Avatar: The Last Airbender saw some big twists in season 3, including Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal of Azula. Here’s why Ty Lee finally snapped.
Avatar: The Last Airbender season 3 features a number of big twists for the show’s final act, including the betrayal of Azula by Mai and Ty Lee. After spending the better part of two seasons obediently standing by Azula’s side and following her commands, Ty Lee stabs – or, jabs – the princess in the back during a tense confrontation at the Boiling Rock. So what finally pushes Ty Lee over the edge?
Obviously, the backstory of Azula and Ty Lee’s relationship is crucial context here. Both born into royal Fire Nation families and brought up around the court, Azula and Ty Lee – along with Mai – were friends from a very young age. They all attended the Royal Fire Academy, and they remained close into their teenage years, though different circumstances pulled them apart geographically. When she began her hunt for Zuko, Iroh, and the Avatar Aang, Azula recruited Mai and Ty Lee to join her cause. But while Mai was happy to get out from under her family’s roof, Ty Lee took a bit more convincing.
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After Ty Lee turned down Azula’s offer to join her quest, the princess attended her circus performance and forced the ringmaster to turn it into a death trap, setting Ty Lee’s net on fire and releasing all manner of wild animals into the tent. Threatened by the prospect of further torment, Ty Lee agrees to join up with Azula and leave behind the life she loves. While Ty Lee appears chipper through most of the following months, her entire mission with Azula is tainted by the knowledge that she never had a choice – that she is a pawn, rather than a friend.
By the time of the prison escape from the Boiling Rock, that passive, gnawing resentment within Ty Lee would have naturally reached a tipping point. When she sees Mai bravely stand up to Azula’s tyranny to help Zuko escape, it flips a switch in Ty Lee’s head. Suddenly, the idea of leaving Azula seems like a real possibility. When Mai and Azula confront each other and Ty Lee is forced to choose a side, there’s no question where her loyalty lies – she sticks with the one person who’s actually been a true friend to her, rather than a tyrant.
Were there moments of honest compassion and trust between Azula and Ty Lee? Yes, and some even happen on screen over the course of the series. But their relationship is emblematic of both the uneven distribution of power in forced friendships (because Azula was the princess, Ty Lee never really had a choice) and the complicated ways people can get stuck in toxic relationships. Fortunately, Ty Lee was finally able to break free. With new Avatar: The Last Airbender content looming on the horizon, maybe Azula will get a chance at redemption one day as well.
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