Avatar and the Prodigal Nephew

On Zuko, Shame, and Forgiveness

Bryan J. / 10.27.20

Our exploration of gracious themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender continues. To start at the beginning, go here.

At the show’s outset, four characters are introduced to viewers as the main leads. Teens Sokka and Katara discover Aang frozen in ice, and the promised Avatar is freed after a hundred years. But unbeknownst to the three principle heroes, a fourth character is watching from a distance. Marked by a horrific burn scar surrounding his left eye, the Fire Nation’s teen prince Zuko witnesses the Avatar’s return with a fiery excitement. But Zuko is in exile, banished in dishonor from the Fire Nation and searching for the opportunity to redeem himself. Like Ahab’s famous obsession with his white whale, when Zuko discovers the Avatar’s return, he sees his chance at redemption. 

A talented firebender with a fiery personality, Prince Zuko makes for a compelling adversary. The scar surrounding his eye gives the impression that he is damaged from battle, and his desperation to redeem himself is a powerful motivator. Despite Zuko’s introduction as an enemy, however, keen viewers will notice a rich backstory in development. Why exactly was Zuko exiled? Why does his cheery Uncle Iroh serve at his side? What’s the deal with his scar? Who is this firebending prince with tunnel vision focused on the Avatar, and why is the show giving him so much character development?

These mysteries are revealed midway through the first season. As a younger teen, the prince spoke out of turn during a Fire Nation war room meeting. In this honor/shame world, Zuko was challenged to a firebending duel for insulting the general’s plans. When Zuko arrived at the duel, however, he found his father, the great Fire Lord Ozai, was his opponent. Begging for mercy, Zuko refused to fight and knelt in submission, which his father found disgraceful. The enraged Ozai attacked his defenseless son and left the massive burn scar on his left orbital. For refusing to defend himself, Ozai banished his son from the Fire Nation, telling him to return only if he had captured the long lost Avatar. Beneath the surface, Zuko is not a wicked teen with hopes for dominion and glory, but an ashamed and lonely young man working out the rejection he suffered from his dad. 

Despite Zuko’s sympathetic back story, he is still season one’s bad guy, and the task of capturing the Avatar proves to be difficult. He chases Aang across the show’s fantasy world but fails to secure his imprisonment. Not only does Zuko suffer the indignity of failure, he also suffers the indignity of Aang’s charity, at one point shooting a fire blast at Aang when he tentatively offers friendship instead of rivalry. That is certainly not an experience Zuko would have had in the realm of the Fire Nation, and it’s an olive branch that will come into play later in the series.

When the first season ends, not only has Zuko failed to capture the Avatar, but he and his uncle have fought against the Fire Nation during the invasion of the Northern Water Tribe. The duo are branded as fugitives, not simply exiles, and they are pursued in the second season by a new enemy, Zuko’s sister Princess Azula. Azula represents everything Zuko wants for himself. She is brutal, heartless, and a better firebender. Most importantly, she has the coveted blessing and favor of their father that Zuko has been desperately working to regain. 

Zuko’s narrative now shifts from his pursuit of Aang to his relationship with his portly and serene uncle. To hear other characters talk about him, Iroh is a revered general, a great firebender with a fearsome reputation. His nickname was “the Dragon of the West,” a title that raises the eyebrows of viewers. We see him drinking tea, playing board games, and leveraging his legendary firebending to heat a DIY hot tub. How did the Dragon of the West become so detached and unmotivated by the wars of the world around him?

Iroh’s backstory is revealed in the beloved episode “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” We discover that General Iroh had a son killed in the same war he was tasked to lead. Overwhelmed with grief, General Iroh ordered a retreat, took a sabbatical from his military service, and traveled the world. Over the course of these travels, he sought spiritual solutions for his pain, searching for those things which made life meaningful in the midst of his deep loss. He discovered that war, glory, and victory were meaningless, and unconditional love was the only thing that mattered.

The lovable and serene Iroh is not simply comic relief to undermine Zuko’s anger. Iroh is a voice of grace, reminding Zuko that power, honor, and glory are foolish, and that love is the only thing worth seeking. Zuko may have scars on his face, but Iroh has scars on his heart. He has experienced so much suffering in life, and now, he has the chance to save his nephew from following that path. Sadly, when Zuko is given the opportunity at the end of the second season to choose between the abusive works-righteousness of his family and his loving uncle, he chooses his family. It’s a decision he will come to regret.

In the third season, Zuko finds himself restored to his father and family and nation. No longer a fugitive, Zuko returns home a hero. He and his sister have conquered the capital of the Earth Nation, and, by all accounts, Zuko has defeated the Avatar, too. At the same time, his return home does not provide the catharsis he hoped it would. He cannot find peace when he recognizes the dangers of his family’s conditional love, living in constant fear that the hammer will drop on him again. In a moment of repentance, Zuko chooses to flee his family and return to exile. He seeks out the show’s heroes and offers to become Aang’s firebending teacher, giving Aang instruction in the last element he has yet to master. The great enemy of the show now wants to be the good guy.

Once Zuko is welcomed into the band of heroes after two seasons of being their villain, he becomes the catalyst for our heroes to finish their great developments of character. As Aang, Katara, and Sokka all reconcile with their former enemy, it produces within them the last developments they need to become the show’s true heroes. And in return, Zuko receives their unconditional love and support, the love and support that his uncle had always wanted for him.

As the show’s climactic battle approaches, Zuko is reunited with Iroh, and he approaches his uncle with fear. Their relationship had been fractured since Zuko’s betrayal in season two, and it is now time for Zuko to ask forgiveness. Zuko begins to apologize: “I am so so sorry uncle. I’m so sorry and ashamed of what I did. I don’t know how I can make it up to you, but I —”

But his apology is interrupted by Iroh’s quick embrace. Zuko, the show’s icon of rage and shame, weeps on his loving uncle’s shoulder.

“How can you forgive me so easily?” asks Zuko. “I thought you would be furious with me!” After all, the other members of Zuko’s family were quick to anger and full of retribution.

“I was never angry with you,” replies Iroh. “I was sad because I was afraid you had lost your way.”

“I did lose my way,” admits Zuko, and Iroh responds: “But you found it again. And you did it all by yourself. And I am so happy you found your way here.”

What started off as a parable of works-righteousness and regained honor has suddenly become an anime parable of the prodigal son. After living under the tyranny of a dictator father with no room for weakness, Zuko realizes that his uncle, Iroh, is the good father he never had. And so after his betrayal in the second season, essentially wishing his uncle dead as he reaffirms his commitment to capture the Avatar, Zukko returns and, in the middle of his rehearsed speech, is embraced by a father-figure who he had betrayed.

The story of Prince Zuko is the story of unconditional love triumphing over an abusive righteousness of works. Zuko’s birth father, the wicked Fire Lord Ozai, presents a relationship fully based on honor, power, pride, and glory. Zuko’s adopted father, Iroh, arrives as a wounded agent of mercy for those broken on the militant nationalism of the Fire Nation. Now free from the chains of his dysfunctional family and the abusive culture of his youth, Zuko is finally freed and blessed with the love and belonging he had always wanted. It should not be a surprise, then, when Zuko gives us the most Christ-centered act of sacrifice in the series, taking a near-fatal lighting blast from his sister Azula to protect his new friend Katara. Self-sacrifice is, after all, the ultimate good-guy act. 

For Christians watching the show, Zuko’s transformation from bad guy to good guy is one of the most cathartic and relatable stories in any medium. Here’s a young man wounded and literally scarred from the abuse of his family and culture, but with the guidance of a grace-filled mentor, he learns how to use the power of mercy and substitution to fight tyranny. If you want to take a bad guy and make them a good guy, the only way to do that is with grace. Uncle Iroh’s love changed Zuko’s heart. Aang’s offer of friendship changed Zuko’s heart, too. Only unconditional love changes the heart of a villain and makes friends out of enemies. It’s true in Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s true in real life, too.