Happy Zutara Month, everybody! What, you didn’t know that was a thing that existed? Well, it is, and it does, and it has for at the very least the nine years that have gone by since the finale of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender tore that ship apart, set it on flame, and then salted the ashes.
Still, here we are, celebrating the ship almost a decade after the fact. And that “us” is not just rabid fangirls in their twenties to thirties, hiding in their own tag on tumblr.
Okay, I will admit that I only know about this from Dante Basco’s own tumblr (follow him, he’s a delight), and yet it always feels quite validating if a little strange to me that the actors themselves also did, in fact, ship it. (Oh, uh, Dante Basco and Mae Whitman are the voice actors for Zuko and Katara respectively. Maybe I should have started with that. Or by explaining that Zutara week is something completely different from Zutara month. The fandom is that active, yes.)
Voice actors aside, I have shared the series with quite a few of my friends over the years; they all had in common that they were teenage girls around my age at the time we watched it, and they all came back (at the very least) not-into-the-actual-canon-ships that we got. And to take it to the ridiculous extreme that is my life on occasion, just a few days ago, when I talked to my roommate about what I may or may not write as my next piece for this very site, and mentioned it might be something about shipping on Avatar, she, with no prompting from me, said the following:
“That got weird, didn’t it? Didn’t… Katara was her name, right? Didn’t she end up with the bald kid? […] I always wanted her with that fire prince guy instead.”
She’s not even someone who watched the show with me, so my pathetic shipper aura or something couldn’t have tainted her. And yes, I am aware that this sounds very much like all those tumblr posts about things that happened on buses. But the thing is, even if this hadn’t happened (and it absolutely has), it would still be thematically appropriate to get to the lead-in question:
Why do people (still) ship this?
I am not exactly interested in a ship war here. I’ve been there, done that, and to this day never received a T-Shirt. If you were among the people who were fine with the endgame pairings, have supported Kataang all you life, and just dug the dynamics we were presented with, good for you!
No, seriously. I’m happy for you. Saved yourself a lot of headache, and means you were better at picking up the context clues. And also didn’t get invested in the draining process that is shipping something doomed to fail. And boy, can that be draining.
Shipping something that, for the lack of a better word, “wins,” is incredibly vindicating. At the very least, it proves your interpretations right. One might argue about execution and implications afterwards, as I will at a later point, but fundamentally, “winning” in a ship war, liking what is presented to you, supporting your ship, or just not caring and accepting the narrative as a whole is perfectly fine.
The same goes for not really caring about Kataang either way, but being… Uncomfortable with certain aspects if Zutara.
They did start out as enemies for a whole season and a twist in the season 2 finale. There are a bunch of people who are really into the enemies to friends to lovers thing, and a lot more who are repulsed by it. The fact that many, many romances are examples of this trope being really poorly executed, and that base hostility is oftentimes regarded as chemistry even when it is quite clearly nothing but that, is one of the worst things failings a romance, especially the contemporary ones, can have. Period. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, when I personally ship something, it’s not because of hostility and hate being hot—it’s about people actually genuinely liking each other.
I.e: You have been doing Pride and Prejudice wrong since like forever, and now we’re stuck with people adapting it over and over again without understanding the fundamental dynamics of it, the reason that one novel worked.
(By the way, hostility and bickering are not the same. Bickering can work just fine as chemistry, if done right and not excessively or in a mean-spirited way.)
That’s not the main reason, or even one of the main reason, people are still so into Zutara 10 years later, though. At least I don’t think so.
Well, and while we’re here, we can just as well cover the other completely superficial thing. After he cut off his ponytail and before his hair got long enough for the traditional bun styles, Zuko was probably the most attractive main character on the show. Katara is also one of the most attractive characters (especially after she wears her hair open in Book 3), and at least for me and the people I watched the series with, she was the teenage girl audience stand in. Teenage girls were not the primary target audience, but, you know, they were around so much, Nickelodeon eventually greenlit a sequel with a female lead. Which is rather rare.
So, wish fulfillment, to a degree, is appealing as hell to the part of the audience who’d then go online and write fanfiction, draw fanart, and start ship wars. There’s also the whole prince thing, which means money, royalty, palaces, and the eternal question whether the Fire Lord’s wife is called “Fire Lady” or not. We know female rulers in their own rights are also Fire Lords, so are their husbands Fire Prince Consorts? Wait, no, I’m not here to talk about royal titles, but, you know, that’s also kind of sexy.
So these are the superficial reasons detractors usually like to blame for the ship being as popular as it is. And while I can’t deny that all of these are prooobably aspects, well, I also think this goes deeper.
Themes and Shit
Well, that, and also symbolism.
Yes, the whole fire/water red/blue stuff is very, very low hanging fruit. I get that. I agree. But the thing is, this is a series chock full of symbolism, one of the major themes is balance, and when we get right down to it, we really learn the most about fire and waterbending in the first three books. In fact, season 1 delivers the following arc words:
“Water brings healing and life. Fire brings only destruction.”
And that is very much on point for the first two seasons. First we see Zuko and Zhao hunt the heroes down, Zhao going so far as to kill the moon in the end. Season 2 has Azula and her team taking over the entire Earth Kingdom in her little coup. Meanwhile, Katara, our main window into waterbending, is consistently the maternal and caring and soothing one on the team (unless someone personally wrongs her or her companions, of course, but that’ll come later). And despite her protestations, she is also healing basically all the time.
So even while Zuko’s season 2 self-discovery journey is going on, water = good and fire = bad is the message that is usually to be taken away from the proceedings, whereas earth and airbending are portrayed much more ambiguously—though up until Zaheer shows up in Legend of Korra and straight up commits regicide, the portrayal or airbending has been mostly positive, the occasional act of cutting giant insects in half not-withstanding.
Then Book 3 comes around and turns this all on its head. We get bloodbending, one of the absolute creepiest aspects of the entire series, alongside with the portrayal of fire as something that brings life and warmth and also harmony.
For some reason, I don’t know which one that could be, season 3 also has Zuko at his arguably nicest after he turns sides, whereas Katara is just as arguable at the darkest point her characterization has ever been. Not that she’s ever anywhere in the realm of “evil.” I’m just saying, once she let her hair down, she also became a lot more assertive and less likely to take any bullshit. She always had spunk, but season 3 took it to an entirely different level.
The bloodbending and almost killing a defenseless old man helps, too. Not that I don’t get the revenge angle, but like, not something she would have done before this season, evidenced by the fact that Aang and Sokka are completely freaked out by it. I’ll have words about The Southern Raiders at another point in this, trust me, and they’re not necessarily going to be all fangirlish gushing.
And I mean, “Your rise with the moon, I rise with the sun” is literally a thing Zuko says to her. Lowest hanging fruit of all, yes, but a thing, dammit.
Well, then there’s the thing that they’re both technically kind of royalty. Yes, the political system of the Southern Watertribes is kind of shoddy, and Katara and Sokka are portrayed as peasants more often than not for some reason, probably because their tribe is kind of poor, tiny, and abandoned and all that. But when Sokka tells Yue he’s kind of a prince in his culture, he’s also not wrong. They are the kids of the most prominent chieftain of the Southern Watertribes—which is more or less the equivalent.
…Of course, thinking about political situations in the Southern Watertribes is nearly impossible without considering the absolute mess that Book 2 of Korra was, so how about no.
In some ways, Zuko, Azula, Sokka, and Katara are kind of like a foil foursome. Everyone is a narrative foil for everybody in there to some extent! And I’m not trying to devalue that for all the other constellations in there—I can yell about Katara and Azula for hours on end, but why do that when someone else already did it for me.
But I am writing about Zutara here, so that’s the focus.
Narrative Equals in Every Way
The character development of both Katara and Zuko is pretty much mirrored from the get go, and they are more or less developed alongside each other the entire time. It starts at the very beginning. As mentioned above, I don’t consider Villain!Zuko to be hot or anything to write home about where a possible romantic angle is concerned. He’s just absolutely not there yet, and I for one don’t think open hostility is overly sexy.
There are… Things in season 1, but they count more towards funny symbolism for you to over-interpret at your leisure.
Nothing to see here, just a completely random twin dragon crown, no meaning at all.
Is someone wearing his heart on his sleeve? And not to mention, that episode also featured the introduction of June the Bounty Hunter, official patron saint of the Zutara fandom.
No, I am not making this up, this was a thing back in 2008.
Anyhow, as mentioned above, I am so not about necklace shenanigans. That’s flat out hostility coming from being on different sides in this war. Not what made me ship it.
The point I actually want to make here is that their journeys mirror each other. See, there is no better way to say this, but in season 1, they both kinda sucked. Not really as characters, but Aang was running circles around them both and everyone else in regards of combat capabilities. They also both had to fight for recognition within their own culture, until they both come into their own during the finale—while confronting each other.
The fight sequences they share here are not only some of the best especially early on in the series, they are also pretty well balanced. Until, you know, the whole sun and moon thing swings the pendulum in either direction.
The thing is, of course, in the end Katara succeeds where Zuko fails. She leaves her people with some degree of recognition, while Zuko becomes even more of an outcast than he previously was.
Now, season 2 is a bit slower-going for Katara where character development is concerned. She does learn to compromise a bit in trying to get along with Toph, and there’s the entire thing with Jet which I think is significant, and also she is very consistently shown to be the absolutely only one who can take on Azula and get the drop on her. Aang and Zuko both can maybe hold her off for a time, Katara consistently manages to best her temporarily. But that’s a completely different story.
Also, more than ever, with her newfound abilities, Katara just basically becomes the Team Mom for everyone. All of these are points that don’t really pay off until season 3.
Speaking of which, season 2 is basically Zuko’s season, with his journey of self-discovery and low-key redemption arc. But the thing is, Zuko and Iroh trying to live a peaceful life as far away from the war as possible, and the Gaang, with especially Katara in that specific situation, trying to organize the Earth Kingdom’s war effort for the eclipse, still ends up with them in the same place—and also on common and equal ground.
Yes, everyone’s favorite episode, and every Zutara shipper’s favorite scene. But it’s actually loaded beyond the obvious framing of this shot. Katara’s grief for her mother had been well-established this season, and Zuko’s backstory was intimately explored just a few episodes after that. Before and after this, Katara has also not exactly been the most forgiving person, is the thing.
Remember Jet? Who she had an explicit crush on, who then betrayed her, and who she was super suspicious of and violent towards until the entire creepy conspiracy was uncovered? And who then died off-screen? This is a key factor here, I think. The whole Jet situation is the reason Katara gives Zuko a second chance. Well, that and also the whole dead mother bonding, which had been a key part of both their narratives for this season.
Actually, the whole thing of his mother telling him to remember who he is, is probably one of the reasons Zuko blows it all in the end and sides with Azula, just when Katara had her during the final battle – leading to the two of them fighting, again. With him using a version of her water whips, by the way. Another technique inspired by waterbending, like the whole lightning redirection thing.
Anyhow, they both start off season 3 at their arguably lowest point and in deep conflict regarding their relationships with their fathers.
Sure, Zuko is a little happy in places, like with Mai, sometimes, but the central theme there is that everything feels wrong to him and he’s conflicted again.
Katara, as mentioned, is now done taking anyone’s bullshit. I know a bunch of people who are not into her season 3 personality because of how aggressive she got, but I think it’s rather awesome. It shows a new side to her, something less ideal than the nice and maternal girl we’d seen for the previous two seasons, who was so easily idealized.
Her resentment for her father in the first episode, by the way, is 100% due to her new betrayal by Zuko, by the way. Freudian implications notwithstanding, it’s where she channels all the hurt to, by lashing out. It’s basically Jet all over again, especially with how Katara initially treats Zuko after he rejoins the group.
Other things from season 2 that finally pay off now? Well… Remember how they both have to take on secret identities to do what’s right?
Secret identities they both end up throwing into a lake, by the way. Because you can never have enough parallels to something.
And while we’re at it, this season early on calls back to attention how Katara is so maternal towards everyone all the time that Sokka can’t even remember the face of his real mother anymore. One of the most tragic exchanges in the series, yes, but more importantly, that’s just who Katara is. The mom friend. The one to constantly take care of everyone.
Then Zuko comes along, the group comes around to him, and on the first life changing field trip he takes with Aang, one of the first things he does is encourage him with the flame thing, because he’s such a talented kid. When they’re not bickering during that episode, Zuko is basically filling the dad position. This goes on, in a few little moments because the second half of season 3 is way too short. It’s Zuko serving tea to the Gaang and attempting to tell dad jokes. It’s “Get out of the bisons’s mouth, Sokka”. It’s… This.
As soon as he gets along with everyone, Zuko becomes the team dad. And the only person who is never mothered by Katara. Well, outside of Suki, maybe, but Suki is such a non-entity for the episodes she’s around in, I feel comfortable counting her out for this.
Just Basic Interaction
I’m not exactly done with parallels yet, but let’s change gears for a minute.
I mentioned earlier that I do not subscribe to people thinking that just straight out hostility is hot and makes for a good romance. It can make for good hate sex leading into a good redemption arc resulting in a good romance, but that’s basically the opposite of what this series is about, so forget I brought it up.
And even, and maybe especially, during season 3, there is still a lot of hostility on Katara’s side. I mean, basically their first one-on-one interaction after Zuko joined the team was her telling him she’s not afraid to murder a bitch should he ever get this conflicting loyalties shit again.
What kills me about this scene, by the way, is the happy and hopeful look on his face when she first enters his room. Yeah, sorry Zuko, actions have consequences, and yours just happened to have pushed all of her buttons.
But after this, he tries so, so hard to get back into her good graces, so much harder than with anyone else.
Now, I am personally convinced that we should have spent about an entire season just with everyone going on a life changing field trip with Zuko, and that season 3 had a horrible pacing problem all over, but nowhere is that more apparent than it is in The Southern Raiders.
Now, I mean, the episode ends like this, and I am here defending Zutara, so of course I like it to an extent.
But I am also convinced they should have just brought Katara along for the boiling rock episode, because, you know, she might be able to help with the whole boiling lake predicament and may or may not have a stake in getting her dad back, but hey, that’s not what we got.
Still, what we did get was an episode of Zuko trying to hard to get her to forgive him. To do so, he not only walked in on Sokka preparing for things wildly inappropriate on a children’s show, but waited in front of Katara’s tent the entire night.
This by the way teeters a fine line between cute and creepy. Good on him for not trying to wake her, I guess?
When they get down to the whole revenge business, Zuko is…mean to Aang. I mean, the entire episode has a bit of a tonal dissonance with how Zuko and Katara treat Aang and Sokka.
It’s still not a bad episode. It has ninjas, really, really good teamwork, and a satisfying conclusion. It’s not that Katara forgave her mother’s killer, it’s just that the guy wasn’t worth the effort in the end. It’s a nice compromise between Aang’s philosophy and more pragmatic concerns. I refuse to consider revenge to be Zuko’s preferred course of action, by the way. That’s not who he is; otherwise he’d have fried his father during the invasion.
No, what Zuko understood about Katara here was that she needed some kind of closure, hence why he also doesn’t push the issue afterwards. And that’s what she appreciates and why she is capable of accepting his change of heart and forgive him at this point.
Another point is that this episode is the only time we see Katara bust out the really creepy aspects of waterbending again. Not just the bloodbending, but the turning rain into ice spears she does in the end. There is a dark side to her, and she’s only ever seen letting that out around Zuko.
Also, just from how he acts during this episode alone, don’t even try and tell me that the way he and Katara got along in the caves under Ba Sing Se wasn’t a key factor in his eventual decision to join the Gaang. It wasn’t the only factor, of course not, but it was certainly a big one. I’d even go so far as to argue that Zuko’s identity crisis at the beginning of season 3 isn’t just caused by “not doing what’s right,” though again, of course, that’s part of it, but also because it was more directly betraying someone who was randomly nice to him and went so far as to offer to heal his scar.
…Katara may also just have been the first person he let touch the scar without getting aggressive.
Anyhow, remember how I also said that hostility is bad, but bickering and friendly teasing can be good? Because that’s straight what these two go for after The Southern Raiders.
“Ember Island Players” is a weird episode, in every way possible. I really like it, and really don’t.
More importantly though is that after this, and for the entire finale, Katara and Zuko and just perfectly in tune with each other.
This scene was put into the trailers for a reason, dammit.
Maybe the most significant part about this, however, is probably just what they spend the finale doing. Katara accompanies Zuko on his very own mission to get closure; in confronting Azula together. (Because Zuko did his homework and noticed how Katara has always been the only one who could effectively deal with Azula and no I will never let that go.)
So they also spend the last finale of the show fighting together. Just not each other at this point. Now they fight for each other. Zuko almost sacrifices his life for Katara, and Katara finishes off Azula before she heals him, both of them having come full circle in a way that doesn’t make me want to scream. In the good way, if you will.
Now, just for clarification, do I think they should have mugged down right then and there? Nah, not really. I mean, it wouldn’t have been out of tone with how the show has handled romance so far, and in way, I am kind of glad it didn’t happen then and there. It took the writers up until Korrasami to finally pull off a romance arc in a way that wasn’t somewhere between frustrating and offensive, so honestly, that’s probably for the best.
I just also don’t think they shouldn’t have ended up with each other in some shape or form, is the thing. There’s chemistry, there’s all these parallels and the fact that their narratives mirror each other, make them equal in every conceivable way, and, well… The somewhat ship-war worthy portion of this essay. Read at your own peril.
What We Got Instead
First and foremost, I was actually somewhat okay with Maiko? Like, not thrilled, it was more like a shrug. Okay, cool, you do you kids. I’m not a big fan of the whole childhood crush narrative, and their relationship in season 3 was… Troubled, but I think I would have been alright if not for some unfortunate timing and an even more unfortunate tidbit in the finale.
It was always such a loving and supportive relationship!
No, what really rubs me the wrong way here is that in the finale, after all the big battles are dealt with, things have been at peace long enough to stage a pretty epic coronation and a peaceful succession of power, Zuko is… Surprised to see his girlfriend show up there. Surprised that she is out of prison. A prison she was only thrown in to save his sorry ass. A prison she, according to her own words, only got out of because the warden was her uncle.
Hold your fucking horses. So when you’re an outcast and a traitor, you manage to break two people out of that place, but once you’re the heir apparent and about to be crowned, you can’t be bothered to spare a thought to that girlfriend of yours who was thrown in there to protect you? Seriously?
This is most likely not the intended interpretation of that scene or line (or, given recent developments in the comics I heard about, maybe it is?), but it’s just so jarring, I can’t even. Why would she take his sorry ass back after that?
…It also doesn’t help that the episode immediately after she was thrown into prison featured Zuko camping out in front of another girl’s tent all night. Mai, sweetheart, at this point, he just might not be that into you.
Did I mention I am technically fine with this pairing?
Where I get uncomfortable is Kataang. And I’ll try to restrain myself here.
So, I’m not one to argue that Kataang being endgame hasn’t been somewhat obvious from the get-go. It’s just that outside of three and a half instances, it has always been completely one-sided. It’s Aang falling in love with the first girl he sees, and getting the girl in the end. What is missing in there is a single scene on how Katara feels about the situation.
There’s the “Fortune Teller” episode, which has her briefly looking somewhat considerate after figuring out that Aang is indeed a very powerful bender—in an episode all about how the fortune teller is actually a phony. There’s “The Headband”, in which there is sudden and pretty out of place sexy dancing (and Aang’s age never makes this comfortable for me), which might be the only mutually somewhat romantic moment played straight on the entire show. And that happens in the same episode as this.
Katara just casually playing Aang’s actual mom.
Oh, and she looks vaguely uncomfortable before, during, and after he kisses her like three times.
And the thing is, if you give me a compelling reason to, I will ship just about anything. I don’t usually go against canon pairings on a show. I have just always failed to see a compelling reason for a highly mature and maternal fourteen year-old girl to end up with a rather immature twelve year-old whom she has mothered for all the time they’ve known each other, and who puts her on a pedestal.
Which is what Aang does throughout the series: see Katara as a hyper-idealized version of herself that no one could ever possibly live up to.
But even besides all of this, if we assume that those two didn’t get serious until they were significantly older and somewhat closer to each other in maturity, their relationship as presented on the show is still lacking what made Zutara so compelling in comparison: they never challenge each other.
And I don’t mean in a negative way necessarily, I am talking about challenging each other in any way at all that furthers character development. The only thing Aang ever challenges about Katara is her patience when he gets into childish antics or is insensitive about being better at her culture than she is.
We only ever get glimpses of his feelings about her, never about Katara’s feelings for him. It’s always her comforting him. Him kissing her. And as the coup de grace, the last time we see them interacting before their final moment together in the finale, is her telling him not to push the whole romantic angle because she’s “confused”. With no interaction in that regard at all for the next four episodes, we end the series on her silently walking out on that balcony, blushing all prettily, and basically being presented as his prize for saving the world.
Katara has no say in it, it seems. She just walks out there with no explanation, no word even spoken, pretty much out of nowhere. And this does nothing for her character; no point of her development was ever tied to her feelings for Aang beyond maternal protectiveness. And we’re still expected to buy this. And buy this as a relationship that works out for the rest of their lives, even.
Aw, shit. That leads to my least favorite part.
Unfair and Unfortunate Implications
Now this is a bit hairy. And I am aware that it is somewhat unfair to blame any of this on Kataang happening at all, but… When we got around to Legend of Korra times, Katara is just so glaringly absent from everything.
Aang , Zuko, and Toph have statues in Republic City, and their influences can be felt everywhere. We get a flashback of Sokka as a council member, during the trial of the most dangerous blood bender they’ve ever encountered, and who very nearly overpowers everyone present. And yet no one thought to maybe invite the one resident waterbender they’ve ever seen shake off bloodbending before? Where the fuck was Katara during any of this?
This makes almost as much sense as not taking your waterbender and healer with you for breaking people out of a prison in the middle of a boiling lake.
What did she do in the years between the series finale and being the loving grandma we see briefly? Why are there no statues of her? Why is the only accomplishment of hers that we ever hear of raising three kids, all of which with their own special brand of inadequacy issues courtesy of their father never getting over that tendency of avoiding his responsibilities?
Zuko and Toph get to be active parts of the narrative at different points throughout LoK. Katara only ever gets carted out when Korra needs high-class healing, and even there Katara kinda fails both times. Even though the whole bending blocking should have been totally reversible by using blood bending in return, yet when we see Katara try, it’s not even night. Did the writers just forget she had the ability? Though she did give thematically poignant advice during “Korra Alone.”
The point is that, from what we could tell, after the series and for everything we see of her during LoK, Katara has gone back to the healing huts. Where she belongs.
I’ll be over here regurgitating my innards, if you don’t mind.
And yes, blaming all of this on the fact that my OTP didn’t happen isn’t exactly fair. Still, Katara, in the end, went down in history as the woman who had Aang’s children, from all we can see in LoK. And it’s kind of hard not to somehow connect that to her relationship with Aang, is the thing. It’s a slap in the face for her character and everything she stood for during the original series.
And this isn’t me discounting traditionally “womanly” arts or whatever, this is me pointing out inconsistencies with Katara’s stated preferences, and the defining element of the first part of her character arc. Also, speaking of which, did she ever attempt to teach Aang healing? Does he ever do that? I do not think so.
A Closing Argument
In summation, what I believe has made Zutara endure for a decade by now, long after the ship has been sunk officially and occasionally been made fun of by the creators and a bunch of uncomfortable things I’m not getting into right now, is the following:
They both got compelling character arcs that were to no small degree shaped and defined by the other. They challenged the other to grow, they had a compelling dynamic that fit into the series’ main theme at large, and, quite simply put, chemistry by the time they were on the same side. The show made it a point to compare and contrast their arcs, and to always, always have them share a showdown during the season finales, accidentally portraying a more compelling relationship, at least in my estimation, than the ones they ended up in.
Though there are occasional rumors and conspiracy theories floating around, to this day, stating that maybe the framing of some of these moments wasn’t quite so accidental, but that there were heavy writer’s revisions between Book 2 and 3.
Oh well. No use crying over spilt milk, is there? She asks rhetorically after spending five thousand words doing just that. And frankly, how sunk is the ship at this point, really?
I mean, there has to be some reason Katara is never around during LoK, not even when her home tribe is in a civil war, right? Anyone?
Images courtesy of Nickelodeon.
Art by Imholynight, used with permission.