Welcome to Bae Watch Wednesday, where I tell you all about the fictional characters you ought to be crushing on. This week’s bae is Prince Zuko!
Who Is Prince Zuko?
Prince Zuko is one of the main characters of Avatar: the Last Airbender. When we first meet Zuko, he is sixteen years old and banished from his home in the Fire Nation, of which he was crown prince. His father, the brutal Fire Lord Ozai, has given him a mission: to find the Avatar, the one person in the world who can bend all four elements. It’s a fool’s errand – the Avatar has not been seen in over a hundred years since Zuko’s grandfather Sozin eliminated all the airbenders, the people of the new Avatar. However, Zuko is obsessed with regaining his honor and returning home, so he searches regardless.
Zuko and his uncle Iroh, who accompanied him on his banishment, are in the South Pole when the show begins. Iroh tells Zuko that his quest is pointless, and he should move on. He is proven wrong when a bright light pierces the sky – Zuko knows this is the Avatar. They go to a village in the South Pole and discover Aang, the new Avatar. Although Aang gives himself up to Zuko in order to spare the villagers, he is able to escape with the help of two villagers, Katara, a waterbender, and her brother Sokka.
As Aang and his friends go adventuring, Zuko continues to pursue them. Since Aang is the personification of his lost honor, Zuko is brutally obsessed with capturing him. His obsession leads him to betray the Fire Nation, rescuing Aang when he is captured by the loutish General Zhao. During this time, we learn more about Zuko’s past. He was banished for speaking out against his father in defense of Fire Nation soldiers. As punishment, his father challenged him to a duel and brutally attacked his son, permanently scarring Zuko, before banishing him.
Zuko finally gets his chance when the Fire Nation attacks the North Pole, the last stronghold of waterbenders. He sneaks in and kidnaps Aang, but in the end, he is stopped by Aang’s friends. Frustrated by Zuko’s continual failure to capture the Avatar, Ozai marks him as a traitor. He sends Zuko’s sister, Azula, to capture him and bring him home so that he can no longer embarrass Ozai. Zuko and Iroh are forced to go on the run, hiding their identities and posing as refugees in the Earth Kingdom. Eventually, they made their way to the capital, Ba Sing Se.
Iroh tries to get Zuko to adapt to their new situation. They find employment and lodgings, and Iroh urges Zuko to accept his new life and find peace. But Zuko is still obsessed with the Avatar. He believes that if he finally achieves his goal, he can return home and his father will forgive him. A turning point comes when he captures Aang’s flying bison, Appa. Iroh points out that Zuko didn’t think things through, and that he has no strategy beyond the moment. It is time to decide what he wants. Zuko lets Appa free and turns a corner.
Adjusting to his new life, Zuko is happy and grateful to Iroh. Sadly, it doesn’t last. Azula comes to Ba Sing Se with a plan to finally conquer the city that has resisted the Fire Nation for a century. She captures Zuko and tries to convince him to join in her plan. With the two of them together, they can be successful, and he can finally return home. Despite his recent resolve to move on, Zuko gives in and joins Azula. She murders Aang and they conquer Ba Sing Se for their father. Zuko can go home.
Although Zuko has finally achieved his goal, he is not satisfied. Azula tells Ozai that Zuko killed Aang. Ostensibly, this is to redeem Zuko in their father’s eyes. In reality, she’s not sure that Aang is actually dead, and is setting Zuko up to take the fall. He sends an assassin after Aang, and settles back into Fire Nation life, even starting a relationship with Mai, a Fire Nation noble. However, he is plagued by guilt for his actions, particularly betraying Iroh in Ba Sing Se. Eventually, he comes to a decision: he must go join Aang and find redemption for himself, not for his father’s expectations.
Zuko doesn’t find an easy reception once he finally tracks down Aang and his friends. They are understandably suspicious of the man who chased them for months and attacked them in Ba Sing Se. Worse, the assassin he hired finds them and attacks them. However, Aang is willing to forgive, especially since he needs a firebending teacher. Zuko agrees to teach him, though it goes awry. He loses his firebending, and he and Aang must go to the original firebending temple to find help. There, Zuko learns the secret, that firebending is beautiful, not violent.
Now that Aang can firebend, things come to a head. Zuko reveals that Ozai is going to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground when a comet comes by, so they have to fight back now. They meet up with Iroh, who helps them strategize. Zuko must face Azula. Betrayed by Ozai and her friends, Azula is off-balance, and Zuko challenges her to a duel. He loses but is saved by Katara. In the end, team Avatar wins the day. Zuko is crowned Fire Lord and promises to usher in a new age of peace.
Why Is Prince Zuko Bae?
Avatar: the Last Airbender is hands down the best show ever, and so much of that comes down to its amazing characters. Prince Zuko is one of the better characters, richly developed and enjoyable, though it doesn’t seem so at first. He’s also the “heartthrob” of the show, as seen in the tongue-in-cheek image above that I am obligated to include in every article. While personally I prefer a smart, funny guy to Moody McBroody, it’s undeniable that Zuko is a fan favorite.
Prince Zuko is prominently accepted to have one of the best redemption arcs in television history. Although redemption arcs are pretty popular in modern media (everyone loves a bad guy turned good), AtLA really accomplished the best turn and most thoroughly developed story. At the start of the show, Zuko is undeniably the antagonist. Although we meet other antagonists in season one, particularly the aggressive and shortsighted Zhao, Zuko is the face of the enemy for our heroes. Even then, though, there are hints of more, particularly when we learn the story of his scar.
Once he is disavowed by his father and forced to seek refuge in the Earth Kingdom, things get murkier. He continues to make horrible choices, such as stealing an ostrich horse from kind citizens and abandoning uncle Iroh. However, the fantastic season two episode “Zuko Alone” gives us greater insight into the character. We see his childhood and how his brutish father shaped his experiences. We also see a sense of honor, as he helps an Earth Kingdom village defeat raiders, though they scorn him when they learn his identity. Still, he tries to do what’s right… he just doesn’t always know what’s right.
In the end, though, Zuko thoroughly redeems himself. He rejects his father and Fire Nation ideology to join the Avatar and help end the war. Along the way, he learns how to be a better person, like when he learns that firebending is not destruction, as he was always taught. The finale shows how far Zuko has come (and not just in losing the ponytail). Zuko remarks that he had dedicated his life to hunting Aang, who is now his friend. They will work together to make the world a better place, undoing a century of pain.
The core defining trait of Zuko’s character is his sense of honor. While this is a frequent joke among fans (and even mentioned in the show), it’s really at the root of this character and the reason for his fantastic redemption arc. Even before his banishment, Zuko showed honor and a strong moral core. As a child, he was a typical spoiled prince, but he was nowhere near as corrupt as Azula. He was very proud and determined to prove himself. However, this was his downfall. His eagerness to prove himself got him into a war council meeting, but his outspoken defense of Fire Nation soldiers led to his banishment.
His obsession with finding Aang is based on his notion of honor, which has been corrupted by Ozai. Ozai convinced Zuko that he behaved dishonorably by speaking out and that he has to make up for this by finding the Avatar. Since Zuko is so tied to his honor, he feels like he needs to do whatever he can to redeem himself. Even then, though, he shows that he still is honorable. He takes care of his shipmates, though they consider him a typical royal asshole, and his uncle.
Zuko experiences several breakdowns in the show when his flawed conception of honor – pushed on him by his father – comes into conflict with his honorable nature. He wants to do the right thing, but his childhood and Ozai’s influence has destroyed his ability to know what the right thing is. In the end, though, thanks to Iroh’s influence and his own innate goodness, Zuko is able to course correct. Ozai tried to mold him into an “ideal” son, but in the end, Zuko was always too good. His honor could not be beaten out of him (though Ozai tried).
What’s Not To Love About Prince Zuko?
Avatar has a fantastic range of characters. Aang, our hero, is neither one-note nor overly righteous, and his ragtag team of allies is all equally multifaceted and well-developed. We also get a number of fantastic villains, from the foolish Zhao to the tyrannical Ozai to the utterly heartbreaking tragedy that is Azula. There’s a favorite character waiting for everyone. But even among such high company, Prince Zuko stands out. He’s villain and hero, with the redemption arc to end all redemption arcs. Zuko is thoroughly worthy of the attention he receives.
Though he starts the show off poorly – that ponytail is really unforgivable – Zuko captures the audience’s attention early on. It’s clear from the beginning that he isn’t really the villain he tries to be. Though he does do some shady things in the early seasons, like kidnapping Katara or burning down villages, we also see that there is more to him. When we see Zuko go off-mission to rescue Iroh or defeat the dishonorable Zhao in a duel, we realize that he is redeemable. There is good inside him.
Watching that good come to the fore is one of the best parts of an amazing show. Zuko’s redemption isn’t rushed – he doesn’t join the good guys until halfway through the final season, and even after he joins them we see some rough patches. Instead, it takes its time. Zuko makes mistakes and relapses on his course to being good, and that’s a good thing. It makes him more realistic and relatable. He has to learn from his mistakes, make his own choices, and become his own person. Although he despairs being “bad at being good,” the truth is, Zuko was always good. And in the end, he becomes the hero he was always meant to be.