Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my all-time favorite works of fiction. Not only was it a fantastic piece of my childhood, but as I’ve grown up and become an adult, it became a series that I loved to study and think about. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love analyzing narratives, and, well…The Last Airbender is a gold mine.
After finishing my most recent rewatch of the show, I thought that I had dissected it in full. I thought that I had found all of the meaning there was to find within the series.
I was wrong.
Earlier this month, I was discussing The Last Airbender with a friend of mine, and during my chat with her I had a bit of an epiphany about one of the show’s bending techniques: lightning. Or, more specifically, lightning redirection, and how it relates to one of the show’s best-written characters: Prince Zuko. And so, as any writer with a blog starved for analytic content would, I figured that I would share it with my readers.
So, without further ado…
Prelude: Understanding Zuko’s Past
It’s important to establish the abusive and manipulative situation that Zuko lived through (and throughout much of the show, continued to live through) prior to learning how to control and redirect lightning.
Both Zuko’s sister and father, Princess Azula and Fire Lord Ozai, respectively, treat him terribly. Azula, as the more naturally-talented firebender of the two, is Ozai’s favored child; she is aware of this, and she takes great pleasure in tormenting Zuko by reminding him of this. Frequently, throughout both his childhood and his early adult life, she made sure that he always knew who was loved more. She even used this to manipulate Zuko into turning against his Uncle, Iroh, because she knew that Zuko simply wanted be loved by his father, and that she could use that desire to her advantage.
Ozai, on the other hand, simply hates Zuko outright. Because he isn’t a firebending prodigy, he sees Zuko as weak and worthless. He once told Zuko that he was “lucky to be born,” as opposed to Azula, who was “born lucky.” Ozai’s verbal abuse of Zuko conditioned him into thinking that he really was worthless and weak, and that he would need to “earn” his father’s love by doing something extraordinary, such as capturing Aang.
Both Azula and Ozai contributed significantly to Zuko’s internal strife that we see over the course of The Last Airbender, and the awful things that they said and did scarred him — literally — and wore him down for years. Zuko is ultimately the one at fault for his mistakes, but his abusive family is responsible for his warped view of right and wrong.
It isn’t a coincidence that the use of lightning is the signature technique of both Azula and Ozai.
Literally, it represents the most powerful firebending that a firebender can achieve. This makes sense for the two of them, as they are arguably the most powerful firebenders in The Last Airbender (though, I’d have loved to see Iroh give Ozai a run for his money when he was younger!).
Thematically, though, I believe it has a much deeper meaning. I believe that the lightning represents the toxic and destructive influence that Azula and Ozai have over Zuko — and his ability to redirect it represents Zuko’s growth as a character. It represents his ability to recognize that Azula only sees him as a tool she can manipulate, and that his father’s “love” is something that he doesn’t need.
The scene of the show that I think supports this the best is the one where Iroh attempts to teach Zuko how to use lightning. This exchange in particular is significant:
“You will not be able to master lightning until you have dealt with the turmoil inside you.”
“Zuko. You must let go of your feelings of shame if you want your anger to go away.”
“But I don’t feel any shame at all. I’m as proud as ever!”
“Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
— Iroh and Zuko
The reason that Zuko cannot control lightning is because he’s still tormented by what his sister and his father did to him. His immense frustration and shame leaves him vulnerable to the deadly precise nature of lightning. What he doesn’t understand here is that in order to successfully master lightning, he has to accept who he is. He has to accept that he can’t achieve the lofty, ridiculous standard that his father has placed on him, and he has to accept that he doesn’t have the same raw power as Azula does. As fans of The Last Airbender know, this is the central theme that Zuko goes through throughout the show: self-acceptance.
In a later scene, Iroh teaches him the motions required to redirect lightning:
“You can teach me to redirect lightning?”
“If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. You must create a pathway from your fingertips up your arm to the shoulder, then down into the stomach…from your stomach you direct it up again and out the other arm. The stomach detour is critical; you must not let the lightning pass through your heart, or the damage could be deadly.”
— Iroh and Zuko
This moment is extremely significant because it emphasizes how deadly lightning can be if you don’t let it pass through you and instead allow it to channel into your heart. This makes sense literally, obviously, but the thematic relevance is huge. In many ways, Azula’s tormenting and Ozai’s hatred are, like lightning, precise strikes at Zuko’s heart. For years, he has been taking those strikes, and they have been damaging him. Only by learning to accept himself for who he is will allow Zuko to control lightning safely and avoid damaging his heart — just like the only way for Zuko to move on past his abusive and manipulative family and their influence is to accept himself for who he is and not let their toxic treatment of him strike at his “emotional” heart.
Zuko’s journey to become happy with who he is in this way came to a head when he stood up to Ozai near the end of the show:
“For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted, but really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn! My father, who challenged me, a thirteen year-old boy, to an Agni Kai! How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?”
— Zuko, to Ozai
It is here that we see Zuko openly come to terms with his past experiences with his father and place the blame where it rightfully belongs: on the shoulders of his abusive, hateful father. And when Ozai tries to kill him with lightning, Zuko redirects it back at him. Zuko has learned that who he is doesn’t have to please his father, because he doesn’t care what Ozai thinks anymore. Zuko accepts who he is, regardless of whether or not it fits somebody else’s expectations.
He has learned to not let his father’s abuse strike him in his heart.