, a child younger than the one he’s mentoring, as irredeemable.
He flat-out says she’s crazy and needs to be taken down. Even ATLA’s wise father figure who tries to see the good in everyone writes her off as a lost cause.
Though Azula’s actions horrify us, her experiences are true to what many children from abusive households ran by narcissistic parents go through. And her core fear of being seen as unloved and unworthy? That’s common enough that you don’t have to be a “monster” to understand.
In a way, Azula terrifies us with her cruelty and humanity because while she does terrible things, she makes it clear that she’s still just a lost child. Human and monster, in her case, aren’t mutually exclusive.