I would be lying if I said I didn’t see some logic behind pushing these two characters together.
From my own experience, people have the proclivity to seek out romantic partners who make up for what they lack either intentionally or otherwise.
That being said, I’ve learned there is a limit to how “opposite” you can be from someone. While it’s possible to maintain a working relationship when you have different hobbies or interests, you cannot be so diametrically opposed to one another that it leads to unreconcilable differences.
And that is one of the problems with Mai and Zuko’s relationship:
They are too different.
I don’t think it was a bad move to have Zuko become romantically involved with someone like Mai. Considering how emotionally volatile he is in this stage of his character development, he needs someone with a calmer demeanor to talk him off the proverbial ledge, and call him out on his crap every so often.
The issue is Mai isn’t just an even-tempered character. She disassociates from the rest of humanity to the point of near psychopathy.
This sounds like an exaggeration, but this is put into evidence by her reaction to her brother seemingly becoming abducted by rebels. While her parents wallow in anguish over the possibility of losing their toddler forever, Mai nonchalantly chows down on Fire Flakes as if she could not care less whether or not her brother lives or dies.
We are given to understand in the episode The Beach that Mai’s relationship with her parents is strained due to her supposedly controlling childhood, but her indifference to her innocent little brother is nonetheless disturbing.
Zuko cares about things to the point of obsession: Honor, family, legacy, etc. He becomes a slave to his negative emotions, latching onto them until he makes himself a neurotic mess over them.
Mai, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any values or things she cares about at all. Or at least things that don’t have to do with Zuko directly.
Instead of being the healthy counterbalance to the other’s toxic behavior, they are simply the other’s opposite (and unhealthy) extreme.
The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are both too selfish to be in a relationship in this stage of their lives.
They Never Work Through Their Problems
Within the cannon of the Avatar universe (comics included), Mai and Zuko break up not once, not twice, but a total of three separate times.
Apart from the second time when Zuko initiates the break-up so he can pursue his destiny as the Avatar’s fire-bending teacher, their break-ups have a common thread. Rather than working through their issues, Mai pumps the brakes (usually after a single argument), and then they simply get back together without resolving any of their differences.
During The Beach episode, Mai calls Zuko out for being volatile and possessive and he returns fire by accusing her of being emotionally unavailable. Rather than simply walking away from the situation to clear their heads, Mai breaks up with him outright.
Flash forward to a few minutes later after Zuko gives an impassioned speech about not knowing what’s right or wrong anymore, and she….gets back together with him.
They make no promises, reach no compromise, they just drop the whole incident like it never occurred in the first place.
After Zuko breaks up with Mai, Mai is understandably angry and proceeds to take many a stripe off of him while he is stuck in the interrogation room at the Boiling Rock.
Even though I don’t like this couple, I actually enjoy this scene and think it is well written. It’s emotionally charged and genuinely heartbreaking as neither side is entirely wrong for feeling the way they do.
Of course, if you’ve seen this series you know that Mai sacrifices herself so Zuko and co. can escape the Boiling Rock. Even though she has been hurt and betrayed by him, she still cares enough to risk her life for his.
You would think that there would be a lot of residual resentment towards him upon her release. Even though she didn’t want him to die at Azula’s hands that doesn’t necessarily mean she isn’t still angry with him for how their relationship panned out….
However, upon her liberation, all that pain and resentment she experiences as a result of his abandonment slides away like water off a duck’s back. Much like with Katara and Aang, there is no true reconciliation. She just decides to get back together with him…because the writers said she wants to.
It isn’t like Zuko grovels on bended knee for her to take him back either. Getting back together is her idea.
…Then they break up again in the comics when Zuko lies to Mai about going to the prison to see his father in order to get his take on the whole Harmony Restoration Movement. I understand why she feels angry about his deception (or at least in theory, I don’t know why she specifically would care since we’re to believe she “doesn’t care” about politics), but rather than allowing him a chance to explain the obviously perilous moral dilemma he has found himself in, she just terminates the relationship.
As of yet, I don’t believe they have gotten back together again, but it is inevitable that they will because the writers think they are meant for each other.
‘Cause this is what people in healthy relationships do, right?
Does Zuko Even Care About Mai?
I know the writers (and select fans) would like us to believe he does, but the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary.
When Mai is not directly in front of him, Zuko has the worrying tendency of completely forgetting her existence.
In the entire time he is with the Gaang, he mentions his relationship with Mai all of one time, even after she sacrifices herself for him. He talks about his Uncle Iroh at length, but the girl he is supposedly in love with only gets a single mention to one of his new friends.
I understand he has more of a guilty conscience in regards to his Uncle than Mai (at least originally). After all, in his words, he broke up with her because “everyone in the Fire Nation thinks [he] is a traitor” and he “couldn’t drag her into it.” He is vindicated for breaking up with her because he did it out of concern for her behalf.
…But shouldn’t he still miss her? You know…at all?
He couldn’t look at Sokka and Suki and feel the smallest pang of longing for his lost love? He couldn’t casually mention conversations they had, or reminisce about past times? They couldn’t have given us even the slightest indication that he gave a single crap about her?
Even after she risks her life to save him, he never talks about her or references her in any way. Hell, immediately after it happens, he shrugs it off like it didn’t matter.
And when I say immediately, I mean immediately.
Mai holds the Boiling Rock guards at bay and gets the gondola working again so Zuko and Sokka (along with several other characters) can escape. The group looks down to find her fighting and Zuko realizes with some incredulity that she is saving them.
As soon as the gondola reaches solid ground again, the escaped prisoners pour out, ready to leave this place behind them, all but Zuko who lingers behind, staring stoically at the prison.
Sokka, realizing Zuko isn’t following, turns to his friend and shouts “Zuko what are you doing?!”
What does Zuko say in reply?
A) “I have to go back and help her“?
B) “I can’t believe she did that for me”?
C) “I never realized how much I loved her”?
Answer: “My sister was on that island.”
Not a word.
Even after they land safely back at the Western Air Temple, he’s all smiles.
Everything is fine.
Yeah. Totally. Absolutely no casualties to speak of.
Not only does this not support the idea that Zuko is supposed to be head-over-heels for Mai, this makes Zuko look like a colossal asshole.
Canonically, he cares more about the opinion of some Water Tribe girl he barely knows than the potential death of a childhood friend, and yet we are supposed to buy that he loves Mai?
I mistakenly anticipated this would be explored in future episodes. I mean, Mai (or at least a fictionalized version of her) makes an appearance in the Ember Island Players. You would think there would be some sort of reaction from Zuko upon seeing her doppelgänger on stage: A grimace, a fond smile, a sad expression….literally anything.
In episodes like The Storm and The Beach we get brief flashes of Zuko’s past, so why couldn’t we have seen a couple of seconds devoted to Zuko recalling the finer points of his relationship with Mai? I know there are time constraints involved with each episode, but this seems important.
Toph and Zuko share a moment at intermission where Zuko discusses his guilt about abandoning his Uncle, but—yet again—Mai is never mentioned, even though she is most certainly dead, imprisoned, or both. I’m not against the crux of the conversation being about Iroh, but…come on.
I’m not saying he should be a weepy mess about it, but if you seriously expect me to believe he gives a shit at all about this girl—
It’s not enough to give him cringey lines about her being beautiful when she hates the world. You have to show his devotion to her through his actions, something he does not do.
Then….there’s the finale.
I am not exaggerating when I say I find the scene where they reunite genuinely hysterical.
He doesn’t even check on her…
Zuko is the Head of State, the Lord of the Fire Nation, the Sovereign, and he doesn’t even check up on her to make sure she is alright?
She gets thrown in prison to save his scrawny Fire Nation butt and he doesn’t even bother—when he is literally the god emperor of his country—to look in on her and make sure she is released?
This was easily fixable.
Instead of having her appear out of nowhere, they should have had a guard lead her in to see him and say something to the effect of “My Lord, we’ve brought the prisoner you requested be released from The Boiling Rock.”
It still would have been rushed, but at least it would have shown Zuko as having spared a thought for her.
Still not convinced he doesn’t care? Still hold onto a glimmer of hope that there is something you missed?
Allow me to crush your dreams.
While it isn’t shown in the TV show, in the comics (which are cannon), we are shown how Maiko came to be. Sort of.
In the end of this comic, Zuko is still debating whether or not he actually wants to return to the Fire Nation, or if he wants to stay in the recently besieged Earth Kingdom.
So it is his love for Mai that finally persuades him to return to his homeland, right?
The only reason he agrees to return to the Fire Nation is because he sees his Uncle Iroh being lead away in chains on a boat bound for the Fire Nation.
Mai has nothing to do with it.
They couldn’t even give her that one!
Maiko Crosses a Dynamic Character With a Flat One
I briefly touched on why Mai and Zuko are too different, but I was hoping to expand on this a bit more.
I don’t think it’s a widely contested belief that Zuko is probably one of the best examples of character development in television history. His progression from a temperamental man-child to a wise ruler committed to creating world peace is something of a marvel. Creative writing classes could be taught on his character alone.
Mai on the other hand….is not that interesting.
Well, for one thing, there isn’t that much to her.
Even when the writers attempt to flesh out her character a bit more and explain her unnaturally reserved nature, it isn’t enough to make her a compelling character in my eyes. Explaining why a character is boring and one-dimensional does not make that character less boring or one-dimensional.
I believe the issue is she was never meant to be anything more than a side-character that spouts the occasionally witty one-liner. She is only thrust into the spotlight by the writers in an attempt to shake off overzealous Zutarians. (Side note: Didn’t work).
People claim she is more adult than Zuko and thus a good match for him… but I respectfully disagree. People have a bad habit of conflating reservedness and indifference with maturity. Just because she isn’t flipping tables and screaming, that doesn’t mean she isn’t incredibly immature. In many respects, she can be as childish as Zuko.
For one thing, she constantly complains about everything.
In Season 2, more than half of her dialogue is devoted to telling people how bored and uninterested she is. Zuko makes several attempts at making her happy in The Beach, giving her ice cream and presenting her with pretty things, and she responds with sarcasm and derision.
Even when she isn’t acting bored and ungrateful, her answer to getting Zuko out of his funk in Nightmares and Daydreams is to suggest they terrorize the servants and make them perform demeaning tasks for them…
Because torturing people less privileged than you is cool, I guess.
Okay, maybe I’m being harsh.
I suppose I should applaud the show for giving her character something vaguely resembling an arc. Her finally standing up to Azula does count as character development…I guess.
However the consequences of her decision (although instrumental in leading to Azula’s downfall) didn’t seem to have much of an impact on Mai’s character in the long run. Or at least not one that has been explored either in the show or the comics. We don’t even know how much time she spends in jail either since, as she points out—
Neither is it made clear where her allegiance lies. Is she cool with the fact that her nation lost the war and that her current boyfriend defied the cultural paradigm, only to become the undisputed ruler? Does she ever care about the Fire Nation succeeding in global conquest? Does she want peace? Was she against Zuko’s family ruling, or was she just opposed to being under Azula’s manicured thumb?
It isn’t explained what exactly she wants or needs, and to say she wants Zuko isn’t enough to make her a good character.
Even Suki who, in my humble opinion, is a bit of an underdeveloped character (don’t hate me) has a clear code that she lives by. She is a devoted Kyoshi warrior that has dedicated her life to serving under her sisterhood and living by the principles passed down by Avatar Kyoshi. She has a mission in life that goes beyond being a main character’s girlfriend. She has other ambitions and people in her life that demand her attention.
I can’t say the same for Mai.
What does Mai believe in?
She doesn’t stand for family, or the Fire Nation, or world peace. She basically just shrugs at whatever comes as long as she can date the Fire Lord.
Their Relationship Works Best as a Metaphor
When I first viewed this series years ago, I actually thought this was the approach they were going for. After all, Mai works as an excellent metaphor for Zuko’s previous life. While she beguiles him with her beauty and lavishes him with attention, it quickly becomes obvious things aren’t as great as they seem, as evidenced by their relationship’s quick decline.
By breaking up with her, he is saying goodbye to his old way of living and embracing his true destiny.
When the writers chose to shove them back together again at the end, this concept fell apart and I was left wondering how this relationship is supposed to stay afloat. Too much has happened in the intervening weeks for them to just pick up where they left off. Zuko has changed from being the hot-headed, impulsive teenager he was into much more mature leader who doesn’t have time to entertain his girlfriend’s every whim as he did when he was just a prince.
While I still believe Kataang to be the worst ship in Avatar, Maiko is a close second. If given enough thought or preparation, they could have potentially made a somewhat decent couple. However, it’s clear that giving their relationship plausibility was not foremost in the writers’ minds and we are left with this mess as a result.
Thanks for reading!