Zhao In Netflix’s ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,’ Explained: Is Zhao Dead?

Avatar: The Last Airbender had been a big part of my childhood. The best thing about it was that you could watch it even as an adult and still enjoy the beautiful story it portrays. I won’t lie, I am a wee bit disappointed, but what Netflix has tried is to revitalize the importance of the themes portrayed in the series. Especially considering current geopolitical developments, this series reminds us of the implications of imperialism and how authorities around the world still use it to justify their idea of peace and stability. The Last Airbender presented us with timeless characters. Whether they were good or bad, the characters still had a lot to teach us as people in this world. One such character is Zhao, a personification of greed and hunger for power. 

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Spoilers Ahead


Who Is Zhao?

Zhao is a regional commander in the Fire Nation Navy, who serves as the main antagonist of the first season of the Netflix’s live-action series. Zuko and Uncle Iroh first encounter him when their ship lands on Zhao’s naval base to retrieve information about any unusual sightings. Zuko’s inquisitive demeanor makes him doubt the prince’s motives for arriving at the port. Believing that Zuko is hiding something that might benefit him, Zhao orders his men to interrogate Zuko’s crew about their presence at the port, ultimately discovering the return of the Avatar. Without hesitation, Zhao and his crew set sail to track down the Avatar, heading to Kyoshi Island. 

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Unlike the characters typically found in a show like this, Zhao actually seems to me like an embodiment of pure evil. His nature is eludes any rational explanation for his behavior. However, within the context of an imperialist society like the Fire Nation, where social principles revolve around competition, dominance, and expansionism, Zhao’s transformation into a figure like this might be seen as a natural progression. In this fictional world, Zhao is everything that the Fire Nation represents. He also shows the corrupting influence of a society built on these principles. Zhao’s rapid rise through the ranks of the Fire Nation military showcases his opportunistic nature. Despite lacking field experience, he views this as a virtue, as his record remains free of any notable failures. It is also likely that Zhao used his cunning nature to get to the position of commander. His eagerness to capture the Avatar stems from his desire to gain recognition from the Fire Lord and bask in the prestige. There’s a significant difference in Zhao’s character in the animated series and the live-action adaptation. In the animation, Zhao was a military commander loyal to the Fire Nation war effort.


Why Does Zhao Write A Letter To Fire Lord Ozai?

Following his unsuccessful attack on Kyoshi Island and witnessing the Avatar firsthand, Zhao recognizes a golden opportunity to elevate his prestige. Unlike many others indoctrinated by jingoistic ideals, Zhao’s actions aren’t solely driven by nationalistic sentiments. Rather, he is a megalomaniac who craves power and wants to be praised for his heroics.

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Zhao writes a letter to Fire Lord Ozai, disclosing the Avatar’s return to capitalize on the situation. This calculated move pays off as well, as it eventually leads to his promotion to the rank of admiral. His decision to inform Ozai isn’t just about reporting this development; it’s a pretentious display of his loyalty, which is a trait highly valued by Ozai in his military officers. Moreover, Zhao’s betrayal of Prince Zuko is not just personal but a strategic move in his game for power. Zhao believes that by outsmarting the crown prince, he will be able to showcase his own competence. 


Why Does Zhao Want To Get Rid Of Zuko?

Motivated by his desire to regain his honor in the eyes of his father, Zuko becomes a significant obstacle to Zhao’s pursuit of power in Avatar: The Last Airbender. For Zhao, becoming an admiral is an achievement that further aggravates his animosity towards Zuko. I suppose Zhao realizes that the Admiral is the highest rank of authority that a common-born like him could have, which is why he resents Zuko’s privilege and refusal to submit to his authority. 

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After seizing custody of Aang from Zuko following the events in Omashu, Zhao transports the Avatar to Pohuai, an impregnable fortress within the Fire Nation’s borders. When the fortress comes under attack by the mysterious Blue Spirit, Zhao tries his best to oppose the masked intruder’s attempts to liberate Aang. The revelation that Blue Spirit is actually Zuko further hurts his ego. Being attacked in the most secure stronghold of the Fire Nation makes a fool of him and his authority. Infuriated by Zuko’s audacity and defiance, Zhao resolves to eliminate him. 

Zhao and his men orchestrate a deceptive plan, making it appear as though Zhao has received orders from the Fire Lord to arrest Zuko and have it discreetly revealed to one of Zuko’s men. They claim that Zuko is to stand trial in the Fire Nation Capital for treason. However, the prince is unaware that Zhao has planted explosives on the lifeboat intended for his escape. As Zuko flees, believing he’s evading capture, Zhao detonates the explosives, presumably killing Zuko once and for all. Miraculously, Zuko manages to survive the attempt on his life, narrowly escaping the explosion. However, Zhao remains convinced that one of the thorns in his eyes has finally met his end. With this, Zhao believes that he can finally take the glory he thinks he deserves. 

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Why Did Zhao Plan An Attack On The Ice Moon Night?

When Admiral Zhao learns of the Avatar’s destination at the Northern Water Tribe, he assembles an entire armada for the extensive invasion he has planned. However, Zhao is not a conventional military leader; he knows that brute force will not turn the tides of the offensive, as the previous attempts of the Fire Nation had already been proven futile. He recognizes the formidable defensive capabilities of the Water Tribe warriors. Hence, he chooses to sift through the scriptures about the Water Tribe’s history instead. In the animated series, Zhao’s determination led him to the Knowledge Seeker’s library to find his enemy’s weaknesses. In the live-action adaptation, the head priest of the Fire Nation temples already possessed the scriptures containing these secrets. 

Zhao finds out that the waterbenders’ existence comes from the ocean, and their power is drawn from the moon. In fact, the waterbenders learned their skills by watching the moon push and pull Earth’s oceans. After the separation of the human and spiritual worlds by the first Avatar Wan, the ocean and water spirits take form as creatures in the human world once a year to remind themselves of what it means to be mortal. For one night, the ocean and moon spirits spent time together as mortals. Zhao speculates that even though the waterbenders would be the most powerful on the night of the Ice Moon, the moon spirit would be equally vulnerable, and the attack would put an end to the waterbenders powers. 

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Admiral Zhao’s ambitions and his hunger for power have made him blind to the ways of the world. While Zhao understands that getting rid of the ocean spirit would kill the people of the Water Tribe, I suppose the main reason he refrains is purely selfish, believing that killing the ocean spirit might also affect the Fire Nation. As for Zhao’s plan to kill the moon spirit, it was born of his own greed. He wants his name to be etched into the books of the Fire Nation as a legend. He wishes to be immortalized as Zhao the Conqueror, who put an end to the moon and destroyed the Fire Nation’s enemies. In doing so, he is even willing to disrupt the balance of the world. 


How Does Zhao Die?

Zhao commences the attack on Agana Qel’a from two fronts. The frontal assault is where he utilizes the entirety of his armada. However, this is only to distract the water tribe. In doing so, he deploys the war balloon that the Mechanist and Sokka had developed in Omashu. Zhao, along with a reluctant Iroh and other members of his crew, board the balloon and infiltrate the sacred oasis deep inside the enemy territory to hunt down the moon spirit. Aang is informed by Avatar Kuruk about Zhao’s motives as he can sense the proximity of his dagger, which Zhao intends to use to kill the spirit. Despite Aang and Iroh’s desperate attempts to discourage Zhao from doing so, he succeeds in stabbing the moon spirit, which had taken the form of a koi in the oasis. As a result, the moon disappears, putting an end to the powers of the waterbenders. 

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This heinous act by Zhao unleashes Iroh’s rage, but he escapes. Meanwhile, in an act of sacrifice, Aang merges with the ocean spirit to transform into a colossal, vengeful being seeking revenge for its partner’s fate, annihilating the entire Fire Nation armada. As Zhao tries to escape Agna Qel’a, he is finally apprehended by Zuko, who believes he has stolen his last hope to return home and regain his honor. In the ensuing fight, Zhao is subdued by the prince, who still prefers to spare his life, as he believes Zhao is not worth the effort. As Zhao attempts to attack Zuko, Iroh delivers the final blow, ending his life as his body drowns in the water. In the animated series, Zhao had a slightly different ending. His death was instead caused by the ocean spirit planning to avenge the moon spirit, submerging the admiral in water and putting an end to his ruthless command. 

Come to think of it, Zhao’s journey in this series is quite grim reminder of real-world historical figures who had taken a similar path of endless destruction led by their ambitions of conquest. Considering the Fire Nation being inspired by the Tang Dynasty and Imperial Japan, we can certainly draw similarities between Admiral Zhao and Hideki Toujou, the prime minister of the Empire of Japan, who was a ruthless warmonger himself. His drive to be called Zhao the Conqueror reminds me of Ivan the Terrible. Perhaps, by analyzing Zhao’s own motives, we can understand why figures like Ivan the Terrible, and Hideki Toujou set themselves on this path of destruction. What they had in common was a futile end. 

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Shrey Ashley Philip
Shrey Ashley Philip
A teacher, photographer, linguist, and songwriter, Shrey started out as a Biotechnology graduate, but shifted to studying Japanese. Now he talks about movies, advocates for ADHD awareness, and embraces Albert Camus.

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