Avatar: The Last Airbender has become one of the most adored animated series. Its popularity has revived hope for American animation in mainstream television (specifically Nickelodeon), so much so that Avatar was later adapted into a live-action feature film and given a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, by Nickelodeon.
The storytelling of Avatar is so complex and so well written that it appeals to people of all ages–even to those who don’t watch mainstream “anime.” The show has a bit of everything: creativity, great characters, humor, romance, adventure, suspense, action, friendship, good vs. evil, moral lessons, a climactic ending, and amazing character development.
There are many beautiful moments in this show, but when it comes to character development and growth, one of the most iconic moments is Zuko’s redemption.
As Christians, it’s hard to miss the parallelism between Zuko and the parable Jesus tells about the Prodigal Son. For those unfamiliar with it, the parable is the story of a son who prematurely requests his monetary inheritance from his father; then, the prodigal son leaves his father and takes his inheritance, which he soon spends frivolously. He eventually learns the hard way that what he selfishly wanted doesn’t lead to fulfillment and decides to return to his father. He prepares a speech of apology to his father, which includes a plea to take him back as a mere worker since he doesn’t expect his father to call him a son anymore, but, before he can fully apologize, his father runs up to him and welcomes him back in a loving embrace, giving him the best robe, a ring on his finger, and a celebratory feast to commemorate his return home.
One of the main interpretations of this parable demonstrates mankind’s journey toward redemption and God. Through Zuko’s character development, we can get a unique and interesting perspective that can further emphasize the importance of this parable.
It begins with Zuko’s pride.
Season 1 – Zuko’s Pride
At the start of the series, we learn that Zuko, son of the Fire Lord Ozai (who is the center of all antagonism in the story), has behaved dishonorably and has been banished from the Fire Nation. In a desperate attempt to regain his honor, Zuko puts all of his efforts into capturing the Avatar, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, who is the master of all four elements and is destined to restore balance to the world (and overthrow Zuko’s father in the process). In effect, Zuko makes capturing Aang his entire life’s mission in the hopes that his father will be pleased.
Zuko is willing to do anything to make this a reality.
However, alongside Zuko throughout his entire journey is his easy-going, loving, humorous, and wise Uncle Iroh, a former general of the Fire Nation Army. Throughout the series, Uncle Iroh constantly tries to steer Zuko’s self-destructive, prideful path towards one that leads to peace within himself and with others. He offers support, guidance, friendship, wisdom, and love during their travels, even through all of Zuko’s selfish actions and endangering decisions.
There are many moments where Uncle Iroh succeeds in poking small holes in Zuko’s defenses, and at one point it even seems Zuko has changed his ways and finally found peace; but there comes a pivotal moment in the series that seems to break all of this progress and permanently divide Zuko and his Uncle.
Season 2 – Zuko’s Temptation and Betrayal
In the season 2 finale, Zuko comes to a very important decision: following his uncle or following his power-hungry sister, Azula. The Avatar, Aang, is within their grasp and is on the run. Uncle Iroh has aided Aang to a degree up to this point, and Azula traps him and calls him a traitor. She then turns to Zuko and asks him to help her finally catch and defeat Aang, fueling his pride by tempting him with honor and his father’s love.
“You can still redeem yourself, Zuko.” – Azula
“The kind of redemption she offers is not for you.” – Uncle Iroh
At this point, we can start to see parallels to the story of Genesis and the Garden of Eden, where sin first entered the world. Much like Azula tempts Zuko by feeding his pride, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve by telling them that they could be just like God by eating the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Azula makes apparent to Zuko that now is the time that he can finally get everything he wants, by helping her and by turning back on all that his Uncle has taught him.
“You will have everything you want.” – Azula
Azula then proceeds to chase Aang, leaving the offer on Zuko’s table. She eventually catches up to Aang and Katara (Aang’s friend) and they engage in an epic fight of elemental bending.
Eventually, Zuko joins the fight and blasts a fireball into the middle of it, causing everyone to pause and look at him. They are unsure of whose team he’s on.
After a moment, Zuko shifts his aim to Aang and throws a fireball at him. At this point, Zuko makes his decision.
The climax of the battle ends with Azula striking Aang in the back with a lightning bolt, rendering him unconscious and possibly dead. Katara catches him and becomes surrounded by Zuko, Azula, and her small army of earth-benders.
As it looks like things are over for team Avatar, Uncle Iroh jumps in and defends Katara and Aang. He tells them to run, and he holds Azula and her team off in the process. After Aang has successfully escaped, Uncle Iroh gives himself up and is taken away as a Fire Nation traitor.
At the same time, Zuko is regarded as a hero to the Fire Nation and regains his rightful place next to his father on the throne, all while Uncle Iroh is thrown in jail without protest from Zuko.
This is where we start to see the interesting effects of Zuko’s decision.
In essence, Zuko betrayed the teachings, ways, and love of Uncle Iroh. Uncle Iroh pointed the way towards peace and love, but Zuko turned his back on it for his own glory and honor. As Zuko now sits next to his father on the throne, the place he had always wanted to be, the reality of it seems to weigh down on him. For some reason, he isn’t at peace. For some reason, he still feels unhappy. For some reason, he isn’t fulfilled.
He got what he wanted, but at a great cost. Just as humanity got what it wanted, but at a great cost.
Separated from Uncle Iroh, Zuko is separated from truth and peace. Separated from God, humanity is separated from the same.
Zuko instantly recognizes this at the end of the Season 2 finale:
“I betrayed Uncle…” – Zuko
But then Azula, like the serpent, further fuels his pride by responding with deception:
“No, he betrayed you.” – Azula
Season 3 – Zuko’s Anger and Conviction
At the start of season 3, Zuko can’t shake the confusing feelings he has for turning his back on his Uncle. His confusion eventually leads to a prideful and unrepentant attitude that masks his inner turmoil. In a subconscious cry for help, Zuko visits his Uncle in prison and basically takes his frustration and anger out on him.
“You’ve brought this on yourself, you know. We could’ve returned together. You could’ve been a hero!” – Zuko
Uncle Iroh sits in silence with his back turned to Zuko.
“You have no right to judge me, Uncle. I did what I had to do in Ba Sing Se, and you’re a fool for not joining me.”
Another response of silence.
“You’re not going to say anything?”
After more silence from his Uncle, Zuko hurls a blast of fire at a nearby object in frustration.
“You’re a crazy old man! You’re crazy! And if you weren’t in jail, you’d be sleeping in a gutter!”
Zuko then storms out of the prison.
This silence that Uncle Iroh holds can be interpreted as a response of disappointment, but it is more likely one of sadness. Uncle Iroh is seeing the effects of Zuko’s actions and decisions full-force, and it’s a sad scene to witness, indeed.
This is the scene that the world witnesses today, as well. We see the death, destruction, and desperation in the world, due to our own human nature, selfish actions, and bad decisions. God is denied, but at the same time desperately sought for. Humankind calls up to the sky for an answer, for a reason why humanity has been “abandoned” and “betrayed.” And God is saddened by our confused and angry protests.
Even though Uncle Iroh is the one who was betrayed, Iroh is sad for his nephew for losing his way. Even though God was the one mankind walked away from, God is saddened for humankind’s lost state.
However, even though it looks like all is lost for Zuko, there’s still hope.
Zuko’s Confession and Redemption
As the story of Avatar progresses, Aang is rehabilitated from the injury inflicted by Azula, and team Avatar regains the courage to continue their fight to stop the Fire Lord. Friends and allies are gathered and armies are formed. We learn that Uncle Iroh, who has escaped prison, is really part of a clan called The White Lotus, created to protect the Avatar and to maintain peace in the world.
At the same time, Zuko finally understands what his Uncle was trying to teach him the whole time. The start of Zuko’s journey toward redemption, and to right his wrongs that he has caused, begins with confronting his father.
“We’ve created an era of fear in the world, and if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.” – Zuko
Fire Lord Ozai laughs and responds, “Your uncle has gotten to you, hasn’t he?”
Smiling to himself, Zuko admits, “Yes, he has.”
After revealing that he has decided to join Aang’s team, Zuko and his father have a small battle, where Zuko escapes. Thus, Zuko officially abandons the Fire Nation in a personal and willing search for the inner peace that his uncle has always guided him toward.
Proving his changed ways and loyalty to team Avatar, Zuko is eventually accepted into the group and becomes one of the most pivotal characters of the entire team in stopping the Fire Lord.
When Zuko learns that Uncle Iroh is at the allied camp and is part of the army that’s going to be fighting against the Fire Nation, he has intense feelings of guilt and nervousness at the thought of facing him.
He arrives at the camp and finds himself paralyzed in front of Iroh’s tent. How will he ever repair the damage he’s done to his uncle? He’s scorned his uncle’s teachings. Will his uncle even accept him back as his family?
This is the defining moment for both Zuko and Uncle Iroh. When Zuko enters the tent and sees Uncle Iroh, who is fast asleep, he walks up to him and drops to his knees and waits.
As Uncle Iroh sits up upon awakening, he notices that Zuko is kneeling behind him. Iroh remains silent, and Zuko musters up the courage to speak.
Tears uncontrollably fall from his eyes as he does his best to recite the apology he’s been storing up for a long time–the apology that he hopes will start mending their broken relationship:
“Uncle, I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me. But I want you to know, I am so, so sorry, Uncle. I’m so sorry and ashamed of what I did. I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you –”
Suddenly, Uncle Iroh grabs Zuko and pulls him into a loving embrace. They kneel on the ground together, united with a hug of complete forgiveness.
Zuko is bewildered and confused, and the dialogue that mirrors our own relationship with a forgiving God is spoken:
Zuko: “How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me!”
Uncle Iroh: “I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you’d lost your way.”
Zuko: “I did lose my way”
Uncle Iroh: “But you found it again… I’m so happy you found your way here.”
This is a moment that fans of the show will always remember. And it’s this same sense of forgiveness and redemption that is central to Christian belief. Much like Zuko (and the Prodigal Son), we have all lost our way. We do things the way we want, how we want, and when we want. We want to be our own gods and our own rulers. But then we eventually come to the point where we see the true reality of our desires. We feel the unfulfillment, the desperation, and the disharmony. We see the pain, the destruction, and the sorrow. We then eventually come to the point of dropping to our knees, surrendering, and pleading to God for forgiveness and restored unity with Him Who can make us whole.
And what does God do? He grabs us, pulls us toward Him, and embraces us with His love. This is the underlying joy of our Christian faith. We can ask God, “How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me!”
And His joyful response will be similar to Uncle Iroh’s:
“I was sad because I was afraid you’d lost your way. But you found it again… and I’m so happy you found your way here.”
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