I’ve started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender again. It’s one of my favourite TV series of all time. I think this is watch through number six. I have long thought that Zuko’s arc through the three seasons of the show is one of the best arcs ever written, and one of the (many) things that makes the series so great.
If you’ve not seen the series, I heartily recommend it. This article is of course going to contain huge spoilers, so if you don’t want the series spoiled, stop reading now.
Zuko starts out an angry teenager with little appreciation for those around him. He’s driven and determined, in pursuit not just of Aang, but also of his father’s approval.
Initially Zuko seems destined to be a standard straight-up villain. In the first few episodes he’s sullen, antagonistic even to his patient uncle, and set up in opposition to the story’s heroes.
Over the course of season 1 he finds himself up against Commander Zhao in the goal of capturing the Avatar, making Zuko the underdog in this rivalry – he has fewer resources and fewer rights to travel into Fire Nation territory. Against the ruthless Zhao, he stands little chance – but thanks to a little innovative thinking and his uncle’s support he does manage to stay a step ahead of Zhao.
The first hint that Zuko is going to have a more complex arc than that is more than half way through the first season, in The Storm, when we learn his backstory – and he subsequently puts the crew’s safety above his pursuit of the Avatar. There’s a little sympathy there, not seen in Zhao, which reveals that Zuko is capable of learning and growing.
In the following episode, The Blue Spirit, Zuko rescues Aang from Zhao. This isn’t a turning point – not yet – as Zuko’s objective is to capture Aang for himself, but it gives a moment when the two of them work together, and for Aang to give Zuko the first hint of a reason for his later choices.
As Zuko’s character continues to be developed throughout the first season, Zhao’s is also given more attention. For the time being they are both villains, but in comparing the two it’s clear that Zhao is irredeemable, whereas Zuko is uncertain, still finding his way.
Season one’s finale sees Zuko almost achieve success, but he almost dies in a blizzard, from which Aang insists on saving him. His season two is mellower, at least by the end. Zuko’s new experiences travelling through the Earth Kingdom give him a much-needed new perspective. He even briefly finds peace in Ba Sing Se. But he’s not ready yet to drop his old obsession when he finds out the Gaang are in the city searching for Appa. Iroh tracks him down as Zuko reaches Appa before the Gaang, and challenges Zuko to consider what he really wants.
Here, Zuko realises at last how unhealthy the obsession is, how he could have peace if he let it go. And maybe his arc could have ended there, a contented tea server in Ba Sing Se. It could have been complete, but there’s more fun to be had from him.
The season two finale presents his true choice. Offered kindness by Katara when the two of them found themselves imprisoned by Azula together, he could have sided with her against his lying, backstabbing, cunning sister. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one rooting for him to make the right choice then. But the writers were right to let him side with his sister, for two reasons: motivation and future story.
Zuko is presented with a choice in season two’s finale: side with the Avatar, a boy he’s been searching for and chasing for three years, or turn on him and achieve the goal he’s had that whole time. This is Zuko’s chance to go home with honour, to get what he always wanted – his father’s approval. He has a chance at success here, and the only thing really standing against this decision is Iroh.
Katara’s kindness doesn’t mean much here; it’s a brief moment in which they each believe they’ve lost everything. When Zuko finds out he hasn’t, why on earth would Katara being kind to him for two minutes mean anything? He could go home. An end to three years of exile, acceptance from his father, a return to his rightful position as heir to the throne and the luxury that entails. This is a big deal. The draw of simply achieving something long sought after must have some impact too; the sense of fulfilling the destiny he has long believed to be his.
All Iroh can offer, by comparison, is the potential of a return to serving tea. Sure, Zuko was reasonably happy doing that, but he was happy doing that in the belief that he couldn’t return home. How could he even consider it?
So he chooses Azula – and it’s the right decision for him, at that time. It’s true to his character and his struggles up to that point. And it sets up the core conflict for Zuko in season three: he betrayed Iroh, the only remaining member of his family who cares about him as a person.
As season three begins, Zuko slowly comes to realise how important Iroh’s opinion is to him. He comes to understand the wrong he did in Ba Sing Se, not because it went against the Avatar and Aang’s the good guy, because I don’t think Zuko really has a good vs evil view of the war at this point, but because of the hurt it caused Iroh. Zuko realises how much he respects, loves and relies on Iroh in early season three, and in The Beach he comes to understand that he is angry at himself over his decision to betray Iroh.
This is where Zuko starts to understand what he saw in the Earth Nation a season earlier. Given the context of the war meetings and how Ozai and his generals make decisions about the war, Zuko does start to understand the wrongness of his father’s plans.
So when Zuko does make his decision to leave the Fire Nation and join Aang on the Day of Black Sun, it’s an important one. Thus is where Zuko finally understands the different experiences he’s had, the things he’s seen, all in one context. This is where he understands that it’s his father’s unjust war that made the villagers in the episode Zuko Alone hate him, just for being a fire bender, even though he was trying to help them. This is where he understands what Iroh taught him about balance.
And the decision is given more impact because he’s giving up what he’s always wanted, after he’s regained it, to seek out a group of people who might just kill him on sight, as far as he knows. At the end of season two, Zuko didn’t know for sure that he would regain his honour, be welcomed back home and regain his rightful place. There’s the risk of failure, and the ever-present risk of Azula stabbing him in the back for her own gain. But here Zuko has everything: he is listened to, he lives in luxury, he has a girlfriend who understands him, and his father respects him. But he gives that all up to what’s right, even though it’s a huge risk.
He faces up to his father – and even redirects lightning – and leaves in pursuit once more of Aang, this time to join him. But even then he’s not quite there yet. He still needs to persuade the Gaang to accept him, another struggle on his long path.
But that’s the thing: Zuko struggles. He’s never had it easy. As he says in the season one finale, he’s always had to fight to get what he wants, and his arc has been a fight. He’s been pitted against the Gaang in his search for the Avatar; against Zhao in claiming the glory of capturing Aang; against Azula; against his father’s expectations. But most importantly, he’s fought within himself, seeking the right path and never quite finding it until now. He’s make a mistakes. He’s done wrong. He’s been selfish. He’s had to choose what’s most important to him. He’s had to sacrifice his pride and his dignity and his beliefs.
And that’s what makes Zuko’s story so powerful. It comes down to how very human he is.