How Zuko vs Zhao made Avatar Season One Great

franchisewars:

(The Condor and I have just recorded a podcast recording his responses to watching the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. This article is intended to both discuss something fascinating we analyzed about Season One, but also to try and get some of my fellow A:TLA fans to download our podcast and answer the poll at the bottom of the post. Why? Because, if we get 40 downloads and enough responses to the poll, the Condor will both watch Season 2, and record a YouTube reaction to the epsiode “The Blind Bandit.” Why should you be interested? Read the last bit of the article to find out!

Poll: Should The Condor Do a Reaction Video To The Blind Bandit?   https://www.opinionstage.com/polls/should-the-condor-do-a-reaction-video-to-the-blind-bandit

Podcast:The Condor And The Last Airbender   https://www.buzzsprout.com/132209/737324-condor-and-the-last-airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest cartoons ever made, with a rich world, strong character arcs, and grand mix of comedy and drama. While the first season of the show may be a bit slower and more “fluffy” than the electric Seasons 2 & 3, it still stands strong against its competition. Part of this is down to the excellent use of not one, but two primary villains in the forms of perpetual threat Prince Zuko and looming powerhouse Admiral Zhao.

This pair of antagonists are dynamite, but not because of their individual threat levels towards the hero Aang and his companions. No, what makes these two elevate the show is their rivalry against each other, a successful formula the show will repeat to even greater success later.

Foiling Each Other

The first major advantage of Zuko and Zhao’s dueling storylines is in the way this subplot, entirely separate from the story of our heroic trio of Aang, Katara, and Sokka, fleshes out and defines the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of both characters, giving them a depth incomparable to the shallow nature of your average bad guys in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Zuko is the first villain we meet for the show, and while clearly more than just a scarred hunter, he benefits greatly from being foiled by Zhao early in the series. Zuko’s more honest and genuine nature is revealed by contrast when Zhao feigns respect for the fallen prince before mocking him, allowing the audience to draw a more admiring opinion of the Prince’s character. Likewise, while Zuko is clearly a hot-tempered, highly emotional and tempestuous personality, his manner during his Agni-Kai duel with Zhao reveal that he is highly disciplined, tightly focused, and open to taking advice from his wise uncle, the awesome General Iroh. After only one episode with Zhao, we as an audience know what virtues distinguish our main antagonist, ones that make him somewhat anti-heroic when matched against Zhao, but also more threatening to Aang because his virtues are *dangerous* ones for an enemy.

Zhao, on the other hand, is immediately painted as an arrogant, self-aggrandizing and ambitious military officer, but one not entirely devoid of competence, which combines with his martial might to make him a more blunt and momentous villain for Aang. His brute force approach to his fight with Zuko highlights a more reckless but still skilled approach to combat and strategy, while his attempt to strike while Zuko’s back is turned reveals that he is unbothered by the conventions of honor and a willingness to abuse and destroy the system if it gets him ahead. All these traits foreshadow Zhao’s efficient if unimaginative and dangerous approach to his objectives, such as his use of the Yuyan Archers to capture Aang to imprison him to prevent the Avatar’s reincarnation, and his horrifically miscalculated attempt to conquer the Northern Water Tribe by killing the moon.

Enhancing The Hero

“A hero is only as good as his villains” is a general rule of thumb that can be applied to any protagonist; Achilles’s strength is multiplied by his enemy Hector’s skill at arms, Miyamoto Musashi is proven as the greatest duelist by conquering the lethal longswordsman Sasaki Kojiro, and the Avengers gain serious cred by even just *inconveniencing* Thanos. Zhao and Zuko’s rivalry allows them to both achieve greater success against Aang than normal villains, and to enhance each other’s threat level more directly.

Zhao is allowed to outright capture and imprison Aang (in only his third physical appearance in the show) in intimidatingly short order using the Yuyan archers because the writers have decided to use this opportunity to have Zuko rescue Aang so he may capture him himself. Thus, one episode effectively communicates how Aang cannot afford to make any mistakes or directly confront Zhao, as the Admiral’s resources and cunning use of them makes him too dangerous to hang around with. Zuko, meanwhile, gains serious badass points by successfully rescuing Aang using nothing but swordsmanship, acrobatics, and stealth, making a good case that any close range struggle between himself and the heroes is *not* a favorable scenario for them. Aang’s resourcefulness and skills are tested to the limit by his alliance of convenience with Zuko, earning his escape by the skin of his teeth.

Later, Zhao again proves his lethality by blowing up Zuko’s ship with the Prince aboard, further highlighting his ruthless and underhanded nature, and even though Zuko survives, he’s clearly not in great shape. But his attack sets up arguably Zuko’s most impressive moment in Season One, as the Prince, deprived of all his resources and manpower, and still suffering a bit from the explosion, singlehandedly infiltrates the Northern Water Tribe, defeats waterbending prodigy Katara after being briefly subdued, and kidnaps Aang, coming frighteningly close to accomplishing his mission with nothing more than firebending and his bare hands. The audience is left at the end of the season knowing that Aang’s defeat of Zhao and escape from Zuko show both his strength and that of his friends.

Raising The Stakes

Perhaps the most basic but effective dramatic element the rivalry brings to Season One is a raising of the stakes, partially by making our hero flee not one but *two* relentless antagonists, but also by giving the audience an excuse to cheer for Zuko. Zuko’s end goal is just as evil as Zhao’s in regards to Aang, but his motivations are far more sympathetic and noble, and unlike the Admiral, Zuko is a hands-on antagonist, resourceful in his own way, and admirable for his strength of character.

And because Zhao is such a ruthless and anger-inducing antagonist, the audience learns to prioritize their fear of Zhao succeeding over their fear of Zuko succeeding. At the tail-end of the season, Zhao’s vile nature makes him the larger, more imminent threat, not just to Aang and the Northern Water Tribe, but to the world at large, while Zuko’s resourcefulness and determination means that he is no less personally threatening towards Aang. The finale is a tense snarl of competing plotlines and threats, one that stands *very* strong despite not quite reaching the heights of Season’s 2’s finale.

And thus, Season One (Book 1: Water) of Avatar: The Last Airbender, while not perfect, sets an extremely high bar for the series, well beyond that of most cartoons and indeed, most TV shows period…

… Which is why you should help me coerce the Condor into watching Season 2 by downloading the podcast in the heading for this post, and get him to watch “The Blind Bandit” for a reaction video on Youtube! Remember (look away, Condor!) 

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