The episode begins with a humorous set, as the Gaang enjoys some down time at the Ember Island Beach House. Zuko is the only one who can’t relax, impatient that no one seems concerned about what to do next. The audience may identify with Zuko’s impatience—I certainly did. This is the finale—get on with it!
Zuko interrupts the beach party with a sudden, aggressive attack against Aang, trying to shock him into action. Zuko’s attack is reminiscent of his prior antagonism against the Gaang. In fact, a couple of elements in this episode give a sense of “coming full circle”, especially for Zuko. By the end, Aang has been separated from the group, and it is Zuko that the rest of the group looks to to lead them, since he is so experienced in tracking Aang.
When the dust settles on Aang and Zuko’s battle, we learn that there is a crucial misunderstanding between Zuko and the rest of the group. With Ba Sing Se fallen, they consider the war lost, and so they see no point in confronting Ozai on the old schedule—trying to beat Sozin’s comet—when it would be better to allow Aang to have more time to train. But Zuko knows that the stakes are higher than the others realize: Ozai plans to use the comet to destroy the Earth Kingdom.
For many fans, Zuko’s turn-around came much later than expected. But for the sake of this plot point, the timing of Zuko’s defection was crucial—he would not have known Ozai’s plan (or indeed, had an unwitting hand in it) if he had not gone back to his father after Ba Sing Se fell. (On the other hand, who knows if the city still would have fallen if he hadn’t joined his sister then? There’s an interesting AU idea in there somewhere.)
Zuko’s flashback to the war council provides an important connection to episode 9 (“Nightmares and Daydreams”) by filling in the blank of what happened in that meeting that so upset him. This event, along with the knowledge he learned from Iroh about his connection to Avatar Roku, were what finally pushed him to decide to defect during the eclipse.
This scene also plays into the idea of coming full circle. Here, we get to see him achieve what he had been seeking for so long. His father not only invites him to the war council and waits for him to arrive before starting the meeting, he actually invites him to speak on a crucial dilemma for the Fire Nation—how to subdue Earth Kingdom rebellion in occupied areas. This creates an interesting reversal of the event that precipitated Zuko’s banishment. In the first war council, he spoke out of turn, displeased his father, but gained the opportunity to earn real honor. In the second, he speaks at his father’s invitation, pleases his father, but the conflict he feels over the planned destruction of the Earth Kingdom helps him to finally decide how to regain his honor.
At the war council we see a brief appearance of General Shinu, who provides some intelligence on the Earth Kingdom uprising. He was previously seen in “The Blue Spirit” as the commander of the Yuyan Archers and a rival to Zhao.
Zuko’s revelation of his father’s plan shifts the episode to a darker tone, but we have another brief lighthearted moment when Team Avatar comes together for a group hug. It’s a favorite scene of mine. *points to icon*
This episode sets up an important internal conflict for Aang—the question of whether or not to kill the Fire Lord. We may have had hints of this issue before, but I believe it’s not until this episode that it’s made explicit that Aang wishes to avoid killing Ozai.
At one point Aang makes an interesting statement about his conflict. He says that when he closed in for the kill on Melon Lord, “I didn’t feel like myself.” This is an important theme of the series—maybe the most important: the theme of maintaining (or defining) one’s own identity (or destiny, or honor—it’s stated different ways, but the idea is the same) in light of the sometimes conflicting needs imposed by one’s community. A few years ago angua9 made an interesting post trying to capture the overarching theme of several popular series, including ATLA. She suggested that the main theme of ATLA was balancing one’s personal identity with the needs of the community, or building a community that works for all it's members. At the time, I argued with her about this (as you’ll see if you read the comments). But in my re-watch of the series, I’ve thought a lot about that post, and I’ve come around to thinking she was right. The way Aang’s personal conflict is set up in the finale is a big part of the reason why.
One of the most memorable scenes in this episode is when Katara discovers the baby picture of Ozai—who she mistakes for Zuko—which allows the group to hash out Aang’s dilemma. I like how the scene begins with Aang looking dejectedly at his vegetarian meal, highlighting his commitment to do no harm and showing how troubled he is that his role as Avatar has given him this seemingly impossible choice.
In the conversation that follows, Aang tries to find a practical way out, and ends up suggesting the use of “gluebending” to stick Ozai’s limbs together and prevent him from bending. It’s an interesting bit of foreshadowing--more on this when we get to the commentary notes.
Zuko also makes a sarcastic suggestion to show Ozai his baby pictures and make him good again. As an anime fan, I couldn’t help but see this as a jab at a common anime trope (a ridiculously overused one in some cases *coughNarutocough*) in which a villain remembers his innocent childhood—usually at the hero’s urging—and either joins the hero’s side or dies heroically to help the hero in some way. One thing I love about ATLA is that it doesn’t make the concept of redemption too cheap. The characters who switch sides in ATLA do so as the result of a series of events that lead them to make an internal, deeply personal decision—not because the hero talks them into it through near-supernatural powers of persuasion. And some of the characters who do bad things don’t redeem themselves, but genuinely have to be neutralized and held accountable in some other way.
The last section of this episode is focused on Aang’s mysterious disappearance and the Gaang’s search for him. (Poor Toph, with her failed “field trip” with Zuko!) I love the Lion Turtle’s hypnotic call—a vocal line of chanting in the background music—that draws Aang to it.
We also have a brief scene that updates us on what Ozai and Azula are up to. Here, Ozai tells Azula that she is to remain behind and be crowned Fire Lord, while he proceeds with his destruction of the Earth Kingdom. He promotes himself to the title of Phoenix King, based on his notion that the world will be reborn from the Earth Kingdom’s ashes. It’s an interesting scene for a number of reasons. First, it seems clear that Ozai’s real purpose in giving Azula the title of Fire Lord is to take her out of the action. Has he noticed, like Zuko will when he meets her later on, that she has become unhinged? Or does he see her as a failure because of what happened at the Boiling Rock? Azula senses this, too, when she says, “You can’t treat me like Zuko!” Oh yes, Azula, he can. Really, it was always a matter of time. And so the seed of her downfall, which was planted when her friends betrayed her, now grows in the light of her father’s disappointment.
It is also this scene where we learn the significance of the episode’s title. I’ve always found it so deliciously conceited that Ozai creates this pretentious title for himself. But the best part is the irony of it. A “phoenix king” does not sound like a ruler who destroys the world in order to “re-birth” a new one from the ashes. If that were the case, it would be the world that is the phoenix, and the ruler just a despot who burned the old world. A true phoenix king is one who goes through the fire himself and comes out of it re-born—perhaps renewing his realm along with him.
So who, then, is the real “phoenix king”? ;)
- The seasons were named after the elements Aang was learning, so since he already knew air, there was never going to be a Book 4: Air.
- They had planned on making the finale into a three-part movie, but the third part ended up being too long, so it had to be split, for a total of four parts. The whole set of four episodes was always conceived of as one story.
- Many elements of the finale they had planned since early on in the series, others shaped themselves over time. For example, Suki being a part of the group at this point was a later development.
- They wanted to increase the conflict leading into the finale by having Zuko be unaware of the rest of the team’s idea that Aang could wait until after the comet. Also, they wanted to up Ozai’s evilness and make him a more dynamic, aggressive villain by giving him a worse goal than simply winning the war. The content of the war meeting was actually decided after “Nightmares and Daydreams” was scripted. It was challenging to write this moment, so that they could raise the stakes high enough, but not cross the line of what was appropriate to mention in a kid’s show.
- They explain that they always intended the story to have a good ending, and that they didn’t want to write the kind of series that would go on perpetually. The world of ATLA is an interesting world that can go on in different directions, but this story had to come to an end.
- They had debated whether or not it would go over well to have the characters wearing their beach party swim suits while having this serious discussion about the war, but they ultimately decided that it gave the characters an appropriate vulnerability. “They’re caught with their pants down.”
- The scene where Zuko teaches Aang lightning re-direction shows a nice progression of the lineage of styles (from Iroh, to Zuko, to Aang), and how Zuko is now much more willing to embrace a technique based on waterbending. In a lot of ways, Zuko learned more from his uncle after his uncle was gone.
- They mention how Aang’s joke pitch of gluebending turns out to sort of describe what turns out to be the real solution. Something similar happens in “The Seige of the North” when Aang suggests unleashing a spirit power to turn back the siege. This plays in to Aang’s role as “the trickster” archetype, and shows how he approaches his heroic role in an offbeat, mischievous way that somehow produces a positive result.
- They note the interesting chanting going on in the background music that “calls” Aang to the island. In the score for the four-part finale, the sound budget was upped a bit and they were able to use a 16-piece chamber orchestra, with real strings instead of synthesized.
- They talk about the benefits of writing the show using the talents of so many people coming together, such that they don’t even always remember who wrote which episode. [Legend of Korra wasn’t written as collaboratively, I believe, and IMO the story may have suffered a bit as a result.]
- They attribute Azula’s downfall to starting with Mai’s rebellion (“You miscalculated…”). [Not, as some fans have suggested, at her gaining more power as Fire Lord.]
- They had discussed bringing Jun back in during this season. At first, they thought they might use her as a way for the team to find people like Teo and his father to help during the Day of Black Sun invasion, but they ended up deciding to use her here instead.