THIS POST COULD CONTAIN SPOILERS FROM THE AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER ANIMATED SERIES!!!
During the course of my life, I was bombarded with several recommendations of movies or TV series to watch. One of such was Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated series from Nickelodeon that ran through three seasons. I must confess that I wasn’t personally open to that series at first – it came from Nickelodeon, after all! – but, since I had the time and the series was available on Netflix – except its sequel series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra – I took a chance at it. And, oh boy, was. It. Worth. It!!!
I instantly fell in love with that world, filled with breathtaking landscapes, a story that managed to be both childish and mature in its themes, the choreography of the battles, but the biggest draw in its favour is the wide range of colourful characters that we can meet. Personally, I fell in love with every single one of them, even the villains. There’s also room for development for them, but I dare to say that there’s one character that has since become the poster boy for character development on TV. And his name is Zuko!
Before we get started, here’s a brief summary of what Avatar: The Last Airbender is all about (specifically, for those of you who haven’t even heard of it before).
The World of Avatar is linked to the four basic elements: water, earth, fire and air. There are the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, the Air Temples, the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. People from all over the world, each with their specific customs and ways of life. Among these people, there are the benders, a group of remarkable people who can “bend” one specific element to enact their will, be it offense, defense, transport, construction, among other uses. And between those benders, there’s the Avatar, who can bend all four elements and works along a cycle of death and reincarnation.
For many centuries, the world was at peace. That is, until the Fire Nation starts to expand his borders, which ignites (get it?) a world war between the Fire Nation and the other regions. Making matters worse, the Avatar was nowhere to be found, and with him, the hope for peace. The series takes place 100 years after the beginning of the war, with siblings Katara and Sokka, from the Southern Water Tribe, encounter Aang, an airbender who claims to be the latest incarnation of the Avatar. While they try to help Aang master the other three elements, they are constantly facing many dangers, with Prince Zuko being one of those threats.
The TV industry is no stranger to the “sympathetic villain” trope. In this case, the villain in question shows a dramatic backstory that invites sympathy from the audience. We may not agree with his/her villainous actions, but we can understand where they’re coming from. Zuko is no exception, even before his backstory was properly fleshed out. At the beginning, we learn that Zuko was banished from his home and his family, not to mention with his honour being lost. Right there and then, we learn that Zuko wants to capture the Avatar and taking him home, so that he can come back to his old life. Basically, we can’t agree with his actions (capturing the Avatar), but we can understand where his intentions are coming from (his desire to restore his honour and return home).
However, that task isn’t as simple as one might think, and it’s not just about how Aang and company manage to evade Zuko’s efforts (out of sheer, dumb luck, in most cases), but also from the people in his lives. Throughout the whole series, Zuko meets and befriends a set of different people with different values that end up shaping his own worldview, but none are as influential as General Iroh, otherwise known as simply “Uncle Iroh”. When we first meet the guy, he’s just a tea lover with a knack of engaging with people from all over the world. However, he’s also one of the few people who’s directly affect by the war effort, with his Siege of Ba Sing Se being one event for the legends, as well as a fundamental turning point for Iroh. Not only does he fail in that effort, but he also manages to lose his only son. That being said, it’s no wonder that Iroh becomes a beacon of peace during wartime, and it’s that sage wisdom that he tries to impart in Zuko.
Despite his uncle’s positive influence, it takes a while for Zuko to actually “wake up” from his delusions. Most of the time, he believes that capturing the Avatar is the only means for him to restore his honour and return to his home. However, that set of beliefs are constantly being tested throughout out the series, and that ends with Zuko finally acknowledging his own mistakes and sins and, rather to mope about it, he gets to do something about it. Even if it means facing his own family (namely, his father and sister).
The fact that this transformation doesn’t feel forced or out of thin air speaks volumes about the writing team behind Avatar: The Last Airbender. They surely took their sweet time to develop Zuko and charting his eventual road to redemption. Before the final season, the series had offered a few instances of Zuko displaying his human side, be it forgetting chasing Aang in favour of the safety of his crew or defending a defenceless village or, for once, doing the right thing, which lead his body to go into shock (in retrospect, that IS hilarious). But when his status as a hero, albeit a more violent one, becomes more of a reality, it’s really hard to dismiss those small moments.
Most people tend to remember Avatar: The Last Airbender for its action scenes or its visuals; however, the biggest thing working for its favour is its characters and how they evolve through the series’ run. And there will never a great example on the show, or in the TV industry in its whole, than Zuko’s road to redemption, starting as a villain with understandable reasons and ending as a hero in his own right. Gotta love that man!