Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Avatar and the Fire Lord

“The Avatar and the Firelord” is the sixth episode
of the third season of Avatar: The Last Airbender and it is not until this
episode that we finally learn the cause and background of two things: Why the
Fire Nation embarked on a century long war of invasion, conquest and
colonization, and why Aang’s predecessor, Avatar Roku, had failed to stop
it.  The story is told in the form of a
dual narrative, befitting the theme of Aang and Zuko representing two sides of
the same coin, in which the events are unfolded between the spirit of Avatar
Roku telling Aang, and Zuko reading the writings of his great-grandfather.  Interwoven, we finally learn the answers to
questions poised in the introduction of the very first episode, why the Fire
Nation attacked.  

Our episode begins with Aang summoned to Avatar Roku’s
home island, a desolate volcanic isle that only reveals its former life as home
to a village when Toph slides off Appa and feels the earth beneath her
feet.  Aang then slips into his spirit
world trance, reminiscent of his previous ventures into the spirit world (see “The
Spirit World” and “The Siege of the North,”) and begins his lesson from
Roku.  At the same time, Zuko discovers a
message outside his room, telling the Fire Nation prince he must learn of how
his great-grandfather died to know his own future.  That scroll eventually leads him to a secret
repository or library, if you will, of Fire Nation documents where he discovers
the final testaments of the Fire Lords.
For ease of switching back and forth, we’ll just relate the story as told

The first surprise of this secret past is Avatar
Roku’s best friend is none other than Fire Nation prince, future Fire Lord,
Sozin.  The two were inseparable and only
on their shared birthday is it revealed to Roku that he is the avatar.  His departure to train and master the four
elements separates the two men, and while he is off doing in years what Aang is
doing in much less time, Sozin rises to the throne of Fire Lord.  The gulf that begins to grow between the two
men is immediately highlighted upon Roku’s return to the Fire Nation as a fully
realized avatar and he meets Sozin in the Fire Nation throne room.  The room exists as our guide into the role of
the Fire Lord in the Fire Nation’s destiny, which at the time of this meeting
lacks a number of elements that we have seen in Ozai’s throne room (and even
his father’s).  Notably is the wall or
moat of flames that separate the sovereign from everyone else, but also, the
throne sits lower and so the Fire Lord does not rule from above as he does
now.  As time passes and Roku and Sozin
grow farther apart, so does the Fire Lord’s throne from those who enter the

Upon Roku’s arrival, he immediately marries a woman
he was fond of before he had left, and it’s in the reception of the wedding
that Sozin bids his old friend to come with him for a private chat.  The Fire Nation is prosperous and amazing,
Sozin tells his friend, why should they not share this prosperity to the rest
of the world? Roku’s eyebrows rise and go from concerned to angry when Sozin
elaborates that the world should be united under one nation, the Fire
Nation.  In this moment, an allusion is
cast to the Second World War and the casus belli for the Japanese Empire, the
Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was the propaganda piece
offered to the Asian nations invaded by the Japanese to try and convince them
to accept Japanese occupation.  It was a
flimsy excuse then, and while awkwardly sincere when uttered by Sozin, in
practice just as beneficial to the people the Fire Nation conquered as those
attacked by the Japanese Empire.

Roku immediately scolded Sozin and informed the Fire
Lord that he would not allow any further talk of it.  This was all good and said, but after a time
jump, we learn that Sozin could not silence the idea in his mind and conquered
an Earth Kingdom city.  In a throne room
in this city, Roku confronts his old friend where the friendship is irrevocably
broken.  Sozin attempts to exert his
authority as a Fire Lord over Roku, a citizen of the Fire Nation, and Roku
kindly, if misguidedly, whips Sozin’s rear around the throne room in the Avatar
State.  He leaves Sozin alive with the
warning that should Sozin try again, Roku would “end” him.  It would seem that this was enough of a
warning that Sozin backed off his plans for world conquest until the night the
volcano erupted.  

The volcano in question was none other than the one
Roku and his wife had built their home on and were still enjoying in the Avatar
equivalent of retirement.  In proper
avatar form, Roku immediately begins fighting the eruption to give the people
of a village at the base of the volcano a chance to escape (along with his
wife).  From afar, Sozin can see the
eruption from his own home and in a surprise move, given the way things were
ended last time, flies off on his own dragon to assist Roku, who was now
fighting a second volcano erupting.  A
random blast of poison gas drops the avatar to his knees on the side of the
volcano, and in not quite a surprise move given the way things ended last time,
Sozin thinks out loud on how Roku’s death would finally allow him to do what he
has always wanted.  Sozin chooses world
conquest over Roku’s life and the avatar dies in a storm of volcanic debris
with the scene cutting away to the birth of an air nomad child, Aang the next
incarnation of the Avatar. 

While Roku’s story is an important background for
Aang, the true benefactor of this history is Zuko.  In the conclusion of Sozin’s history, Zuko
learns that his great-grandfather wiped out the Air Nomad nation in a bid to
kill the next Avatar and then when he failed to uncover the avatar, declared he
would spend his life hunting for him.
Beyond the logical extension of this strategy leading to him wiping out
the rest of the nations until forcing the avatar to once again reincarnate as a
member of the Fire Nation, it’s a direct comparison to Zuko’s own zealous quest
to find the Avatar.  Zuko had unknowingly
slipped into the same desperate search for the Avatar, one which threatened to
haunt his life, as it did his ancestor’s.
Zuko’s destiny is given more of a burnish when he seeks out his uncle in
the Fire Lord’s dungeon and demands to know why Iroh wanted him to know why his
great-grandfather Sozin passed away.

For the first time since the death of Iroh’s
original voice actor, Mako, our favorite Fire Nation uncle speaks (voiced by
Mako’s understudy, Greg Baldwin) and tells him that it’s not the death of Sozin
that he wanted Zuko to learn, but the death of his other great-grandfather, his
mother’s grandfather, Avatar Roku.  It’s
a shocking discovery to Zuko, and Iroh explains to his nephew:

“Evil and
good are always at war inside you, Zuko. It is your nature, your legacy. But,
there is a bright side. What happened generations ago can be resolved now, by
you. Because of your legacy, you alone can cleanse the sins of our family and
the Fire Nation. Born in you, along with all the strife, is the power to
restore balance to the world.”

Nothing is written without a purpose, and it’s not
an accident that Iroh connects Zuko to his great-grandfather Roku, by telling
his nephew that he has the power to restore balance to the world, an avatar
attribute and destiny.  To cement this
idea, Iroh gives Zuko a headdress that had been given to Roku by Sozin as he
was departing to start his Avatar training.
On the flipside, Aang leaves his own background session with the belief
that no one is beyond redemption and giving a second chance.  Given what happens in future episodes, this is
an important plot point to keep in mind.  Furthermore, to hammer in this plot twist to
come, Aang specifically mentions as much.  As
a minor aside,Toph’s quiet question about friendships lasting beyond a life time is a sad glance into her psyche, as a girl who has wanted for friends for so long, she doesn’t want to imagine a time or place where they aren’t with her.

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