- This article is about the character in the series. For the character in the film, see Zhao.
|"I am a legend now! The Fire Nation will for generations tell stories about the great Zhao who darkened the moon! They will call me Zhao the Conqueror! Zhao the Moon Slayer! Zhao ... the Invincible!"|
|— Zhao suggesting epithets for himself after capturing the Moon Spirit.|
Zhao was the leader of the Fire Nation Navy for a brief period in early 100 AG. During his career, he held the ranks of lieutenant, captain, commander, and finally admiral. He was trained by Jeong Jeong to become a master firebender and, as one of the most powerful men in the Fire Nation, took it upon himself to capture Avatar Aang, thus becoming a rival of Prince Zuko. Zhao was a major enemy of Team Avatar in most of the events leading up to his siege of the Northern Water Tribe, during which he killed the Moon Spirit at the Spirit Oasis. This resulted in his downfall by a vengeful La, who subsequently forced the firebender to spend eternity in the Fog of Lost Souls in the Spirit World.
In his youth, Zhao studied firebending under Jeong Jeong, but stayed under his tutelage only as long as necessary to learn destructive maneuvers, rejecting his master's attempts to teach him discipline. This lack of self-control, combined with a fiery temper, resulted in a tendency to make foolish mistakes when provoked. Zhao usually undertook missions for the sole purpose of glorifying his name.
Early years in the military
Zhao eventually began a career in the Fire Nation Navy. As a junior lieutenant serving under General Shu in the Earth Kingdom, Zhao discovered a vast Spirit Library hidden underground. Interested in learning the information it held, he searched through scroll after scroll for knowledge that could aid the Fire Nation in its efforts against the Avatar and Water Tribes, until he came across a detailed illustration with the words "moon" and "ocean". It was there that he learned about the Moon and Ocean Spirits of the Water Tribe and where their mortal incarnations could be found. To prevent enemies of the Fire Nation from discovering this information, Zhao burned down the section of the library pertaining to the Fire Nation. After this incident, he became obsessed with his supposed destiny: to destroy the Ocean and Moon Spirits and end waterbending.
For his loyal service to the military, Zhao was quickly promoted through the ranks and soon became the captain of his own ship. After a decisive victory against an Earth Kingdom vessel, the Fire Lord rewarded Zhao by promoting him to commander of a Fire Navy fleet. However, Zhao's sneaky and ambitious nature caused some people to wonder whether this promotion was honorably earned.
Zhao was one of the witnesses to the Agni Kai between Zuko and Fire Lord Ozai during which Zuko was burned badly and subsequently banished from the Fire Nation. His relish in seeing Zuko suffer showed just how cruel Zhao really was.
A bitter rivalry
In late 99 AG, Zhao was commanding a Fire Nation naval base when Zuko docked his ship and asked for repairs to the damage caused by his battle with the Avatar. Zuko initially told Zhao that the damage was caused by crashing into an Earth Kingdom ship, but Zhao sensed that he was hiding something. He invited a reluctant Zuko and a jolly Iroh to drink tea in his office. However, he secretly had the banished prince's crew interrogated. After the questioning revealed Zuko's encounter with the Avatar, Zhao had Zuko and Iroh confined in his office. He said that the task of capturing the Avatar was too important to entrust to a teenager, and announced his own intentions to capture the Avatar himself. The ambitious commander and wayward prince began a verbal argument, which ended in Zuko challenging Zhao to an Agni Kai. During the battle, Zhao initially had the upper hand, easily parrying the youngster's attacks and launching powerful attacks of his own. However, just as the commander seemed on the verge of victory, Zuko managed to break his stance. Pressing his advantage, Zuko aggressively attacked Zhao, until he had the older man lying on his back. Zuko struggled for a moment with the idea of killing him. Zhao urged him to attack, but Zuko fired a small fire blast at the ground beside his head as a warning, an act which caused Zhao to label him a coward.
As Zuko was walking away from the battle, an enraged Zhao attempted to attack with Zuko's back turned, but was stopped by Iroh. Iroh said that Zhao's behavior in defeat was disgraceful and dishonorable. This event sparked a bitter rivalry between Zuko and Zhao.
Shortly after the Avatar's return to the world, Zhao was commanding a number of Fire Nation ships forming a blockade between Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom waters. During this time, the Avatar tried to cross into Fire Nation territory to reach Roku's temple. Zhao ordered his ships to open fire upon the Avatar with no concern for hitting Zuko's ship, which was in pursuit of the Avatar at the time. Aang managed to pass the blockade, and presuming Zuko knew Aang's destination, Zhao allowed Zuko to pass the blockade and continue pursuing the Avatar. He tracked Zuko's boat to Avatar Roku's temple and, because he had been forbidden from re-entering Fire Nation territory, arrested Zuko along with the Avatar's companions. Aang was within a sealed chamber at the time, and Zhao waited for the Avatar to leave the main chamber to arrest him as well. However, due to Aang's contact with his past life and the spiritual power of the winter solstice, Zhao instead found himself confronted by Roku; Roku freed the prisoners and began destroying the island. Zhao managed to escape, but with no prince or Avatar, he attempted to save face by declaring all of the Fire Sages as traitors, despite their protests that only Shyu helped the Avatar.
Promotion to admiral
Later, Zhao requested that Shinu, a colonel of a Fire Nation fortress in the Earth Kingdom, use the legendary Yuyan Archers to help capture the Avatar. Zhao insisted Shinu was wasting their talents in using them as security guards, but Shinu scoffed that Zhao's hunt for the Avatar was nothing more than a vanity project. However, a message arrived from the Fire Lord promoting Zhao to admiral. Now outranking the colonel, Zhao made his request an order.
Zhao began to use his position to hinder his rival Zuko by blockading the port they were anchored at. Zuko's desperation to return home grew as Zhao's far greater resources gave him an advantage in capturing the Avatar. The Yuyan Archers successfully captured Aang and brought him to the fortress. Confident that the Avatar was defeated, Zhao gave a speech to the soldiers of the fortress forecasting the ultimate Fire Nation victory. Unbeknownst to him, a blue-masked warrior infiltrated the fortress and freed the Avatar. Together, they fought past the guards and escaped to the last gate, where the soldiers managed to corner the two combatants. Zhao ordered the Avatar captured alive, as otherwise he would simply reincarnate and trouble the Fire Nation in a new life, when the Blue Spirit held Aang hostage at sword point. Zhao was forced to give the order to let them pass through the gate. However, he had a Yuyan Archer knock out the thief from long range. Unfortunately for him, Aang escaped, taking the masked warrior with him.
After hearing intelligence reports of the Avatar being seen in a Fire Nation colonial village during a festival, he began searching the nearby rivers. There he confronted his old firebending master Jeong Jeong and proclaimed that living in the wild had reduced his old master to a savage. Jeong Jeong retorted saying that it was Zhao who had embraced savagery, using only the unrestrained destructive side of firebending and ignoring the discipline needed to control it. Jeong Jeong warned Zhao not to confront the Avatar, but Zhao ignored these warnings, arrogantly stating that he could defeat a child. Aang was surprised to learn that Zhao was Jeong Jeong's student, and he used what he learned about Zhao's temper to continually egg the admiral on until Zhao was tricked into destroying a convoy of his own ships, proving his own lack of restraint and focus was against him. Aang managed to escape once again, leaving Zhao brooding over his failings.
Second attempt to capture the Avatar
Zhao eventually found his way to a small Earth Kingdom village on his way up to the North. This town was near one of several traps made by Fire Lord Sozin in order to lure in any surviving Air Nomads who did not die in his genocide. Here, Zhao found a relic merchant and made a deal with him: if he gave an Air Nomad necklace to the Avatar when he passed through and got him interested in going into the mountains and the Air Nomad traps, Zhao would let the merchant take whatever he wanted from the traps. The merchant agreed and, upon the arrival of Aang and his friends, managed to successfully get the young Air Nomad into a mountain cave. There, Zhao and his soldiers revealed themselves and captured Aang. However, Aang put up a fight and Zhao was forced to defend himself. However, the Avatar had the advantage, as he knew how to work the Air Nomad relics, and defeated Zhao with a dorje before fleeing.
Siege of the North and downfall
Later, still chafing from his Agni Kai defeat, Zhao discovered that Zuko was the vigilante thief known as the Blue Spirit. Determined to eliminate further interference, he ordered a group of pirates to engineer an assassination attempt on Prince Zuko, which successfully destroyed his ship but, unbeknownst to Zhao, failed to actually kill the prince. Afterward, he led a large invasion force in a siege of the North Pole, for the dual purposes of capturing the Avatar and destroying the Northern Water Tribe, with Iroh as his military consultant. Fully aware that the waterbenders drew their powers from the moon at night, Zhao attacked during the day, capitalizing on the weakened state of the waterbenders.
On the second day of the siege, Zhao's forces managed to penetrate the city's walls. However, Iroh reminded Zhao that if the Water Tribe was not subdued by the rise of the full moon, the waterbenders would be unstoppable. Watching his forces pushing forward, Zhao simply answered that he was planning to remove the moon as a factor, which disturbed the former general. Zhao and Iroh were briefly interrupted by a disguised Hahn, but the admiral simply grabbed the charging warrior and threw him overboard. Continuing, Zhao explained to Iroh how years prior he had stumbled upon the secret of the Moon Spirit's mortal form in an underground library while serving as a young officer in the Earth Kingdom. Iroh argued with the self-confident admiral, believing that the spirits were not to be trifled with. Nevertheless, Zhao condescendingly said that he had heard of Iroh's journey into the Spirit World, and that the Moon and Ocean Spirits would pay the consequences for giving up their immortality.
Having gained this knowledge about the Ocean and Moon Spirits, he used the assault of his troops as a distraction while he led his men to the Spirit Oasis and captured Tui, the Moon Spirit. This caused both the moon and the sky to turn red, while the waterbending warriors lost their bending abilities. The admiral began to applaud his efforts to fulfill his destiny, knowing that his army was about to secure the city and he was going to be a hero for the Fire Nation. However, Team Avatar and Iroh confronted Zhao and forced him to release the spirit, though, outraged about the idea of being defeated, Zhao suddenly killed the spirit with a fire blast, thus erasing the moon from the sky and negating all waterbending abilities. Iroh attacked Zhao's team in retaliation, causing him to flee from the scene. The slaying of the Moon aroused the anger of La, the Ocean Spirit, who merged with Aang's Avatar Spirit and used incredibly powerful waterbending together to vanquish most, if not all, of Zhao's fleet.
Meanwhile, Zhao made an attempt to escape, but was confronted by Zuko, who sought revenge for Zhao's attempt to murder him. Zhao fought the prince until the moon reappeared in the sky after Princess Yue's sacrifice. Zhao stared up in disbelief before he was grabbed by the Ocean Spirit, which began to pull him into the water. Prideful as he was, Zhao declined Zuko's outstretched hand, deciding he would rather die than accept help from his sworn enemy and was pulled underwater.
The Fog of Lost Souls
Zhao did not perish, but instead ended up in the Spirit World, forced to spend eternity in a place known as the Fog of Lost Souls. There, he spiraled into insanity, reveling in his self-proclaimed achievements for over seventy years after his defeat at the Siege of the North. When Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi entered the fog in search of Jinora, Zhao grappled Tenzin, whom he mistook for Aang, in hope of regaining his glory by capturing the Avatar. Finding Zhao to be delusional, the siblings wrestled him away and left him behind in the fog.
Zhao was a highly ambitious, power-hungry narcissist, noted for his arrogance and bad temper. While serving as a loyal member of the Fire Nation, his every action was ultimately only to serve his own rise in status. His more straightforward villainous nature stood in sharp contrast to that of the conflicted Prince Zuko; while Zuko desired to capture the Avatar to restore his honor and earn the love of his father, Zhao was not motivated by higher ideals and acted only in his own interest, considered simply a "vanity project" by some; in this way, he was similar to Princess Azula.
Although repeatedly deceptive and cunning, Zhao was rather egotistical and selfish, bordering on narcissistic, implying a deep-seated self-worship, as all of his actions seemed to fulfill purposes of grandiosity or overwhelming display: his hate-driven, uncontrollable firebending, his explosive temper, his betrayal of Fire Nation comrades, his disproportionate attack on the Northern Water Tribe, and most starkly, his unquenchable obsession with the removal of the Moon Spirit. In particular, Zhao rationalized his theft – and later, murder – of the Moon Spirit as "destiny", and relished over stealing it, ecstatically proclaiming himself as a "legend", even suggesting several epithets that the people would call him in the future for his accomplishment: "Zhao the Conqueror", "Zhao the Moon Slayer", and "Zhao the Invincible".
This arrogance was ultimately realized in his final act, as his refusal to accept Zuko's helping hand led to his imprisonment in the Fog of Lost Souls, where he descended into madness, continuing to mutter his self-made titles and mistaking Tenzin for Aang.
Zhao was a skilled firebending master. During his time studying under Jeong Jeong, Zhao was one of the master's best students, but ultimately his greatest failure, as he entirely disregarded Jeong Jeong's teachings that the heart of firebending was controlling and limiting the dangerous destructive power of fire, and only focused on learning the destructive techniques, which while allowing him to develop very strong moves, while also being quite adept in defense, made him easily overcome by his emotions and would steadily lose control in a prolonged battle, which Aang easily exploited to dodge his blasts with agility, which accidentally ended in Zhao burning three of his own riverboats.
When he dueled with Prince Zuko, he easily blocked Zuko's relatively strong attacks and then swiftly dominated the duel, forcing Zuko back with each attack he fired before he finally overpowered Zuko with a single large blast of fire from his feet, with only Zuko's sudden breaking of his footing causing Zhao to lose. When fighting Aang, he fired many larger than normal blasts of fire without any strain and having to charge. Shortly before his death, he was able to fight Zuko's dramatically improved skills on almost equal terms, able to deflect most of Zuko's attacks and trade fire blasts with him, despite ultimately being overwhelmed and hit several times, knocking him to the ground in defeat, until La interrupted their duel and trapped him in the Spirit World. 
Zhao was a highly skilled military strategist, having been known for being talented enough to quickly rise to the rank of captain and and after decisively defeating an Earth Kingdom navy, a commander of an entire fleet. Despite his failure to capture the Avatar, Zhao's successes were prominent enough that he eventually managed to secure a promotion to admiral. He was cunningly adept in tapping into human resources, as he displayed when he easily managed to ally himself with a merchant to lure Aang into a trap in exchange for him having all the Air Nomad artifacts in the cave, bribe pirates with an entire box of riches to stage a nearly successful attempt on Zuko's life and garner great support from many Fire Nation soldiers with patriotic speeches. He also displayed his ability to muster large forces and use deceptive means to overtake the enemy in Siege of the North, as he first took the advantage of his knowledge of Waterbending being weaker at day to effectively fight and eventually breach the Northern Water Tribe's walls, after which he proceeded to use the assault of his troops as a distraction to successfully capture and kill the Moon Spirit, which would have won the battle had Aang not fused with the Ocean Spirit to decimate his forces. His knowledge of common tactics also benefited him greatly; Zhao discerned Zuko's strategy to use a smoke-screen to throw him off his trail. Zhao made use of the highly skilled Yuyan Archers to capture the Avatar, demonstrating his mastery of allocated efficiency.
Zhao also displayed himself to be fairly agile and fast, as he could easily dodge Zuko's attacks in their first duel before starting to fight back and even when his footing was broken, he still dodged most of Zuko's attacks before ultimately being defeated. His reflexes and strength was also remarkable and he displayed noteworthy unarmed fighting skill, able to easily deflect spears thrown at him by Lin Yee with a single hand, and effortlessly parry Hahn's assassination attempt and throw him to the oceans to his death in return. In his final fight with Zuko, he proved able to keep up with him in close-quarters combat when they both used firebending, countering and trading blows with him reasonably evenly, before ultimately being overwhelmed by Zuko's improvement.
- Main article: Zhao's relationships
- In an interview on IGN, Michael Dante DiMartino said that the character of Zhao was originally inspired by Jason Isaacs' performance as a villain in The Patriot. DiMartino asked his casting director to get "someone like" Isaacs for the role, and she managed to get the actual person.
- In another IGN interview, Isaacs said that he was told when recording the role to "be yourself, but be your American self".
- "The Siege of the North, Part 2" with "Avatar Extras" bonus commentary stated that, "Zhao has a pretty messed up destiny", namely killing the Moon Spirit.
- Zhao served as the secondary villain in Book One, a role similar to that of Long Feng and Combustion Man in Book Two and Book Three, respectively.
- Zhao's series of promotions, from Captain to Commander to Admiral, was somewhat backward. In traditional naval ranking, it should go from Commander to Captain to Admiral. The rank of Commander can be interpreted to resemble the real-world ranks of Commodore and Rear Admiral, since Zhao commanded multiple ships, such as the Fire Navy blockade.
- "Avatar Extras" claimed that Zhao was well known for his bad balance.
- "Avatar Extras" stated that when Zhao received his promotion to Admiral, he stayed up all night celebrating it.
- Even after he was promoted to admiral, the credits still listed him as "Commander Zhao". This remained so even in The Legend of Korra, eight years after his final speaking appearance in the original series. However, this was corrected on the credits of the DVD release of "The Siege of the North, Part 2".
- Despite his major role in Book One, Zhao was never shown on screen afterward except for "The Library" and was not directly mentioned again until "The Western Air Temple".
- In The Last Airbender, he was not killed by the Ocean Spirit, but by a group of Water Tribe warriors.
- "Avatar Extras" stated that Zhao hated snow.
- Zhao shares his name with the ancient state of Zhao in the Warring States period of China. Notably, the state of Zhao was well known for its cruel, but also cunning and successful generals as well its aggressive expansionism, traits admiral Zhao also possesses. Notably, the state of Zhao also began rather weak and insignificant, like Zhao began his career as mere soldier, but eventually rose to one of the mightiest states of China just like Zhao became a high admiral and leading military of the Fire Nation.
- Zhao also shares a name with Chinese general Zhao Kuangyin, the military leader responsible for the foundation of the Song Dynasty. Kuangyin was immensely interested in procuring books and knowledge from conquered lands rather than actual territory, similar to how Zhao craved knowledge from the scrolls of Wan Shi Tong's Library.