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Leaves from the Vine} ?> When I think of all-encompassing love, three things that come to mind are Pai Sho, sage advice, and copious amounts of tea.
Uncle Iroh isn’t an obvious character, one that stands out at first. He’s not the protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender and neither is he the main antagonist; those perspective titles belong to Aang and Zuko. Rather, Iroh is a supporting character, and for the first season of the show, he seems to be relegated to the position of comedic relief. He is more often the cause of Zuko’s anger than not. As viewers, we’re too busy laughing at him ogling over gaudy statues in a pirate’s ship to see that there’s perhaps more to him than his rotund physique.
His story unfolds slowly, but Uncle Iroh is nothing if not patient. We don’t learn much about him in the first season because the show is laying the groundwork for Zuko’s story; he’s the one pursuing Aang, and he’s the one we need to worry about. Iroh tags along and gets in Zuko’s way. It’s not until Season Two that we learn that Iroh lost his son, Lu Ten; that as the eldest, Iroh should have been the next Fire Lord but his brother overruled him; that he has suffered just as much pain and loss as Zuko.
What I find endearing about Iroh is that he endeavours to be what Zuko needs, no matter how often his nephew pushes him away. Iroh is Zuko’s unwavering support. We see this in small ways at first: he defends Zuko to the crew when they think he’s being reckless and selfish. When Zuko attempts to kidnap Aang in the North Pole, Iroh reminds him to cover his ears and to stay warm. Iroh is only Zuko’s uncle, and yet he finds room in his heart to love him as if he were his son.
He also knows when to give Zuko space and when to challenge him. During Season Two, Iroh and Zuko are on the run from Azula, having learned that they are now regarded as traitors to the Fire Nation. As much as Iroh wants the two of them to stick together, Zuko wants to strike out on his own to figure things out for himself. Iroh lets him go, and we viewers get the amazing episode “Zuko Alone.” But Iroh follows after him, knowing that Zuko will need him again eventually (and in the meantime has a conversation with Toph over tea). They come together again to fight Azula with Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph, and then make their way to Ba Sing Se. During their time in the Earth Kingdom city, we get the sense that Zuko is drifting, unsure of where to go or what to do next. Iroh does his best to help Zuko find his way, but it isn’t until Zuko, disguised as the Blue Spirit, finds Appa under Lake Laogi that Iroh really starts to challenge him.
“What do you plan to do now that you have found the Avatar’s bison, keep it locked in our new apartment? Should I go put on a pot of tea for him?” Iroh says.
Zuko pushes back, saying that he’ll figure something out.
“And then what? You never think these things through! This is exactly what happened when you captured the Avatar at the North Pole: you had him and then you had nowhere to go!”
“I know my own destiny, Uncle!”
“Is it your own destiny, or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?”
“Stop it, Uncle, I have to do this!”
“I’m begging you, Prince Zuko, it’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions: who are you, and what do you want?”
I don’t think Iroh’s character ever changes throughout the course of the show, but our perception of him does. As viewers, we are more attuned to Zuko because he is the main antagonist and a character with whom we’re supposed to identify, and so we see Iroh as Zuko sees him. In the first season, we see him as little more than a buffoon because Zuko is constantly annoyed with him and thinks he’s an idiot. But as Zuko starts to rely on Iroh, so too do we, until we get to the finale and finally see Iroh for who he really is: strong, wise, resilient, kind.
“How can you forgive me so easily?” says Zuko after they reunite in Iroh’s tent. “I thought you would be furious with me.”
“I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you’d lost your way.”
“I did lose my way.”
“But you found it again. And you did it by yourself, and I am so happy you found your way here.”
There is no doubt in my mind that Iroh is the reason Zuko was able to find his way. Without Iroh’s steady, unwavering, constant support, Zuko would have been consumed by his anger. Instead, Zuko was able to help Aang bring balance and peace back to the Four Nations because he recognized and relied on the strength of his uncle’s love for him. That is the power of true, all-encompassing love.