“Avatar: The Last Airbender” tells the story of 12-year-old Avatar Aang and his friends Katara, Sokka and Taff as they travel the world to bring peace and end the war between the Fire Nation and the other three tribes: Earth, Water and Air. Following the previous Avatar Roku’s death, Aang was reincarnated as Avatar, a human spirit destined to master all of the elements while establishing unity and ending conflict between the four nations. He was born an Airbender, and realized he was one of the last of his kind. While traveling to the North Pole, siblings Katara and Sokka, natives of the Water Tribe, encounter and revive Aang and his Flying Bison Appa, frozen in a sphere of ice. Realizing he is the new Avatar, they join him on his prophetic journey to understand his true power and save the world. Meanwhile, Prince Zuko, son of Firelord Ozai, the leader of the Fire Nation, who is bastardized behind his prodigy-sister Princess Azula, is exiled and is promised redemption if he can catch the Avatar. On his hunt, he is accompanied by his Uncle Iroh, Ozai’s brother.
This episode, “Zuko Alone,” primarily centers around Zuko’s travels through the Earth Kingdom. In an effort to truly find himself, Zuko decides to leave his Uncle and travel alone. While wandering, he defends a little boy named Lee who pranks a group of military thugs who do nothing but bully the town and abuse their power by throwing an egg at them.
After Zuko stands up for him, Lee invites him home to dinner. He fixes the roof of Lee’s barn with his father in exchange for a place to stay the night. Lee, an energetic child bursting with curiosity, steals Zuko’s dual swords as he is sleeping. Instead of getting angry, Zuko offers to teach Lee how to use them correctly and even gifts him one. The following morning, the same soldiers arrive at Lee’s doorstep, revealing that his older brother Sensu may have been killed in battle against the Fire Nation. One of the soldiers jokes that the fire nation is using his body as a puppet and Zuko threatens them. Multiple flashbacks reveal the history of Zuko’s life as a little boy before his mother left. Later, when Lee’s mother pleads for Zuko’s help when the soldiers kidnap him, he goes to rescue him. At a disadvantage to the earth bender in an attempt to keep his identity secret, he is forced to use his fire bending abilities and reveal his true identity, which alarms the town.
After all he had done, the town boo’s and insults him as he goes on his way.
This is just one example that demonstrates how a Nickelodeon show like Avatar: The Last Air Bender can successfully provide more character development in a single episode then a lot of series do in a season. Throughout the series, Zuko had been the character that we hated because his motives and personality reflected the evilness of the Fire Nation. After continuous failure to catch the Avatar and win the honor back from his father and family, the writing and story structure finally allows us sympathize with Zuko and learn his past. The flashbacks into Zuko’s childhood give us perspective, revealing that he was always a step behind his sister Azula, who had won over the attention of their father for her aptitude to learn quickly and her adeptness in combat. We learned that Zuko’s mother, who was the only one that really cared for him, walked out on the family because Ozai was corrupt and killed his own father to take the Firelord throne. With all of these bad memories behind him, Zuko finally decides to do some good and defend Lee and his family.
Aesthetically, there are plenty of unique qualities in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Firstly, each tribe implements different bits of Asian culture that are distinctive to each element. This is especially present in the fighting style, which represents different styles of martial arts that is portrayed in the movement of bending.
This specific episode pays homage to the spaghetti western style films like A Fistful of Dollars and even resembles the Samurai aesthetic of Kurosawa films. We see this during the beginning of the episode in Ronin-style as Zuko journeys through the open desert under the harsh orange sun, overlooking the small town in the distance. During his short stay, he never hesitates to bravely step in the foot of danger, despite the fact that he is nothing but a stranger to the land he is in.
The one thing that really changes Zuko in this episode is the way he realizes how the people of different tribes are affected by the Fire Nation. Zuko is put into perspective when the thugs reveal that Lee’s brother Sensu was most likely captured and killed by the Fire Nation. The soldiers even joke to Lee’s family about how the Fire Nation dresses up the captured bodies and throws them on the frontline of battle. This leads to a flashback to where Zuko, as a child, learns that Uncle Iroh’s son Lu Ten, died tragically in the war at a young age. Through this, Zuko realizes what other tribes really think of the Fire Nation and begins to resent his own people. In conclusion, there really is a larger social context to this episode, as Zuko begins to understand and sympathize with minorities different to his own and that people around the world endure things that are similar to the hardships he has experienced. It seems as if he finally recognized that finding the Avatar, compared to finally becoming his own man and understand the world around him, is less important then he originally imagined.