Avatar: The Problem With Zuko's Story Arc in The Last Airbender - VRGyani News and Media

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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Avatar: The Problem With Zuko's Story Arc in The Last Airbender

It’s got a tabletop RPG due out next year. It’s got (another) live-action adaptation coming up on Netflix, where the first two cartoons have been picking up new fans. Its original creators are heading a new studio currently gearing up for a theatrical animated film. It’s safe to say Avatar: The Last Airbender is back. Judging from the reaction to casting news and announced projects, the show seems as beloved as it’s ever been. Nickelodeon certainly hasn’t been shy about mentioning the franchise’s reputation in its promotion.

Not that I have any axe to grind with that reputation. Catching new episodes of Avatar was a high point throughout my adolescence, and with the possible exception of Hey Arnold!, it doesn’t have any competition as the best cartoon – hell, the best TV show – to ever come out of Nickelodeon. It has no rivals for quality animation in American TV in the years since it aired, the storyline and themes hold up, and the cast of characters remains as charming as it ever was. I’m not exactly being original when I say my favorite member of that cast was Prince Zuko. His redemption arc remains the best I’ve seen on American TV, not just for guiding him to the side of good over 61 episodes, but believably moving him from Avatar Aang’s chief pursuer to one of his closest friends. And his battle for the throne of the Fire Nation with his mad sister Azula is one of the series’ best.

RELATED: In Defense of Dev Patel's Zuko in M. Night Shyamalan's 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

However, ever since the series finale aired in 2008, I have felt that there was something missing from that final leg of Zuko’s journey. (And no, it isn’t the answer to what happened to his mother. I’m as happy as anyone that her fate was revealed somewhere, but the deliberate ambiguity in the series finale wasn’t an issue.)

In the beginning of the third season of Avatar, Aang and his friends move through the Fire Nation incognito, mingling with the citizenry. They meet schoolchildren their own age, troubled villages, and sword masters, and Aang sees the Fire Nation of a hundred years ago through the eyes of his past life. These encounters allow Team Avatar (as they call themselves) to experience the Fire Nation as more than a military force trying to capture or kill them and dominate the world. They find mentors and even friends among the population. After his vision of the past, Aang declares that “everyone, even the Fire Lord and the Fire Nation, has to be treated like they’re worth giving a chance.” For their part, while the people of the Fire Nation that Team Avatar meet usually don’t know who they’re dealing with, they do reciprocate the offered friendship and are receptive to some of what Aang and his friends have to say and show them about a life outside Fire Nation propaganda.

During this time, Zuko is living in the palace of the Fire Lord, having gotten everything that he thought he wanted. He’s “redeemed” in the eyes of his father, Fire Lord Ozai, and reinstated as crown prince. But Zuko’s own cross-cultural encounters in the previous season have exposed him to the damage his nation’s campaign of conquest has left on the world, and the teachings and warnings of his uncle Iroh have left their mark. Zuko’s early season is spent wrestling with his choices and his conscience. No casual run-ins with the common citizenry for the crown prince; Zuko’s only encounter outside his immediate circle in this section of the series is in the 45th episode, “The Beach,” where he’s more preoccupied with his internal anger and his love life than engaging with the people.

Eventually, Team Avatar drops their disguises, and Zuko rejects his father. He seeks out Aang and, after a few fits and starts, joins the gang to teach the Avatar firebending. This is in the back half of Season 3, and it kicks off a string of episodes where individual members of the group go on character-building missions with Zuko. Except for his trip with Aang, which is an enlightening experience for both of them, these adventures are more fodder for growth of the companion than Zuko himself (which is not to say he sees no development in these episodes). With one of the episodes a two-parter and all of them taking place while the group is in hiding, there is a slight “spinning the wheels” feeling to this section of the season, but it does provide character development for the main cast right up until the end of the series, and it helps sell Zuko as part of Team Avatar.

What it doesn’t do is revisit the lay citizens of the Fire Nation, or the idea that they are reachable people who can escape the destiny their nation has set upon. After facing the wrongs done by his country and accepting the fear and hate that comes with it, Zuko never sees the better potential of his own people. He doesn’t get that sort of encounter in the series, not even in the home stretch where he runs all over the Fire Nation with Aang, Sokka, and Katara respectively.

Is this really such an issue? Plenty of serialized TV shows explore certain ideas in one section of a season without revisiting them or tying them in into another section. But the problem for Avatar comes in the finale, when Zuko goes to face his sister. Prior to that, Aang vanishes, and Zuko leads the rest of Team Avatar to find his uncle Iroh. Iroh, Zuko feels, is the one person besides Aang who could defeat Ozai and end the war by claiming the throne of the Fire Lord. But when they finally find him, Iroh refuses. “Even if I could defeat Ozai,” he says, “and I don’t know that I could – it would be the wrong way to end the war. History would see it as just more senseless violence, a brother killing a brother to gain power.” He insists that the Avatar will return and face Ozai. As for the Fire Nation, Iroh insists that Zuko must become Fire Lord. Zuko alone, because of his experiences and friendships, is positioned to cleanse the sins of the royal family and the Fire Nation by leading them down a better path after the war’s end.

This is obvious to Uncle Iroh. It’s obvious to the other members of Team Avatar. It’s obvious to us, the viewers at home. Who it wouldn’t be obvious to is anybody in the Fire Nation. The party line from the palace on Zuko for most of the series is that he is the dishonored, banished failure of the royal family; when he comes home in Season 3, that line changes to him being in good standing. After fleeing the palace to join the Avatar, he was considered a traitor. If Zuko never gets to see an example of his people breaking through 100 years of imperialist mentality, not even a village’s worth of them gets to see an example of him proving himself a capable leader, much less one idealistic and pure of heart (to use Iroh’s descriptors). Villagers and citizens of the Earth Kingdom got a glimpse of that side of Zuko in Season 2, when he travelled among them in disguise, but the Fire Nation are the people Zuko is going to have to lead. With no scenes establishing any foundation of mutual trust and confidence – and with no apparent Fire Nation witnesses to Zuko and Azula’s duel – why wouldn’t their battle be seen by history as just what Iroh feared, the story of siblings fighting over power?

Zuko does struggle with what it means to be a leader, and addresses his people directly, in some of the continuation comics. And Avatar, and its sequel series The Legend of Korra, did explore the responsibilities of leaders to their people (and vice versa) elsewhere. That it never comes up in the story of the one member of the main cast destined to be, not just a leader, but monarch of an entire nation, seems a serious gap compared to the fate of Zuko’s mother, which was deliberately left unknown.

And yet – Zuko’s story still works remarkably well. I would still call it the single best storyline of the series, even when others don’t have such a serious gap in them. And all those other storylines are really damn good themselves. If the biggest problem a show has in its plotting is one moderately sized gap at the finale that can’t detract from the whole, then it has to have done something right.

KEEP READING: Why the Ending of 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Remains Perfect



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