Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Twenty-Seven: “Zuko Alone”

15

(Rating Out of 15)

“Zuko Alone” was actually the last episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender that I’d ever seen. Back when Nickelodeon would air episodes non-stop in any random order, I thought I’d seen all of Book Two by the time the final season came around. I was wrong, and upon finally seeing this episode, I’d realized my previous perception of show was tainted and incomplete. There’s no doubt in my that if I’d seen “Zuko Alone” when I was supposed to, I would have fallen in love with this series a long, long time ago.

“Zuko Alone” is one of the most important episodes of Avatar. As the title helpfully informs, Zuko has finally found himself physically and spiritually on his own. It was almost inevitable. The Fire Nation doesn’t want him; the Earth Kingdom doesn’t want him alive; he no longer has a loyal crew to harass; Iroh is not present for wisdom and guidance; and Aang isn’t even in this episode to occupy his time or waste ours. It’s just Zuko, and he alone must face the world, his past, and himself.

The searcher and wanderer analogy is more applicable here than it was in “The Avatar State.” The village that Zuko comes across in his search for food resembles the ramshackle towns you usually find in films of the Western genre. In fact, the scenario is classic Western material: a stranger comes to town, connects with the residents, defeats the bad guys who terrorized the town, and then leaves. Zuko does all of these things, but with two crucial differences: 1) Zuko is no stranger to us, especially not after we’re treated to several flashback sequences that detail his troubled childhood; and 2) whereas the stranger in most Westerns would receive gratitude and redemption for their deeds, Zuko does not. Technically, he’s worse off after leaving the village then he arrived. Not even the lowliest of citizens in the Avatar universe thinks highly of Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

“Zuko Alone” is a masterful character study. It is as relentless and unsentimental as the harsh desert landscape on which Zuko finds refuge. Every aspect of his being gets explored, reaffirmed, and deconstructed in the episode’s twenty-four-minute running time. The several flashbacks are not just there for exposition and plot points; they brilliantly juxtapose the present time to reveal an emotionally crippled young man who hides his true self from the world in a misguided attempt to ease his own suffering.

Not that it’s impossible to see how he reached that conclusion. He grew up in a family where the only truly loving person, his mother Ursa, ended up disappearing from his life completely. Couple that with an ever-manipulative Azula and an equally manipulative father, and you’ve got yourself the classic recipe for a terribly confused and directionless individual. Not even someone as compassionate as Uncle Iroh could replace the hole left in Ursa’s absent.

The whereabouts of Zuko’s mother remains a hotly debated topic among Avatar fans. After this episode, we had all the reason to believe she was killed for dubious reasons. Later on—at about “Day of Black Sun” I believe—we learn that she is actually alive. But where, how, why? These are questions that were never answered in the course of the series. There are rumors that we’ll finally learn what happened to Ursa in the comics that continue where the show left off, which I think is a mistake. Ursa is the kind of character whose presence is best felt in its absence.

Her influence on Zuko is clear from the start: she was the only person to whom he could open up to completely and honestly. Everyone else, especially Azula and his father Ozai, required an emotional shield, though his was a rather weak one: why else would Zuko be so eager to find the Avatar in order to restore the love that was never there to begin with?

This is even more troubling because the flashbacks heavily imply that nearly everything that went wrong with Zuko’s life was Ozai’s fault. After Iroh surrendered his infamous siege of Ba Sing Se following the death of his son, Iroh is no longer seen as a worthy successor to the throne. Ozai immediately suggests his father Azulon skip over his firstborn son—who no longer even has an heir to succeed him—and choose him as the new Firelord. Azulon instantly knows Ozai’s motivations are impure, and intends to punish him.

How? Having actually stayed to eavesdrop on the entire conversation, Azula probably knew, but you can never tell with Azula, can you? In a particularly eerie scene, she teases Zuko by telling him that Azulon would make Ozai feel Iroh’s pain by killing Ozai’s firstborn son. Zuko, that is. The thing is, we’re never explicitly told what Ozai’s punishment was, but it’s frightening to think about. And since the end result was the disappearance of Zuko’s mother…

On top of that, Azulon dies the very next day, and that his “last dying wish” was for Ozai to become Firelord. Whatever his last dying wish was, I highly doubt that was it. Azulon didn’t seem to like Ozai all that much. Recall the scene where Ozai ultimately asks to be next in line for Firelord. Immediately preceeding that was a brief sequence in which Ozai prompts Azula to demonstrate her precise knowledge of Fire Nation history and her supreme Firebending skills.

Notice that Ozai is the one do all the talking; Azulon just looks on with a slightly annoyed expression. It’s not until Zuko tries and fails miserably to match Azula’s demonstration that Azulon finally says anything, and it’s for everyone but Ozai to get out of his sight. But it’s not because of Zuko’s failure—as much as Zuko would probably like to think it was, even though his mother is there to reassure him—but because of Ozai’s unabashed whoring out (for lack of a better term) of his prodigy of a daughter. Azulon knows damn well that Ozai wanted more than to show us his child’s skill, and Zuko’s poor performance was a convenient opportunity to call him out. Dysfunctional is an understatement.

Before taking a look at the present time, it’s worth taking another glance at Azula. She was a Hellraiser from the very beginning, always picking on Zuko and sometimes Mai and Ty Lee. (How did these two become her friends? Did Azula prey upon their submissiveness that early on?)

Probably the most interesting thing about Azula at this point is how blindly devoted she is to her father. In itself, there’s nothing too unusual about that, but then she doesn’t seem to have any kind of reverence towards Ursa. Ursa doesn’t seem to know what to do about this child. You can tell she loves both her children, but Azula’s abrasiveness doesn’t make for a very stable relationship. Not to mention Azula’s devotion to her father can’t be too healthy either, especially since the man doesn’t seem to care for her in any other way than as a prop for his climb to power. Azula’s gradual descent into insanity started here, and it’s rather painful to watch.

But enough about the past: what’s going in that Western town Zuko finds?

Let’s start with the bad guys. Apparently, they are a group of men who were initially brought there to protect the village from any Fire Nation intruders. However, now they have become cruel tyrants who use their power over the people to bully them.

These men continue the ever-disappearing distinction between good and evil in the Avatar universe. It used to be that only the Fire Nation were wrong and that everyone else was right. DiMartino and Konietzko intended to gradually dissolve such a simplistic view as the series went on, but inadvertently sabotaged that plan after making Zuko (and Iroh) the most interesting and relatable characters from the start. If being good means being boring and unfunny, then surely evil isn’t that bad?

Zuko also meets a little boy named Lee, who actually gets him in trouble with the bad guys by throwing an egg at them. They think Zuko did it, but Zuko refuses to claim responsibility and to tell them who really threw it. That he’s able to stay cool and stand up to these men impresses Lee, and he invites Zuko to stay with his father and mother. Apparently, Lee also has a brother who is fighting in the war, which would explain why he’s so attracted to Zuko: he has a new immediately brother figure to look up to.

Much of the present time stuff is devoted to Zuko’s interaction with Lee. Zuko understandably doesn’t want to get too attached to the boy, but Lee doesn’t make that easy with his innocent pestering. One of the more touching moments in the episode is a night time lesson in how to fight properly with twin swords. Later, when Zuko has to move on—to not sabotage their bond as well as to simply wander—he gives Lee something special that was previously given to him by Uncle Iroh: an Earth Kingdom knife with the words “Never give up without a fight” engraved in them.

DiMartino and Konietzko and company deliver special commendation for how well they portray Lee. He’s not overwritten, nor is he just a cardboard cutout of your average cute kid. He’s just the right mixture of wide-eyed innocence and troublemaking attention seeking. He feels like a real little boy, and he especially reminded me of my own little brothers.

One of the best things about Book Two as a whole is how it honestly depicts a world damaged by war. Back in the carefree days of Book One, the war was referred to very rarely or not at all, but never in a truly meaningful or resonant manner. Here, we get a horrifying image planted in our minds of what the Fire Nation does with captured soldiers: placing them in Fire Nation uniforms, unarmed, and at the front of the lines. Brutal.

Unfortunately, before Zuko can leave the town for good and keep in good favor, Lee’s mother finds him and has horrible news. Lee pulled the knife Zuko gave him on the bad guys when they tried to terrorize him and his mother (his father just left to find Lee’s brother). Now they’re holding Lee hostage and threatening to send him to the army since he’s such a tough guy. Lee’s mother wants Zuko’s help to get Lee back. I smell a last-act action sequence coming up.

And indeed the action is good and exciting, but there’s much more going on here. Zuko fights with his swords, but he doesn’t Firebend until the very end when he needs to. Even when he’s fighting on the side for good, he still wears a mask. Being Zuko must get confusing sometimes.

What ultimately prompts him to Firebend and reveal his true identity is another flashback, this time to the very last time he’d ever seen his mother. This is probably the most powerful moment in the episode. Zuko is half asleep when his mother comes in to say goodbye, as well as this: “No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are.” So when Zuko gives himself away and defeats the bad guys, it’s out of love for his mother. It’s as heartbreaking as it is triumphant.

And scary.

Of course, freedom of identity does not mean freedom of consequences, and Zuko’s reveal suddenly turns everyone in the village—even the ones who cheered him on earlier—not only hate him, but call him out on his own announcement of himself as “heir to the throne.” It’s technically true, but they all know he’s been banished from the Fire Nation and disowned by his own father. And now they don’t want him either. Even Lee wants nothing more to do with him, going so far as to tell Zuko, “I hate you.” There’s little in this world that is quite as dreadfully painful as having a child hate you.

This, if anything, is Zuko’s personal rock bottom. He was bound to reach it at some point, and as damning as it is, it leaves room for hope. After sinking this low, there’s nowhere to go but up. Right?

I should mention something very important. On a purely objective level, “Zuko Alone” is not a perfect episode. It contains a lot of elements that would irk me in any other episode. For instance, the voice acting in the flashback sequence is strange: all the kids but Zuko are played by their adult voice actors, so they sound like those dubbed anime where thirty-year-old women try to unconvincingly portray children. There are also more hybrid animals here, and they’re the stupidest yet: pig-sheep, pig-cows, and a pig-rooster. Argh! (I agree with my friend, though, that the turtle-ducks are pretty cute.)

I give “Zuko Alone” the highest rating possibly because the power of its narrative and imagery rises above any technical failings it has. A few days ago, my friend and I watched Aguirre: The Wrath of God. That film may have some of the worst English dubbing and phoniest looking blood you’ll see in a motion picture, but by the end, its the haunting and maddening vision of director Werner Herzog that sticks with you forever, not the minor annoyances of its construction. The flaws even add a rather dream-like quality as Aguirre in his men get themselves lost in a fruitless search for El Dorado.

“Zuko Alone” is one of the best bits of television I’ve ever seen, and one of the reasons, despite all of its wrongdoings, I continue to love Avatar: the Last Airbender.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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5 responses

  1. Chris

    This episode is one of my favorites, too, and this review is on a par with it.

    August 13, 2012 at 9:06 am

  2. Drew Drewl

    They concluded the comic surrounding Ursa’s past, and it was about as disappointing as you’d expect.

    February 25, 2014 at 9:58 pm

  3. tox

    You know the voice actress thing bugged me too (just re-watched this in honor of ‘Korra Alone’) but I realized it was probably intentional (and convenient); flashbacks as perceived in someone’s brains aren’t direct playbacks but morphed and twisted by your psychology. It makes sense that as Zuko thinks back to his past, the voices he hears are just the present-day voices of Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, just more childish as he would perceive them.

    October 12, 2014 at 3:33 am

    • Now that I think about it, you’re probably right. I never thought at all about how the voices sounded in the flashbacks. Wow. I already love Avatar, but I’m getting a feeling that this show is even more deeper…

      November 11, 2015 at 8:12 pm

  4. Reblogged this on abuseandautism and commented:
    Surreal how similiar Zuko’s story in many ways is to my own. No wonder I always found him so……relatable. (If you haven’t watched the Avatar series, I highly recommend it; best animated series in my opinion)

    July 31, 2016 at 2:25 pm

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