Avatar: The Last Airbender – Zuko Alone

Since the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I have written on the theme of Zuko as
the anti-hero of the story, a hero’s development which has mirrored Aang’s own
journey to saving the world.  Previously,
that development has come in bits and pieces through Zuko’s pursuit of Aang for
the purpose of restoring his honor and more importantly, returning home to the
Fire Nation and the good graces of his father, Fire Lord Ozai.  The start of Season Two, however, generally
divorced Zuko from this path of redemption through the capture of the Avatar
when it was made painfully obvious by his sister, Azula, that the opportunity
for a return had been nullified.

Zuko’s choice to cut his hair symbolized his cutting
of ties with his family, his homeland, and the mission to pursue Aang, but at
the same time, did not easily resolve his inner turmoil over where this left his
identity.  Yesterday he was a Fire Nation
prince and today, a wanted fugitive.
Before, he was given special treatment appropriate to his title, be it
manners or things he needed to survive on a daily basis.  Now, he has only what he can scavenge.  In the course of working through his
identity, he began to take what he needed, because as a Fire Nation prince he
had had that right, and it began with the ostrich horse from the home of the
healers in “The Cave of Two Lovers.”  

Yet, while that theft was done without subterfuge,
his following criminal actions were performed while wearing the mask of the
Blue Spirit.  There are two arguments for
this decision by Zuko, to either conceal his face as a matter of avoiding
recognition by his victims to prevent capture or it was done because he could
not consciously continue to take without doing so behind a false identity.  The latter has a little more weight, if only
because of the role the Blue Spirit had played previously.  In “The Blue Spirit,” Zuko dons the mask for
the purpose of freeing Aang from the clutches of Commander Zhao.  That act obviously could not be done, because
it was in essence, treasonous.  Thus, the
Blue Spirit persona allowed Zuko to behave how he inwardly desired and was prevented
outwardly from doing.

Thus, when we return to Zuko’s actions in “Avatar
Day” he executes a number of thefts as the Blue Spirit, and arguably, because
he has begun to realize that stealing is inappropriate, at least when justified
by his identity as a Fire Nation royal.
This is highlighted by the exchange between him and Iroh, when he
criticizes his uncle for panhandling as below their station.  Outwardly, Zuko, who respects his uncle,
realizes that he cannot justify being a robber because of his royal status, but
with the use of the Blue Spirit persona, he can inwardly fulfill these desires
still within him to act upon his impulses of self-importance.  His inability to conceptualize his identity
as a Fire Nation prince with the identity of someone who doesn’t simply expect
to be given what he needs or to take what he wants, ultimately drives him away
from the one person in the world who loves him most.  At the end of “Avatar Day,” Zuko leaves his
uncle and sets off on his own, ironically riding the same ostrich horse he had
previously stolen.

In this context, this is why “Zuko Alone,” is one of
the most important episodes toward Zuko’s evolution as a character as he
grapples with his identity as a person and as a Fire Nation prince.   The episode does so by weaving together two
stories, Zuko’s present wanderings that lead him to a dusty Earth Kingdom
village and the history behind his father’s rise to Fire Lord set in flashbacks
to Zuko’s childhood.  Importantly for the
development of Zuko as the hero, the present day storyline borrows heavily from
two sources of popular entertainment, the wandering gun slinger of Western lore
and the wandering swordsman of Japanese tradition.  In this case, a good example and perhaps an
inspiration for the writers being the Western film, Shane.  

Shane
is the story of a wandering gunslinger who finds himself in a small town or
community, in the process of befriending a small boy on a farm, finds himself
embroiled in a conflict between the villainous men of a cattle baron and the
victimized community.  It ends with a
showdown between Shane, the gunslinger and the bad guys, and then with Shane
moving on in his wanderings.  And so, “Zuko
Alone” begins with Zuko making his way into a small community.

For how long Zuko had been traveling is hard to
guess, but he and his mount are presented as worn out from the travels and
hungry, if not starving.  He immediately
spies a man and a woman resting beside a river with a large, inviting
watermelon.  Zuko’s hands reach for the
pommel of his swords, before dropping as he realizes that the woman is
pregnant.  Instead of taking the
watermelon to satisfy his hunger, Zuko moves on.  We are quickly telegraphed that there is a
limit to at least whom our Fire Nation prince is willing to take from.  At the same time, it’s also the first
indication that this episode is going to be somewhat redemptive of his
character. Yet, soon we learn that Zuko is not in the frame of mind to seek out
injustices, a common theme in the wandering gunman/samurai genre.  He is merely passing through and is caught up
in the current of the local wrongs, not eagerly leaping into them. 

In this instance, he finally makes it to a dusty
town, the part of the Earth Kingdom which reminds one remarkably of the
American Southwest, where he attempts to purchase feed for his ostrich
horse.  This simple purchase is set awry
when local boys throw eggs at nearby Earth Kingdom soldiers who are
gambling.  The merchant had already
complained they were more like bandits than soldiers, and with the egg tossing,
they turn and assume Zuko to be the thrower.
The old Zuko would have quickly broken out the fire bending, but instead
he stoically resists their attempts to goad him into a fight, even after they
take the feed he had just purchased with the last of his coin.  His reward for not ratting out the boys comes
as one, a gap tooth rapscallion, invites him back to his farm for feed for the
ostrich horse.

This is our young hero worshipping farm boy, similar
to the character of Joey in Shane,
who immediately begins to idolize Zuko in the stead of his absent brother, sent
off to war to fight the Fire Nation.  His
brother’s absence is another reminder to Zuko of the less glamorous side of
war, which have come in droplets as he has progressed through the Earth Kingdom
on the run.  At the farm, the boy’s
father recognizes Zuko as someone with a past best left behind and chides Lee
(the boy) for pestering Zuko with questions, as Zuko refuses to accept help
without earning it.  Zuko earns a meal,
if not much praise for his handyman skills.
At this point, the first
flashback into his past occurs.

We get a glimpse of a small turtle duck, perhaps one
of the cutest hybrid creations of the Avatar universe, and a woman’s hand.  The figurative camera pulls back and we find
a young Zuko with his mother feeding a family of turtle ducks in the courtyard
garden of the Fire Nation’s imperial palace.
Notably, through the entire scene, his mother remains in shadow compared
to young Zuko, perhaps hinting that her stay in his world is less permanent and
vivid.  Abruptly, Zuko throws a large
piece of bread at a baby turtle duck, after claiming it was something his
sister Azula had taught him.  The mother
turtle duck unsurprisingly attacks him, before being removed by Zuko’s mother,
Ursa, who then comforts the upset prince. 

The scene thus sets up two parallel themes to Zuko’s
flashbacks, the mother who will do what she must to protect her child and to
establish the cruel nature within Azula at even this early age.  The flashback continues with Zuko and his
mother walking along a pathway when Azula, with her two friends, Mai and Ty
Lee, convinces her mother that Zuko must join them.  The purpose of the scene, beyond Azula
setting her brother up for an embarrassing mishap, is also to help establish
that Mai’s crush on Zuko was quite a long lived one and might have even
originated from this moment.

The lengthy flashback continues with a narration by
Iroh and scene of the Fire Nation’s attack on the walls of Ba Sing Se,
previously alluded to in Season One.  It’s
an fascinating moment for Iroh’s character, because this Iroh of the past has a
since of lightness concerning the war and his efforts to defeat the Earth
Kingdom.  It’s a man who hasn’t felt loss
nor personally been affected by the horrors of the war.  The narration switches to the voice of Ursa,
as she finishes reading the letter sent by Iroh.  Additionally, it reveals that the knife used
by Zuko to cut his hair, was a gift from Iroh received from a surrendering
Earth Kingdom general.  A general
ceremoniously handing his enemy a weapon also implies that perhaps the war of
Iroh’s command was something more civilized, as civilized as war might be.  Azula, meanwhile, is presented a doll wearing
the ‘latest in Earth Kingdom fashion,’ of which the Fire Nation princess
quickly burns in disgust.  In the
footsteps of “The Blind Bandit,” we have a quick affirmation that stereotypes,
girls loving dolls, does not equate to reality.

The episode cuts back to Zuko, attempting to sleep
on a pile of hay inside a barn, while Lee sneaks in and runs off with Zuko’s
swords.  Armed with the weapons, Lee
makes his way into a nearby field and plays the hero, Zuko in his mind, against
the remains of a stumpy tree.  Zuko
surprises him, but rather than scold him for taking the weapons, shows him how
to properly wield the blades.  It’s
another toss back to Shane where the titular
gunfighter shows the boy, Joey, how to use his pistol.  Zuko has no intention of staying, however,
and is preparing to leave when the aforementioned soldiers arrive to inform Lee’s
parents that their oldest son was captured and then hint that he will be killed
as a result.  Enter the next flashback.

It’s a short one, but one that tips over the domino
in the series of events that lead to Ozai becoming firelord.  It shows Ursa reading a letter and becoming
upset, and we learn that Iroh’s son has been killed in battle.  The flashback cuts away and Lee’s father
claiming he’s going to depart to look for their son.  Zuko is asked to stay by Lee, but he refuses,
but gives him the dagger Iroh had given him at about the same age.  For the seriousness of the moment, the
episode inserts one of its most clever jokes, as Zuko asks Lee to read the
inscription on the blade.  The boy reads
aloud,”Made in the Earth Kingdom.”  Irritated, Zuko tells him to read the other
said, which essentially says, “Never Give Up.”
Zuko rides away on his ostrich horse, leaving Lee and his mother behind.

We return to the past and find Ozai arranging a
meeting between his family and his father, the then current Fire Lord.  Ozai makes a simple argument, Iroh has given
up on the siege of Ba Sing Se, and on life, and therefore no longer makes a
suitable heir to the Fire Nation throne, especially because his only heir, his
son, is deceased.  Ozai then has Azula
demonstrate her prodigal fire bending abilities to both his and the Fire Lord’s
pleased satisfaction.  In attempt to
prove himself, Zuko also attempts to show off, but fails miserably, revealing
his father’s early disgust for his son. 

Not long after, a sleeping Zuko is awakened by his
sister, who taunts him that he’s going to die.
From Azula’s untrustworthy explanation, the Fire Lord was disgusted by
his second son’s blatant attempt to take advantage of Iroh in the time of loss,
and ordered him to kill his own son, and experience the same loss, if he truly
wanted to be heir to the throne.  Zuko’s
anxiety are resolved, somewhat, by Ursa rushing into the room and assuring him
that was not the case, as well dragging Azula away with a bewilderment as to
her behavior.  The flashback ends and the
final act of the ‘present’ day storyline unfolds with Lee’s mother catching up
to Zuko in tears, claiming Lee had used a dagger to attack the soldiers and was
being held by them.  It’s a call to arms
that Zuko cannot ignore, in part because of his own role in arming Lee, and so
he returns to the town. 

It’s the gun duel at sunset between him and the
soldiers.  Using only his swords, he
manages to easily defeat all but one of the soldiers.  The remaining soldier, the leader of the
unit, quickly unleashes a devastating earth bending attack that Zuko cannot
simply overcome through sword alone.
Knocked to the ground, another flashback occurs, and it’s Zuko, once
again in bed, and in the darkness, his mother approaches his bedside, embracing
her son.  Ursa tells him that everything
she has done, it was to protect him and no matter how much things might change to
never forget who he is.  It’s a moment
that also helps to define yet another theme of the flashbacks, that Zuko is the
son of Ursa and Azula the daughter of Ozai.
Zuko’s bitterness and worse instincts flow from his behavior that flows
from his father, and his better nature from his mother.  Ursa disappears into the night like a fading
memory of a dream and present day Zuko opens his eyes. 

He leaps to his feet unleashing flames and promptly
begins to overwhelm his opponent, who fearfully asks who Zuko is.  For the first time since he cut his hair,
Zuko tells someone other than his uncle, that he is the Fire Nation prince
Zuko.  It’s a redefining moment for Zuko,
connecting the act of doing good to his identity as a Fire Nation prince.  Yet, ironically, as he brings these two things
together, he’s faced with the realization of everyone who had seconds before
been rooting for him as their hero despising him as their enemy.  Lee refuses to accept the dagger, retrieved
from an Earth Kingdom soldier who had taken it, and runs off to his
mother.  Solemnly, Zuko departs, and we
get the last and final flashback.  

Zuko awakes and recalling his mother’s midnight
visit, runs searching for, only to run into Azula, who had stolen the very same
dagger from Zuko’s possession.  Zuko
demands to know where their mother is, but Azula simply shrugs and claims no
one knows, and that their grandfather had passed away in the night.  It’s the setup of a mystery that remains
unsolved until after the series concludes on television and enters into comic
book format.  None the less, Zuko races
off and finds his father in the garden from the very first flashback, mirroring
it with his positioning.  When Zuko asks
his father about his mother, he ignores him, contrasting his coldness with the
warmth Ursa showed Zuko earlier in the same spot.  The scene shifts to the coronation of Ozai as
Fire Lord, then again, to present day Zuko, like a wandering gunslinger, riding
off into the sunset.

“Zuko Alone,” through its use of flashbacks and
homage to the American Western, particularly, Shane, is a pivotal moment in the development of Zuko as the
anti-hero of the show.  For the first
time, his identity as Fire Nation prince, the identity that drove him in a two
year search for an avatar not seen in nearly a hundred years to reclaim, is
realigned with the actions of someone out to do good.  It’s a reclamation of the identity his
mother, Ursa, had sought to encourage and nurture before she was forced by an
unknown cause to abandon him in the midst of the night.  With the sole exception of an incredible plot
twist later on in the season, Zuko will proceed now along a heroic path and his
shift in identity will take a physical toll upon him.  

From the perspective of the episode, itself, it’s a
marvelous interweaving of story of present with flashback, and yet another
reminder that in Avatar: The Last
Airbender
, the good guy can still be the bad guy, and likewise, the bad guy
can become the good guy.  In a send up to
“Avatar Day,” wherein Aang begins as the ‘bad guy,’ but by the episode’s
conclusion, is officially the ‘good guy.’
Zuko is not provided that measure of reward, receiving glaring eyes and
ungrateful, damning words instead.  Yet,
as he rides away into the sunset, he does so conscious that he is his mother’s
son, reward enough.   

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