Monday, June 14, 2021

Iroh vs Ozai: The Best Dad vs The Worst

Despite technically starting on the bad guy's side, Iroh has become a fan favorite from Avatar the Last Airbender. While he's as funny as he is powerful, the biggest thing that makes him so beloved is his relationship with his nephew Zuko and the father energy he provides the exiled prince. While this topic has been discussed at length, I think it's best we compare Iroh to Zuko's biological father, Fire Lord Ozai, and talk about what makes a good dad versus a bad dad. 

Sibling Rivalry   

Zuko's treatment by his father can also be contrasted with how his father treats Zuko's sister, Azula. This line says it all: "My father says Azula was born lucky, and that I was lucky to be born." Azula was always Ozai's favorite, both because she shared his killer instinct and was an extraordinary firebender. Ozai constantly compared Zuko to his sister, keeping the two in constant competition and conflict for Ozai's attention. We see this pattern play out in the MCU where Gamora is pitted against Nebula by their adopted father Thanos, and the devastation it causes both sisters. Nebula resents Gamora for being the better sister in their father's eyes and the punishment she received for not being like her, where Gamora is just thankful to not be her. 

Iroh never compared Zuko to Azula, and also never compared Zuko to his own deceased son. The entire time they chase Aang across the globe Iroh never once says that anyone could be doing a better job than Zuko, despite Zuko failing on numerous occasions. Iroh always held Zuko in his own light instead of comparing him to others, which allowed Zuko to shine in his own talents. When needs be Iroh would help Zuko with training or with direction, but always after Zuko came to him for help. 

Conditional Love

Ozai's love for his children was always based on what they could do, more specifically, what they could do to further his goals. Azula was the favorite because her power and ambition could help him take over more territory, as demonstrated when she successfully captured Ba Sing Se. Zuko internalized this and thus devoted himself to capture the avatar, a seemingly futile task, to not only restore his honor but prove to his father that he was worth loving. 

Iroh treated everyone he came across with respect and kindness, from strangers to enemies like Azula. Zuko never had to do anything to earn Iroh's love, it was always there, even when Zuko was too busy seeking Ozai's love to recognize it. Even when they are united near the finale (We'll talk about that in a sec) Iroh still loves Zuko, even though Zuko betrayed him and was responsible for his imprisonment. 


The first time we really learn anything about Ozai was when Zuko's scar is explained. After a disrespectful faux paus in Ozai's war room, Ozai publicly humiliates Zuko by burning the left side of his face, leaving him permanently scarred. As fire lord and Zuko's father, this situation could've been handled a dozen different ways. The public scarring was a demonstration that there would be no forgiveness for Zuko ever being anything less than what his father demanded of him. 

When Zuko and Iroh reunite in season three (See I told you we'd get back to this) it's after Zuko betrayed Iroh to the Fire Nation and his honor was restored by Ozai. Iroh escapes the same day Zuko renounces his father and leaves so it can be assumed that Iroh never knew that Zuko had lost favor with the fire lord again, or that Zuko had teamed up with Aang and the gang. Zuko doesn't see Iroh until Team Avatar meets with the Order of the White Lotus. When reunited, Zuko begs Iroh for forgiveness for betraying him, which Iroh never even held a grudge against him, but was "Just sad that you lost your way". Iroh allows Zuko to make mistakes even against him and still forgives and loves him with no question. If Zuko had just disappeared forever Iroh would've still forgiven him and been sad on how they last saw each other. 

This Father's Day, you don't have to celebrate the dad you have if that's not someone who is a positive influence in your life. As many geekdoms demonstrate, some families are made from people who love each other. So take time to celebrate the people who were fathers for you when nobody else was. 


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