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He had a scarred face and was always wearing a sour look. He was angry most of the time in his fanatical zeal to hunt down the Avatar. He risked his crew, ignored his kindly uncle’s advice, and showed disregard for his own life.
I thought Zuko was just a standard bad guy. I was wrong.
As Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated TV show, not the movie) progressed, I began to root for Zuko in a way I could not have foreseen.
It became clear to me that his story isn’t about what he thinks it is. It’s not about reconciliation with his father, or reclaiming his birthright to the throne, or his honour, or even catching the Avatar. Zuko isn’t searching for Aang; he’s searching for himself.
Who he is and his place in this world is the cog that spins the wheels of his story. I watched Zuko struggle to figure out who he is, and I understood the confusion he was going through as his back story was revealed.
Even at a young age, Zuko had a certain tenderness about him. It caused him to be compassionate, even to animals that his younger sister would terrorize. He cried when his mother disappeared. Yet that tenderness was mocked and ridiculed as weakness by those who meant the most to a tender young boy: his sister and father.
It was not only because of this perceived weakness that he fell short in their eyes, but also his lack of natural talent in firebending caused ridicule. “Prodigy” was to be expected from the Fire Lord’s son, and prodigy Zuko was not.
It is in this hard environment that a young Zuko had to navigate. His other strong and positive qualities didn’t matter to anyone.
His father’s spite didn’t help matters. An accidental outburst by Zuko brought shame to the Fire Lord, and Zuko realized his mistake too late. While he begged for forgiveness from his father and refused to fight him in the traditional way of things, his father burned him heavily on the face and banished him. Zuko was never to return until he had found the Avatar.
Instability rocks Zuko’s life as he struggles with who he is and who he feels he has to be.
For a long time, he tries to be the man he feels he has to be. He is harsh and cold. He constantly lashes out at his wise uncle. Life is nothing but this quest to get back his honour.
It’s frustrating and hard work for Zuko, trying to be someone he is not. Anger and bitterness have so much opportunity to flourish within him. And yet that other side of him, that tender side, still lives on deep down.
It’s the moment when his uncle gets captured and Zuko risks everything to save him, that we realize he is more than just a black-hearted villain.
In one intense moment, his uncle’s words ring loud with truth. He says it’s time for Zuko to look inside himself and ask himself who he really is and who is he going to be.
Zuko’s story reminds me of Jesus’ words that the one who loses his life will keep it. For Zuko, this is a process, because he has so much baggage and is so disoriented. To shove aside everything he thinks he should be and become instead the man he wants to be is no small task.
I can’t help cheering Zuko on as he flips his life upside down and tries to do what’s right. He definitely makes mistakes along the way, at one point completely embracing his sister and father’s ways. Yet such a fate could never satisfy him. Self comes to life in the slaying of self and doubtless it too must die.
It isn’t until he loses himself that he truly regains his honour, finds the Avatar, and makes true peace with himself in the situation with his father.
I like watching bad guys like Zuko. Not because he ends up being a good guy in the end, but because I feel a connection with him. I am reminded that making mistakes is human, and that I can strive to be the man I want to be and not necessarily the person other people think I should be.