Disclaimer: This article is mostly for the benefit of Avatar: The Last Airbender fans who wish to look back on Zuko’s well-written arc, so please refer to the glossary below in case you are not familiar with the show:
AG - “After the genocide”, a time period after a war that lasted for a hundred years
Bender - someone with the ability to control a specific element (ex.: water, earth, fire, air, etc.)
Ba Sing Se - the capital city of the Earth Kingdom
Avatar - someone with the ability to control all four main elements (water, earth, fire, air)
Freedom Fighters - a group of young rebels from the Earth Kingdom
Sky bison - literally a flying bison
Crystal catacombs - a chamber made of crystal and rock found underneath the palace in Ba Sing Se
Ember Island - a resort area found in the Fire Nation
*The world of Avatar is divided into “nations” or territories based on the four elements, and the main antagonist of the show is Fire Lord Ozai.
I think that this word describes Zuko and his life perfectly. His constant search for honor throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender is a perfect reminder of that. Though he has endured many hardships in his life, I am confident in saying that he has succeeded in proving his worth.
From his early life to where he is at the end of the series, here is some history behind the famous scarred Fire Lord.
Born in 85 AG to royal parents Ozai and Ursa, Zuko was a late bloomer who was originally thought to be a non-bender. Knowing this, Ozai plotted to throw him over the palace walls, but his wife and the fire sages begged him to reconsider and give his newborn son a chance, to which Zuko’s father reluctantly agreed to. Two years after this, Zuko became an older brother to Princess Azula, a firebending prodigy.
Soon, Azula was favored by her father while Zuko was favored by his mother. These two different influences molded both of them: Azula learning cruelty from her father and Zuko learning what it means to be kind-hearted and caring from his mother. The two contrasting influences made the two siblings disagree most of the time.
When Zuko was eleven, his whole life began to change. His father, Prince Ozai, asked for a hearing with his grandfather and began to voice out his request, which was to crown him the next leader instead, not his grieving elder brother Iroh who had just lost his son a few days before due to the siege in Ba Sing Se. Angered, Fire Lord Azulon subjected Ozai to losing his firstborn son because of the disrespectful request. Unfortunately, Azula and Zuko were behind the curtains, listening to everything.
After this, Zuko’s mother mysteriously disappeared. The disappearance of his mother took a great toll on Zuko as his only ally who loved him more than life itself vanished, leaving no trace. It is revealed later that Ursa had struck a deal with Ozai upon hearing from Azula about her husband’s punishment. In order to save Zuko, Ursa had to create an odorless, colorless poison but in turn, she had to leave the Fire Nation.
Two years later, Zuko wanted to go to a war meeting being held. His uncle paved the way by allowing him to come inside, warning him to not say anything, but he couldn’t help himself when the general proposed a plan of sending off unprepared, young soldiers to the battlefield to fight as a diversion, saying that the soldiers “love and defend our nation”.
This enraged Ozai, who told him that the only solution to his act of disrespect was to fight in an Agni Kai, a traditional Firebender fight for one’s honor. Upon turning to face his opponent, Zuko quickly realized that it was Ozai whom he was facing, not the general whose statement he disagreed with. He misunderstood it because he thought he was fighting the general, but since he spoke out against the general in the presence of the Fire Lord, he disrespected his father as well.
Zuko promptly realized that he was no match for his father, so he got down on his knees and begged Ozai to spare him. However, Ozai did not show any signs of being merciful, so he burned his own son’s left side, which undoubtedly gave him a mark.
To add more salt into the wound, Zuko was banished and sent to capture the Avatar if he wished to return back home welcomed with open arms, a task deemed impossible as it had been a century since the last time the Avatar was seen.
When Zuko was sixteen, he was finally able to track down the Avatar, a cheeky airbender by the name of Aang and cornered him in the Southern Water Tribe. Aang gave up and Zuko captured him, but not for long as he escaped with the help of Katara and Sokka, Aang’s newfound friends.
Zuko tried time after time again to capture Aang, but to his frustration, his efforts were fruitless as even his best attempts were “so close, yet so far away”.
Zuko had managed to successfully capture Aang during “The Siege of the North” episode, but in spite of that, the raging blizzard forced Zuko to retreat to a nearby cave with the meditating Avatar. Aang was retrieved with the help of Sokka, Katara, and the Northern Water Tribe Princess Yue all riding on Appa, Aang’s sky bison. Zuko was about to be left alone, but Aang insisted that they bring the unconscious prince with them.
Zuko and his uncle Iroh were then branded as fugitives, so they were targeted by Azula who was ordered to bring them home and imprison them. Zuko, overjoyed, planned to go with Azula, and Iroh, being the supportive uncle he was, decided to come along. It was accidentally revealed by the captain that they were just going to be prisoners, so Iroh and Zuko fought and managed to escape. Upon reaching a river, the two fugitives cut their hair and left it to drift in the river, starting their new life as runaways.
Zuko had soon left Iroh, wandering on his own as they started to drift apart. Little did he know that Iroh was following him. On his journey alone, Zuko encountered a young boy named Lee. The boy’s family took him in, and new bonds were formed. After a few days, Zuko was about to leave when Lee’s mother ran up to him, saying that some men had kidnapped Lee. Zuko had fought to save the boy until he was knocked out. Upon waking he used his firebending skills, revealing his identity. Zuko left the town, Lee being ungrateful upon knowing who he truly was.
Soon after reconciling with his uncle, the pair travelled to Ba Sing Se, meeting the fierce leader of the Freedom Fighters: Jet. Once they arrived, the uncle and nephew duo got a job in a tea shop, and Zuko adapted nicely. That changed when he heard of the missing sky bison of the Avatar who was apparently also in Ba Sing Se. Zuko sought to steal the bison, but after Iroh talked some sense to him, he decided to free it. This act caused him to get sick since the act conflicted with his own imagery of himself.
Later, Ba Sing Se became the victim of a coup led by Azula. Zuko was captured and left in the crystal catacombs, where Katara was coincidentally also placed in. The two soon formed an acquaintance until Zuko decided to join Azula, thus undoing the metamorphosis he had previously gone through and disappointing his uncle.
Upon being received into the Fire Nation once again with open arms, Azula had apparently lied to their father that Zuko was the one who “killed” the Avatar, but in reality, Azula was the one who shot Aang with lightning. Zuko, Azula’s friends Ty Lee, Mai and Azula herself went to Ember Island for a day that they expected to be filled with relaxation, but alas, this was not the case and the four ended up spilling all their self-doubt and issues.
Eventually, Zuko confronted his father, left the fire nation, and followed Team Avatar, hoping to make amends and be part of the group. The group was skeptical at first, especially Katara who couldn’t trust him because of what happened during their imprisonment in Ba Sing Se. Zuko proved himself, and the team soon found itself with a new member. Zuko went on journeys with Sokka, Aang, and Katara individually. He went with Katara to find her mom’s killer, Sokka to rescue his dad and girlfriend from prison, and Aang to learn the true art of firebending.
As the final battle between Team Avatar and the Fire Lord drew near, Aang disappeared. Zuko tried to track him down, and although he couldn’t find Aang, he was able to find his uncle Iroh. Iroh and Zuko then had a teary apology exchange the next day when Iroh awoke.
Later, during the final battle, Zuko and Katara arrived in the capital city of the Fire Nation. Zuko and Azula fought an Agni Kai, but he became injured due to taking a lightning strike directed at Katara. Katara had to take the lead in the battle, so she was able to win in the end.
I feel like the character development of Zuko is one of the greatest character arcs in history. His emotional development throughout the comic book and the TV series is one of a kind. The people who shaped and helped him become who he is like Uncle Iroh and Team Avatar play very important roles in his life and character development.
We also see him improving in his bending skills throughout the series, and it reaches a point that he himself taught the Avatar firebending. He later becomes the Fire Lord of the Fire Nation, and this part was beautifully written as we find out his struggles and victories in helping the Avatar establish an era of peace and kindness. Zuko’s character arc is a great example of how the writers of Avatar: The Last Airbender proved that just because a cartoon is made for children, it doesn’t mean that it is any less than a grown-up TV show.
Thumbnail: "Zuko Minimalist Wallpaper" by DamionMauville