It can’t be understated how much of a cultural impact Avatar: The Last Airbender has had on millions of people accross the globe. I mean, a Nickelodeon original that deals with complex themes of war, nationalism, loss and acceptance in a mature and thoughtful manner? Who thought that would work, really?
I consider myself lucky to have been a young boy of twelve when the show first started airing. It was back in the days before we could willingly stream episodes from the internet, and back then you were forced to tune in to the channel (If you were lucky enough to have digital TV back then) at certain days and times just to see what episode was playing. Usually it was just reruns of Winter Solstice and the much maligned The Great Divide from season one. Somehow, I was still able to watch the first two seasons without problem as they aired, and finish the final season off by streaming on low quality sketchy websites.
Many fans nowadays are more likely to have heard word of mouth from the vocal and avid fans, and been fortunate enough to stream on Netflix without any anticipation for the next episode or season. I can safely say that watching the entire series over a dozen times all the way through has been a meaningful part of my personal development. It taught me to be brave in times of adverserty, to value all life and that you can love your friends like family.
As an adult, in numerous re-watches, it taught me that true imagination and passion don’t need to be hindered by limitations, such as showing an adult story to a child demographic. Avatar is nothing if not profoundly imaginative and well thought out. As a kid, I was drawn at first to the crazy animal hybrids, then the amazing quasi-magical bending arts and the unfolding world that the characters inhabited. As an adult, I’m of course drawn to the personal tales of friendship in the face of a century-old war and a megalomaniacal villain who only seeks destruction and power.
Despite the limitations of not being able to show the true horrors of war in graphic detail, or depict a character dying in such a violent world, the show tackles these barriers headlong instead of pandering to the young-minds of their audience. The deaths might not be grim, but they are present. The horrors might not be shown explicitly on the screen, but we see the effects of those horrors instead. Downtrodden villages, destroyed landscapes and bitter survivors. If the show was on a different network and was allowed graphic fights and bloody battles, it would lose all of it’s character. It isn’t a show that ever intends to show us mature content, only the repercussions of violent actions, with a minimal amount of violence shown.
Where the show shines is it’s depiction of very human characters caught up in the crossfire. The titular Avatar, Aang, might be one of the most powerful benders in the world, but he’s still only twelve, and from a pacifist background. His conflict isn’t about joining in the war, but trying to stop in a way that stops causalities on both sides and restoring the world to peace, but he wasn’t there for the past one hundred years of war, and he hasn’t had to experience the terror that everyone else in the world has. Of course, if we are going to talk about conflicted characters, we have to talk about one of the best characters in an animated series of all time.
The greatest arc in animated history?
We meet Zuko in the very first episode, The Boy in the Iceberg, only a short while after our introduction to Aang, Katara and Sokka. Immediately, we are introduced to his impetuous, rage-filled demeanour. He is immediately depicted as a threat, for a few seconds, until he is hit in the back of the head by Sokka’s boomerang in a very goofy way, and suddenly, we realise that although he is ruthless and determined, he is still just a rash teenager.
Zuko’s pursuit of Aang takes the better part of the entire first season, until he is overtaken for main villain of Book: one by Admiral Zhao, who immediately starts a rivalry with Zuko, boasting higher skill, more determination, and an entire fleet of ships at his command. During the pursuit, Zuko commits some terrible things, blinded by his one true destiny that he desperately hopes to fulfil; to capture Aang for his father, the Fire-Lord, Ozai. He burns down Kyoshi island, hires pirates and bounty hunters to capture Aang, and always tries to do harm to those who get in the way his goal, sometimes even other members of the Fire Nation. His rivalry with Zhao and his desire to capture Aang becomes so great, he will even don the moniker of The Blue Spirit just so Zhao cannot capture the avatar, branding him as a traitor and leading to Zhao hiring the pirates again to plot an assassination attempt. Having barely survived, he realises his only course of action is to infiltrate the North pole City of waterbenders even as Zhao begins to siege it, almost capturing the avatar for good, but succumbing to the elements.
He escapes the North pole, and along with the ever faithful and ever loveable Uncle Iroh, travels through the Earth Kingdom, penniless fugitives. Here is where his initial conflict begins to show itself. as he struggles between pleasing a father who effectively always hated him, and doing the right thing. Seems an obvious choice in reflection, but for a proud crown-prince of his kingdom, the inner daily conflict takes it’s toll on him. Things appear to get better as Zuko follows Iroh to Ba-Sing-Se, the impenetrable city of the Earth King. Upon realising that Aang is in the city with him, his initial reaction is to find him immediately, donning his Blue Spirit mask and finding Aang’s long lost sky-bison, Appa, but is finally convinced to let him go by Iroh. His conflict appears as a fever in his body as he begins to turn to the light side, and things begin to be looking up, until his blood-thirsty sister Azula reveals she has infiltrated the city, and lays a trap to capture him. The season culminates as he betrays both his new found light and beloved Iroh, teaming up with his sister to capture Aang, as she shoots him with a lightning blast and nearly kills him. Iroh is locked up as a traitor, and Zuko finally gets everything he wants, as his honour is restored, in a move every audience could have predicted, but desperately hoped wouldn’t happen.
Zuko returns to the fire nation a hero, as Azula lies and tells Ozai that Zuko killed the Avatar. Zuko finds himself settling into his newfound role as “The perfect prince”, but grows uneasy under the burden of the lie, and with the weight of his decision to turn against Iroh weighing heavily on his conscience, convinced his loyal uncle now utterly detests him. Eventually, he makes his decision to leave on the day of Black Sun, confronting his father and surviving a lighting blast from the Fire Lord’s own fingertips. He tracks the Avatar down, and has difficulty convincing the group to let him in, unable to trust him for all of his past misdeeds and his betrayal of Iroh and Katara in the crystal catacombs of Ba-Sing-Se. He is able to soothe the dismay of his newfound companions through a series of “Zuko field trips”; as he helps Aang understand the true nature of firebending, Sokka rescue his father and lover from prison, and Katara come to terms with her anger over the death of her mother in one of my favourite episodes ever.
The dreaded Sozin’s comet arrives, and Zuko and Katara together defeat Azula as Aang defeats Ozai, and the two work together to restore peace to the world, as Fire-lord and Avatar. of course, his story doesn’t end there. He initiates his “Harmony restoration movement” to a population of people who find the movement as an intrusion, and helps find his missing mother Ursa int he comics. He reunites with the Avatar in it’s sequel series Legend of Korra, and even has a statue built in his likeness in Republic City. However, as a character study, we are here to talk about his particular arc and the development of his persona, so we will stick to the series for this article.
Zuko’s main driving force is the conflict within him, as evidenced by our very first meeting with him. At the beginning, his first lines tell us he is driven to the point of obsessive, and this doesn’t change until the very end of the third book. The problem for him there, is he isn’t really sure what it is he wants. The show sets up as the antagonist from the get-go, chasing him through different locations from the South to the North Pole, waging chaos where he goes. This continues until half-way through the series, when we meet Admiral Zhao, an even more ruthless and deadly opponent.
At this paradigm shift, we start to learn more about Zuko. In the masterful duo-origin-story episode of The Storm, we learn that it was Zuko’s compassion that led him to be horrifically scarred and banished from the Fire Nation. We start to learn that he wasn’t born to be a villain, but he was made into one by his powerful father. He was expected to be a monster, not kind and empathic, which causes a disturbance to him on the inside, where he resists the teachings of his mother and uncle to be good, in order to be accepted by his father and sister, who believe in power and order.
As the second season opens, Zuko is fully renounced from the Fire Nation, becoming a fugitive to Iroh, but become lost at the final acceptance of this reality. While Iroh does his best to teach Zuko to roll with the punches and make the best out of life, no matter where you are or who you are with, but Zuko has difficulty grasping the concept, opting to set out by himself in Zuko Alone. Here, we find a reoccurring theme with Zuko’s arc, in that he almost feels like he is steered towards evil deeds. When he tries to do something good, such as defending a town from a group of malicious and bullying soldiers, he doesn’t get rewarded or thanked, but instead vilified. The legacy of the Fire Nation is one of fear, and one that he only notices the repercussions of when he tries to do the right thing. The same happens when he tries to join Aang to teach him how to fire-bend. He puts everyone on their guard, leads the silent assassin known as Combustion Man to their camp, and burns Toph accidentally. He had come to expect the fear when he was still working for his father, and even welcomed it when it proved to help his mission, but the idea of people hanging onto his past deeds is something he struggles with. At the end of season 2, when he chooses to side with Azula instead of Iroh and Aang, the first person he opens up to is Katara, and the two bond over their hatred and fear of the war. When Zuko returns to join Aang, Katara is the last person to be convinced, due to his betrayal of her, and something he struggles to grasp.
Zuko’s conflict begins to manifest itself in several physical presences, at first when Iroh agrees to teach him how to lightning-bend, the chi he channels is distorted, and each attempt results in it blowing, quite literally, in his face. In the heart-breaking crescendo, he instead climbs to the top of the mountains, begging the heavens to release a bolt of lightning at him, to see if he can channel it. He fears the lightning, knowing that his father and sister can manipulate it with ease, it is the physical separation between them and he. He becomes desperate to see if he can conquer the lightning from the storm in the valley, because only then will he know if he can overcome his family.
In Ba-sing-se, when Zuko releases Appa, it causes another manifestation within his spirit. He becomes ill with a fever, forcing Iroh to look after him, but afterwards emerges from a metamorphosis. Previously, he had hatred everything about the city and his new found life, but the change in his spirit sparks a newfound love for his surroundings, just as Iroh had preached. It isn’t until the sudden arrival of Azula, which stirs up the same old conflict which collides with new ideals. Suddenly, he realises his new found change-of-heart was just him adapting to the change, but it wasn’t what he wanted. His old desires and ambitious stir up with the allied forces of Azula and her Dai-Li agents, and he attacks Aang, which results in him being badly wounded and believed dead to the world, and the Earth Kingdom falling after 100 years.
The conflict rages on in the first half of Book Three, as he finally gets everything he was hoping for, but at the cost of losing Iroh. He becomes sullen and disinterested, losing all outwards passion and emotion, but deeply regressing all of his inner rage and turmoil. It culminates in him leaving the Fire Nation to join the forces of good, but the physical turmoil takes a toll on his bending, no longer being able to use rage as its source as he did prior, now that he felt he had set his spirit on the path of peace. Aang and Zuko journey to find the original fire-benders, the sun warriors, and learn from the last two dragons the source and potency of fire. While not the end of his inner-conflict, it begets the first step he has to take on the path of restoring not only himself, but the legacy of his people and the deeds of his father.
Zuko obtains many complicated relationships over the course of the entire show.
Even his most positive and loyal supporter, his uncle Iroh, was forced to give him his space in order to find himself. Twice, in fact. The first time when Zuko travels by himself in Zuko Alone, and again when Zuko’s betrayal leaves Iroh in jail. It goes without saying that Iroh sees Zuko as his son, having lost his own, and knowing his younger brother Ozai and his ways, favouring Azula over Zuko. Since Ursa’s disappearance, Zuko has been in search of guidance, first seeking that of his father until his banishment, but resenting the love offered by Iroh. Iroh was secretly seen as a failure by both Ozai and Azula, mocking him indifferently, forcing Zuko to subconsciously agree with them, and at first seems to only put up with him for his knowledge and wisdom of fire-bending and aiding him in his search for the Avatar. Iroh sticks by him at all times, however. Even when Zuko believes Iroh to hate him after the events in Ba-sing-se, Iroh only saw that he needed Zuko to find his own place in the world without any further guidance. Just like all teenagers, Zuko only noticed how much he needed Iroh when he had already pushed him away.
Zuko, like all other citizens of the Fire Nation, was taught at a young age to idolise the Fire Lord. However, Zuko was not a natural prodigy like his sister. While still gifted, Iroh and Ursa saw from a young age that Zuko’s true strength lay in his heart and tenacity. Ozai obviously did not follow the same views, forcing Zuko to prove himself as a worthy heir to his throne through perilous trial after trial. Zuko becomes so blinded by his apparent ‘dishonour’, that he completely disregards the monstrous nature of his father’s actions, instead deluded into believing that he was the problem (Like all survivors of abuse), and that he was punished accordingly. Through the teachings of Iroh, he learns to overcome the trauma put on him by Ozai, and finds new strength in his acceptance.
Throughout the first two seasons, Team Avatar is the prime enemy to Zuko, but it isn’t personal to him. Aang is a mission for him to complete. He doesn’t care who Aang is at this point, even after he saved him from Zhao’s fortress and Aang wonders if they could be friends, his mind is still focused on capturing him. Until he reaches Ba Sing Se, Aang isn’t a person to him, and it doesn’t matter who the avatar is, they just need to be captured. It isn’t until Iroh convinces him to release Appa that he begins to see the truth that Aang is not the key to his problems, even if that is only short-lived. It’s what leads him to commit all of his heinous acts, all of which have consequences when he finally joins with Aang, with Suki recognising him when he attacked Kyoshi Island, and Katara being unable to trust him. However, and thankfully, too, he takes these repercussions to heart, and learns from each of them, and does his best to restore his past deeds with new, good ones.
A true character arc in fiction needs conflict and difficulty, but there are few who suffer such continuous ordeals as Zuko. Every step he takes in the right direction, he then takes several backs and trips and burns a house down, and it’s always his fault.
I think one of the reasons Zuko makes such an effective and popular character, is that he has a very human story. It’s all well to see a character turn from one side to good through a personal crisis, and it’s another to see a character overcome numerous trials thrown at them. It’s much rarer for a character to make constant mistakes, and then to learn from them. Book 3 came out when I was an angsty teenager, much like Zuko, and I found myself still watching the show at 16/17 because it finally felt like there was someone going through the same kind of trials that I was, and I felt it deeply.
Zuko clearly lets us know that he is filled with rage, but he never knows where to direct it, until finally decide he is angry at himself. Every step he takes is the wrong one, and he knows which one is the right path to follow, but there is a part of him that makes him want to make the decisions for himself, good or evil, but as he does, he notices the effects that has on the people around him, and that frustrates him entirely, and that is a very human journey to watch unfold.
While every main character has a mature and intriguing arc, from Sokka learning to use his non-bending skills in a bending world, and Aang learning to protect the people and honour his upbringing. Zuko’s resonates and inspires much of his audience though, as they know how he feels, often through much less dramatic circumstances, but through the same sentiment.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a masterpiece in animated story-telling like no other, and I think it owes a great deal of that praise to it’s telling of Zuko’s journey. We don’t often get to see such human, internal conflict, and the writers go out of their way to make it very personal and relatable too.
Also shout out to Dante Basco and his incredible vocal performance. Man’s a legend.
What are your thoughts on Zuko? Is there another character you personally resonate with? What’s your favourite episode of Avatar? Let’s talk about it!