Periodically throughout the first two seasons, the writers of Avatar: The Last Airbender have tried to humanize citizens of the Fire Nation and crack the monolithic appearance of the Fire Nation being nothing but evil bad guys. Is it necessary? No, not if the show was a straight up story of a good guy striving to overcome the bad guys, but that’s not the show that Avatar has ever claimed to be, particularly one in which the goal of the good guy is to bring harmony and balance to the world. Season One was dedicated in part to the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom and Season Two was exclusively set in the Earth Kingdom, and so in the Third Season, the Fire Nation is our setting.
The Fire Nation as the setting is useful for a number of reasons. First, it places our heroes literally in the enemy’s backyard where they are more exposed to risk than ever before. Second, it allows us to finally see Zuko in the environment he yearned to return to, and not in flashbacks. Third, it provides an opportunity to simultaneously reinforce and shatter all the preconceptions we have of the Fire Nation built up over the previous two seasons. In that instance, “The Headband” serves as one of the prime examples to support this third reason.
“The Headband” finds our heroes holed up in a seaside cavern with Sokka proclaiming that such will be their existence until the day of the solar eclipse. This notion is quickly set aside in exchange for ‘borrowing’ clothes to enable the group to walk unnoticed among the Fire Nation populace. The episode titled garment ends up being a headband that Aang wears to cover his air nomad tattoo on his forehead. We know quickly that the intent of the episode is to introduce us to idea that its citizens are not all warmongers when Aang recounts his past adventures in the Fire Nation with his good friend Kuzon. The experiences of Sokka, Katara, and Toph, are quickly shunted aside when Aang discovers his stolen outfit is truly a school uniform and a set of Fire Nation soldiers haul him back to the school under the belief that he’s just another student.
Fire Nation school serves as beautiful primer to help understand how a nation of ‘normal’ people can come to terms with and support what amounts to a war of global domination. As we will learn later in the season, an underlying premise for the war borrows from the Imperial Japanese experience of the Second World War with the so-called ‘Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,’ the banner of which was Imperial Japan’s excuse for invading its neighbors throughout the Pacific and Asia. Tie that belief into the Fire Nation war effort (to bring a better way of life to the rest of the world) and a revisionist accounting of the One Hundred Year War, in which the Fire Nation is not the aggressor, and you have the makings of a day in the class of a Fire Nation school.
In every classroom and even the principal’s office, portraits of Fire Lord Ozai gaze stoically down upon the inhabitants, providing both a focus and a reminder of whom the people of the Fire Nation serve. This is summed up wonderfully in the Fire Nation Oath recited by the students, “My life I give to my country, with my hands I fight for Fire Lord Ozai and our forefathers before him. With my mind I seek ways to better my country, and with my feet may our March of Civilization continue.” The children are being indoctrinated to fully support the will of their Fire Lord and when cast across a century, you have a population who has been expected to behave in a manner from their grandparent’s birth through to their lives. It’s frightful and explanatory at the same time. This is all they know and at the sacrifice of other things in life.
Aang under the name of Kuzon, a student who grew up in the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom (essentially treated as the rural bumpkin by the locals), Aang provides an alternative discourse to his peers, be it the scandalous idea that the Air Nomads did not have an army for the Fire Nation to defeat in a fair fight or to the more important idea that self-expression exists and should be allowed. For the latter, this assumes the role of dancing, which Aang learns is essentially forbidden (as it offers nothing to the cause of the great Fire Nation). Upon learning of this crime against rhythm, Aang resolves to hold a dance party in the seaside cavernous abode. While Aang is busy learning about the Fire Nation and his peers, as well being just a ‘normal kid,’ elsewhere in the Fire Nation a certain Fire Nation prince is having problems.
Thomas Wolfe titled one of his masterpieces, You Can’t Go Home Again, which concerned a brilliant son who leaves his small town of Asheville, North Carolina for the wider world at just sixteen. As time progresses, the protagonist discovers that the home that he loved growing up had changed and was no longer the same place to him as an adult. The same might be true for Zuko, who discovers that despite returning to the privileged place of heir to the Fire Throne and gaining back a girlfriend in the form of Mae, it’s nothing like he thought it would be like. This inexplicable conflict between expectation and reality drives him to the cell of his Uncle Iroh, held in the dungeon of a tower high above the Fire Lord’s palace. Toss in a fear that he believes the Avatar is alive, and he cannot find internal peace for lack of knowing what to do. On every visit, he is met with silence as Iroh literally turns his back on his nephew.
That Iroh does so speaks to two conclusions. One, he suffered tremendous pain at his nephew relapsing back into the person he had just recently left behind in Ba Sing Se prior to the arrival of Azula. Two, and perhaps more likely, Iroh has decided that the best thing for Zuko is for him to work his own way through his problems and trust that the nephew he loves will come to the final conclusion of who Iroh believes him to be. Arguably, Zuko already is this person, but simply doesn’t have the faith in himself to actually realize it. This creates a conflict for the Fire Nation prince, hence his repeated trips to his uncle for help. Regardless of what Iroh’s prime motivation for silence is, what is obvious to us the viewer (hidden to Zuko) are the tears that Iroh allows to fall after Zuko leaves him frustrated by the lack of help. Clearly, Iroh is in pain, be it from betrayal or simply watching the young man he sees as a second son suffer from his own internal dilemmas.
The Zuko storyline has an odd twist, in which Azula interrupts Zuko as he’s in what amounts to a make out session with Mai on a picnic. Mai grudgingly leaves at a subtle order from Azula, implying she fears upsetting Zuko’s sister far more than upsetting the fellow she loves. In the privacy of her absence, Azula tricks Zuko into confirming he had been visiting Iroh in the dungeon. She berates him for slipping up and warns him that he could be considered to be plotting with their traitorous uncle. When Zuko questions why Azula cares, she simply tells him she’s looking out for him. Not once in the history of Azula and Zuko’s relationship have we ever seen Azula do anything out of pure heart for her brother, and this sets of sirens galore that her sincerity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Whatever plot Azula has in mind, however, will go unseen before the episode concludes and the episode cannot conclude without a dance party.
With hesitation, Aang’s classmates arrive at the cave where Aang has convinced a number of musically inclined students to provide the beats for the party. After a few demonstrations, Aang convinces the nervous Fire Nation students to partake in the dancing with the expected joyful results written across the faces and the bodies of his Fire Nation friends. The dance is highlighted by a duet between Aang and Katara, which to a degree, symbolizes their own romance, as the pair draw in and away from each other, sometimes teasing a kiss that never comes. It serves to cue up the growing dimensions of their affection, incidentally, not touching back on the emotional detachment that Aang decided to make in order to enter the Avatar State in “Crossroads of Destiny.”
It also serves to remind the viewers that our two romantics are growing older, most notably Katara who’s Fire Nation outfit serves far more as a visual reminder that she is maturing into a young woman than simply a teenage girl interested in a disguise for the Fire Nation. Eventually, the headmaster of the school along with some Fire Nation soldiers (police?) break up the dance and the students play their role in helping Aang and his friends escape out the literal back of the cave. Notably, the escape is enabled by the students putting on their own headbands, visually revealing that they share the same mind and thoughts on self-expression as Aang. It’s a win for Team Avatar and for the art of dancing in the Fire Nation.
Aang’s own luck is not nearly as fool proof, as the episode concludes with Zuko wandering into a dark and empty industrial complex somewhere in the Fire Nation capital. There he meets a tall bearded man with a metal glove tipped with claws and an odd tattoo on his forehead of a vertical eye surrounded on either side with lines. Zuko admires him loudly for his reputation for competency and more importantly, confidentiality, before giving him one order. Find the Avatar and end him.
“The Headband” has an interesting duality. Aang covers everything up that reveals his true identity, but ultimately relies on the freedom of this disguise to be himself among others and spread his own ideas on self expression. Zuko, in contrast, wears no disguise, but struggles inwardly with his own happiness and expectations. For as much as he fears the fact that the Avatar might be alive, it’s truly a stand in for his own failure to appreciate he is no longer the type of person who wanted to come home to be a Fire Nation prince. Beyond the purpose of humanizing Fire Nation residents, “The Headband,” ironically presents two heroes in the Fire Nation, one who is more at home as a visitor than one who is truly at home.