To say that Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is a complicated character is an understatement.
Unlike his sister Azula who seemed cooler, smarter, and generally just better than him, Zuko didn’t make the best first impression when I first saw him on TV around 2010. To younger me, Zuko was just an angsty teenage boy who was pressed about not being as talented as his sister.
It turns out that’s how he saw himself at the time, too. Shocker. What’s even worse is that everyone else around him saw him that way as well. Less cool. Less smart. Less talented. A shoddier backup heir (in case Azula kicked the bucket) and one who his own father wouldn’t want to see on the throne at that. Basically, he was Tyrion Lannister in a better-written show.
As the series went on, Prince Zuko shifted, changed, developed, and grew. The hot-headed and immature prince that appeared in “The Boy in the Iceberg,” the first episode of the show’s first season, started to step away from the values that were forced on him as a child, eventually becoming his own person. Someone who knew what honor actually meant to him.
These are the many faces and phases of Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Prince Zuko, and later, Firelord, of the Fire Nation.
Zuko: The Prince
The first Zuko we come to know is Zuko as the Prince of the Fire Nation. In this role, he’s defined by who he is in relation to his family. The reason behind this is fairly obvious. After all, he wouldn’t be a prince if he wasn’t the son of a king or, in this case, a Fire Lord.
But it runs deeper than just his rank in the Fire Nation’s royal family. His very identity, the way he’s seen by others and how he sees himself, is shaped entirely by how others see him. His father, Fire Lord Ozai, thinks he’s worthless. An insolent brat with no honor.
On the other hand, his younger sister, Princess Azula, sees him as her idiot brother and the black sheep of the family. The two of them engage in an endless game of comparison. Zuko is Zuko because he isn’t as well regarded as Azula. Azula is Azula because her father doesn’t treat her like she’s Zuko. Ozai’s treatment of them defines them and this shapes how they see each other.
The constant degrading treatment he receives from the people he should be able to trust, given that they’re family, led him to think of himself in a negative light.
In Season 1, Episode 20: “The Siege of the North: Part 2,” there’s a scene where Zuko is sheltering in a cave with an unconscious Aang. After lighting a fire, he gets up and rants about how Aang wouldn’t understand his misfortunes because he was born as a chosen one just like Azula.
“Everything always came easy to her.” Prince Zuko tells Aang, his voice a mix of anger and jealousy, “[My father] says she was born lucky, I was lucky to be born.”
We get a sense that he always wanted to be like Azula because Azula’s natural talent and fire bending has earned her what Zuko and Azula both think a father’s love is like, even though we later come to see that Ozai abuses Azula all the same.
It’s this illusion of being loved that drives both Prince Zuko and Princess Azula further apart. Azula stays on her toes, always eager to please and prove herself useful to her father so she never falls out of the golden child role. As for Zuko, this leads him down a dark path of believing that what he wants the most is honor.
Zuko: The Outcast
What is honor?
There’s a compilation video on Youtube where Zuko says ‘honor’ for three minutes straight. He’s clearly obsessed with honor seeing as he won’t shut up about it to the point that it’s become a meme in the ATLA fandom.
How exactly did Prince Zuko lose his honor? By being an honorable person.
Zuko’s most noticeable physical feature is the burn scar that covers nearly half of his face. Iroh reveals that the scar was passed off as a training injury and while it wasn’t one, the scar was intended to teach him a lesson.
One of Ozai’s officials had proposed to sacrifice the lives of Fire Nation soldiers to secure victory but Zuko, realizing that this would mean they were throwing loyal subjects under the bus, tries to defend them to the rest of the council, pointing out that they were killing their own people.
Any other sane parent should have and would have been proud, but Ozai saw it as a challenge to his authority. The official was his subordinate and by speaking out of turn, Zuko had disrespected the Fire Lord himself.
When Ozai challenges Zuko to an Agni Kai, a traditional Fire Nation duel where the goal is to burn the other combatant, Zuko actually does the honorable thing and refuses to fight his own father, insisting that he meant him no disrespect then and that he wouldn’t disrespect him now by fighting him.
But Ozai burns him instead before sending him to hunt down the Avatar. At this point of the story, no one had seen Aang for the past 100 years meaning that Ozai never intended for Zuko to succeed in regaining his honor.
This traumatic experience taught Zuko one lesson: that honor meant strength and that strength meant dominance over other people.
When Zuko says he wants to capture the Avatar to restore his honor, what he means is that he wants to exert dominance over the Aang the way his father did to him because dominance = strength.
This kind of strength that substitutes strength of character with capacity for violence is what Ozai values in himself and his children. Violent strength is what makes Azula useful to Ozai and is the reason why he gives her the attention he doesn’t give Prince Zuko. Zuko mistakes this attention for Ozai caring more about Azula than him, driving him to emulate the violent behavior that both his father and sister exhibit.
So when Zuko says he wants to restore his honor, what he really means is that he wants to be loved.
Zuko: The Child
Thankfully, Uncle Iroh sees right through him.
Throughout the show, Iroh is the only one who treats Zuko for what he really is: a child. Iroh sees that Zuko needs to be nurtured, guided, and most importantly, shown unconditional love.
Iroh’s patience with him despite his angry outbursts is what eventually gets to Zuko, convincing him to grow out of his protective shell of emotional callousness and his need for external validation
Iroh’s tenderness with Prince Zuko helps him stay grounded in who he really is: the young boy who stood up for innocent lives in his own father’s war council. It also keeps Zuko emotionally open enough to understand the villagers’ reactions in the episode “Zuko Alone”.
“Zuko Alone” features Zuko stumbling into an Earth Kingdom village whose people are being extorted by Fire Nation soldiers. He could easily claim his role as their prince and join them in taking resources from the villagers. But Zuko scares them off instead and this reveal scares the villagers. He was no longer a strange yet respectable traveler to them. He was Fire Nation scum.
As he leaves the village, the villagers jeer at him and while he could easily lash out and burn them all, he shows them the same tenderness and understanding that Iroh has shown him. He understands that they’re afraid, too, that their anger is also a product of trauma from the ravages of war.
He shows this level of restraint and patience again when dealing with the members of Team Avatar, especially Katara who was left emotionally scarred by her mother’s death at the hands of Fire Nation soldiers.
Though Katara lashes out at him in this scene, Zuko doesn’t respond with rage the way he would have earlier in the series. Instead, he goes to her brother, Sokka, and tries to understand why she seems to hate him.
Okay, Katara does tell him why she hates him.
In “The Crossroads of Destiny“, Zuko falters in his redemption arch. Though he’s gained Katara’s trust, Zuko throws it all away for one final shot at regaining his honor, betraying his uncle and new friend to join Azula in her takeover of Ba Sing Se. This move could have easily become a cheap way to keep Zuko a villain, but Zuko remains unsure of his decision.
Back at the palace, Zuko mulls over why he betrayed his uncle which, on some level, forces him to come face to face with whether unconditional love and genuine respect of friends is worth whatever honor his father has to offer him.
It also shows that growing as a person, whether you’re a fictional character or a real human being, isn’t truly linear. You don’t just wake up every day becoming a better and better person. In the face of years of parental abuse and trauma, Zuko falters on his path to becoming his true self and this makes his growth all the more believable and compelling. When he does finally find the answers he’s been looking for, the emotional payoff for viewers is massively satisfying.
Zuko: Finally Himself
Zuko had found Appa, Aang’s flying bison, and wanted to use the animal as a way to blackmail Aang into coming with him to the Fire Nation. While disguised as the Blue Spirit, a warrior in a blue oni mask, Zuko is discovered by Uncle Iroh who finally confronts him with the truths he doesn’t want to admit to himself.
Iroh points out that Zuko’s obsession with capturing the Avatar had nearly led him to die of hypothermia in the earlier cave scene.
“Is it your own destiny? Or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?”
Zuko is forced to grapple with the difference between who he is as Zuko and who he is as Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai.
“It’s time to ask yourself the big questions. Who are you you?” Iroh asks him, pointing a finger in his direction, “And what do you want?”
When he’s reintroduced by Lo and Li to the Fire Nation army after three long years of exile, Prince Zuko doesn’t look as happy as he expected he would be. If anything, he acts like it isn’t a homecoming and more like it’s his own funeral.
In a way, it is. His return as Prince Zuko meant that he had let go of the Zuko he had discovered in his travels.
Later in “The Day of the Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse” Zuko finds the courage to confront his father and at long last, speak his truth.
Without shame or fear, Zuko lets Ozai know that he hadn’t killed the Avatar and that Aang is still alive. When Ozai orders him out of the room in anger, Zuko confidently stands his ground, letting him know that he wasn’t following orders from him anymore. He’s chosen to become free of Ozai and become his authentic self. When Ozai tries to intimidate him, Zuko makes himself clear:
“I am going to speak my mind and you are going to listen.” He tells Ozai as he draws his swords.
The Fire Lord, to his credit, gives him a chance to speak and Zuko tells him what he had only recently realized himself: that all he needed was for Ozai to love him as his son.
He doesn’t let Ozai gaslight him either by telling him the Agni Kai was simply done to teach him respect.
“It was cruel and it was wrong.” He replies.
When Ozai makes the insinuation that Iroh had brainwashed Zuko into becoming a peace-loving hippie like himself, Zuko proudly admits that his Uncle Iroh did get to him with a smile that says, “Yes, he finally did.”
The Agni Kai between Azula and him often gets credited for being Zuko’s shining moment but it’s really this scene that is the culmination of Zuko’s development from Prince Zuko to finally becoming himself, free from his father’s expectations and the trauma he had caused him.
Avatar: The Last Airbender pays close attention to fleshing out its characters to the point that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it’s one of the secrets behind its staying power. It’s hard to pick out a favorite character arc from the cast of Avatar, but if you ask me, mine is Azula’s.
What’s your favorite character arc, plotline, or worldbuilding feature from the show? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.