Thank God Netflix put Avatar: The Last Airbender on their platform.
There were some amazing cartoons that were on during my time as a child. However, my favorite was always Avatar: The Last Airbender, and as I’ve gotten older and re-watched the show, I’ve realized a big reason why - because of Zuko.
Don’t get me wrong. Avatar: The Last Airbender has some of the best animation, storytelling, and characters a cartoon could possibly have in my eyes, but Zuko is hands down one of the best parts of this show, and was written beautifully where he became one of TV’s best characters to date and has an amazing arc. Don't believe me? Let me explain.
Spoilers ahead if you haven't watched Avatar: The Last Airbender!
Zuko Is Set Up As The Villain From The Start But His Actual Motives Become Clearer Later On
From the very first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, in the very first episode, we find out about Zuko, the banished prince of the Fire Nation, who is seeking to capture the Avatar and restore his honor.
At first, we are meant to hate him. He seems like this bratty kid who wants nothing more than for the Fire Nation to take over and to capture this seemingly innocent kid for no particular reason other than to get honor back. He’s a by-the-books villain.
However, it’s not long after where his true intentions lie. Capturing the Avatar isn’t just about getting back honor - it’s about just returning home. Zuko has been completely outcasted from his family besides his Uncle Iroh, and the only way to try and return home is to find the Avatar and prove his worth, after he spoke out against his father in a war meeting.
What he’s doing is wrong. Aang didn’t do anything bad and doesn’t deserve to get captured. But you can’t help but feel back for the boy.
Zuko isn’t a bad guy. He’s a teenager with a lot of trauma and wants to see if he can finally get his way back home himself. However, as the series progresses, we start to see that mental (and physical change) from within where he begins to realize he was wrong the whole time - but more on that later.
Zuko Starts Off Isolated And Mentally Alone In Avatar: The Last Airbender, But Learns To Embrace Close Relations
I think one of my favorite parts about Zuko is how he learns to accept help from others. When we first see Zuko in the beginning of the series, we see a closed-off teenager who is unwilling to accept help from others. He doesn’t listen to his uncle about learning to properly firebend or any of the advice, and seemingly just wants to pave his own way.
But as Avatar: The Last Airbender progresses, we start to see Zuko begin to open up to the possibility of trying to get help from others. This starts when he and his Uncle Iroh are out on the run, listening to his words of wisdom despite feeling so alone after everything that happened with his family.
This theme continues way into Season 3, where Zuko begins to really reflect on who he is as a person whenever he would go to see Iroh in his cell, trying to somehow get him to talk to him. It’s a complete 180 from who he was in Season 1, never listening to what his Uncle Iroh had to say, to yelling at him, begging him to speak.
He was nervous to get close to anyone, but ends up becoming close with Team Avatar after so many years of chasing them. It was the perfect way to show how much he had changed.
Zuko’s Story Tackles Themes Of Depression, Loneliness, And Family
Watching Avatar: The Last Airbender as an older woman now, having experienced several of life’s challenges, I genuinely feel bad for Zuko. You would never expect a kid’s show like Avatar to address serious topics in such a manner like this. Maybe nowadays they would, but back in 2009, it was rare to see that stuff on a children’s program, even if it was meant to be catered towards tweens.
However, Zuko’s story - particularly in Season 2 - focuses very much on his depression. He feels isolated completely from the Fire Nation now, with no feasible way to somehow get back home. He’s at his breaking point when he wants to learn how to lightning-bend, just like his sister can, but can’t do it.
He screams at the sky, begging him to strike him down so he can do it, letting out all his anger and frustrations at the world that has forsaken him. He begins to cry, yelling out, and that’s when you truly see how much this young man has gone through. From then, he starts to try and change, only to end up betraying his uncle in the end and finding a way back home, thinking it will fix his problems. But it does not - instead, he feels lonely, empty, like this wasn't his purpose. Which is what leads him to Aang and the gang.
He still does end up going back to Uncle Iroh though, realizing that through it all, Uncle Iroh was always the person who was there for him. Despite his anger, his depression, his loneliness - he was always there. Uncle Iroh was the father that Zuko never had, and it took him three seasons to truly realize that. I always cry when I see him and Uncle Iroh hug.
Zuko Realizes The Error Of His Ways - And Tries To Fix Them Accordingly
Zuko realizes not that long after returning home to the Fire Nation in Season 3 that he screwed up - big time. He finally comes to terms with his family being absolutely crazy, and realizes that his uncle was right - he needed to pave his own destiny, and after finding out he was the grandson of Avatar Roku, he knew it was through helping Aang learn to firebend to defeat his psychopath of a father.
This takes a lot of guts - for him to leave everything behind and go to the people that he was literally hunting down for years. But he does it anyway. The gang doesn’t accept him at first, but over time, they realize he’s the best chance they got and let him in, and they all build genuine connections with Zuko, realizing that he truly is a changed person, adding a whole new friend to the group.
That’s why that moment when Uncle Iroh forgives Zuko for everything he did is so powerful, because even Uncle Iroh knows - Zuko isn’t the same person. He was lost for a time, but he paved his own way, and became the hero that Uncle Iroh always knew he could be. It’s absolutely amazing storytelling - one that’s concluded in the last episode.
Zuko Fights Against His Sister - The Very Essence Of The Fire Nation - At The End Of Avatar: The Last Airbender To Protect Aang
This fight in Avatar: The Last Airbender is hands down one of the best sequences in the series, with absolutely stunning animation. But it’s also a great way to show how far Zuko has come. Not that long ago, he would have been fighting with his sister for their father’s approval, to try and best her.
Now, when she’s the new Fire Lord after their father declared himself “The Phoenix King,” Zuko doesn’t try to mitigate things with her. He realizes she has to go down to. That urge to try and keep his family together is long gone, because he knows what’s best for the Fire Nation - he, and the peace that the group will bring. Not the total domination Azula and his father were planning.
It’s a beautiful fight as well, showing how far Zuko has come with his bending, using all of Uncle Iroh’s techniques, and the slow decay of Azula’s mental health as the strain is put on her to be absolutely perfect. And of course, he beats her, and becomes the Fire Lord - it’s the best way to end his character.
Honestly, I’ll re-watch Avatar: The Last Airbender so many times just to see Zuko again, from his relationship with his uncle to his firebending skills. But no one can fight me and say that Zuko, turning from villain, to antihero, to protagonist, all in three seasons, is bad.
While he won't be popping up on any 2021 Summer TV schedule any time soon, I still love to talk about him. Aang may have been the star, but Zuko stole the show. And I’m pretty sure he regained his honor somewhere along the way too before the Avatar: The Last Airbender ending.
Now, if could just see Zuko find his mom, I would be quite pleased.
Big nerd and lover of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. Will forever hate season eight. Superhero and horror geek. And please don't debate me on The Last of Us 2, it was amazing!
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