Ozai: The Anti-Climactic Evil
"We need to destroy their hope."
Considering that Firelord Ozai is the "big bad" of three consecutive seasons of television, he isn't very impressive. That might be accidental, a consequence of the limitations of writing a villain for a young adult audience. I suspect otherwise.
Over the past month, Avatar: The Last Airbender rocketed to the top of the Netflix charts. A decade-and-a-half after its release, the series seems to be undergoing a renaissance. Huge audiences, new and old, are more fascinated than ever with this mythic story of a war between four nations.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
The final season of Avatar: The Last Airbender concludes with Ozai revealing his plot to scorch the entirety of the Earth Kingdom. Using airship technology stolen from their opponents, the Fire Nation harnesses the power of Sozin's Comet to wage a campaign of environmental warfare against the civilians of a country they have already defeated. The revelation of this plan coincides with Ozai declaring himself "the Phoenix King" as fire shoots out of pillars behind him. The scene feels like an awkwardly over-the-top heavy metal concert.
Happily, our heroes show up just in time for Aang to confront the Phoenix King, tap into the Avatar state, and stop the invasion in its tracks. Hurray.
Yet everything about Ozai's plan feels clumsy and heavy-handed. There's a certain sadistic sensibility to destroying the hope of the Earth Kingdom's people by obliterating their land. Given the Fire Nation's great success in using slower, more measured tactics to defeat the other kingdoms, the scorched-earth policy seems embarrassingly theatrical. The power of Sozin's Comet would be better employed, surely, in an air-based assault on the weakened defenses of the Northern Water Tribe.
Somehow, though, it seems obvious that Ozai would prefer "total" victory over the Earth Kingdom to accomplishing his inherited goal of systematically conquering the three other nations. There is something about the hubris of declaring oneself the "Phoenix King" that suggests a show of power would be more impressive than truly accomplishing one's goals.
But as thriller author Ted Dekker well puts it, "Evil was predictable, always painfully expected." In Avatar, Ozai is the ultimate villain because he is the purest, most concentrated form of the show's central vice: Pride.
There are far more devious and cunning villains in the show. General Zhao, Zuko's chief rival, demonstrates an impressive aptitude for discovering the strategic weaknesses of his opponents. Azula, Ozai's chosen heir, is a master of manipulating her foes' emotions. Hama, the bloodbending puppet master, successfully deceives even Katara into thinking of her as a friend. Yet Ozai, throughout the show, seems to grow less cunning with every appearance.
When we first see Ozai he is only a silhouette shrouded in flame and shadow. He seems the very embodiment of destructive power itself. During the invasion of Black Sun, he appears to anticipate the assault team's every move, yet is thrown off when Zuko demonstrates the ability to deflect his lightning. By the time he battles Aang, Ozai seems to throw all caution to the wind in favor of childishly hammering away at the Avatar.
Within the narrative of Avatar, however, Ozai must act this way. Ozai is inverse of Aang--the two are mirror images of each other. Aang embraces the diversity of all bending styles, while Ozai mandates conformity to Fire Nation ways. Aang is a wide-eyed child, while Ozai is a narrow-minded elite. Aang is motivated by a love for all living things, where Ozai is motivated by a desire for control over all living things.
Ozai's ignoble end, being stripped of his bending power, is the show's way of completing this dichotomy. For Ozai and Aang to become true opposites, Ozai must lose all power even as Aang becomes all-powerful. Aang's decision to alter Ozai's chi has a side-effect, though, that is even more interesting than this binary. Ozai's loss of power completes his exposure as a fraud. Throughout the series, Aang's deepest virtue is exemplified only after he loses his ability to tap into the Avatar state because of his love for his friends. Yet when Ozai loses his own power, the shallowness of his character is revealed for all to see.
Ozai isn't mighty, he is petty.
British author C.S. Lewis in Perelandra observed of evil that, at the end of the day, true evil was always petty. Evil operates, Lewis wrote, with "its heart on the surface, and its shallowness at the heart." What better definition could there be of Ozai, the father who brands his own son and plays mind-games with his daughter? The great irony of Ozai's declaration that he is the "Phoenix King" is that he is not pheonix-like at all. There is no heroic rebirth for Ozai, no situation in which his legacy emerges anew from the flames. Estranged from his children, Ozai has no legacy--and when his power turns to ashes, he has no way to be reborn.
Ozai is the great anti-climax of Avatar. He is the deception revealed by truth, swept away as easily as light sweeps away darkness.